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More Than Cowboys by Tim Slessor
8:40am Thursday 26th April 2012 in Books
MORE THAN COWBOYS by Tim Slessor (Signal, £12.99) This book is subtitled Travels Through the History of the American West and Slessor knows the territory, writes Shelby Tucker. The BBC sent him there filming in 1961 and 1963, when he was “completely hooked” on its “people, history, skies, scale, everything about it”. The BBC fuelled his addiction with further assignments.
The “old-timers” he met in 1961 are long gone yet “once upon a time” he “met and listened to them”, and respect for the immediacy of the place’s history (“something between awe and privilege”) pervades his narrative.
Starting with the British-financed Louisiana Purchase in 1803 (which nearly doubled the size of the USA), he tells us about the Lewis and Clark Expedition to pre-empt the British from claiming what is now Washington and Oregon; the ‘Mountain Men’ who trapped beavers and mined gold; the families travelling in covered wagon caravans; the Mormons’ wagon procession to their Promised Land; the wars following Red Cloud’s and Sitting Bull’s distrust of the Great Father in Washington’s pledge to stop killing their buffaloes and stealing their grasslands; Col Fetterman’s boast: “Give me 80 men and I will drive through the whole Sioux nation” (the Sioux massacred them); railroad construction (“Back in those days [they] just got on with the job”).
There is Custer’s “suicidal predicament” at Little Big Horn, the 7th Calvary’s murder of most of the 350 Sioux in their custody at Wounded Knee, the hotly-debated story of Butch Cassidy’s resurrection in Spokane after dying in Bolivia, the cattle barons, cowboys and finally farmers who were ultimately the agents of the settlement of the West.
Slessor, a consummately gifted story-teller, has confronted his multi-layered task here with wit and panache in a couldn’t-put-it-down epic tale that kept me awake all night.