Saturday, June 28, 2014


Favorite western movies? I’ve got a few. But if I had to choose, I think it would have to be The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

This Hollywood classic, starring John Wayne as Tom Doniphon, Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance, Vera Miles as Hallie Ericson, and Jimmy Stewart as Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard has just about everything a western cinema fan could hope for: action, romance, right-over-might…and an unforgettable theme song.

Dorothy M. Johnson’s short story was made into a movie in 1962. It’s one of my oldest “movie” memories, as I was five years old when it made the rounds to the movie theaters and drive-ins.

Here’s the description of the movie according to Wickipedia:b>

Elderly U.S. Senator Ransom "Ranse" Stoddard and his wife Hallie arrive by train in the small western town of Shinbone, to attend the funeral of an apparent nobody, a local rancher named Tom Doniphon. Prior to the funeral, Hallie goes off with a friend to visit a burned-down house with obvious significance to her. As they pay their respects to the dead man at the undertaker's establishment, the senator is interrupted with a request for a newspaper interview. Stoddard grants the request.

As the interview with the local reporter begins, the film flashes back several decades as Stoddard reflects on his first arrival at Shinbone by stagecoach to establish a law practice.

A gang of outlaws, led by gunfighter Liberty Valance, hold up the stagecoach. Stoddard is brutally beaten, left for dead and later rescued by Doniphon. Stoddard is nursed back to health by restaurant owner Peter Ericson (John Qualen), his wife Nora (Jeanette Nolan) and daughter Hallie. It later emerges that Hallie is Doniphon's love interest.

Shinbone's townsfolk are regularly menaced by Valance and his gang. Cowardly local marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) is ill prepared and unwilling to enforce the law. Doniphon is the only local courageous enough to challenge Valance's lawless behavior.

"You, Liberty...I said YOU pick it up..."

On one occasion, Doniphon even intervenes on Stoddard's behalf, when Valance publicly humiliates the inept Easterner. Valance trips Stoddard who is waiting tables at Peter's restaurant. Stoddard spills Doniphon's order causing Doniphon to intervene. Valance stands down and leaves. Doniphon tells Stoddard he needs to either leave the territory or buy a gun. Stoddard says he will do neither.

Stoddard is an advocate for justice under the law, not man. He earns the respect and affection of Hallie when he offers to teach her to read after he discovers, to her embarrassment, she's had no formal education. Stoddard's influence on Hallie and the town is further evidenced when he begins a school for the townspeople with Hallie's help. But, secretly, Stoddard borrows a gun and practices shooting.

Doniphon shows Stoddard his plans for expanding his house in anticipation of marrying Hallie, and reminds him that Hallie is his girl. Doniphon gives Stoddard a shooting lesson but humiliates him by shooting a can of paint which spills on Stoddard's suit. Doniphon warns that Valance will be just as devious, but Stoddard hits him in the jaw and leaves.

In Shinbone, the local newspaper editor-publisher Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien) writes a story about local ranch owners' opposition to the territory's potential statehood. Valance convinces the ranchers that if they will hire him, he can get elected as a delegate to represent the cattlemen's interest. Shinbone's residents meet to elect two delegates to send to the statehood convention at the territorial capital. Valance attempts to bully the townspeople into electing him as a delegate. Eventually, Stoddard and Peabody are chosen. Valance assaults and badly beats Peabody after Peabody publishes two unflattering articles about Valance and his gang. The villains destroy Peabody's office. Valance also calls Stoddard out for a duel later in the evening after Valance loses his bid for delegate. Valance leaves saying "Don't make us come and get you!" Doniphon tells Stoddard he should leave town and even offers to have his farmhand, Pompey, escort him. But when Stoddard sees that Peabody has been nearly beaten to death, he calls out Valance. Stoddard then retrieves a carefully wrapped gun from under his bed and heads toward the saloon where Valance is. Valance hears he has been called out and justifies going out in self-defense. His wins his last poker hand before the duel with Aces and Eights.


In the showdown, Valance toys with Stoddard by firing a bullet near his head and then wounding him in the arm, which causes Stoddard to drop his gun. Valance allows Stoddard to bend down and retrieve the gun. Valance then aims to kill Stoddard promising to put the next bullet "right between the eyes," when Stoddard fires and miraculously kills Valance with one shot to the surprise of everyone, including himself. Hallie responds with tearful affection. Doniphon congratulates Stoddard on his success, and notices how Hallie lovingly cares for Stoddard's wounds.

Sensing that he has lost Hallie's affections, Doniphon gets drunk in the saloon and drives out Valance's gang, who have been calling for Stoddard to be lynched for Valance's "murder." The barman tries to tell Doniphon's farmhand Pompey (Woody Strode) that he cannot be served (due to his race), to which Doniphon angrily shouts: "Who says he can't? Pour yourself a drink, Pompey." Pompey instead drags Doniphon home, where the latter sets fire to an uncompleted bedroom he was adding to his house in anticipation of marrying Hallie. The resulting fire destroys the entire house.

Stoddard is hailed as "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and based on this achievement, is nominated as the local representative to the statehood convention. Stoddard is reluctant to serve based upon his notoriety for killing a man in a gunfight. At this point, in a flashback within the original flashback, Doniphon tells Stoddard that it was he (Doniphon), hidden across the street, who shot and killed Valance in cold blood, and not Stoddard in self-defense. Stoddard finds Doniphon and asks him why he shot Valance. He did it for Hallie, he says, because he understood that "she's your girl now". Doniphon encourages Stoddard to accept the nomination: "You taught her to read and write, now give her something to read and write about!"

Stoddard returns to the convention and is chosen as representative. He marries Hallie and eventually becomes the governor of the new state. He then becomes a two term U.S. senator, then the American ambassador to Great Britain, a U.S. senator again, and at the time of Doniphon's funeral is the favorite for his party's nomination as vice president.

The film returns to the present day and the interview ends. The newspaper man, understanding now the truth about the killing of Valance, burns his notes stating: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

"Hallie, who put the cactus rose on Tom's coffin?"

Stoddard and Hallie board the train for Washington, melancholy about the lie that led to their prosperous life. With the area becoming more and more civilized, Stoddard decides, to Hallie's delight, to retire from politics and return to the territory to set up a law practice. When Stoddard thanks the train conductor for the train ride and the many courtesies extended to him by the railroad, the conductor says, "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!" Upon hearing the comment, Stoddard and his wife stare off thoughtfully into the distance.

As a side note, one of the many reasons this film holds a special place in my heart is because I remember it as being the first time I made the connection between a scene onscreen representing a flashback. Remember the “flashback within a flashback” that the Wikipedia article mentions? The smoke from John Wayne’s cigarette moves and flows to take over the screen as he tells Jimmy Stewart, “You didn’t kill Liberty Valance. Think back…” That smoke took us back to the truth of what had happened, and my five-year-old brain was shocked—and enamored, even then, with the idea that time passage, or remembrances could be shown through the haze of cigarette smoke. It was the moment of truth for Ransom Stoddard.

For me, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance embodies the core of the west—good and evil, and how sometimes “the point of a gun was the only law”—and it all depended on the man who held the weapon.

Liberty represented the purest evil. Ranse was determined to fight him with the law he treasured—the desire to do things the legal way blinding him to the fact that Liberty didn’t respect that. In the beginning, his naivete is almost painful to watch, providing Liberty some rich entertainment. Though Tom finds it amusing, his growing respect for Ranse’s perseverance is portrayed to perfection by that familiar downward glance of John Wayne’s. Accompanied by the half-smile and his slow advice-giving drawl, the character of Tom Doniphon is drawn so that by the point at which he sees the handwriting on the wall and burns down the house he built for Hallie, the viewer’s sympathy shifts, briefly, to the circumstances Tom finds himself in.

But Ranse is determined to vanquish Valance one way or the other—with a lawbook or a gun—whatever it takes. In the final showdown, the lines of resignation are etched in Tom Doniphon’s face, and we know he is honor-bound to do the thing he’ll regret forever: save Ranse Stoddard’s life and lose Hallie to him.

I love the twist. Ranse truly believes he’s killed Valance. Again, to do the honorable thing, Tom tells him the truth about what really happened.

What do you think? If you were Ranse, would you want to know you really were not the man who shot Liberty Valance? Or would you want to be kept in the dark? If you were Tom, would you have ever told him? It’s a great movie!

Now you can sing along!


When Liberty Valance rode to town the womenfolk would hide, they'd hide
When Liberty Valance walked around the men would step aside
'cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin' straight and fast---he was mighty good.

>From out of the East a stranger came, a law book in his hand, a man
The kind of a man the West would need to tame a troubled land
'cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin' straight and fast---he was mighty good.

Many a man would face his gun and many a man would fall
The man who shot Liberty Valance, he shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all.

The love of a girl can make a man stay on when he should go, stay on
Just tryin' to build a peaceful life where love is free to grow
But the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When the final showdown came at last, a law book was no good.

Alone and afraid she prayed that he'd return that fateful night, aww that night
When nothin' she said could keep her man from goin' out to fight
>From the moment a girl gets to be full-grown the very first thing she learns
When two men go out to face each other only one retur-r-r-ns

Everyone heard two shots ring out, a shot made Liberty fall
The man who shot Liberty Valance, he shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all.

The man who shot Liberty Valance, he shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all.

Thursday, June 26, 2014


Please bear with me while I recycle a post I featured last year. We're getting new floors in our family room and kitchen and I forgot what day it was. Heck, I forgot what week it was.
Like most historical romance authors, I love family history as well as that associated with my stories. In researching my dad's family, I learned that one of his ancestors was the first to bring Guernsey cows to the newly opened part of Oklahoma in 1899. Others in his family were also drawn to the chance to own land and build new lives. One of those in his stepmother's family had an excellent memory. Dessie Garton was born in 1890 near Hillsboro, Texas. 
Young Dessie did not want to leave her home and her friends, but traveled with her family and neighbors to Oklahoma. These people did not have cash. The promise of free land was a great opportunity to people who has been renting farms. When you read it, imagine you and your family were alone on the Oklahoma prairie, isolated from everything familiar.
Fortunately, Dessie had an excellent memory. Her granddaughter recorded her reminiscences when Dessie was almost eighty. It's a long tale I am so pleased to have, but here is a portion of it. Can you imagine loading seven kids into a wagon and heading for an unknown land? And they left after harvest, which meant they were traveling in winter with only the wagon and a tent for shelter.
How frightening some of those new experiences would be, as you can read from this portion of Dessie's story:

We camped at Mr. Brim’s because he had water. There was an empty dugout nearby. We moved into it because it was so cold in the tent. We had a sheet-iron stove, but there wasn’t any wood. Willy had pneumonia. The gyp dust of the dugout turned out to be worse on him than the cold, and so we had to move back into the tent.

A prairie dugout 

            It didn’t take long for us to get initiated to the hazards of living on the prairie. Rain was our chief concern. Everyday we searched the skies for rain clouds. When we saw a rain cloud approaching, we always remembered what a settler’s wife had told Papa when we camped out on Turkey Creek. He had gone to try to buy food for the animals. He asked if it ever rained in Greer County. In a long drawn out tone she replied, “It don’t never rain in Greer County, but when it does, it don’t never stop.”
About two or three weeks after we arrived in Martin, we experienced our first sandstorm. Murray and Papa were digging the dugout, and the rest of us were working around the tent. We had spread all the bedclothes outside on the grass so they could air the damp out. We saw the black cloud coming from the north. We thought it was a bad rain cloud. It hit with all the fury of a spring rainstorm, but it was only wind and dust. Mama struggled to get the bedclothes off the grass while we kids fought to keep the tent from falling. Even Willy, who still had pneumonia, was trying to help. But the tent collapsed in spite of all our efforts. After it was over, Papa and Murray came running to us. Papa said that he had never been so frightened—he had thought the world was coming to an end! Later we found our pillows a half-mile away hanging on a barbed wire fence.

Duststorm on the prairie. If you haven't
been in one of these choking storms,
consider yourself fortunate!

            After that experience, we watched the skies for rain, those ominous black clouds, and another cloud of a different color. This was a gray cloud that meant an approaching prairie fire. All of the settlers feared these fires. Everyone plowed his fields to make a fire guard; but if the wind was strong, nothing could stop the fires. We were never burned out, but we lived in fear that we might be.

Modern grassfire in North Central Texas
Every farmer's and rancher's nightmare

            Murray and Papa finally finished the dugout. There we were—seven kids and Mama and Papa—and we didn’t own one dollar in cash. Mr. Brim helped Papa get groceries “on account” in Quanah. He had a fenced garden spot that he said we could use. Mr. Payne let us milk two of his cows. Then we started breaking land with our horses and that old mule. We didn’t make any crop that first year, but we did get all of the land broken. The second year we planted maize and cotton. Papa would dig the holes and I would place the seeds in the holes. The maize was the old goose-necked variety that grew as high as a man’s head and then curved back toward the ground. We had to cut each head separately with a knife. It was difficult for us to reach. Our hands would get cut by the sharp blades of the leaves and, once in a while, by the knife.

            We had to go to Quanah, Texas for everything. It had the closest railroad. Four or five families would sometimes get together and go over there because we had to ford the Red River. If the river was up, all of the horses would be hitched together in order to pull the wagons across one by one. We had to tie everything down in the wagons or we might see our supplies floating down the river. We would never know whether or not the river would be high. There might have been thunderstorms further west we knew nothing about.

            It seemed like we were always in debt to that man at Quanah. I remember one of the first years when we made a good crop. Papa went to Quanah to pay off our bills. When he came home, he said, “Well, Susan, I didn’t tell you, but now I’ve paid it off I guess it can’t hurt to tell you. I mortgaged the mule last spring.” Mama was shocked. She fretted the remainder of the day. She said over and over, “Just think, if we hadn’t made this crop, we’d lost that mule, and then how would we have broken the land for next year’s crop?”

Plowing with a mule

            We made pretty good crops when we first came to Martin. The land was fresh and would grow anything if we could just get enough rain. Our biggest problem was getting water. We had to haul it from Quanah or catch it in rain barrels. When it rained, we filled every available container with water.

            The year after Papa mortgaged the mule, he traded it for the price of digging a well. The man had to dig 115 feet before he hit water. We had to draw all our water—even for the stock. Whose job do you think that was? Talk about “the good old days!” If I didn’t think Mama or Papa were watching, I would drive the cattle away—they would drink too much.

            Our next biggest worry was the damage caused by the open range policy. Before the Herd Law was passed, the cattle would eat our maize crop and trample our cotton. There weren’t any trees around for fence posts. All the lumber had to be freighted in from Quanah. Besides that, barbed wire cost money, and we were always short of money. Willy got a job in Texas. That $10 a month he made sure helped us. One of most vivid memories relating to that open range policy was the day two bulls got into a fight on the top of our flat topped dugout. We were afraid to go outside because they might attack us, and we were afraid to stay inside because it sounded as if any second they could come crashing through the roof. Finally, they gave up and went away.

            I was just nine years old when we moved from Texas. Oh, how homesick I would get for all those beautiful trees I used to climb (I was the tomboy of the family) and the creeks I used to wade in. I missed our big house too. Everything got so dirty in the dugout. My brother-in-law Ed, who had said this country wouldn’t sprout black-eyed peas, brought my sister Attie to see us. They decided to homestead north of us. We were all together then, and I knew there wasn’t much hope of going back.  

            All of us children had to work in the fields planting and harvesting. In the winter we went to school. I loved school and secretly dreamed of going back to Texas to high school. My aunt offered to take my older sister Lucinda and send her to high school so that she could become a teacher. When my sister refused, I asked Mama if I could take her place, but she shrugged it off by saying that I was too young and should stay at home.

            Sunday was a big day for us. Everyone in the community gathered at church. After the services, all of the relatives would go to one relative’s home for dinner and visiting. Sometimes we would have a church picnic and singing after church. All of us looked forward to those particular Sundays.


Do you admire the pioneer life? I respect those who were stalwart enough to live then, but I'mm glad I have my nice air-conditioned brick home! How about you?

I used a sandstorm like the one Dessie described in my western historical romance, THE MOST UNSUITABLE COURTSHIP. 

Amazon         Nook       Kobo also at iTunes and GooglePlay

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Robbery Snitch and a Pocket Knife

It’s always amazing to me the little, unique things found in museums and historical societies. Today I’m going to share two such items we found while in Wyoming last year. 

1). This letter was hanging on the wall in one of the many buildings at the Old Town Museum. 

The letter states:
Do not mention my name in this matter.
Meeteetse, WY June 17
Mr. Dean Hays, Esq
Dear Sir,
It is rumored that Meeteetse is going to be held up and robbed by the Hole in the Wall Gang of thieves. I wish you would notify Red Lodge that they are billed for the (23) of June. I do not know this for a fact, but I have reason to believe it.  You can use your own judgment about it and act accordingly. Hoping this may be of benefit to you in area. Yours very--
Truly H.R.

A statement beside the letter claimed neither bank was robbed due to this warning.

2). This knife was featured in the basement at the Museum of the West in the ‘inventions that didn’t quite make it’ display case.

It’s a folding knife created by Holler Firm in Germany for display in a New York City store window around 1880. It hosts a cigar cutter, button hook, tuning fork, pencils, plus 96 other blades, including a .22 revolver. The only thing it doesn’t have is the bottle cap opener that appeared on the Swiss Army Knife created twelve years later in 1892. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Yellowstone Through a Teenager's Eyes

 By the time this post goes live, I will be in Yellowstone! I wanted to post some historical tidbits about the park this month, but I came across something even better. I hope you allow me to indulge. 
The following is an essay that my son wrote for school. I happen to get a glimpse of it when he left it laying on the dining room table and, being the nosy mom that I am, had to look at it. I don't generally police my son's homework - he's an honor student and rarely asks for my help, so when I read this, my heart melted. Both my sons have gone to Yellowstone nearly every summer since they were five and six years old, and as they've gotten older, they grumble a lot about going "to Yellowstone again" this year. Last summer, Collin didn't even want to go with us. Understandable for a teenager. But, he went, and he's going again this year, and I got the impression that he actually is looking forward to the trip. All these years, I wasn't sure if all the Junior Ranger badges the boys have earned, all the hikes they've been on, and all the campfire programs they've sat through had made any impact on them. After reading the essay, I know differently now.

 Yellowstone National Park is my happy place.
By Collin Henderson

Relaxing along Yellowstone Lake at Storm Point
The forests of Yellowstone are impregnable to the noises of the outside world. Only the soft chirping of the birds can be heard mixed with the wind. The lake beats the shore ever so gently. Swish. Swish. Swish. Then plop. A fish can be heard jumping in and out of the water. But where? Oh, there it is, to the left. 

Hellroaring Creek Trail
Yellowstone’s tranquility puts me at ease. My muscles loosen and I can just close my eyes and relax. The gray monotony of daily life elsewhere is outshined by Yellowstone’s variety. Every day a new trail awaits. The dirt under my feet is rocky and rough and soft and comforting. Maybe today I will see another white heron on the Madison River. Or perchance a garter snake will cross my path. The trail shall be my guide and lead to wonderful discoveries. Yellowstone’s never ending variety always has me on my toes, wondering what will come next. I can explore to my heart’s content.

Hiking to Shoshone Lake

Yellowstone’s natural forests far outshine any concrete forest. The forests are full of crisp, clean, pine scented air. Every so often one might come across a clearing along a trail, covered in emerald green grass and a wide assortment of flowers. Time feels frozen in Yellowstone, every second lasting an eternity. The landscape takes my breath away.

Black Bear
The animals of Yellowstone are unlike any that can be found in a zoo. I am a guest in their territory. The animals here are wild and will attack if I am not cautious. My personal favorites are the ground squirrels and chipmunks that scurry around looking for food. All sorts of birds live in Yellowstone. Every now and then I’m lucky enough to see a bald eagle in all its grace. The animals of Yellowstone are wild and untamed but cute as well. Rather than watching my dog sleep all day, not that I dislike my dog, I can enjoy watching large beasts majestically roam their habitat.

Yellowstone National Park is my happy place.

The resident Uinta Ground Squirrel in camp. We named him Phil

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Minnesota in the Good Old Days

I’ve been paging through a book I picked up several years ago at a used book store. Titled Bring Warm Clothes, Letters and Photos from Minnesota’s Past, it was written by Peg Meier, a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. The book caught my eye because it chronicles life in the state where I grew up.

Bring Warm Clothes

Serious topics covered include the Dakota War of 1862 (also called the Sioux Uprising) in which more than 500 people died, and Minnesota’s role in the Civil War. But I’m not going to blog about them today. Instead, I’ll share snippets from diaries, letters and newspapers. Some words are misspelled or oddly capped. I hope a few excerpts make you laugh.

European exploration of the Minnesota area began in the last half of the 17th century and increased in the 18th century. Fur trapping and the search for a Northwest Passage were of prime interest. After the French-and-Indian War in the 1760s, the region came under English control.

English explorer Jonathan Carver, after whom a county in Minnesota is named, observed on June 4, 1767:

“Came to the great medows or plains. I found excellent good land and very pleasant country. . . This country is covered with grass which affords excellent pasturage for the buffeloe which here are very plenty.”

Scotsman John Macdonell wrote on Sept. 11, 1793:

“Supped upon a Bear killed by the hunters and while at supper a Snake came into the Tent and was not perceived till it got half its length across Mr. Neil Makay’s plate”

In 1803 Minnesota became U.S. territory under the terms of the Louisiana Purchase. Voyageurs and fur traders continued to ply their trade.

James E. Colhoun, a member of a U.S. expedition, wrote on July 18, 1823:

“Fortunately the nights are sufficiently cool to permit our sleeping with our boots on and our heads covered with the blanket. It is hardly an exaggeration of the traders that in the summer season on the St. Peter’s (the Minnesota River) the one whose office it is to strike fire will find it impossible to perform his duties unless protected from the mus-quitoes by some of his company. I find it necessary to keep a soldier constantly employed to brush away these troublesome insects while I am making Observations.”

Indeed, no exaggeration! I have a magnet purchased in Albert Lea, MN with a mean looking mosquito on it and this inscription: SEND MORE TOURISTS . . . THE LAST ONES WERE DELICIOUS!

Fort Snelling, originally Fort Saint Anthony, was built in the early 1820s on a bluff at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. I visited the old fort on a field trip while in elementary school, goggling at the panoramic paintings of pioneer days in the Round Tower. I’ll save the fort’s colorful history for another day.

Dr. Nathan S. Jarvis, an Army surgeon at Fort Snelling, wrote to his sister on Oct. 10, 1833:

“What think you of the thermometer being as low as 30 degrees below zero? Such is the case every winter in this climate. We keep a regular diary of the weather . . . Last winter the thermometer for every day during the month was nearly 10 degrees below zero. 2000 cords of wood are generally consumed during the winter at the post.”

Mrs. Ann North, lately come to St. Anthony village with her husband, wrote about their new two-room log cabin to her parents on Nov. 25, 1849:

“Everything as quiet as we choose to have it, for the river separates us from all other inhabitants. The carpenter did not leave here until last night. We came here, on Thursday, put down the carpet in one room,and unpacked some things. As the windows were not all in, we could not sleep here.” [She talks of many things yet to be done.] “But even with all the inconveniences, it is more pleasant than boarding anywhere.” She grew to love Minnesota!

Announcement in the Minnesota Weekly Democrat, June 28, 1854:

“Mr. Gottleib Seigal, a respectable German who has resided for some time in this city, was attacked with cholera yesterday and died during the night. We hear of no new cases in the city today. The German who was sick yesterday in the 3rd Ward, and for whose use a coffin had been prepared, is now convalescent, and has returned the coffin with many thanks to the board of health.”

Announcement in the St. Paul Daily Press, Feb.21,1864:

“Madam Rose Lovejoy and Madam E.M. Robinson were arraigned yesterday on charges of keeping bawdy houses. Each of them was accompanied by four boarders. The proprietors were fined $20 each, and the other(s) $5 each. We understand it is the intention of the authorities to repeat this dose once a month.”

Winking smile  On that droll note, I highly recommend Ms. Meier’s book and wish you good reading.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How Child Welfare Influenced My Lassoing A Bride Story

                                                         Sarah J. McNeal
Sarah McNeal is a multi-published author of time travel, paranormal, western, contemporary and historical fiction. Her stories may be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Prairie Rose Publications. Her website:   

How Child Welfare Inspired My Lassoing A Bride Story

My personal experiences influence almost everything thing I write. It might be something I saw, an unusual thing I heard, some bit of family history, but something that touched my life and made me think I should write about that. Last October in the local news, I learned that a nurse I used to work with and who I considered a close friend and his live-in girlfriend of many years were charged with felony child abuse to foster children they had taken into their home. The charges also included abuse and neglect to the greater than 100 animals that lived on the farm as well. His girlfriend was a supervisor for the Child Welfare department in Monroe, N.C. I was stunned. It really made me think about the vulnerability of children whether in their abusive family, or in foster care as in this situation, by the system itself.
As dark as all this news was, I was curious to know how children were cared for through history when their parents were deceased, unable to care for them, or unwilling to care for their children. I must warn you that my research did not lighten my heart.
In the beginning of human history, orphaned children were voluntarily cared for by the community, or, in some cases, the children were simply left to their own devices. Later, in Elizabethan England, work houses were instituted where orphaned children, and homeless women were sent. They were given meager food and a place to sleep in exchange for work. Children, who were looked upon as little adults, performed the same work as the adults. Malnutrition, depression, mistreatment and disease were rampant. Under the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, local governments appointed overseers who had the authority to levy taxes to help the poor to try to clear the disorder created by the end of Feudalism where the landowner had responsibility to care for those who worked his land and lived on it. It was the first time government assumed the responsibility for the poor. It wasn’t great, but it was at least a beginning.
                                       A group of orphans at the Crumpsall Workhouse

In America, thousands of immigrants were entering the Colonies as England’s undesirables.  Often the trip to the Colonies in tight quarters on a ship caused infirmities and disease so many who arrived were already in poor health. And then they had to face the harsh conditions of a new frontier for which they were not prepared. After the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, there were a large number of orphans who, left to their own devices, often ended up in criminal activities or other mischief presenting a problem for communities. Indentured servitude, such as had been established in England, seemed like a good idea. Children were taken into willing households where they had their basic needs met in exchange for learning a trade that would hopefully lead to a vocation and self-reliance as adults.

Some impoverished families received what is termed “outdoor relief.” Churches and other organizations donated to the families, but critics of this system felt the recipients were too dependent on the handouts, sometimes even demanding more, and not applying themselves to seek work. So, in 1824, the Secretary of State in New York, J.V.N. Yates decided to eliminate the outdoor relief and demanded that every county have a poor house. Housing the homeless and poor in this manner is known as “indoor relief” because it took place inside an institution. Yates  cited four methods of public assistance: (1) indoor relief (2) home relief (3) the contract system and (4) auction. Yates felt these public assistance systems produced waste and cruelty. He further reported that when the poor were “farmed out”,by either auction or contract systems, they were often treated cruelly or inhumanely. Children receiving home relief often grew up in filth, idleness, and disease which made them more susceptible to dangerous or criminal behavior —paths to jail or the grave. In response to his findings, Yates recommended almshouses as the best option to care for the poor, because the almshouses would improve morals and health of the poor.
In 1850 the New York legislature followed up with an investigation of the Alms Housing or Poor Houses and found beatings, near-starvation, unsanitary conditions, and medical neglect were common. Some poor houses did not fall into this mistreatment. Poor houses were not viewed as a permanent solution, but as a safety net when people fell into hard times. The state decided to give funding for agencies such as churches to establish orphanages.
Orphanages were established along denominational lines to separate children from adults, indoctrinate them into a certain faith with the primary purpose of rescuing children from abuse and neglect. The children were taught good deeds and religious duty. Unfortunately, they also required hard work, the loss of individualism and short term relationships with those who cared for them. Parents of these children were required to give up all parental rights. Some education was provided, but the main means of reintroducing these children into society was by indenture. Due to lack of funds, the children were given enough food to prevent starvation, clothes and shelter, but it was still better than an Alms House. The majority of these children were immigrants whose parents had died or had been separated from them. Native American children were placed in boarding houses and taught white ways and values.

                                        Orphans suffering in the streets of New York City

Western authors are familiar with Orphan Trains. The enormous amount of orphans in large eastern towns, especially New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia led to the invention of the Orphan Train where children, from babies to age sixteen, were sent to the Midwest in the hope of finding homes. In 1853 Charles Brace felt the children raised in poor houses and alms houses were suffering cruelty and that city living would lead them to lives of crime. He knew farmers the midwest needed children and felt country life would lead to a better existence for these children. The trains were met by farmers and tradesmen who were interested in caring for them. From 1853 to 1929, 31,081 children were placed in families from orphan trains. Most of these children found good homes. Some opponents of Brace’s orphan trains cited that most of the immigrant children who were Catholic were placed in Protestant homes and that the children lacked ongoing supervision. Nevertheless, the orphan train system did provide children with better homes than other institutions.
With the late nineteenth century came the industrialization of America. Children, still considered miniature adults, went to work in factories and seat shops without benefits or vacations.   In 1893, Florence Kelley helped to win passage of the Illinois Factory Act. The act prohibited child labor and limited the working hours for women. It should be noted that this was a state law and had no effect outside of Illinois. Jane Addams pushed for a National Child Labor Amendment, but the amendment was lost during the Great Depression.
In 1909 at a White House Conference on Children liked the idea that children should never be removed from their parents simply for “reasons of poverty”. They advocated family preservation, and were concerned about the large numbers of children being placed in institutions. The Conference challenged the long standing idea that poverty was caused by people lacking ambition or possessing poor character. The White House Conference focused on the needs of the child. The Conference brought about a consensus that all children need families and that family better met the development needs of children.
The outcome of the conference was to establish Family Foster Care.  The primary goal of the foster care program was to provide a safe, nurturing environment for children who could not live at home because their parents were unable or unwilling to care for them. Child welfare practice focused on helping the child adjust to a foster home and provided assistance to the foster family to help meet the development needs of the child. Some initial problems at the beginning of the program was the lack of incentives for the social workers to work toward the unification of the family and the importance of the birth family to the children. Until this time, social welfare was a right of the state, but the Federal government decided to work with states and child welfare experts to come together and make child welfare a national issue. They wanted to work toward keeping families together and help with issues involved with the parents, especially to help single mothers.
In October 29, 1929, the financial crash ushered in the Great Depression made worse by the drought in the Midwest. The New Deal presented by President Franklin Roosevelt was the first time the federal government made social welfare a priority. Foster Care which had started as a way to rescue children, now began to serve as a temporary measure rather than a permanent placement. Children who could not be returned to their parents were put up for adoption in the hope of finding them a permanent home.

                          Music Class at the St. Elizabeth Orphanage in New Orleans 1940

All through history, government has attempted to help children in need. Though many plans failed to provide the appropriate care or not, I believe their hearts were in the right place. People with ulterior motives or hidden agendas will always find a way to bend rules or take advantage of a system built to help. The public is always dismayed and appalled by these people who exploit, abuse and mistreat children. I believe there is a special hell for them.

Historical Analysis and Contemporary Assessment of Foster Care in
Texas: Perceptions of Social Workers in a Private, non-Profit Foster
Care Agency.
James McCutcheon
An Applied Research Project
Submitted to the Department of Political Science
Texas State University-San Marcos
In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Master’s of Public Administration
Spring 2010

My story in the Lassoing A Bride summer anthology is Unexpected Blessings. It takes place right after World War II in which I wrote about orphans at the mercy of foster parents.

A broken dream…a cancelled wedding…and an unexpected blessing
When Juliet Wilding’s dreams are crushed, she cancels her wedding plans to Harry O’Connor. But Harry is not about to give up on the only woman he has ever loved.  What neither of them expects is the event that will forever change both their lives.

“When will the new owners be moving in?” She asked the question without making eye contact.

“On the twenty-first of June.”

She slowly turned to look up into his face. “Why that’s when our wedding day was supposed to take place.”

“That’s when our wedding day will take place, Juliet. And this house is my wedding gift to you. Actually, it’s a wedding gift from your family, too. They helped me renovate it…with you in mind.” He lifted his hands to encompass the whole house. “All of this, it’s all for you, darlin’. It doesn’t have much furniture yet, but—”

She extended her arm and kept him away with her hand on his chest. “No, Harry, this can’t be our house.”

“I assure you it can…it is.”

A tear slipped from her eye and made a path down her cheek.

What the hell? Had he been wrong to buy the house? “If you don’t like it, I can change it. I’ll do whatever you want. I just want you to be happy.”

“It’s not the house. It’s not you; it’s me. I can’t marry you. I refuse to ruin your dreams or your life.” She wrestled out of his arms when he attempted to embrace and reassure her.

The earth was churning under his feet and his heart clenched so painfully he wasn’t sure he could get his breath. “I know you love me, Juliet. You’re my dream. You’re my life and my future.”


“The Prettiest Little Horse Thief” by Gail L. Jenner
“Unexpected Blessings” by Sarah J. McNeal
“No Less Than Forever” by Tracy Garrett
“The Bank Robber's Lament” by Sara Barnard


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