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California Dreaming With Lee A. Silva

Leesburg, Virginia, is home to Wild West, so dealing with Old West topics from here is a matter not only of going back in time but also of making repeated mental transcontinental journeys. Southern California was home to longtime Wild West special contributor and even more special friend Lee A. Silva. For more than a decade we spoke twice a week by telephone (mostly landlines). And each time he related legendary and mostly true tales, I was instantly transported to Gold Rush California, 1880s Tombstone, Arizona Territory, and other frontier locations where men, and sometimes women, carried Colts, Winchesters, Sharps, derringers and bowie knives. He didn’t always hark back to the Golden State, but those calls always inspired California dreaming at its best.

From June 2001 to December 2014 Silva wrote most of this magazine’s well-researched Guns of the West columns as well as such features as “Did Tom McLaury Have a Gun?” “Virgil Earp: In a Brother’s Shadow,” “The Mysterious Morgan Earp” and, with wife Sue Silva (who died of cancer in June 2008), “The Killing of Dora Hand.” The latter two articles won Wild West History Association awards in successive years. All those features, of course, had something to do with Lee’s main man, Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp.

In 2002 Silva published the first volume (The Cowtown Years) of his sprawling Wyatt Earp: A Biography of the Legend. He followed that up in 2010 with Vol. II, Part 1: Tombstone Before the Earps. Immediately there arose a cry in certain circles for Vol. II, Part 2: Tombstone: The Legend-Making Years, for the obvious reason that Wyatt and his brothers were responsible for more than their share of those legends. When Silva died on August 27 (see Roundup in the December 2014 issue), he was putting the finishing touches on the book. In due time friends of Lee plan to publish it in memoriam to a man who generously shared his knowledge of the Earp world with other writers and historians and certainly with this editor. He had also been planning Vol. III: The Forgotten Years and Vol. IV: The Last Years and the Legend. He just didn’t have enough of his own last years.

Silva, who was born on leap day in 1936, fell two years short of matching Wyatt’s 80 years. Like Earp, who died in Los Angeles in 1929, Silva had a lifetime of adventure (although Wyatt, of course, never sang in Las Vegas “saloons” or made an acting appearance on the old TV Western Rawhide)—and, yes, tragedy; Lee’s father and son were gunned down 27 years apart. (Read more about Lee’s life in Vol. I: The Cowtown Years, in his semiautobiographical novel The Mexican Operation and online here.

I may have been the last person to talk to Lee. He ended our final phone call as he ended all our calls—not with “goodbye,” but with a chuckle and the advice, “Go to a wine tasting.” (I resisted the urge to put that in our “Famous Last Words” Roundup item.) Wine, Californian or otherwise, made Lee happy, in between his Earp research and writing, while I am half French and surrounded by Virginia wineries yet drink wine maybe once a year. So it was our little joke, but he shared corny jokes as much as his historical tidbits and love of life with so many people.

In this issue our Westerners photograph, courtesy of Lee, shows five members of the San Bernardino Society for California Pioneers. You’ll also find stories about John Butterfield, whose Overland Mail Co. route ran from St. Louis to San Francisco; sharpshooter Lillian Smith, known as the “California Girl” (whose older rival, Annie Oakley, graces our cover); and pioneer John Sutter, who realized his California dreams until the Gold Rush, which meant opportunity for so many but brought him to ruin. My own California dreaming has taken a major hit, because Silva was pure gold. But don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll be able to edit the magazine just fine—right after I get back from the wine tasting.