Western history takes center stage in Louis Kraft’s career, but Kraft does more than research and write books. Before turning to history, he was an actor, and these days one is as likely to find him speaking about his subjects or playing them onstage as writing about them.
For some time Kraft has immersed himself in the life of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian agent Edward W. (“Ned”) Wynkoop. In 2002 the playwright’s one-man historical drama, An Evening with Ned Wynkoop, premiered in Kansas. He has since reworked and performed the play in California, Colorado and Oklahoma, most recently in Ned Wynkoop: Long Road to Washita as part of the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site’s 140th anniversary remembrance in December 2008. Kraft’s full-length play Cheyenne Blood, directed by Tom Eubanks, premiered in Oxnard, Calif., in April 2009.
Kraft’s nonfiction titles include Custer and the Cheyenne: George Armstrong Custer’s Winter Campaign on the Southern Plains (1995), Gatewood & Geronimo (2000) and Lt. Charles Gatewood & His Apache Wars Memoir (2005). He has also written a novel, The Final Showdown (1992). Forthcoming projects include a Wynkoop biography, Ned Wynkoop: Walking Between the Races, and a book on the Sand Creek massacre, Sand Creek: A Clash of Cultures. He’s also working on Errol & Olivia, a book that addresses the relationship between actors Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.
Kraft, who lives in North Hollywood, Calif., took a break between rehearsals, writing and research to discuss Ned Wynkoop and other subjects with Wild West.
‘If a character from history comes alive onstage, on the podium or on film, and he or she affects the audience by what they did, some may take the initiative and dig deeper’
Historian. Writer. Actor. Speaker. Playwright. Which comes first?
How effective a tool is drama to teach history?
This is important, oh, so important, and unfortunately the importance grows with each passing day. Fewer and fewer people read, and I hate to say it, but fewer and fewer people even know how to read. If a character from history comes alive onstage, on the podium or on film, and he or she affects the audience by what they did, some may take the initiative and dig deeper. I know this is true, for seeing people portrayed onstage and in film has jolted me to learn more. If we don’t find ways to keep our past alive (and that includes in books and articles), someday it won’t exist anymore.
Moving on to my survival as a historian/writer, performance art is one of the prime ways I obtain fans. I can almost count all my fans on my two hands. In the near future I hope to count them on my hands and feet. This is an understatement, but not by far, and I do everything I can to nurture my fans. Hopefully, they speak up once in a while and say something like, “Kraft is speaking next Thursday. Why don’t you come along? He gives his stories life.” Yes, I am optimistic.
Why have many historians overlooked Ned Wynkoop?
He is ignored by historians who only read what has already been published—a sentence here, a paragraph or two there. Like Lieutenant Charles Gatewood, 6th U.S. Cavalry, he, for well over a century, has been a footnote in history or relegated to the circular file. The reason is simple: Edward W. Wynkoop lived his life on the frontier his way. And, like Charlie Gatewood, he had a conscience and refused to accept the views of his times, the 1860s. This placed him at odds with the settlers, the press, the military, the government and even the Indians he worked with. Wynkoop’s stance during the 1860s Indian wars on the central and southern Plains turned him into a pariah. He dared to speak up against everything he thought was wrong.
Wynkoop played a leading part in what happened during the key years on central and southern Plains from 1864 until the end of 1868. But where he differed from most of his compatriots is that he dared to stand up to a number very powerful white men, such as Rocky Mountain News editor William Byers, high-ranking soldiers Philip Sheridan, Winfield Hancock, William Sherman, George Armstrong Custer and John Chivington, to name a few. These men, during their lifetimes, wielded considerable power, and it is their points of view that have dominated how we understand the Indian wars on the southern and central Plains. These, and others like them, became the leading players during the development of the West and the Anglo dominance over the Indians on the Plains. They helped build the towns, and they scored the military victories. In disgust, Wynkoop walked away at the end of 1868 and, for the most part, was never heard from again.
I should add a footnote on Mr. Chivington: He took a big hit when investigative committees in 1865 damned the attack at Sand Creek. Nevertheless, he remained a savior in most Coloradans’ eyes even to this day. By the way, I should say I’m not condemning Chivington. He was a man, and at most times a good man. That 1864 war was frightening for whites living on the Colorado frontier. He saw an opening to become a great Indian fighter and grabbed the moment. I don’t know that in looking back he would have changed what he did, but I do know that he did what he could to help Louise Wynkoop, Ned’s widow, secure his pension after he died in 1891—something he didn’t have to do.
What is the legacy of Sand Creek?
The legacy of Sand Creek is threefold. Man’s refusal to accept people who are different, man’s lust for land that belongs to someone else, and genocide. We condoned this in 1864 and we condoned it all through George W. Bush’s tragic eight years as president of the United States. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but if we don’t figure it out, someday there won’t be any more humans walking the late, great planet Earth.
And the Washita?
The Washita is Wynkoop’s legacy. Two days after the battle, which he didn’t know had happened, he resigned his commission as U.S. Indian agent in protest against the war. In his resignation letter dated November 29, 1868, he wrote, “I most certainly refuse to again be the instrument of the murder of innocent women and children.” After learning of the battle, he traveled to New York City and spoke to a large crowd at the Cooper Institute, which is sometimes called the Cooper Union, on the evening of December 23, 1868. “I don’t know whether the U.S. government desires to look at this affair in a human light or not,” he said, “but if it only desires to know whether if it was right or wrong, I must emphatically declare it wrong and disgraceful.” I should add that I’m lousy remembering quotes, but both of these hit the target dead center, and I use them in the Wynkoop shows. They aren’t fiction; they are real quotes.
The Washita is Wynkoop’s legacy for it made him realize exactly who he was and where he stood on the subject of genocide. Unfortunately, he was in the minority. He applied to become superintendent of Indian Affairs in 1869 but incoming President U.S. Grant wanted nothing to do with the firebrand Wynkoop. Add the problem that he was now out of work and needed to provide for his family, he was forced to seek employment far from Indian Affairs. The half-Cheyenne George Bent, who lived with Black Kettle (it was Black Kettle’s villages that were attacked and destroyed at Sand Creek and the Washita) and who also worked for Wynkoop, understood Wynkoop’s legacy. “Wynkoop is the best friend the Cheyennes and Arapahos ever had,” he said.
You’ve written about Custer and the Cheyennes. Did you go into that project with any preconceived notions, and did they change during the research of the book?
I always have a preconceived notion when I begin a book. In this case it was, Why didn’t Custer kill the Kiowas, Arapahos and Cheyennes he peacefully got to return to the reservation after the battle of the Washita? The process of writing this book taught me how to write a nonfiction book. I tried a number of things in it, including point of view (POV), which is a screenplay term. I can’t tell you how much agony announcing this brought me at the time. I basically knew what happened, but why and how? I had some of the facts in place, but not all. I taught myself how to research and how to follow up on leads.
The goal of this book was to get a handle on Custer at this time in his life. I don’t remember how my views on what happened changed, but they did. I discovered a lot about Custer and the Cheyennes that I didn’t know prior to pitching the manuscript. Custer had two armies under his command that craved Indian blood. Custer was a warrior who came alive in battle, but during this short period in his life—from the end of the battle of the Washita on November 27, 1868, until his negotiations with Stone Forehead and the Cheyennes in March 1869—he changed. Custer on campaign is life itself—no one, no one surpasses him. However, he became a negotiator, a man, if you will, demanding peace no matter how he had to secure it. This I didn’t know when I began the project. And yet, this is the trust of the finished book.
As an aside, the first Gatewood book was going to be called Bay-chen-daysen, and Geronimo had a minor role. After a couple of years of research and writing the first rough draft, I decided Geronimo was not a minor player. The result, Gatewood & Geronimo.
What sparked your interest in history?
Errol Flynn’s portrayal of George Armstrong Custer in They Died With Their Boots On (1941) turned me on to Custer. I began reading about him and the Indian wars. Flynn is also responsible for turning me on to Sir Francis Drake and piracy. The Sea Hawk (1940), which drew from Drake’s exploits, and Captain Blood (1935), which stole from Sir Henry Morgan’s life, are still two of my favorite films.
When I was young—real young—my mother asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said I wanted to be like Tex Ritter and ride a white horse and shoot bad guys. She told me that Ritter was an actor and didn’t shoot bad guys. Enter Flynn during the late 1950s, and I knew what I wanted to do.
Film also led to another one of your nonfiction subjects: Gatewood &Geronimo. How did that come about?
I don’t know how else to say this, other than Gatewood and Geronimo were two unplanned guests in my life. I knew nothing about them and had no interest. I saw the film Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) and was impressed with the grandeur and scope but totally turned off by the lack of focus on who the film was about and dismissed it. Then, after the publication of Custer and the Cheyenne in 1995, I visited Aaron and Ruth Cohen’s Guidon Books in Scottsdale, Ariz., to sign books. Our conversation turned to recent Western films and how they influence book sales. Tombstone (1993) with Val Kilmer, Michael Biehn and Kurt Russell had been a major hit at the box office and spiked Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday book sales. At the same time, Geronimo: An American Legend had failed at the box office and didn’t generate Apache wars book sales. I admitted that I knew nothing about Gatewood, other than what I saw in the film, and Ruth said I should visit the Gatewood Collection at the Arizona Historical Society in Tucson. The next month I did, and was blown away. Ten years and two books later—good times for me. No regrets. Don’t know if I’ll ever return to Mr. Gatewood and Mr. Geronimo, but if I do, it will be time well spent.
So you’re proof that drama can inspire historians?
You bet! And I’m not alone. Two of my friends, historians Paul Andrew Hutton and Robert M. Utley, have been influenced by Flynn’s Custer.
Do Wynkoop and Gatewood share any similarities?
Two similarities stand out. Both dared to stand up to anyone they disagreed with when they thought they were right. Their stances cost them career advancement, and, when those they stood up to played major roles in writing the history of the Indian wars, they found themselves relegated to obscurity.
Most historians are sympathetic to General George Crook, but you note that Crook’s dealings with Gatewood weren’t so pleasant. How so?
Crook and Gatewood were constantly at odds with each other on how to deal with the Apaches. Crook, like Custer, Nelson Miles and others like them, fought to climb the military ladder. They knew how to play the game to their advantage. Gatewood excelled as a commander of Apache scouts to the extent the Indians not only respected him, but liked him. This made him the perfect choice to become the military commandant of the White Mountain Indian Reservation headquartered at Fort Apache, Arizona Territory. And it was while overseeing the reservation that Gatewood and Crook clashed over the arrest of a judge. When Judge F.M. Zuck defrauded White Mountain Apaches, Gatewood arrested him. Crook demanded Gatewood release the judge for political reasons. Gatewood refused, and the judge went to trial, only to see it thrown out on a technicality—Zuck should have been holding court in his own district. Zuck immediately had Gatewood arrested for felonious false arrest. When Crook turned his back on Gatewood, he thought he faced jail time. But, surprisingly, Gatewood’s case was also tossed out—the United States judicial system had no jurisdiction over what happened on an Indian reservation.
Gatewood and Crook’s relationship didn’t survive the trials. Then Crook messed up the end of the Apache wars in March 1886 at Canyon de los Embudos in Sonora, Mexico, when he threatened Geronimo. This caused the old warrior and Naiche, the last hereditary chief of the Chokonen, or Chiricahua, Apaches to get drunk and run for their lives one last time. Crook resigned. General Nelson Miles assumed command of the war against the Apaches—now some 38 men, women, and children. Miles, with perhaps as many as 5,000 troops, fought a losing battle. Oh, he would have eventually won, for that was a foregone conclusion, but the cost in money and negative publicity was staggering. Needing to end the war, Miles enlisted a very reluctant and sick Gatewood to find Geronimo and cohorts in Mexico and demand his surrender. There was only one problem, other than Gatewood’s ill health and hesitancy—he was known as a Crook man. This made him an outcast in the eyes of the officers who served under Miles. Gatewood, a first lieutenant in 1886, was about to pull off, in my opinion, the most extraordinary feat of the Indian wars. To do so, Gatewood had to deal with Miles’ officers, who wanted nothing more than to kill Geronimo, the prefect of Arispe, who also wanted to kill Geronimo, and then, after Geronimo and Naiche agreed to return to the United States and surrender, Gatewood dared to stand up to Miles’ officers who wanted to kill Geronimo. Crook absolutely refused to support Gatewood’s requests for assignments, and Miles did everything under his power to ensure that Gatewood’s name was removed from the Apaches’ final surrender. The two generals’ efforts guaranteed that Gatewood’s career had ended—he died a first lieutenant in 1896.
We’ve talked about acting and history, but you’ve also written fiction. Is there anything you don’t do?
Unfortunately yes—a lot. I need to join a marketing department. Also, I’d like to become a staff writer or editor for a magazine that I respect. (Eric Weider, are you reading this?)
Maybe I should say something else here. I’m good with a sword, and so is my girlfriend, Diane Moon. Stage combat is great fun. Much like dancing, it is by the numbers, and everyone involved knows exactly what the other parties are doing at all times. It’s great exercise. What I can’t do is get flipped or knocked flat on my back anymore. Time and surgeries have caught up with me. This means that Diane can’t flip me over her shoulder and then knock me out with a one-two punch (by the way, audiences love this, as an earlier play of mine, The Fencing Lesson, proved). Aw, for the good ol’ days.
What inspired your Flynn and de Havilland project?
Flynn is a great subject. Like Custer and Wynkoop, there is much about him that is true, untrue, and unknown or ignored.
There are a lot of lazy writers who write about what they read in secondary books without checking the primary sources. Sometimes this is OK, but more often than not it isn’t. These writers, at times, rewrite errors that are already in print, giving the lie additional credibility and making it that much harder to debunk. In Flynn’s case, as in Custer’s, some of these errors that are now generally accepted as fact even though they are totally untrue.
In Flynn’s case, his life changed drastically during the early 1940s by two events, WWII and his inability to serve in the U.S. armed forces due to his health problems and the farce of rape accusations that should never have gone to trial. He didn’t have the strength to survive becoming the butt of two jokes: “In like Flynn” (he hated this saying) and winning the war single-handedly in his films. The ridicule destroyed him, the impact driving him heavily into drink and drugs. Most of what has been printed about the drugs and alcoholism is true, but it doesn’t negate him being a good father or an artistic person who wanted to play decent roles or write books that were of value.
The American Indian Movement (AIM) labeled Custer a racist bent upon genocide because he was the superstar and represented the Indian wars. Ditto Flynn. Ever since his death, his name has been dragged through the gutter. Why? Again, like Custer, careful examination shows that he wasn’t the evil person he has been portrayed to be. Still, Flynn played a large role in his downfall, for the simple reason that he couldn’t deal with the negativity that his celebrity generated. He was a person who had everything and yet lost it all. This makes him a very interesting person to study. When you throw in the fact that he didn’t have a drop of racially prejudiced blood flowing through his veins, it makes him not only a man who is in stark contrast to the racist label that has been attached to his name, not only a man beyond his times, but also a man beyond our times. His acceptance of other humans was not something he worked at or was conscience of. It was just him.
Flynn and Olivia de Havilland were the perfect film couple at the perfect time. Their screen chemistry was real, and anyone watching their films today can see it. Their film relationship will survive for as long as we enjoy films. For them it was real, and like us, other influences prevented their love for each other being consummated. When I spoke to Olivia about her relationship with Flynn, I saw the love that she felt for him in the ’30s and ’40s. It was still alive in her in the 21st century. This was powerful, wonderful to see. Can I do justice to their lives with and without each other? I don’t know. I hope so. One thing I can guarantee, Errol & Olivia will be different.
Who could Flynn have played better, Wynkoop or Gatewood?
Wynkoop. Flynn could have played Gatewood, but Wynkoop was a kindred soul, a drinking buddy who also played life by his own rules—something Flynn would have understood immediately. Flynn was born to play certain fictional and nonfictional personalities. He would have been a perfect fit for Wynkoop.
Is another Louis Kraft Western play in the works?
I don’t know about a Western play, but I hope so. I’ve learned never to say never. I’m considering pitching a one-man show on Flynn.…If we can sell Flynn, it would be a hell of a lot of fun to play him.
To read more about Louis Kraft, visit www.louiskraftwriter.com.