Glenn Uminowicz - November 2008

The Wild West and the Eastern Shore


Glenn Uminowicz

In all this broad country of ours, its mountains, valleys and prairies, dotted with cities, villages and homes, there is no single spot more filled with memories of the earlier history of America than is the favored spot of which I write — this “LAND OF LEGENDARY LORE.”
From Prentiss Ingraham, Land of Legendary Lore (1898)

   In 1872, Prentiss Ingraham began his incredibly prolific career as a dime novelist. Dime novels were aimed at youthful, working-class audiences and distributed in massive editions at newsstands and dry goods stores. By 1900, Ingraham counted over 600 action-packed titles to his credit.
    Born in 1843, Ingraham served in the Confederate army. After the Civil War, he pursued a career as a soldier of fortune, fighting against the Turks in Greece and for the Cubans in their revolt against Spain.
    Ingraham often based his novels on his own military experience. He especially enjoyed writing about pirates. In 1879, he authored the first of a series of over 200 Buffalo Bill Wild West novels. For a time, Ingraham also served as a press agent for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
    It proved no surprise then in 1896 when Ingraham appeared before an audience in Easton, delivering a lecture entitled THROUGH WONDERLAND: ON A HUNT WITH BUFFALO BILL. In the early fall of 1893, Ingraham joined a party of Americans and “prominent military men of Europe” assembled by Col. William F. Cody for an “extended tour in the saddle into the almost unknown wonderlands of the far West.”
    Buffalo Bill regularly arranged such hunting trips, sometimes including the crowned heads of Europe. These were no small-scale enterprises. The “outfit” for the trip that included Ingraham consisted of “three army wagons for supplies, two buckboards, an ambulance, about a hundred horses, and thirty Mormon rangers, with guides, scouts, stock tenders, cooks and camp attendants.” The starting point for the entourage was Flagstaff, Arizona, and the trek ended in Salt Lake City, Utah.
    In the saddle and “armed like bandits,” the hunting party blasted away at bears, mountain sheep, deer, antelope, squirrels, rabbits, mountain lions, wild cats, skunks and coyotes. They climbed ice-covered mountains, admired the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, and marveled at a petrified forest located in a “volcanic country where no tree grows or water could be found.” In the forest, a guide named “Old Al Hunington” tried to convince a member of the hunting party that a buffalo once jumped over a log and became petrified himself in mid-air. His listener insisted that gravity would have brought the creature down. “Stranger,” Al replied, “ther’ gravitation was petrified, too.”
    Touring the “Western Wonderland” in 1893 was not without irony. Historian Michael Collins observed that two enduring stories of the frontier were told at the World’s Columbian Exposition – the great world’s fair held in Chicago that year. At a meeting of the American Historical Association, historian Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his paper “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” In 1890, the Superintendent of the U.S. Census reported, “Up to and including 1880, the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line.”
    The closing of the frontier inspired Turner to contemplate its meaning in American history. He defined the frontier as the “meeting point between savagery and civilization” that served as the “cradle of American Democracy.” In expounding on his “Frontier Thesis,” Turner wrote:

   To the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic, but powerful to effect great ends; that dominant individualism, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom – these are traits of the frontier.

   The other frontier story offered at the Chicago World’s Fair was cloaked in William F. Cody’s flamboyant extravaganza. As Buffalo Bill, Cody was every bit the showman. He made a grand entrance astride his white charger with flowing hair, sporting a full mustache and goatee, and wearing a fringed jacket and an oversized Stetson hat. Waving it as he made a sweeping bow to the crowd, he always brought down the house in anticipation of what was to come.
    The Wild West Show featured western vignettes such as the holdup of the Deadwood stage, Custer’s Last Stand, and an Indian raid on a prairie homestead. The show also included buffalo hunting, steer roping and riding, sharpshooters and cowgirls like Annie Oakley.
    According to philosophy professor Gerald F. Kreyche, these vignettes linked the concepts of frontier expansion and national progress. For both Americans and Europeans, Buffalo Bill became the “icon of the frontier American West, embodying all the realism, romanticism, and mythology that went with it. He brought the West’s savagery to civilization and civilization to savagery.” Like Turner, Cody presented the frontier as an example of the buoyancy and exuberance that comes with American freedom.
    Prentiss Ingraham learned to blend realism, romanticism and mythology in his dime novels and through Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. After he suffered a series of strokes between 1889 and 1891, doctors advised him to seek a mild climate for rest and recuperation. At the urging of his boyhood friend and Talbot County historian Oswald Tilghman, Ingraham came to the Eastern Shore. With the encouragement of the editor of the Easton Gazette, he applied his frontier perspective to writing Land of Legendary Lore: Sketches of Romance and Reality on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake (1898).
    Ingraham shared Turner’s perspective that the frontier marked the meeting point between civilization and savagery. In fact, he repeatedly used those terms in describing the early history of the Shore. The first settlers planted the “corner stone of civilization in the midst of savagery” leading to the “rising Star of Empire” that would illuminate both the retreat of Native Americans to despair and death and the transformation of the Delmarva Peninsula into an “Eden Land – for such it has become under the magic wand of the white man.”
    That last statement evokes what historian Henry Nash Smith labeled the “Myth of the Garden.” Americans held to the notion that the ever-westward moving frontier was a kind of potential Garden of Eden where life could begin anew and the ideals of democracy realized.
    Of course, those ideals did not apply to Native Americans. Contemporary critics accused Buffalo Bill of unfair treatment of his show’s Indians. Those charges never held up as Indian performers insisted that the showman was a good employer. Like most leading figures of his day, Cody believed in the inherent superiority of whites over other races. Gerald Kreychke, however, points out that did not mean he approved of brutality toward the Indians.
Ingraham shared that perspective. He described the first European sailing ship spotted from an Indian village at what is now Oxford. With all the drama found in a dime novel, Ingraham related the reaction of a woman seeing this “White-Winged Canoe.” As the warriors armed for battle, he wrote, “Suddenly a cry arose, a wail as it were of alarm and horror commingled. A woman’s lips had uttered it, and all eyes had turned upon her.” Eastern Shore Native Americans were about to learn the “bitter lesson that civilization advances into new lands with the Bible in one hand, and the sword in the other.”
    In his history of Talbot County, Ingraham described the advance of civilization on the Eastern Shore over two and a half centuries. He explored the development of the plantation economy and noted the abundance of oysters, fish, terrapins and crab that yielded “vast pecuniary revenue.” He listed the development of institutions identified with civilization, such as a court system and schools. He heralded the existence of religious freedom in Maryland beginning with the arrival of the Quakers. He argued that churches provided the nucleus for the formation of villages that grew into prosperous towns, mirroring Turner’s description of how a savage frontier evolved into a civilized democracy.
    As its subtitle indicated, however, Ingraham’s book covered both “romance and reality,” so his readers learned about an Indian maid who directed her English love to a treasure ship guarded by the skeletons of dead pirates. (Ingraham loved writing about pirates.) He also recounted the “weird tale” of the crossroads village of “Hole-in-the-Wall.” Purportedly, sailors from nearby Oxford sold smuggled goods through a hole in the foundation wall of an old building, or maybe the suitor of a pretty girl peeked through the hole to see “if the old man was about.”
    In writing about the “Myth of the Garden,” Henry Nash Smith insisted that he did not use the term “myth” to indicate an erroneous belief. He was interested in the relation between “imaginative constructions” and the history of the frontier. Ingraham had no shortage of such constructions. In the Land of Legendary Lore, he invited his readers to bathe in the “atmosphere of fancy, where the warmth and glow of musing memories may quicken it into the life of full blown imagination. Then we can harmoniously visit the temples of the past, and enjoy the spirit of long ago.” The line of settlement had vanished in the distant West. On the Eastern Shore, Prentiss Ingraham combined romance with history, insisting that the American spirit could be rejuvenated on the frontier of our imagination.