Smoke Signals

Jul/Aug 2012





Staff Writer





July 2, 1863: Today marks the second day of the greatest battle ever fought on American soil, the Battle of Gettysburg. It will culminate tomorrow with Pickett’s Charge. Figuring into this second day of battle is Union Major General Daniel Sickles, whose military career was colored more by political favor than battlefield leadership. In fact, as a friend of the hard-drinking General Joseph Hooker, Sickles gained a rather notorious reputation. This was nothing new. In 1859 Sickles shot to death Philip Barton Key, the son of the author of the Star Spangled Banner, Francis Scott Key. Sickles had discovered Philip Key was having an affair with his young wife and killed him in Lafayette Park across from the White House. He was acquitted of murder charges by the first use in American legal history of an insanity defense. On this second day of Gettysburg , Sickle was ordered to position his III Corps at the southern end of Cemetery Ridge. However, he was unhappy with this position, and without permission moved his corps forwards almost a mile. This spread the Union line too thin, and before the Union commanding general, George Meade, could correct Sickles’ insubordination, a Confederate attack by General Longstreet virtually destroyed III Corps. Sickles, however, avoided any formal blame for the mistake – although unintentionally – by being hit in the right leg by a 12-pound cannon ball. In a display of possibly belated bravado, he attempted to maintain the moral of his men by calmly puffing on a cigar and waving his hat while he was carried from the field. Sickles ordered his amputated leg preserved, and he presented the shattered bones to the Army Medical Museum . Reportedly, during the years following the war, he would visit his bones on the anniversary of the amputation. It should also be noted that apparently Sickles’ political clout continued, for 34 years after Gettysburg he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Note: General Sickles’ leg bones, or what’s left of them, can still be seen today at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring, Maryland.

July 7, 1879: Passing away today is American artist George Caleb Bingham. Although at his death his paintings were not well-known, they were subsequently “rediscovered” in the 1930’s, which resulted in the raising of his status to “one of the greatest American painters of the 19th century.” He exemplifies the “Luminist” style, in that his landscapes are tranquil scenes with calm, reflective water, and hazy skies. Many of his paintings depict frontier life along the Missouri River and are therefore often familiar to American history buffs. Two of his most famous paintings, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri; 1845, and Trappers’ Return; 1851, were discussed in Volume 47, Number 3 of the Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly. Both of these paintings, which are very similar to each other, depict two trappers or traders quietly paddling a dugout canoe on calm water. In the front of the canoe is a small animal; clearly a cat in the 1851 painting, but a more difficult to determine animal in the earlier painting. Many have thought it to be a bear cub, but it could also easily be a cat or a small dog. The M.F.T. Quarterly article adds credence to it being a cat, a question that Bingham himself may have intentionally cleared up in the second painting. According to the article, cats were a welcome and helpful addition to the early Missouri River frontier. Mice naturally lived in the American west, but rats – the Norway or brown rat – entered the West probably as stowaways on early craft plying the river. They became a terrible problem; one of the answers to which, of course, was cats. In 1812, when Manuel Lisa’s party was working its way up the Missouri River, they accidently left a cat at one of their overnight camps. The following quote from Lisa’s clerk discusses her recovery:

Mr. Manuel sent a Men for the Cat, he returned in the Evening with the Cat to our great satisfaction this Remark may seem ridiculous, but an Animal of this kind, is more valuable in this Country than a fine Horse. Mice are in great Abundance and the Company have lost for want of Cats, several Thousand Dollars in Merchandize, which were destroyed at the Bigbellies station (Lisa’a “Fort Mandanne” among the Hidatsas), there has not a night passed since our departure from Bellefontaine where I got that Cat, that she has not caught from 4 to 10 Mice and brought them to her Kittens.

The article further states that artist George Catlin wrote about the destructive spread of rats from river keelboats. They infested forts and Indian villages to such a degree that support posts for Mandan earthlodges and palisade logs at Fort Clark were undermined to the point of collapse by their burrows. Prince Maximilian stated that at Fort Clark during 1833 and 1834 rats ate “five bushels of the fort’s corn supply every day.”

July 21, 1865: For many a TV season between September 1955 and September 1975, the western series Gunsmoke started with two protagonists walking toward each other down a dusty street. Eventually they stop, draw their six-guns, and shoot. Although there is little evidence that such shootouts occurred in the real Wild West, it did happen at least once. In all likelihood that incident provided Hollywood with the idea. Historically it was that incident, which happened on this date in Springfield , Missouri that gave birth to the real-life reputation of one of the West’s greatest Shootists, Wild Bill Hickok. Bill’s victim that day was Dave Tutt, and there was little love lost between the two men. In the recent Civil War, Bill had fought for the North, while Tutt had fought for the South. The two men had exchanged hot words over cards, and were reportedly interested in the same woman. Somehow – probably by theft - Tutt managed to obtain Hickok’s pocket watch during a poker game. He then bragged that he was going to show it off by wearing it in the town square. Entering the square himself at the announced time, Bill warned Tutt not to try it. Tutt ignored the warning, and boldly walked across the square toward Hickok. When they were about 50 yards apart, Tutt went for his gun. He missed, which was not any great surprise at fifty yards with a percussion pistol, but Hickok did not miss. Tutt dropped with a bullet in his heart.

July 27, 1798: The modern warships of today are equipped with evaporators to manufacturer fresh water for extended voyages. In the “old days” this was not the case. The USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) for example, was served by a crew of 475 officers and men for which she carried 48,600 gallons of fresh water. This was sufficient for six months at sea. But, besides the fresh water, some of the other supplies Constitution carried might come as a surprise. On this date, she sailed from Boston carrying her full complement of men on a mission to “destroy and harass English shipping.” That she carried those 48,600 gallons of water, 7,400 cannon shot, and 11,600 pounds of black powder should not come as any surprise. But, what of the 79, 400 gallons of rum she also carried? In Jamaica on November 6 she took on 826 pounds of flour and 68,300 gallons of rum. Arriving in the Azores on November 12, she loaded on 550 pounds of beef and 64,300 gallons of wine. When she arrived in English waters, she defeated five British men-of-war and captured, then scuttled, 12 English merchant ships. From each she salvaged only the rum supplies. As by January these actions had exhausted her supplies of powder and shot, one wonders why she didn’t salvage some of that. Anyway, while thus unarmed, she carried out a night raid up the Firth of Clyde where her landing party captured a distillery and transferred aboard some 40,000 gallons of Scotch whiskey. On February 20, 1799 USS Constitution sailed back into Boston harbor. On board there were no cannon shot, no black powder, no rum, no wine, no whiskey, but some 38,600 gallons of not-so-fresh water.


August 1, 1953: Opening in theaters on this date, was Paramount Pictures crowning western success, Shane, staring Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflen, Jack Palance, Brandon De Wilde and Ben Johnson. The names involved in the production are virtually a “who’s who” of the Hollywood times: produced and directed by George Stevens, screenplay by A.B. Guthrie, music by Victor Young, and costumes by Edith Head. The beautiful cinematography of the Jackson Hole area of Wyoming won an Oscar, and the film netted five other Oscar nominations plus various other awards. Jack Palance and Brandon De Wilde were nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Yet interestingly, Alan Ladd, for whom the film proved to be his greatest role, was not nominated. The story set a timeless American Western precedent for good versus evil, with the now familiar psychological twist of a gunfighter who wants to quit but can’t due to uncontrolled circumstances. Scenes in the film are classic: the working together to uproot a stubborn stump, the cold-blooded murder of Torrey in the town’s muddy street, his lonely funeral on the hill, the fight over who will go to avenge Torrey, and the final shoot-out. The film was the most successful western of the 1950’s, and as imitation is the most perfect form of flattery, Clint Eastwood paid Shane the ultimate compliment by paralleling the storyline in his 1985 film, Pale Rider. Probably no other role or no other actor personified the character of the evil hired-gun better than Shane’s Wilson ,” played by Jack Palance. In one of the film’s wonderful subtleties, every time Wilson (Palance) entered the bar, the sleeping dog got up and left. How bad can that guy be?

August 10, 1846: Today, America ’s wonderful national museum, the Smithsonian Institution, houses some 19 museums and galleries, nine research facilities, and a national zoo. Yearly millions of visitors view exhibits of one-of-a-kind artifacts such as the original Star-Spangled Banner and George Washington’s uniform to marvels of science and history like the Wright Brother’s Flyer and Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. In fact, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum holds the record of being the most visited museum in the entire world. So, where did the Smithsonian get its start? On this date, President James K. Polk signed into law the Smithsonian Institution Act, which turned a most unusual gift into one of the world’s great treasure-houses of knowledge and human advancement. When James Smithson, an English scientist and fellow of the Royal Society of London, died in 1829 his will contained the following direction; that should his only living nephew die childless, his entire estate would be given to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Six years later his nephew did die childless, and in 1836 Smithson’s estate, which totaled more than $500,000 was transferred to the United States . After considering several worthy alternatives, Congress agreed the gift would initiate the creation of a museum, a library, and an on-going program of research and collection in the sciences, art, and history. The odd thing about it all was that James Smithson had never set foot on American soil. He is here now, however, for his tomb is also housed in the Smithsonian Institution.

August 15, 1961: At the end of World War II Europe was divided between those countries that were essentially free and those under the influence of the Soviet Union . Although the term was not invented by him, during a speech in 1946 at Westminster College in Fulton , Missouri , Sir Winston Churchill referred to this line of European division as The Iron Curtain. He was correct in that the Iron Curtain did take the actual physical form of border defenses. Some of these areas were the most heavily militarized areas in the world, and in rural Germany “East” and “West” were divided by double rows of steel mesh fences. Although the city of Berlin was totally within the Soviet dominated zone, it too was divided into East and West. In 1948 the Soviets attempted to force the abandonment of West Berlin by blocking off the land supply routes; an attempt that was foiled by the Berlin Air Lift. Berlin posed a special problem, for it provided one of the few gateways for the dissatisfied to flee Soviet oppression. Some 2.5 million East Germans fled to West Berlin between 1949 and 1961. To stop this exodus, through the night of August 12–13, 1961, East German soldiers strung 30 miles of barbed wire separating East from West Berlin . Then, on this date, construction of the Berlin Wall began as concrete replaced barbed wire. Over time the Berlin Wall grew to a system of walls 15 feet high, topped with barbed wire, and studded with machine gun towers. The Communist authorities stated that the wall was necessary to protect their citizens from the decadent influence of capitalism. But, as the desire to be free burns eternally in the heart of man, escapes did not totally stop. They did, however, become profoundly more difficult and 191 people died in their attempt. Happily today the Berlin Wall no longer exists.

August 29, 1911: One of the last pages in the sad story of relations between Euro-Americans and Native Americans is turned today when “Ishi,” the so-called last surviving Stone Age Indian, is discovered near Oroville , California . By this date, most Native Americans had been to some degree assimilated (willingly and/or unwillingly) into Anglo or “modern” society. Ishi was an exception, and for his own protection was taken into custody by a local sheriff. Despite the date, he was quite obviously not out of danger. Thomas Waterman, a Berkeley University anthropologist, met with Ishi, and by trying words in several Northern California Native American dialects, determined Ishi was a Yahi Indian – the Yahi being an isolated branch of the Yana tribe. (A later study of Ishi’s arrowheads suggested he may have only been half Yahi.) In 1840 there were reportedly some 400 members of the Yahi tribe, but the tribe was decimated by a series of massacres during the 1860’s and early 1870’s. The survivors fled into hiding, and slowly the remaining members succumbed to disease, accident and murder to eventually leave approximately 50-year old Ishi alone and starving near Oroville. Ishi was taken to Berkeley , and as a more-or-less living exhibit shared his tribal customs and his all-but-extinct wilderness skills. Although he apparently adjusted to his life in the White world, it was short, for he died from tuberculosis on March 25, 1916. His estimated age was 56. Many books and several films were generated from his life: one being the 1992 Hollywood film The Last of His Tribe staring Graham Greene. If there is a final footnote to this story it may be that Ishi was not really the man’s name. The word “Ishi” actually means “man” in Yahi dialect, and was thus given him as a name. Since it was taboo in Yahi society to say one’s own name, and since there were no other living members of the tribe to say his name, his real name was forever lost with his death.

Paul “Cougar Heart” Jacobson

NAF #015



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