The Calamity Papers: Western Myths and Cold Cases (Book Review)

6/12/2006 • Book Reviews

Reviewed by Alexander Cook
By Dale L. Walker
Forge (Tom Doherty Associates), New York, 2004

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it clearly drives one of the coolest cats in the frontier history business, Dale L. Walker. In 2000 the Western Writers of America selected Walker for the Owen Wister Award for lifetime achievement in Western history and literature, and one suspects that his inquisitive nature has had much to do with his success in the field and behind the computer. In his introduction, he talks of the joy that writers achieve by finding things that were overlooked by less inquisitive souls and that add something to the historical record. To the curious writer—that is, the writer whose craving for knowledge knows no end and is thus always open to new research and the new possibilities of a subject—no case is really ever cold. Thus, Walker has followed up his 1997 work Legends and Lies: Great Mysteries of the American West with a 304-page work that sheds new light on other historic mysteries.

Walker first delivers a fine account of one Moncacht-Apé, a Yazoo Indian man who may have made an overland journey from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean more than 60 years before Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Readers of Wild West Magazine will remember this fascinating tale from Walker’s Spur Award–winning article “Killer of Pain’s Transcontinental Journey,” which appeared in the June 2001 issue. But that’s just the warm-up. Next, he presents explorer Lewis, whose premature, controversial death was considered in Legends and Lies but is reconsidered here because, you guessed it, Walker’s curiosity was not yet dampened. As part of that package, Walker also considers the alleged romance between Lewis and Theodosia Burr. Walker continues in the romance line—or something close to it—by considering Sam Houston’s disastrous wedding night on January 22, 1829. Other interesting cases raise such questions as “Did writer Jack London commit suicide?” and “Did Thomas Meagher, acting governor of Montana Territory, drown in an accident or otherwise?”

One 40-page section of the 304-page book is called “The Calamity Papers,” a title that apparently was so catchy that it made it to the book’s cover. The Calamity Jane–Wild Bill Hickok relationship has often been overblown through the years, but here Walker tries to make sense of the whole confusing affair, or nonaffair. In 1941 a woman announced on a radio show that she was the daughter of the famous duo. Jean Hickok McCormick’s diary-like letters that were meant to “prove it” have been called counterfeit by most historians, and while Walker doesn’t disagree, he adds, “there must be more to the story.” Walker also considers two connected events that occurred a dozen years apart in pretty much the same neck of the desert in southwestern New Mexico Territory—the disappearance of Judge Albert Fountain and his young son, and the killing of Pat Garrett. Walker hasn’t magically solved these longtime mysteries, but at least in his capable hands, these cases don’t seem quite so cold.

Tags: ,