Texas cowboy helped create our fascination with the ‘Wild West’

An 1885 first edition of Charles Siringo’s A Texas Cow-Boy sold for $28,680 at a November 2009 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1885, Charles Siringo published his first book. It was an autobiography with the long and awkward title A Texas Cow-Boy; Or Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony. It may have been a slight exaggeration to claim it sold a million copies (accounts vary). However, it was definitely plausible, since it was the first authentic book written by a genuine working cowboy.

Siringo had a reputation for being a reckless but courageous cowboy who was an expert shot with his reliable six-shooter. This was a fascinating combination and, when added to his real-life experiences, was exactly what ranch hands and dreamy-eyed city dwellers were eager to read about.

It’s doubtful that anyone was remotely aware of just how insatiable the public appetite was for stories about the exciting American West or the paucity of books or magazines available. This was a mysterious place filled with cowboys, ranchers, outlaws rustlers, Indians and lawmen. Stories about the “Wild West” were to become bestsellers beyond wildest imaginations.

Charles Siringo was born in Texas in 1855 and, after a few rudimentary lessons, became a cowpuncher. While still a teenager, he had his own registered brand and dreams of one day having a big ranch. This was still possible by simply rounding up a bunch of “mavericks” – unbranded cows wandering the open range – claiming ownership and slapping your own brand on them. He was never able to build much of a herd and ended up as a shopkeeper in Kansas for a few years.

However, before he was 30 years old, he had plenty of stories and a zeal for making money. The book he wrote was an immediate success and played a pivotal role in creating the enduring American fascination with the Western cowboy. He had spent 20 years working as a Pinkerton detective chasing rustlers and train robbers, sometimes even going undercover and infiltrating gangs of outlaws. Some of his more notable exploits included chasing Butch Cassidy and his “Wild Bunch” all over the Southwest until they escaped to South America (much to the relief of the railroad owners). Earlier, he and Sheriff Pat Garrett put an end to the career of Billy the Kid in a famous gunfight.

He finally left Pinkerton in 1907 but had enough real-life experience to write five more novels. He died in Altadena, Calif., in 1928 at age 73, probably unaware of just how popular stories of the West would become in books, movies and television.

By fate or coincidence, 10 years later, the most prolific chronicler of the American West would also be buried in Altadena, but this storyteller made a fortune and was the first author to become a millionaire. It was none other than the incomparable Zane Grey (1872-1939). Nobody comes close to spinning tales of this genre for so long and in every media available.

Zane Grey was from Zanesville, Ohio, and would become the best selling Western author of all time. From 1917 to 1926, he was one of the top 10 bestsellers nine times and is credited with sales of over a staggering 40 million books. Then, when the paperback format was introduced, most of his books were reissued into mass distribution.

Hollywood eagerly turned most of his stories into over 50 movies. His bestseller was 1912’s Riders of the Purple Sage; Grey sold the movie rights to motion-picture executive William Fox for $2,500. Fox went on to sell his company and it eventually grew into an entertainment giant. Last week, Disney bought 21st Century Fox for $71 billion.

Zane Grey books and movies easily made the transition to television. Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre ran on CBS from 1956 to 1961 with 149 episodes. Uniquely, five episodes were so popular they ended up being spun off into their own shows: Trackdown (Robert Culp), The Rifleman (Chuck Connors), The Westerner (Brian Keith), Black Saddle (Peter Breck), and Johnny Ringo (Don Durant). And, of course, there was Grey’s novel The Lone Star Ranger, which spawned four movie adaptions.

I grew up going to the movies every Saturday and I tried to see every Western at least twice. This addiction carried over into television and I loved them all, memorizing all the actors and their role names. Somewhere in this repertoire, I suspect you will recall a favorite.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

There is Perhaps an Unpleasant Way to Cool the Planet

This special promo poster for the 1969 movie Krakatoa, East of Java went to auction in August 2007.

By Jim O’Neal

Krakatoa, East of Java was a film released in 1969 that starred Maximilian Schell and Brian Keith. Despite being nominated for an Oscar for special effects, it did poorly at the box office (as did its 1970s re-release as Volcano).

Most trivia buffs are aware the movie was loosely based on an actual event in 1883 and that Krakatoa is actually west of Java. Far fewer are familiar with an earlier volcanic event that occurred on April 10, 1815, on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. A mountain named Tambora exploded in a truly spectacular fashion that was heard more than 2,000 miles away.

It was the biggest volcanic explosion in 10,000 years – 150 times greater than Mount St. Helens and equivalent to 60,000 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs. Thirty-six cubic miles of smoky ash and dust erupted, killing an estimated 80,000+ people with the blast and tsunamis.

The 1815 Tambora eruption was the largest observed in recorded history anywhere on Earth. Clouds of gas and dust encircled the world, causing heavy rain in some areas and unprecedented snowfalls in others. Crops everywhere failed to grow normally.

In Ireland, a famine and associated typhoid epidemic killed 65,000 people.

Spring never came and summer never warmed. 1816 became known as “the year without a summer.”

In the Northeastern United States, a persistent “dry fog” was observed. The fog reddened and dimmed the sunlight to the point that sunspots were visible to the naked eye. Neither wind nor rain dispersed the fog and it was identified as a stratospheric surface aerosol veil.

On June 6, snow fell in Albany, N.Y., and conditions were such that most agricultural crops in North America were ruined. In New England, with typical wry humor, the year was dubbed “Eighteen Hundred and Frozen to Death.”

Since Indonesia has over 130 active volcanoes, the most of any nation, I suspect we will be “hearing” from them again in the future (pun intended).

P.S. Since global temperatures post-eruption fell 1.5 degrees, maybe Earth’s natural thermostat can help solve the global-warming trends. However, the side effects would be devastating.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].