Welcome back to The Art of Manliness Podcast!
In this week’s episode we talk to author Matthew Mayo. Matt has recently written a book called Cowboys, Mountain Men, and Grizzly Bears: Fifty of the Grittiest Moments in the History of the Wild West. We discuss Hugh Glass and his 350 mile crawl of revenge to kill the men who left him for dead, lawman Bass Reeves and his amazing career as America’s first black U.S. Marshal, and many more manly men (and a few tough ladies) who helped tame the Wild West.
For more information about Matt’s book, check out his site at matthewmayo.com.
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Now, one of the most iconic images of manliness at least in America is that of the cowboy filled with rugged individualism, grid and determination, these men along with mountain men and explorers tamed the Wild West. Even after a century the influence of these men are still with us. Boys grew up playing cowboys and Indians and many men today is still dreaming about saddling up and riding off in the sunset guns are blazing.
But most our ideas about the Wild West are really just romanticized versions found in John Wayne movies. Don’t get me wrong, John Wayne movies are awesome. But the reality was that living the frontier was dangerous and hard and it required a certain kind of person to survive. Well our guest today has written a book filled with stories about these hearty men and women who helped settle the Wild West. His name is Matthew Mayo and he is the Author of the book Cowboys, Mountain Men, and Grizzly Bears: Fifty of the Grittiest Moments in the History of the Wild West. Matt has written several western novels and is also the Managing Editor of Big Sky Journal. And he and his wife divide their time between Maine and Montana. Matt, welcome to the show.
Matthew Mayo: Hey there, thanks for having me on.
Brett McKay: Well thanks for taking the time to speak with us. So Matthew, your book is Cowboys, Mountain Men, and Grizzly Bears and I read here in your bio you’re actually a son of New England. So how did a New Englander like you end up writing a book about the Wild West and writing novel about the Wild West.
Matthew Mayo: Well I think like a lot of folks all over America I was raised in a dairy farm in Northern Vermont, but like so many folks grew up watching TV show like Gunsmoke and Bonanza and Rawhide, the movie that John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and so many others. And my parents were big fans about this as well. So we would watch reruns on our little black and white set and I would run around outside in my cowboy outfit with my fixed guns and my mother was very indulgent. She was a great seamster, so I spotted a lot of homemade cowboy duds.
So later on about eight or so I recalled getting into reading pretty much everything I could find, but I was really drawn to kid’s books through the adventurous one. And from there led to all sorts of genre fiction, mysteries, adventure tails and awful lot of westerns. So by the time I was in high school that led me to exploring more about American history. Fast-forward a few years, I was married by then, been writing and publishing a lot of poetry, short stories, essays, articles, that sort of thing, worked as a magazine editor and a freelance editor and writer for all sorts of publishers.
And I began to write a lot of novels, but never finished any. But I got my NFA, wrote a comic adventure paper as my thesis, to-date that book is unpublished, maybe it will see the the light of day someday, I don’t know. And I really wanted to try something different. I’ve been reading a lot of westerns all along. One day I had a library friend went by a fellow named Loren D. Estleman who is just as well known for his detective fictions.
And this western was called White Desert and it’s the only book that I ever read that when I finished it I just turned that around and started reading it again and I still haven’t done that with any other book. But it just made all sorts of sense, something clicked and I decided after I finished it the second time that I tried to write one, so I did, ended up publishing three for a publisher in England named Robert Hale who have a Black Horse Westerns line and next one is hardback then it go to soft cover, large print versions, so they’re out there.
But the same time I was freelancing for different magazines, one of which was Western Art & Architecture and that was in Montana and their sister publication Big Sky Journal which is sort of a lifestyle culture magazine of the Northern Rockies needed a managing editor, so in June of 2008 after the Western Writer’s Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona where into that way I got to meet Loren D. Estleman along many other famous western authors. We drove north through Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, checked out Montana and just fell in love with the Rocky Mountain West and took the job, sold the house in Maine, moved out there with our two dogs.
And after I was there about a month, Helen Jones, Editor for Globe Pequot had a non-fiction project in mind and he was looking for an author with a strong background in fiction. He liked my sort of fast-paced western novels and liked my writing style. I had meshed from there and he had the basic idea for the book and I ran it to my own meat grinder and I said well what you think of this and added a little of this and that to the recipe. He liked it and we were oft and running. The result was the book that came out in January.
Brett McKay: And you mentioned there that you are a fiction writer, mainly it’s your focus and that the publisher who did this non-fiction book I guess wanted a fiction writer. Can you tell us then how you approached telling these historical stories, weaving in your fiction writing ability into these historical stories?
Matthew Mayo: Sure. It’s pretty common traditions called narrative history which is basically writing history in a story format. And it’s a sort of useful way of conveying history. Often times history books can be pretty dry as we all know and so this is a fun way of sort of spiking it up. So this book, there are 50 chapters in this book. As an example there are all that many eyewitness accounts available, certainly no eyewitnesses left alive, I don’t believe. If they are they are pretty impressive. As far as the accounts, yes, they are written accounts of them. Even when they are they’re often one sided poorly written or they’re heavy on fact which is great, but they’re light on detailed dialogue or the eyewitness accounts of the events just don’t exist at all.
So you take the basic facts and figures, dates, times, people, locations. They form the skeleton and then you doll it up with organs, blood, flesh and other works and put likely words in their mouths and all the while naturally being cautious to stay within the parameters of what really happened, where it happened and how it happened. An example to help illustrate that will be in the book, the O.K. Corral Gunfight. I call that Chapter Tombstone Gundown and since Hollywood played so fast and loose with it for decades and there have been so many books a round of movies made of it that really sort of stretch the truth here and there.
The public has come to form certain conceptions and misconceptions about it. I wanted to make sure if I was going to include that in the book that I researched a heck out of it in an effort to convey the full flavor of the shootout with all the facts I could muster while being careful to avoid the same errors and misconceptions that we’ve seen so often in the movies for instance. I try to give it some interesting narrative angle, so I had – I said it in through Virgil Hertz or I’m trying to say his death bed and in some other words he was on his death bed thinking back over the years and thinking about that incident in particular, how it played out. That gave me sort of an interesting end to that chapter.
Brett McKay: So you have 50 stories in this book, but I’m sure there is 100s or maybe even 1000s of stories that you could have put in here. I mean how did you decide which stories to include in the book?
Matthew Mayo: It wasn’t easy. And for the very reason you just stated, I was given pretty much free rain to come up with a list. Once they like my writing style I just went at it. And my initial list include way more than 50, I came up with 100s of possible chapters which as well as for sequels which hardly enough people are already asking for. So I’m happy with…yeah. To help give the book shape, I decided to break it down into three rough categories, Mountain Men and Indians, Man vs. Nature and Cowboys and Gun Fighters. And those rough designations gave me plenty of directions, so from there I made sure each category covered roughly one third of the book and then I arranged them all chronologically at the end.
It took a bit of work to make sure they each covered that one third mostly so it didn’t seem that the book was too staked in any one direction in favor of so many gun fighters that sort of thing, because pretty much what’s expected, that’s what most people love in that with they think of Wild West to the Old West they think gun fighters and there is so much more to it. So it made my job a lot fun too as I got to move around in history and come up with what I hope from the reader an unexpected incident in addition to the ones that are expected like that’s a little big horny O.K. Corral, Hugh Glass’s 350-mile death crawl.
But I also included lesser events, lesser known events like it was a horrible stampede in Texas in 1882 and Uncle Dick Wilkins fistfight with a Ute chief, he was driving – in 1852 he was driving 9,000 head of sheep in Mexico to California. And this Ute chief and his warriors demanded tribute payment more than what Uncle Dick was willing to pony up. So he took matters in to his own hands and trounced the Uchief right front of his warriors rather than humiliate the man further he went on to treat them respectfully, but given that – throwing that upper edge that he needed to get through the day.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So what’s your favorite story Matt that you included in the book?
Matthew Mayo: There are so many. It’s a typical answer I suppose, but for various reasons I have handful of favorites. One would be the first chapter I wrote on the Mountain Man Hugh Glass, it has all the elements that I admired as a kid reading all those adventure stories, the survival story. He was attacked by a grizzly; two men of his party were charged with staying behind waiting until he died because he was so messed up and so mobbed, they think that nobody could survive such a thing. But they were kind of freaked out of having to being left behind in Indian Territory. So they bolted and they took all his stuff with them, his possibles bag, his rifle, his knife, they left him for dead, but he lived and he dragged himself 350 miles for six weeks, survived, open wound on his back the whole work. He was so driven by revenge; he wanted just nothing more than to kill those two guys. One of them ended up Jim Bridger, famous mountain man. He was just a punk kid at the time and I guess he went to Glass and humbled him a bit, but Glass forgave him.
Another favorite story would be the Teddy Roosevelt story for different reasons only. The whole story, it’s a short chapter, but I think it did a really decent job of conveying a vigor in sort of that engaging essence of the guy. And it was written – the way I wrote it was super pulpy and very manly and it reads bit like an old – like Peter Capstick Safari story and I think that chapter came up particularly well.
I also like the way the book is built in general. It’s got a lot of interesting information for people, a big bibliography, a nice introduction; each chapter is followed with extra information that helps facts and figures that helps bolster each chapter and maybe engage people to or interest them rather to go and explore those incidents on their own.
Brett McKay: And one thing I know is too, a lot of times when we think of the Wild West we usually think of the men being the ones who really tamed it and settled it, but women were a big part of this as well in settling the west. Can you give us an example of about a woman who lived and faced the dangers of the Wild West and survived?
Matthew Mayo: Sure, absolutely yeah. I tried to include – certainly it isn’t 50/50 in the book mostly because more men were involved in gritty encounters than women, but there were lots and lots of amazing women in the old west. Let’s see, Marie Dorion is one that comes to mind. She is a Sioux Indian. She traveled west with her husband, he is a trapper in I think sort of a guide and interpreter. They traveled to Oregon Territory in 1811 on this horrible ill-fated trapping party trip. Along the way they were starving, the whole party was horrible. She gave birth to a baby who have died plus she had two little boys with her and I think they were just like two and four years old, something like that. They traveled for more than 2,000 miles and then when they got there things started to even out. They felt well okay, well that’s going to get better. And then her husband and his trapping partners were killed by the bannock Indians and this is in fall and winter.
She fled with the two little boys, they traveled for months starving and on foot in the winter over the Blue Mountains and ended up towards spring she was saved by the Walla Walla Tribe. During that time in the mountain she was snowblind part at the time which just brought, but despite that she got her kids to safety and she lived through a fairly right old age, pretty tough lady.
Brett McKay: Now Matt, when one trait do you think all these people had that allowed them to face the challenges of settling in new frontier?
Matthew Mayo: I think there are lots of big trades that come to mind, but I think it will be a mixture of the two. If I had to narrow it down to one, I will choose two and I think it will be probably determination and curiosity. It’s sort of a mixture of those two. They can be broken down further into sub-trades I suppose, but those are the biggies. When you take Hugh Glass, we just spoke of it as an example. He was determined to live if only to get his revenge on those two guys. There are so many people who are determined to head west to get away from dead-end lives or oppressive situations, whether it will be family oriented or what have you or just figure gosh back in the east I’m an nobody, but out in the west I can be somebody, I could be my own person, I have some freedom. So yeah, determination and curiosity, those are the big biggies for me.
Brett McKay: And are there any real life lessons you took away after researching and writing about the menu including your book that has helped you become a better man?
Matthew Mayo: Yes, two pop to mind naturally, I can’t just choose one. And one of them I believe it or not is the chapter on a young woman. She offered as many or more lessons in manliness than I think any fixed triggered happy gun fighters. She is a teenage girl named Dennett Breck and in the fall of 1849 in what would become Montana she and her father and her two brothers stopped before making a final push to cross the Rockies and this is in the fall. And in the morning the three men went off to hunt for buffalo, to stock up on meat for the rest of the journey, but they never came back.
And so she was afraid to move on, but felt that they might come back any day, they never did. And then before the snow came and as we know in the Rockies the snows really stack up. So she manned up as they say and she killed and salted an ox, built a shelter, used the stow from the wagon and the wagon’s canvas covering. She used logs and branches and mud, sort of burrowed in and she survived all winter despite the fact that she was harassed every night by cougars and wolves walking around the outside of her little hut, trying to get in, cloying at the thing. And in the spring she was nearly starving, she had only a handful of rotten corn meal and some rancid meat. The flood flushed away her little house and she just had maybe another day or two left with food and she didn’t know what she was going to do.
She was half soaked and some Indian founder and they were so impressed with her, they brought her to the Fort at Walla Walla and no one else had known about her, she went on to marry and raise a family and become a successful pioneer woman. No sign of her father and brothers were ever found, so I was so taken with that story that I’m writing a book about her right now and shaping up to be quarter of a book, it was such a fascinating story. So whenever I hear some whiny teenager whining about his life, I think of that girl and all she went through and I think boy, she’d be amazed if there is sort of a toothless cushy lives so many of us live nowadays. Just – yeah I think she is a fine example of manliness.
And then the other one, just take a sec to mention will be Bass Reeves, fascinating man, probably the most fascinating man in the book as far as I’m concerned. He epitomized what it means to be sort of a straight shooting honest man. Some folks know of him, but I think everybody should know about him and it’s a shame that he is not more well-known. And it blows my mind that Hollywood hasn’t made a big budget movie of his life and they don’t even need to embellish him. I think he was a black man born into slavery, spoke a handful of Indian languages and in 1875 he became the first U.S. Deputy Marshal, the first Black American to hold that title west of the Mississippi. And he was illiterate, but he had people read warrants to him and then he would memorize them, he would track those outlaws into Indian nation and catch them. He made 3,000 arrests. He was never shot though he was shot at many times, they shot his hat off, they shot buttons of his coat, they shot his belt, they shot his rings.
He ended up killing 14 men, but he – people say he never shot until he was drawn on and he said the toughest case of his 35-year career was when he had to bring his – track his own son and bring him back from murder and he did it. So I think he is much more serving. Again anybody who is famous for drawing the gun fast, I think this fellow will be one to epitomize.
Brett McKay: Well Matthew, thank you for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Matthew Mayo: Okay. Great, thanks very much. I appreciate it.
Brett McKay: Our guest today was Matthew Mayo. Matt is the Author of the book Cowboys, Mountain Men, and Grizzly Bears: Fifty of the Grittiest Moments in the History of the Wild West. For more information about Matt’s book, make sure to check out his site at matthewmayo.com.
Well that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. And until next week stay manly.