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Monday, 17 November 2014

A Tour of Nebraska – and a Link to Buffalo Bill





 

Having now handed Chasing Black Gold over to the publisher, I am free to turn my attention to plans that have been on the back burner for some time. Highest on my list of priorities has been to think about that rash announcement I made a few months ago, that I would make a tour of Nebraska in 2015, promoting The Red House On The Niobrara through a series of lectures. A road-show, no less.  

Fortunately, a bit of head-scratching reminded me of the cardinal rule to be obeyed when planning foolish ventures in far-off places: work your contacts.

Over the past twenty years or so I have made a number of good friends in Nebraska. One of them is a descendant of the Arent family, the Danish homesteaders who built the red house about ninety years ago. He has been delivering copies of the book to friends, to neighbouring ranchers I got to know when I was out in the Sandhills, to scholars in the field, to librarians and hoteliers and the like. Another contact, whom I met at the Mari Sandoz conference in 2010, has urged me to think about giving talks in Boulder, where she lives, and Denver, also of course Lincoln, where I have a number of contacts.

All this throws up the matter of self-promotion, and how to achieve the biggest splash. As I think about the kind of material I want to get out there I am forced to conclude that I must exploit, shamelessly, the man who first got me interested in the Wild West – namely, William F Cody.

I was about five years old when I became aware that we had in our family a set of autographed photos of him and Annie Oakley. They came from my great-great uncle, John Wiltshire, who captained the ship that transported the Wild West Show across the Atlantic on at least one occasion. We always understood that it was the State of Nebraska, and as my studies led me to the Cornhusker state in the early 1990s, that seemed so very appropriate – as if my love of Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz, and the  country they wrote about, was simply meant to be.

Many years later, when I was deep in my researches, I found that this story was a myth. The ship in question was under the command of one Captain Braes – and, upon its return voyage, of a Captain Bristow.  I was, of course, bitterly disappointed. But while I was living  the red house, out there in the Sandhills, I was shown this passage in a biography of Little Miss Sure-Shot:   

‘Shortly before Christmas, 1893, Annie Oakley and Frank Butler moved into their new house at 304 Grant Avenue [in Nutley, New Jersey]…. Less than a week after moving in, the Butlers had dinner guests, an event that was duly noted in the social columns of the local newspapers. Invited were J. M. Brown, manager of the Atlantic Transport Company of New York; Louis E Cooke of the Barnum and Bailey Show; and a Mr. and Mrs. Cannon of Newark. Mr. Cannon was a noted one-armed sportsman. Also invited was Captain Wiltshire of the steamship Mohawk, which had carried the Wild West home from Europe the year before.’

So it was true, after all. I aim to extract maximum benefit from that as I sit and draft my publicity material.