Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Reading, Writing, and Researching the Old West

Copyright 2020 by Gary L. Pullman

Writing any novel is challenging, but historical fiction adds a few layers of difficulty. A writer has to research the times in which his or her story is set.

Despite such due diligence, a mistake is apt to occur, and some readers are notoriously unforgiving about such errors. Quite rightly, they expect their Westerns to have the ring of truth, especially in regard to facts. How much did a sewing machine cost in 1863? What type of blacksmith's tools were available in Gold Hill, Nevada, in 1863?

Readers sometimes boost their own enjoyment of the genre by doing what writers do: researching topics that are unfamiliar or somewhat forgotten. Learning historical, linguistic, cultural, technological, and other details of the latter half of nineteenth-century America makes fiction more rewarding and fun to read.

In this post, for readers and writers alike, I offer a few resources to add to their browser's favorites.


Knowing what a trail, a route, a town, a state, or the country itself looked like at a particular time in history is invaluable for readers and writers of the Western genre.

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When did a territory become a state? What historical sites existed in Washington, DC, in 1881? What was the White House called, or the Oval Office, before these terms became commonplace? What was the exact route of the Pony Express, the transcontinental railroad, or the cattle trails? What hotels existed in Tombstone, during Wyatt Earp's residency in the famous Western town? What were the names of the streets in Deadwood? Was there really a Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City? Maps answer these questions and many others, accurately and definitively.

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A great resource for historical maps is Old Maps Online.

This resource allows users to “Find a place” or “Browse old maps.” Instructions make the process easy, and an “Exact Area tool” allows users to focus on precise regions of the map. A zoom feature allows up-close looks at specific sites. Advanced features let users select a timeline, a specific publisher, and more. Search results are shown in a panel at the right side of the screen, complete with identifications of the maps thus displayed.

Old Maps Online is an invaluable tool for both readers and writers alike—and it's FREE!


There's nothing like vintage newspapers to mine pertinent and intriguing facts about the life and times of a past year, decade, or century, and the Library of Congress's Historic American Newspapers provides just this service—and it's FREE!

States are listed alphabetically, down the left side of the screen, and newspapers related to each state's cities, towns, and other sites are listed, by state, down the center of the screen—and not just a newspaper or two, but bunches and bunches of them!

The index also provides information about the number of issues available for each newspaper, its earliest issue, and its latest issue. With a click of a button, users can access the newspaper or newspapers of their choice.


Click the image to order.

My series, An Adventure of the Old West, is set in Nevada, after the Civil War, so Nevada newspapers of this period have been especially useful to me. The database contains thirty-two Nevada newspapers, including Carson City's Daily Appeal, Morning Appeal, and Daily State Register; Elko's Daily Independent, Weekly Elko Independent, and Weekly Independent; Pioche's Ely Record and Pioche tri-Weekly Record; Eureka's Eureka Weekly Daily Sentinel; Gold Hill's Gold Hill Daily News; and Unionville's The Silver State. (The newspaper of record in my series is the fictitious Excelsior Times).

When a newspaper is accessed, further information appears: alternative title(s), place of publication, geographic coverage, publisher, dates of publication, description, frequency of publication, language, subjects, notes, related links, holdings, and views.

When reading the papers themselves, users can magnify the text, toggle to full page (which can also be enlarged several times simply by clicking it), locate all issues, and access text, .pdf, and .jpeg files.

The newspapers are also introduced with a detailed summary of their origins and histories. This one is for the Gold Hill Daily News:

Gold Hill, Nevada, was one of the first settlements in the Comstock mining district after the discovery of a rich deposit of free gold on a hill above Gold Canyon in January 1859. Soon, silver supplanted gold in yield throughout the Comstock, and Virginia City quickly overshadowed Gold Hill in size and sophistication. The population of Gold Hill reached 8,000 at its peak, primarily working-class residents, including many Cornish miners.
On October 12, 1863, the Gold Hill Daily News was established as a Republican newspaper by Philip Lynch and his stepson John H. Mundall, former publishers of the Placer Courier in Forest Hill, California. They hired as their editor Hiram R. Hawkins, an acquaintance and fellow publisher. When Hawkins left in 1865, Lynch bought out Mundall, becoming the sole editor and publisher. According to the Nevada historian Myron Angel, under Lynch the Gold Hill Daily News gained a reputation as "the best-printed [paper] of any on the Pacific Coast."

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On November 14, 1867, Alf Doten left his job as a local reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise to become the associate editor and reporter for the Gold Hill Daily News. Doten held that position until Lynch's death on February 13, 1872. A Nevada journalist who is now best known for his diaries chronicling the daily life of Gold Rush California and the Comstock, Doten laid claim to the position of sole proprietor and editor of the News in the paper's masthead, securing the title on the paper March 9th when he purchased it from Lynch's widow for $10,000. That same year John P. Jones, the co-developer of the Crown Point Mine, and William Sharon, a Comstock banker made wealthy through foreclosures on loans through the Bank of California, were vying for the U.S. Senate seat in Nevada held by James Nye. Doten first approached Jones, asking him either to buy the News or to provide him with a loan. When Jones declined, Doten went to his rival Sharon, who agreed to lend him $7,000.

Sharon withdrew withdrew from the Senatorial battle during a contentious campaign. When another seat in the Senate opened up in 1874, he was successful in attaining it. During that campaign Sharon purchased the Territorial Enterprise and fired its longtime editor, Joe Goodman, who had written unfavorable editorials about him in 1872. Although Sharon maintained tight editorial control over the Enterprise, he did not seem to actively exert his influence over the Gold Hill Daily News; however, the newspaper did strongly endorse Sharon and savaged his opponent, Adolph Sutro, in the 1874 race. Comstock newspapers did not claim to be non-partisan.

Wells Drury, who worked as a reporter for the Gold Hill Daily News from 1876 to 1880 wrote in An Editor on the Comstock Lode that Doten bore an honorable part in Nevada journalism: "While he sought to produce a neat and workmanlike sheet, and succeeded admirably, he always recognized the primacy of news in the making of a paper, and did what few proprietors would do these days - that is, cut out column after column of advertisements to make room for good live news."

Faced with debts, Doten was forced to turn over the ownership of the Gold Hill Daily News to Charles C. Stevenson (doing business as the News Publishing Company) in February 1879. Doten remained the paper's managing editor until December 1881 when he moved to Austin, Nevada, to edit the Reese River Reveille. On April 8, 1882, the Gold Hill Daily News printed its last issue, with this statement appearing at the head of the editorial column: "Owing to the great depression in business interests of this town, the stagnation of mining industries in the district and unfavorable prospects for the near future, the News Publishing Company has decided to suspend further publication of the Gold Hill Daily News until July next." July 1882 came and went, and no more issues of the paper were published. The boom times of the Comstock were long gone.

The newspapers of the Old West are a fascinating treasure trove of historical information, and they're provided FREE, courtesy of the Library of Congress's Historic American Newspapers website!


YouTube is another invaluable resource for Western readers and writers. It offers videos that explain and demonstrate just about everything: Colt .45 six-shooters, Gatling guns, a fantastic variety of Western terrain, ghost towns, locomotive engines and trains, gold mining equipment and procedures, tracking techniques, procedures for handling horses, historical sites, military tactics, and much, much more, all for FREE!


Another website that offers a whole library of resource material is Google Books. Some are FREE to download, but others, available only online (unless a user wants to buy a copy) provide “previews” of their contents which is often all a reader or a writer needs to bone up on a particular topic.

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The number and variety of books is amazing. The few examples listed here aren't even the tip of the iceberg:

The Donner Party: A Doomed Journey

The Pony Express - Volumes 16-18

The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the ...

Annie Oakley: Wild West Sharpshooter

Internet Archives

Internet Archives doesn't contain everything that's ever been uploaded to the Internet, but it is a huge depository of the World Wide Web's glorious past—and it offers many FREE resources that can be read or viewed or listened to online or downloaded.

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Resources include Web articles, videos, television shows and documentaries, Hollywood and independent movies, audio, software, images, books, magazines, and more. In addition to the many FREE offerings, there's a huge supply of items that can be borrowed from libraries.

The array and multitude of the resources on Internet Archives is so huge that the site has to be viewed to be appreciated. It contains:

Online Etymology

Words we take for granted seem always to have been in use. Of course, that's not the case; like everything else, they have origins and histories—often interesting in themselves. An excellent source for determining just when a word was recorded (for example, in a newspaper, magazine, journal, or book) as having been first used is the Online Etymology Dictionary.

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The dictionary is easy to use. A search window appears, centered, at the top of the screen. Simply type the term in the window and press the Enter key on the keyboard or click the image of the magnifying glass to the right of the search window. The etymology of the term will appear on the screen below the search window.

If there are additional pages regarding a word, the page numbers will be shown at the bottom of the screen; by clicking them, a user advances to the related page.

For many words, “related entries & more,” shown as a link at the bottom of the screen will apply. For example, for the term “chuck wagon,” “wain” appears, once the link is clicked:

wain (n). Old English wægn “wheeled vehicle, wagon, cart,” from Proto-Germanic *wagna, from PIE *wogh-no-, suffixed form of root *wegh- “to go, move, transport in a vehicle” (source also of Latin vehiculum). A doublet of wagon. Largely fallen from use by c. 1600, but kept alive by poets, who found it easier to rhyme on than wagon. As a name for the Big Dipper/Plough, it is from Old English (see Charles's Wain).”

Although some of these related entries won't pertain to Westerns, many do.

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Suppose you were reading or writing a Western novel concerning a cattle drive, during the course of which you encountered or planned to use these words:

barbed wire”
branding iron”
chuck wagon”
open range”

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A reader might want the lowdown on one or more of these words, or a writer might want to make sure the word was in use at the time his or her novel or short story is set. No worries: the Online Etymology Dictionary will let you know!

Consulting this FREE source, we find that the first recorded uses of these words were:

barbed wire”: 1863
brand”: 1550s
branding iron”: 1828
chuck wagon”: 1880
cowboy”: 1849 (“cowhand”: 1852)
drover”: mid-1500s
mustang”: 1808
open range”: not listed, but “free range” dates to 1821
rustler”: 1882
stampede”: 1844, from the 1839 term “stampedo”
stockyard”: 1802
wrangler”: 1888

Finally, for writers, research itself may suggest plot ideas—and another book! That's what happened for me, when reading about the marvel of the transcontinental railroad and the history and politics related to this vast enterprise, I conceived the idea, and eventually the plot, for my forthcoming novel On the Track of Vengeance, book four in An Adventure of the Old West.

In a future post, I'll provide another list of great research sources for readers and writers of Wild West adventures.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Short Story Introduces An Adventure of the Old West Series

FREE short story introducing Bane Messenger, Bounty Hunter, the protagonist of the Western series An Adventure of the Old West!

Apple Books




Barnes & Noble Nook

Amazon Kindle


All Aboard! The Transcontinental Railroad Board Game

Copyright 2020 by Gary L. Pullman

As President Chester Alan Arthur points out in On the Track of Vengeance, the fourth novel of An Adventure of the Old West series, “The transcontinental railroad has wrought great changes, mostly for the good of the country.” (The problems associated with the unprecedented project—many of which were caused by the project's leaders themselves—form the backbone of the novel's plot.)

Despite the problems associated with its construction, the building of a railroad that spanned the continent, “from sea to shining sea,” was, by any standard of measure, a momentous accomplishment, and it was celebrated and commemorated in various ways, one of which was the creation of The Transcontinental Railroad board game.

According to the Board Game Geek website, the game's theme is “the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860's [sic].” Two players, one of whom represents the Union Pacific Railroad, the other of whom plays for the Central Pacific Railroad, “draw from a common deck of 80 cards,” six of the “seven suits” of which symbolize one of the needs associated with the construction of the railroad, such as “jobs, money, [and] supplies.” The seventh suit represents difficulties the construction project encounters. In play resembling that of poker, the players vie for markers, and the “first to get 100” of these tokens completes his or her “line to Promontory Summit first,” winning the game.

The game gives players a sense of the scope and difficulty of the railroad's construction and offers an opportunity to discuss, research, and learn more about the biggest engineering, technological, and construction feat of nineteenth-century America.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Tips on Researching the Old West

Copyright 2020 by Gary L. Pullman

Authors who write historical fiction learn—or should learn—about a lot of topics related to the times in which their novels are set. I thought that readers and other fans of the genre might enjoy learning how this writer approaches such research.

For example, in writing On the Track of Vengeance, the fourth novel in my series, An Adventure of the Old West, I had occasion to research a number of subjects, some of which I used in the story, others of which, for one reason or another, fell by the wayside:

In 1880, how much did a gold bar weigh, and what was it worth?

A gold bar weighed 400 troy ounces, or 27.4 pounds and, in 1880, was worth $18.94 per troy ounce.

Therefore, a 27.4-pound (400-troy-ounce) bar of gold would have been worth $7,576.

Besides six-gun and six-shooter, what synonyms were available, in 1880, for the word “revolver”?

A revolver was also sometimes called a “wheelgun.”

In what year did these terms come into use:

Derringer: 1850
Gunfight: 1889 (oops! Can't be used in a novel set in 1880!)
Gunfighter: 1889
Gunfire: 1801
Gunman: 1620s
Gunplay: 1891 (oops! Can't be used in a novel set in 1880!)
Gunshot: early 15th century
Gunslinger: 1916 (oops! Can't be used in a novel set in 1880!)
Handgun: 1930s (oops! Can't be used in a novel set in 1880!)
Shootist: 1864
Shotgun: 1821
Six-gun: 1912 (oops! Can't be used in a novel set in 1880!)
Wheelgun: ? (may be best not to use unless additional research uncovers first-use date)

In addition to ensuring that the words used in a novel were actually in use at the time the story is set, it's a good idea to verify one's understanding of these terms. For example, a pommel isn't the same as a saddle horn, but a spittoon (which came into general use in 1811) is the same as the cuspidor (which originated in 1779).

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Where can I find a good map of the Central Pacific Railroad route?

I found an excellent digital copy of a superb map of this route, but, alas!, I am now unable to locate the map or the website.

Fortunately, I saved a copy, which is highly recommended. A list of websites' URLs, or addresses, is great—until one of the sites vanishes from the Internet forever. It's best to keep both a list of the addresses and a copy of each image you may want as a present or future reference.

Where might I locate accounts of the origins of numerous towns along the route of the Central Pacific Railroad route?

For brief histories of the towns along the railroad's route, I used Wikipedia, verifying the online encyclopedia's accounts with other, more reputable sources. When I found a town of particular interest, I did further, more involved research, often using Google Books, public or university libraries, and other databases.

To confirm my memories and to further my knowledge about horses, I consulted YouTube videos by contemporary, working cowboys, marksmen, trackers, and other experts. As a result, I learned a lot about how to lead a string of horses (or mules); how a Colt .45 single-action revolver looks when it fires; how to track fugitives; and a lot of other topics.

When it's necessary to know what a past dollar amount would be in today's dollars, US Inflation Calculator is an invaluable resource. I've used it to get an idea of the value of amounts posted on reward posters, for example, and to evaluate the modern equivalents of gold prices and daily purchases and wages during the times in which my novels are set (about 1865 to 1880 at present).

Facsimiles of Western newspapers are often helpful in researching a story, as are vintage maps. For a variety of other historical research materials, try Internet Archive.

I had to become acquainted with not only the transcontinental railroad in general, but also with the route of the Central Pacific Railroad in particular and the use and detonation of dynamite, the building of snowsheds and trestles, labor relations associated with railroads and their workers, types of sabotage, the day-to-day functions of U.S. marshals, hotel registry books, wanted posters (Hollywood Westerns notwithstanding, few such posters actually included photographs of fugitives, I learned; usually, drawings were used, if there were any illustrations at all), and a host of other details.

I may have made a few mistakes (although I try hard to avoid doing so), but I'm confident that, if so, I made far fewer than I would have, had I not done my homework.

Keeping a database of useful sources and a gallery of usable photographs, diagrams (especially labeled ones), drawings, illustrations, and other sources of information about the Wild West can benefit an author in writing a whole series of novels. (It's educational and fun as well.)

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Wild West's Famous, Infamous, and Fictitious Associations with Nevada

Copyright 2020 by Gary L. Pullman

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Despite its rich association with the Wild West, Nevada isn't often the setting of Western novels or films, perhaps because its settlement and development were late.

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The Transcontinental Railroad at Donner's Pass. Click the illustration to enlarge it.

Indeed, its final dimensions and borders weren't established until two years after the conclusion of the Civil War, although Nevada Territory became the nation's thirty-sixth state in 1864.

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Mining was a key factor in the state's development, causing boom towns to spring up overnight, especially in the western part of Nevada. The building of the Transcontinental Railroad, which occurred between 1863 and 1869, also contributed to Nevada's growth and development, as the Central Pacific Railroad crossed into the state in 1868; by the end of the next year, the railroad had crossed the state completely.

Goldfield, Nevada historical marker. Click the marker to enlarge it.

Manhattan, Golconda, Battle Mountain, Tonopah, Goldfield, Virginia City, and Pioche (one of the toughest towns in the West) are among the towns that owe their existence or expansion to mining, and Reno, Lovelock, Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Beowawe, Elko, Halleck, and others were founded or benefited from railroad construction.

Mark Twain and his Enterprise desk. Click the picture to enlarge it.

In addition to Mark Twain, who wrote for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper while he lived in Virginia City, other names, famous and notorious, associated with Nevada are the ill-fated Donner party, the outlaw leader Butch Cassidy, and the legendary lawman Wyatt Earp and his nearly-as-famous brother Virgil.

The Donner Party. Click the drawing to enlarge it.

Almost eighteen-hundred miles lie between Independence, Missouri, the starting point of the original members of the ill-fated Donner Party, and their destination, California. The party entered Nevada on September 10, 1847, and crossed the Ruby Mountains, reaching the Humboldt River sixteen days later. Legends of America describes this part of the party's journey:

The Donner Party soon reached the junction with the California Trail, about seven miles west of present-day Elko, Nevada[,] and spent the next two weeks traveling along the Humboldt River. As the disillusionment of the party increased, tempers began to flare in the group.

On October 5 at Iron Point, two wagons became entangled and John Snyder, a teamster of one of the wagons began to whip his oxen. Infuriated by the teamster’s treatment of the oxen, James Reed ordered the man to stop and when he wouldn’t, Reed grabbed his knife and stabbed the teamster in the stomach, killing him. The Donner Party wasted no time in administering their own justice. Though member, Lewis Keseberg, favored hanging for James Reed, the group, instead, voted to banish him. Leaving his family, Reed was last seen riding off to the west with a man named Walter Herron.

The Donner Party continued to travel along the Humboldt River with their remaining draft animals exhausted. To spare the animals, everyone who could, walked. Two days after the Snyder killing, on October 7th, Lewis Keseberg turned out a Belgian man named Hardcoop, who had been traveling with him. The old man, who could not keep up with the rest of the party with his severely swollen feet, began to knock on other wagon doors, but no one would let him in. He was last seen sitting under a large sagebrush, completely exhausted, unable to walk, worn out, and was left there to die.

The terrible ordeals of the caravan continued to mount when on October 12th, their oxen were attacked by Paiute Indians, killing 21 one of them with poison-tipped arrows, further depleting their draft animals.

Continuing to encounter multiple obstacles, on October 16th, they reached the gateway to the Sierra Nevada on the Truckee River (present-day Reno) almost completely depleted of food supplies.

Butch Cassidy. Click the photograph to enlarge it.

The association of Robert LeRoy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy, the leader of the Wild Bunch, with the Silver State is no less deplorable.

As reported in The Ely Times, on September 19, 1900, Cassidy's gang robbed the First National Bank of Winnemucca. The outlaws got away with $32,640 in gold coins.

Etta Place and the Sundance Kid. Click the photograph to enlarge it.

It's an interesting story. Unfortunately, there's not much truth to it: According to a Nevadagram article, “Butch Cassidy didn’t send that picture and the evidence is clear that he was never in Winnemucca in his life.” Although both the Nevadagram article and the The Ely Times article concede that the bank was robbed, both deny that Cassidy was directly involved, if he was involved at all.

Wyatt Earp. Click the photograph to enlarge it.

Virgil Earp. Click the photograph to enlarge it.

Wyatt Earp and his brother Virgil followed opportunity, traveling from one boom town to the next, often in the company of a female companion. Wyatt relocated from the Kansas cattle town of Dodge City to the silver mining town of Tombstone, Arizona, the site of the famous Shootout at the OK Corral. After visiting the gold mines of the Yukon, he operated a saloon in Nevada before, eventually, retiring in California.

In Tonopah, Wyatt established a saloon, The Northern, with his common-law second wife, Josephine Marcus, the successor to Earps' first common-law wife Mattie Blaylock. He also hauled “ore and supplies” for the Tonopah Mining Company and did a stint as a deputy U.S. marshal. 

Virgil, who'd been with Wyatt in the shootout in Tombstone, died in Tonopah. Outlaws and ruffians had attempted to end Virgil's life numerous times before, but pneumonia claimed him.

The Northern Saloon.  Click the photograph to enlarge it.

* * *
To the exploits of the Donner Party, Wyatt Earp, Virgil Earp, and Butch Cassidy, we can add those of Nevadan Bane Messenger, the protagonist of the novels in my series An Adventure of the Old West. By turns, a Union veteran of the Civil War, a bounty hunter, a sheriff, and a U. S. marshal recruited by President Chester A. Arthur himself, and a friend and confidant of Allan Pinkerton, Bane's exploits are every bit as adventurous as those of any other Western hero, living or dead, historical or fictional.


Sunday, May 10, 2020

How to Rob a Train

According to John Boessenecker, author of Shotguns and Stagecoaches: The Brave Men Who Rode for Wells Fargo in the Wild West, Andrew Jackson “Big Jack” Davis's 1870 train robbery “technique” was “used by train robbers for another fifty years”:
  1. Slip aboard a train as it leaves town
  2. Capture “the crew.”
  3. Uncouple “the engine, coal tender, and express car from the passenger coaches,” preventing armed “passengers . . . from interfering with the holdup.”
  4. Procede along the rails to meet “an accomplice” holding “saddle horses and pack mules.”
  5. Force the “express messenger” to surrender “gold coins.”
  6. Escape “into the night" (108)

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Chill Wills's Greatest Hollywood Role?

Copyright 2020 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, the stories of the actors behind the figures of the Old West—at least, as they are portrayed in Hollywood Westerns—are as interesting as those of the cowboys, gunfighters, outlaws, and sheriffs themselves.

A case in point: character actor Chill Wills, who was known as much for his gravely voice and his gruff demeanor as he was for his rugged appearance. 

He starred in many Westerns, alongside some of the most famous leading men of the genre, including John Wayne, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Robert Taylor, Gene Autry, and Robert Preston.

It was after his role as Bee Keeper in the 1960 film The Alamo, starring John Wayne, that Wills got into trouble. Bee Keeper was the sidekick of Davy Crockett (John Wayne). According to Cynthia Brideson and Sara Brideson, authors of the highly recommended Also Starring Forty Biographical Essays on the Greatest Character Actors of Hollywood's Golden Era, 130-1965, Wills's role won him “his first Oscar nomination,” and he wanted the award badly enough to hire a publicity agent to conduct a campaign for him.
His agent, W. S. Wocjiechowicz, conceived the idea of blanketing “Hollywood trade papers” with an ad containing the copy, “We of The Alamo cast are praying harder—than the real Texans prayed for their lives in The Alamo—for Chill Wills to win the Oscar.”

Wayne, who had great respect for the real men of the West, was offended. Not only did he deny that “any of the cast had condoned” Wills's slick campaign, but he also “condemned” it.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science also found the campaign offensive. As a result, the Academy forbade any future such campaigns by stars who were nominated for the award.

Wills didn't win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Instead, he lost to Peter Ustinov, who won for his part as Lentulus Batiatus, the owner of the gladiator school in Spartacus.

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Reading, Writing, and Researching the Old West

Copyright 2020 by Gary L. Pullman Writing any novel is challenging, but historical fiction adds a few layers of difficulty. A write...