Teamwork Tells the Tale

Empire on the Platte, by Richard Crabb

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If this post’s title confuses or leads astray, I’m sorry. Nebraskan Burt Sell, a home-grown historian, provided much of author Crabb’s fodder for this book, by the author’s admission information important to the tale. And a great tale it is.

We first follow the lives of the Olive family, beginning with patriarch James Olive. Most of the story, however, is built on the life and times of James and wife Julia’s son, I.P. (Isom Prentice) Olive, known familiarly as Print. The Olive family settles in western Texas in the early 1800s and make their name rounding up wild longhorn cattle – something of a cowboy Garden of Eden. Despite competing cattlemen and rustlers, the Olives make a fortune on the backs of these longhorns. Soon, however, farmers begin coming in droves, and the Olives pick up and move to Nebraska. There they come to loggerheads once more with settlers intent on farming, and we see developing the conflict between cattlemen and sodbusters, which has been made into virtual cliche in early cowboy movies.

The Olive family’s part in this conflict along the Platte River is a central one, and it summons controversy. As Crabb tells the Olive story, Print murders a pair of farmers in gruesome fashion. Some of those involved in the killings turn state’s evidence, and Print is sent to jail.

The rest of the century-long conflict between farmers and ranchers isn’t told here; Crabbs story is built myopically about Print, and with his conviction this chapter of the long-running western conflict ends. Crabb gives us a chronological tour of this story, and he offers a multitude of details without the book becoming cumbersome. For historians wishing to find out more about this chapter of the U.S.’s westward expansion, the book is a must. And it’s eminently readable for the casual nonfiction reader.

 

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 

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The Hard and Bloody West

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The Ladder of Rivers, by Harry E. Chrisman

 

One of my grandfather’s brothers married an Olive woman, and in digging into that, I discovered that one in the Olive family had a famed but checkered past. Who, you ask? One Isom Prentice Olive, known in his day as Print Olive – a cattle rancher during the brief, freewheeling days of the Midwest cowboy.

This isn’t a book of fiction. Chrisman has done a stupendous, journalistic job of ferreting out almost everything there is to know about Print and his immediate family, beginning with his father Jim Olive and mother Julia.

Chrisman’s tale speaks of feral Mexican cattle that roamed the Texas and New Mexico plains, and the Olives were among the first to round up as many as 10,000 of these cattle at at time. They made fortunes selling them, largely to those in the east, who had developed a taste for beef.

But there were problems. Herding so many cattle at a time to the various markets made their herds targets of rustlers. The Olives were merciless in dealing with such poachers, and their willingness to shoot rustlers landed Print and his sons in jail on several occasions. Too, the family was handcuffed by the increasing westward migrations of settlers, and they have to constantly mover northward, into what had been Indian territory in order to have the free hand in ranching they felt they deserved.

Chrisman is clearly a fan of the Olives, and the sense I get from his story is of one who tells the family’s facts, but who tends to whitewash them as he writes. Clearly, the Olives were controversial characters – they worked hard, were generous to their own, but they avenged even the smallest slights, and hunted down the perpetrators of any theft of what they saw as their property by rights.

The prose here is awkward, unpolished for the most part, but there’s one thing Chrisman does to make his story come alive within his thin writing skills: he imagines dialogues between the characters. Thus a difficult  read becomes  quite a charmer. Too, the author turned up many photos in his research, and a trove of these are included with the text. He even includes a roughly drawn map of the ranching territories.

 

My rating 15 of 20 stars

 

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