History Of Tucson And Arizona’s Wild West
Tucson and the surrounding areas have a rich and unexpected history. In fact, the OK Corral marked what some claim as the taming of the American West. The tales of our state are legendary and surprisingly widely read by the world. Arizona is something of a renegade, with those who claim it as home proudly holding the mantel of freedom and the feel of wide open spaces. Many times those of us who grow up in this dusty paradise know the least about its actual history, wile migrants are fascinated by it. Possibly it is a situation where natives should stand back for a moment, look up – look around. Arizona is a rare gem indeed, home to species of plants and animals unknown in any other place. It is a sacred place. For those natives who have traveled elsewhere they find themselves unavoidably drawn back to the desert. In fact, it is an inside joke among many natives when we are faced with an indignant resident who claims to be thoroughly unenchanted by Arizona, claiming to leave at the first opportunity. We simply glance at one another and state “They’ll be back” – and they are. There is after all a reason why one of the longest running and most successful magazines in US history is Arizona Highways. So let’s take a look at the history of the region and the rough and ready folks who braved it long before Circle K and Walmart.
We will start with one of the West’s most famous citizens, the one and only Wyatt Earp. This esteemed US Marshall and proud Zoni wrote How I Routed a Gang of Arizona Outlaws. In its introduction editor Neil B. Carmony quotes Earps biographer Stuart Lake saying Earp was “the most important frontier lawman of them all”. The volume contains 3 articles, “How Wyatt Earp Routed a Gang of Arizona Outlaws”, “Wyatt Earp Tells Tales of the Shotgun-Messenger Service” and “Wyatt Earp’s Tribute to Bat Masterson, the Hero of ‘Dobe Walls”. The tales are accompanied by simple illustrations and are told first person by Earp himself. The tone is gritty, eloquently simple yet somewhat poetic in their rough justice. The opening of the first article sets the tone perfectly, “It may be that the trail of blood will seem to lie too thickly over the pages that I write.” states Earp. We get the sense immediately that this is no mindless lawman, and that the weight of his actions, in fact his duty, lies heavy upon him. Wyatt Earp is amazingly well spoken, or maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. Would not such a man be thoughtful? It takes tremendous consideration to fight for higher ideals. It does not come easily and this hero certainly, obviously, paid a high personal price for its execution. Wyatt goes on to say “If I had it in me to invent a tale I would fain lighten the crimson stain so that it would glow no deeper than a demure pink.” So this is the west’s most famous gunslinger? What a mind blower! One could easily mistake him for a poet if not for the subject matter. If not for the record of history that oddly precedes him in our minds. Those of us fortunate enough to have grown up in the west all know of him, but precious few have read his own words. Those words strike the reader as contradictory, oddly delicate yet with shocking force and power. What a treasure, what a gift to see the actual man behind the deeds. Now we see the complexity behind the man we imagine wildly firing upon bandits and criminals, or carousing in saloons tossing back shots of strong drink. His are not feet of clay, yet he is still a man, perhaps severe in deeds but infinitely complex in words. We still see his dusty boots, the worn, perhaps bloodied dungarees, but now we can also see him in a fine drawing room. Quill and ink in hand, penning his stories for us to later read. Now we understand exactly why he is our hero. Now we can more fully grasp why his legend lives on and his deeds continue to roll down through time. Yes, he brought justice to the west, routed Arizona outlaws, was a fierce and formidable lawman and for that we are eternally grateful. Yet we find ourselves more grateful still for his gentle words because they round out the man. As Wyatt writes ” But half a lifetime on the frontier attunes a man’s hand to the six-shooter rather than the pen, and it is lucky that I am asked only for facts, for more than facts I could not give.” Wyatt, we couldn’t disagree more, you have in fact given us so much more.
The Slow Reign of Calamity Jane by Gillian Robinson tells the tale of this western heroine. Martha “Calamity” Jane Canary was not a native to the west. Born in Princeton, Missouri in 1848, Ms. Jane was a wild west Janis Joplin, famous for her strange beauty, hard drinking, wild temper and compassionate heart for the sick and injured. Robinson has re-imagined Jane’s life through a series of poems that cover her exploits. Her first chapter is entitled Sweet Jane which is an interesting opening. Sweet Jane doesn’t bring to mind a rowdy cowgirl, a lawless spirited western woman but rather the Velvet Underground, The Cowboy Junkies and other not to be mentioned pursuits. It is fitting though, as Robinson writes of Jane’s earliest days out west she describes an imagined conversation. This conversation is one of love – love exposed to the elements to dry out “My mother speaks to her sister, the fire low, ‘I never let them get close to my body. And I loved them but they couldn’t love me back so I just went cold.” Thus begins the exploration of a woman who later became known as Calamity. The reader immediately feels that they understand how such a woman could evolve. Dare we read on? Dare we sink any further into Jane’s life to see the reasons behind her choices and instantly ask ourselves- Where they really choices at all?. Did Calamity have a choice or did she merely simply survive? Jane went on to marry the infamous Wild Bill Hickok and certainly that sealed the deal. As modern women with the advantages of 911, stun guns, self defense classes and the like we can only imagine what it was like for Martha, aka Calamity. Orphaned early, out west with a father busy with the business of survival. It is no small wonder that she chose to live BEHIND the gun. The Slow Reign of Calamity Jane is a definite must read, but strap in. Jane’s life wasn’t pretty but it was interesting and very real.
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