About the Author
Erin Barrett is the author of a kids' trivia book from Klutz Press; she has written for magazines and newspapers, such as Icon and the San Jose Mercury News, and has contributed to several anthologies, including the Uncle John's Bathroom Reader series. She and Jack Mingo have also designed numerous electronic and online games. They live in Alameda, California, with their family.
Jack Mingo is the author of fifteen books including How the Cadillac Got Its Fins, The Whole Pop Catalog, and The Couch Potato Handbook. He has written for countless publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Boston Phoenix, Reader's Digest, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. Together with Erin Barrett, they are the cofounders of the popular Ask Jeeves series and authors of the series' first book, Just Curious, Jeeves.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Chapter One: The Wild, Wild West
A Cowboy Needs A Horse
What are jinglebobs, heel chains, and rowels?
They're parts of a cowboy's spurs.
Did cowboys wear high heels to make them look taller?
Well, maybe in some of the movie cowboys. The real-life kind, however, wore them for two reasons: to keep their feet from slipping out of the stirrups and to put some extra distance between their feet and the muck when walking through fields full of cattle excrement.
How much water can a ten-gallon hat hold?
About three quarts. So, how did it get its name, you may well ask? Some say it was just a cowboy exaggeration about the size of the hat, but those who claim to know say that it's because the hat was advertised as being big enough for 10 galions. (Galions are those braids that decorated the crown.) Regardless, what most people don't know is that this classic cowboy hat style was first manufactured by John B. Stetson in that Wild West town of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Why were cowboys called cowpokes or cowpunchers?
Because poke and punch is what they literally did to cattle that balked at going up the ramps leading to railcars and packing plants.
Where did the Old West ranchers get their horses and cattle if they didn't transport them from back East?
Both mustangs and Texas longhorns ran wild through the plains when the first settlers moved west. It was just a matter of catching and domesticating them. Neither animal, though, was indigenous to the Americas -- they were descended from animals that had been brought over to Mexico by Spaniards in the 1500s. Over the intervening three centuries, feral herds of horses and longhorns had grazed their way up and across the continent.
When It Absolutely Needs To Get There In A Fortnight
How long did it take to get a letter from coast to coast by Pony Express?
In the middle of the 1800s, before the U.S. got wired with telegraph, you'd send a piece of mail from the East Coast to the West and not expect it to get there for months. A simple mail exchange of "Here's the contract; do we have a deal?" could require a half year or more before you got a response. In the frontier beyond the Mississippi River, there were no trains, not even roads to speak of, and most mail either went over land on a creeping stagecoach or by ship around South America.
People in business, government, and journalism hated waiting that long. So you could see how the Pony Express really seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. Your package was absolutely, positively guaranteed to get the nearly 2,000 miles from Sacramento to St. Louis in 10 days (15 in winter). Even adding a few more days for the trains to take your message the rest of the way to business centers in New York or Chicago, you can still see how a one-month turnaround time could be an exciting prospect.
That's how William Russell saw it anyway when the idea of the Central Overland Pony Express Company came to him. In order to have mail traveling at the fastest possible speed -- of horses galloping in a relay race against time -- he realized that was going to take hundreds of horses, scores of riders, and stations at reasonable intervals to trade horses and riders (horses every 10-15 miles, riders every 75). He also knew that traveling through Indian territory would be dangerous. He figured that he'd have to charge a bundle per letter to make it worth his while, but he hoped that would come down once he got the government contracts.
It cost $5 per half-ounce to send a package by Pony Express in 1860, which is the equivalent of about $95 in today's dollars. Despite the outrageous cost, the Pony Express still lost money on every letter it carried. Worst of all, the government contracts founder William Russell expected never materialized. With some relief, Russell closed the whole thing down two days after the first coast-to-coast telegraph line went online. In its 19 months of existence, the Pony Express delivered 34,753 pieces of mail and ended up nearly $200,000 in debt.
How many Pony Express riders were killed by Indians, outlaws, etc.?
It was a dangerous job, as indicated by the newspaper ads that recruited riders: "Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred." Surprisingly, though, the 183 riders (aged 11 through the mid-40s, despite the ad) survived pretty well. Only one was killed by Indians, although his pony knew the way and continued with the mail to the next station. For the danger, the riders were paid $100-150 a month (equivalent to about $1,900-2,750 in today's money).
East Is West & Ever The Train Shall Meet
Before the transcontinental railroad was completed, how were goods shipped to the western territories?
Some were carried across country, but it was an expensive and overly difficult task, coming across mountainous regions and prairie terrain. The easier, although far more distant, route west was by sea. Almost all goods, including those used to start work on the transcontinental railroad, were shipped around Cape Horn and across thousands of statute miles to reach western American destinations. The only transcontinental railroad building materials naturally found on the West Coast were timber (for various structures and cross ties), stone, and brick. Tools, rail, appliances, machines, and many of the laborers had to be shipped in from other locations.
Did slaves work on the transcontinental railroad?
No. By the time work began in the 1860s, the Civil War was already raging and slavery was on its way out. Instead, two work crews began laying track from the two ends of the railroad line, and they met in Utah. The laborers from the east were mostly Irish and the ones from the west, mostly Chinese.
What did the Native American word "how" mean, "How are ya?"
No, but good guess. You're not far off from what it's come to mean for most American movie watchers. "How," or something sounding similar, came from the language of the Sioux tribe. The word was used at the beginning of their sentences in the same way we would say, "Well," and then trounce off into a thought. Settlers may have misinterpreted and thought they were saying "hello." Or even, "How are ya?"
Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'
How often did gunmen do the Main Street quick-draw shoot-out duel like you see in the movies?
Not nearly as often as in the movies. In fact, there isn't a single documented case of it ever happening like the movies portray it. The whole quick-draw myth came from early dime novels. When Wyatt Earp was asked about quick-draw shoot-outs in the 1920s, he told an interviewer that the guy who drew his gun and shot quickly invariably missed. The way to survive a gunfight, Earp said, was to take a second before shooting to steady your hand and aim.
How dangerous was it to live in a Wild West town?
Not as dangerous as you'd think. As a matter of fact, the modern-day cliché of using the Wild West as a metaphor for the dangers of big cities does a grave disservice to the olden days. Take wild, wild Dodge City. Its absolutely worst year for violence was 1878; the total number of shooting deaths that year was five. Combine the shooting deaths for all of the cattle towns from 1870 to 1885, and you'll get a total of 45.
My great-grandmother told me she saw a bloody shoot-out in Nevada in the late 1800s. How come I can't find any record of it?
It could be that she fell for a small-town hoax. During the 1870s, Palisades, Nevada, got a reputation as one tough little town because train passengers on rest stops there often witnessed stagecoach robberies, shoot-outs, and even Indian attacks. In reality, though, it was all a big joke. A conductor had once mentioned to a Palisades resident that his passengers were disappointed that the Wild West wasn't like they'd read about in dime novels. The townspeople decided to give the greenhorns what they wanted. They recruited members of the community, the railroad workers, and even a local Indian tribe to join in. Over the next three years, the locals thrilled travelers with a thousand fake gunfights, using blanks and gallons of beef blood from a local slaughterhouse. Palisades got the reputation for being a dangerous town, and sometimes even got written up in newspapers by journalists who weren't in on the joke. Behind the façade, though, Palisades was so peaceful that it didn't even have a sheriff.
How fast could covered wagon trains travel?
One to two miles per hour, or the equivalent of a toddler's walking speed. They could go about a hundred miles in a seven-day week of travel, but many devout people refused to travel on Sunday, slowing them down even further.
What's a "dogie"?
It's what they used to call a motherless calf. Stray calves or those that have lost their mothers at too young an age are still called dogies, actually. Often the term is colloquially used to refer to all bovine in a herd. The origin of the word "dogie" is unknown, but may stem from an earlier descriptive term of a motherless calf with an extended belly from malnutrition, says the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Fourth Edition, 2000). These hungry calves were once referred to as "dough-guts" because their bellies resembled bulging sacks of sour dough.
What was the average speed of a cattle drive?
Not that much faster than a wagon train. Fifteen miles in a day was pretty typical as the cowboys moved the dogies toward a railroad stop where the cattle could be shipped for slaughter in eastern slaughterhouses. Until the railroad lines reached the western frontier, cattle drives could travel as far as a thousand miles and last up to three months.
What was the speed of a stagecoach?
The fastest way to get across the plains was by stagecoach. Traveling day and night, you could rip through about 100 miles per day -- an average of a little more than four miles an hour.
Who was the judge who fined a corpse $40 for carrying a concealed weapon?
That would be Judge Roy Bean, who liked to call himself "the law west of the Pecos." He presided over his jurisdiction from his combination court and barroom in Langtry, Texas. An article in Smithsonian Magazine characterized his unschooled judging as "unfettered by legalities and governed by simple greed, prejudice, and rough-handed common sense." When he discovered that a corpse was carrying both a gun and $40, Bean confiscated the money, explaining that he could use it better than the corpse could. He often interrupted trials to ask if anybody in the courthouse wanted to buy a drink.
Rootin' Tootin' Cowgal
Who was Calamity Jane?
She was a woman who lived on the Western Frontier in the late 1800s. She was a controversial character for a number of reasons, including the fact that she dressed in men's clothes. She was known to loudly boast of her stint as a Pony Express rider and about serving under General Custer. Some of her life stories have been verified by others or by public record, but because she was known for exaggerating, it can safely be said that many stories about Calamity Jane aren't true. She was often forgiven her white lies because of her big heart. Besides being an ever loyal and faithful friend to many, including Wild Bill Hickock, she also selflessly stayed in Deadwood, South Dakota, during a particularly vicious wave of smallpox and almost single-handedly nursed the community back to health, risking her own health in the process. She joined Buffalo Bill's traveling show for a time, but alcoholism made her an unreliable act, and she was eventually fired. She died near Deadwood in poverty and was buried next to Wild Bill Hickock.
What was Calamity Jane's real name?
She was born Martha Jane Canary. She added "Burke" to that and went by "Martha" or "M. Burke" during her marriage to a man named Clinton Burke, but she dropped it after abandoning him. Her nickname, "Calamity Jane," before and after her marriage was her name of choice. By 1902 she lived down to her name and died after years of alcoholism.
Did Calamity Jane have kids?
Her autobiography says she had a daughter with her husband Clinton Burke. However, her daughter's name is unknown, as is her eventual fate.
Was "Oakley" Annie's real last name or a stage name?
It was a stage name, as was the "Annie," too. Her real name was Phoebe Moses, and she was born in Darke County, Ohio. Another stage name she used in advertisements was "Little Sure Shot." The famous Native American chief Sitting Bull gave the name to her, after being wowed at her marksmanship. As was common for the day, she privately went by her husband's name, Mrs. Frank Butler.
I Shall Fear No Evil
Who named Death Valley and why?
A group of pioneers dubbed it Death Valley in 1849 after they were seriously misrouted there on their way to California's Gold Country. As they finally escaped the valley, one of the women turned around and shouted, "Goodbye, Death Valley!" The name stuck. Despite the name, though, only one of their members actually died in Death Valley -- an ailing old man who probably would've died no matter where they'd been. An irony is that the group that named it wasn't afraid of dying from the heat. Although summer temperatures in Death Valley can be deadly, this group arrived in the valley on Christmas Day and it was freezing. They were mostly afraid that they'd be stranded like the Donner Party had been three years earlier.
Mmm, Tastes Like Mr. Wolfinger
How many people were eaten in the Donner Party?
It was a desperate situation. Trying to get to California, 90 people left too late, gambled on the weather holding, and lost. They were trapped in the Sierra Nevada by winter snows. Separated into several groups, stuck from November until April, they began eating their dead when the food ran out. Forty-eight people survived; of that number, at least half had engaged in cannibalism. Of those who died, nearly all were at least partially eaten. Yum.
Lewis Keseberg was unlucky enough to be the sole survivor of one group. His wife and child had gone with an earlier rescue expedition, and after he had eaten twigs and everything he could find from the provisions, he waited four days before he decided, for his family's sake, that he'd better try eating the bodies of his fellow travelers. "The necessary mutilation of the bodies of those who had been my friends, rendered the ghastliness of my situation more frightful," he recounted to an author in 1880 after 36 years of pained silence. "The flesh of starved beings contains little nutriment. It is like feeding straw to horses. I cannot describe the unutterable repugnance with which I tasted the first mouthful of flesh." For two months he was the only living being in the snowed-in cabin. "Five of my companions had died...and their stark and ghastly bodies lay there day and night, seemingly gazing at me with their glazed and staring eyes. I was too weak to remove them....To have one's suffering prolonged inch by inch, to be deserted, forsaken, hopeless; to see that loathsome food ever before my eyes was almost too much for human endurance....Many a time I had the muzzle of my pistol in my mouth and my finger on the trigger, but the faces of my helpless, dependent wife and child would rise up before me, and my hand would fall powerless....I am conversant with four different languages, yet in all four I do not find words enough to express the horror I experienced during those two months, or what I still feel when memory reverts to the scene."
Is it true that a guy was sentenced to death because he ate most of the Democrats in a county out west?
You're thinking of Alferd Packer, and much of the story is a popular myth. Here's the true story: In 1873, Alferd Packer and five other residents of Colorado went prospecting. They got lost in a snowstorm and their provisions ran out. When authorities came upon the scene months later, the five others had been killed, and one of them had been partially roasted and eaten. Packer was convicted of murder and cannibalism.
That part is true. Now, here's where the legend kicks in: At the end of Packer's trial, the judge supposedly exclaimed, "Stand up, you man-eating son of a bitch, and receive your sentence. There were seven Democrats in Hinsdale County, but you, you voracious, man-eating son of a bitch, you ate five of them. I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you're dead, dead, dead, as a warning against reducing the Democratic population of the state."
Back to reality now. Packer served seventeen years and lived out the rest of his life as a semirecluse (and, some say, a vegetarian), spending some of his time hanging around the Denver Post building as an unofficial security guard (this may have been out of gratitude since a Denver Post reporter had been responsible for getting his sentence reduced). Incidentally, a century later, the students at Boulder University voted to name the school cafeteria the "Alferd Packer Memorial Grill." Its most popular menu item has been the El Canibal Burrito.
What's the name of the musical based on Alferd Packer?
Cannibal! The Musical. It's a loose (and we mean very loose) interpretation of the real events. It was written by the creator of the irreverent, foul-mouthed but much adored, cartoon South Park.
I can't believe that L. Frank Baum wrote that Indians should all be exterminated. What was that about?
The kindly author of The Wizard of Oz wrote two editorials on the subject when he was editor of the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. Here is the core of one of them: "The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past."
Baum ended this editorial with a quote in which he apparently completely missed the ironic semantical point of the original speaker: "An eastern contemporary, with a grain of wisdom in its wit, says that 'when the whites win a fight, it is a victory, and when the Indians win it, it is a massacre.' "
What's sad and scary is that what he wrote was not that far off from what was considered mainstream thought of the time. And in fact, the policy he outlined was pretty close to what became official national policy under Andrew Jackson. Jackson, it should be noted, won his fame as an army commander after making a killing (both financially and literally) by laying personal claim to lands after chasing off and killing the Indian people who lived there. It became the official policy to break treaties, steal land, and massacre entire villages of Native Americans, no matter what their age. Whether this excuses Baum or makes him all the more culpable is a question for the ethicists.
Who is Chivington, Colorado, named after?
Colonel John Chivington of the U.S. Army. As commander of the local fort, it was Chivington whom the delegation of Indians came to, trying to arrange a peace treaty. Carrying an American flag, 28 men and 105 women and children believed that they had reached a sympathetic ear. They were wrong. While the tribe went home and celebrated the peace they thought they'd achieved, Chivington gave a speech to his officers: "Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians." That night, six hundred soldiers sneaked up on the Indian camp, where they raped, killed, and mutilated every person there. According to witnesses who came upon the scene the next day, every Indian was scalped and mutilated horribly. Men were castrated and woman had their genitals cut out. The soldiers paraded with their grisly souvenirs on impaled sticks and on their hats while the white citizens cheered. Chivington justified killing Indian babies in this case, as he had done many times before, because "Nits make lice!"
The United States government later launched investigations, but neither Chivington nor any of his men were charged with any crimes. And not long after, local citizens named the town in his honor.
Why did Indians scalp their victims?
Contrary to popular myth, it was not a Native American custom but a colonial one first. Scalping on the American continent was first instituted by the Dutch colonial government around New York when they actually set a bounty for killing Indians. They came up with the idea of requiring a scalp as concrete evidence of a kill before paying a claim. Other colonial governments thought this was a great idea, and the English and French began using the same system to tally kills. Eventually, even the Native Americans picked it up for their own internal bookkeeping.
How dangerous were the Indians to wagon trains crossing the plains?
You'd think from the movies that they were a constant threat. In reality, during the time between 1840 and 1860 -- when many of the worst hostilities took place -- your chances of dying of sickness on the wagon trains was much higher than dying from a Native American attack. During those two decades, about 250,000 whites and African Americans traveled across the plains. Of those, 362 died in battles with Indians; during the same battles, 426 Indians died.
What was the Trail of Tears?
The Trail of Tears was the name given to a series of forced marches in the 1830s, moving five Indian tribes from the woods and fields of their southeastern homelands to a desert wasteland, which was officially designated as "Indian Country." Although promised "conveyances and provisions" to get them across the 800 miles to the new lands, the "conveyances" turned out to be their own feet. About a quarter of the people died along the way, mostly children and the elderly. These were not warlike tribes, but actually were called "the Five Civilized Tribes" because they strove to coexist with settler society -- they farmed and ranched, built roads, schools, and churches, developed a written language, and even attempted to fight removal by appealing to the Supreme Court. However, their lands were too valuable, and American racism was too ingrained to let them live in peaceful coexistence.
Later, even most of the desert wasteland was stolen by the whites, and nowadays, Indian Country is now called by a newer name, "the State of Oklahoma."
Did anyone survive Custer's last stand?
Quite a few did. All of them were Native Americans, however.
There was one survivor from Custer's party, an Indian translator. However, the American government got its revenge -- they used his defeat as an excuse to indiscriminately wipe out tribes in the area.
How did Crazy Horse die?
When he left the Indian reservation without permission to take his wife to see her parents, he was arrested by U.S. soldiers. When he realized the soldiers were going to lock him up in a guardhouse, he struggled against the officers holding his arms. A soldier then ran him through with a bayonet.
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