“Like two horses harnessed together, the West of change and the West of complexity alternatively gallop and prance, slip and stumble,” writes Richard W. Etulain in his 2006 book Beyond the Missouri: The Story of the American West. Professor emeritus of history at the University of New Mexico, Etulain specializes in the history and cultures of the American West and has authored or edited more than 50 books. He wrote Beyond the Missouri for both general readers and Western history buffs by providing “a big story with truckloads of interesting characters and intriguing events.” Western Writers of America named Etulain a Spur Award finalist for his 2014 biography The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane and awarded him a Spur for his article “Calamity Jane: A Life and Legends” in the Summer 2014 issue of Montana, The Magazine of Western History. His most recent book is Calamity Jane: A Reader’s Guide (2015). Etulain recently spoke with Wild West about Calamity and other frontier subjects.
What led you to Calamity Jane?
Happenstance. In the early 1990s I wanted to write a book about a demigod of the Old West for general readers. I soon saw, however, that Custer, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill and Indian leaders all had strong, recent biographies—but not Calamity. So I began my work on her, about 25 years ago.
What made her a Western icon?
Two factors, I think, did much to elevate Calamity into cult status: (1) she stood out in the frontier because her unorthodox actions were so at odds with expectations for pioneer women; (2) male journalists and novelists put her in the headlines of dramatic newspaper stories and the titles of dime novels. From the late 1870s on she was nationally known.
How hard was it to get at the truth?
I approached Calamity Jane with two goals: (1) to write a brief biography based on the best sources I could uncover (I visited more than 50 libraries and archives); (2) to trace the legends about her in newspaper stories, dime novels, movies and other popular media. I tried to achieve both goals in The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane.
What role did period reporters play in creating such Western icons?
Local, regional and national reporters played central roles in bringing persons like Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill, and Wild Bill to the attention of the public. The actions of these demigods were dramatically newsworthy, so journalists captured them in sensational stories. Just as in our times, reporters are often the first, inadequate and sometimes off-track biographers of new men and women on the scene. Truth-tellers need to clean up things.
What other factors brought them fame?
The frontier and Wild West was a hot subject in the United States in the decades immediately after the Civil War. In that very brief period from 1876 to 1881 news sources were overflowing with gripping stories about Custer, Wild Bill, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, Calamity Jane, Wyatt Earp, and Billy the Kid. The Wild West offered the hungry public new drama after the Civil War ended.
How did Calamity Jane manage to join several noted military expeditions?
Calamity grew up in masculine societies—among farmers, miners, railroaders, bullwhackers—and in boomtowns. She seemed more comfortable around men than women, and action and adventure grabbed her. She wanted to be with male contingents like those involved in the Newton-Jenney and Crook expeditions. Sometimes she traveled with bullwhackers, sometimes she dressed as a soldier and gained entrance, and sometimes she had a buddy or sweetheart who brought her along.
She was a camp follower, then?
Calamity was a camp follower on several occasions. She may have been a prostitute, too, although no hard evidence proves she sold sex. Consider the options for a young woman barely out of her teens without family, community, education or longtime friends. She wanted to be with others; she was not a hermit. Later, of course, she was the only Wild West camp follower to become a nationally known woman.
What was your approach to the West in Beyond the Missouri?
I’m convinced that the American West is the story of change and complexity, because in this region we have so often shifted places, taken new turns, changed allegiances and moved in new directions. It’s like a kaleidoscope: Every change brings about a new pattern. The American West has experienced more changes, hence more shifting complexities, than any other American region.
How did academic revisionism in Western history affect your writing?
In the late 1980s and 1990s the “new Western history” exploded on the scene. Historians of that persuasion thought we had excessively romanticized Western history, overlooking mistreatments of minority people, the land and economic competitors. I think of myself as a “radical middler”—neither to the right or left—so I am not a new Western historian. I subscribe, instead, to the credo of Western novelist and historian Wallace Stegner, who persuasively called for middle-of-the-road positions, after careful examinations.
In what ways does your Basque ancestry affect what you write?
My Basque heritage (my father came from Spain in 1921) keeps me naturally attuned to the rural, recent American West. So I have worked especially hard to understand the earlier and more recent urban Wests. But my evangelical heritage has shaped my outlook on history more than my ethnic backgrounds.
What projects are you working on now?
My next book, Ernest Haycox and the Western, is forthcoming, and I have finished my half of a co-authored study of U.S. presidents and the American West. If I can keep the Grim Reaper and urn-bringers at bay, I hope to do a book on Abraham Lincoln and the American West and another on Billy the Kid. Two kinds of West for a radical middler. WW
BOOKS BY ETULAIN:
Along with the two Calamity Jane books and Beyond the Missouri he has written (among many other titles) Stegner: Conversations on History and Literature (1996); Telling Western Stories: From Buffalo Bill to Larry McMurtry (1999); and Western Lives: A Biographical History of the American West (2004). He has also co-edited five volumes in Fulcrum Books’ Notable Westerners series, including By Grit & Grace: Eleven Women Who Shaped the American West (1997) and Wild Women of the Old West (2003).