Thursday, June 21, 2012

Cy Warman, Frontier Stories (1897)

Cy Warman
Before fame and fortune found Cy Warman, he had been a struggling writer in Colorado. After a short career working for the railroad, he was editor of the Creede, Colorado, newspaper, The Chronicle. There he knew both Bob Ford and Soapy Smith, and on a fateful June day in 1892, he was one of the first to rush through the door of Ford’s dancehall to find him shot dead.

Warman was a collector and teller of stories, some of them told in the manner of yarn swapping at a gentlemen’s club, some with the energetic flair of a news writer. How much is fiction and how much nonfiction is hard to say. He knows his audience’s fascination for the Old West when it was chiefly occupied by Indians, cowboys, outlaws, and the first railroad men.

Indians. There are 18 stories in this collection. Almost all of them involve white encounters with Indians—Utes, Paiutes, Sioux, Cheyenne, Pawnee, and Crow. The narrators of his stories are interested observers. Among them is one not altogether sure Indians are human, but respect is given, as to a species of armed, dangerous, and unpredictable bipeds.

Some Indians are friendly, some not. They steal what they can and behave in contradictory ways. The Hydes among them, we are told,  outnumber the Jekylls sixteen to one. An Indian boy may skin a live rabbit to see how long it lives. He's just as likely to share his food with a crippled dog. Bathing for the sake of cleanliness is unknown.

Creede Camp, Colorado, 1905
The Indians are also relentless in battle, whether with whites or other tribes. In “In the Hospital” the narrator hears a story of a railroad man working on a construction crew who goes missing. He is found at the bottom of a cliff, pressed against it as Indians above shower him with rocks and arrows, until one of them successfully puts an arrow through his heart.

In “Wantawanda,” a band of Cheyenne team up with a band of Sioux to massacre a small camp of Crow, their traditional enemies. Cunningly, the Cheyenne chief “persuades” a group of white trappers and adventurers to take up arms with them, though the Crow have long been allies of the whites.

The Crow are taken by surprise and fight valiantly until the only man standing is the chief, Little Gray Bull. Covered in wounds and blood, he is outraged and demands that they finish him off. The surviving Cheyenne and Sioux cower in awe, reluctant to take the life of such a brave man, until a “half-breed,” tired of waiting for breakfast, shoots him dead.

Pony Express riders, 1860
In one of the most engaging of the stories, "Little Cayuse," a trapper named Whip Saw buys a Pawnee boy from a Sioux in exchange for a knife. The two of them man a Pony Express station at White Horse, Wyoming, where they and the express riders are often under attack by the Sioux. Called Little Cayuse for his love of horses, the boy is taken captive again and lives with the Sioux in Nebraska Territory until he is able to escape.

Returning on foot to Wyoming, he is tracked by wolves who attack him as he is met by a Pony Express rider, who turns out to be his old friend Whip Saw. As another rider races off westward from White Horse, Whip Saw washes the boy's wounds with whiskey and quietly sheds his tears.

“Half-breeds.” The matter of mixed blood Indians comes up in several of the stories, and always the narrator characterizes them as worse than savage. The white blood in them makes them “ambitious,” while the red makes them vicious enough to “kill a man for a new saddle.”

In a story called “Half-Breeds,” the narrator tells of a family of mixed-blood brothers fathered by a Frenchman in British Columbia. After they and their gang kill a shepherd and the constable who tries to arrest them, a vigilante force of citizens and sympathetic Indians travels 50 miles to lay siege to them where they have holed up in a cabin. Surrendering, they are returned to the settlement for trial, where three are hanged, and three are put in prison because they are underage. A squaw with them is set free.

Cripple Creek, Colorado, 1906
In “Wantawanda,” the mixed-blood chief of a band of Crow Indians, Medicine Calf, turns out to be a “mulatto,” whose dark coloring and curly hair make him an object of curiosity among the whites. He surrounds himself with so-called “dog soldiers” who successfully protect a traveling company of whites from being slain by other Crow Indians.

Women. Warman’s West is almost bereft of females. A white woman, who keeps a boarding house in Cripple Creek, Colorado, shoots a suspicious man who turns out to be a deputy on duty during a miner’s strike. Nursed back to health by her, he falls in love. She makes a claim on a spot she likes, and the two invest his money in a dig for gold. They eventually find gold on the day the money runs out, in the last bucket of rock taken from the mine.

In “A Quiet Day in Creede,” a prostitute figures in the story only because she visits Bob Ford’s dancehall collecting for the burial of another woman just before he is shot. He signs her list of subscribers, and when he sees that Soapy Smith has pledged five dollars, he puts in five and “raises” Smith another five. She is described only as “sorry-looking.” A woman inside the entrance of the dancehall gets no description at all, except that she is a “silent partner” in the business.

Sheet music, 1893
Wrapping up. Cy Warman (1855-1914) must be the only western writer who made a living as a poet. His “Sweet Marie,” a love lyric to his wife, became a popular song in the 1890s after it was published in The New York Sun and set to music. Years later, at his death, he was remembered as “The Poet of the Rockies.”

Two collections of railroad stories preceded Frontier Stories, and he continued publishing stories about the railroad, Indians, and western life for the rest of his life. From 1893, he was a frequent contributor of poems, fiction, and articles to McClure’s and a few other slick magazines. In his later years, he settled in Ontario, his wife’s home.

Frontier Stories is currently available at google books and Internet Archive, and for the nook. For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, click over to Patti Abbot's blog.

The Overland Monthly, vol. 37 (1901)
The Publisher’s Weekly, vol. 71 (1914)

Image credits:
Cy Warman photo, The Canadian Magazine, vol. 31 (1908)
Pony Express riders, Wikimedia Commons
All others, USGS Photographic Library

Coming up: Saturday music, Charley Pride


  1. The poet of the rockies. I think I've read some of his poetry, not his fiction, though.

  2. Cy Warman is another interesting writer that is being rediscovered. I see many of his stories are available in print on demand books. Gone are the days when these books were only on the rare book market. Now they are easy to find because of google books, e-books, print on demand reprints.