Although the present edition of Wahto-yah and the Taos Trail was published a few years ago, it was not widely reviewed at the time. As the book is a minor classic of great charm, which has never had anything like the currency or critical recognition it deserves, there seems some point in reviewing it even so late in the day. Fanciers of Western literature have always praised it, and in 1938 Ralph P. Bieber published an excellent scholarly edition of it in the Southwest Historical Series. But it has qualities of language and observation that should recommend it to a more general literary audience. To respond to its vitality of language and description it is no more necessary to be an addict of the frontier than one must be a cultural primitivist to respond to similar qualities in Melville’s Typee.
Wah-to-yah is above all else a book by a very young man. Lewis Garrard was seventeen when he lived through the experiences it recounts; he was twenty-one when it was finally published in 1850. A stepson of a justice of the United States Supreme Court, he set out in 1846, with parental permission, for an extended trip into the West. In what is now Kansas City he joined a caravan headed for Bent’s Fort in southeastern Colorado near the Spanish Peaks (the Indian name for which was Wah-to-yah). From there he traveled south to Taos in New Mexico, and returned East the following year.
While Wah-to-yah could not formally be described as an initiation book recounting the hero’s exposure to experience in the sense that Melville’s Redburn, for example, may be, it has many qualities of that genre, and Lewis Garrard in some respects recalls the image of the young Wellingborough. Like Redburn, he has an attractive tolerance for the peculiarities of others, and an appealing sympathy with their difficulties. And like Melville’s young hero, he is sometimes inclined to think a little sentimentally of the comforts and kindnesses of home. Even along the Santa Fe Trail he is able to speak in the accents of the well-brought-up boy of proper, decent sentiment. Coming across a lonely grave, he writes:
On the top of the rock, near the edge, was a deposit of earth, where the remains of some poor fellow had been placed. To die anywhere seems hard, but to heave the last breath among strangers, on the burning, desolate prairie, with no kind mother or sister to pay those soothing attentions which divest the bed of sickness of many of its pangs, is hard indeed.
He was in Taos not long after the murder of Charles Bent, the United States governor by appointment of the newly conquered territory. He attended the trial and the mass execution of the six Mexicans who had been convicted for Bent’s death. His description of the hangings, which comprises the whole of Chapter XVII, is an extraordinarily vivid and moving piece of reportage which comes to a climax in the following brief passage:
Bidding each other “adios,” with a hope of meeting in Heaven, at a word from the sheriff the mules were started, and the wagon drawn from under the tree. No fall was given, and their feet remained on the board till the ropes grew taut. The bodies swayed back and forth, and, coming in contact with each other, convulsive shudders shook their frames; the muscles, contracting, would relax, and again contract, and the bodies writhed most horribly. While thus swinging, the hands of two came together, which they held with a firm grasp till the muscles loosened in death.
But this in itself gives little indication of the sense of dramatic contrast and descriptive skill with which young Garrard succeeds in evoking the events of that wretched morning. The soldiers softening the stiff ropes with soap, the black gowned padres giving Holy Communion under the stares of the sentinels, the trembling prisoners marched to the gallows with halters around their necks, the obscene jocularity in the bar before and after the hangings—all of this is beautifully rendered.
While Lewis Garrard is a modest, self-effacing boy, the freshness of his personality and writing makes his presence pervasively felt in the book. Several times we get a vivid picture of the boy himself. When his buckskin pantaloons finally wore out at Fort Bent, it was necessary for him to get a new pair sewn:
While the pantaloons were being cut out by the enterprising John Smith and sewed by his squaw with awl and sinew, I wore a breechcloth à la mode Cheyenne, manufactured of a leg of my old pants. They were rather the worse for wear than when I sat with them in a daguerreotype room before leaving home, trying to look my sweetest for a fond relative. With breechcloth, blanket, painted face, and moccasins, I made a very respectable looking savage.
For a period Lewis lived in a Cheyenne village, making friends with the Indians. Once when a party of braves returned with a fresh collection of Pawnee scalps the village went into several days of celebration, marked by a ceremonial scalp dance. The immediacy and freshness with which Garrard recreates the color and rhythms of a barbaric ritual dance can be gauged by comparing his description with the much-praised account of the Corn Dance in D. H. Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico. Lawrence loses in the comparison, perhaps partly because he remains essentially a spectator. Lewis on the other hand, painting his face in Cheyenne style, joined in: “I had made the acquaintance of many young men and girls, and often I chasséd up to the scalps and joined in the chorus….”
Although a properly brought-up youth, Lewis knew that the “right” sentiments for a boy in Cincinnati on Sunday morning were not suitable for the same boy among the Indians. When the time came to leave the village, he parted sadly from his friends—especially from his host’s beautiful daughter, Red-Dress. Taking her hand, he thought of
the gay dances around the scalps in her company, with other graceful Houris, enveloped in the same blanket, and our commingled “hay-he-a-hay” (scalp chorus) rising above the other voices…I half wanted to stay. The poor shivering Indians, standing in the deep Snow, saw us off.
Garrard has been much praised for the accuracy with which he has recorded the dialect and speech rhythms of the Mountain Men. In his brief introduction, A. B. Guthrie, Jr., credits him and another writer, the English explorer George Frederick Ruxton, with giving us what knowledge we possess of these speech patterns:
But for the two, both of whom had ears and appetites for the lingo, we should have lost or thought altogether preposterous such habits of tongue as:
“Well, hos. I’ll dock off buffler, and then if thar’s any meat that ‘runs’ that can take the shine outen ‘dog,’ you can slide.”
“Hatch, old hos! Hyar’s the coon as would like to hear tell of the time you seed the old gentleman. You’s the one as savvy’s all ‘bout them diggin’s.”
The quotations can be translated:
“Well, friend, I’ll except buffalo, and then if there’s any meat afoot that surpasses dog, you’re crazy.”
“Hatch, old boy, I’d like to hear of the time you saw the devil. You understand all about his place.”
Although it appears that Garrard’s accuracy would have justified an explanatory note on dialect similar to the one with which Twain prefaces Huckleberry Finn, the real strength of the book lies in the effortless simplicity of the prose. The best known chapter in the book is the one in which the Mountain Man, Hatcher, relates his visit to Hell. It is in fact an account of a seizure of delirium tremens, and Garrard has managed to achieve through Hatcher’s voice a remarkable combination of qualities native to the frontier—its sadism, its love of the macabre, its grisly humor and jovial brutality, its verbal recklessness, its narrowly constricted but violent imaginative capacity, especially where the supernatural and metaphysical are concerned. There is invariably something morally sinister about frontier humor, and rarely has this quality been understood more effectively than by young Garrard.
Although Garrard’s framing vision of the West is undoubtedly best described as Romantic, his landscapes and figures never seem to be copied from Salvator Rosa, as sometimes happens with Parkman. Garrard’s West is a highly credible reality. The directness and honesty of his reporting carry the conviction that he was there, and this is not a common quality in books about the frontier by young men from the East. It might indeed be argued that the Far West is a fantasy imagined by Eastern writers, and basically this is the thesis of a very interesting book by Kent Ladd Steckmesser, The Western Hero in Legend and History.
Taking the apotheosis of Daniel Boone in early biographical and quasihistorical writing as an examplar of the process, this book presents four carefully documented studies of the most popular heroes of the West—Kit Carson, Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, and George Armstrong Custer. Each of the four studies is divided into four chapters, the first of which presents the historically ascertainable facts about its hero, while the following three give an account of the accretions of tradition, legend, and pure mythicizing which separate the popularly conceived figure from the historical reality. There is frequently only a nugatory connection between the two images, and there may be even a contradictory relationship.
In some ways Mr. Steckmesser’s volume recalls Lord Raglan’s The Hero. Lord Raglan argued that such traditional heroes as Robin Hood, Arthur, Hengist and Horsa, and so on, have no valid historicity, but are figures remembered out of a forgotten context of ritual enactment. In time they came to be accepted as real people, and a part of the race’s history. Lord Raglan supported his view by a detailed and convincing attack on the historicity of tradition.
There is of course no doubt that the men who are Mr. Steckmesser’s subject are historical figures, but the image of them that has come down has been created to an astonishing degree, as the author shows in impressive detail, from verbal tradition, self-interested reporting, floating rumors, ambiguous gossip, and a great deal of pure invention on the part of Eastern journalists. For a great deal that is recounted of their lives there is little or nothing in the way of trustworthy record. From such an ill assortment of sources, fabrications and falsifications, a generic image of the Western hero has been created. This hero is compounded of virtues specially adapted for civilizing the frontier. If he is in fact a criminal, his very crimes are interpreted as acts promoting law and order. An outlaw like Billy the Kid is transformed into Robin Hood.
Even presidents subscribe to this image of the Western hero. Mr. Steckmesser quotes a speech Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered in Washington, D.C., in 1953:
I was raised in a little town of which many of you may never have heard. But out in the west it is a famous place. It is called Abilene, Kansas. We had as our Marshal a man named Wild Bill Hickok. Now that town had a code and I was raised as a boy to prize that code. It was: Meet anyone face to face with whom you disagree. You could not sneak up on him from behind, or do any damage to him, without suffering the penalty of an enraged citizenry.
This figure of the noble Marshal seems to have existed only in Eisenhower’s dream, and the dreams of other purificators of the frontier. Wild Bill killed his first man (presumably) on July 12, 1861. His victim was unarmed, and Hickok, so far from meeting him “face to face,” was hiding behind a window curtain in a sheltering house when he fired on his unsuspecting target. His victim was no outlaw, but a man who had come to collect a debt owed him by the freighting company for which Hickok was working. Thus characteristically began the career of the great Civilizer who brought morality to Abilene and a dream of integrity to Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Of the four Western heroes treated here, the most complex and interesting legend belongs to Billy the Kid. In his case the legend had a dual development. Before it finally came to rest in the image of a Western Robin Hood, Billy’s image went through a Satanic phase in which he was even given two long protruding canine teeth. Despite this vampirish feature, saintly attributes gathered around the popular image of the Kid, champion of the poor and the oppressed, while the real William Bonney rapidly faded from history. In one of its most extreme statements the legend gives us an elegant Kid wearing “drawers of fine scarlet broadcloth, a blue dragoon’s jacket, black buckskin pants decorated with silver bells, and a beaver hat covered with gold and jewels.”
In playing the barebones of history off against the extravagant mask of legend, Mr. Steckmesser has done more than write a book about several colorful Western characters. He has told us something about how the myth-making instinct operates, even in a near-contemporary context, and how in this respect the American frontier has certain affinities with European antiquity. Lord Raglan has insisted that the traditional hero is a survival from ancient ritual practices. It seems possible that the deeply rooted instinct in so many Americans to exonerate and canonize these often overtly criminal killers of the frontier by transposing them from history to legend or myth which is accepted as history, may in itself constitute a kind of ritual of purification. The atrocities and crimes of the frontier by which the Indians were exterminated and the West opened for Progress, must somehow be palliated and the national conscience salved. Perhaps the easiest way to achieve this is to canonize a Heaven full of saintly American Indian-killers and outlaws, and rewrite the history of Western crime in terms of hagiography.