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How To Use This Site

This blog was updated on a daily basis for about two years, with those daily entries ceasing on December 31, 2013. The blog is still active, however, and we hope that people stopping in, who find something lacking, will add to the daily entries.

The blog still receives new posts as well, but now it receives them on items of Wyoming history. That has always been a feature of the blog, but Wyoming's history is rich and there are many items that are not fully covered here, if covered at all. Over time, we hope to remedy that.

You can obtain an entire month's listings by hitting on the appropriate month below, or an individual day by hitting on that calendar date.

We hope you enjoy this site.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Sidebar: Confusing fiction for fact

One of the things that's aggravating for students of history is the way that popular portrayals botch the depiction of the topic of their interest or interests.  Sometimes this is mildly irritating, and sometimes colossally aggravating.  This is just part of the nature of things, which doesn't make it any less aggravating, and this is just as true of Wyoming history and the depictions of Wyoming and its citizens as it is with any other topic.  I suspect that the residents or students of any one area could say the same thing.

Before I go further with this, however, I should also note that this blog is very far from perfect, and I don't mean to suggest otherwise. As a daily catalog of Wyoming's history it's doing okay, but even at that, it isn't anywhere near as complete as it should be, and with certain big events in Wyoming's history its grossly incomplete.  A blog of this type should allow a person to follow a developing story as it plays out, and so far, for the most part, this one doesn't do that, that well, yet.  It certainly isn't up to the same standard that the World War Two Day By Day Blog was before it sadly, and mysteriously, terminated on September 24, 2012.  It'll hopefully get better with time, and it's doing okay now, but it is an amateur effort done with very limited time, so it isn't as complete as it should be yet.  We can hope for better in the future, of course, and it is better this year as compared to last.  We can also hope that it gets more comments in the future, which would assist with making it more complete.

Anyhow, while noting that, it's still the case that there are a lot of aggravating errors and depictions out there.  Maybe this blog can correct a few of them, although with its low readership, that's pretty doubtful.  And people cherish myths, so that operates against this as well.

What motivated this is that I was doing a net search for an update of a recent entry here and hit, through the oddity of Google, a website devoted to the movie Brokeback Mountain, which I have not seen.  I'm surprised that there's a fan website devoted to the movie, which of course I have not seen, as I'm surprised by any fan movie site.  A movie has to be of massive greatness, in my view, before I can imagine anyone devoting a blog to it.  Say, Lawrence of Arabia, or a movie of equal greatness. There probably aren't a dozen movies that are that good.  

Anyhow, if a person wants to devote a blog to a movie they really like, but isn't one of the greatest movies of all time, that's their business, but there is a difference between fact and fiction. And the reason I note the site noted is that there's a page on the site the one I hit debating the location of the Brokeback Mountain. The blogger thought it was in one place, but cited author Larry McMurtry for another location.

Well, McMurtry notwithstanding, there is no Brokeback Mountain. The book and movie are fiction.  It makes no more sense to say that some mountain is Brokeback Mountain than it does to say that the Grand Tetons are Spencer's Mountain, unless the point was intended to be that some backdrop for a film was a certain identified location.  If that's the case, i.e., identifying an actual location, I get it, but that's not what they seemed to be debating.  I don't think the film was actually filmed in Wyoming, although I could be mistaken and perhaps some background scenes were (although I don't think so).  Of course, if I am in error, I'm in error, in which case they're trying to identify a location they saw in the film, and I'm off base.

Along these same lines, when the film Unforgiven came out, I went to see it.  The movie was getting a lot of press at the time, and it was hailed as great.  It isn't.  It's not really that good of a film frankly, and I didn't think it was at the time.  I think it was hailed as great as a major Western hadn't been released in quite some time, and it starred Clint Eastwood.  Eastwood has been in some fine movies to be sure, but he's been in some doggy Westerns also, and this one, while not a dog, wasn't great.

At any rate, while watching that film, I recall a young woman asked her date, several rows in front of me, where the town the film depicts, Big Whiskey, Wyoming, was located.  I thought surely he'd say "there isn't one," but, dutifully he identified its location, essentially morphing Whiskey Mountain, a mountain, into the fictional town.  Whiskey Mountain is a real place, but Big Whiskey, the town, is a complete fiction.  It doesn't even sound like the name of a 19th Century Wyoming town.  I don't know of any Wyoming town named after an alcoholic beverage, or even a beverage of any kind.  For that matter, I don't know of any named for anything edible or potable, save for Chugwater.  In the 19th Century, the founders of towns like to name towns after soldiers if they could, which gives us Casper, Sheridan, Rawlins, Lander and probably other locations.  

While on the topic of fictional towns, there's the fictional characters in them.  Big Whiskey, in the film, was ruled over by a well dressed tyrannical sheriff and a well dressed tyrannical Englishman, if I recall correctly.  Tyrannical sheriffs are popular figures in Western movies, and in recent years they're well dressed tyrants.  In quite a few films the tyrannical sheriff is the ally of a tyrannical (probably English) big rancher.

In actuality, sheriffs all stood for election in those days, just as now.  They often had a really rough idea of what law enforcement entailed, but they did not tend to be tyrannical.  They tended to be grossly overworked, covering huge expanses of territory.  They also probably didn't tend to be snappy dressers.  While some of them had been on both sides of the law, quite a few were Frontier types that fell into the job for one reason or another, like Johnson County's "Red" Angus or Park County's Jeremiah Johnson (the famed mountain man).  Sheriff's of that era tended to spend days and in the saddle without the assistance of anyone and often tended to resort to gun play, which average people did as well, but they did not tend to be agents of repression.  If they were, they would loose office pretty quickly.  Probably one of the better depictions of a Frontier lawman is the recent depiction of Marshall Cogburn in the Cohen Brothers version of True Grit.

The tyrannical local big rancher thing is way overdone as well.  The reason that there was a Johnson County War is that the old big landed interests were loosing control so rapidly, not because they were retaining it.  Films like Open Range, or Return to Lonesome Dove, which depict people straying into controlled territory are simply wrong.  The cattle war was more characterized by an ongoing struggle than Medieval fiefdoms.  There were some English and Scottish ranchers as well, but there were big interests that weren't either.  And the both sides in those struggles formed interests groups that involved lots of people, rather than one big entity against the little people, contrary to the image presented in Shane and so many other films.

As part of that, one thing that these period films never seem to get correct is that the West was a territory of vigorous democracy.  Yes, in Wyoming large cattle interests tried to squash the small ones in Johnson and Natrona Counties through a shocking armed invasion, but they also had to content with the ballot box. When things went badly for them in the Invasion, the legislature briefly turned Democratic and Populist.  Newspapers were political arms in those days as well, and they were often exceeding vocal in their opinions.  Their opinions could sometimes be shouted down, or crowded out, but the concept that some English Duke would rule over a vast swatch of territory unopposed is simply incorrect.  More likely his domain would be subject to constant carving up and the sheriff was less than likely to be in his pocket.

While on the topic of films, the way that characters are depicted, visually, is very often incorrect.  In terms of Westerns, to a large extent, films of the 30s and 40s depicted characters the way that film makers wanted them to look, films of the 50s the way that people thought the viewers wanted them to look, films of the 60s reflected the style of day, and so on.  It wasn't until the 1980s, with Lonesome Dove, that a serious effort was made to portray 19th Century Western figures the way they actually looked, with a few really rare exceptions.  Shane, which I otherwise do not like, did accurately portray the visual look of a couple of characters, the best example being the gun man portrayed by Jack Palance. Why they got that one correct, for the region, and few else, is a mystery.  The older film Will Penny did a good job in these regards.  The Culpepper Cattle Company is very well done..  In recent films, the film Tombstone was very accurate in terms of costume for the region it was set in, so much so that it received criticism for the odd dress styles it depicted, even though they were period and location correct.  Modern Westerns tend to botch this if set in Wyoming or the Northern Plains, and are almost never correct in these regards.

Hats get very odd treatment in this context.  From the 20s through the 30s, hats were fanciful in film, and didn't reflect what people actually wore.  In the 50s, the hats that were then in style were shown as being in style in the late 19th Century.  Only recently have historical films generally been correct, and they still hit and miss on films set in the present era.  A lot of movie makers can't tell the difference between Australian drover's hats and real cowboy hats, and would probably be stunned to find that a lot of cowboys look like they did over a century ago, to a large extent.

The expanse of territory is also routinely inaccurate in old and new depictions.  Film depictions of Wyoming either seem to think that Wyoming has the geographic expanse of Alaska or, alternatively, Rhode Island.  Distances seem to be rarely related to the period in which they are set, with some depictions set in the 19th Century seemingly thinking that a town was always nearby, while ones set now seemingly thinking there isn't one for a thousand miles.  Expanses in Wyoming are vast, but the state is not Alaska.  Conversely, ranch and farm geography isn't grasped at all, and frankly its forgotten by most Wyomingites, in a historic concept, now.  Up into the 1930s there were an increasing number of small homesteads, meaning the farm and ranch population, throughout the West, was much higher than it is now. 

Probably the single worst depiction of modern geography, geography in general and ranch geography, is the horribly bad film Bad Lands, a fictionalized account of a series of events that actually mostly took place in the Mid West but which ended in Wyoming, in reality.  In that film the teenage murderers are shown driving across the prairie and there's actually an absurd line about being able to see the lights of Cheyenne in the distance in one direction and some extremely far off feature to the north.  In reality, you can not drive a car, any car, across the prairie as the prairie is rough and cut with gullies, ravines, gopher holes, etc.  And there's a lot of barbed wire fences.  The thought, as the movie has it, of driving dozens and dozens of miles straight across the prairie is absurd.  Not quite as absurd as being able to see Cheyenne's lights from a safe vast distance away, however.  Cheyenne sits in a bit of a bowl in the prairie, and if you see its lights, you are pretty close, and if you are driving across the prairie, pretty soon you're going to be entering some ranch yard or F. E. Warren Air Force Base.

One of the best depictions of geography, however, comes in McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, which does get it basically correct, and which the film gets basically correct.  In the film, the cattle are driven across arid eastern Wyoming, which is actually correctly depicted as arid.  Film makers like to show Wyoming as being Jackson's Hole.  Jackson's Hole is Jackson's Hole, and while it is very beautiful, and in Wyoming, it's darned near in Idaho and most of the state doesn't look like that.

On the topic of land, a really goofball idea depicted in many, many, current depictions of Wyoming and Montana is that you can go there and buy a ranch. No, you cannot.  Well, if you have a huge amount of money you can, but otherwise, you are not going to.  In spite of this, films all the time have the idea that people will just go there and buy a ranch.  One episode of Army Wives, for example, had an episode where a Specialist E4 was going to leave the Army and buy a ranch.  Baloney.  Buying any amount of agricultural land actually sufficient to make a living on in the United States is extremely expensive, and you aren't going to do it on Army enlisted pay.  Specialist E4 pay wouldn't buy a house in a lot of Wyoming.  Part of this delusion is based on the fact that in Western conditions the amount of land needed to make a living on is quite large and Eastern standards, which most people have in mind, bear no relationship to this in the West.  Out of state advertisers sometimes take advantage of this ignorance by suggesting that people can buy a "ranch" in some area of Wyoming, by which they mean something like 20 to 40 acres.  That isn't a ranch in the working sense of the words by any means in that there's no earthly way a person could make a living ranching it ,or farming it, or even come anywhere close to making a fraction of a living wage.  I've run into, however, people on odd occasion who live very far from here but believe that they own a ranch, as they bought something of this type site unseen.  In one such instance a person seriously thought he would bring 100 cattle into a small acreage that was dry, and wouldn't even support one.  This, I guess, is an example of where a mis-impression can actually be dangerous to somebody.

On ranching, another common depiction is that it seems to be devoid of work.  People are ranchers, but they seem to have self feeding, self administering, cattle, if a modern ranch is depicted.  Ranching is actually very hard work and a person has to know what they are doing.  Even if a person could purchase all the ranch land and all the cattle they needed to start a ranch (ie., they were super wealthy), unless they had a degree in agriculture and had been exposed to it locally, or they had grown up doing it and therefore had the functional equivalent of a doctorate in agriculture, they'd fail.  This, in fact, is also the case with 19th Century and early 20th Century homesteads, the overwhelming majority of which failed.  People who had agricultural knowledge from further East couldn't apply all of it here, and often had to pull up stakes and move on.  And, often missed, it took a lot of stuff to get started.  One account of a successful Wyoming 19th Century start up homestead I read related how the homesteader had served in Wyoming in the Army for years, specifically saving up his NCO pay and buying equipment years before he filed his homestead, and he still spent a year back east presumably working before he came back and filed.  J. B. Okie, a huge success in the Wyoming sheep industry, worked briefly as a sheepherder, in spite of being vastly wealthy, prior to coming out well funded to start up.  Many of the most successful homesteaders, but certainly not all, had prior exposure to sheep or cattle prior to trying to file a homestead.

On erroneous depictions, one particularly aggravating one is when films attempt to depict what they think the regional accent is.  There is a bit of a regional speech pattern, i.e, an accent, but it's so rarely done accurately that it shouldn't be tried.  For the most part, native Wyomingites have the standard American Mid Western accent, but they tend to mumble it a bit.  That sounds insulting, but it isn't meant to be, and Wyomingites are so attuned to it, as are rural Coloradans and Montanans, that they generally cannot perceive it.  I'm from here, and no doubt I exhibit that accent.  Most people don't recognize an accent at all, and it takes a pretty attuned ear to be able to place it, although some people very definitely can.  I can recall my father having told me of that having occurred to him on a train in the 50s, and I've had it happen once in the 1980s.  In my father's case, the commenter noted that he must be from one of the Rocky Mountain states.  In mine, I was specifically asked by a fellow who had worked for the Park Service for decades if I was from the West Slope of Colorado, as many park rangers were and I had the same accent.  Most Wyomingites, at some point, probably get a puzzled question from somebody about where they are from that's accent based, but the questioner never reveals that.  It's a regional accent, so the best a person can do is tell that you are from rural Colorado, Wyoming, or Montana if they know what the accent entails, or that there even is one.  Film makers, who must be aware that there is an accent, occasionally try to insert one in a modern Western, but when they try it they present a bizarre laughable accent that doesn't occur anywhere on the planet.  Years ago, for example, there were advertisements on television here for the Laramie Project, which is another film I haven't seen, and which I couldn't have watched due to the horribly bad efforts an accent that the filmmakers were attempting. We do not drawl.  We speak more like Tom Brokaw, but perhaps with a bit of mumbling that we don't recognize as mumbling. 

I've read that Irishmen find American attempts at an Irish accent hilarious.  Some English attempts at an American Mid Western accent are really bad.  Our accent here is fairly rare, and there's no way that they're going to get it right, and they ought not try.  By not trying, they're closer to the mark.

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