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3/6/2010

The Way West: Breathing New Life Into Old Bones

Yeah... I know I have been hiding out fer a fair piece. Won't go into all that. In addition to The Kansas Cowboy I have been writing a column for a nice little farm and ranch paper called Grass & Grain. Here's the first edition. 
 
Nothing is more inherently American than the Cowboy. His exploits have been told and retold around the world. The opening of the American West is one of those great moments in time when the elements of the story come together to make heroes larger than life.  
 
It just so happens that that moment in time is found on the endless plains of Kansas. The men and women who passed over Kansas trails into the future may or may not have been aware of their own place in history, but each one contributed to a chronicle that was destined to become legend. 
 
The State of Kansas was born of legend as its sons bled and died over the question of freedom or slavery. That struggle spawned a national calamity known as the Civil War and when it was over the nations eyes turned to the Kansas prairies for healing and a new beginning. Thousands of optimistic settlers and entrepreneurs surged from the east into the Promised Land, each with his own story to tell.  
 
From the devastated southern states freed slaves with strong hands, sustained by even stronger hearts, turned to the land of John Brown for salvation. Texas cattlemen rounded up their wild longhorn cattle and pointed them toward the North Star, seeking their own brand of salvation, exchanging Yankee gold for Texas beef. 
 
A tidal wave of purpose carved from a sea of grass by Washington politicians spread across the young state, little noting the native population and a culture shaped by the prairie itself. The American Indian, in all his tribal classifications and representations, was continually pressed westward before the onslaught of European dominion. The reservation Indians of eastern Kansas lived in partial coexistence with the advancing European culture, while the wild plains tribes looked all about them and wondered how the land could be divided in such a way that one man could say, This is my land, and tell another man, That is your land.  
 
The Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, Kiowa, and Comanche became the symbol of the image we know as the American Indian and in their defiance to European settlement fought their own way into history. Their opponents in battle rode westward from the blood stained battlefields that pitched North against South. Their war did not end at Appomattox, for the surrender of Confederate forces only exchanged one adversary for another.  
 
The Great Plains became the new battlefield Many of the boys in blue ironically had worn the Confederate uniform. Galvanized Yankees, who were recent discharges from northern prisoner-of-war camps, renounced their allegiance to the southern cause in exchange for life outside prison walls and a chance to fight Indians in the west. Stage coaches were protected and forts were built.  
 
On the heals of volunteer troops and former prisoners the famous 7th and 10th Cavalry units were formed. Commanding the 7th, the boy general, George Armstrong Custer was about to see his first Indian and as the 10th took the field the Indians were about to see their first black soldiers. In time the Indians would relate the black troops to the venerable buffalo while Custer would gain their undying contempt. 
 
The State of Kansas was born of legends and by its very nature shaped an image of the American West that will never die. In one moment in time common settlers and former slaves collided with Cowboys, Indians, soldiers, tycoons and a mixed bag of adventurers on the plains of Kansas and in so doing wrote a story uniquely their own.  
 
They didnt need mountains or deserts to forge the saga of the Wild West. Grass and rivers and endless horizons witnessed the epic struggle to be chronicled by correspondents, editors, authors and those who lived to tell of the thrilling days when Kansas was young and they were too.  
 
In the coming weeks their trails will come to life. We will tell stories that have been told and stories that youve never heard. And we will remember the lives that should not be forgotten. Their words will once again breathe life into the tales of the Way West. 
 
 The Cowboy, Jim Gray is author of Desperate Seed: Ellsworth Kansas on the Violent Frontier and also publishes Kansas Cowboy, Old West history from a Kansas perspective. Contact 785-472-4703 or www.droversmercantile.com ;
 

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