Rick Steber

Rick Steber

Writing the West

Tales of the Wild West Series of Books,
16 volumes available today

 

 

Oregon Trail

“Oregon Trail” Vol.1

One of the great things about the West is that our history lies so close to the surface. It was our grand parents and parents who were the pioneers.

The first wagon train west arrived late in the fall of 1843. It is estimated one-half million emigrants traveled this great wagon trail, until the advent of the automobile ended the era in the early 1900s. Today stretches of the Oregon Trail are still visible as ruts -ruts carved into the earth, worn by time and masked by wildflowers, sagebrush and trees.

 


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Pacific Coast

“Pacific Coast” Vol.2

Sir Francis Drake, the daring English pirate, was the first European to sail the stormy North Pacific. ln 1579, after having raided the Spanish settlements of South America, he sought to escape up the coast through an inland waterway that would return his ship, the Golden Hind, to the Atlantic Ocean.

In his wake came other explorers. They soon concluded a Northwest Passage did not exist and turned their attention to exploiting the natural resources of the region. Trade was initiated with the natives, trinkets for sea otter fur. The fur was transported to China where riches beyond the wildest dreams awaited the adventuresome sailors. Within a decade the sea otter played out and mountain men pushed inland, trading and trapping beaver. The great companies, Hudson's Bay, North West and Pacific Fur fought for the rich spoils.

The discovery of gold in California signaled the start of a era. Miners flooded to the Sierra Nevada mountains. Eventually they became disillusioned with the diggings and drifted north, discovering veins of gold in rock and placer pockets in creek bottoms and even on ocean beaches. Following the miners came a wave of pioneers who settled interior valleys, laid claim to the land and plowed the virgin soil. A few hardy souls pushed over the last mountain range, going as far west as land allowed. hey were rugged individualists who ever after were isolated by the deep woods on one side and the wide Pacific on the other.

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Indians

“Indians” Vol.3

According to popular theory the first inhabitants of north America arrived during the last Ice Age. Between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago people are believed to have crossed from Asia to North America on a natural land bridge, where the Aleutian Island chain now exists.

These people migrated south, hunting mastadons and mammoths, giant ground sloths, camels and long-horned bisons. They ate the meat and used the hide for clothing and shelter. Their weapons consisted of rocks and obsidian-tipped spears. In time the atlatl, a device used to throw spears or darts, was developed. It was not until about 3,000 years ago that the bow and arrow was introduced to North America.

On the eve of the white man's arrival the population of North America, divided among 500 tribes, was estimated to exceed one million. But the Europeans brought with them diseases from which the native people had no natural immunity and plagues of smallpox, fever, tuberculosis, measles and venereal disease swept through the Indian nations with devastating results. Ninety percent of the people died: entire tribes were wiped off the face of the earth. Those who remained were rounded up and placed on reservations. The way of life they had known for countless centuries was doomed.

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Cowboys

“Cowboys” Vol.4

The men who ride the open range of the far West are known under a variety of names: vaquero, range rider, mustanger and buckaroo, but the name most commonly known is cowboy. The nature of a cowboy's work demands independence and toughness. He is a man of action; yet the long, lonely hours spent in the saddle provide ample time to develop a unique outlook on life. Simply put, a cowboy's tenet is, 'What cannot be cured is endured.' And endured with cheerfulness and good humor. It is far better to joke about the droughts, windstorms, blizzards, outlaw mustangs and loco cattle than to complain.

The cowboy would never have existed without his horse. Like the cowboy, the horse is referred to by an assortment of names: mustang, bronco, cayuse and, sometimes, jughead, broomtail, nag, hay burner, plug and other even less complimentary epithets. The ancestors of the western horse date back to the animals brought to America by Cortez and the conquistadores. As the Spanish mounts escaped, were lost or stolen, the horse began its phenomenal spread across western North America.

The high desert was first settled by daring stockmen who drove in foundation herds, numbering in the thousands. The cattle thrived on the native grasses and when the steers were ready for market, cowboys on horseback drove them to railroad towns in the Midwest. With the invention of barbed wire in 1874 and an influx of homesteaders who claimed waterholes and divided up the range, the heyday of the big outfits and their cowboys passed into history. But as long as there is open sky, rimrock, bunch grass, sagebrush and juniper, cowboys will still ride the range.

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Women of the West

“Women of the West” Vol.5

Early-day women of the West are depicted in fading photographs: a gaunt, bonneted figure in a long dress walking beside a wagon, baby cradled in her arms, children scattered behind, a woman, looking older than her years, stirring lye soap over an open fire, a dancehall girl on stage, miners watching her every move....

Letters and diaries tell the details of these women's existence, the sorrow of being uprooted from family and friends, the yearning for companionship of other women, bearing children without the benefit of a doctor and trying to rear them in an uncivilized land.

One turn-of-the-century, Western historian noted, 'With the coming of woman came also the graces of life, better social order and conditions, and increased regard for the amenities of life.'

Eastern women were relegated to conduct themselves within strictly-established social boundaries. Western women were allowed more freedom to stretch their wings and explore the realm of their existence. And in the process they tamed the wild West.

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Children's Stories

“Children's Stories” Vol.6

The first white children to come west were sons and daughters of the pioneers. They trudged barefooted beside the wagons, across the dusty plains, through the heat and the prickly pear cactus and over the mountains of sharp volcanic rocks. Some never made it and piles of stones and improvised crosses marked their graves.

Those who survived found a wonderful playground out west. A playground of bright-colored rocks, slow-moving streams, wide-open spaces and deep, dark forests. Mothers watched over their young because if a child wandered away, he or she might be carried off by a wild animal or stolen by lndians.

Children of the frontier were seasoned to a hard life. They had to be strong and resilient and were forced to grow up quickly. By the time a boy was eight or nine he knew how to handle a rifle and hunted wild game for meat. He helped his father clear land, split rails, build fence and farm with a team of horses. Girls worked beside their mothers, picking wild berries, making lye soap, rendering hogs, washing on a scrub board, cooking over a woodstove.... The list of time-consuming chores went on and on. By the time a girl was fourteen or fifteen she was ready to marry and start a family of her own and the circle of life continued.

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Loggers

“Loggers” Vol.7

Logging in North America began with the arrival of European colonists in the 1600s. In a few short decades there were water-powered sawmills scattered up and down the eastern seaboard with the main concentration in northern New England. The lumber was used to build ships, furniture, kegs and barrels, buggies and wagons. As the loggers cleared areas in the forest, others arrived to farm the ground.

It took 200 years for the timber to be logged from the eastern seaboard. The loggers and lumbermen moved inland to the Great Lakes region and when they had high graded the timber there, they continued west to northern California and the Pacific Northwest.

Lumberman Samuel Wilkeson wrote in 1869, on viewing the Western forests for the first time, 'Oh! What timber! These trees so enchain the sense of the grand and so enchant the sense of the beautiful that I am loth to depart. Forests in which you cannot ride a horse, forests into which you cannot see, and which are almost dark under a bright midday sun, such forests containing firs, cedars, pine, spruce and hemlock, forests surpassing the woods of all the rest of the globe in their size, quantity and quality of the timber. Here can be found great trees, monarchs to whom all worshipful men inevitably lift their hats.'

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Mountain Men

“Mountain Men” Vol.8

Born into every generation are a few restless souls who long for adventure. In the early 1800s this wild breed became mountain men who headed up the Missouri, crossed the Rockies and continued west, hunting, trapping and exploring as they went.

One mountainman,reflecting the general attitude of the day, wrote, 'We found the richest place for beaver we had yet come across, and it took us forty days to clean that section.' Valley by valley, stream by stream, the mountain men eliminated the beaver. They reasoned they would never pass that way again and, anyway, why should they leave fur for the competition?

A typical mountain man had grown up in Kentucky, Virginia or Tennessee hunting squirrels, deer, coon and turkey gobblers. When civilization pressed in he escaped, in search of places no white man had been. Where beaver were plentiful and would come easily to his traps. Where there were no property lines. No neighbors. No boundaries. Where he could come and go as he pleased and the world, as far as the eye could see, was his. The heyday of the mountain men spanned only a few short decades. By the 1840s wagon pioneers were flooding into the West. And the free-roaming mountain men disappeared.

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Miners

“Miners” Vol.9

The discovery of gold in Califonia launched the nation's first gold rush.

It began January 23, 1848. James Marshall, who was building a sawmill for John Sutter on the American River in the Sierra Nevada foothills, turned water from the millpond into the tailrace. A glimmer in the clear water caught his eye and he picked up a yellow rock about the size of a dime and weighing one-quarter ounce. He saw more and picked those up, too.

John Sutter wrote in his diary that Marshall, "soaked to the skin and dripping water, came bursting into his office informing me he had something of utmost importance to tell me in private...."

Word leaked out and the following year 80,000 miners rushed to Califonia hoping to claim a share of the big strike. They scratched and clawed gold from the hills and stream beds of Califomia and when the easy-pickings were gone they moved onto the eastem slopes of the Sierra Nevada and into the Rocky Mountains. Other disgruntled miners moved to the Northwest, and finally the lust for gold drove prospectors to the Alaskan frontier.

The typical miner was a bearded young man, dressed in a slouch hat, red long johns, trousers tucked into hlgh-topped boots, he packed a shovel, pick and gold pan. When his dream of easy riches eventually died he often stayed in the West and became a farmer, stockman, tradesman or professional. If married, he sent for his family - if single, he married a daughter of pioneers and started a new family.

The lasting effect of the gold rush was not so much in the individual accumulation of wealth, but in the simple fact that thousands of miners stayed rather than returning home and they helped win the West.

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Grandpa's Stories

“Grandpa's Stories” Vol.10

Great-grandfather has witnessed so much change in his life. When he was a boy the horse and buggy was the mode of transportation. He has lived to see aviation progress from a few barnstorming pilots hop-scotching across the country to jet aircraft thundering across the sky. And he was sitting there that day, in front of the television, when men walked on the moon. All the years and hard work have taken their toll but when he is seated in his favorite rocking chair, great-grandchildren scattered at his feet, his eyes sparkle as lively as they must have in his youth. He exuberantly recounts the past, painting vivid pictures of his life on the western frontier as a pioneer, miner, freighter, stage driver, Indian fighter, trapper, homesteader, logger, buckaroo ....

The story over, he waits, and then a small voice implores, 'Grandpa, tell us another story, please.' Grandpa grins, 'Well, all right. Once a long, looong, looooong time ago....'

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Pioneers

“Pioneers” Vol.11

Mountain men and fur traders were the first to travel the route that would one day become the Oregon Trail. In their wake came missionaries who wrote letters and reports describing the far side of the continent and praising the mild climate, healthful conditions and the deep, fertile soil.

Historians recognize 1843 as the official beginning of the Oregon Trail.That spring a group of a thousand land-hungry pioneers with 120 wagons and 5,000 head of cattle departed from Elm Grove, Missouri. Some of their wagons were abandoned along the Snake plateau but other were brought to the Columbia River where flat-bottomed boats were built and floated through the dangerous rapids of the Columbia Gorge to the Willamette Valley.

It took the pioneers from early spring until late fall to reach the far west. They threw together shelters and subsisted that first winter on fish, game and the generosity of their neighbors, both white and Indian. Come spring they cleared ground, tilled the virgin soil and planted crops.

The heyday of the Oregon Trail occurred after gold was discovered in California in 1848, it is estimated one-quarter million pioneers traveled overland on the Oregon Trail. From these early emigrants the social fabric of the West was woven.

Within a few years communities were established and schools and churches were built. Then came stage lines, mail deliveries, railroads, telegraph wires and the other trappings of the white man's civilization.

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Campfire Stories

“Campfire Stories” Vol.12

The storyteller spins a web of fantasy while the campfire sends a shower of sparks leaping into the night sky to drift among the ancient stars. It is in this manner that the history of mankind has been passed from one generation to the next. In North America the native people formed their cultures and spiritual beliefs through stories. Stories described the origins of earth and mankind, of floods, fires, hunts, wars, heros, the supernatural, myths and legends. Young people knew what had happened in the world because their elders communicated it to them around the campfire.

The first Europeans to make their way among the Indians were mountain men who told fantastic and mystifying tales of great cities to the east and other worlds that existed across the great shiny waters. Each successive wave of white invaders brought with it a different blend of fact and fiction.

In today's world it might appear that campfire stories can no longer compete with movies and television. But no special effect can ever come close to the power and impact of human imagination. Try reading or telling a story around the campfire. Watch the faces of your listeners and know the value and significance of keeping alive our time-honored traditions of oral history.

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Tall Tales

“Tall Tales” Vol.13

A tall tale begins innocently with convincing facts and a few trivial details thrown in. But in the course of the story the limits of believability are stretched to the breaking point. ln the end we are left wondering how we could have been so naive, so darn gullible.

America's tall tales have been handed down through generations and are firmly rooted in character, situation and landscape. In the past a skillfully-told yarn was a diversion from the drudgery and monotony of everyday life and tellers of tall tales were held in high regard because their stories made people laugh.

A tall tale is best enjoyed when told aloud. Dialect, intonation and gestures add to the story. A pause here. A shake of the head there. A practiced laugh. A wink, a sly smile or a deadpan look provide seasoning and can communicate as much as a well-placed word.

In our modern fast-paced world, dominated by instant communication, changing technology and constant entertainment, the tall tale is no longer considered an essential part of everyday life. As a result, the telling of tall tales has become a dying art form.

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Gunfighters

“Gunfighters” Vol.14

The names of the gunfighters are legendary: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Doc Holliday, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, Henry Plummer, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok.... These men, and others like them, epitomize the image of the Wild West.

The gunfighting era was born in the late 1830s when Samuel Colt patented his single-barreled pistol with a revolving bullet chamber.

But the gunfighter was not common on the frontier until after the Civil War when renegade bands of Confederate soldiers refused to surrender. Their lawless ways spread as they stole from the hated Union bankers and the monopolistic railroads, rustled from wealthy ranchers and killed anyone who dared stand in their way. Railhead towns, where the great Texas cattle drives ended, generated more than their fair share of gunfights. In these towns the distinction between the law and the outlaw was a fine line and many times the men who wore badges worked both sides of the fence.

It generally fell to the individual to uphold the law and nearly every western man strapped a six-shooter to his hip. If a man's cattle or horses were stolen, if his home was ransacked or his family attacked, it was up to that man to track down the guilty party and administer swift justice.

Around the turn of the 20th century the free-roaming gunfighters found the wild country could no longer hide them as technology, in the form of telegraphs and telephones, cut off escape routes. Even though the era of the gunfighter had drawn to a close, writers and movie makers, using the colorful backdrop of the Old West, turned the frontier gunfighters into larger-than-life folk heros, folk heros who will never die.

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Grandma's Stories

“Grandma's Stories” Vol.15

Grandma grew up on a farm and, at a relatively young age, she fell in love and married Grandpa. They moved west, found the opportunities to their liking and together they raised a wonderful family.

Grandma was the glue that held the family together. She performed the necessary domestic tasks of making a home - caring for the children, cleaning, cooking, baking, washing, sewing and darning. She also tended the chickens, milked the cows and churned the cream to butter. And when necessity arose, like the time a horse rolled on Grandpa and he was laid up for nearly a year, Grandma demonstrated she could take on a man's work as well.

The Grandma I remember was old. Her domain was the kitchen, a room dominated by the cheery warmth of a wood stove and the sweet aroma of baking pies. While Grandma worked, frequently pausing to wipe her calloused hands on her freshly ironed white apron, she talked - telling stories of pioneering days, tales handed down from the Indians and interesting things that had happened to family members, friends and neighbors. Every once in awhile she lowered her voice and shared some small secret.

My children will know their great-grandmother because of the stories I will share with them and from the words Grandma carefully wrote in her journal. Every evening, no matter how trying her day had been, she would take a few moments to reflect and describe things from the day that were important to her - a laughing child chasing a butterfly across the pasture, the lovely fragrance of wildflowers in bloom, a field of wheat dancing in an afternoon breeze.... When Grandma finished the entries she would lay down her pen, close her journal, blow out the candle flame, and say to herself, 'And so ends another glorious day.'

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Western Heroes

“Western Heroes” Vol.16

Buffalo Bill Cody died in 1917 and newspaper headlines around the world proclaimed: "AMERICA LOSES A GREAT WESTERN HERO." Buffalo Bill would have been proud of such a title.

He had been the star of The Buffalo Bill Wild West Show and had brought the western frontier to the doorstep of the world. Wherever he traveled, across the United States or abroad, Buffalo Bill always treated those he met with dignity and respect. He was as comfortable sitting around a campfire with cowboys as he was dining with European royalty. He spoke up for the rights of women and, even though he had fought in the Indian wars, he considered the Indian his equal. He refused to allow the strong to bully the weak and in all instances he made sure justice prevailed.

Although Buffalo Bill is considered to be the ideal role model of the Western Hero many others deserve that title. Benjamin Singleton started a movement that brought former slaves to the West. Annie Oakley showed the world that when it came to shooting, a woman could outshoot the men. Tom Jeffords and Cochise proved men from different races could become "blood brothers." Charles Goodnight opened the era of the cattle drives. Roy Rogers became a movie star and "King of the Cowboys." Johnny Appleseed not only planted fruit trees; he planted the seed of conservation and preservation. Chief Joseph lay down his rifle and told the white man, "From this day forward I shall fight no more forever."

Through bravery, courage and strength of character these men and women stood head and shoulders above their contemporaries. They are our true Western American Heroes.

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