‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

Santa's_ArrivalWell, I have just a small little history snippet for you today. It came about because I wanted to base a little Cold Springs Christmas short story around the classic poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. But since this story takes place in 1904, I wanted to figure out if the poem would have been in common usage by that time.

Guess what? It’s a really old poem! There are a lot of interesting facts around it too. Starting with its origin. Did you know that the poem was first published anonymously in the New York Sentinel in 1823? It was actually written by Clement Clarke Moore, but Moore’s name didn’t appear in print as the author until 1837. The poem was originally sent to the Sentinel by a friend of Moore’s, and it was so well received that it was frequently reprinted after that.

Also, as the legend would have it, although the character of St. Nicholas had been in popular culture in many ways and in many countries for a long time, Moore was the first one to describe Santa with the physical features that we see in the poem. Better still, Moore modeled his St. Nick off of a local Dutch handyman. This all might seem insignificant and fun, but it was Moore’s poem that ended up codifying what Santa looked like from one tradition to another throughout America and later the world. Also, Moore made up the names of the reindeer.

There is also some controversy around who really wrote the poem. While Moore has been credited as the author, there is also a large contingent that claims it was really written by Henry Livingston, Jr.

Personally, I don’t care who actually wrote it, only that it’s such a wonderful part of Christmas and has so many evocative memories associated with it. I remember learning it to recite at a Christmas pageant one year in elementary school. I still remember about half of it verbatim today. I think most of us do, right?

So yes, it was perfectly historically correct to have Michael West read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas aloud to his children and all of the other children of the characters in my Montana Romance series. And if you’d like to read that short story (it’s really funny), pop on over to Facebook and join the Pioneer Hearts group today! If you comment on my post over there, you can also win a $25 Amazon gift card and a signed copy of the first book in my Hot on the Trail series, Trail of Kisses. So what are you waiting for?


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How Old Are Jigsaw Puzzles?

It’s Monday! And usually on Mondays I talk about history. Lately it’s been history that informs on whatever novel I’m working on (like the Oregon Trail, for example). But over this past long weekend, I fell headfirst into a small obsession, and it’s taken over my brain. I’m talking about jigsaw puzzles.

If you look closely, you can see this clever advertisement is actually a wooden puzzle. Courtesy of JJPuzzles via Flickr

If you look closely, you can see this clever advertisement is actually a wooden puzzle.
Courtesy of JJPuzzles via Flickr

So being the nerd I am, as I was puzzling away this past weekend, I caught myself asking myself, “Hmm, I wonder how old jigsaw puzzles are?” So of course I had to find out.

Turns out, they’re pretty old. The first jigsaw puzzle is credited as being a creation of London-based engraver and mapmaker John Spilsbury in 1760. Yep, puzzles are an 18th century invention! What I found particularly interesting is that the first puzzles were Spilsbury’s maps, mounted on wood and cut into pieces. His aim was to have people learn geography by putting the maps together. So those wooden map puzzles where each state was a piece that I loved so much when I was a kid were actually staying true to the original purpose of the puzzle.

Puzzles continued to grow in popularity through the 19th century. During that era, they were usually pictures pasted onto plywood with the design of the pieces traced on the back in pencil. The puzzle-maker would use those pencil lines to cut out the pieces with a fretsaw (not actually a jigsaw). I think it would be reasonable to assume that some of my characters, both in the Montana Romance series and in my Hot on the Trail series, would have passed the time putting together puzzles.

But the height of puzzle popularity came with the Great Depression. It makes perfect sense too. By that time, most puzzles were made of cardboard. They were no longer cut out by hand, but rather die-cut. That basically means they were cut by a giant puzzle-shaped cookie cutter. They were the perfect form of cheap entertainment in an era where money was tight. They were time-consuming, recyclable, and they could bring people together.

My current obsession

My current obsession

I always remember having puzzles around in our house growing up. They were the kind of thing that we did on summer vacation or on a rainy day. This was before video games were invented. Yes, for all you young people out there, now you know what we did to entertain ourselves before we were glued to an electronic device. We enjoyed puzzles at our house, but I’ll never forget going to visit my cousins when they were in the middle of doing a puzzle.

My cousins’ dad, Tom, had a rule for doing puzzles in his house. First you would lay out all of the pieces, face up. Then, no matter how big the puzzle was, you weren’t allowed to touch a piece unless you knew exactly where it fit. If you were wrong, you were done. If he was being generous, he would let you put together the border pieces first and then the rule would only apply to the middle. Oh, and you weren’t allowed to look at the picture on the front of the box either. This was some serious puzzling!

So did your family have any rules about doing puzzles? Do you still do them? Leave a comment and let me know!


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Who Were the Western Pioneers?

TrailofHopeIn my new western historical romance series, Hot on the Trail, I’m giving a glimpse into the lives and loves of several sets of people traveling west on the Oregon Trail. My particular stories are set later in the history of the Trail, but all the same, I wanted to give a picture of the kinds of people who would leave everything back East to start over in the West. So who were these people? What would really induce someone to drop the life they had to run west?

Of course, the obvious answer that we’ve learned since childhood is that these were people in search of opportunity. And that’s still a true answer. From the moment the West was opened up through exploration and discovery, Americans back East saw it as one great big ball of opportunity just waiting for someone to rush out and claim it. The land was fertile, natural resources abounded, and gold (and later silver) were found.

But as I mentioned in an earlier post. The very first intrepid settlers who made the trek west during the first days of the Oregon Trail in the early 1840s were not going for gold. They weren’t even going to California. They were headed to the territory in the Pacific Northwest that was already minimally settled by both American and British trappers and merchants. The American government encouraged settlers to high-tail it for Oregon, because the more American butts were on the ground, the more likely it was for the U.S. to claim a larger chunk of the land that was proving to be so profitable. It was about showing Britain up. Working the land was important and ports along the Pacific coast were vital to trade, but really it was an international land grab.

The Oregon Trail, by Albert Bierstadt

The Oregon Trail, by Albert Bierstadt

All that changed, of course, when gold was discovered in California. We hear a lot about the gold rush and the Forty-Niners. That was just the tip of the iceberg. The truth was that there was some gold easily available, right on the surface of the ground for those who could get out there fast enough to grab it. And many, many men did zip out from the east to try to get rich quick. Most failed, though. Too many exhausted their entire life savings trying to make something of themselves. And a bunch of them ended up going home to the East, empty-handed.

The people who succeeded in California, and later in Colorado and Wyoming and Montana, and all the other future states and cities that survived and thrived, were the ones who followed the get-rich-quick schemers and set up businesses to cater to them. The real riches to be had were in mercantile business, selling things to the burgeoning population of the West, or in ranching or farming to feed the West. These weren’t get-rich-quick sorts of enterprises, but they definitely made a lot of people a heck of a lot of money in the long run.

Okay, it’s pretty obvious that the West was populated by adventurers and entrepreneurs, folks with stars and dollar signs in their eyes. But who exactly were these people? What were they like?

As I’ve done research for my Hot on the Trail books, I’ve discovered one consistent trend that I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about before. It seems that a great many of the people who were willing to pull up their roots and chase their dreams west were (unsurprisingly) restless, ambitious dreamers and (surprisingly) quite liberal and secular in their thinking.

Mayer-Awakening-1915Yep, I think the trend is to think that these early settlers were pious and god-fearing, but all the research I’ve done seems to indicate that religion didn’t reach the West until many, many decades after the people did. After all, this was the land of gunslingers and prostitutes. There’s a reason the West was called “wild.” But it was true even for peaceable settlers in the earlier days. In fact, an early missionary heading to Oregon wrote home that she was shocked by the amount of godlessness she found in the West and felt something had to be done.

In fact, something was done, and as the great revivals of the 19th century swept in from the East, lonely settlers out West adopted religion as a means to come together to stave off the sheer loneliness of life on the prairie. But I’ll write more about that later.

The other remarkable thing about people in the West was that they had far more liberal ideas about a variety of topics, especially women’s rights. As the century rolled into its later years, settlers throughout the West began to see the necessity of all people, including women, participating in every facet of life, from farming to politics. Women were given the vote in several western territories as early as the 1880s. They also owned land and operated businesses, and ended up being used as an example of the progress that women could make once the cause of women’s rights took center stage at the turn of the century.

So the people who settled the West were some of the heartiest and cleverest people in America. That can’t be denied. The West also drew a lot of foreigners looking to start anew, but that’s a whole other story. Would you have had what it takes to start over in an untamed land? Would you have been the one to tame it?


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Sssh! This is a Secret Just For You!

So I realize that the official cover reveal for Hot on the Trail, Book 2 – Trail of Hope – is not until Friday, but I couldn’t wait another instant! So here it is, just for you guys. DON’T TELL ANYONE! … yet.


Once again, the amazing Erin Dameron-Hill has outdone herself with this design. I love it! What do you think?

Also, right now you can pre-order Trail of Hope on Amazon, iBooks, and Smashwords.


Another special note. I’ve been feeling a little bad lately that I haven’t been keeping up with my Monday history blog posts. I’ve had a lot going on with writing these Hot on the Trail books, and my website is in the process of being redesigned. It’s made too many things uncertain in the blogsphere. BUT! I want to give you a sneak peek into one of the books I’ve been reading as research for Hot on the Trail books 3 (Trail of Longing) and 4 (Trail of Dreams). Both of these books involve encounters with the Cheyenne. To delve fully into their lives and customs and how they changed through the 19th century, I’ve been reading this fascinating book, The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Lifeways, by George Bird Grinnell. It was originally written in the early part of the 20th century, and Mr. Grinnell lived with and studied the Cheyenne from the 1870s through the 1890s. It’s an amazing, nearly first-hand account that has given me ideas on top of ideas! I can’t wait to share more about this book with you in the coming weeks.


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Frontier Politics – Part Two

Kevin CostnerRemember that scene near the beginning of Dances with Wolves when John Dunbar shows up in the frontier office to accept his new posting? You know, where the commanding officer asks him why on earth he would want to be stationed so far out west? And Dunbar says he asked to go there because he wanted to see the frontier while it was still there to see (and because the war back East disillusioned him)? Well, it turns out that Dunbar’s attitude was actually very common and true to life for many men after the Civil War was over.

You can’t go through the American educational system without spending at least an entire semester studying the Civil War. And usually those history classes jump right into Westward Expansion as soon as you learn about Appomattox Courthouse. The thing that we don’t generally hear a lot of, though, is the social and political history that connects those two dots. Yes, a lot of people headed west because it was the land of opportunity, but the whole reason so many people were seeking opportunity—the reason they left everything for an unknown, potentially hostile land—was because it was better than what they had back home.

But first, it should be noted that in a way, the Civil War started in the West before war was declared after Ft. Sumter, and fighting ended in the West after the war was declared over. I think I mentioned in my first Frontier Politics blog post about the skirmishes that broke out between nominally pro-Union and Pro-Confederacy gangs in Kansas. “Bleeding Kansas” came about as a result of what amounted to thug armies shedding blood over the issue of whether Kansas would be admitted as a free or a slave state. It’s interesting to note that I’ve used these violent, trouble-making gangs in my next book (coming out a week from today!). The Briscoe Boys, who have vowed to kill the heroine, Lynne, are modeled on these outlaw gangs who brought the Civil War to the West long before it was officially a war. And the last battle of the Civil War was fought at Brownsville, Texas after peace had been declared. Ironically, it was a Confederate victory.

So the war ended, the Union was restored, Reconstruction began in the South, and we all lived happily ever after, right? Ha! The wounds of the Civil War still ran deep, even after the fighting had stopped. Lives and families had been destroyed as a result of the men who were killed and the land that was destroyed. And for what? To preserve a union that would support that kind of war in the first place? Yep, if we think we’re bitter about politics today, just imagine how people were feeling after a conflict of brother versus brother that changed everyone’s lives forever.

Like John Dunbar, a lot of people just wanted to get away. In the same way that the United States experienced a boom after WWII because no battles were fought on our soil and therefore our infrastructure was still in place to resupply Europe, so the West was a more or less untouched land of fertility that could be drawn on to create a new life for the country as a whole. The push west was limited by the means of transportation at first. My Hot on the Trail series is actually about the very end of the Oregon Trail era in the mid-1860s. The trail continued to be used, but it was supplemented by stagecoach and ocean travel. The Panama Canal wouldn’t be built until the 1880s, but there was an overland railway that routinely took settlers across. But as soon as the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, the floodgates opened.

The Oregon Trail, by Albert Bierstadt

The Oregon Trail, by Albert Bierstadt

Okay, what does this have to do with politics, you ask? It’s not like the country had to worry about whether the new territories and states would be slave or free states in the post-Civil War world.

Ah, but the thing is, the land wasn’t actually as open and unoccupied as disillusioned, opportunity-seeking pioneers wanted it to be. Even before the Civil War ended, the politics of the West were all about what to do with the Native Americans.

And thus begins one of the most controversial and bitter chapters of our history. Treaties were made and broken, made and broken. Native people were persecuted by some military officers (Colonel Chivington, who famously said “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! … I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice” is one big, fat example). Other officers did their best to find compromises and solutions. But bit by bit, tribe by tribe, the native population of this country was cut down, resettled, and reprogrammed. It kind of horrible when you think about it, but at the same time, the West was able to develop into the economic and social powerhouse that it is and was because a new culture swept in. It’s one of those horrible, bittersweet paradoxes of history.

I should also make one other mention of what could be a startling reality of the post-Civil War West. There were actually a fair number of African Americans who went west, both in the military and as pioneers. Their story isn’t often told either, but in a sparsely-populated land where every pair of hands was welcome, African Americans who could afford the journey found themselves in a much better position than their counterparts back East. At first. I really need to stress that at first bit, because by the end of the 19th century, after an economic depression and the institution of Jim Crow laws in the South, their situation worsened. In the military, the Buffalo Soldiers became the first peacetime African American regiment in the US. Unfortunately, they were part of the persecution of the Native Americans.

I’ll talk more about how the West was shaped in the years after the railroad was completed next time. In the meantime, here’s a shameless plug for Trail of Kisses, the first book in my Hot on the Trail series, which makes mention of those nasty gangs of Civil War-ish thugs that brought the conflict to the frontier. You can pre-order Trail of Kisses now for just 99 cents, but as of next week, it’ll be at the regular price of $3.99!


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