Legends and Lies: Great Mysteries of the American West, by Dale L. Walker, Forge Books, New York, 1997, $22.95.
When we read history, we like to believe we are reading truth. But as Dale Walker so adroitly points out, individuals as well as history can become masses of contradictions. Truth and facts become blurred.
Walker’s introduction, which is as fascinating as his text, argues that “in the Old West, nobody ever died when history said they died; conspiracies lurk everywhere; there are a minimum of two, most often several, versions of every historical event; and more often than not, legendry, lies and lingering doubts supersede fact.”
The author, a notable El Paso historian with superb credentials and at least 15 nonfiction books under his belt–as well as thousands of book reviews and articles–organizes his 308-page publication into sections: Legends, Disappearances, Calamities and Buried Treasure.
And it isn’t Dale Walker’s intention to necessarily resolve these mysteries. Instead he separates the reasonable theories from the wacky, the possibilities from the idiocies. He explains what can be proven (usually) and dismisses that which is patently insane, but nevertheless in some quarters passionately believed. What’s left then isn’t necessarily the “exact” truth, but it is a springboard.
Walker’s quest begins–and why not?–at the Alamo, the birthplace of so much history, legend and nonsense. The author describes that final day not as an orderly, heroic bloodbath, but as a “melee and a slaughter.” And exactly how did Davy Crocket die? Walker expresses it in precise yet simple terms: He evaluates all the evidence and concludes that nobody knows. The also author discusses whether Meriwether Lewis–of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition–actually committed suicide or was murdered. The evidence solidly points both ways. Then there were the loonies who claimed to be Jesse James and Billy the Kid. Enough said.
Walker investigates what happened to Black Bart, the notorious highwayman of California. On the other side of the continent, Boston Corbett allegedly shot the slayer of President Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, in a barn. But did he? If not, whatever happened to Booth as well as Corbett? Did you know that, by some accounts, Booth died in Granbury, Texas? The mesmerizing story has more fascinating twists and turns than a back country dirt road. The Lost Dutchman mine near Phoenix, Ariz., is evaluated, as is the death of the Oglala Indian leader Crazy Horse. For George Custer fans, Walker has a splendid chapter entitled, “An Afternoon on the Greasy Grass.” Like most of the other enigmas, this military puzzle will also never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. But reading Dale Walker’s evaluation will provide a unique understanding of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and a fine explanation of its unexcelled place in America’s chronicles.
Legends and Lies will captivate anyone who loves historical mysteries, the behind-the-scene intrigues that still puzzle and bedevil us today.
Leon C. Metz