Tuesday Trivia #19: The Transatlantic Crossing

In the mid-19th Century, most transatlantic crossings were still done by sailing ship, although steamship passage was available for those who could afford it, primarily through the Cunard Line of Britain and the Inman line of the US.  A steamship would routinely make the voyage in 11 to 13 days, but until 1860, most steamships had no accommodations for steerage (or 3rd class) passengers.

In the 1850s, American sailing ships routinely made the voyage from Cork, Wexford or Liverpool to the East Coast of the US and Canada in about 35 days, while a British sailing ship would take up to 10 weeks for the identical crossing; British captains had a (probably superstitious) habit of not sailing at night.

Tuesday Trivia #17: The Chisolm Trail

Every fan of Western lore is familiar with the Old Chisholm Trail. The Chisholm Trail originally ran from the Red River in Texas north to Kansas City, Kansas. It was established by Jesse Chisholm, a mixed-blood Cherokee trader, who scouted to find the best locations for his trading posts.

Jesse ChisholmJesse Chisholm

The trail’s fame, however, lies in its usage as a cattle trail to get Texas beef to the railroad stockyards in Kansas, where instead of $4.00 per head (in Texas), the ranchers could be paid $40.00 per head. It led to the great boom in cattle ranching not only in Texas, but New Mexico and Arizona as well.

There’s a legend that Billy the Kid rode for Jesse Chisholm. Although Chisholm did eventually get into cattle ranching, the legend is false. Billy rode for John Chisum, one of the powers behind the Lincoln County War in New Mexico.

Tuesday Trivia #16: ELLIS ISLAND

Ellis island

Ellis Island Immigration Station

15-year-old Annie Moore arrived from Ireland on January 1, 1892, and became the first person to enter the United States through Ellis Island.

Over 12 million people entered the United States through the Ellis Island immigration center from 1892 to 1954.

Contrary to what you may think, Ellis Island was only one of many ports of entry for ships; others on the east coast included Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore.

Tuesday Trivia #15: The Pony Express


When we think of the Pony Express, this iconic picture of a horse and rider is usually what comes to mind. But there’s a serious flaw in that thinking.

The bag slung over the rider’s shoulder would have flapped in the wind, and could have panicked a horse. The Pony Express “bag” was actually a leather blanket designed to fit over the cantle and horn of a special light-weight saddle. The bag was called a “mochila“, and it looks like this when paired with a saddle:


It lay flat against the horse, held down by the rider’s legs, and had four pouches that the mail was carried in. Another benefit of the mochila was that it made transfer to a fresh horse quick and easy. The mochila was designed by Israel Landis of St Joseph MO.

Other interesting facts & legends:


–  The Pony Express operated for only 19 months in 1860 and 1861, and the original route was from St. Joseph MO to Sacramento CA.
–   It had 184 stations placed 5 to 25 miles apart.
–   35,000 letters were delivered.
–   After the telegraph made its way as far as Salt Lake City in March of 1861, the Pony Express operated from Salt Lake City to Sacramento.


–   Buffalo Bill Cody was a Pony Express Rider.
–   The Pony Express want ad read: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.

Both of these legends might be true, but we have no way to substantiate them.

Tuesday Trivia #14: The Quakers and The Great Irish Famine

I’ve mentioned before that The Society of Friends (also known as the Quakers) provided an immense help to the native Irish during the Great Potato Famine in the mid-19th century by running soup kitchens to feed the starving populace. However, once the British Government took over that job, the Quakers continued giving support to those affected most severely by the famine.

Irish Quakers convinced merchants in the coastal areas, which were less affected by the famine, to donate both food and money to the poor, and they distributed clothing and blankets that were donated by their English & American brethren. Thanks to the Friends’ persistent “women’s committees”, other clothing came directly from manufacturers. The Society also created jobs to produce clothing with fabrics donated by both Quakers and Irish immigrants in America.

The Society also established a system to aid Irish fishermen, many of whom had pawned their nets and other equipment for money to buy food; small individual loans to redeem their tackle were usually paid back by the Irish fishermen within a short time, the monies then becoming available to loan to other fishermen. And though it met with little long-term success, the Quakers also set up a program to create fisheries in the hardest-hit inland counties.

The Society of Friends established seed banks, where crop seeds other than potatoes could be distributed, as well as an agricultural facility to teach farmers about those “new” crops, with green vegetables and turnips high on the list. It encouraged the farmers to share both seeds and knowledge, comparable to the way Heifer International spreads its seeds of growth today.

In short, the 3,000-member roster of The Society of Friends in Ireland seemed to be more effective at fighting the famine than the entire British government. And for that, we offer our very humble thanks: Buíochas a ghabháil leat go mór!

Tuesday Trivia #13: Irish Dancing

Ever wonder why Irish dancers keep their hands totally still at their sides when they dance?

Many sources attribute this custom to the Traveling Dance Masters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For a fee, this Dance Master would teach Irish children jigs, reels and hornpipes. Accompanied by a fiddler and/or piper, the Dance Master taught a very high standard of dance with emphasis on the steps, and had the children hold the rest of their bodies perfectly still.

But legend has it that the practice was common for two hundred years before that, when the advent of enforced Protestantism included the restraint of dancing. So how were Irish parents going to teach their children traditional dances, a central part of their culture? Well, where dancing was prohibited, jumping was not. A dragoon looking through the window of an Irish cottage could not object to children simply jumping up and down, even if it was done rhythmically.

Tuesday Trivia #12a: A Cowboy and his Outfit

“I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy …”

These words from Streets of Laredo are not as transparent as they may seem to be. Our modern interpretation of “outfit” refers basically to the clothes we wear, and can be stretched to include belt, shoes, hat, and (for a woman) handbag.

But would clothes distinguish a cowboy from a farmer? or a rancher? Remember that clothing was in limited supply in the Old West. Many cowboys wore Mr. Levi Strauss’ blue jeans, but striped pants and corduroys were also common and, after the Civil War, so were army twills. Shirts were made of muslin, cambric, flannel and corduroy — sometimes even gingham. And while high-heeled boots would have distinguished cattlemen from farmers, they wouldn’t always distinguish the rancher from his cowhands.

To a cowboy, his “outfit” included not only what he wore, but his saddle & saddlebags, bridle, rope, bedroll, rifle & guns, most of which were always with him. It could include even his horse. In short, it meant all of his personal possessions, and that’s the outfit we’re seeing reference to in the song.

But there’s another definition of outfit in the Old West, loosely meaning comrades-in-arms. Whether it was the cowhands of the Bar-X ranch, or the outlaws of the notorious Hash Knife gang, the “outfit” was defined as a cowboy’s friends and associates. For better or ill, a cowboy carried the reputation not only of himself, but of his outfit as well.

Tuesday Trivia #12: The Irish Gaelic Language

History has shown us over and over again that a society cannot be suppressed if their customs and language are allowed to flourish. It’s a lesson exemplified by the colonies’ treatment of black slaves, and of Elizabeth I’s conquest of Ireland.

One of the first things Elizabeth did was to order was the elimination of the Gaelic language. Since their native tongue was forbidden, parents and priests would teach the children surreptitiously; the lessons could not be written down for fear of discovery. Consequently, words came to be spelled phonetically with only small, isolated populations passing down the original written word. Irish Gaelic  survived in these remote nooks of the island, and gained a resurgence after the Independence.

Since the common spelling through the late 19th century was phonetical, you will most often see that spelling in Irish songs of the time. For example, the term “a ghra” (meaning sweetheart) would have been pronounced and spelled “arrah”. For historical accuracy, I use the phonetical spelling in my manuscripts as well.

Tuesday Trivia #11: The Hedgerow Schools of Ireland

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Irish Catholic children attended school to learn English and arithmetic. In densely populated areas, school might be held in an abandoned barn or building, but in the country, the children literally sat in front of the hedgerows that separated one small croft from another.

There were few, if any, textbooks. Some would have rudimentary pieces of slate and chalk to pass around, but many children had to memorize their lessons. Their teachers were usually priests who would often offer lessons in Catholicism as well. But teaching the Catechism was considered treason, and getting caught meant punishment — anything up to and including death.

So on a sunny summer afternoon, it was not unusual to see a priest walking up and down on the edge of a field for an hour or so, his hands waving, his mouth working, extolling the tenets of Catholicism to children who were hidden from sight.

In the 1830s, the English overlords came to realize that an illiterate Irish population was of little value, and some standardization of school lessons began. It was not until the 1860s, though, that actual schoolhouses became a prominent feature of Irish villages.

Tuesday Trivia #10: The Origins of “OK”

As I was editing my manuscripts, I noticed that I occasionally used the word Okay, or its abbreviation OK. There’s nothing that peeves me more than an anachronism in historical fiction, so I decided to see if I could trace the origins of the word.

Easier said than done! I did find out that OK has been in common usage in the US since the 1830s (meaning I was safe to use it in the context of the 1880s). However, the actual formation of “OK” is credited to the French, the Scots, the Greeks, and a railway freight agent, among others. My personal favorite origin story is from the Chocktaw Indian language, where “okeh” means “it is so”.

However it came about, OK’s popularity certainly rose when Martin van Buren ran for re-election in 1840; his nickname was “Old Kinderhook”, and his supporters formed the “OK Club” during his Presidential campaign.

While it was not enough to win van Buren the election, OK’s popularity has not waned at all since that time.