Thursday, August 16, 2012

George Tower Buffum, Smith of Bear City (1906)

This collection of frontier sketches could aptly be described as creative nonfiction. The fictionalized treatment of fact begins in the opening preface, in which Buffum applauds the American mining industry and its pioneers. Unlike other captains of industry, he claims, these men extract wealth that is “clean and untainted by the despoiling of their fellow man.” Viewers of Deadwood will be surprised to read that even “Uncle George” Hearst gets credit for never having been the cause of human suffering.

The stories Buffum has to tell are chiefly set in various parts of the West, where mining has been the main interest of those men and women to be found there. The yarns are of the kind you’d expect to be told over brandy and cigars in a turn-of-the-century gathering of traveling salesmen. And if Buffum is to be believed, he gathered them while covering a good many miles.

Outlaws. Famous Old West outlaws and the odd lawman are featured, including Curly Bill (Brocius), Soapy Smith, Clay Allison, and Billy the Kid. Bat Masterson also makes an appearance. Breezy, hard-to-believe tales, they are in fact short on historical fact.

As one example, western enthusiast Ramon Adams scoffs at Buffum’s garbled account of Billy the Kid’s arrest in his survey of Old West lore, Burs Under the Saddle (1964). Just about everything presented by Buffum as fact is incorrect, Adams notes, including the absence of Pat Garrett from the story. Two stories about Curly Bill even give completely different versions of how the man died.

The chapter devoted to Soapy Smith stands out over the others in the way it brings the man so vividly to life. Buffum claims to have seen Soapy on a street in Denver in 1879, gathering a crowd as he sells soap with the help of two assistants pretending to be customers. The soap comes wrapped up with money—as much as $100—and Soapy takes bids from the crowd until folks begin to figure out it’s a scam.

In Leadville and Creede, Soapy graduates to the saloon and gambling business. “A professional badman,” Buffum says, Soapy was also a “devoted husband and father.” When a parson arrives in Creede with a letter from Soapy’s wife asking him to contribute to the building of a church, he readily complies. Using his street-barker’s gift of oratory, he raises $300 from the assembled saloon patrons, and puts in another $400 himself.

Hotels. Many of the stories involve the proprietors or employees of various hotels to be found around the West. Most of them are described as repellant, the bed linen rarely changed, the food inedible. Given the proliferation of firearms, they are often also the scene of bloodshed.

A cook by the name of Mother Corbett at Snake River Crossing, Idaho, is known for serving up terrible food. Passengers passing through on the stage line are treated to a cold meal of tough beef, rancid bacon, or goat meat, with hot pepper sauce and biscuits hard as rocks—all for a dollar. When a whiskey salesman has the temerity to complain, she makes him eat serving after serving at gunpoint, until the stage driver begs her to release the man so the coach can depart.

Style. The stories are first-person narratives, basically long monologues. They employ a declamatory style meant to entertain with ironic circumlocutions and elevated word choice, for comic effect. In this example, the narrator describes how the threat of gunplay between two men quickly clears a saloon:

The messenger and the bar loungers made hurried departures, as business matters were getting too exciting and any delay might result in serious personal inconvenience and fatality.

In the spirit of Rex Beach’s collection of animal stories, collected in Pardners (1906), one of Buffum’s sketches is told by a burro called Satan. He tells of being taken on a prospecting trip into northern Idaho, where he discovers a silver deposit by following his nose.

The mine eventually falls under the supervision of John Hays Hammond, who makes a fortune and travels to South Africa. There his meddling in the Brits’ attempts to seize the Transvaal from the Boers lands him in prison with a 15-year sentence. After paying $125,000, Satan tells us, Hammond gets the sentence commuted and goes on to become a world famous mining authority—all thanks to Satan, the burro. Some irony here? Maybe.

The West. Violence, guns, and death predominate as themes in the stories, and together they portray the West as a place where life was cheap and few escaped misfortune. The narration assumes an attitude of detachment, as if reporting on the curious customs of the inhabitants of some colony far from the urban centers of the civilized world.

Rincon, New Mexico, is described as “a city of toughs,” where shootings are common. There are two stores, 50 saloons, two dancehalls, and one hotel. The hotel consists of a single large room with 40 beds. A dollar gets you one of them for a night. The cost if you’re already dead, however, is $5.00, as a traveler learns, who is told that one bed’s occupant is actually a body waiting for a coffin that’s to arrive the next morning.

And such was life in the West.

Wrapping up. George Tower Buffum (1846-1926) was born in New Hampshire, and little else is known about him. Another collection of his stories, On Two Frontiers was published in 1918.

Smith of Bear City is currently available at Internet Archive and for the nook. For more of Thursday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.

Illustrations: From the first edition by F. T. Wood

Coming up: Saturday music, more Bob Wills


  1. so the playing fast and loose with the facts is not a product of our modern age, I see. :)

  2. Sounds to me like he takes real live characters and events and stretches the truth in them to provide fodder for his mill. Interesting and a fine review.

  3. Thanks, Ron.
    I have this book in my collection. As you know might recall, Soapy Smith was my great-grandfather. Your readers who wish to read more about him are welcome to visit my sites.

    Jeff Smith

  4. Most Frontier stories must have been handed down by word of mouth or, like Buffum, gathered during one's travel from one town to another. A fascinating period it was. Thanks for writing about this "forgotten" writer, Ron.