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].

President Eisenhower’s Wisdom was Crucial to Ending Korean Conflict

Korean War tales were popular in American comic books. This copy of Frontline Combat #1, 1951, a William Gaines file pedigree, sold for $6,612.50 at a March 2002 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On the last weekend of June 1950, the United States was sweltering in that summer’s first heat wave. Those who could, left their small-screen TVs for air-conditioned movie theaters (that was the month my family acquired our first TV). Treasure Island, starring Robert Newton as Long John Silver, was Walt Disney’s first completely live-action movie and The Maverick Queen, Zane Grey’s 51st novel, was published posthumously. I missed both of them.

Half a world away, heavy rains from the first monsoon were falling on the rice paddies when the North Korean artillery – 40 miles of big guns, side-by-side – opened fire. The shelling was sporadic at first, but soon all artillery was erupting as officers corrected their range. Overhead, Yaks and Sturmoviks were headed toward Seoul, less than 50 miles away. North Korean People’s Army generals put 90,000 troops into South Korea smoothly with no congestion as junks/saipans were unloading amphibious troops behind Republic of Korea lines to the south.

It was early afternoon in New York, noon in Independence, where President Harry S. Truman was, and 4 a.m. on the faraway 38th parallel when, as General Douglas MacArthur later put it, “North Korea struck like a cobra.”

In a larger sense, it represented the inevitable collision of the Sino-Soviet push to extend communism and the U.S policy of containment. Truman secured a mandate from the United Nations to expel North Korea from the south, euphemistically called a “police action.” A U.N. force comprised of 90 percent Americans and South Koreans under MacArthur launched a counteroffensive with a daring amphibious landing in September 1950. By seizing the initiative, they drove the communists north, back across the 38th parallel. For the first time in history, an international organization had met aggression with force and when it was announced, Congress rose in a standing ovation. The Chicago Tribune congratulated the president, noting the approval of the action was unanimous.

However, as MacArthur was busy planning the next steps of the campaign, he tragically misread the intentions of Communist China. As U.N. forces approached the Yalu River, hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops poured across the border in January 1951 and drove MacArthur back south. These setbacks prompted him to consider using nuclear weapons against China or North Korea. When Truman refused to extend the conflict and a possible nuclear exchange, MacArthur criticized public policy. Unwilling to accept this insubordination, on April 11, 1951, Commander-in-Chief Truman relieved the popular general and replaced him with General Matthew Ridgway.

Although peace negotiations dragged on for months, as soon as Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president, he made a special point to conclude all discussions. As the only general to serve as president in the 20th century, he was acutely aware of the ravages of war and was not about to let diplomats or the United Nations muddle along.

We miss him and his wisdom as we face an even more dangerous, nuclear-armed North Korea that grows more aggressive each day with solutions that are more limited and risky.

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 chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].