Smoke Signals

Jan/Feb 2012



Staff Writer


Through my 36 years of teaching high school, I never taught history, but my classroom always reflected my personal interest in history. Firmly believing that good teaching should not be limited by a classroom’s single subject, I wrote my Historical Footnotes as a starting exercise for each day’s instruction. Personal interest can be contagious, and often the Footnotes sparked good, thoughtful discussion, which, of course, was the intention. 

Although I tried to be historically accurate, I do regret that I did not list the many sources from which the Footnotes came. That being said, they were never intended as scholarly research. If you catch an unforgivable error, please let me know.

Paul “Cougar Heart” Jacobson

NAF #015




January 6, 1798: Born today is one of the great figures of the American West, mountain man, Jedediah Strong Smith. He is considered one of the leading explorers among the mountain men, and his extensive travels include many firsts. Of these, probably his discovery and subsequent reporting of South Pass, a gentle crossing of the continental divide, rates among the most important. It was through South Pass that the immigrant wagon trains would eventually pass on the Oregon Trail. He also was the first to cross the desert both into and out of California. Arrested by the Spanish while at the San Gabriel Mission, Smith eventually led his men through California’s Central Valley to Oregon: another first. Twice his men were almost totally wiped out by hostile Indians. When his stock died of thirst while crossing the Nevada desert, he and his companions survived the heat of the day by burying themselves in the sand. Amid men who often were rough, rowdy, and illiterate, Jedediah was educated, silent, religious, and did not imbibe in tobacco or liquor. In 1823, while near the Cheyenne River and the Black Hills of today’s South Dakota, he was attacked and mauled by a grizzly bear. The men found him with his scalp torn off and hanging by his ear. Following Smith’s directions, fellow mountain man Jim Clyman sewed the scalp back in place with threads pulled from a horse’s tail. “I don’t know what to do about the ear, Jed,” Clyman quietly complained. “Just sew it back on as best you can,” replied Jed. Clyman did his best, but Smith never looked quite the same after that. 

January 8, 1815: The last battle of the War of 1812, The Battle of New Orleans, is fought this day in the early morning fog. Neither Andrew Jackson, the American general, nor the British commanders know it, but the war has actually been over since December. In this day and age news travels slowly.

We took a little bacon and we took a little beans, and we caught the bloody British at the town of New Orleans.

The British have between 11,000 and 14,000 troops fresh from fighting Napoleon mixed with West India Regiments and black troops from the Caribbean islands. Some of the British black units include escaped American slaves.

We looked down the river and seen the British come. There must have been a hundred of ‘em beating on the drum.

The American troops are a ragged mixture of 3500 to 5000 frontier militia, Baratarian pirates, Choctaw warriors, and free blacks.

We stood beside our cotton bales and didn’t say a thing.

When the fog and the smoke of battle clears, the British have suffered over 2,000 casualties including their commanding general.

We fired our muskets and the British kept a-comin’, there wasn’t as many as there was a while ago.

The Americans lost 71 men, most of whom had disobeyed “Old Hickory’s” orders.

Old Hickory said we could take ‘em by surprise if we didn’t fire our muskets until we looked ‘em in the eyes.

It is questionable, however, if the retreating British “ran through bushes where rabbits couldn’t go."

January 17, 1807: Before the Lewis and Clark expedition returned from their epic journey up the Missouri River, another expedition led by Zebulon Pike was dispatched to explore the Arkansas and Red Rivers along the somewhat unclear southern border of the Louisiana Purchase. Pike established a small fort near today’s Canon City, Colorado, and on this date, intending to locate the headwaters of the Red River, was working his way on foot up Grape Creek, which runs between the location of the fort (Canon City) and today’s Westcliffe, Colorado. Pike and the thirteen soldiers with him had left their horses at the fort and each man was carrying a pack of approximately 70 pounds. As night fell they found themselves in a location without wood or water, and so crossed Grape Creek in the dark to find a campsite with firewood. Each man became wet in the crossing and before they could stop and warm themselves, nine of them suffered frostbite. When Pike pushed on five days later, two men, Thomas Daugherty and John Sparks, had to be left behind with badly frostbitten feet. After crossing the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and working his way down the San Lewis Valley, Pike sent a rescue party back for Daugherty and Sparks. They still could not travel. To verify this inability, they pulled the toe bones out of their blackened feet as evidence, and asked the rescuing soldiers to deliver the bones back to Pike. Eventually they were rescued by Spanish soldiers from Santa Fe.

January 21, 1912: Dying on this date at age 47, is Kate Shelly, who at age 15 crawled across a long crumbling Iowa railroad bridge to save two crewmen trapped in rising floodwaters and warn an on-coming train of bridge washouts. Her courage made her a national celebrity, and she is remembered today in the “Plaza of Heroines” at Iowa State University. On the night of July 6, 1881 torrential rain flooded Honey Creek sending wood fences, lumber, trees and uprooted stumps pouring into the Des Moines River. Bridges along the Chicago and North Western Railway were threatened, and two engines were sent out in opposite directions from the town of Moingona to inspect the bridges: 55 bridges to the west and 35 to the east. As engine No. 11 slowly crept onto the Honey Creek bridge, the bridge collapsed sending the locomotive down into 25 feet of water. One crewman was drowned and two others were swept into some trees. Hearing the crash with its horrible hiss of releasing steam, Kate ran from her farmhouse to investigate. She saw the trapped men, realized their need for rescue, and also realized that the Atlantic Express passenger train soon due at Moingona needed to be warned. She started crawling across a massive railroad trestle spanning the Des Moines River. It was 696 feet long and constructed to discourage foot traffic. The bridge had no floor, ties placed further apart than normal, and it was studded with sharpened spikes. Kate, who could not swim, crawled through the dark just feet above the swollen river. Halfway across her lantern blew out. None the less, she crossed the bridge, ran into the Moingona depot, and initiated a rescue of the trapped men as well as a warning telegram, which was sent to sister stations down the line.


February 1, 1901: When did the American Wild West end? Often the approximate dates of the Wild West are given as from the California Gold Rush of 1848-49 to the turn of the century (1800/1900). By then settlement was virtually complete, the Indian wars were over, and there was both a formal organization and expectation of law enforcement. As an example, on this date Mr. and Mrs. Harry Place in company with James T. Ryan set sail from New York for Buenos Aires, Argentina. In reality these individuals are Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; the outlaw leaders of the “Wild Bunch.” They are fleeing ever-persistent Pinkerton detectives in search of what they believe to be safer ground than the disappearing Wild West. But good things die hard, and the Wild West will continue to sputter for yet a few more years. In April, 1903, there is a Wild West-style shootout at a Joss House on the corner of L Street and 22nd in Bakersfield, California. In August, 1905, a single bandit on the road north of Fresno, California, stops the Yosemite stage. The ten passengers are forced out of the coach and robbed. The driver, however, is spared. The bandit remarks, “I don’t want a working man’s money.” Then amazingly, a passenger asks if he can take a photograph. The outlaw responds, “Go ahead and get your camera. No one can recognize me in this get-up anyway. Hurry it up, though.” And so, the only known photograph of an actual in-progress stagecoach robbery is taken. Published several days later in the Fresno Morning Republican, the photograph clearly shows the coach, three of the victims, and the bandit wearing a battered felt hat and a dirty linen duster.

February 13, 1818: Passing into history this day at Locust Grove, Illinois, is one of early America's great frontier soldiers, George Rogers Clark. He is the older brother of William Clark, co-leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Sent by Virginia Governor, Patrick Henry, to attack British units in the Ohio River country during the American Revolution, George Rogers Clark became responsible for the naming of Kentucky as a county of Virginia; the founding of the City of Louisville; the defense of all the Kentucky frontier; the neutrality of many Indian tribes of the Illinois Territory; and the capture of the fort at Vincennes from Henry Hamilton, the hated "Hair Buyer" from Detroit. He has been credited by some historians for virtually doubling the size of the United States. Some eight years before his death, Clark was at his home above the Falls of the Ohio, when he collapsed next to the fireplace. His leg was severely burned and required amputation. As word spread, neighbors, friends, old soldiers, and even one-time enemy warriors gathered outside of the house. The warriors reportedly called him "Long Knife, our father who speaks with one heart and tongue." Just before the surgeon went to work, Clark asked if a group of drums and fifes might march around the house playing. As there was no anesthesia, he hoped the drums might cover the sound of any screams. Although the old soldier remained conscious throughout the amputation, he made not a sound, and legend has it that the Native Americans respectfully took charge of the severed limb.

February 22, 1732: Today is the birthday of the first president of the United States, George Washington. We actually do not have any record that specifically states Washington was born this day. There is no public record or family Bible documenting his birth. However, Tobias Lear, Washington’s secretary and close friend, lived at Mt. Vernon with George and Martha as he helped organize the general’s papers. On February 14, 1790, Tobias wrote that the President’s “birth day” was February 11th, Old Style. This notation refers to the old Julian Calendar. Washington was born some 20 years before the 1752 introduction of the Gregorian Calendar, which is the calendar we use today. The Gregorian Calendar was adopted to more accurately reflect the solar year, and when the Julian Calendar was adjusted to the Gregorian Calendar, February 11 became February 22.

February 24, 1836: On this date, the following letter was written by Lt. Colonel William Travis, commander of the doomed defenders of the Alamo. One historian has termed it “the saddest, most courageous letter that was never answered.”

TO THE PEOPLE OF TEXAS AND ALL AMERICANS IN THE WORLD – Fellow citizens - & compatriots – I am besieged by a thousand or more Mexicans under Santa Anna. – I have sustained a continual bombardment and cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man – the enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise the garrison are to be put to the sword if the fort is taken – I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, and our flag still waves proudly from the walls – I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid with all dispatch – The enemy is receiving reinforcement daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor and that of his country – VICTORY OR DEATH.



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