In the late 1990s, I was backpacking with a group in the Chicago Basin area of Colorado, about halfway between Durango and Silverton; we rode the train to get to and from the trailhead.
At our high camp, we met a group of mountain men reenactors. From the Phoenix area, the six men had committed themselves to making a multi-week hike from the Wolf Creek Ski Area near Pagosa Springs to the Silverton area dressed only in authentic clothing from the 1836-1845 era, and using equipment (other than survival and first aid gear required by the Forest Service) that was available during that timeframe. They were given special permission to hunt small game with black powder muskets so they could forage for their own food.
It was fascinating to see their handmade clothes, their aged weapons (including handmade arrows for their handmade bows), walk through their camp (no tents or sleeping bags – only wool blankets wrapped by waterproofed animal hides), and listen to their descriptions of how people in the backcountry lived without telephones, cameras, batteries, cushioned footwear, clearly marked trails, aspirin or Tylenol, sunglasses, prepackaged foods, maps, waterproof-windproof-insulated-zippered-monogrammed clothing, anything made of plastic, multi-fueled camp stoves, lighters, anything made of aluminum, modern weapons, compasses, watches, tea bags, hot chocolate mix, trail mix, water filters, sunscreen, bug spray, bear spray, and other items that I currently take for granted.
It made me wonder about what life was really like for those who lived a century and a half before us. What, for instance, did people read? Regular fiction books were hardbound and prevalent but usually associated with classic literature, the era of “paperback” not coming until the 1930s. There were also newspapers, magazines, journals, story papers, five- and ten-cent weeklies, assembled reprints, and a few early pulp magazines. The famous “dime novels” began in the 1860s and were immediately popular.
The following is an excerpt from Fort Bascom, by James Bailey Blackshear, and gives an idea of the literacy of soldiers at Fort Bascom. The era would have been around three decades after the group of Mountain Men reenactors, but that still makes it 1860-1870.
“Communications with friends and family, especially after the mid-1860s, was a key source of entertainment for soldiers posted far from home. Before a prolonged scout, some troops would write several letters because they did not know when they would get another opportunity. A few kept journals of their experiences on scouts and then mailed them east after returning to the post.
“Soldiers like Private Matthews of the Eighth Cavalry and Captain Dubois of the Third Cavalry often spent their first hours back at Fort Bascom catching up on what was happening with their families…..Matthews bragged to his father that ‘ours was a very literary troop, when any ten cent novels are to be had.’ While stationed at Fort Bascom, he read The House of the Seven Gables and noted that all the New York papers, as well as the Democratic Advocate, circulated among the men.
“Reading materials helped to pass the time, yet their acquisition also held an intrinsic value. Captain Dubois related to his mother that with just a few books, pictures, and minimal furniture, he was able to make a ‘great show’ of his quarters at Fort Bascom. Such items, including newspapers and dime novels, were both links to the world from which they came and intellectual status symbols among their peers.
“In November 1869 Lt. Wilson Hartz, Fifteenth Infantry, acting in the role of post treasurer, placed an order for several books and volumes with D. Appleton and Company of New York. The titles included Arabian Nights, Burns’ Poetical Works, all available publications by Anthony Trollop, and the Reveries of a Bachelor, by Ik Marvel (Donald Grant Mitchell). Whatever the topic, such media proved to be both informative and transformative, allowing the lonely trooper the opportunity to escape the isolation he associated with the Eroded Plains environment.”
I have not read Reveries of a Bachelor, but I’m ready to admire anyone who has. Kit Carson relates a story, while searching for Virginia White, a woman who had been captured by Jicarilla Apaches, of finding a novel in an Indian camp written about the daring exploits of Frontier Scout Kit Carson, Indian fighter and hero. That was in 1849. Unfortunately, he was not able to revel in the descriptions of his exploits: though he was fluent in English, Spanish, and several Indian languages, Kit Carson could not read or write.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.