"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Friday, April 7, 2017

Laura Adams Armer: Writer, Artist, Photographer

 In April 1932 when Laura Adams Armer traveled east to accept the Newberry Medal for her children’s book, Waterless Mountain, she wrote, “I was living in the wilderness of the Navajo and Hopi country, seventy eight miles from the railroad.... Traveling by train across New Mexico, through Texas to New Orleans .... I had time to think about the Newberry Medal....that I, as a genuine amateur in the field of literature, had never heard of the Newberry Medal.”

Laura started her career as an artist and photographer. It wasn’t until she was fifty-seven, in 1931, that her first book was published. Upon receiving recognition, she said, “I’ve been writing books in my mind for the last thirty-five years. Waterless Mountain was merely the first one I put down on paper.”

Laura at art school
Laura was born in Sacramento, California, in 1874, the youngest of three children. Her father farmed, did carpentry work, and even tried his hand at gold mining. Her mother was a seamstress. In 1880, the family moved to San Francisco.

Laura was said to be a dreamer, and by the time she was sixteen she showed a great interest in drawing and painting. She was fortunate to have an uncle who doted on her as much as her mother did, and he paid her tuition to the San Francisco School of Art. After graduation six years later, she opened her own studio in San Francisco, catering to California’s high society. She also compiled a collection of photographs of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Her work was often exhibited in photographic salons.

In 1902, her interest in photographic art form took a new direction when she and her fiancé, Sidney Armer, made a trip to the Southwest. She later said, “There at Tucson and in the Catalina Mountains I was first inoculated with the desert delirium.” It was a delirium that would continue throughout her life.

After Laura and Sidney married (he would eventually be recognized as being the highest paid commercial illustrator in California), she moved her studio to their new home in Berkeley. In 1903 she gave birth to her first child, son Austin. (An infant daughter died in 1905.) Over the years, Laura won a number of awards for her photography, wrote articles for various magazines, and illustrated her own and other books. (The dust jacket and frontispiece illustration for Waterless Mountain was a reproduction of a painting by Laura based on a composite of two of her photographs.)

Although work and motherhood kept her busy, the Southwest kept tugging at her heart. In 1923 she, Sidney, and Austin went on a vacation to the land of the Navajo. With them was a friend, Paul Louis Faye, who had lived among the Navajos. Laura writes, “We left Berkeley in a Buick touring car .... We were prepared to camp out in a dry country. The running board of the car held canteens of water and a lunch box. A trunk on the rear stowed a gasoline camp stove with pots and pans. Sleeping bags and ethnological reports filled half the back seat. Cameras and canned goods reposed at our feet.”

Her goal was to capture scenes at Sunset Post and Oraibi and document the lives of the Hopi and Navajo. She met Lorenzo Hubbell, of the Hubbell Trading Post, a man who would become her mentor and help her arrange trips into Navajo areas. In order to meet the locals, she agreed to teach art classes in a government school. Her first art class consisted of forty Hopi boys and girls. The following year, she asked Hubbell to help her find a place where she could do her work in solitude. He took her to Blue Canyon and helped her set up two tents with her equipment and supplies. When he left her, he said, “If this moon place is not wild enough for you, send word to Oraibi and I will try to find you what you want.”

She wanted to learn about the sacred native ceremonies and to film them. Being a woman, she wasn’t allowed to watch the ceremonies, nor was she allowed to photograph or sketch their sacred sand paintings. But when she discovered that the sprinkling of the corn pollen was the sacred item, she convinced them to allow her to photograph and paint more than a hundred sand paintings “sans pollen.” In 1928, Hubbell helped her fund a film, The Mountain Chant. She set out in Hollywood to distribute it as a feature-length movie. Even though it wasn’t a commercial success, it was widely viewed. She wrote Hubbell saying, “I’m not a success as a salesman ...everything is busines, graft, politics ... you can’t realize until you home here [to Hollywood] ... Sorry, but it’s one woman against millions of businessmen.”

Laura retreated to her writing and began working on her second book, Dark Circle of Branches. Proceeds from Waterless Mountain kept food on their table during the depression. Around 1936, she couldn’t establish ownership of the studio she’d built on the reservation and was forced to return to California, ending her visits to the Southwest. She continued her work though, which included a 50,000 word manuscript about sand painting. Other works include, Southwest (1935), which Laura also illustrated, The Trader’s Children (1937), and The Forest Pool (1938), recognized as that year’s most distinguished picture book. It was illustrated in color.

In 1962 Sidney died, and Laura died the following year at the age of eighty-nine.

When Lorenzo Hubbell dropped her off in Blue Canyon back in 1924, he asked her if she was lonely being there, week after week, to which she replied, “Here with the Navajos I am not hampered by trivialities, but I have learned that one must win his own place in the spiritual world, painfully and alone.... The Promised Land lies on the other side of a wilderness.”

One can’t help but wonder if she returned, at last, to her beloved Southwest.

Photo Credit:
Laura at art school
"Mother Took Out the Sheep"

Friday, December 9, 2016

Teresa Urrea, Healer and Saint

She claimed to have spoken to the Virgin Mary. Many believed she could heal with her touch. Rebellions were undertaken in her name. Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz called her “the most dangerous girl in Mexico.”

Who was this Mexican Joan of Arc? This beautiful young woman with the soulful eyes who became Saint Teresa to the common folk?

She was born Niña Garcia Noña Maria Rebecca Chavez on October 15, 1873, in Rancho de Santana, Sinaloa, Mexico. She was the illegitimate daughter of a fourteen-year-old Tehueco Indian and wealthy rancher and political figure, Don Tomás Urrea. While Don Tomás acknowledged her as his child and gave her his name, she was raised in the Latin fashion by her mother and the other women in her circle.

She was strikingly beautiful, strong, vivacious, and precocious. She did not attend school but around the age of nine learned to read. At this time she began calling herself Teresa. But it was her apprenticeship under an old Indian woman, a folk healer or curandera, that was to set the course for Teresa’s life. The curandera taught Teresa how to treat the sick and injured with herbs. She was a midwife and took Teresa along to deliver babies. It was said that Teresa could make the birthing less painful by using a form of hypnosis on the women in labor.

Even as a young girl, her father and others seems to recognize her special ability to put people at ease by a simple touch or a look into her dark eyes. Word spread about her miraculous ability to heal. She was unselfish in her aid, giving it freely. This talent afforded her a status that someone of her station in life could not have hoped for otherwise.

In 1880, Don Tomás, involved in his country’s politics, backed the candidate who ran against Porfirio Diaz. Fearing reprisals from the brutal new dictator, Tomás moved his family, including Teresa, to Cabora, Sonora. It is believed that around 1889 when she was 16, Teresa was assaulted and possibly raped. The incident plunged her into a coma, or a type of cataleptic state, that is said to have lasted several months. The doctor, at one point being unable to find a heartbeat, pronounced her dead. She was about to be buried when she sat up in the casket. When she awoke she claimed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary. One source says she continued to slip in and out of the “trance” and her healing powers became even more powerful.

Crowds began to gather outside her door, common people begging for her blessing and her healing hand. Hundreds of people every day lined up to see her, and she continued to give her aid freely. She became the Divine Teresa to these humble peasants. She began to stand up for the villagers in their struggles against the corrupt and cruel government of Diaz, who took their lands and forced them to work as slaves in the mines and on distant plantations, and who controlled every aspect of their lives. Although Teresa always claimed she was not active in politics, she often spoke out for the people and was quoted as saying, “God intended for you to have the lands, or he would not have given them to you.”

Several Indian tribes feeling empowered by her words started to fight back against Diaz’s cruel treatment. The best known rebellion involved several Indian tribes who defeated Diaz’s federales in the village of Tomochic. They held off Diaz’s soldiers for several weeks before the village was burned to the ground. The people of Tomochic practically worshipped Teresa, going so far as to have an icon of her in the church. After this battle the rebels began calling themselves Teresitas, and their battle cry became, “Viva la Santa de Cabora!” The Saint of Cabora.

Porfirio Diaz became concerned about the power Teresa was having over the people, even though she did not appear to be directly involved in the uprisings. And Diaz had not forgotten about her father’s loyalties and support of his opponent. After another small uprising, Diaz ordered the Urreas deported from Mexico. Five hundred soldiers showed up to enforce the exile. The entire family left for Nogales, Arizona, arriving by train in 1892. Still, people continued to clamor after Teresa, wanting to touch her, to ask for her healing powers. The family would subsequently move to El Bosque, then Solomonville, seeking peace and distance from the talk of Mexican revolution and conspiracies that always managed to involve Teresa.

She maintained her innocence, but to escape imprisonment, her father moved the family again in 1896 to El Paso, Texas. Teresa could not escape her notoriety. As soon as she arrived, there were 3,000 people who had come from all over the region seeking her miraculous cures, camping out, waiting for her. Those coming to see her now were not just peasants but the wealthy and prominent as well. She is said to have seen over 200 people a day while in El Paso.

The Indians attacked again in her name, this time on the customhouse in Nogales. She made a statement for the El Paso Herald which read: “The press generally in these days has occupied itself with my humble person in terms unfavorable in the highest degree, since in a fashion most unjust--the fashion in the republic of Mexico; they refer to me as participating in political matters; they connect me with the events which have happened in Nogales, Sonora in Coyame and Presidio del Norte, Chihuahua where people have risen in arms against the government of Sr. General Don Porfirio Diaz... I have noticed with much pain that the persons who have taken up arms in Mexican territory have invoked my name in aid of the schemes they are carrying through. But I repeat I am not one who authorizes or at the same time interferes with these proceedings. Decidedly I am a victim ... expatriated from my country since May 19, 1892.”

Teresa faced harassment and death threats from not only the Mexican government, but the United States government and the Catholic Church, forcing her father to move their family again, this time to Clifton, Arizona. Teresa resumed her healing practices, and in 1900 married a man her father didn’t like or trust. The man was Guadalupe Rodriguez, a Yaqui Indian and miner who, the day after the wedding, seemingly went berserk and tried to shoot her. Some believed he might have been a hired assassin under orders of Diaz. He was sent to an insane asylum and Teresa, at the suggestion of a friend, moved to California, becoming estranged from her father who remained in Arizona.

She took up healing again and hired an interpreter named John Van Order to assist her. She did not marry again but had two daughters with Van Order (1902 and 1904). They lived as husband and wife. When her father died in 1902 of typhoid fever, she was inconsolable. She and her family returned to Clifton, but her healing powers began to fade. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and died in 1906 at the age of 33, leaving her children in the care of a friend. She was buried next to her father.

Many believed that Teresa used up her healing powers on others. And that, coupled with the shock of her father’s death and the stress of her short life, she had no strength or willpower left to fight her own illness. Teresa Urrea is remembered still, and many continue to seek spiritual guidance and inspiration in her name, believing she was a true saint.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Kittie Wilkins, Idaho Horsewoman

Kittie C. Wilkins was a media darling of her time. Her interviews were published in thirty-seven states, as well as Great Britain, New Zealand, the District of Columbia, and Canada. Headlines labeled her “the Idaho Horse Queen,” “the Queen of Diamonds,” “The Only One of Her Kind,” “Horse Queen of the West,” to name a few. And yet, today, this woman who inherited and ran the highly successful Wilkins Horse Company is virtually unknown in the annuls of history.

Kittie’s father, J. R. Wilkins, traveled around the West and engaged in several business endeavors before settling in Idaho in the early 1880s to start a ranching operation in Owyhee County’s Bruneau valley on land situated between the west and east forks of the Jarbidge River. Their livestock grazed what was called Wilkins Island, a remote plateau encompassing 160,000 acres straddling the Idaho-Nevada border. The Wilkins Horse Company was said to be the largest herd of range-bred horses in the West, about 10,000 head. Their “Diamond” brand was well known throughout the United States, as well as in other countries, and their horses were in high demand.

Born in Jacksonville, Oregon, in 1857, Katherine “Kittie” Caroline Wilkins got her start in the horse business at the age of two. On one of the family’s many moves, friends of her parents gave Kittie two gold coins–forty dollars–as an investment for her future. Her father bought a filly with the money and, Kittie often told reporters, “From the increase all my bands have come.”  But Kittie’s education would be more than what she could get on the ranch. Her parents sent her to Sacred Heart Academy in Ogden, Utah, and later Notre Dame College in San Jose, California, which had the reputation as being the “best school for young ladies in the West.”

After school, Kittie returned to the ranch where she began to accompany her father on his trips to the Midwest to market his horses. It quickly became apparent to J. R. that Kittie could sell the horses better than he could, and it wasn’t long before she was running the ranch’s horse operation, handling marketing and sales, and traveling to the railheads and stockyards by herself. She told a Denver reporter, “I will say to you that this horse breeding has fascination. It is in interest something like mining. You are lured on, expecting to strike it rich every moment.” And she did. In 1900, with the Boer War raging and the demand for horses high, she sold 8,000 head to a company in Fort Scott, Kansas, which was said to be the biggest single sale of horses in the West. During World War I, she sold to the U. S. Government for cavalry mounts. Her markets encompassed the United States, even the Yukon Territory. She bred stock for different markets; farming, freighting, saddle, and harness. She bred Clydesdales, Percherons, Morgans, Hambletonians.

Kittie created quite a stir on her travels, and newspaper reporters clamored to find out more about the pretty young woman running a horse raising enterprise – predominantly a man’s world.  She seemed to enjoy the publicity and used it to help market her horses. The “Queen of Diamonds” (named from the ranch’s brand) broke the stereotype of what they believed a lady rancher would be. While most expected an Annie Oakley type, rough around the edges, they found a sophisticated, educated woman who did not attempt to compete with the men. She told a reporter at the Rocky Mountain News. “I believe that a lady can engage in this business as well as a man and retain all attributes of character.” She also told the Sioux City Journal, “I have been asked to throw the lasso just once at the various horse markets, but I don’t yearn for that kind of a reputation. There have been several women engaged in the cattle business in the West who have been noted for their daring on horseback and in the stock pens, but while I believe I am able to hold my own with almost anybody in handling a horse when it becomes necessary, I am not going to make myself ridiculous by roping horses for the amusement of men about the stockyards.” She told a St. Louis reporter, “I do not like to see women ride astride. I believe I may say I can ride a well as any woman who ever sat on a horse, and yet I never used anything but a sidesaddle.”

Kittie did not employ commission agents; she handled the deals herself. In an interview with the Rocky Mountain News she said, “My way of doing business is generally to drop into Omaha, Chicago, or Denver and place an advertisement in the papers announcing my arrival. Then the dealers call on me, or I go to see them, and we talk over the situation, you know, just like two men would talk on any business proposition. Finally I make a deal, telegraph to the ranch for the stock, it arrives, I get my money, and there you are. It is all very simple, after all, but it requires a knowledge of the business to make any money out of it. I can tell in making a deal with a man, just by looking at him when he says he’ll give so much cash, whether I can get another cent or not, and if there is any profit to me in his figures the deal closes right there.” She went on to say, “I wouldn’t want to be a horse trader ... I can’t bear to dicker and haggle over the price of anything. I ask as much as I expect to get when I’m selling horses, and, as a rule, I get it.”

Although she traveled alone, she never encountered rudeness from the men she dealt with. She admitted that she did attract attention and the occasional teasing remark. She told the Boston Advertiser, “I am the only woman in a crowd of two hundred or more horse dealers. Sometimes people come out to the stockyards to see in me a new curiosity, and there are a few who try to flirt or make sport of me. I just walk up to a group of such men and, looking them squarely in the face, say, ‘Do you gentlemen wish to look at my horses?’ That generally makes them blush and look ashamed and ends all further desire on their part to play the gallant.”

Kittie always remained a lady and did not pursue the rough end of ranching. She always gave credit to her father and brothers for that. She was clear to clarify to reporters that she was not a “cattle queen,” leaving that end of the operation to the men. She preferred horses because they did not take as much care as cattle and brought more money. She was an advocate for range horses. She told the New York Herald, “the baby treatment is all right if you merely want to produce phenomenal and fancy-priced trotter and race horses that are good for nothing else. But if you want a thoroughly sound and hardy stock with the lung power that is one of the first essentials of all-round usefulness, then the range system is the only one to employ.”

Despite her life surrounded by men, Kittie never married, although she had plenty of prospects. It is believed she was engaged to her ranch foreman, Joseph Pellessier, when he was killed in 1909 over a water dispute. She had no children of her own but supported a Salt Lake City orphanage and adopted several children and raised them on the ranch. Young men learned to rodeo at the Wilkins company, and a few of the ranch’s buckaroos became national champions on the rodeo circuit. One of her hired hands was quoted in a magazine article as saying, “If a man weren’t a good rider when he went to work for Kit Wilkins, he was a good rider when he left or he wasn’t riding at all – unless in a hearse.”

In 1904, gold was discovered on the Jarbidge River, and a gold rush ensued. It turned Wilkins Island into a highway overnight, forcing the Kittie’s ranching operation into a decline. Coupled with the growing popularity of the automobile and the railways for transportation, her days of horse trading were slowly being phased out as demand for her horses dwindled. She spent her later years in Glenn’s Ferry and gave much of her remaining wealth to charities. She died in 1936 of a heart attack and is buried in Mountain Home, Idaho. When reporters asked her about her “unusual preference for a rural, western life as a single woman in Idaho,” she merely replied because it was “the most independent life on earth.”

*There are a number of articles about Kittie Wilkins, but the most comprehensive study of her life is being conducted by Philip A. Homan, Associate Professor at Idaho State University. His articles, “Queen of Horses,” Part I and II appear in Idaho Magazine, October 2008 and December 2008.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Idaho’s Little Polly Bemis

Former Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus once said, “The history of Polly Bemis is a great part of the legacy of central Idaho. She is the foremost pioneer on the rugged Salmon River.”

The tiny Chinese slave girl who came to the gold town of Warren, Idaho, in 1872 has been the subject of numerous articles, books, and even a fictionalized film of her life, Thousand Pieces of Gold. One might ask what it was that put her in the annuls of history. She didn’t discover anything, didn’t invent anything, didn’t rule anything, didn’t kill anyone. She did however save a man’s life–twice–and her small acts of kindness turned her own life around. In an age when Chinese people in mining camps were looked down upon and forced to take the most menial jobs, Polly was beloved by everyone.

There are various versions of how Polly ended up as a song and dance girl in the saloons of Warren. During an interview by Countess Gizicka for Field and Stream in July, 1921, Polly Bemis tells it in her own words: ‘My follucks in Hong Kong had no grub. Dey sell me, slave girl. Old woman, she smuggle me into Portland. I cost $2,500. Don’t looka it now! Old Chinese man, he took me along to Warrens in pack train.”

In that same interview, Gizicka describes Polly as, “not much over four feet, neat as a pin, wrinkled as a walnut, and at sixty-nine is full of dash and charm.”

The Chinese man who bought Polly (her real name might have been Lalu Nathoy) ran a saloon in Warren. Some accounts say that he helped her gain her freedom. Charles Bemis, better known as “Charlie” befriended her when she arrived in Warren. He owned a saloon and a boarding house. She eventually became his housekeeper and ran the boarding house.

In 1890 Charlie got into a gambling dispute and was shot. Polly stayed by his side, nursing him back to health. Four years later they got married. A friend of the couple claimed it was a marriage of convenience. Polly wanted to establish legal residency and Charlie needed someone to take care of him. The couple moved seventeen miles from Warren on the Salmon River and filed a mining claim. Their place was accessible only by river.

Charlie’s health started to decline, and in 1922 when their house was ravaged by fire, it was said that Polly saved his life again by getting him to safety. They stayed with some miners named Klinkhammer and Shepp who lived across the river. Charlie died shortly after the fire. Klinkhammer and Shepp built a new home for Polly on the old site and looked after her. She stayed there until her death in 1933 at the age of eighty.

Polly’s friendliness made her popular with all who knew her. She possessed a gritty determination and good humor to survive her life as a “slave girl” and turn a bad situation into a life of meaning, respect, and love by all who knew her. In 1988 her cabin, the Polly Bemis House, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and made into a museum. She was also inducted into the Idaho Hall of Fame in 1996.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

First White Woman to Cross the Sierra Nevadas

One of the first white women to undertake the perilous overland journey to California was Nancy Kelsey. In the spring of 1841, she and her husband, Benjamin, joined the Bidwell-Bartleson emigration party in Sapling Grove, Missouri. This was a small group of brave souls consisting of thirty-five men, five women, and ten children. The group included Kelsey’s brothers and Nancy’s single sister (who married during the journey).

Nancy was 17 when she and Ben decided to make the journey after reading a letter by John Marsh who had gone to California by ship through the Strait of Magellan. They had two children, but their youngest child, a newborn boy only eight days old, died before they left Missouri. This left them with their one-year-old daughter, Martha Ann. One account states that Nancy became pregnant again en route only to lose it shortly after its birth in California.

Their journey was in trouble right from the beginning. They started late, May 12, and they did not have a map or a compass, no guide, or guidebooks. Those who had gone into California overland were mainly trappers. There had never been a wagon train attempt to California, and there was no known “road” over the Sierras. All they had were vague directions, and, in the end, help from the Indians.

They followed the Platte River to Fort Laramie (present day Wyoming) and onto the South Pass over the Rocky Mountains. Here, seven men decided to return to Missouri. Those remaining continued on to Fort Hall. Here the party split up again when part of the group broke off to take the more traveled road to Oregon. This group included Nancy’s sister and her new husband, and both of Ben’s brothers and their families. Those who chose California had no guide and very little information. About all they knew was that at the Great Salt Lake they were to not go too far south or north, but to head directly west, following the Mary’s River–if they could find it.

They did find what they believed to be the river, but by August 26, the group was getting low on food and hopelessly lost. They had to start killing their oxen as game was scarce. By mid-September they had abandoned all their wagons in western Nevada and set out on foot with the livestock they had remaining.

In an 1896 interview with her daughter, Nancy said, “Of course we did not where we were. The party scattered here to find the best way to descend the mountains. I was left with my babe alone, and as I sat there on my horse and I listened to the sighing and moaning of the winds through the pines, it seemed the loneliest spot in the world. The descent was so abrupt that an Indian, who had come to us on the mountain, was allowed to lead my horse for part of the way. At one place an old man of the party (George Hanshaw) became so exhausted, or nearly so, that they had to threaten to shoot him before he would proceed.

“At another place four pack animals fell over a bluff and we never tried to recover them. They had gone so far that it was no use to think of it. We were then out of provisions as we had eaten all of our cattle. I walked barefoot until my feet were blistered. For two days I had nothing to eat but acorns. My husband came near dying of cramps and it was suggested we leave him out, but I protested and declared I would never leave him as long as there was life. We killed a horse and stayed over until the next day when he was able to go on.”

They finally crossed the Sierra Nevada into the San Joaquin Valley, north of Sonora Pass, and with the help of some Indian scouts reached John Marsh’s ranch on the San Joaquin River in November.

This journey was just the beginning of a long and adventurous life for Nancy, her husband, and their children. She and her husband lived in Napa Valley when the Mexican War broke out (1846). Her husband joined up with John Fremont to fight for the cause. Nancy and two other women made the famous Bear Flag for the Bear Flag Revolt.

She said, “I have enjoyed riches and suffered the pangs of poverty. I have seen U. S. Grant when he was little known; I have baked bread for General Fremont and talked to Kit Carson. I have run from bear and killed most all other kinds of smaller game.”

Nancy had a total of eight children and lost two. Over the years, she and her husband moved to Mexico, Texas, and back to California. Her husband died in 1889 and Nancy spent her final years in Santa Barbara County where she was known as a midwife and herbalist. She died in 1896 at the age of 73.

Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel.
"Pioneering the West Took Courage and Grit," The Union Democrat.
Lake County Time Capsule: Nancy Kelsey, a Pioneer Story.
Nancy Kelsey, Wikipedia.

You might also be interested in my historical saga, Raveled Ends of Sky, depicting strong women in an 1843 overland journey based on true events.