The Real Dirt on America’s Frontier Legends, by Jim Motavalli, Gibbs Smith, Layton, Utah, 2019, $24.99
In this entertaining book Jim Motavalli profiles 17 frontier legends, the majority of whom are both colorful and well known (certainly to readers of Wild West), with a few mixed in who’ve never made a splash in Western history. The entries rely heavily on other published works (most listed in the two-page bibliography) and are short by necessity, but they’re actually pretty sweet. The title is a bit misleading. Motavalli hasn’t “dug up dirt” on these historic figures
the way it is done these days by investigative journalists, gossip columnists and tech-
The author presents a legendary figure in each of 13 of his chapters, while the other two chapters deal with legendary duos—namely, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, in the third chapter, and Spanish traders Pierre Louis and Benito Vasquez, in the eighth. In each chapter Motavalli presents information under common subheads: “The Legend,” “How They Get It Wrong,” “What We Actually Know” and “What He Said” or, as the case may be, “What They Said” or “What She Said.” Yes, the author includes two female legends—sometime scout and often inebriated Calamity Jane, who on occasion wore men’s clothing, and Cathay Williams, who enlisted in disguise to serve with the all-black 38th U.S. Infantry. In Calamity’s chapter Motavalli includes a sidebar about sharpshooting, skirt-wearing Annie Oakley, calling her “everything Calamity Jane wasn’t.”
In his first two chapters the author addresses the nation’s two biggest frontier heroes—Daniel Boone, in “A Legend Is Born (in Pennsylvania),” and Davy Crockett, in “Not Even Born on a Mountaintop”—but he really doesn’t expose anything about the pair that hasn’t already been well documented elsewhere. “Daniel Boone fits his legend better than most wilderness pioneers,” Motavalli writes. “Crockett [at the Alamo] either went down swinging Old Betsy, or he was executed later,” he notes. “But in either case he was a stalwart defender of the Alamo.” (For a harsher view of the frontiersmen see Gregory Michno’s “Half Horse, Half Gator and All Hogwash,” in the February 2020 Wild West.) Motavalli also examines the facts and myths about notable Westerners Liver-Eating Johnson, Hugh Glass, Grizzly Adams, Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill, James Beckwourth and Black Beaver, the last a Delaware Indian who became an honorable scout and is well deserving of the recognition. Also presented is Mike Fink, a Mississippi riverboat legend who, the author admits, “may never have existed, at least not in the form in which he’s come down to us.” Motavalli closes the book with information about Joseph Knowles, who might seem a bit out of place here, as his biggest claim to fame is that he ventured naked into the Maine wilderness in 1913 and emerged the controversial “Nature Man.” For more on Knowles and a bit of post-frontier dirt from back East see the author’s 2008 book, Naked in the Woods.