Top Ten Western Novels

(in my opinion)

Haunted Mesa1o. Haunted Mesa, by Louis L’Amour

One of Louis L’Amour’s longest and clearly most researched novels, Mesa  is equal parts contemporary mystery and historical thriller. While a detective working to solve a murder makes up the plot, the marrow of this novel is the mesmerizing history of the Anasazi that L’Amour weaves in so seamlessly.

The Man Who Killed the Deer9. The Man Who Killed the Deer, by Frank Waters

Frank Waters was a historian who was a poet who was a novelist. The story explores both the physical world and the metaphysical as Martiniano, a Pueblo Indian, struggles to find balance between the old, traditional ways of his family, and the new, inevitably commonplace ways of the white man.

jesse james hansen8. The Assassination of Jesse James, by Ron Hansen

With a few tiny tweaks of the narrative style, this could easily be a non-fiction book, and a great one at that. Even better though is Hansen’s ability to blend real history into a novel about idolization, despondency, and fame. This is as close as we will ever come to knowing Jesse James and his killer.

little big man berger7. Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger

A modern classic about a man who finds a place in both the frontier army and the Cheyenne Indians they’re pursuing. Told by a narrator who may or may not be reliable, Little Big Man is about an inconsequential man caught up in a lot of consequential events. Kind’ve like Forrest Gump set in the Old West

michener centennial western6. Centennial, by James Michener

Epic and informed – the signature style of its author – Centennial tells the story of eastern Colorado. The whole story. From the formation of the prairies and streams, to the dinosaurs, the horses, the Indians, the mountain men, the ranchers, all the way to the modern day country singer.

sea of grass richter5. Sea of Grass, by Conrad Richter

Slim yet expansive, poetic and powerful, Grass makes every word count. This is the kind of book you ingest slowly, purposefully, like a quality wine. The effect is a deep, somber understanding of what the west was, and why it changed.

ox-bow incident western4. The Ox-Bow Incident, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

Written when the Third Reich was at its peak, Ox-Bow is a harrowing story about mob-mentality and man’s thirst for vengeance even in the face of reason. When most western authors were writing pulp, Tilburg Clark was writing literature.

Lonesome Dove greatest western3. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

One review on the back cover says, “If you only read one western novel in your life, read Lonesome Dove.” Sound advice. For me, the soul of this immortal adventure/romance/historical novel is summed up when Augustus says, “I can’t think of nothing better than riding a fine horse into a new country. It’s exactly what I was meant for.”

all the pretty horses western2. All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy

Set in the middle of the last century, the characters’ ability to simply mount their horses and begin (but not continue) simpler lives in northern Mexico is a solemn reminder of how far and how fast civilization has progressed. The romance behind John Grady’s escape is only pronounced by the tragedy of his return.

call of the wild western1. The Call of the Wild, by Jack London

Set in what is perhaps the only remaining American frontier, Call of the Wild is the best of the western novel’s three main pillars: adventure, adaptation, and wilderness. Most of all, it is the story of the primitive, alive and wild self lying dormant but not dead within us.

Charles “Don Carlos” Beaubien: Trader, Judge, Pioneer

On October 22, 1800, Alexis Hypolite Beaubien was born to two wealthy landowners in Nicolet Quebec. After spending his teen years in the seminary, Alexis followed in family footsteps, and his mother’s wishes, to become an ordained priest.1 A year later, Alexis left the priesthood and Canada for good, traveling southwest to join a fated clan of French fur traders in St. Louis and with them venture into the uninhabited and unfriendly mountains of northern New Mexico. Here would begin Beaubien’s legacy. No longer Alexis Hypolite, ordained Canadian with both money and future spread out before him, Beaubien transformed himself into Charles “Don Carlos” Bobian, penniless citizen of the new Republic of Mexico. He had nothing except ambition, and, perhaps, a bit of luck, for before his death in 1864 Beaubien would become a prominent storeowner, father of nine children, a Mexican justice of the peace, an American supreme court justice, and sole titleholder of two sprawling land grants totaling nearly three million acres. He would be called a speculator, a feudal baron, and he would shape the history of New Mexico.

His maiden journey into New Mexico was daunting. Upon stepping foot in the territory, Beaubien and his party of St. Louis Frenchmen, including fellow future pioneers Ceran St. Vrain and Antoine Leroux, were captured by Mexican soldiers and transported to Santa Fe in order to be “killed without delay.”2 Fortunately for them, a well-known Spaniard and Mexican official by the name of Manuel Alvarez took notice of the incident and secured their release. Alvarez even invited them to stay, an invitation accepted gladly.

Apparently, what the arresting soldiers did not know but what Alvarez did, was that New Mexico was actively seeking foreign inhabitants. Just three years before, under Spanish rule, New Mexicans were barred from trading with foreigners. But upon Independence and the Treaty of Cordova, free trade opened between Mexico and the U.S., and both American and French-Canadians migrated into the territory in increasing droves. Initially, eager to boost the population and economy in the barren northern provinces, as well as create a buffer between marauding Indians, the Mexican government welcomed it. Immigration policy would tighten soon enough however following the Texas Rebellion.

During his first four years in Taos Beaubien prospered off of fur trapping alone, honing his skills in New Mexico’s untapped waterways and then selling his pelts at nearby posts. But as more and more foreign settlers filtered into New Mexico, Beaubien found himself increasingly pressured to gain citizenship. For one, trappers, if they intended to remain working in Mexican territory, were eventually required to swear allegiance. On top of that, new regulations enforced higher taxes on foreign traders than on citizens.3 So it was that on September 11, 1827, Beaubien set upon the fastest route to citizenship and married the Mexican national Maria Pabla Lovato.4 The wedding could not have come soon enough, for one month later Maria gave birth to their first child, Narcisso.

Manuel Armijo

It was around this time that Beaubien opened his own trading post and further “Mexicanized” himself by taking on the title Don Carlos Bobian. The mercantile rapidly flourished, and along with it so too did Beaubien’s prominence in New Mexico’s burgeoning gentry. He became close friends with such influential figures as Governor Manuel Armijo, Charles Bent, Manuel Alvarez, and Kit Carson. With the help of these connections he gained the position of elector for two counties in 1832, only to be declared in 1834 first alcalde of Taos.5 He continued his education, becoming fluent over time in French, English, Spanish, German, and even some Navajo and Pueblo Indian.6 By the mid-1840s Beaubien had opened a second mercantile and he and his family lived in a thirty-eight bedroom home where Mrs. Beaubien, dressed in the finest east-coast fashions, presided over a dining room that seated one hundred people.7

Guadalupe Miranda

If mercantiles were where Beaubien first earned his money, land is where he began his empire. Despite the Law of 1830 (passed after the growing troubles in Texas) stating that no land could be claimed by a person born outside of Mexico if the desired land bordered the United States, New Mexico’s Governor Amijo nonetheless showed little discrimination when it came to dolling out grants.8 Because New Mexico at the time remained very much populated by hostile Indians, Armijo usually asked only that applicants be married to a Mexican woman and that they petition jointly with a Mexican-born resident.9 With this in mind, on January 8, 1841, Beaubien, along with Mexican native Guadalupe Miranda, applied for a land grant in northern New Mexico stretching over almost two million acres.10 In their petition, the two applicants emphasized their education and business acumen, asserting that such privately held land would utilize the nation’s natural resources, create jobs, and boost a stalled economy. “This is the age of progress,” the petition read, “and the March of the Intellect, and they are so rapid we may expect at a day not so far distant that they will even reach us.”11 Not only that, but by putting citizens to work clearing forests, irrigating water, and building homes on the grant, crimes would be reduced: “Idleness, the mother of vice, is the cause of the increase in crimes, which are daily being committed… homes are overrun with thieves and murderers, who by this means alone desire to procure their substance.”12 With such persuasiveness, what was Governor Armijo to do but approve the grant, especially when the two men sweetened the deal by agreeing to “silently” deed one quarter of the plot to Armijo, plus another quarter to their mutual and similarly influential friend Charles Bent.13 The grant would become known as the Beaubien-Miranda Grant.

Only three years after securing his first two million acres, Beaubien, always the entrepreneur, would figure out a way to finagle yet another million. Because Mexican law permitted individuals to apply for only one grant, when Beaubien nonetheless applied for yet a second grant, he did so this time under the names of his son Narcisso and his close fur-trading friend and future Taos sheriff Stephen Luis Lee.14 The application was for an expanse of land directly adjacent the Beaubien-Miranda – the two grants split down the middle by the Sangre de Cristo mountain range in present-day southern Colorado. The grant was approved, and with Narcisso in St. Louis attending college and Lee hundreds of miles south focusing on his trading business, Beaubien was left to manage the new Sangre de Cristo Land Grant alone.

Stephen Watts Kearny

That same year, 1844, Beaubien was appointed justice of the peace of the Rio Colorado region north of Taos.15 Two years later, Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny and his Army of the West would arrive, and Beaubien would receive his most powerful political boost yet. After declaring the territory for the United States, Kearney would attach a letter to the Adjutant General along with his Code of Laws. The letter read in part:

“Being duly authorized by the president of the United States of America, I hereby make the following appointments for the government of New Mexico, a territory of the United States. The officers thus appointed will be obeyed and respected accordingly: Charles Bent to be governor… Joab Houghton, Antonio Jose Otero, Charles Beaubien, to be judges of the superior court.”16

It remains unclear what prompted Kearney’s appointment of Beaubien to the Supreme Court (he was also named district court judge for New Mexico’s northern district) as Beaubien possessed no formal training or experience in law. Most likely what inspired the decision was Beaubien’s connections in the territory, his education (which, while not in law, was still more than most), and because he presented himself to Kearney as a United States sympathizer. Whether Beaubien, in protecting his interests, embraced occupation only once Kearney arrived is unknown, however chances are the businessman had become disillusioned in the years leading to the war as Mexico had raised its taxes on foreign merchants.

At the turn of the new year, 1847, three white Mexican citizens presided over Taos, New Mexico in shared representation of American interest. They were Charles Bent, governor, Stephen Lee, sheriff, and Charles Beaubien, supreme court justice. Even Beaubien’s son Narcisso, fresh out of college, was back home and eager to begin help managing his grant.

On January 18, 1847, Beaubien was called to the town of Los Luceros where he held regular court for Rio Arriba County.17 Early the next morning, likely as Beaubien was still in bed, a mob of drunk and enraged Mexicans and Pueblo Indians swarmed Taos. They surrounded the home of Governor Bent, broke down the door, shot the governor with arrows and then scalped him before his wife and children with a taught bowstring. Next they killed Sheriff Lee as he hid atop his roof. Young Narcisso meanwhile cowered next to a friend below a wagon. When spotted by an Indian servant, the servant yelled, “Kill the young ones and they will never be men to trouble us!”18 The insurgents lanced the two boys unrecognizable. By the time he returned home more than two weeks later, Beaubien found his son murdered, his house plundered, and the surviving women and children of his family traumatized.

Ceran St. Vrain

A militia of mountain men, led by Ceran St. Vrain, departed to locate and capture the scattered insurgents.19 Because the massacre had taken place inside Beaubien’s jurisdiction, it fell on the judge to try all those brought back. Beaubien, despite no doubt being aware of his deep conflict of interest, accepted the responsibility whole-heartedly. He impaneled a jury consisting almost entirely of family members of the victims (one of them being Narcisso’s brother in-law, Lucien B. Maxwell), and on April 5, 1847, court was in session.

The first to be tried for murder was a Mexican named Jose Manuel Garcia. The jury promptly found him guilty and Beaubien sentenced Garcia to “hang from the neck until dead, dead, dead.”20 Such would be a similar sentence over the next few weeks. In fact, Beaubien handed down so many death penalties that on April 12 Taos curate Jose Martinez wrote to Manuel Alvarez in Santa Fe:

“The Judge of Crimes, Don Carlos Beaubien, and his associates are endeavoring to kill all the people of Taos… on the first day they sentenced six and these were hanged the third, the second day nine were sentenced to death but their execution has been delayed until the arrival of reinforcements asked for by the people…”21

Fate had delivered to Beaubien a cruel, ironic hand. His son and long-time friends Bent and Lee had been brutally murdered. His partner Guadalupe Miranda, sensing trouble, had fled back to his home city of El Paso del Norte shortly before the Revolt. And former Mexican governor of the territory and Beaubien-supporter Manuel Armijo had retreated to Mexico City upon word of Kearney’s approach. The judge had lost a son and four close friends, and in the process he had become sole inheritor of three million acres of land.

Lucien Maxwell

But before he could dive headlong into the management of those acres, Beaubien still had three years left in his term as judge as per Kearney’s appointment. Beaubien thus turned to his son-in-law Lucien Maxwell for help, and in 1848, as the war wound to an end and as Maxwell marched deep into the Beaubien-Miranda Grant to establish a settlement along the Rayado River, Beaubien prepared to stretch his political clout to its limit.

He began by lobbying acting civil governor Donaciano Vigil in the governor’s appointments of the multiple political positions left opened after the Revolt. Beaubien made the case for Pascual Martinez, the brother of the priest that had married Charles and Maria, prefect, fellow trader Juan Martinez to the post of Taos alcalde, and friend Andrew Metcalf as sheriff.22 Ultimately, Beaubien succeeded in persuading Vigil in agreeing to all but Metcalf.

Then came the question hanging over every New Mexican’s mind following America’s victory in the war: State or Territory? It was an issue in which Beaubien was deeply invested, both personally and morally. Personally, perhaps selfishly, he knew there was much he stood to lose should New Mexico gain statehood as his political appointments would likely become divested and his landholdings would potentially come into question. Morally, Beaubien was a staunch abolitionist and like many New Mexicans feared slavery spreading into the area (ironically, these abolitionists seemed to overlook the abundance of Indian slavery within the territory). On October 10, 1848, a convention was held in Santa Fe with officials from around the territory set to debate the issue.23 Beaubien was elected one of thirteen northern delegates, and by its conclusion the convention drafted a petition to Congress reading in part, “We do not desire to have domestic slavery within our borders; and until the time shall arrive for admission into the Union of States, we desire to be protected by Congress against the introduction of slaves into the Territory.”24

James S. Calhoun

Over the next two years, two factions would emerge in New Mexico, those for statehood and those against. In 1849, Beaubien traveled to nearby Indian pueblos pressured natives to vote against pro-statehood delegates. When Indian Agent James S. Calhoun caught wind of Beaubien’s lobbying and complained in a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Beaubien denied his doings but nevertheless stated that he would “in the future act with President Taylor’s real friends.”25 President Taylor, a supporter of statehood, urged Calhoun the same. In 1850 however, Beaubien’s faction prevailed and Congress decreed that New Mexico remain a Territory.

In 1851 Beaubien retired from public office and began focusing on the settlement of his two land grants. With villages like Rayado, Cimarron, Costilla, and San Luis growing steadily on the two grants, Beaubien, with the help of Maxwell, issued rules to the settlements that included the barring of fighting within the presence of families and the regular collection of a chapel fund.26

By the mid 1850s Beaubien’s health was in decline. In 1858 Maxwell would purchase all of Beaubien’s interest in the Beaubien-Miranda Grant and the grant would from then on become known as the Maxwell Grant.27 In 1862 Beaubien began talks with former Colorado Territory governor William Gilpin on the sale of the Sangre de Cristo Grant. The deal would be finalized in March of 1864 by Beaubien’s family following the Don’s death that month.28

His detractors declared him an opportunist, a self-serving and malleable foreigner who came to New Mexico seeking only wealth. There was credence to the thought, but only to the extent that any foreigner who entered this desolate and hostile territory did so for some form of personal gain. But at the same time, whether consciously or not, through his quest for prosperity in New Mexico Beaubien would help tame the wild Indian frontier with the establishment of his settlements, as well as raise the quality of life for citizens by ushering in an economy. If Beaubien entered the west an opportunist, he left it a pioneer.

Sources

John W. Grassham. Charles H. Beaubien, 1800-1864. M.A. thesis, New Mexico State University, 1983.

  1. Joseph Elzer Bellemore, Historie de Nicolet 1669-1924 (Quebec: Arthabaska, 1924), pp. 71-82.
  2. Joseph Tasse, The Canadians of the West (Montreal: 1878), p. 187.
  3. David Lavender, Bent’s Fort  (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972) p. 427.
  4. Archives of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, Marriage-Taos, 1827, State Records Center and Archives (hereafter cited SRC&A); Marriage Dispensation (Beaubien), McGarvan Collection, SRC&A
  5. Lawrence Murphy, The Mountain Men of the Fur Trade, ed. Leroy Hafen (Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Co.), p. 24.
  6. Albert D. Richardson, Beyond the Mississippi, 1857–1867 (Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1867), p. 270.
  7. Santa Fe New Mexican, February 6, 1864.
  8. David J. Weber, The Mexican Frontier, 1821-1846; The American Southwest Under Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982), p. 191.
  9. Ibid., p. 181.
  10. Beaubien-Miranda land grant petition, January 8, 1841, Records of the Surveyor General of New Mexico (SGNM), No. 15, SRC&A, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Jim Berry Pearson, The Maxwell Land Grant (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961), p. 5.
  14. Beaubien-Lee petition, December 27, 1843, SGNM, No. 52, SRC&A, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
  15. Charles Beaubien appointed Justice of the Peace, Document No. 7533, SRC&A.
  16. Kearney Appointments, Governors Papers, SRC&A.
  17. Beaubien to Donaciano Vigil, Taos, New Mexico, February 7, 1847, William Ritch Papers, Huntington Library.
  18. Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West (New York: Doubleday, 2006), p. 219)
  19. Reel 85, Frame 5, Territorial Archives of New Mexico, SRC&A.
  20. Taos County District Court Records, Taos County, Journal, 1847-1851, SRC&A.
  21. Padre Antonio Jose Martinez to Manuel Alvarez, April 12, 1847, Benjamin Read Papers, SRC&A.
  22. Beaubien to Donaciano Vigil, Taos, New Mexico, February 7, 1847, William Ritch Papers, Huntington Library.
  23. William Ritch, The New Mexico Blue Book, 1882, facsimile ed. Territory of New Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1968), pp. 99-100.
  24. Robert Larson, New Mexico’s Quest for Statehood (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1968), p. 15.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Francis T. Cheetham, The Early Settlement of Southern Colorado,” The Colorado Magazine (February 1928).
  27. Jim Berry Pearson, The Maxwell Land Grant (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961), p. 34.
  28. Marrian Stoller, “Grants of Desperation, Lands of Speculation: Mexican Period Land Grants in Colorado,” Journal of the West (July 1980

Skinwalkers

 

They are accounts of nighttime drives on the lonely road between Farmington, NM and The Four Corners when, in the distance ahead, a coyote appears on the roadway, its eyes glowing in the headlights. Except that they are not coyote eyes, they are something else, something almost human, and when the car speeds past the waiting coyote the coyote bolts and begins speeding along with it, running at 60 miles per hour, its eyes still aglow in the headlights. The driver looks away and presses pedal to metal, and when he looks back suddenly it is no longer a coyote running at pace next to the vehicle, but a man. A man with the yellow eyes of a coyote fixed on the driver, one hand banging on the hood.

Or another story from the desert town of Tuba City, Arizona near Monument Valley, where a building contractor is doing repairs on an old ranch home. Thinking himself alone, the man is surprised to hear laughter coming from somewhere off in the sheep pens. Following the noise, the man turns a corner to the edge of the sheep pen where before him the entire flock is huddled shivering into one end of the pen while on the other a lone ram stands separated. He is standing upright, his two front hooves across his chest and his horned head thrown back in gleeful, maniacal laughter that is unmistakably human. Watching this, the man jumps and suddenly the ram spots him. For a fleeting moment the two lock eyes and, just like the laughter, the ram’s eyes are familiar and anything but animal. The ram falls back down to all fours and mills along as if nothing had ever happened.

They are stories of shape-shifting creatures acrosss Navajo Nation, the 24k-plus reservation land encompassing most of northeastern Arizona and the adjacent corner sections of New Mexico and Utah. A taboo subject amongst natives, Skinwalkers are seldom discussed with members outside the tribe, and rarely even inside it. The Navajo Skinwalker legend is not unlike that of the European werewolf: A once-ordinary human discovers the ability to shift into animal form at night where his doings then become almost exclusively evil. Unlike the werewolf, however, the Skinwalker curse is desired and acquired, that is, Skinwalkers do not have the bad luck to be “bitten” and forced into the curse. Rather, they want it and are willing to perform extraordinary rites of evil in order to achieve it.

There are multiple legends behind the origin of the Navajo Skinwalker. One claims the Navajos mastered shapeshifting in order to escape persecution and relocation — the Kit Carson-led cornering of the tribe deep in Canyon de Chelly and later their forced and disastrous relocation to Bosque de Redondo. Another version relates to the Navajo belief in the Anasazi curse — that the Anasazi were responsible for the prevailing witchcraft in the Navajo tribes — and that Navajo Skinwalkers used the off-limit Anasazi ruins and grave sites to gain certain powers.

The most prominent history of the Skinwalker tells of a particular form of Navajo witch, or an ’ánt’įįhnii, called ayee naaldlooshii, translated to mean “with it, he goes on all fours.” The yee naaldlooshii is usually a medicine man or high-ranking priest who has obtained supernatural powers through breaking a cultural taboo, including murder, seduction, or the corrupting of a family member.

Upon accepting this deep and consuming level of witchcraft, Skinwalkers are banished forever from a tribe (but considering the foreknowledge of this as well the despicable acts required for the transformation, the aspiring Skinwalker surely possessed an early, pre-seated hate for the tribe). Prowling alone in the desert, a Skinwalker (and also unlike the werewolf) has the ability to shape-shift into any animal they wish, although most commonly the animal is a coyote, wolf, cougar, fox, owl, or crow — a reason why pelts of these animals are widely restricted among the Navajo.

In animal form the eyes of a Skinwalker are distinctly human, while in human form this is reversed. Varying versions of the legend attribute Skinwalkers the ability to “body-snatch”, to take possession of another person’s body if that person locks eyes long enough with the Skinwalker. It is also said Skinwalkers, through this same eye-locking method, have the power to read human thoughts or even mimic perfectly the voice of that person, a ploy used to lure relatives. Skinwalkers are also said to use voodoo-like tactics to manipulate their victims, such as collecting a target’s hair, wrapping it around a pottery shard, then burying it in a tarantula hole.

Outcasts and pariahs, Skinwalkers assume begrudged and hate-driven existences, their spirits in constant search of revenge or else mindless harm. The more modest accounts of Skinwalker encounters portray them as mischievous, almost poltergeist-like. They will climb the roofs of sleeping families, bang on the walls and knock on the windows. More commonly though, Skinwalkers stories are far more malicious. In these accounts Skinwalkers climb roofs in order to seek ways into the house and attack the family, or else they assault cars driving through reservation land, causing wrecks.

They are described as fast and agile, ugly mutations that are not quite human and not fully animal. Usually they are naked but some sightings report a creature wearing tattered shirts or jeans. In some stories the Skinwalker is actually tracked down only to lead to the home of a relative of the tracker. Or, like the werewolf, the Skinwalker will be shot and the next day a Navajo will be found with the same exact wound, revealing him as the ánt’įįhnii. Certain Navajo myths insist that the only way to fully kill a Skinwalker is with a bullet dipped in white ash.