One of the most famous quotations from L. P. Hartley’s novel “The Go-Between” is this:
I’ve been forcibly reminded of that while reading “A Builder of the West: The life of General William Jackson Palmer” by John S. Fisher, published in 1939.
General Palmer (brief biography here) was a Civil War officer, later awarded the Medal of Honor for his battlefield courage. He was the founder and first President of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, which has already featured in one of my Ames Archives novels, “Rocky Mountain Retribution“. He and his railroad will take center stage in at least one future Ames novel, too.
What’s surprised me in reading this biography is the nonchalant attitude of General Palmer and almost everyone else in the Old West towards the casual slaughter of wildlife for no good reason except entertainment. His letters repeatedly describe shooting from train windows at the vast herds of animals through which they passed. For example:
“…they rode back to the railhead of the Kansas Pacific, and on by train to Sheridan, blazing away with rifle and pistol from the car windows at the great herds of buffalo. He sits and writes to Queen Mellen (his future bride), then breaks off to fire at ‘a portly and aged couple, both “bearded like the pard”, who came up and defied us within fifty yards’.”
And a few weeks later:
“We are out among the buffalo and antelope again, and passengers are getting out their guns to shoot at them from the car windows.”
To our modern sensibilities, this is nothing short of monstrous cruelty to animals, killing purely for “sport”, not even for food – the train didn’t stop to collect meat from their kills. However, in the 1860’s and 1870’s, it was so commonplace that it attracted little attention. Indeed, in some circles it was regarded as praiseworthy, because every dead buffalo meant one less animal on which the Indian tribes could subsist. By wiping out the buffalo, the destruction of the traditional Indian way of life – and their ability to prey on white settlers – was eventually assured.
I enjoy doing research like this. Not only does it make my historical novels more accurate, it teaches me things of which I wasn’t aware. It’s always good to stretch one’s mind.
If you’re interested in doing likewise, there are a large number of online resources where you can look for older reference works, long out of print, but containing information that simply isn’t available online. Two useful lists of available resources are here and here. I tend to use four in particular; Amazon.com, of course, and then (in alphabetical order) Abebooks, Alibris and Bookfinder. When those don’t find what I want, I may expand my search to other Web sites, or I may just be patient and wait – it depends how badly I want the book. I also try to narrow down the field of what I’m looking for. If there are, say, twenty or so books covering the area in which I’m interested, I try to shortlist the five most useful volumes, based on what other readers and researchers have said about them; then I search for that shorter list in particular. It cuts out a lot of deadwood.
It’s also worth being patient in your search. Some old books, such as Fisher’s volume cited above, can be very expensive; it’s not unusual to find it advertised at prices well into three figures. However, by keeping a watchful eye out, one can sometimes find a vendor (perhaps a private seller, or a thrift shop that doesn’t realize what they’ve got) asking a much lower price, particularly if it’s readable, but otherwise not in very good condition. (Readability is what I’m after, of course, rather than collectibility.) In this case, I waited for over two years, doing a search every month or two to monitor availability, until I found a very nice clean copy on sale for under $40. Needless to say, I grabbed it at once!
One of the difficulties, of course, is that one’s collection keeps growing. Miss D. and I culled about two-thirds of my library before we moved to Texas in early 2016, cutting back to “only” seven large (and very full) bookcases. I currently have enough books to fill an eighth, if I allowed myself to buy it! In sheer self-defense, I’ve started buying e-book editions of many of my old favorites if they’re available, and setting aside the paper editions to sell or donate. So far, that’s kept my library within manageable proportions. Whether it’ll stay that way . . . who knows?