Researching the Wild West – some examples on film


Following the publication of my latest Western novel, “Wood, Iron, and Blood“, I’ve had a few questions from readers about how I’m able to find so much historical material in my research.  The simple answer is, there’s a lot of it out there.  If you find a few sources and follow them, they lead you to others, until before you know it you’ve got far more information than you can actually use.

I thought I’d illustrate the depth of material available through three video clips.  All are interesting and informative, and I recommend you take the time to watch them at your leisure.  Remember, nothing you see or hear below is faked or “Hollywood-ized”:  it’s as it really was, way back then.

They built them tough in those days!



  1. That they did. And there are lots of documents available from a variety of sources including monographs, period newspapers, and other things.

  2. There's a richness of sources and information out there – everything from old memoirs and letters, to reenactors demonstrating stuff — like using a scythe to cut hay or grain by hand. I spent a day at a museum in North San Diego County in the weaver's barn, having various looms and techniques demonstrated to me. A couple of days, talking to reenactors, and of course, there are miles, and miles and miles of books … practically all of which I had on my shelves when I did my first Western adventure.

  3. I remember doing a paper on the Pony Express in high school, and was surprised to find out it only ran for a year or so. 1860-61 IIRC.

  4. One of my great-great-grandfathers was a Captain with the US Army, and he was sent to a fort about 20 miles south of what were the beginnings of Dodge City, Kansas, in 1847, where he was Adjutant to the commander of the fort. He wrote a diary about the winter of 1847-1848, when the officers and men and a group of Pawnee Indians were snowed in at the fort. The roads, such as they were at the time, were impassable due to the heavy accumulation of snow, and they later turned to mud and were still impassable. His comment about that winter was that it was the most boring time in his life – there was nothing to do – for three months. He ended up moving to Liberty, Missouri, where he took up the practice of law, and in 1855, formed a pro-slavery militia. Some of the members at that time included Frank James, Jesse's older brother (Jesse joined in 1861), Cole Younger and his brother, and William Quantrill, amongst others. They raided the Liberty Arsenal twice, once in 1855, once in 1861, five days before Fort Sumter. And they engaged in the bloody fighting along the Kansas Territory-Missouri border. In 1861, he was commissioned as a Colonel in the Confederate States Army. Other ancestors of mine came to Kansas in the 1870s, lived in a sod house, and had quite an adventurous lifestyle, women and children who were able to shoot rifles did so to run off attacking Indians. One of them wrote an autobiographical story of those times in 1920, which I have. I suppose I should scan it and put it out on the Net, the typescript runs to about 150 pages. So the people then had to be pretty tough, men, women, and children…

  5. I have been watching the Paramount+ series 1993 with some interest.
    Story is about a wagon train in, obviously, 1883 starting out from Texas and heading to Oregon. Premium cable so a bit more graphic and violent than they let them get away with on network TV, but they do seem to have done their due diligence and get most stuff period correct.
    Only two gripes so far with five episodes in are early on when the leading character was fighting off a bandit attack it appeared that he fired three shots from a double barreled shotgun, though I suppose it was conceivable that he reloaded off camera.
    And setting it in 1883, I have to wonder why take four months, countless dangers and hardships, great risks and several deaths when the transcontinental railroad finished linking up back in 1869. Back when finished a first class ticket would cost $135 and take nine days from Omaha to San Francisco. Steerage class half that, but freight charges for your belongings would likely be a significant expense.

  6. @streamfortyseven *Please* scan it and somehow get it into the sights of all those young'uns who have time for political correctness. They can do a diversity study on it or something.

    The rest of us will have a rollicking good read.

  7. Curious that the prequel series to Yellowstone is set in the year that it is … There were a number of long-trail cattle drives from Texas to Montana and the northern ranges, mostly to establish and stock new ranches there. Many such ranches involved foreign and eastern investors who lost their shirts when a horrific bad winter cleared the ranges of cattle. The western cattle-raising market had gone boom and bust two years before.
    An extended wagon-train journey of the sort that seems to be described in 1883 was a bit more typical thirty and forty years previously, and from east to west, rather than from south to north. By then, the railways had pretty much covered the west, and even if you had to ship your household goods by freight, I do wonder if the purchase of wagons, draft animals and sufficient supplies to make an overland journey lasting months wouldn't mount up to more.
    I'll have to check out the series, though – but it sounds more like one of those entertainment series where all of the trans-Mississippi west and the last half of the 19th century are all just one big indistinct blur, with no differentiation over decades and sub-regions.

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