Friday, May 31, 2013

Setting the HIstorical Record Straight

by Jean Henry Mead

I enjoy writing historical fiction based on actual events because the plot is basically laid out for me. After 18 published books, I was finally able to combine my favorite genres—mystery/suspense with history—when I wrote my latest novel, No Escape, The Sweetwater Tragedy. However, getting the facts straight was more than I had bargained for.
I was researching a centennial nonfiction history book during the 1980s on microfilm when I discovered conflicting newspaper articles written about a young couple murdered a hundred years earlier by wealthy cattleman in southern Wyoming’s Sweetwater Valley. A cattlemen-influenced newspaper in Cheyenne reported that “Ella”Watson and James Averell had been operating a rural bawdy house and accepting rustled cattle for her "services." The lynchers considered that a hanging offense and watched the young couple strangle to death at the end of lariats, their toes bouncing off the ground. That not only angered me, it propelled my imagination into overdrive.

Conversely, a newspaper in Rawlins, Wyoming, reported that James Averell had been a good man who served as postmaster and justice of the peace in Sweetwater Valley. No one seemed to know that Ellen and James were married, so Ellen was vilified as a prostitute living in sin. She was dubbed “Cattle Kate” and later books, films, songs and poems labeled her an outlaw. Years of research discovered that the innocent 27-year-old woman had worked as a cook at the Rawlins House and kept her marriage secret, at her husband's insistence, so she wouldn’t lose her land. (Only single women in 1889 were allowed to prove up on homesteads). Further research uncovered the fact that the cattlemen had been grazing large herds of cattle on government land without paying for it, although they claimed ownership whenever a homesteader legally filed on the property.
When the murder case went to trial, all the witnesses had disappeared or died, so the cattlemen went free after posting one another's $5,000 bonds. Wyoming didn’t become a state until the following year so justice was apparently a figment of the imagination.

Because I like happy endings and didn’t want to end the book with the Averell’s deaths, I created a fictional character, Susan Cameron, who traveled by train from Missouri to homestead on her own, as did an estimated 200,000 unmarried women in the western states. Some were successful, others were not. Susan homesteads on land adjacent to the Averells and they befriend her. But she soon regrets her decision when Albert Bothwell, the lynchers' ring leader, begins his terrorist attacks on all the homesteaders in the area.
I conducted considerable research about women homesteaders and the problems they faced, wondering why single women would choose Wyoming, which at that time, had temperatures that dipped well below minus 40 degrees during the winter months. Most lived in shacks with leaking roofs, others in dugouts. I then remembered that Wyoming offered equality to women from as early as 1865, including the freedom to vote and hold public office as well as freedom to live on their own and voice their opinions. Many were escaping controlling men in their lives.

So Susan, my feisty fictional protagonist, is resistant to the advances of a nice young veterinarian who plans to start his practice in the territory. Women are scarce and considered a prize by the men who greatly outnumber them. That's my secondary plot: women seeking freedom and men trying to marry them.
I cried when I wrote the hanging scene. Emotion, as we writers all know, is the fuel which propels the plot. So I hope my readers feel the same sense of injustice and outrage at the crimes committed by wealthy cattlemen. I hasten to add that the book is not all tears and drama. There are also elements of humor and romance to lighten the storyline, , and I hope that I’ve helped to dispel the rumors which still persist that the Averells were disreputable characters.


Bill Kirton said...

What a fascinating post, Jean. The central story of the lynching is very harrowing but the way it fired your imagination and the investigations you then followed illustrate exactly the sort of pleasures writing holds. Good luck with the book.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thank you, Bill. The story haunted me for years before I could get it down on paper. I hope my readers will find it as intriguing as I did in the research and writing.