Old Settler’s Song

#amwriting #amsinging #folkmusic

In the mid-19th century, the Gold Rush left many hopeful miners dispirited and penniless. Rumors abounded that the Pacific Northwest was ripe for the plucking, with rich, fertile soil for those willing to work it. Unfortunately, most of that soil was covered with timber, and years of work were needed before it would yield enough crops to sustain a family. Another dream dashed, but in its place was the possibility of “farming” the sea.

This song is also known as “Acres of Clams”, and is sung to the tune of the old Irish favorite Rosin the Beau. The phrase “I started one morning to shank it” simply means “I started off on foot”; the shin or leg was commonly known as the “shank” in the 19th century, and walking was often referred to as traveling “by shank’s mare.” You can listen to a version of this song by The Travelers here.

OLD SETTLER’S SONG

I’ve traveled all over this country
Prospecting and digging for gold;
I’ve tunneled, hydraulicked and cradled,
And I have been frequently sold.

Refrain:
And I have been frequently sold,
And I have been frequently sold.
I’ve tunneled, hydraulicked and cradled,
And I have been frequently sold.

 

For each man who got rich by mining,
Perceiving that hundreds grew poor,
I made up my mind to try farming
The only pursuit that was sure.
So rolling my grub in my blanket,
I left all my tools on the ground,
And started one morning to shank it
For the country they call Puget Sound.

 Refrain:
For the country they call Puget Sound,
The country they call Puget Sound.
I started one morning to shank it
For the country they call Puget Sound.

 

Arriving flat broke in midwinter,
I found it enveloped in fog
And covered all over with timber
Thick as hair on the back of a dog.
When I looked on the prospects so gloomy,
The tears trickled over my face.
I thought that my travels had brought me
To the end of the jumping off place.

Refrain:
To the end of the jumping off place.
The end of the jumping off place.
I thought that my travels had brought me
To the end of the jumping off place.

 

I staked me a claim in the forest
And sat myself down to hard toil.
For two years I chopped and I loggered
But I never got down to the soil.
I tried to get out of the country
But poverty forced my to stay,
Until I became an old settler
Then nothing could drive me away.

 Refrain:
Then nothing could drive me away,
Nothing could drive me away.
Until I became an old settler,
Then nothing could drive me away.

 

And now that I’m used to the climate,
I think that if a man ever found
A place to live easy and happy,
That Eden is on Puget Sound.
No longer the slave of ambition,
I laugh at the world and its shams,
As I think of my happy condition
Surrounded by acres of clams.

 Refrain:
Surrounded by acres of clams.
Surrounded by acres of clams.
I think of my happy condition
Surrounded by acres of clams.

Sweet Betsy From Pike

#amwriting #amsinging #folkmusic

This traditional American folk song about the California Gold Rush of the 1850s is sung to the tune of “On Top of Old Smokey”, which in turn may date from the 17th century. The refrain after each verse is probably a bastardization of the original Gaelic words. I learned this song as a child from a Burl Ives album, and you can hear him singing his version here. 

Sweet Betsy From Pike

Oh, don’t you remember sweet Betsy from Pike
Who crossed the big mountains with her lover Ike,
And two yoke of cattle, a large yellow dog,
A tall, shanghai rooster, and one spotted hog?

Refrain after each verse:
Ooldooldang foldedeido ooldooldang foldedidey

One evening quite early they camped on the Platte,
‘Twas near by the road on a green shady flat;
Where Betsy, quite tired, lay down to repose,
While with wonder Ike gazed on his Pike County rose.

They soon reached the desert, where Betsy gave out,
And down in the sand she lay rolling about;
While Ike in great terror looked on in surprise,
Saying “Betsy, get up, you’ll get sand in your eyes.”

Sweet Betsy got up in a great deal of pain
And declared she’d go back to Pike County again;
Then Ike heaved a sigh and they fondly embraced,
And she traveled along with his arm around her waist.

The wagon tipped over with a terrible crash,
And out on the prairie rolled all sorts of trash;
A few little baby clothes done up with care
Looked rather suspicious, though ’twas all on the square.

The shanghai ran off and the cattle all died,
The last piece of bacon that morning was fried;
Poor Ike got discouraged, and Betsy got mad,
The dog wagged his tail and looked wonderfully sad.

One morning they climbed up a very high hill,
And with wonder looked down into old Placerville;
Ike shouted and said, as he cast his eyes down,
“Sweet Betsy, my darling, we’ve got to Hangtown.”

Long Ike and Sweet Betsy attended a dance,
Where Ike wore a pair of his Pike County pants;
Sweet Betsy was covered with ribbons and rings.
Quoth Ike, “You’re an angel, but where are your wings?”

A miner said, “Betsy, will you dance with me?”
“I will that, old hoss, if you don’t make too free;
But don’t dance me hard. Do you want to know why?
Doggone ye, I’m chock full of strong alkali.”

Long Ike and sweet Betsy got married of course,
But Ike getting jealous obtained a divorce;
And Betsy, well satisfied, said with a shout,
“Good-bye, you big lummax, I’m glad you backed out.”

Tuesday #Trivia: Union Suits and Linens

#amwriting #history

Thanks to the movies and mid-20th century TV, when we think of men’s underwear in the Old West, we usually picture the union suit, a garment that looked like a cross between a onesie and today’s longjohns, with buttons up the front and a flap in the back to accommodate nature’s needs.  But union suits weren’t always a single piece — it was possible to buy shirts and pants separately.  They also came in an above-the-knee length (for the especially hardy).

Union Suit Advertisement Sears & Roebuck catalogue

Union Suit Advertisement
Sears & Roebuck catalogue

Less well-known were garments called “linens”, from the material they were made out of.  Linens could be long, though they were usually knee-length or shorter.  They had buttons or grommets with laces, and some had wide waistbands.  Even more obscure was a cotton garment with buttons and ribbed legs that’s quite similar to the recently-popularized “boxer-briefs”.  From my research, I believe these were among the first to be considered “drawers”.

Tuesday Trivia #26: Little Bighorn

June 25, 1876. Not quite the “massacre” we learned about in school.

Gall, Leader of Sioux Forces

Gall, Leader of Sioux Forces

So many myths surround this battle, not the least of which is that all of the US Cavalrymen died, George Armstrong Custer among them, and that only Custer’s horse survived. Most of the misconceptions are based on wife Elizabeth Custer’s memoirs, which painted quite a different picture from other contemporary sources.

The battle actually resulted in 268 deaths of US Calvary troops out of 700, and 168 Native American deaths out of an estimated 1,600 to 1,800 warriors. The horse Comanche belonged to another of the officers who died at Little Bighorn, Captain Myles Keough.

Do you ever wonder why, when the white man lost, the battles were labeled massacres, but when the white man won, it was always considered a victory, regardless of the number, age, or sex of the Native Americans who died?

Tuesday Trivia #25: The Sod Shanty

So you’ve left your home somewhere in the east and staked out your forty acres on the plains. The government is gonna give you a mule. And all of a sudden, you’re a farmer, living off the bounty of the land. Sounds like a great life, right?

What you might not have realized before you got there was that there’s very little building material on the plains. But you’ve got a wife and two kids, some chickens and maybe a goat or a pig, and you just can’t stand around all day out in the open. For one thing, Indians. For another, cattle ranchers. Both are now your natural enemies (not to mention rain, snow, sleet, heat and tornadoes).

One thing raw farmland does have a lot of is dirt. And grass. And that’s what you’ve got to build your house with. If you’re lucky, your field will have lots of medium-sized rocks in it and you can start building with them as a base. Or if you’re really lucky, there’s a hill on your 40 acres that you can burrow into, and then you’ll only have to build the front of a house. (Just don’t forget the chimney pipe!)

Dirt floor’s fine for now, so you’ll start by pacing off a one-room home.  And that’s where you start stripping off the grass. You’re gonna want strips about 4” deep and between 2 and 3 feet wide*. It’s gotta be nice and wide because thinner strips wouldn’t be stable when you stack ’em. And that’s just what you do: stack ’em up to make the walls of your house.

Taller grasses can be cut into thatch to make a weather-proof roof (the kids can lash them together), though you’ll have to create some sort of support for it – maybe woven willow branches or the boards from your wagon. Maybe add a window made of oilcloth or canvas. And what you wind up with looks quite a bit like this:

A Little Old Sod Shanty

A Little Old Sod Shanty

The best thing about the sod shanty is that it’s pretty well-insulated: it keeps cool in summer and warm in winter (at least compared to the weather outside). The worst thing about it is scent of poverty it gives off. But someday, maybe, when the farming starts to pay off and you have six more kids working the fields – someday you’ll maybe build yourself a real wood cabin.

But for right now, it’s “the little old sod shanty in the west”.

*My note: The strips are very similar to the sod we use today for lawns.

Tuesday Trivia #24: Population Decimation

In 1492, when Columbus “discovered” America, the estimated number of Native Americans in what would become the United States was between 5 and 18 million.

Historians estimate that up to 80% of population loss was due to diseases like smallpox and influenza, to which the aboriginals had no immunity.  A 20% survival rate of the lower estimate of 5 million would be 1 million; of the higher estimate, 3.6 million.

In 1900, the US Census showed a total Native American population of 350 thousand.

Which means that 65% to 90% of the populace is “unaccounted for”.  Why do you think that is?

Tuesday Trivia #23: Patient Sustenance

Warning! This post examines the history of feeding tubes;  if you’re easily grossed out, it might not be for you!

In one of my novels, a woman falls into a coma after the birth of her child.  I needed to know what specific methods there were in the 1880s for nourishing a comatose patient.  What I found surprised me.

Before the popular acceptance of feeding tubes (the type that were forced down the throat), nutrition was given to comatose patients via enema.  The most common preparation at the time of my stories was a mixture of beef broth and whiskey!  President Garfield lived on that limited diet for 79 days after he was shot.

But the history of feeding tubes goes back to the ancient Greek and Egyptian civilizations, where a bladder attached to a reed was used to feed patients.  In the US, the most common conduit was a hollow bone, specifically whalebone.  A major development as far as patient comfort was concerned was wrapping the bone in eelskin.  By the 1870s, these bone-and-skin contraptions were replace with flexible leather tubes, again affording the patient more comfort and allowing the tube to go as far as the esophagus.

It’s interesting to note that another device was used for patients who could swallow but didn’t want to eat.  It looked like a teapot with an extra-long spout and might be filled with a mixture of milk, egg, beef tea and wine thickened with arrowroot.  It was commonly used in mental hospitals at the time and also, according to one source, on “fasting girls and spoilt children who, when ill, refuse food”.

Hmmm … if I had a dollar for every time … all I can say is I’m glad my mother didn’t know about this!

Tuesday Trivia #21: African-Americans in the Old West

History tells us that at least 15%, and possibly up to 33%, of cowboys in The Old West were African-American. Among them was William Pickett, who invented the trick we now call bull-dogging — catching and throwing a steer — though Bill’s habit of biting the cow’s lip to control it is no longer practiced. (Not too surprising, imho.)

Nat Love

Nat Love

Probably the most famous Black cowboy was Nat Love (above), aka Deadwood Dick, who wrote an autobiography of his years riding herd in a number of Western states. Love claims to have met many of the most famous Wild West figures, including Billy the Kid.

Ned Huddleston was known as the Calico Kid; he trained horses for the Wild Bunch and later became an outlaw himself, changing his name to Isom Dart.

On the other hand, Bass Reeves, who served as a scout and guide for the US Marshalls in Arkansas and the Indian Territory (Oklahoma), was one of the first Black lawman; he became a Deputy US Marshall in 1875.

Stagecoach Mary_Fields

Stagecoach Mary

And lest we forget the women, Mary Fields, aka Stagecoach Mary, was the second woman and the first African-American woman to be hired as a mail carrier by the US Post Office. When the snow in Montana was too high for her coach and horses, the 6-foot-tall Mary would deliver the mail on snowshoes.

Quote of the Week

There’s so much more work to be done to extend the full promise of America to every American. But today, we can say in no uncertain terms that we’ve made our union a little more perfect.

Barack Obama, Author & 44th President of the United States (1961- )
on the Supreme Court Ruling ending marriage discrimination, 6/25/15

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.