Rivers in the Old West

Rivers in the Old West

The rivers in the Old West are legend, and as the West was wild, so were its rivers (as were some of its inhabitants). The Old West was populated with a wide array of people, ranging from European immigrants, to home-grown farm-boys seeking their fortune,   hustlers, outlaws, and adventurers from almost every continent on the planet. Some of the earliest explorers came up the Arkansas River.  The 1st steamboat on that river was the Comet which arrived at Arkansas Post on March 31, 1820.  Under the leadership of Capt. Byrne, it made the trip from New Orleans in 8 days.
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Some Legendary Rivers in the Old West

The Red River goes into New Mexico from the Texas Panhandle (though it begins in Colorado).  This was a river often used by early settlers and adventurers.  The first man to take a steamboat past what was known as the Great Raft (a mass of sunken driftwood, logs and stumps) on the Red River was Ben Milam (who would later die in the Texas/Mexico revolution).  He made this trip with his steamboat, Alps, in 1831.  In 1835 Capt. Henry Shreve (from whom Shreve sport takes its name), began work clearing the Great Raft, and in 5 years he had opened a channel.  It became a never-ending work because every seasonal flood uprooted and carried trees downstream to come snags.

Rivers in the Old West were life lines to the inhabitants

Rivers in the Old West had its problems. Some, like the Red River, was treacherous. Some rivers in the Old West flowed smoothly in many places. The famous trek by Lewis and Clark was begun on the wide, smooth flowing Ohio river, then into the Mississippi River, and the Missouri River. This government team traveled the rivers in the Old West in keel boats. The journey was the beginning of the opening of the West. Later, the rivers in the Old West would become clogged with steamboats, rafts, keel boats, and even canoes.

The rivers in the Old West were our nations first highways into the deeper parts of the American West.

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John Sutter – A Golden Opportunity

John Sutter was a colorful figure. He sported a well-groomed mustache, bushy side-whiskers, and walked about with a silver-tipped cane. His blue eyes sparkled with intensity and the merriment of a man enjoying life. Sutter was an early settler in California when it was under control of the Mexican government. He provided help to many immigrants to California and was, by all reports, a generous and fair-minded man. He built a fort and was for years, a powerful political figure in California. Some called him the Patriarch of the Sacramento Valley.

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At age 48, he was at the top of his game. He had it all. He was building a new granary, sending out men to hunt for fresh supplies of lumber for his many enterprises, such as the repair and building wagons, barrels, shingles, boats, pumps to irrigate his huge gardens, fences and a myriad of other things. John Sutter was an enterprising man. He was also a tanner, collecting hides by the thousands, tanning them and selling them.

In 1847, he began building a huge flour mill on the American River. This was an enterprise he was convinced would pay off some of the huge debt he’d accumulated over the year. He was in need of a sawmill, though, to complete the work, and had located a large stand of timber high in the mountains that was perfect. He hired some Mormons and contracted with James Marshall, his carpenter, to build the sawmill at a place approximately 50 miles up the south fork of the American River.  His friend, John Bidwell tried his best to dissuade him of the notion, calling it foolish. But, Sutter was not to be deterred, being convinced by Marshall that this was a workable plan, to wit, to build the sawmill and float the logs down to the fort.

At one point, after the sawmill was completed, Marshall was checking on a problem when he made a startling discovery. He found a gold nugget. [ReviewAZON asin=”B00005N7VL” display=”inlinepost”]Strangely, when he showed it to the Mormon workers, they did not believe it, and continued with their work. He then traveled the fifty miles down to the fort, pulled his employer into a side room and in hushed tones, told John Sutter about his discovery. After several tests, including a quick consultation with the Encyclopedia Americana, Sutter said to the very excited Marshall: “It’s gold, at least 23 carat gold!”

While the two tried to keep it a secret, they didn’t do a very good job. The men at the mill, while they continued to work, in their spare time, began looking for gold in the river waters. And, they began finding some. Their finds were small. But, word got out, and soon, 3 Mormons who’d come up at the bidding of one of the Mormon crew at the mill, found gold about half-way down to Sutter’s fort. It was very close to the sandy surface, and eventually, that place, later called Mormon Island, became a prospector’s dream. A fortune was taken from there by later prospectors.

Suddenly, as word spread, men began to leave Sutter. His crew for the nearly $30,000.00 flour mill resigned to hunt gold. The tanners left over 2000 fresh hides to rot, and his long-time crew of Indians harvested the wheat crop of over 40,000 bushels, then promptly slid into the night, leaving the wheat to spoil in the coming suns. There was no one around to thresh the wheat, nor finish the dozens of shoes, hats, blankets, wooden instruments and barrels that were being made.

John Sutter, the man who was instrumental in the discovery of the gold, furnished the original seekers of that yellow metal. It would prove to be disastrous, but ever the optimist, Sutter saw opportunity. Later, he would say,  “There is no need for me to go into the mountains to make my pile of gold. The gold will flow to me.” He opened a store, selling to the miners and renting space out to merchants. He also agreed to grubstake several miners and was willing to lend to just about anyone who asked. He was a man who had a compulsion to be liked and to be known for his largess.

[ReviewAZON asin=”B0020S93ZS” display=”inlinepost”]Soon, Sutter was hounded by creditors who thought him to be rich because of the gold discovery. John Sutter ended his life in relative poverty. He lost the vast holdings he had to creditors, many of whom were bogus. He ended up on a small farm, the same farm he’d begun with some fourteen years earlier. His family, whom he’d left in Switzerland, came to live with him. Indeed, but for the business sense of his son August, he’d not have even had the farm.  Sutter lived there with little money, and with his family doing odd jobs and farm work to earn a living. However, he was still visited by hordes of people, and still tried, as he’d done for so many years before, to entertain them in grand style.

He’d never learned to live within his means, nor had he learned to be frugal. He’d given away money he didn’t have, and given away goods for which he’d gone into debt to purchase. In spite of that, it is quite probable that were it not for the gold rush of 1848, John Sutter would have finally succeeded, in spite of himself.

The discovery of gold proved to be his great calamity.

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Using History to Write Western Fiction

There are tens of thousands of stories embedded within the history of the American West.  Many of these stories have been told and retold, and there are stories yet to be told embedded within the stories that have been told.  Writing a novel about the American West gives the writer an enormous body of information to draw from in constructing his or her story.  Just as there are innumerable locations, there are even more facts available to the writer.  We tend to want to draw from those facts that are commonly known, and therefore easy to obtain.  Sometimes, using well known facts, can help the reader  identify easier with the story because the writer is using historical facts that are familiar to the reader.
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However, sometimes it’s a greater challenge, but a lot more fun, to look for unusual facts and incorporate those into your story.  For example, most Western fiction novels take place completely in what is commonly known as the Old West.  When I did my novel, Bloody Wes Teague, although I began in the West, the story moved within a few paragraphs to the East.  I sent the main character to New York City.  I looked for some unusual facts that I could  incorporate into the story.  Two facts I found that were unusual, in that they were not commonly known, is that New York City at one time had a disposal system consisting of pigs roaming loose in the streets.  This was New York City’s garbage collection system.  Another fact was that on hot, dry summer days, there would be huge clouds of manure dust in the air.  This was caused by the many horses and carriages in the city driving over dried piles of manure.

If you are a writer, you should look to have some unusual facts in your stories.  These facts ought to be based on historical facts.  It will make you a more interesting writer and will definitely make your novels more interesting to your reader.

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