Wednesday, November 30, 2016


By Ashley Kath-Bilsky

The truth is…we all die.

How’s that for an opening line?

Well, today I am going to talk about death from a historical perspective; in particular, how people dealt with death in the past. What customs or expectations were not only observed but "required" of people by society?

Throughout history, people have dealt with grief in many different ways. Often in historical novels, we get a glimpse or sketchy reference as to how people processed death through Mourning practices. So, to satisfy my writer's curiosity, I wanted more detailed information. From wearing black to remembering a loved one through art work, today's post is about how people in the 19th century accepted death and found strength to move on.

The sad fact is that during the 19th century, the sudden loss of a loved one was the norm rather than the rarity of dying old in your bed. Infant mortality was so high that many people would not even name their baby until the child was 1-2 years of age. Many women died during childbirth. Illnesses that are treatable today would claim the life of young and old. Influenza, pneumonia, consumption (TB), dysentery from tainted water, and even an infection caused by a cut could mean death.

Despite religious beliefs which brought words of comfort and the promise of a Heavenly reunion one day with their departed loved ones, there were society expectations and many superstitions associated with death that prevailed in the 19th century. And whether we know it or not, some of the mourning customs associated with superstitions are still followed today.

Customs associated with Mourning:

1) Immediately after someone died, the ritual of covering mirrors is implemented. ALL the mirrors, or any reflective glass surface, in the house were covered. Why? Based on superstition, the deceased soul might see their reflection in the mirror and become trapped which would then make them become a ghost haunting the earth.

2) If there is a clock, the motion of the clock is stopped; this gives the family the exact time of death. In many instances where the death occurred at home without a physician present, the time of death was necessary for documentation. Makes sense, right?

However, one superstition about this practice was that if you do not stop the clock, the soul of the deceased will linger and become a ghost or trapped spirit.

Another superstition attached to this custom is that if one did not stop the clock, the family of the house would have bad luck.

Whatever the reason for stopping the clock, it would not be restarted until the funeral and burial had concluded.

3) Often the viewing (and sometimes the funeral itself) was held in the home before being taken to the cemetery for burial. In rural communities, families often had burial plots on their property.

4) Whether the funeral took place in the home or not, the home was also prepared in accordance with customs.

The exterior of the home must indicate to neighbors and the public at large that the household was in mourning. Black crepe wreaths with black ribbons were placed on the front door, or adorned the door knob. If an infant had died, the color of the crepe and ribbons was white.

5) Inside the home, especially if the wake or funeral took place there, customs were also followed. The casket of the deceased was often placed in the parlor.

My mother once told me that when her beloved grandfather died, his casket was placed in her childhood home before being transported to the church and cemetery for burial. She remembered vividly, despite her young age, that when she came down on the morning of the funeral, the house was unusually quiet. She was then sent to her aunt’s house (two doors down) to join her little cousins. However, she noted a casket was now in the parlor and that black crepe had been placed on the mantle, windows, and doors. Paintings (art work) were also covered with black crepe.

6) When removing the deceased loved one’s body from the house, it must be carried out feet first. The superstition associated with this practice was that if the deceased was carried out head first, he/she might look back and beckon someone living to join them.

7) Perhaps the most stringent custom with regard to Mourning was that of clothing. Somber mourning attire dates back to the 1600s.

During the early to mid-1800s, mourning the death of a loved one had become associated with the observance of strict guidelines and even art forms.

Books were published on the subject. When her beloved Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria went into a very strict and lengthy Deep Mourning, and essentially inspired what is considered the Victorian period of mourning that her subjects and people in the United States also adopted.

8) It should be noted that the War Between The States in America had also begun at this time, and it seemed death surrounded the populace on both sides of the Civil War. Rare was the family spared the death of a loved one – be it father, husband, brother, son, cousin, etc. In the state of Alabama alone, there were 80,000 widows mourning the death of a loved one.

9) Formal black mourning clothes were ONLY worn by the immediate family. This attire included undergarments as well as accessories such as gloves, hats, handkerchiefs, jewelry, and even a ladies’ parasol. [Pictured: 1865 photo showing ruins of Richmond, Virginia, with women in Full Mourning attire on the lower right side. Courtesy: US National Archives]

Non-immediate family members (men, women, and children) observed mourning by wearing a black arm band for the required amount of time, or a black cockade (badge) pinned to their clothing.

10) In addition to the formal black clothing, women had to wear a veil in public. Ostensibly, the veil provided a protective barrier whereby the grief-stricken face, swollen eyes, or pale countenance of the bereaved lady could remain private.

However, it was also believed that the spirits of the deceased would linger around a loved one. Thus, if someone were to look upon the face of the lady in mourning, the spirit of the deceased might attach itself to the innocent bystander. Therefore, the black veil pinned to a widow’s bonnet was also a means to protect anyone else from this superstition being true.

11) Since mourning clothes were timely to make, and death could happen so suddenly, mourning clothes were readily available ‘off-the-rack’ for purchase. In fact, mourning clothing was the first ‘off-the-rack’ clothing for purchase.

One must remember that most people made their own clothing at this time. Those who were more affluent and could afford to have clothing made by a professional dressmaker, would also have mourning attire made and ready in their wardrobe, if necessary.

12) For many people, buying mourning clothes ‘off-the-rack’ was not affordable. As such, women would take clothing they already had and put them in a large cast iron pot with black dye. This laborious task had to be performed outside since the odors of the dye were quite strong and taint the air within the home. Another option for those who could not afford ‘off-the-rack’ mourning clothing, but did not want to dye the clothing themselves, would bring their clothing to a merchant to do the necessary deed.

13) A rather macabre custom during the 19th century were coffin bells.

The fear of being proclaimed dead when one was actually alive proved such an alarming concern that even George Washington asked his manservant to sit with him for three days to make sure he was dead before proceeding with the funeral.

Almost 100 years later, Mary Todd Lincoln had the same fear and left hand-written instructions regarding her funeral, which included the following statement. “I desire that my body shall remain for two days with the lid not screwed down.” So, how exactly did this bell method work? A bell was attached to the headstone. A chain then went directly from the bell down into the coffin and attached on a ring placed on the deceased’s finger. (See attached illustration.)

14) There are three different stages of mourning, especially for women. The stages include: Deep Mourning, Second Mourning, and Half Mourning.

Deep Mourning immediately followed the death of a husband/wife, parent, or child. Clothing must be solid black, including one’s jewelry. As stated above, ladies must wear bonnets covered with black crepe with a long, black veil attached. Hats were never worn. During this period, a lady in Deep Mourning would not speak to anyone outside her family. Neither would she attend any party or gathering, including weddings. Deep Mourning must last a minimum of one year plus a day. Some women, like Queen Victoria, remained in Deep Mourning for the remainder of their lives.

Second Mourning began immediately following Deep Mourning, and would last a minimum of 9 months to 12 months. The traditional black veil formerly draped over a ladies’ face was pinned back, and the veil itself could now be half the length it had been in Deep Mourning. Women could also add black lace to embellish their clothing. In addition, the collar and cuffs of clothing could now be white. Ladies could also send out announcements that their period of Deep Mourning had ended and she could now receive visitors. However, she still could NOT attend parties, weddings, or social gatherings.

Half Mourning involved the last six months of one's Mourning period. No longer limited to wearing only black, colors such as lavender, mauve, violet, and gray were used. In addition, a lady no longer had to use the color white for just her collar and cuffs. She could now wear a combination of black and white evening dresses. Bonnets were lavender silk, straw, or white.

15) One of the most confusing requirements regarding Mourning, especially during the 19th century, was the requisite time period expected for people. The socially acceptable period of Mourning was different for various family members, but each relation had a minimum amount of time that must be observed. Any family member NOT observing their required time of Mourning would subject the entire family to scandal. The time period for different family relations is as follows:

Spouse of Deceased: One Year Minimum although 2-1/2 Years was Traditional.
Parent of Deceased: Six Months to One Year.
Children 10 & Older: Six Months to One Year.
Children Under 10: Three to Six Months.
Infants: Six Weeks and Up
Siblings: Six to Eight Months.
Aunts & Uncles Related By Blood: Three to Six Months.
Aunts & Uncles Related By Marriage: Six Weeks to Three Months.
Grandparents: Six Months
Distant Relations & Friends: Three Weeks

16) The Mourning period for men had more flexibility, primarily because they were the providers for their families. Their attire include a dark suit, with a dark strip (usually made of crepe) wrapped around the band of their hat.

Black arm bands were worn as well, and often a black cockade [pictured] was pinned to his lapel.

Although it seems excessive that a woman was expected to follow the three periods of Mourning, men often needed to remarry quickly out of need for someone to care for their home and any children left motherless.

It should be noted that if the husband should remarry not long after his wife had been buried, the new wife could mourn her predecessor in her husband’s stead, gong through the three periods of Mourning out of respect for the departed woman.

17) One custom that may seem somewhat bizarre was the practice of using hair from a deceased loved one to make a framed, often elaborate, memorial piece of artwork. Yet when one thinks how mothers preserve a lock of their baby’s hair in a diary, bible, or baby book; or how for centuries a lock of hair was treasured as a romantic keepsake between couples during their courtship, it seems a natural progression that someone would think to make an artistic tribute to their loved one in such a manner.

Hair cuttings or strands of hair left in a hairbrush were sentimentally used to make brooches, watch fobs, rings, bracelets, or placed carefully inside a locket. Magazines during the 19th century often included articles instructing how to make hair wreaths, a traditional mourning custom during the Victorian period.

The hair wreath was the more traditional remembrance and could be made using the hair from one family member, or using locks of hair from several family members that have been preserved and added to as time passed. Framed in glass, these hair wreaths were treasured, sentimental keepsake remembrances that often told the family history using hair art.

18) Another art form used to mourn passing family members of love one was quilting. Very often, especially in pioneer America where families moved often, often by covered wagon, the grave site for loved ones was in another place – one that perhaps would be forgotten as generations passed. Determined to create a record of where her loved ones were buried, in 1836, Elizabeth Rosemary Mitchell began stitching a quilt in memory of her 2-year old son who had just died. The simple first square was of a cemetery with the embroidered casket for her little boy. In 1843, she added another son who died at the age of 19.

Known as The Graveyard Quilt, Mrs. Mitchell used what materials she had and a talent she possessed to remember her deceased children and also document the family’s history. Her quilt has since become a genealogical and historical artifact.

Losing a loved one is never easy, and the grieving of that loss takes time.

Everyone deals with mourning the death of loved ones in their own way. Whether it is a quilt, a framed mourning hair wreath, visiting the final resting place of a loved one on their birthday, or looking at old letters and photographs, it is how we remember those we love that not only endures but gives us strength to continue on for them, and to share the history of their life with others.

I hope you enjoyed this unusual post. Hopefully, you did not find it depressing but interesting and/or informative. Very often, especially as a writer (and reader) of historical fiction, knowing the customs associated with so inevitable a subject as death, helps bring not only accuracy but understanding to the reader and to the traditions we may still observe today. ~ AKB


On the Duties of Consolation, and the Rites and Customs Appropriate to Mourning, A.E. Miller (1829)

The American Victorian Woman: The Myth and the Reality, Mabel Collins Donnelly (1986)

Victorian Rights of Passage: Death Rituals, Elizabeth Kelly Kerstens, Ancestry Magazine (September/October 1999; Vol. 17 No. 5)

Monday, November 28, 2016


It all started when I read THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH by Robert Hicks, a novel about a woman who made the dead soldiers of the War Between the States her life's work. By the time I finished reading that book, I knew I had to go visit this place, Carnton, where she had lived and devoted her life to the dead.

Carnton is the name of the plantation just outside of Franklin, TN, where Carrie Winder McGavock and her husband John made their home with their two children, Hattie and Winder. There is so much history that comes before the fateful Battle of Franklin that changed Carrie’s life forever that there is no room to include it in this post.

So I will start with a brief nutshell of the circumstances. At the time of the Battle of Franklin, November 30, 1864, Carrie’s children were nine (Hattie) and seven (Winder). Carrie herself was thirty-five, her husband, John McGavock, fourteen years her senior at forty-nine. They had been married several years, Carrie coming from Louisiana to marry John, who was quite a wealthy man for the times, worth over six million dollars in our present day currency. He owned the flourishing plantation where he and his brother James had been raised, Carnton, in middle Tennessee. The McGavocks raised wheat, hay, corn and potatoes as well as maintaining a thoroughbred horse ranch.
Carnton, (Scottish for “the place of stones”) was less than one mile from the battle that took place on the far Union Eastern flank. Most of the battle took place after dark, from 5-9 p.m., so the McGavocks could see the firefight that went on over the town of Franklin that evening. Because their plantation was so close, it became a field hospital for the Confederate troops.

This, according to the Wickipedia account:
More than 1,750 Confederates lost their lives at Franklin. It was on Carnton's back porch that four Confederate generals’ bodies—Patrick Cleburne, John Adams, Otho F. Strahl and Hiram B. Granbury—were laid out for a few hours after the Battle of Franklin.

More than 6,000 soldiers were wounded and another 1,000 were missing. After the battle, many Franklin-area homes were converted into temporary field hospitals, but Carnton by far was the largest hospital site. Hundreds of Confederate wounded and dying were tended by Carrie McGavock and the family after the battle. Some estimates say that as many as 300 Confederate soldiers were cared for by the McGavocks inside Carnton alone. Hundreds more were moved to the slave quarters, the outbuildings, even the smokehouse—and when the buildings were full, the wounded had to lie outside during the frigid nights, when the temperature reached below zero.

After the battle, at 1 a.m. on December 1, Union forces under Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield evacuated toward Nashville, leaving all the dead, including (several hundred) Union soldiers, and the wounded who were unable to walk as well. So when morning came, the 750 or so residents of Franklin faced an unimaginable scene of what to do with over 2,500 dead soldiers, most of those being 1,750 Confederates.

According to George Cowan's "History of McGavock Confederate Cemetery," "All of the Confederate dead were buried as nearly as possible by states, close to where they fell, and wooden headboards were placed at each grave with the name, company and regiment painted or written on them." Many of the soldiers were originally buried on property belonging to Fountain Branch Carter and James McNutt. Many of the Union soldiers were re-interred in 1865 at the Stones River National Cemetery in Murfreesboro.

Over the next eighteen months (from all of 1865 through the first half of 1866) many of the markers were either rotting or used for firewood, and the writing on the boards was disappearing. Thus, to preserve the graves, John and Carrie McGavock donated 2 acres of their property to be designated as an area for the Confederate dead to be re-interred. The citizens of Franklin raised the funding and the soldiers were exhumed and re-interred in the McGavock Confederate Cemetery for the sum of $5.00 per soldier.

A team of individuals led by George Cuppett took responsibility for the reburial operation in the spring of 1866. By June, some ten weeks after the start, the last Confederate soldier was laid to rest at McGavock Cemetery. Some 1,481 Rebel soldiers would now be at peace. Soldiers from every Southern state in the Confederacy, except Virginia, is represented in the cemetery.
Sadly, George Cuppett’s brother, Marcellus, died during the process of the reburials. Just 25 years old, he is buried at the head of the Texas section in the McGavock Cemetery. He is the only civilian interred there.

The McGavocks, especially Carrie, took great care to preserve the identity of the Confederate soldiers. The original names and identities of the soldiers were recorded in a cemetery record book by George Cuppett, and the book fell into the watchful hands of Carrie after the battle. The original book is on display upstairs in Carnton. Time has not been favorable to the identities of the Confederate soldiers though. 780 Confederate soldiers’ identities are positively identified, leaving some 558 as officially listed as unknown.

Most of the above was taken from the Wikipedia article about Carnton and the McGavocks. Now you know the FACTS, but let me tell you about my impression of this remarkable woman and the cause she put above all else.

Robert Hicks's book, THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH, is a fictionalized story about Carrie and John McGavock and their lives, but that was what made me want to travel to Franklin and see the house for myself. I put the description that Wikipedia gave near the beginning because I can’t begin to do it justice. It is one of the most gorgeous, meticulously restored homes of that period you will ever see. They do not allow pictures AT ALL as you’re touring inside. Many of the pieces of furniture, glassware and the pictures that are on the walls have been donated by the McGavock extended family and most everything in the house is a genuine period piece, whether it belonged to the family or not.

It is said that Winder’s room was used as an operating room. A table was set up by the east-facing window where the surgeries were performed. Today, there is a table there much like what would have been used, along with the crude medical implements that were available at the time. Our guide told us that when the doctor finished an amputation, he would throw the limb out the window, get the man off the table and make room for the next one. Because the doctor most likely wore a rubberized apron, the blood pooled in a kind of horseshoe shape on the floor where he would have stood. He walked in it and stood in it, grinding it into the wood. It is still there, to this very day—a testament to five of the bloodiest hours in the history of the Civil War.

Once, Hattie was asked about her most enduring childhood memory. “The smell of blood,” she replied.

In the book, there is mention made of Carrie’s friend, Mariah, who had once been her slave but chose to stay with her as they had been together since childhood. Mariah was said to have had the ability to look at some of the graves and tell something about the person who was buried there. She had “the sight.”

For the next forty years, after the Battle of Franklin, Carrie dressed in black, visiting the graves every day. She carried the book of names with her. I have to tell you, when I saw that book of names I got chills thinking of the devotion she had to this cause. Those men were not forgotten.

At one point, the house fell into disrepair, but was bought by a historical preservation society and maintained. The cemetery was the largest privately owned war cemetery in the US. Robert Hicks meticulously researched for the book he wrote, and the profits from the book (which made it to the NYT Bestseller List) helped to re-establish this grand old home as a piece of history where we can go to learn firsthand about what happened on that fateful day.

My husband and I toured the house, a gorgeous old mansion, with a wonderful guide who was glad to answer any and all questions. Tours are around $15, and well worth it. The cemetery tour is $5, or you can just walk around and look for yourself, which is what my husband and I did. If you buy the book, I promise you will be as anxious to see this place for yourself as I was.

Walking those same floors that were walked upon by Carrie and her family, and the wounded men, the generals, the doctors…gave me feeling I will never forget. I could almost swear I felt her presence, still there, still watching over the soldiers she devoted her adult life to at Carnton…the “place of stones.”

You can order the Kindle version of THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH here, and it's also available in print.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

City of Charlotte in Gingerbread

Way back in the 1980’s when I worked in Coronary Care at Mercy Hospital before Carolinas Medical Center bought out the Sisters of Mercy, we used to have an annual contest for the unit that had the best Christmas display. (We were allowed to call it “Christmas”, not winter holiday or some such politically correct name.) The prize was usually free lunch brought to the unit for the nurses on all shifts to enjoy and a huge platter of Christmas cookies.
We decided to do something extraordinary for our display, something grand that would win that prize. I remembered the gingerbread houses my parents used to make. They were not only beautiful, but very yummy, too. They even brought a gingerbread house to my unit a couple times and I loved that they did that. So my coworkers and I decided to make gingerbread houses for our display. But we didn’t just want regular gingerbread houses, we wanted to make downtown Charlotte like a whole city of gingerbread buildings. (Actually, we made the base of the buildings from cardboard to prevent any catastrophic collapse.)

We worked and worked on that city until the entire unite smelled like vanilla icing and candy. While I was looking at some old pictures, I found a picture of our gingerbread city all decorated for Christmas. We won! We all got to share in the sandwiches and cookies and, of course, a mention in the hospital newsletter that made us all rather proud. It was also my way of honoring the memory of my parents who loved making gingerbread houses out of real gingerbread each year for Christmas. It’s one of my best memories of Mom and Pop.  I miss them terribly.

Saturday, November 26, 2016


Many parts of the United States are already experiencing snow. No matter how cold you are now, the winter of 1886-87 in Montana and the Midwest was colder. Not only did ranchers lose much of their stock and some ranchers and cowboys lose their lives, this weather changed the cattle industry forever.

In the Wild West, cattle were a staple—cattle drives, cattle towns, cattle herds, cattle ranches. Cattle were king through the 1870s up until the mid-1880s. The fenceless open range meant grazing land was easy to come by, so ranchers could own massive herds of cattle. Through much of the late 1870s and into the 1880s, cooler summers and mild winters meant that feeding the animals was relatively easy. Grass and feed were typically pretty plentiful.

Overstocking the Montana range had been the norm since the early 1880s. Texas and Eastern cattle were shipped or trailed in, joining herds already feeding on the rich grasses of the northern plains. By fall 1883, about 600,000 head of cattle filled the range, sharing the resources with an equal number of sheep and a proportionately smaller number of horses. By this time, the range was at its capacity.

By early 1886 more cattle, which had not yet developed the ability to withstand rugged Montana winters, filled the range, receiving less nourishment from the sparse grass. This resulted in more animals grazing on the same amount of grass, which became thinner, requiring more acres per animal even as more animals per acre arrived. By 1885 Montana's range showed the effect of this vicious circle.

Open Range

Rancher Conrad Kohrs noted, "It takes 20 acres on a new range to feed one cow, after the range has been grazed two years it will take almost 25 acres, and after six years all of 40 acres."

Things were about to get much worse. In 1884, a drought crept upward from Texas across the Great Plains and reaching Montana in 1886. By September, some places in Montana and Wyoming had received only two inches of rainfall. Usually lush grass became sparse. Crops failed. Due to the fertile grass of earlier years, most ranchers did not put aside hay for winter, so many cows that weren’t killed by the cold soon died from starvation.

By 1885, beef prices were falling and much of the open range was overgrazed, mainly because cattle barons had built up herds too large for the land. But the barons—many of them Europeans—who owned huge swaths of land from Canada to Mexico, maintained business as usual.

In his annual report of 1886, the commander of Fort McKinney near Buffalo, Wyoming Territory, wrote, “The country is full of Texas cattle and there is not a blade of grass within 15 miles of the Post.”

By 1886, the cattle business was in trouble. Overgrazing had depleted the grasslands, herds of sheep were competing for what remained, and farmers were beginning to stake off parts of the open range. Beef prices were falling, and during the hot, dry months of summer, the herds grew thin and weak. By November 1886, wholesale cattle prices in Chicago fell to $3.16 per hundredweight, half of what they had been in 1884.

More grass died. Brush fires burned off even more. Water sources dried up. Other signs pointed to a tough winter ahead—geese going south earlier, cattle growing thicker fur, beaver stacking more wood for dens.

Brush Fire's Destruction

Following the summer drought disaster came the worst winter ever recorded. The first snow came on November 13, 1886 and fell continuously for a month. Then, in January 1887, the temperature dropped even farther, and blizzards came howling over the prairie, blasting the unsheltered herds. Some cattle, too weak to stand, were actually blown over. Others died frozen to the ground. Even buffalo died when their breath froze them to the ground where they stood. In some instances, people got lost close to their houses and froze to death very close to their front doors.

“It was all so slow, plunging after them through the deep snow that way..... The horses' feet were cut and bleeding from the heavy crust, and the cattle had the hair and hide wore off their legs to the knees and hocks. It was surely hell to see big four-year-old steers just able to stagger along.” Teddy Blue Abbott

No place was safe—California got nearly four inches of snow in San Francisco. North Texas and the Panhandle were inundated. Blizzards roared across the West in January 1887. Temperatures dropped to 30 below in some places. They hit 43 below the next month. On Jan. 14, 1887, temperatures in Miles City, Mont., bottomed out at 60 below zero.

The Laramie Daily Boomerang of Feb. 10, 1887, reported, "The snow on the Lost Soldier division of the Lander and Rawlins stage route is four feet deep, and frozen so hard that the stages drive over it like a turnpike."

Waiting for a Chinook by Charles Russell

Day after day the snow came down, thawing and then freezing and piling itself higher and higher. By January the drifts had filled the ravines and coulĂ©es almost level,” remembered Theodore Roosevelt, who was ranching in Medora, Dakota Territory at the time.

Warm Chinook winds began the thaw by March 1887. Then the losses of cattle were discovered. A large number of cattle carcasses were spread across the fields and washed down streams and polluted drinking water. Dead cattle littered the countryside and bobbed in the freshening rivers. An estimated hundreds of thousands of cattle carcasses littered the land—many pushed up against wire fences or lining roads. Total losses went unreported, but in some areas, up to 90 percent of the herds were wiped out.

“[I saw] countless carcasses of cattle going down with the ice, rolling over and over as they went, sometimes with all four stiffened legs pointed skyward. For days on end . . . went Death's cattle roundup.” Lincoln Lang

By spring, the magnitude of loss was staggering--60% to 95% in places. The few remaining cattle were in poor health, being emaciated and suffering from frostbite. Small ranches went out of business. Even some huge cattle companies declared bankruptcy.

The Conrad Kohrs herds in the Deer Lodge Valley survived. With a $100,000 loan by Butte banker A.J. Davis, Kohrs was one of the few able to rebuild. But the disaster foreshadowed the end of the open range cattle era.

John Clay wrote in MY LIFE ON THE RANGE, “As the South Sea bubble burst, as the Dutch tulip craze dissolved, this cattle gold brick withstood not the snow of winter. It wasted away under the fierce attacks of a subarctic season aided by summer drought. For years, you could wander amid the dead brushwood that borders our streams. In the struggle for existence the cattle had peeled off the bark as if legions of beavers had been at work.

Those who tried to carve out a ranch by claiming unbranded calves ran smack into the old guard cattle barons. Range conflicts broke out, perhaps most notably the Johnson County War in Wyoming.
That deadly winter had changed cattle country. As The Rocky Mountain Husbandman newspaper in Diamond City, Montana, reported, “…range husbandry is over, is ruined, destroyed, and it may have been by the insatiable greed of its followers.”

Ranchers stopped keeping such gigantic stocks of cattle and began larger farming operations in order to grow food for the animals they had. Most also quit the open range, where livestock could roam far from grain reserves, in favor of smaller, fenced in grazing territories. The winter of 1886-1887 signaled the beginning of the end to the days of roving cowboys and the untamed western wilderness.

Foreigners felt leery about investing out West. Cowboys became more of an iconic symbol than a constant presence. Cattle were no longer king. Thousands of cowboys were out of jobs. Some drifted back East or looked for work in Western towns. Others (like members of the Wild Bunch) turned to less honorable pursuits that included rustling and outlawry.

Then future President Teddy Roosevelt wrote his friend, Henry Cabot Lodge, “Well, we have had a perfect smashup all through the cattle country of the northwest. The losses are crippling. For the first time I have been utterly unable to enjoy a visit to my ranch. I shall be glad to get home.”

Historians generally agree that Wyoming cattle losses during that winter tend to be exaggerated. Larson thought overall the state lost about 15 percent of its herd, although operators in Crook and Carbon counties lost roughly 25 percent of their stock. The Wyoming cattle business never again achieved the stature it had from 1868 to 1886. Historians debate over when the Old West died. The Great Die-Up may not have been the end, but the disaster certainly played a role in finishing the era.

Winter of 1886–1887 was extremely harsh for much of continental North America, especially the United States. Although it affected other regions in the country, it is most known for its effects on the Western United States and its cattle industry. This winter marked the end of the open range era and led to the entire reorganization of ranching. Cattlemen reportedly called the winter of 1886-87 the "Great Die-Up." That winter proved again that nature could at any moment shatter all sense of human control.

Caroline Clemmons writes contemporary and historical western romance. Her latest release is her contribution to the bestselling WILD WESTERN WOMEN MISTLETOE, MONTANA. On November 29th, she will release ANGEL FOR CHRISTMAS. All her books are at her Amazon Author Page. Join her newsletter subscriber list for a FREE novella here.

Elizabeth Ayers for Montana Sky Kindle World authors.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

History of Thanksgiving

My to-do list was long this morning (Thanksgiving Eve), and became longer when I looked out the window at the snow that had piled up overnight. While my husband fired up the snow-plow truck, our granddog, Bear, and I started shoveling the front patio. The snow was so thick and heavy, and snowman perfect, that I decided rolling it into large balls for a snowman would be easier than shoveling. So that is what I did, with Bear at my side the entire time. (Bear is a 115 lb yellow lab. He gets dropped off at our house every morning around 7:00 and is picked up every evening around 6:30. We love having him around as much as he loves being here.) We still had plenty of shoveling to do after assembling the balls, and after that, we added the finishing touches to our snowman. It wasn't until I put the gourds in for the snowman's eyes that Bear truly took notice of the creature.

The rest of the day has been full of prep work for tomorrow, and I'm glad I took the time to make the snowman this morning. The grandchildren are going to be surprised to see him standing in the yard when they arrive tomorrow.
AND because I still have a few things to accomplish, I'm recycling a blog I'd posted about the history of Thanksgiving a couple of years ago.

As many of us were taught, the first Thanksgiving took place in the fall 1621. It was a three day feast of thanks hosted by the Pilgrims and a local tribe of Wampanoag. Intermittent days of thanks continued for the next hundred and fifty years, often celebrating an event, good harvest, or end of a time period, such as a drought or battle. In 1777, George Washington declared the last Thursday in November as a ‘national day of public thanksgiving and prayer’ which all thirteen colonies celebrated, particularly giving thanks for the new constitution of the newly formed nation. The next national day was declared in 1789, by then President George Washington. However, it still didn’t become a ‘yearly’ celebration, until 1863.

For over 40 years, Sara Josepha Hale, the author of Mary had a Little Lamb, advocated for an annual day of Thanksgiving, and during the Civil War while looking for a way to bring the nation together, President Abraham Lincoln consulted with Ms. Hale prior to issuing the Thanksgiving Proclamation that declared the last Thursday of November (based on Washington’s date) as a national holiday. 

75 years later, in 1939 retailers begged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to change Thanksgiving to the second to the last Thursday of the month, therefore giving people more shopping days before Christmas. He did so, but the confusion didn’t settle well with the county. Calendars were off, schools vacations had to be rescheduled, and yes, even football games reorganized. Many believed the reason of the date change was not a fitting cause and controversy split the nation. 23 states agreed to change the date, and 23 states refused. Colorado and Texas chose to celebrate both days. Even though businesses reported no real direct change in shopping, the two Thanksgivings (with states choosing which to observe) continued until 1941 when congress passed a law declaring Thanksgiving as a national holiday that would occur on the fourth Thursday of November every year. 

So, there you have it.

History and controversy aside, for me, Thanksgiving brings family to mind. If I live to be a hundred, nothing will ever replace the sweetness of the word “Grandma!” I am thankful for so much, every day of my life—for living in a wonderful country, for freedom, for my right to worship God, for all the obvious and not to be taken lightly things which include my family, home, community, friends, vocation, my publishers and their belief in me, and especially the people who read and find delight in my books. 

Thanks for sharing this wonderful life with me.

My Thanksgiving wish is that each of you reading this blog has a blessed and beautiful holiday. 

Lauri Robinson

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Amazing Story of Survival

By: Peggy L Henderson

In 1870, an expedition set out into Yellowstone to document the wonders of the area that so many fur trappers had talked about, but not many people wanted to believe. It was called the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition, which consisted of nineteen men and forty horses.

One unlikely man who joined this strenuous expedition into the wild, uncharted territory of Yellowstone was a 54-year-old former assessor for the territory of Montana by the name of Truman Everts.  For him, it was the chance of a lifetime to explore where not many men had gone before.

By September, the expedition reached Yellowstone Lake and were getting ready to head back to Helena. Often during the expedition, the party would split up as various groups went to explore different areas. It wasn’t uncommon for members of the party to separate from the main group for a day or two, but they always met up again.
 One day, while the main party made their way through thick timber between Heart Lake and Yellowstone Lake, Everts became separated from the group. This didn’t cause much alarm for anyone, since it often happened. Even Everts wasn’t worried about it. He made camp and figured he’d meet up with the party again the following morning.

The next day, he set off in the direction the party had been traveling, certain that he’d meet up with them for breakfast. He became disoriented, however, in the forest. He also made one serious mistake – he got off his horse and didn’t tie the animal properly while he tried to find a way through a particularly dense area. The horse ran off, carrying all his gear and supplies - blankets, guns, everything. He had only the clothes on his back, a couple of knives and a small opera glass.

This was only the beginning of a series of unfortunate events for Truman Everts in one of the most amazing survival stories ever. He became completely disoriented at this point. Rather than heading toward Yellowstone Lake where he might have met up with his party, he went further south, where he encountered snow and rain.  Due to the bad weather, he camped in a thermal area to keep warm, He managed to catch a small bird to eat, but nothing else, and after being lost for eleven days, he was able to finally make fire using his opera glass.
He lost his two knives that he’d carried, but once again was able to improvise using a belt buckle and fishhook out of a pin. He lost these items when he accidentally started a small forest fire and severely burned himself.  
Everts’ party had waited for him for several days and sent out a search team, but as the days passed and the weather got worse, they had to start heading back to civilization. They left food for Everts in various locations, but Truman never found them.

For 37 days, Everts stayed alive eating nothing but the roots of elk thistle, which is today known as Everts Thistle. He walked, crawled and struggled his way around Yellowstone Lake and down the Yellowstone River.
In mid-October, he was finally found by two men – Jack Barronnett and George Pritchett, who were offered $600 to go out and search for him by Everts’ former companions to find and bring back his body for proper burial. Noone expected to find him alive. Barronett almost shot him, thinking he was a bear crawling among the rocks.  Everts was delirious, covered in burns and frostbite, and weighed in at around 55 pounds.

One man stayed with Everts to nurse him back to some strength, while the other made a 75-mile trip back to Helena, Montana, to get help.  When it was time to collect their reward, Everts refused to pay his rescuers, saying he could have made it out alive by himself, and said they had been offered the money for a body, not a live man.

Everts gained a lot of publicity for his harrowing tale and was even honored by being offered a job: first superintendent of the new Yellowstone Park in 1872. He turned the job down, because there was no salary for the job. A year after his ordeal, he published an account of his survival journey titled “Thirty-Seven Days of Peril”. He lived until 1901, dying in Maryland at the age of 85, apparently none the worse for wear from being lost in the first national park.

Peggy L Henderson
Western Historical and Time Travel Romance
“Where Adventure Awaits and Love is Timeless”

Award-Winning and Best-Selling Author of:
Yellowstone Romance Series
Teton Romance Trilogy
Second Chances Time Travel Romance Series
Blemished Brides Western Historical Romance Series
Wilderness Brides Historical Romance Series