A Sioux story of the war by Wamditanka: a short review

This is a journal article, not a book, although it’s available as an ebook from the Internet Archive.

This article offers a different perspective on the Minnesota events reported in Theodore Potter’s Autobiography, which I’ve recently reviewed here. The “author,” also known as Big Eagle, was an officer on the Indian side during the second battles at New Ulm and Fort Ridgely. Big Eagle talks about the reasons for the war, the tribal politics of the decision to go to war, and gives accounts of the battles he participated in. The narrative generally rings true, and is therefore interesting, but there are some problems.

The first problem is that it’s a translated interview. The interviewers and the interviewee had no common language. While the transcription appears to be a good-faith effort, the method is problematical. Nonetheless, it appears to be a good effort.

The second problem is that the interview occurred over 30 years after the events described. Of course, Potter’s account was written even further from the events, but age and subsequent events often make the past hazy, even for first-person accounts.

The third problem is Big Eagle’s need to constantly proclaim his Christian faith, and to contrast it with his former heathen beliefs. This is distracting, and does not contribute much to the story; it also tends to undermine the reader’s confidence in the interview subject’s perspective.

It’s a short article, and well worth reading if you’re interested.










This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

The Autobiography of Theodore Edgar Potter: a review

In 1890 I sold my Vermontville farm and bought another in the same county, located on the new line of railroad being built by the Pere Marquette Railroad where I laid out the present village of Mulliken, Michigan, and continued a few years longer as a farmer with an incidental lumber business. My Mulliken farm I soon sold to my eldest son and purchased a quarter interest in the Potter Furniture Manufacturing Company at Lansing, Michigan, which city has been my home for the past thirteen years.

I live on Potter Street in Mulliken, and that quotation explains why I read this book. I’m pretty sure that 1890 date is wrong, as the railroad line and settlement both date from 1888, but we’ll allow an old man that error. I stumbled across this while looking for something else, so I snagged an electronic copy of the book. It’s far better than I expected, though potential readers should be cautioned that it describes many brutal events.

Potter was a competent writer and a gifted story-teller. His memoir is largely concerned with the years from 1852 to 1865, during which the author joined the California gold rush, took part (after a fashion) in William Walker’s Nicaraguan filibuster, visited New York, New Orleans, and Saint Louis, and took up residence in southern Minnesota. He was a captain in the militia which defended New Ulm during the Dakota War of 1862; later he was a Union officer whose troops participated at the fringe of the Battle of Nashville–mostly they chased, and sometimes caught, partisan guerillas. Some years later he was involved in the apprehension of the Younger brothers gang, again in southern Minnesota.

Theodore Potter–it’s pretty clear his friends called him Ed–was born in Saline, Michigan, in 1832. His family moved to Eaton County (at or near what became Potterville) in 1845 and Potter spent his teen years in the area. The first chapter largely tells of his teenage escapades; these tales have a delightful grasp of the local geography. About half the book recounts his California adventure; in tone and in substance it’s much like Twain’s Roughing It, and enjoyable for pretty much the same reasons. The Minnesota portion of the book is largely devoted to describing the Dakota War and the Army’s subsequent efforts to quell the rebellion, and is an exceptional rendering of what folks call “the fog of war.” While the last chapter describes his encounter with the Youngers, it also provides a sketchy overview of his subsequent life (through, apparently, 1904; the book was published in 1913, three years after Potter’s death.)

A few notes: It’s fair to say that Potter was sympathetic to the plight of the plains Indians, except when they were threatening his family and neighbors. He had far less sympathy for the rebel cause. The author’s wife gets surprisingly little mention, though their marriage lasted over fifty years. And the book describes a surprising number of truly gruesome events.

In 1916 the Minnesota Historical Society published a version of Potter’s account of the Indian war, which is available here. (A casual check seems to show it to be nearly identical to the account in this book, with some changes.) The footnotes published with the MNHS account make it clear that while Potter’s memory of details cannot be fully trusted, his account is essentially true. One would reasonably suppose that to hold true for the rest of his story.

Ed Potter’s life wasn’t particularly remarkable, as he notes on the last page of his book. It was, however, not an untypical life for a man born on the American frontier before the Civil War, and he recounted it well. The book deserves more attention than it’s received.


This ebook is a 254-page Google scan, though my copy’s via the Internet Archive. The scan deserves a couple comments. The first 180 pages are excellent, with only the minor punctuation and capitalization errors which plague most OCR scans. These are followed by a half-dozen pages of often-garbled text, with usual result that the reader’s obliged to guess occasional words and to sometimes puzzle out the meaning of entire sentences. After this rocky stretch, the scan returns to the previous excellent rendering. Then from pages 244 through the end the scan remains excellent but the text retains the page headers that had evidently been edited out of the rest of the book. It is, all in all, an odd rendering that defies obvious explanation. Overall, though, it’s unusually readable for a Google scan.










This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Doc Holliday by Karen Holliday Tanner: a short review

Covers pretty much the same territory as Gary Roberts’ book on Holliday, but not as well, and this book is nowhere near so balanced. Prose is, at best, workmanlike.


This short review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Inventing Wyatt Earp by Allen Barra: a review

Allen Barra examines the evidence, and concludes that the real Wyatt Earp resembled the mythical Wyatt Earp. This book is, in essence, an argument against Frank Waters and his “revisionist” successors (I really dislike that term; it distorts how real historians work). This unsurprising conclusion is well-told, but the book’s a little digressive and chatty. And, as noted in one of the other LT reviews, the copyediting leaves a lot to be desired, though I wouldn’t go so far as reporting errors in “every paragraph.” Perhaps the new publisher cleaned things up with this edition.

The book has endnotes after each chapter. These are not usually traditional academic footnotes, but more often are just opportunities to add information that doesn’t fit into the narrative.

Worth noting: In the bibliography section, Barra directly takes on Glen Boyer’s body of work, even though he largely agrees with Boyer’s interpretations of events in Tombstone. In Barrra’s view, Boyer is dishonest, manipulative, and shoddy.


This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Tombstone by Odie Faulk: a review

Faulk’s is an effort to write a portrait of Tombstone more or less as if the Earps and Clantons hadn’t existed. He was quite successful at that. The book is full of interesting details about the prospectors who first located the mines, and covers the basic details of town development adequately. I’d, personally, have liked to see more information about the mining companies’ operations, but perhaps that is just me. The sudden decline of the town and subsequent events are covered very well.

One chapter is devoted to the gunfight, its context, and its aftermath. Faulk basically wishes a plague on all the participants; all are, in his view, pretty bad characters and it’s best that they mostly abandoned the town after the shootout. Some of his facts differ from the currently accepted narrative–likely because four subsequent decades of research have clarified some specifics–but on the whole his portrayal of the event rings true.

The last chapter, which is essentially a complaint about the way myth has displaced fact in the Tombstone narrative, is heartfelt but probably beside the point.


This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Stagecoach by Philip Fradkin: a review

A celebration of the first 150 years of the Wells Fargo Company. Very readable and obviously well-researched, and just critical enough to avoid being a company hagiography.

The book is anecdotal, not analytical; the emphasis is mostly on stories, most of which directly involve the firm or its leaders.

This is not, properly speaking, a business history, though; while there are excellent clues about the firm’s business style in the 1800s, there’s no overarching effort to explain how it did business or to seriously engage its impact on the American West. The coverage after 1918 is really only cursory.

A good read, and worthwhile. The Sources section is excellent.


This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Boom Town

Were it not for the Earp/Clanton gunfight, it’s fair to say Tombstone would be remembered mainly as a mining camp with a fairly unusual name. It was a successful mining camp, but it only lasted a decade or so.

Thus was the romance of Tombstone. Within six months ten thousand men had placed a city upon that desert mountainside. Silence of the unpeopled hills had been routed by the hum of industry. Curling smoke betrayed peaceful, happy firesides. Life was normal and we looked toward the future with optimism.

—John Clum
Mayor of Tombstone
editor of the Epitaph
page 78 of Apache Days & Tombstone Nights
Neil Carmony, ed..

John Clum, Wyatt & Sadie/Josie Earp, George Parsons, Nellie Cashman–all lived in Tombstone in 1881, all lived long lives, and all spent many years in mining camps in many places. This short quotation expresses an important force in all those lives, and in the lives of many less heralded folks who mined, or lived near mines. To all appearances, everyone on this list would have lived pretty much the same life with or without the savage gunfight which appears to define the Tombstone story. (Of course, other folks’ lives were profoundly affected by the shootout. This necessary acknowledgement does not change my point.)


Clum, forever a booster, exaggerates the growth of Tombstone a bit. The town may have reached ten thousand, but it was several years, not a few months.


That Sadie/Josie thing is a bother. Josephine Marcus Earp is hardly the only person known to history by a different name than they used in life–Adrian Anson comes immediately to mind–but it’s annoying. And I repeat, for emphasis: Tombstone’s history is a contentious trap, and has been so from the start. Long-standing disputes make it difficult to find a foothold.

Revision History:

A Context for Tombstone

Continuing my exploration of the Tombstone story.

Let’s look at some maps….

Where, Exactly, is Tombstone?

  • In Cochise County; southern Arizona, only a few miles from Mexico. Google Maps.
  • The nearest big towns are Sierra Vista (Fort Huachuca’s town) & Tucson. Bisbee is nearby, and Nogales isn’t far. Google Maps, again.
  • Here’s an 1883 map of Cochise County (courtesy of Fort Huachuca’s museum–excerpt from a larger map). It’s worth keeping in mind railroads hadn’t reached Tucson, much less Tombstone, in 1879; Tombstone wouldn’t have a rail connection until 1903.

Are there maps of Tombstone?

  • Yep.
  • Here’s a map from 1886, courtesy of the Library of Congress. It concentrates pretty closely on the gunfight location.
  • Fern Canyon Press, publisher of a book called Wyatt Earp Speaks, offers this delightful map. Wish I knew more about its provenance, but it certainly looks impressive. It seems likely to have been partially based on a fire insurance map, though not necessarily the 1886 version linked to above. Notice the existence of defined neighborhoods for the Mexicans (of course) and for the Chinese (former railroad workers).
  • Tombstone’s map still looks about the same today, except the modern map’s oriented differently. Google Maps, yet again.
  • And here’s the current view from overhead. Microsoft’s Terraserver.

Once again: I style m’self “dabbler” for good reason. This exercise is mainly for my own entertainment. I’m an amateur in this field, though I’m an experienced researcher who’s gained some familiarity with nineteenth century mining towns. I know I’m repeating information available elsewhere, albeit arranged to reflect my personal research style. My immediate object is just to survey the resources, as I’ve said before, I want to better understand the context and evolution of the story the movies tell about the events in Tombstone. I don’t expect to contribute anything serious to the main discussion–about the Earps, that is, and about frontier law.

I’ll perhaps have something to say about related issues. We’ll see what develops.

Revision History:

Wyatt moves to Tombstone

Although Wyatt Earp lived a long, active, and colorful life, the part we all care about occurred in a few years. Most of it occurred within a few days.

This page is more a skeleton of the “facts” the OK Corral movies are built around than anything else–I wanted to compile a chronology without the baggage the story always carries. I am not an expert on this story, and don’t aspire to become one; what mainly interests me is its longevity, and the interpretations it’s always carried.

A few apparently-reliable links are listed at the bottom.


Gunfight & aftermath:

  • OK Gunfight, 10/26/1881.
  • Clanton/McLaury funeral, 10/28/1881.
  • Earps & Holliday arrested, 10/29/1881.
  • Earp pretrial, 11/9 thru 11/12/1881.
  • Earps & Holliday acquitted, 11/29/1881.
  • Virgil shot, 12/28/1881.
  • Morgan shot & killed, 3/18/1882.
  • Frank Stillwell killed in Tucson, 3/21/1882.
  • Wyatt’s Vendetta.

Earp family moves; & Wyatt’s law enforcement career:

  • Family move to Monmouth, Illinois, 1845.
  • Family move to Pella, Iowa, 1850.
  • Family move to California, 1864.
  • Family move to Lamar, Missouri, ~1870.
  • Wyatt in LaMar, 1870. Constable.
    Married Urilla Sutherland. (Rilla died within months.)
  • Wyatt jailed in Arkansas, 1871. Horse thief.
  • Family returns to California.
  • Wyatt in Wichita, Kansas, April 1875. Police Officer. Somewhere around here he took up with Mattie Blaylock.
  • Wyatt in Dodge City, Kansas, 1876. Deputy city marshall.
  • Virgil in Prescott, Arizona, 1877. Law enforcement.
  • Wyatt in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, 1877.
  • Wyatt in Texas, 1877.
  • Wyatt in Dodge City, Kansas, 1877. Assistant marshall.
  • Brothers in Tombstone, 1879/80-1882. Virgil federal marshall. Wyatt deputy sheriff, then deputy marshall. Josie/Sadie.

Earp Family:

  • James, born 6/28/1841, “Ohio County”.
  • Virgil, born 7/18/1843, Kentucky.
  • Wyatt, born 3/19/1848, Illinois.
  • Morgan, born 4/24/1851, Iowa.
  • Warren, born 3/9/1855, Iowa.

Doc, & Wyatt’s wives:

  • John (Doc) Holliday, born 1853, Georgia.
  • Urilla Sutherland Earp; born 1849.
  • Cecelia Ann Blaylock (Mattie Earp); born 1850, Wisconsin.
  • Josephine (Sadie or Josie) Marcus Earp, born 1861, NYC.

Cowboys & their Allies:

  • John Behan, born 10/23?/1845, Missouri.
  • Ike Clanton, born 1847, Missouri.
  • Billy Clanton, born 1862, Texas.
  • Frank Stillwell, born ????, ????.
  • Johnny Ringo, born 5/3/1850, Indiana.
  • Curly Bill Brocius (perhaps Graham), born about 1840, perhaps in Texas, perhaps in Indiana.
  • Tom McLaury, born 6/30/1853, New York.
  • Frank McLaury, born 3/3/1848, New York.

Arizona Territory (Southern, mostly):

  • Tucson presidio established, 1775.
  • Mexican War, 1846-48
  • Gadsden Purchase, 1853.
  • Whipple Survey Expedition, 1853-54.
  • Butterfield Overland Mail (stage coach), 1858-61.
  • Fort Bowie, 1862.
  • Arizona Territory established, 1863.
  • Fort Whipple, 1864.
  • Camp Wallen, 1866-69. (Huachuca’s most direct predecessor.)
  • Powell Grand Canyon Expedition, 1869.
  • Clanton Ranch, 1873.
  • Camp Huachuca, 1877 (promoted to Fort 1882).
  • First Tombstone claim, 1877.
  • First Bisbee claim, 1877.
  • Tombstone incorporated, 1879.
  • Charleston established, 1879.
  • Southern Pacific Railroad to Tucson, 1880.
    • This is a California connection; SP reached Yuma in 1878.
  • Cochise County established, 1881.
  • U.S. President James Garfield shot (in D.C.) 7/12/1881; died 9/19/1881.
  • Douglas established, 1901.
  • Arizona statehood, 1912.

Useful References:


Beware: Although there are some excellent resources about the Earps on the web (and in print), it is unwise to blindly trust any source for this story until you’ve read several. Already in 1881 the Tombstone tale was known to be so bizarre that it generated preposterous coverage, and distance from the events hasn’t improved the situation. The “primary” sources are biased, contradictory, and sometimes just wrong. So are many of the websites, and much of the printed material. Some sources which seem to be reliable are largely fiction. The movies–even the “historically accurate” movies–distort the story for effect. Although an improbable amount of detail is known about virtually everyone involved in these events, their motivations are pretty mysterious. That’s one of the reasons we care about the story.

Revision History: