Monthly Archives: August 2016

Putting the History in the Historical Novel: Collis P. Huntington

This is the tenth in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Last week, I wrote about the Mariposa Indian War. This week, I turn to Collis P. Huntington, one of the principals in the Central Pacific Railroad, the company that built the western leg of America’s first transcontinental railroad.

The main character in Trouble at Mono Pass is Jack Grier. His brother Richard is a close second. The novel opens a few months after the end of the Civil War. Richard, a lawyer and politician, remained in North Carolina throughout the war years, but sent his family to Canada to keep them out of harm’s way. Fifteen years earlier, Jack left his infant daughter with friends in California when he was unable to deal with a personal tragedy. His daughter, Helen, has grown up with the understanding that Jack’s friends, Eli and Sofie Monroe are her parents.

Jack decides to return to Carmel Valley in California, hopeful he can find redemption and form a relationship with the daughter he has not seen since she was an infant. Richard decides North Carolina’s prospects are poor and that the railroads offer the most promising opportunity. He travels to New York to meet Collis P. Huntington, who serves as the Eastern Agent of the Central Pacific. It is, after all, on his way to Ontario Province, where he will gather his family.

Richard rose from his chair as his guest approached the table in the Fifth Avenue’s dining room.

“Mr. Grier, I presume?” At six feet one, Collis P. Huntington, forty-five years old, with thinning pepper-and-salt hair and a close-cropped beard, seldom had to look up at anyone. Both men dressed conservatively, in black frock coats and tweed trousers. In Huntington, Richard had found a man every bit as calculating and driven as himself.

***

[I]n Richard, [Huntington] saw a younger version of himself, and admired Richard’s abstention from alcohol, a requirement he had imposed on his hardware clerks back in Sacramento.

Trouble at Mono Pass, p. 11.

Huntington hires Richard to serve as the company general counsel’s right-hand man. Two years later, Richard returns to New York to meet with Huntington. He had only a smattering of an education, which is reflected in the correspondence quoted in David Lavender’s biography of Huntington, The Great Persuader. I reflect Huntington’s grammar in his conversation with Richard (Trouble at Mono Pass, p. 191):

Charley [Crocker] told me there’s lots more work to do on culverts and trestles, but, by God, he pulled it off. He could always sell picks and shovels, but Charley’s more of a showman than I ever gave him credit for. There was three inspectors. One was our old friend Lloyd Tevis, so Charley didn’t worry about him. And I didn’t worry none about Sherman Day. I’ve known him for over ten years. But the third one, a Colonel Williamson – well, none of us knew what to expect from him.

Thus, with Lavender’s biography as a resource, I realized that I had to coarsen Huntington’s language to accurately reflect his limited education.

Please consider a longer read. New Garden, the novel in which I introduce the reader to the Grier family, is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

Trouble at Mono Pass, the sequel to New Garden, is available on line and at the referenced Greensboro locations. In California, it is available at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve (Lee Vining) gift shop, the Mono Lake Committee Bookstore (Lee Vining), and the Donner Memorial State Park Bookstore (Truckee, California).

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Putting the History in the Historical Novel: The Mariposa Indian War

This is the ninth in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. In my last post, I wrote about the Carmel Mission. This week, I turn to the Mariposa Indian War, one of all-too-many tragic engagements between white Americans and the native tribes in the American West.

Among the sources I cite at the conclusion of New Garden are Barrett and Gifford’s Indian Life of the Yosemite Region, Miwok Material Culture (republished by Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Association); Sarah Lee Johnson’s Roaring Camp – The Social World of the California Gold Rush; H.W. Brands’ The Age of Gold; and Lafayette Bunnell’s Discovery of the Yosemite and the Indian War of 1851.

I employed these sources when I adapted Bunnell’s account to the story. Jack Grier, New Garden’s main character, heads up a Gold Rush trading company, Sierra Dry Goods. Jack becomes a captain in the state militia organized to punish the local tribes after two of his men are killed at one of his trading posts. In actuality, the tribes attacked the trading post of another supplier, Jim Savage. I have modeled Jack’s role after that of Captain John Boling, who served under Savage. I deviate from Bunnell’s account where necessary to bring interest to the story.

First, I give the reader an understanding of the native tribes’ presence in the Sierra Nevada long before the California Gold Rush, in a chapter captioned “Two Hundred Generations” (pp. 115-116).

Twenty-seven thousand years ago, their ancestors crossed the Bering Strait land bridge to Alaska. Twelve thousand years ago, their ancestors migrated to California and lived primarily along the coast and southern California. Five thousand years ago, their ancestors migrated inland.

By 1849, more than two hundred generations of Miwoks and Yokuts had lived in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The men had hunted deer, bear, and smaller game. They had fished the Sierra’s rivers. The women had experimented with native plants and made use of their properties for both food and medicine.

***

More than two hundred generations of Miwoks and Yokuts had lived in harmony with the land. They had no need to plant crops. They lived in the world’s most abundant garden, which only required harvesting.

By 1848, smallpox and other diseases brought by the Spanish had cut California’s native population in half, from 300,000 to 150,000. Two years after the discovery of gold, the state’s native population fell another 50,000. By 1851, the white miners’ destruction of forests and game threatened the survival of the Sierra Nevada tribes. After an Indian raid on one of Savage’s trading posts, the whites used the attack as an excuse for driving the tribes out of the mountains to a reservation in Fresno.

The war was more of a “herding” or gathering of the tribes, with limited armed engagements. The tribes included the Ahwahnechee, whose members consisted of a mix of the Miwoks of the Western Sierra and the Monos of the Eastern Sierra. As the “war” neared its end, two soldiers murdered the son of Ahwahnechee Chief Tenaya. Bunnell recounts Chief Tenaya’s reaction. I have replicated Bunnell’s account on pages 124-125 of New Garden, except to expand on it (in italicized language) to provide for a dramatic impact on Jack’s life (expanded later in the story):

Kill me, Captain. Yes, kill me, as you killed my son; as you would kill my people if they were to come to you! You would kill my race if you had the power. *** [W]hen I am dead I will call to my people to come to you, I will call louder than you have heard me call; that they shall hear me in their sleep, and come to avenge the death of their chief and his son. Yes, sir, American, my spirit will make trouble for you and your people, as you have caused trouble to me and my people. May you grieve the death of your son as I shall grieve the death of my mine.

The Mariposa Battalion ultimately succeeds in removing the local tribes to a reservation, but Tenaya’s curse haunts Jack later in the story.

Please consider a longer read. New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

The sequel, Trouble at Mono Pass, is available on line and at the referenced Greensboro locations. In California, it is available at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve (Lee Vining) gift shop, the Mono Lake Committee Bookstore (Lee Vining), and the Donner Memorial State Park Bookstore (Truckee, California).

 

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