Idella Smyer, an Uncommon Woman

For every famous or well-known person in the Old West you can find a hundred who were just as tough and resilient but who never got their name in the history books.

Idella Stephens Smyer was such woman. I ran across her when I was reading about some of local history a few years ago when I lived near Lubbock, Texas. Idella was born in 1871. Raised by her grandfather who reared her as a boy, she rode horses as soon as she could sit up good. They had to strap her in the saddle. She took to horses like a duck to water and later started breaking and training them. Sometimes she rode as a jockey in races.

She didn’t care much for schooling and only went a couple of months a year in the fall after they’d gotten the crops in.

At the age of 15 she married Henry Smyer in Decatur, TX in 1885. She and Henry moved to her 80 acre farm outside of town. Her grandfather gave her one heifer as a wedding present. That was the start of their herd. Each year they sold the steers but kept all the heifers.

The first of their 14 children, a daughter named Gertrude, came down with malaria. Idella took her everywhere to try to find a cure. Nothing seemed to work until Idella’s brother, Blue Stephens, came to visit. He worked for the huge XIT Ranch in the Panhandle. He persuaded Idella and Henry that the dry climate would cure Gertrude. So they packed up and headed west.

But passing through Jacksboro, Texas, Henry got a job hauling rock for a new hotel. He and Idella bought a tent and lived there three years. That’s where their second daughter whom Idella named John Willie came into the world. How fitting for a woman who lived life so large to saddle her daughter with a man’s name. I laugh every time I think of this part and imagine some man asking John Willie to marry him. It’s just too funny.

Idella’s idea of raising children was to make them as tough as she could and able to take care of themselves in any situation.

By the time she finished with them, they rode wild horses like the wind, hunted wildcats, wolves, and antelopes. They camped out alone on the prairie and they feared nothing.

Neither did Idella. When her third baby was born she was all by herself. Like everything else in her life, she tackled the task and did what she had to do.

The Smyers made it to West Texas in 1892. They settled into an abandoned one room house in Crosby County and took possession. With wood a scarcity, Idella gathered up an armful of cow chips and had a roaring fire going and within an hour was baking biscuits.

Their cattle herd got bigger along with the size of their family. To make extra money, Henry took a job as a freighter. That left running the ranch up to Idella. But she tackled it like everything else in her life—without batting an eyelash.

One day a raging wildfire threatened their house and the herd of cattle. Idella gathered all the children who were old enough, gave them a bucket of water, and sent them out to help battle the blaze. They saved the house and only lost a few cattle.

Another time when a blizzard swept across the prairie and caused her cattle to drift, Idella put her children into bed to stay warm and gave them strict instructions not to light a fire. Then she headed out to round up the cattle by herself. But the cattle were contrary and wouldn’t stay together so she managed to get them into a field of maize she was growing. Although the Smyers had meant to take the crop to market, it fed the cows and kept them bunched up. Idella worked for hours in the frigid cold hauling warm water from the well to them. She knew cattle that had a full stomach and their thirst quenched would be content. She was right. She didn’t lose one cow whereas her neighbor lost 250 of his herd. And when she finally dragged herself home to thaw out, she found her children up and dressed and a wonderful meal cooked.

There were always horses to be broken and trained on the Smyers’ farm. In true Idella fashion, she let each child select a horse of their own. The only stipulation was that they break it themselves. You know the end of this story—they always did.

Idella had both physical and mental strength. She could brand, rope, and bulldog. She could tail up a weak cow or dose a sick one. She could do anything with a horse and the majestic animals were dearest to her heart.

The woman who always used her own brand of language—decent but strong—had a merry laugh and a great sense of humor. But there was a steely glint in her eye that promised she could hold her own against anyone.

Idella Stephens Smyer died on October 27, 1953 at the age of 83. (She outlived Henry by 14 years.) She had no complaints. She’d lived a full life and had done everything she ever wanted.

Do you have any ancestors that bear a resemblance to Idella?

My mother comes to mind. She was the strongest woman I’d ever known. I’ve seen her roof a house; fix a car; wipe away tears; kill a chicken, pluck, and cook it; pick and hoe cotton. There was nothing my mother couldn’t find a way do. She was my hero and my friend. I’m just really, really glad though that she didn’t name me John Willie!

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Medical Care 1800s Style

The one thing that always strikes me about westward expansion and settlers on the frontier is that so many survived. How I don’t know. They battled the harsh environment, often the lack of even basic necessities, and the lack of doctors. A simple accident such as stepping on a rusty nail could spell certain death.

So how did so many overcome those obstacles to settle the land?

One was that they had a good knowledge of the healing properties of herbs, roots, tree bark. Those people—even the mountain men—knew what could heal most things.

And even if a town had a doctor, he or she would only have certain things to treat with. Most of his arsenal consisted of the natural or holistic medicines.

Since I’m writing a story that has one of these early doctors in it, I’ve done a bit of research. What I found was very interesting.

Common in their arsenal were 12 remedies: Bismuth (stomach ailments,) Dover’s powder, Morphine, Podophyllin (used for a number of things,) Mercury with chalk, Compound Cathartic pills, Bromide of Potassium, Tincture Aconite (fevers, influenza and colds,) Calomel (kills bacteria,) Fluid Extract of Ergot (hastens contractions in childbirth and used to treat heavy bleeding,) Tincture Belladonna (colitis, peptic ulcers, nausea and vomiting,) and Tincture Hydrastis (treats a variety of problems.)

And even the doctors in the far reaches of this vast land would most certainly have had laudanum.

In his black bag, he’d carry a thermometer, obstetric forceps, a small saw, scapels, and a stethoscope. Needles and catgut for stitching up wounds would’ve been a requirement too. Some might carry more but these were standard.

Horses were the main mode of travel in making their calls, but as they were able, they bought a buggy or wagon so they could haul more supplies. Mainly, they were more comfortable.

They had to carry a lot of things in addition to medical supplies—a lantern, a shovel (for digging through snowdrifts or mud,) a hammer and wire cutters (for getting through fences,) and a blanket. Depending on how far he had to travel, he might also take some food.)

And after all this, he might get paid in livestock or garden produce. No one had much money back then.

Mid-wives often filled in during childbirth when a doctor wasn’t available. Infant mortality was very high throughout the 1800s.

Doctors had to have been awfully overworked. A lot of them became heavy drinkers, probably turning to alcohol to cope with the stress.

My mother lived through the Depression and rarely had access to a doctor. They were so poor. Of her five children, only two were delivered by a doctor…me and my baby sister Jan. She suffered one miscarriage all alone. But she lived to a ripe old age of 87. She was a true pioneer woman.

During the Depression, my daddy got his ears frostbitten and was never treated. Then he was severely burned when I was about 12 years old and spent months in a hospital.

We’re so blessed to have doctors today. I sometimes think we overuse them and go when we don’t really have to. For myself, I try to keep away from them.

I loved that show, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman. She really faced a lot of hardship. And I had a special fondness for Doc Adams on Gunsmoke.

Do you have a favorite TV or book doctor?

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Sam Sixkiller: Cherokee Lawman

Men committed to upholding the law and making the frontier safe came from all nationalities. Sam Sixkiller was born in the Going Snake District of the Cherokee Nation sometime in 1842. This is what is today Adair County, Oklahoma, which sits on the Arkansas border.

When the Civil War began, he joined the Confederate Army while his dad, Redbird Sixkiller, fought on the Union side. At age 19, Sam switched sides and served under his father who was a 1st lieutenant.

Following the war’s end, he married Fanny Foreman in 1865 and began adding their six children.

Ten years later, he became the first captain of the U.S. Indian Police headquartered in Muskogee, one of the most dangerous towns in the West. He had 100 men serving under him. Sam also was a special agent for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad and a deputy U.S. Marshal. He was a very well-spoken man whose impeccable behavior spoke of his excellent upbringing. Needless to say, he was respected by good men and, grudgingly, bad alike.

During the 1800s more lawmen lost their lives within a 50-mile radius of Muskogee than anywhere west of the Mississippi.

Sam didn’t present a particularly striking figure at 5’8” and 200 pounds, but he was one of the toughest lawmen in Oklahoma Territory and got the job done, no matter how long it took or how far he had to ride.

As it had been from the first, Oklahoma Territory was a haven for outlaws, rustlers, murderers, bootleggers and other lawless men so there was no shortage of work. He faced one of his most challenging problems after a large group of harlots moved in and practically took over Muskogee since it was on a railroad line. Ordered to clean up the town, Sam Sixkiller rounded up the working women and put them in the jail. He remarked that he’d rather face an armed gang of killer outlaws than deal with those women. After a short stay, the females had a change of heart and took Sam’s advice that they might could do better in other towns, paid a fine, and left. To which Sam breathed a big sigh of relief.

One of the most dangerous outlaws in the territory was Dick Glass. He had a thirst for killing and was deadly in a fight. Sam Sixkiller tracked him down and put two bullets in his chest.

On Christmas Eve of 1886, Sam was ambushed by a mean outlaw named Dick Vann after several run ins and arrests. Vann shot him dead. Lawmen all over attended Sixkiller’s funeral that was said to be one of the largest in the territory.

Despite a huge reward and a big posse, Dick Vann was never apprehended.

Shortly after his death, the United States government signed into law that it was a crime to kill a Native American lawman and the murderer would be tried by the government instead of the tribal counsel.

What do you think drove a man to try to keep the peace in such a lawless town like this? Surely not the money. They were paid very little.

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“Texas” John Slaughter

The West was a raw land, full of good men and bad and it was always a race to see who would win.

No one was tougher than John Horton Slaughter, or Texas John as he was called, and before he reached his prime, he became known as the “baddest good guy that ever lived.”

He was born in 1841 and set out to prove himself, possibly because he only stood 5’6” tall. But small stature aside, he made quite a name for himself as a Texas Ranger and then a fighter for the Confederate army. During this time, he showed himself adept with weaponry and his fiery temper was legendary. Everyone learned to stay clear of him when he was angry. Outlaws often froze when they stared into his hard eyes.

Among those who admired his guns were Wild Bill Hickok, Big Foot Wallace, King Fisher, Sam Bass, Billy the Kid, and Pat Garrett.

He was equally admired for his ranching ability. When he developed a successful ranching operation in South Texas in the 1870s, he inspired loyalty from those who worked for him. Two were ex-slaves who were loyal their entire life. John made no distinction in the color of a man’s skin and he treated them well.

In 1871, he married Eliza Harris but she died of smallpox a few years later.

One lawman who chased outlaws with John remarked, “He was like a spider spinning his web for the unwary fly.”

And when he ordered a man, “to lay down or be shot down,” his lips barely moved. One thing for sure, you’d best move fast and oblige.

But John Slaughter had a bad vice—he loved to gamble, sometimes for three or four days straight before finding his way home. That didn’t set too well with his, second wife, sixteen-year-old Cora Viola Slaughter, and they had some mighty big fights. She threatened to leave him on more than one occasion, although she never did.

He moved his ranching operation to Cochise County, Arizona and in November 1886, he was elected sheriff, only the third one they had. Shortly after, the lawless men decided it was a good time to leave the territory or be killed. His gun became a symbol of the law during his Tombstone days. He was quick with his wits, fast on the draw with his pearl-handled revolver, and doggedly determined to clean up Tombstone. He was absolutely fearless because he was convinced he had a guardian angel and would never die from a bullet. He didn’t hesitate to ride off alone into the vast six thousand square miles of Cochise County in pursuit of a bad man and he never returned until he’d dealt with him.

In 1896, he and Cora adopted a baby girl they named Apache May after he found her while chasing Apache Indians in Mexico. Shortly after, he bought a large ranch called the San Bernardino at Douglas, Arizona and it had an unusual feature. Half of the house was located in the U.S. and half in Mexico.

The Slaughters loved Apache May or “Patchy” as they called her. When she was a young girl, she was playing near a scalding pot in the yard and fell into it. She was too badly burned to survive and was buried on the ranch.

Texas John lived to be the ripe old age of 81. True to his lifelong belief, he died in his sleep on February 15, 1922 and was buried in the cemetery at Douglas, Arizona. Cora outlived him by nineteen years.

He’d cleaned up Arizona Territory more than any other single lawman and carved his name in history.

I wonder if you’ve ever heard of him. Have you ever felt you have a guardian angel watching over you?

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Love and Marriage Through a Child’s Eyes

Children crack me up and greatly enrich my stories. Just like grownups, they have strong personal opinions about love and marriage. My goodness, they’re opinionated! Many years ago (way more than I want to share) Art Linkletter had a segment on his TV show called Children Say the Darndest Things. People before the age of 30 won’t know what I’m talking about. However, Jimmy Fallon often talks to children on the Tonight Show about various subjects and they’re always so funny. I can’t think of anything more fun than talking to kids. Some are pretty wise for their age and they’ll make you roll on the floor laughing.

How do you decide who to marry?

One girl answered, “No person really decides before they grow up. God decides it all way before and you get to find out later who you’re stuck with.”

A boy snickered. “You got to find somebody who likes the same stuff. Like, if you like sports, she should like it that you like sports and she should keep the chips and dip coming.”

 

What is the right age to get married?

“Twenty-three is the best age because you know the person FOREVER by then.”

 

What do most people do on a date?

“Dates are for having fun, and people should use them to get to know each other. Even boys have something to say if you listen long enough.” (A wise girl if I say so myself!)

“On the first date, they just tell each other lies and that usually gets them interested enough to go for a second date.”

What would you do on a first date that was turning sour?

“I’d run home and play dead. The next day I would call all the newspapers and make sure they wrote about me in all the dead columns.”

 

When is it okay to kiss someone?

“When they’re rich.”  (I like the way this girl thinks. Wish I’d have listened to her advice.)

Another child said, “The rule goes like this: If you kiss someone, then you should marry them and have kids with them. It’s the right thing to do.”

Is it better to be single or married?

“It’s better for girls to be single but not for boys. Boys need someone to clean up after them.”

 

How would the world be different if people didn’t get married?

“There would sure be a lot of kids to explain, wouldn’t there?”

 

How would you make a marriage work?

“Tell your wife that she looks pretty, even if she looks like a dump truck.”

 

 

* * * *

One thing for sure, children sure have a unique view of the world. I love writing about them and usually put at least one in every story. They can add a lot of depth and emotion.

In THE HEART OF A TEXAS COWBOY, fourteen-year-old Henry Boone has the mind of a child. Some of the things he says are really funny. Here’s an exchange with Houston Legend.

Outside in the hallway, Houston found himself blocked by Lara’s kid brother Henry. The boy shook his finger under Houston’s nose. “Be nice,” Henry warned. “If you ain’t nice, I’ll give you a black eye.”

Seeing as how his young accoster had to stand on tiptoe to do it, made the situation border on the ridiculous. The whole thing would’ve been comical if not for the glisten of tears in Henry’s eyes and his quivering lip.

“What are you talking about, kid?”

“My sister. A man hurt her and gave her a baby. If you give her a baby, you’ll be mean too.” Henry stuck up both fists. “I ain’t a scared o’ you. I’ll black your eye.”

* * * *

Do you like hanging out and talking to kids? Or maybe you know something funny a child has said.

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Train Travel in the 1800s Was Hazardous

Travel of any kind in the 1800s and before was very difficult—especially if you had young children along. I can’t even imagine trying to corral a child and get where I needed to go. It would’ve taken a lot of doing.

Going by train was by far preferable to stagecoach or horseback, but it definitely had its drawbacks.

Like smoke coming in the windows and ruining your clothes during the summer months.

Freezing in the winter.

Narrow, crowded aisles.

Wrecks.

Outlaws.

The normal speed for steam engine locomotives was about 25-30 mph in 1864. Before that, the best they could get was 15 mph. Trains had to stop every 30 miles to take on water to make the steam so it took forever and a day to get somewhere.

(This photo of a Pullman passenger train doesn’t depict those in the Old West which were bare of luxury.)

The traveler got covered from head to foot with thick soot, smoke and dust that flew in through the open windows. Wearing dusters over their clothing helped some, but they were hot. I guess it depended on how desperate you were a little bit clean. Sometimes women wrapped their hair with a kind of close-fitting cap.

In wintertime, the train company would remove two or three seats from one side and make room for a small stove. Passengers near it roasted while those at the end of the car froze. Toilets were sometimes no more than a curtained off chamber pot. Imagine how embarrassing that would be!

At night, a solitary lamp burned at one end of the car to provide light. Trying to sleep was almost impossible.

The only good thing was the train stations. Passengers could get off, use the facilities and eat a meal. I’m sure they took full advantage of those depots and every precious minute.

Wrecks were a common occurrence. Trains were known to collide, run off the tracks or derail by some large obstacle. Since wood was the #1 type of material used to construct trains until much later in the 1800s, fire was a constant threat. A lot of passengers died from the train catching fire. The coal the engineer burned in order to create steam for the engine was a major concern in a wreck.

This method of travel was by far the fastest but not necessarily the safest and even today there are horrible train wrecks that kill passengers.

The next time you grumble at having to stand in a long check-in and security line at the airport, have your flights canceled, or ride in your air-conditioned car with its soft upholstery and get stuck in traffic don’t complain. We have it so much better than our ancestors it’s not even funny. Just take a minute to appreciate what you have and remember that nothing is ever going to be perfect no matter how advanced our society becomes.

Do you think you’d like to go back in time and take a journey by stagecoach, train, or wagon? If so, which method would you prefer? Or do you mind the endless screenings and lines and cancellations? How about getting stuck in traffic, do you gripe or just accept and make the most of it?

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The Curiosities of Barber Poles

Ever wonder why barber poles are red, white, and blue?

The white and red colors indicated barbers in days past who filled in as doctors and dentists. Barber poles actually descended from medieval times when barbers performed surgical procedures such as bloodletting. Patrons held a firm grip on a wooden pole that often had a brass basin at the top that contained leeches. Barbers hung both clean and bloodstained bandages outside their shops where they would twirl in the breeze.

Thus, those bandages came to represent the red and white stripes on the barber pole. Then in the U.S. later on, a blue stripe was added to show the American colors, making them patriotic.

A barber-surgeon often had mundane tasks such as picking lice from a person’s head, extracting teeth, and of course, blood-letting.

Now, can you imagine for a minute how clean those shops must’ve been? Not! I shudder to think about a barber cutting someone’s hair with blood-stained hands. Or worse, performing surgery with hair on him. Lord help! No wonder so many people died back then. Infection must’ve run rampant.

In the old days the pole had a crank that wound it which made for a tedious time keeping it turning. Electric ones that came along had a switch.

The cast iron models weighed around 125 pounds. They would’ve been very hard to wind. They’re much lighter today.

The William Marvy Company in St. Paul, Minnesota opened up for business in 1950 and they still make these today. They number each pole they sell. And they’ve produced over 82,000. They’re proud to say that No. 75,000 built in 1997 is hanging in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Though business sharply declined over time due to electric razors and trimmers, the company still employs 14 workers and are owned by third-generation Marvys.

The barber pole is such an outstanding and recognizable symbol. Today we know it only as a place to get your hair cut.

Thank goodness real doctors do the surgery now!

I wonder….would you have sought the services of a barber back then if you had a bad tooth ache? I sure don’t think I would’ve. 

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I Have Winners!

I’m really sorry that I didn’t post this sooner.

Winners of The Heart of a Texas Cowboy from the week of April 24th are……..

CHERYL C.

QUILT LADY

Congratulations, ladies! I hope you’re enjoying the book.

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Poisonous Jimson Weed

All across the dry, windy plains of the West you can see Jimson Weed growing and it’s one of the most poisonous plants you can find. Most cattle avoid it because of the horrible odor but if they ingest any, it kills very quickly.

This plant grows to a height of 5 feet in places where it’s undisturbed and it has large trumpet flowers. The seed pods are as large as a golf ball. If any part of it is ingested by humans it causes convulsions, vomiting, blurred vision and blindness. Two ounces will result in death.

This plant also causes delirium, hallucinations, coma, and death. Strangely, there are a lot of cases of kids today smoking it and ending up in either the hospital or morgue. Native Americans smoked this plant in sacred ceremonies because of hullucinations.

In The Heart of a Texas Cowboy, this plant causes one of them on this cattle drive to come close to dying and they have to rush to try to find a doctor, which in Indian Territory is about as difficult as finding a lawman.

But luckily they do manage and the doctor immediately pours liquid charcoal down the person’s throat. I apologize for being vague but I don’t want to give part of the plot away.

There are many plants in the wild that look harmless that can cause death. Things like rhubarb, meadow saffron, yellow jasmine, sassafras, and others.

The Heart of a Texas Cowboy releases on Tuesday, May 2nd. This is book #2 of the Men of Legend series and this one is about Houston Legend. I hope you’ll give it a try.

I’m at the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention right now so I won’t give away any copies. I wish you were all here with me. I’m having a great time.

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The Lawless Indian Territory

I’m so excited to have THE HEART OF A TEXAS COWBOY out in one week. This is Book #2 Men of Legend and features Houston Legend and I think it’s my best novel yet.

Houston is hard at work on the ranch books one Monday when his father comes in and announces that he gambled away ½ of the Lone Star Ranch. Over 200,000 acres is gone just like that in one hand of cards.

But…Houston can get it back for them. All he has to do is marry the daughter of the new owner and give her baby a name.

Despite anger and resentment toward his father, he does. And so this marriage of convenience story is off and running and he settles into a tenuous relationship with Lara Boone–a woman he’d never met.

Two weeks following the ceremony, he decides to take a large herd of longhorns up the Great Western Trail to Dodge City where he can get triple the money. At the last minute, his cook quits and Lara steps into the job.

This story is full of danger and suspense with an unfolding love story woven throughout. They’re beset by a group of outlaws in Indian Territory and the outcome appears uncertain.

Most of the story is set in Indian Territory. So what exactly was it?

Its wild, untamed land that eventually became Oklahoma. The federal government set the land aside for the five civilized native tribes to live on—Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole. The only law other than Indian was a handful of U.S. Marshals, but they were stretched mighty thin.

Indian Territory became a place to hide for outlaws, train robbers, and murderers. They could ride into the neighboring states, commit their crimes, and ride back to safety. And they did that for a lot of years until Oklahoma became a state in 1907.

Until it became a state, Judge Isaac Parker ruled over this territory. He in turn appointed a few U.S. Marshals to try to curb the lawlessness but it was far more land than the marshals could cover. Outlaws ran roughshod over them.

So when Houston and his drovers find themselves fighting to stay alive, there was no law to help them. They were completely on their own.

I hope you’ll give this book a try. I’m very happy with the reviews it’s getting. Book #3 To Marry a Texas Outlaw comes out in November with a thrilling conclusion of the series.

My question….what is it about marriage of convenience stories that draw you? I’m giving away a copy of the book to two people who post a comment on this blog.  

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