Sunday, April 30, 2023

Devil's Gate and Emigrant Trails by Zina Abbott

Devil's Gate, or Devils Gate, is a natural rock formation. It is a gorge on the Sweetwater River located five miles (8 km) southwest of Independence Rock. Devil's Gate is a prime example of what is called an antecedent drainage stream. The Sweetwater River cuts a narrow 100-meter deep slot through a granite ridge. If the same river had flowed less than a kilometer to the south, it could have bypassed the ridge completely. The gorge was cut because the landscape was originally buried by valley fill sediments. As the river eroded downward through those sediments, once it hit granite, it kept on cutting. The cleft is about 370 feet deep and 1,500 feet long. It is about thirty feet wide at the base, but 300 feet wide at the top.

Devil's gate by Wm. H. Jackson, 1870

Goldfish 49'er, J.G. Bruff, wrote:
"...some of the boys clambered up the rock on the north side of the Gate...where they fired pistols and threw down rocks, pleased with the reverberation, which was great. I made a careful sketch of this remarkable gorge."


According to American Indian legend, they believed a powerful evil spirit in the form of a tremendous beast with enormous tusks ravaged the Sweetwater Valley, preventing the Indians from hunting and camping. A holy man told the tribes that the Great Spirit wanted them to destroy the beast. The Indians launched an attack from the mountain passes and ravines, shooting countless arrows into the evil monster. Enraged, the beast with a mighty upward thrust of its tusks, ripped a gap in the mountain and disappeared, never to be seen again.
Robert L. Munkees, “Independence Rock and Devil’s Gate” in Annals of Wyoming, April 1968.

There are some creatures living around Devil’s Gate that might not be monsters, but they also are not something most people wish to cross their paths. Rattlesnakes. The rock formation of which Devil’s Gate is part is known as the Granite Hills. On an 1872 map, the mountains immediately north of them were identified at Rattlesnake Mountains.

My husband and I made a visit to some of the landmarks along the emigrant trail. Stopping near Devil’s Gate, a docent advised us we could walk to the river where we could have a better view of the water going through the gorge. He also warned us there are a lot of rattlesnakes there.

This author took a pass on hiking closer to Devil’s Gate.


Both Devil’s Gate and Independence Rock were landmarks on the three major emigrant trails: Oregon, California, and Mormon. The above drawing by William Henry Jackson, circa 1870, shows circled wagon trains at Independence Rock, with Devil's Gate in the distance.

Emigrant Charles E. Boyle wrote in 1849:

“Although the cleft was too narrow for wagons to pass through alongside the river, emigrants frequently stopped to hike around these rocks and carve their names. Often they noticed bighorn sheep climbing the hills. The chasm is one of the wonders of the world,… The water rushes roaring and raving into the gorge, and the noise it makes as it comes in contact with the huge fragments of rock lying in its course is almost deafening.”

Map by Ezra Meeker, 1907

As mountain men and adventurers began traveling west through the territory of the Louisiana Purchase, which became United States territory in 1803, they soon discovered Devil’s Gate. It became one of the landmarks which bordered what became a popular trail. The trail allowed wagons and livestock to cross the Continental Divide through South Pass, a reasonably smooth, gentle sloping pass over otherwise steep and rugged territory.

Fr. Pierre-Jean DeSmet, S.J.,  said in 1841:
"...Travelers have named this spot the Devil's Entrance (Devil's Gate). In my opinion they should have rather called it Heaven's Avenue."

Devil's Gate was a marker along the trail that many pioneers hoped would lead to a heaven on earth. However, there is far more to Devil’s Gate’s history than being a landmark. Next month, I will share about a trading post built near Devil’s Gate.


was my first book published in the Prairie Roses Collection (2022). Many of the same characters are in both Pearl and Clara. It also included the part of the story where the wagon train traveled passed Devil’s Gate as the wagons crossed the Sweetwater River nine times before reaching South Pass. The book is available as an ebook and in paperback, and also at no additional cost with a Kindle Unlimited subscription. To find the book description for Pearl and the purchase options, please CLICK HERE


picks up Clara’s romance after the wagon train has already traveled the trail through the Sweetwater River valley. The book is currently available for purchase as an ebook or at no additional cost with a Kindle Unlimited subscription. To find the book description and purchase options, please CLICK HERE








Wednesday, April 26, 2023

The Texas Prison Rodeo by Bea Tifton

The Texas Prison Rodeo in Huntsville, Texas, was the first of its kind in the United States, operating from 1931 to 1986.  In 1931, the general manager for the Texas prison in Huntsville, Marshal Lee Simmons, instituted the Texas Prison Rodeo.  The rodeos were held on Sunday afternoons in October with the blessings of local clergy members.

Livestock was provided by the prison farms, and Simmons trucked in spectators and inmates on “rolling jails” from the prison farms and the prison itself, called “The Walls” by many. The rodeo took place on the prisoners’ baseball field. 

The wooden stadium only seated a few hundred, so organizers had to turn away fans.  In 1938 the arena seating was doubled and in 1950 a red brick arena with a 20,000 seating capacity was built for one million dollars.

Dubbed “The Wildest Show Behind Bars” and “The Wildest Show on Earth,” the rodeo proceeds were used to provide funds for an education and recreation fund that purchased such things as textbooks and Christmas turkeys.

Participants wore black and white striped uniforms sewn by women at the Goring unit. Men and women could participate in the rodeo.  Men competed in calf roping, bronc riding, bull riding, bareback basketball, and wild cow milking.  In “Hard Money,” inmates wearing red shirts competed against each other to be the first to snatch a tobacco sack full of cash from between the horns of a bull. Women participated in calf roping, barrel riding, and greased pig sacking.

Prisoners were paid for performing.  They earned two dollars in 1938 and ten dollars in 1986, but the main draw was the satisfaction and recognition for winning. O’Neal Browning began participating in rodeos when he was sixteen. His father, who wanted Browning to help him on the farm, beat the boy regularly even though he was bringing money home from rodeo winnings. While still in his teens in a drunken rage, Browning killed his father with an ax and was sentenced to life in prison. For 30 years he participated and became a celebrity as he was the top winner in seven rodeos.

Inmate rodeo clowns distracted the bulls and entertained the spectators. During halftime shows prison gospel choirs, string bands, and the “Goree Girls” featuring the former stripper Candy Barr entertained the crowd. In the 1950s, celebrities began performing, including Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Willie Nelson.

The rodeo involved inmates throughout the prison systems and local businesses such as restaurants and stores benefitted from the resulting tourism. In 1975, astronauts and cosmonauts from the Apollo-Soyez space mission attended the rodeo. In 1980, the film “Urban Cowboy” filmed several scenes from the arena and included the prison rodeo in the film’s plot.

Only two inmates ever escaped. One year a pair of convicts slipped under the bleachers and put on clothes left by an outside accomplice. As they were heading toward the exit, a security guard actually threw them out of the rodeo because he thought they were sneaking in.

Several factors contributed to the rodeo’s demise.  The energy crisis and inflation in the 1970s and 1980s, along with poor advertising and bad weather dramatically reduced the crowds. As Huntsville and the surrounding area became increasingly less rural, fewer inmates had the necessary skills to participate safely.  Changing views emerged concerning the treatment of incarcerated people.  Federal funding increased to the state prison system and eliminated the pressure for the state prison system to earn its own finances.  The rodeo was still quite popular in 1986 when engineers condemned the stadium as unsafe. Efforts to revive the rodeo in the 1990s proved unsuccessful. In 2012 the rodeo grounds were demolished.


Monday, April 24, 2023



My heroine is making a journey across the country. Fine, but how to bring the reader into the setting so they feel like that trip is real?

Research, of course! That's me, always researching.

First, I decided to use oxen rather than horses or mules to pull her wagon. Why oxen? They did not require grain or oats like horses. The oxen (trained and castrated bulls) were willing to forage for grass. They also tolerated the long miles and hard work better.

Hard work? Definitely! The oxen typically started out from Missouri pulling 2500 pounds of supplies.

How many oxen? Two as I have read in other novels? No, usually, three sets of two pulled the wagon. 

How else could I add reality to my sweet romance? I added some of the early landmarks that overlanders would see. First, the crossing of the South Platte River. The travelers would then begin to climb the incredibly steep California Hill. 

Why go that route? After the climb, they would stop at Ash Hollow, where people would enjoy sweet, sweet water after weeks of drinking boiled river water.

Next, I included details about the significant rock formations. First, Courthouse Rock. But my travelers don't stop there. They push on to get to Chimney Rock. It's a significant spot. There, they know that one quarter of the journey is over. I'd celebrate if I was there like so many real travelers did who climbed that rock and chisled their names into it.

From Wagon Train Willa:

The company passed Courthouse Rock without much fanfare. To the travelers, it simply became one of the landmarks many knew of on the trail. Only a few days after that, they came to Chimney Rock. That was much more exciting.

The train stopped there, spending a free day at the spot. The people felt encouraged as they knew that now they had covered one quarter of the trail, over five hundred miles already walked. Most made this a celebration. The group even had a potluck dinner planned, and hunters went out to search for fresh game to add to it.

Like others in the company, Cade and Willa took the boys to the top of Chimney Rock. He carried the chisel. With a flourish, he carved their names and the date into the rock. Willy and Billy stood with their eyes wide as they watched small chips of rock fly.

“See, boys. In years to come, people will know that we made the trip across the country. A family who traveled together.” Cade grinned as he stretched a hand toward the carving.

What else happens to this family? I hope you are curious to find out. The novel is now on pre-order and will release soon from Amazon.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Rosita - LIttle Rose - Colorado

Post by Doris McCraw aka Angela Raines

driving toward the Wet Mountain Valley
Photo (c) Doris McCraw

Rosita, which means Little Rose in Spanish, was a silver mining town in Custer County Colorado in the Wet Mountain Valley area. It was a favorite of the writer Helen Hunt Jackson and the setting for her children's story "Nelly's Silver Mine".

It is also the setting for my fictional story tentatively named "Pauline".

The town itself was founded in 1872 and quickly grew with tents and log cabins. Shortly after there were now stores and of course carpenters and a hotel a saloon and by 1874 it had around 1000 residents and approximately 400 buildings. It also for a brief period of time was the county seat of Custer County. 

Image of Rosita, CO around 1888

Unfortunately for the town, the silver mines which were the reason for its being had short-lived silver veins. In the early 1880s, the towns of Silver Cliff and Querida grew as Rosita lost in population. In 1886 the town of Silver Cliff became the new county seat of Custer County after about a four-year fight. (On a side note, the town of Silver Cliff had its own drama when they expected the Denver and Rio Grande railroad to put a spur through but instead the depot was built in the town of Westcliff on land owned by Dr. Bell a friend of Gen. Palmer the owner of the Denver and Rio Grand.)

Briefly, in 1875 there was what they called the Pocahontas Mining War. It seems two men came into town promising to establish a bank but instead claimed ownership of the Pocahontas mine at the behest of the two men a Major George W Graham came to town to secure the mine. He arrived vowing revenge on certain townspeople. This major Graham was an escapee from the Colorado Territorial Prison. According to a story from Wikipedia, a mob of townsmen went to the mine where Graham then begged them to let him go. They told him to run. As he did so the mob shot him in the back. That same day according to the Corners inquest they stated Graham had taken 36 shots to his body. The body was taken in a wagon and buried outside of town. No one was ever charged with his murder.

Rosita Cemetery from Find A Grave

Today Rosita is now a ghost town although there are probably around a hundred residents and it has seasonal residents also. The Sangre de Cristos and the Wet Mountain Valley are still some of the most beautiful places in Colorado. Its name lived up to the beauty of its locations but the people in the town back then, that's another story.

Until Next Time: Stay safe, Stay happy, and Stay healthy.


Sunday, April 16, 2023

Larders, Butteries, Root Cellars - A Pantry by Any Other Name by Jo-Ann Roberts


With so many food storage options at our fingertips in today's world, I wondered how people in the 19th and well into the 20th century kept food cool and from spoiling.

Because a root cellar plays an important role in my upcoming release, Winning the Widow's Heart, I did some research and discovered that pantries are universal whether they are called a butler's pantry, a keeping room, a larder, or a dairy.

The word "pantry" comes from the Old French word "paneterie" meaning from "pain", the French word for bread. In medieval times food and supplies were stored in specific rooms. Meats were stored in a larder, alcohol stored in the buttery, and bread was stored in the pantry.

Before 1850, settlers in early American homes, where space was tight and possessions few, stored dry goods and spices in a cabinet or trunk. However, small rooms adjacent to the kitchen hearth began to appear in colonial houses for all manner of food storage. Early pantries--especially in the self-sufficient farmhouse--were unheated and primitive, with simple wood shelving on which to store barrels of dry goods and other bulk staples, as well as cooking utensils. Dark, cool, and dry, the pantry necessarily had a door or cloth covering over the entry to keep out dirt.

Milk room or dairies, many spring-fed, were often adjacent to farmhouse kitchens. Well-insulated dugouts (a walk-in, cave-like structure built into a hill) also ensured safe storage for perishables or preserves.

By the end of the Civil War and the 1920s, pantries were commonplace in homes of all styles, often with a servant's room above or adjacent to the kitchen.

Types of Pantries

Butler's Pantry
   A Victorian invention, it is a separate space adjacent to the dining room where food could be prepped and readily served, and where dishes often were washed in a "soft", copper-lined sink. It generally included storage space for tableware, serving pieces, and the family "plate" or silverware, which was the butler's responsibility.

Buttery (or butt'ry)   An old-fashioned word for the pantry or larder found in old farmhouses. This doesn't refer to butter but come from an English term for secondary pantry storage where more extensive provisions were stored in large barrels called "butts".

Keeping Pantry   An old English and New England term for a family sitting room immediately adjacent to the kitchen.

Larder   A small, cold room for storage of perishable food and prepared foods in the hottest weather.

It had slate or marble shelves two or three inches thick. Originally, it was where raw meat was larded--covered in fat--to be preserved. A dry larder was where bread, pastry, milk, butter, or cooked meats were stored.

Milk Room   Also called the dairy, this was a cool work room, often with running water from a spring, within the farmhouse and adjacent to the kitchen where butter

was churned, and pans of milk were stored.

Hoosier Cabinets   Made by the Hoosier Manufacturing Company in Indiana,  
this cabinet was created to be an all-in-one pantry and kitchen for the new

American home. These cabinets stood about six feet high, four feet wide and about two feet deep--making it a perfect size for small kitchens. It had built in storage bins and containers for everyday items like flour, sugar, coffee, tea and household spices.

Summer Kitchen

Located in the ell or wing of old farmhouses or, in hot climates, in a separate structure, it's a room apart where food was prepared in summertime. It was cooler and better ventilated than the main kitchen, and its usage kept cooking heat away from living quarters.

Even today, regardless of your kitchen size, you most likely have a pantry. It might be as small as a shelf in a cupboard or as large as a walk-in closet. Or if you're like me, you can remember your parents having a pantry just off the kitchen. 

We have one now which we call the "Mary Poppins" closet. When we moved into the house, anything we didn't have a place for went in the closet until we were further along in our unpacking. So now, when my husband can't find something, I tell him to look in the "Mary Poppins closet". 

P.S. Only those who know the story of Mary Poppins and her carpetbag will understand!!!

April 26th Release!

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Bear's Paw Mountain by Cora Leland

 I wanted to be sure that the mountain I was writing about would be as precarious as I needed: a teen-aged woman was riding alone in the mountains, like she did almost every day.  Her family was packing their prairie schooner for a trip to Nebraska to take a family friend to a specialist. The poor fellow drifted in and out of reality.

My beautiful young lady, though, was caught in a land slide!  But how could I show that the mountain was that vulnerable? If it were shale, I decided that it would be. (I'd hopped around like a mountain goat over shale, so I knew perfectly well, first hand, that it could create havoc.) 

My book-mountain was on a large spread (in Montana), so even a small injury to my teen-aged heroine could be fatal...

Daisy riding her pony at Bear's Paw Mountain

It took a few hours to verify that such shale existed in Montana, but it was most prevalent in north central Montana. 

The Missouri River has also been of great interest to me during the last half of this series (Lakota Rescue).   

I feel that this painting (done in 1845) by George Caleb Bingham establishes the importance of fur trappers and traders. The Metropolitan Museum of Art discusses this art work at length in those terms, telling us to look at the people in the boat, who they are and where they came from.  I did, and they were right! (The man paddling the boat they assumed to be a French fur trapper, also by the rare animal perched comfortably on the boat.  They assumed the young man was the trader's son.)  I also felt that I wanted to bring this feeling of cheerfulness and peace to my heroine after her accident.

Fur Trappers Descending the Missouri

Another important biographical painting done by this American portraitist from Missouri was about an election.  (Bingham said he'd travel the country painting 'normal' scenes.) In this painting of a small-town election in Missouri, the article's author told us to look at the people who were happy about the election:  "White males, every single one.  The 'few' women were perched in a balcony and the one Black person was pushing a cart (of 'brew')."  Bingham was a senator, an abolitionist & tea-totaller!

I'm very sorry that Sweethearts of the West blog won't be part of our lives past the end of this month!  I remember getting an invitation from Caroline Clemmons to write for the blog, years ago, how happy and honored I was.  I still have many ideas that I never got to write in Sweethearts of the West, and I remember the blog posts that helped my first and only bout with writer's block (what can I possibly say on this blog?).

Good luck to everyone in the future and I'm sure that our paths will cross again.  Cora Leland Author

 Bk 8 Lakota Rescue, Iron Elk: Rescuing Eliza