In 1966, well-known author Marguerite Henry wrote Mustang: Wild Spirit Of The West. With this book, millions of people became aware of the tale of Wild Horse Annie, who saved the wild horses of the West from slaughter.
Except, Henry took liberties with the history of Velma Johnston, eventually even claiming that she "owned the rights" to Velma's life (p. 261). The fictionalization of Wild Horse Annie was seemingly approved by Velma Johnston herself, writing "This clean, noble public image of Girl of the Golden West that I have become [via the book] is surely having a reforming influence on me" (p. 176).
So what WAS the history, and story, of Mrs. Charles C. Johnston, aka Velma Johnston, aka Wild Horse Annie? Authors David Cruise and Alison Griffiths painstakingly researched the voluminous archives, including the correspondence written by Velma Johnston herself. The evolution of Wild Horse Annie into a free-roaming horse activist, then into a national celebrity, is a most interesting tale. And it is a tale best understood in this book, Wild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs: The Life of Velma Johnston, and not Marguerite Henry's version.
Velma Bronn was born in 1912, and in 1923 she contracted polio. The disease and the initial treatment (a full body cast) left her disfigured and in pain for most of her life. However, she persevered with her studies (and her love of wild horses), eventually getting her dream job - to be an executive secretary.
Cruise and Griffiths write, "One spring morning in 1950 the trip [to her job in Reno] passed uneventfully until she caught up with a livestock truck" (p. 42). To say that the next few hours were eventful for Velma would be an understatement. What she experienced changed her life in profound ways. The livestock truck was full of bleeding, injured, and dying wild mustangs, bound for slaughter into pet food.
One result of this experience eventually became the passage by the US Congress of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. What happened between Velma's original experience with a mustang roundup, and the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, is the the main substance of this book.
Here are a few of the tidbits I found interesting:
In an editorial for the "Reese River Reveille" newspaper, editor Jack Taylor wrote in 1959 that, "The true picture of a wild horse is a runty, moth-eaten, mangy little scrub critter of no value anywhere outside a can. He is a curse to the stockman, a nuisance to the big game hunter and a pain in the neck to the Bureau of Land Management whose job it is to see that the open range is properly apportioned to feed all living animals dependent on it. Getting him out of the picture as far as possible can be likened to a housewife's zeal in getting rid of cockroaches in the kitchen and moths in the clothes closet" (p. 127).
Over 50 years later, there are still those who would agree with Taylor. However, there seem to be more that agreed with Velma Johnston, that there is room for wild horses, and that they have a right to be present, and unmolested, on public land. "My commitment to the wild ones is total," she wrote (p. 255).
After her retirement as an executive secretary, her employer, Gordon Harris, wrote to Velma, "The world is made of of three kinds of people - those who make things happen; those who watch things happen; and those who don't know what's happening. Go, girl, go! And remember this is the first day of the rest of your life. You belong to the first group so keep on making things happen" (p. 255).
There are many heroes and villains in this story of Wild Horse Annie. There are people and organizations who were very supportive of Velma's work (Christine Stevens and the Society for Animal Protective Legislation, for one), and those that chose to exploit her efforts for their own agendas and purposes. And authors Cruise and Griffiths go beyond the development of Velma, the animal activist. This is also a tender love story, of Velma and Charlie, of Velma and her friends, and of Velma and Hobo, her horse.
This is truly an extraordinary, well-researched and written biography of a unique individual. And the true story is really more amazing than the fictionalized one written by Henry.