Moulton co-wrote the film Footsteps to the West for the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper, Wyo., and she received a WWA Spur Award this year for the Boston Productions documentary In Pursuit of a Dream. She previously won a Spur Award for her biography Chief Joseph: Guardian of the People. Her most recent books are Forts, Fights and Frontier Sites: Wyoming Historic Sites (High Plains Press), and Valentine T. McGillycuddy: Army Surgeon, Agent to the Sioux (forthcoming from Arthur H. Clark Co. Moulton, who lives with husband Steve in Encampment, Wyo., recently spoke with Wild West about her Western writing and adventures.
‘Eating trail dust is good for your soul’
You wear many different hats. What’s your favorite?
Writer—definitely writer—because it gives me the opportunities to be nosy, to ask questions, poke into places not everyone can go, meet the most interesting people, learn their stories and, best of all, share those stories with readers who may never leave the comfort of their own homes.
Your curiosity stems from your background as a journalist, then?
True. While I prefer to find a subject that in some way relates to the history of the West, I am ready to race and work anytime there is a hot news story to cover. In the course of my career to date, I’ve reported on hostage situations, prison issues, murders, an execution and, most of all, public land management, natural resource and agricultural and water use issues in the arid West.
What attracts you to the West’s “Expansionist Era” (1840s)?
The adventure. I’ve been fortunate to live in an area that in many ways is unchanged from that period. Near my home are four wilderness areas, places where there are no roads, no houses, no modern intrusions at all. When you hike or ride a horse through such country, it is like going back in time. Also, I have had the amazing opportunity to travel hundreds of miles by wagon in the West, crossing the country at 4 mph, living in a tent, eating food gritty with dirt; it gives me an appreciation for those people who set off into the unknown to find a new opportunity.
So you got a true taste of frontier life on the Oregon and California trails?
A taste for certain, and the realization that I am a wimp and could never have survived the hardships of the real journey. While I have ridden in a wagon and walked many, many miles, I’ve always done so with a bottle of good water to drink, the knowledge there would be a meal at the beginning and end of the day and usually with a cell phone in my pocket in the event of true emergency. But I’ve been witness to runaway wagons, slept in wet clothes and bedroll and dealt with intense weather situations: cold nights, extremely hot days, high winds, rain, hail, snow. The challenge of the trail and its rugged terrain has not changed in 170 years.
What did you learn?
That the most important things in life are friends and family you can count on, a good campsite, water for your livestock. I’ve also realized that teamwork is essential to success, that it is not necessary to always be in the lead and that eating trail dust is good for your soul.
Louis L’Amour once said the greatest books on the West were pioneers’ journals and diaries? Agree?
Yes. And I am amazed they kept them so diligently. It is a real struggle to find the time and energy to write at the end of every long day on the trail.
What historic Wyoming sites do you recommend to the newcomer?
Fort Laramie, for its connection to all periods important in the West: American Indians, mountain men, pioneer emigrants and the frontier military. Fort Bridger, especially during the annual mountain man rendezvous held over Labor Day weekend every year. Independence Rock, where you should be certain to walk around the rock to see the pioneer names carved on it and to climb to the top to see the most spectacular view in Wyoming. Medicine Lodge State Historic Site, with its amazing pictographs representing some of the earliest human history in Wyoming. I could go on and on.
What brought you to write the biography of Dr. Valentine Trant McGillycuddy?
A very good friend handed me the story 14 years ago, telling me briefly about McGillycuddy. Almost involuntarily my hand went up when my friend asked a roomful of writers who was going to write the story. It has taken far longer than I anticipated to do the research and writing.
Few seem to know of him, yet he was a significant figure in the West. How so?
He is most recognized in connection with Crazy Horse—McGillycuddy attended him after Crazy Horse was stabbed, fatally it turned out, at Fort Robinson in 1877—and with Red Cloud, since those two butted heads during the years McGillycuddy served as Pine Ridge Indian agent. But McGillycuddy had made a name for himself in other fields prior to that. He was a doctor at age 20, became a topographical engineer who worked on the Northern Boundary survey, and was a cartographer who measured the Black Hills and drew some of the earliest maps of the region. He was with General George Crook shortly after the Battle at the Rosebud and served as a surgeon with him on the march through the Black Hills that fall, during which he treated wounded Indians and soldiers at the battle at Slim Buttes. He then became an assistant surgeon at Fort Robinson, where he encountered Crazy Horse.
A controversial figure?
Indeed. He claims to have been the most investigated man in the country during his eight years as Pine Ridge Indian agent. While he had issues with Indian traders and other residents on the reservation, his biggest conflict came with Red Cloud. The two strong-willed men had polar-opposite opinions. McGillycuddy intended to implement federal Indian policy and force assimilation on the Lakotas. Red Cloud was determined to maintain traditional cultural beliefs and lifestyle. While efforts to remove McGillycuddy on grounds he was incompetent or engaged in improper activities did not succeed, ultimately he was forced out.
Did he leave the Pine Ridge area?
Not immediately. He relocated to Rapid City, where he became an influential businessman, first president of the South Dakota School of Mines and mayor. He also represented South Dakota Governor A.C. Mellette in the late fall and early winter of 1889 in the lead-up to Wounded Knee. Following the horrific attack at Wounded Knee, he treated many of the wounded Indians. After the death of his first wife, he made his home in California. He returned to the medical field during the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, treating patients in mining camps in California and Utah, plus natives in Alaska.
The marker on his grave atop Harney Peak in the Black Hills reads VALENTINE MCGILLYCUDDY, WASICU WAKAN—meaning what?
Some interpret it as “miracle man.” It likely came from his work with the Indians treating them for various illnesses. Even Red Cloud referred to him by this name. During the events leading up to Wounded Knee, Red Cloud reportedly said: “That is wasicu wakan. Seven winters he was our agent; I did not want him then.…[But] if we had listened to him, we would not now be having this trouble.”
What new works do you have in store?
I am researching and writing a history of the Mormon handcart companies, a subject that interests me on several levels. I have traveled the Mormon Trail—indeed, even pulled a handcart across parts of it in Wyoming—and find the saga of these pioneers to be a great human story. It also is personal: My husband is a descendant of pioneers who came to the West as members of the 1856 handcart company.