Top Quotes: “Centennial” — James Michener

Austin Rose
36 min readMay 21, 2024


“It is not a hospitable land, like that farther east in Kansas or back near the Appalachians. It is mean and gravelly and hard to work. It lacks an adequate topsoil for plowing. It is devoid of trees or easy shelter. A family could wander this land for weeks and never find enough wood to build a house.

It lacks water — my God, how it lacks water. Rainfall at Centennial is only thirteen inches a year, when any farmer knows that to produce even miserly corn or wheat requires twenty-one. The extremes of temperature can be unbearable, from one hundred and nine in August to thirty-eight below in February.

It is a land subject to wild whims of nature. Sometimes a score of years will pass with almost no rain, so that crops perish and organized society stands in peril. At sixty- or seventy-year intervals unpredictable winds whip over the prairies, exhausting the land and everything that grows upon it. Duststorms greater than hurricanes and more persistent can sweep the region for months on end, filling all openings with grit. And as if this were not enough, at unexpected times and for unexplained reasons gigantic swarms of locusts can suddenly emerge from the west and darken the sky for three or four days running. They swarm in the air, more extensive than storm clouds, and capriciously they alight, eating every green thing that stands in their path. Then they rise and fly mysteriously on, landing and eating a few more times, then vanishing as inexplicably as they appeared.

But there is one thing about this land. Theoretically, it can be farmed. It is rich in minerals. It is the inheritor of two great mountain ranges; over several hundred million years it conserved deposits sent down by the mountains and is entitled to the richness it possesses. The growing season is adequate for most crops: last frost on May 10, first frost on September 27, with an average 139 frost-free days in between for the prudent farmer. The governing rule is simple.

“If you can lead water onto this land, you can grow anything.”

“Well, you wouldn’t try apples or oranges, would you?”

“No, but only because they can be grown better somewhere else.”

Corn and wheat? Magnificent. Sorghum? The best. Garden vegetables? None better.

“Like I said, you can grow anything. But two things grow better here than anywhere else on earth.”

“Such as?”

Melons of any kind. You name it. And great big juicy sugar beets.

The land cries for water. The bleakest desert, even the forbidding land about the two pillars, will flourish like a garden if only water can be got to it. Consequently, the crucial problem of this area will be the attempt of man to lead water onto his intractable land. If he can do that, if only he can do that, he will have at his disposal a paradise.

And finally there is the river, a sad, bewildered nothing of a river. It carries no great amount of water, and when it has some it is uncertain where it wants to take it. No ship can navigate it, nor even a canoe, with reasonable assurance. It is the butt of more jokes than any other river on earth, and the greatest joke is to call it a river at all. It’s a sand bottom, a wandering afterthought, a useless irritation, a frustration, and when you’ve said all that, it suddenly rises up, spreads out to a mile wide, engulfs your crops and lays waste your farms.

“She nudged it twice with her snout, satished herself that it was suited to her purposes, then lifted it in her mouth, raised her head to its full majestic height, swallowed the stone and allowed it to slide easily down her long neck into her gullet and from there into her grinding gizzard, where it joined six smaller stones that rubbed together gently and incessantly as she moved. This was how she chewed her food, the seven stones serving as substitutes for the molars she lacked.”

“Although the plains Indians were the most spectacular tribes in American history, they were also the least interesting intrinsically. The Arapaho and Cheyenne arrived very late on the scene. They occupied land which wiser Indians like the Pawnee and more indigenous ones like the Ute had inspected for several centuries and found unproductive. More important, their previous wanderings from east of the Mississippi and north of the Missouri to the arid plains had deprived them of most of their cultural heritage, which they had been forced to leave behind as so much unnecessary baggage. They were cultural nomads whose quality was uplifted by the horse.”

“There was, however, one minor change which may have been effectuated by the horse: an improved status for women. The burdens they had to carry became smaller; they could accompany the tribe on its farthest excursions; and some women did get horses of their own, which they rode on migrations or to the bison butchering. If Indian men loved their horses, Indian women must have adored them.

You must not depict the plains Indians as having been for any great length of time in the locations where the white men discovered them. I have our branch of the Arapaho arriving in the land between the two Plattes in 1756. Virginia Trenholm, a leading expert on the Arapaho, claims they didn’t get that far south until 1790, which is highly significant, because this would put them there somewhat after the first French and English fur trappers!”

“The limited area you are dealing with appears to have been devoid of permanently settled human beings from about 6000 B.c. to about A.D. 1750. You are dealing with a very young area, culturally, and it was certainly not one which the Indians had occupied for very long.”

““I have one rule,” Pasquinel often said. “Never fight the Indian if you can avoid it. Never betray him in a trade. Bring him to you by faithfulness.”

It was remarkable that the French, who had followed these precepts in Canada, would enjoy three hundred years of amiable relations with their Indians, while the Americans, who were sure the ideas were wrong, would breed only agony with theirs. Perhaps it was because the French wanted trade: the Americans land.

In one of the coincidences of history, the beaver was largely exterminated in the mountains at the exact time when its pelts were no longer wanted in the cities.”

For every white man killed by an Indian, and there were almost none, fifty or sixty others killed themselves or their neighbors by accidental gunfire.”

“In the middle years of the nineteenth century more than 350,000 emigrants moved along the Platte River from the Missouri to the Pacific, and the bulk passed through Indian lands without encountering difficulty. Something less than one-tenth of one percent of the travelers were slain by Indians — fewer than three hundred — whereas many times that number were killed by their own rifles, or the rifles of friends fired accidentally, or the gunplay of criminals who had joined the procession.

There have been few mass migrations in history so peaceful, and no previous instance in which people of one race passed through lands held by another with such trivial inconvenience.”

“For the Indians they were not so good. Some travelers, a trickle at first and then a surge, studied their maps and saw that if they ignored the Platte, which wandered north and south, and chose instead a course due west from Kansas City, they would head straight for the gold fields over flat land and save two hundred miles.

This route was superior in all respects except one: it had no water. Animals perished from thirst and lack of grazing. Men starved to death because the deer and antelope stayed to the north, near the Platte, and the straight line became studded with graves. One party resorted to cannibalism, until only one man survived; Arapaho found him wandering in the waterless country and nursed him back to health.

The new route produced two lasting consequences. First, it brought thousands of emigrants onto land which had previously been considered useless, so that not only did gold-seekers want mining lands in the hills, but truck farmers wanted flat lands from which they could feed the miners. And who owned the lands they sought? A handful of Indians who knew not the meaning of gold or the rules of farming. Bronze-faced men like Lost Eagle kept appearing at the new settlements, complaining of trespass and depredation, and such constant complaining could not be endured for long.

Second, the new route doomed the buffalo. It cut the once-unlimited grazing lands between the Platte and the Arkansas into diminished segments; no longer could huge herds move freely north and south, as they seemed to require for propagation. If the discovery of gold had a devastating effect on the Indians, its effect on the buffalo was fatal. Within a space of time so brief that men would ever after marvel at the depopulation, the buffalo would vanish forever from this region.

Clearly, decisions had to be made, or Indian and gold-seeker would soon be at war. Ironically, the demand for action could not have come at a worse time. In Washington and Fort Leavenworth attention had to be concentrated on the civil war, and few experienced officers could be spared for devising new arrangements with Indians. Men who knew nothing of the west were given the job of managing them, and no attention could be paid as to how it was done.

Without even discussing the situation with the Indians, these men reached an incredible decision: tell the Indians a mistake was made at Fort Laramie, then offer them a new treaty which would give them a small parcel of largely worthless land containing no water, no trees and no buffalo, land whose only redeeming feature was that it could never possibly be desired by white men.”

“On April 3, 1864, another farmer along the Platte found one of his good horses missing and signs that Indians might have been operating in the vicinity. Other farmers said they thought the horse might have been the one they saw grazing on the north bank of the Platte, but Lieutenant Abel Tanner with his group of forty cavalrymen from Denver inspected the site and concluded that it must have been Indians. They therefore authorized a punitive expedition, an abhorrent agency much used in the west, where the phrase meant “we have no idea who committed the offense, so we shall gun down any Indian we meet.” When Tanner and his men came upon a group of Arapaho whose tipis were pitched a few miles from the established reservation, they surrounded it and executed forty-three men, women and children. When the last tipi was burned, the soldiers divided among themselves the horses and booty that remained. Of this action a Denver paper wrote:

Forty-three dead Indians for one missing horse might seem excessive to our weak sisters in Vermont and Pennsylvania, the ones who are always telling us how to handle our Indians, but to those of us who have to live with Lo at close quarters, it is clear that only the most stern reprisals will keep him from slaughtering all white men along the Platte. To Lieutenant Tanner, who shows signs of becoming the best Indian fighter in the west, well done! To his brave cohorts, well done, lads, and keep up the good work.”

“On June 18, 1864, a band of Indians swept down upon the South Platte road, killed four wagoners, scalped them and stole the provisions they were carrying. For six weeks no traffic passed along the road, no news from the east reached Denver. With merchandise blocked by the Indians, prices soared throughout Colorado, with flour rising from nine dollars a barrel to sixteen dollars to twenty-four in a three-week period. As omens of the evil days ahead, a plague of locusts devoured crops along the Platte and the river rose in flood, submerging a good portion of Denver.

A fearful quiet settled over the region, with white men afraid to venture far from their homes and with streets in the city barricaded against possible invasion. When rumors of a beginning assault flashed through the city, citizens broke into the army ordnance warehouse and commandeered rifles, then patrolled the streets. This was not childish apprehension but an understandable fear that Indians might soon be invading the city. After all, Colorado had fewer than three hundred soldiers to protect the whole territory, and if the Indians wanted to pick off isolated farms, they could do so almost at will.

On July 26, 1864, a rancher living east of the village of Zendt’s Farm saw Indians making off with two of his cows, which they slaughtered four miles from his home. This time there was no uncertainty as to what had happened or who the culprits were, so once more Lieutenant Tanner and his riders scoured the prairie and once more they encountered a community of tipis pitched where they should not have been. It was hardly likely that the cow-stealers were lodged in this particular place, but Tanner and his men surrounded it and with a howitzer gunned down forty-seven Indians.

On August 13, 1864, a small band of unidentified Indians overran a peaceful farm some miles east of Denver and slaughtered one of the most attractive white families in the region, Clifford and Belle Barley and their two children. All were brutally killed, their bodies abused and then scalped. Their corpses were hauled in to Denver and put on display under the hand-lettered sign:


The bodies of the children, dreadfully mutilated, caused men and women alike to burst into tears, and families from remote areas were brought for safekeeping into Denver, where they further inflamed public opinion with their own rumors of Indian horrors. The fear which had lain over the city for some months now crystallized into terror, and men began to talk in whispers of the only alternative they saw before them: “We may have to exterminate the Indians … wipe them out.”

“All Indians who wish to remain friendly are to report within twenty days to one of the undersigned locations and lay down their guns.

After twenty days, any Indian encountered anywhere may be shot on sight.

Any material possessions found on a dead Indian belong to the man who brought him to his rightful end.

Frank Skimmerhorn

Colonel, Special Militia”

The Arapaho and Cheyenne were required by law to enter a restricted camping area north of Rattlesnake Buttes, and there the pitiful remnant gathered. They had no food, little clothing, no buffalo grazing nearby, few rifles. As a gesture of good intention they turned over to the military the three white women they had kidnapped from a farm.”

“In the motley camp below them at that hour were 1483 Arapaho and Cheyenne, distributed as follows: chiefs 14, other braves of fighting age 389, mature women past the age of sixteen 427, children 653. They were supposed to have no guns; but they did have a few. They also had some four hundred bows, many not strung because deer sinews were growing scarce, and nearly two thousand arrows, a good many of which were not instantly accessible.

The camp mounted no guards that night, for none were needed. The Indians had moved into this cul-de-sac at the express command of the United States government, and here they were supposed to be fed and protected. At last they were at peace.

At half past four a young brave left his tipi to urinate, and according to custom he looked in four directions, seeing nothing. At five Chief Black Knee turned on his tattered buffalo robe, thought he heard a noise toward the buttes, but went back to sleep.

At five minutes after six, just as light was beginning to appear in the east, there was a shattering explosion from the ridge between the buttes, and five cannonballs ricocheted through the camp, killing four sleeping Indians and maiming seven.

The Indian who reacted to this surprise assault with greatest self-control was Lost Eagle. He was certain that some terrible mistake had been made — some mix-up of commands — and it was his responsibility to straighten things out. No American soldier would fire a cannon into an undefended …

Crash! A second salvo tore through the camp. With trembling hands Lost Eagle rummaged through his parfleche until he found his blue officer’s uniform. Putting it on hastily, he hung about his neck his bronze Buchanan. From the honored spot above his bed he took down the American flag which President Lincoln had given him. He put on his high-crowned hat and left his tipi just as the third round of cannonballs ripped through the camp. About him he saw men and women staggering from wounds and one girl with the right side of her body blown away. The tipis of two chiefs he relied upon were completely pulverized and the men were dead along with their women.

With great resolution he moved among his people, counseling them: “Wait! I will find out what’s happening.” Young men ran up to advise him that many troops were hiding behind the ridge, and in a way this news comforted him, for among them would be Major Mercy, who would know how to correct this awful mistake.

At this moment the central body of troops, under Colonel Skimmerhorn, swept down the slope leading from the buttes and charged headlong into the mass of tipis.

Sabers flashed. Pistols fired. One man with a revolver fired six times at six different women, killing four of them. Horses ran over children, and soldiers with burning brands began to fire the tipis.

Amid all the confusion and the screams of terror, Lost Eagle stood before his tipi, waving the American flag and shouting in English, “Stop! This is a mistake!”

“The colonel swung his horse in a wide arc and rushed again at the old chief, who kept shouting, “Colonel, wait! The colonel was by no means an adept swordsman and this time he struck Lost Eagle’s tall hat, so he whipped out his revolver and would have ridden to within six inches of the blue uniform, so anxious was he not to miss, except that a cry rose on the right flank and an orderly shouted, “Colonel! Here comes Tanner!”

Down from the eastern bank roared Abel Tanner, followed by his tested Indian fighters. They swept through the camp, killing and slashing and burning. Young girls, babies in arms, old women too feeble to run, braves trying to defend themselves — Tanner’s men sabered them all.

“Three hundred and eighty-seven Indians were slain: 7 chiefs, 108 braves, 123 women and 149 children; all but sixteen were scalped, even the children, for the men sought trophies to prove their victory.”

“Two of the children, a girl and a boy, by some miracle escaped death. They would be taken alive back to Denver and exhibited in vaudeville theaters, along with the scalps of their parents. Two other children were caught by Tanner’s men, and they, too, might have survived, except that as the soldiers held them, Colonel Skimmerhorn rode up and asked, “What are you doing with those children?” and the men said theyd captured them, and when Skimmerhorn snapped, “Nits grow into lice,” the men killed them.”

“In the brief years since the gold rush, Denver had become an attractive town of 3,500, with doctors and real estate agents vying for office space with meat markets and bakeries, and citizens were relieved to know that they were safe from further Indian threats. The ladies of Denver, in silk and brocade, entertained Skimmerhorn in their homes, while three stores on Blake Street gained favorable publicity by extending him credit, which he used freely.

Meetings were held and he was awarded medals from grateful citizens. St. John’s convened a special thanksgiving service at which prayers were offered and at which the colonel spoke with becoming modesty.”

“General Wade and the court did not have the power to punish Skimmerhorn, who was not responsible to the United States Army, but they could issue a bitter rebuke to the self-appointed hero:

Rarely in military history has there been a battle communiqué more mendacious and self-aggrandizing than the one issued by Colonel Skimmerhorn at Zendt’s Farm on the day after his attack upon an undefended Indian village whose occupants were unarmed and eager to surrender. Each phrase in that communiqué merits individual analysis, but four will suffice to show the quality of the whole. “A heavy concentration of Indian warriors” turns out to be 403 men of fighting age and 1,080 women and children. “Engaged savages under heavy fire” means that Colonel Skimmerhorn’s men were free to hack at will, since the enemy had few guns. The “exceptional courage of Captain Abel Tanner” means that he allowed men under his command to commit the most heinous atrocities which this court has ever heard of. “Peace is assured in this Territory” means that the prairies are now aflame and war is everywhere, brought on by this man’s intemperate action. Special comment must be made about the last sentence of the communiqué, for it is both perfidious and im-precise. The nineteen white scalps used to justify the attack turn out to have been one scalp, very old and possibly not from a white man, and it is unclear whether the savages referred to were the Indians or Colonel Skimmerhorn’s own men.

The report, when it reached the streets, evoked a blind fury, and Sergeant Kennedy had to warn General Wade that it would not be prudent for him to appear in public, for there was talk of hanging him, but the little soldier pushed his advisor aside and walked boldly to where his horses waited for the ride back to Leavenworth, reminding Kennedy in a loud voice that the men who might want to hang him, were more accustomed to dealing with women and children than with a soldier who stood ready to put a bullet through them if they made a move.

Nevertheless, on the day following Wade’s departure, one of Skimmerhorn’s supporters ambushed young Jimmy Clark and shot him dead in full daylight at a main intersection.

Some sixty persons witnessed the murder, and saw clearly who had done it – a broken-down prospector who had been paid fifteen dollars for the job – but no one would testify against him. Under the circumstances, the murderer had to be released. He was slipped another fifteen dollars and was seen no more.”

“The two tribes went on a rampage, looting and burning and belatedly earning for themselves the designation savages. With either Broken Thumb or Jake in the lead, they would sweep down on unprotected farms and slaughter everything that lived, even the chickens.

They destroyed the little settlement at Julesburg and overran the army fort farther west along the river. The South Platte became a region of terror, with fiery assaults day after day. The telegraph wires were cut, so that no news seeped in to Denver, and the overland stage stopped running, for on two different attempts it had been waylaid and its passengers killed.”

“His opening strategy was draconian. Distributing teams along a three-hundred-mile stretch of the Platte, he waited for dry and windy days, then set fire to the prairie, producing a conflagration so extensive that it burned away all edible fodder from the Platte nearly to the Arkansas. A pall of smoke hung over the area and wildlife for thousands of square miles was threatened. It was one of the worst disasters ever to hit the west, and it accomplished nothing.

Conquered Indians were already on the reservation. The Pasquinel brothers and their renegades knew how to slip through the flames, so even while Skimmerhorn was setting fire to the prairies, they rampaged up and down the Platte, burning farms and scalping the inhabitants.”

““Under the new Homestead Act-” he began pontifically.

“I know,” Levi interrupted. “I got title to some of my land under that act.”

Ignoring the interruption, Seccombe continued: “Under this act the trick is to get title only to those parcels of land that control water. Get a hundred and sixty acres of such land, and you control ten thousand acres of range land that has no water,” and here he directed the Zendts’ attention to markings on his map. Darting his forefinger quickly from spot to spot, he said, “I’ve worked out that there are seventeen crucial spots we’ve got to have. This stream bank, this junction, this spring up in the hills. When we get them – those few little spots —we’ll own the rest of the range without putting down one cent.”

“I don’t see what you mean,” Levi said.

“Look! Take this spot where Skunk Hollow joins Beaver Creek. Give me that and I’ll give you a hundred thousand acres north of it, because without my water, there isn’t a damned thing anyone can do with those acres. Those hundred thousand don’t belong to me, but if I control the water the’re useless to anyone else.””

The land that was not taken up by homesteaders, and much of it was not suitable for farming, remained the property of the government, free for the casual use of whoever could get to it, so that if Oliver Seccombe did succeed in gaining title to his seventeen crucial areas, he had the government’s blessing and encouragement to use several million additional acres.

On the morning after his arrival at Zendt’s Farm, Seccombe filed for the ultra-critical section at Skunk Hollow, directed Lucinda to file on another good watershed and started to buy up the remaining creeks which had already passed into private ownership. Seven different friends filed for various pieces under his supervision, with the understanding that they would be sold to Seccombe as soon as title was assured.

In one hectic week Seccombe put together a land holding of less than three thousand acres but dominating an area of 5,760,000, larger than Massachusetts and all to be controlled by gentlemen in Bristol, most of whom would never see it.

“Back in 1862, when the United States government had determined that a railroad was needed to bind the nation together, Congress hit upon a clever device for financing such a major undertaking. The nation was too poor to pay for the road out of tax funds, but there was an ingenious way to finance it. From the center of the main track, reaching out ten miles on each side, the government would give the railroad land, with no charge of any kind. This land in its original barren condition would be worth about twenty cents an acre, but with a prosperous railroad running through it, it might become worth as much as four dollars an acre. By selling this land to would-be settlers, the railroad would earn back more than the cost of building the road. The western range would be settled; the nation would have a link to the Pacific; towns would appear – and all at no expense to the taxpayer. It was one of the sagest devices ever invented by Congress.

Furthermore, Congress added an adroit stipulation: the railroad would not receive all the land ten miles out from the track; it would get only every other section, with the nation holding on to the alternate sections, and thus sharing in whatever increased values might accrue. It was a happy solution, made more palatable by the rule that two sections in each township must be set aside for public education.”

Certain Americans in western states, having lost their Indians and with few blacks at hand, naturally turned to hating Mexicans, and they devised many tricks to torment the dark-skinned strangers. The sheriff in Alamosa arrested Mexicans for even the most trivial offenses, and judges sentenced them harshly and without the semblance of a trial. Storekeepers charged them higher prices than they charged white customers, and there were many places like barbershops and restaurants into which a Mexican could not go. Their money was welcome, but they were not.”

In a year when Denver had sixty-seven shootings, many from ambush, no complaint was made, for this was the honorable pattern of the west; but when one Mexican – a short, hot-tempered fellow who worked for Brumbaugh – knifed another for fooling around with his sister, a cry of moral indignation swept the city, and newspapers warned the Mexicans that Denver was not about to tolerate any descent into barbarism.

The Mexicans did not have an easy time in Denver, but they had made a section of it their own, and many began bringing their families up from Chihuahua and Sonora. The settlement in the heart of the city grew, and even more than semi-Spanish cities like El Paso and Santa Fe, it became the mecca of Mexican laborers. In the beet fields north of town they could find work during the summer; in the cozy cantinas of Denver they could pass the winter, surviving as best they could.”

“Across America women like her goaded their communities into attaining the goals which distinguish a civilized society from an uncivilized. It was always women who insisted upon libraries, and parks, and public nurses, and better schools, and newer churches, and paved roads. It was women with nervous energy, like Alice Grebe, who argued with bankers and merchants and came away with funds to do the good things that were required. One of the conspicuous differences between small towns in the United States and those in less-concerned nations was that American women insisted upon improvements, upon charitable works and upon the proliferation of cultural activities.”

“Tranquilino returned to a miserable situation; there could be no other word for it. With Brumbaugh gone, he had no regular job at the farm and no settled place to live. He had to take his wife and two children and find such seasonal work as he could, which meant that his family had to live in one hovel or another. His wages were so low that he could save no money; when November 15 came, and the beet checks were distributed, he received so little that it was impossible to take his family to Denver, where there was at least a congenial Mexican community in whose warmth they could lose themselves during the bitter winter months.

Instead, each November, when they were kicked off the beet farm on which they had been working, they would take what money they had and move into one of the disgraceful shacks that had grown up at the northern extremity of Centennial. Little Mexico, the area was called contemptuously, as sad and filthy a collection of dwellings as had ever been allowed to exist in the west. Here the unwanted workers hid themselves during the winter. How they existed during blizzards no one could explain, for the walls were made of slats, with gaping cracks where the wood had warped, and the floors were of mud which froze when water seeped in from the edges. There were no health facilities, no paved roads, no schools, no amenities of any kind and no plans for any.

The farmers of Colorado, having come to depend on Mexican labor, considered it not only natural but right that these illiterate people should toil from March through November at rip-gut wages, then shift for themselves through the cold months, with inadequate food, inadequate heat, polluted water and festering social conditions. The merchants of Centennial, depending upon the Mexicans for the agricultural stability of the region and welcoming whatever surplus coins they had, saw nothing immoral in condemning this labor to a rural ghetto where they were expected to say nothing and make no demands. And if a Mexican sought to enter a barbershop, a restaurant or a store where fine clothes were sold, he might be chastised. Even the churches condoned this brutal system, for not even a mission was maintained. Protestant churches could perhaps be excused for this indifference, for as their elders said, “The Mexicans don’t belong to us,” but the attitude of the Catholics was less understandable, because the workers were members of that church. Of course, a so-called “Mexican Mass” was held each Sunday, but it convened at six in the morning, when upper-class Catholics would not have to mingle with Mexicans. Even this was restricted to domestic workers who served the better families, and had a mere beet worker wandered in, the priest would have been astounded, for in Centennial a field worker was considered little better than an animal.

They were an outcast tribe, with a strange language and even stranger customs.”

“It was curious that a state so advanced in all other directions should have been so permanently blind in its understanding of Mexicans. Colorado was where sensible labor relations were first worked out, where old-age pensions would be developed, where education was generously supported, where colleges proliferated and churches abounded. Colorado was a state where good ideas flourished, yet on this great basic question of human rights it remained purblind.”

“During his time in jail Triunfador did not know that he was being defended by a robust woman he had never met. Father Vigil, outraged at the sentence, did what he could to arouse public indignation, but he was ineffective, and one night in a shack at Little Mexico he confessed his impotence: “The judge won’t listen. The sheriff is a bully. The newspaper laughs at us. The priest is more useless than the Anglo ministers. Not even the professors in Greeley will attend. Doesn’t anyone in Colorado care?”

From the shadows a workman said, “Charlotte Lloyd. One day she brought my children clothes.”

“Mrs. Lloyd!” some of the others muttered, and next morning Father Vigil stood before the castle, knocking at the great oak door.

After a while a formidable woman greeted him, Charlotte Lloyd, almost seventy now but still straight as a soldier. As major stockholder in a famous ranch, she was a woman who accepted no nonsense, for she had proved that she could handle a man as easily as a horse. She had a weather-beaten face and a hearty laugh. “Come in,” she said abruptly, leading him into a large room from whose walls the heads of stuffed moose and buffalo stared down. “What nonsense are you up to?” Before he could answer, she asked, “Aren’t you the one who sticks darning needles into people?”

Father Vigil was confused, but he sensed that he was in the presence of someone who might help, so he persisted. “I come to you about injustice,” he said.

“World’s full of it,” Charlotte replied.

“The Mexicans.”

“Never had much use for ‘em,” Charlotte said. “What’s happening to ‘em now?”

He burst into an impassioned series of questions: “Is it fair to work our people all summer and then force them to sit like puppets in the dark all winter? Are we not entitled to a cantina where we can have music?”

“Everyone’s entitled to music.”

“Is it fair that we have nothing, nothing?”

“Doesn’t sound fair at all. Be specific.”

He was, and the more he said, the more furious Charlotte became. “This is outrageous,” she fumed, reaching for her hat.

With Father Vigil, she visited the Roman Catholic priest in Greeley, the editors, the licensing board in Denver, the sheriff, and wherever she went she asked one simple question: “Aren’t you ashamed of what you’ve been doing?”

When word of Charlotte Lloyd’s interference reached the beet farmers, there was consternation. “Father Vigil’s putting her up to this,” the farmers said. “He’s preaching revolution.” So the farmers started a backlash. “Charlotte Lloyd is nothing but a damned fool. Not a brain in her head. But this Father Vigil. He’s got to go.” Petitions were circulated, calling for the deportation of the priest to Mexico, and when the signatures were presented to the judge, he summoned Father Vigil to the bench; unfortunately for the cause of justice, Charlotte Lloyd came along, and a rather hectic legal scene ensued.

JUDGE: You know, Father Vigil, you’re only a guest in this country and Sheriff Bogardus has the power to send you back to Mexico if you don’t behave.

CHARLOTTE: He absolutely doesn’t.

JUDGE: Are you contradicting this court?

CHARLOTTE: Father Vigil’s a citizen of New Mexico. He’s an American.

JUDGE: He is?

CHARLOTTE: His ancestors have lived here for the past four hundred years. I chanced to look up the ancestors of Sheriff Bogardus and they came here in 1901. If anybody gets thrown out of this country, maybe it should be Sheriff Bogardus.

JUDGE: May I ask, Mrs. Lloyd, are you a citizen of this country?

CHARLOTTE: Give up my British passport? Are you crazy?

The judge leaned back. It was incomprehensible that Father Vigil, this unlovely man who stuck thorns in people, should have been an American longer than anyone else in his court that morning. Emig, Osterhaut, Miller – they had been serfs on the Volga at a time when the Vigils had already occupied New Mexico and southern Colorado for centuries. It was most confusing.

The judge denied every request Charlotte made, and Triunfador was ordered to close his cantina for good.

When the decision was promulgated, Charlotte appeared to accept it with good grace, and she commiserated openly with Triunfador. The judge and sheriff, pleased with having fended off this difficult Englishwoman, started to terminate proceedings, whereupon Charlotte asked innocently, but in a loud voice, “By the way, Harry, who owns those shacks?”

A hasty recess was ordered, during which the judge explained in a whisper, “You know damned well, Charlotte, that Mervin Wendell built them. Now his son owns them, but it would be most embarrassing if this appeared in the paper. Philip does many good things in this community. Matter of fact, he’s promised us a new library.”

Then I will expect him, this afternoon, to sell me for one hundred dollars the shack where Triunfador has his cantina, and I propose renting it to Triunfador for one dollar a year. I’m sure you and the sheriff can convince him to sell. Otherwise, I take my story to the Denver Post.”

“That’s blackmail,” the judge protested.

Charlotte smiled, and in this roundabout way Triunfador Marquez obtained his license to operate a cantina, which became, as the Anglo farmers had predicted, a center for Mexican agitation.”

“Some things that happened in America enraged him, like the incident in October 1923. That summer his father and mother had worked for a Russian named Grabhorn, and they had slaved extra-long hours at the beets. When the crop was harvested, Tranquilino had served as beet-fork man – “the widow-maker” this fork was called, for it pulled a man’s guts out, lifting thirty-two pounds of beets and tossing them high into the wagons – but he had justified the extra effort by explaining that when the check arrived on November 15, he would have additional money which he would give to Triunfador to help enlarge the cantina.

On the last day of October, Mr. Grabhorn made the telephone call. All the Anglo farmers knew how to do this-Immigration Service Denver Colorado. You didn’t have to give your name, either. You just whispered in the phone, “I’m a loyal American and it turns my stomach to see what’s happening to this country. At the Rudolf Grabhorn farm in Centennial seven miles east on Weld 17, two Mexicans are working without proper papers, Tranquilino Marquez and his wife Serafina. They ought to be sent back to Mexico, where they belong.”

So three or four days before the checks arrived, immigration officials swept down upon the Grabhorn farm, arrested Tranquilino and his wife, and shipped them back to Mexico. Grabhorn, of course, escaped paying their wages and pocketed the money they had so painfully earned. Come next March, he would hire a different family. As for Tranquilino, once he and his wife were thrown across the border at Ciudad Juarez, they were free to slip upstream a few miles, wade across the Rio Grande, and walk right back to Centennial, where they could hire themselves out to some other farmer.

This extraordinary procedure was condoned because neither Colorado nor national laws cared to face up to the problem. Colorado farmers were allowed to employ wetbacks, as they were called, without fear of punishment, but the wetback himself was illegal, and could suffer both punishment and deportation. Whenever the matter came before the legislature, it was quickly brushed aside on the grounds, “We need them.””

“In 1935 Denver society was bedazzled by the visit of Lord Codington, announced as the scion of a family who had long been associated with Colorado ranching.

He was a charming man, from Oxford he said, whose gracious manners won him entry to the very topmost levels of Denver society, where he courted several marriageable heiresses and lent both amusement and dignity to the better clubs. He ran up some bills, but not many, ordered suits at various tailors patronized by his hosts, but not an excessive number, and in the end was discovered to be a complete fraud, a Cockney sailor off the Cunard Line who had mastered his accent studying Ronald Colman movies while his ship plied the Atlantic.

His downfall was a six-day wonder, with the cream of Denver society made to look like asses in the local press. The photographs, taken earlier by bored cameramen dragooned into covering for the society page, now made front page, top and center: “Mrs. Charles Bannister, leader of Denver society, presenting Lord Codrington to the Delmar Linners at the March Fete.” And then the affair took a typical Colorado twist. No one in Denver would bring suit against Lord Codrington. As Mrs. Bannister said, in an interview which brought chuckles and a sense of restored propriety: “Who did he hurt? He was utterly delightful and provided everyone with a sense of joy during a rather bleak period in our lives. He did me no harm.” Her husband, Charles Bannister, said pretty much the same: “I’m certainly not going to bring charges against a man who bilked me out of three suits. I pay a lot more than that these days without getting half the entertainment.”

When the police bustled the errant lord out of town, with a warning never to appear within the precincts again, at least two dozen leaders of Denver society appeared to bid him farewell as he stepped aboard the train which would whisk him to Chicago and deportation. Three young women ignored the flashing bulbs to kiss him goodbye, and Delmar Linner, father of one of the girls and a leading banker, told reporters, “He looks a damned sight better in that suit than I ever did.””

“A good deal of animosity developed in this period, with Denverites claiming that the rural areas used the beet workers all summer, then threw them onto the Denver taxpayer during the winter. The problem was aggravated by the fact that many Mexicans preferred the congenial society that was possible in Denver, with specialized restaurants, cantinas, dances. But even if he did get to Denver, the lot of the Mexican was not idyllic, for he was penned into a narrow district between Jews on the one side, Italians on the other. The causeway near the railroad station was known as “the longest bridge in the world, runs from Mexico to Israel.” Fights between the groups were constant. Even so, many older Mexicans now living in rural Colorado think back upon those winters in Denver as the happiest in their lives.”

“In the spring of 1948 the Patriotic Order of the Women of the West, Centennial chapter, announced an All-American Citizenship award for high school seniors. By every criterion the prize had to be awarded to an outstanding athlete-scholar-leader, Jesus Melendez, but when his name appeared in the Clarion as the nominee, a Mrs. Wentworth Carver, president of the statewide P.O.W.W., stated flatly, “The true American ideals of this great nation were generated by those gallant forebears of English stock who settled our eastern seaboard, and it was not the intention of our society to bestow its medal upon some Mexican immigrant who is probably in our state illegally to begin with.” Well, as you may remember, the whole nation got into the act, heaping ridicule on Mrs. Carver, but national scorn was not needed to reverse the damage she had done. Philip Wendell, an extreme conservative, excoriated her statement and Walter Bellamy pointed out to a reporter from the Chicago Tribune, “The Melendez family has lived in Colorado much longer than Mrs. Carver’s family has lived in the United States. Besides, his older brother Fidel gave his life for this nation at Anzio.” The most telling blow, however, came from the schoolchildren of Centennial. Acting on their own, they passed a resolution drafted by one of the Takemoto girls: “If Jesus is denied the prize, it must not be awarded at all, because no one else in this school is half as worthy of it as him.””

“I SPENT THE MONTH OF OCTOBER 1973 SEARCHING CENTENNIAL for some man or woman whose life epitomized the history of the west. I wanted to send the US editors in New York a kind of capstone to our project, a detailed and intimate portrait of what westerners were doing and thinking about in these critical years prior to our national birthday celebration.

At first I focused on Centennial’s black barber, Nate Person, grandson of the only black cowboy ever to have ridden point on the Skimmerhorn Trail. The story of how this family achieved its position of love and leadership in my small western town was an American epic.

Then I shifted to Manolo Marquez, descendant of those redoubtable Mexicans, Tranquilino and Triunfador. He had a fascinating story to tell of breaking through prejudice and winning a solid place for himself. But these were special cases, and their association with Centennial began rather late in its history. I needed someone more deeply rooted in the community, and more typical. And then, on the last day of the month, I found my perfect prototype.

Early in the morning on November 1 I was breakfasting in a corner of the large room at Venneford Castle. Three moose heads, long undusted, stared down at me as I chatted with Paul Garrett, forty-six years old, tall and graying at the temples. He was one of the most perceptive men in Colorado, and a leader in many fields.

What attracted me to him especially was his combination of seriousness and self-deprecating good humor. For example, as I finished my tar-flavored cup of tea he told me, “My family has always favored that strange-smelling stuff. My grandmother, Pale Star … She was an Arapaho Indian you know … she said it tasted to her like charred jockstrap.”

“Who were your grandparents?” I asked, and he produced from his cluttered desk a standard breed book in which he kept track of his prize Herefords.

“I’ve already studied the history of the Venneford bulls,” I told him, but he said, “Not this one,” and he opened the book to a page which he had filled out about himself, as if he were a Hereford. It showed his ancestors back to the fifth generation, and after I had studied it for a few minutes, I was confirmed in my earlier opinion that here was the man I needed to complete my report.

The Garretts had started in sheep, it is true, but they’d had the good sense to shift over to cattle. Paul had army people like the Mercys in his ancestry, and frontiersmen like Pasquinel. One branch of his family had been English, so he would know that interesting aspect of western development, and another branch was Indian.

“Garrett, Messmore and Buckland were of English stock,” he told me as I put the book down. “The Lloyds were a Welsh family that emigrated to Tennessee and Texas. Patrick Beeley was a hard-drinking Irishman. Pasquinel and Mercy were French, and writers usually ignore the French influence in western history. Zendt, Skimmerhorn, Staller and Bockweiss were Germans.

Deal was Dutch, but originally he spelled his name a different way. Red Wolf and Pale Star were full-blooded Indians. Lucinda McKeag, whom everyone seemed to love, was the daughter of a squaw named Clay Basket, about whom the mountain men wrote in their diaries.”

“Pretty mixed up,” I said.

“Damned near incestuous,” he confessed. Then he slapped the breed book and said, “If you follow the history of the really great bulls, you’ll find many instances of very close in-breeding. My case, the same way. A son of Lucinda McKeag married the daughter of her brother. Messmore Garrett married his first cousin. And Henry Buckland, father of the formidable Charlotte you’ve spoken about so often, married his niece, if you please.””

“It demonstrated the imaginative manner in which Colorado had confronted some of its problems, for in the building of the interstate the engineers had to cut through a tilted geologic formation, and instead of simply bulldozing a path through the little mountain, they had made an extremely neat cut which exposed some twenty geological strata. A park had been built around the multicolored edges, so that schoolchildren could wander across the steep slopes of the cuts and actually touch rocks which had formed two hundred million years ago. They could inspect the purple Morrison formation in which the dinosaurs had been found, and could see how layers of sea deposit had been thrust upward when the Rocky Mountains erupted. “This is one of the best things accomplished in Colorado in the past twenty years,” Garrett told visitors, “and it cost practically nothing. Just some imagination.”

“His title was resounding, Commissioner of Resources and Priorities, and his task was to steer the state in making right industrial and ecological choices. It was appropriate that Colorado should be the state to experiment with such a concept, for its citizens had always been pioneer types, willing to sponsor change. Colorado had led the nation in old-age pensions, proper funding of education, liberal labor laws, and it had been the state which turned down the 1976 Winter Olympics as destructive to the environment.”

“One of the first decisions his committee would have to make involved the application of an enthusiastic group who wanted permission to carve the whole front side of Beaver Mountain with likenesses of Buffalo Bill on his horse and Kit Carson shooting an Indian. Considerable popular support was being generated for the project on the ground that “if the mountains are there, they ought to be put to some use.””

“He reflected upon the regrettable sheep wars that had marred the area at the beginning of this century. Many lives had been lost defending the theory that where a sheep had trod, no cow would graze, but today most of the cattlemen occupying land that used to belong to the Venneford Ranch ran cattle and sheep side by side, and each prospered.

Take Hermann Spengler, for example. His grandfather Otto had killed a sheepman in 1889 and no jury in the area could be found to convict him, because of the general opinion that death by gunfire was too good for any man who would bring sheep onto the open range. Today Spengler ran seven hundred Herefords and two thousand sheep. They grazed together on the same fields and complemented each other nicely, the coarse manure of the cattle blending with the more concentrated manure of the sheep to keep the grama grass flourishing.

Even so, one amusing custom still operated throughout the district. A man might run five thousand sheep, but if he had even six steers, he called himself a cattleman, and in all the area around Centennial, there were thousands of sheep but no sheepman. That was a name of opprobrium that no prudent man would take upon himself.”

““We face a real dilly,” Schneider was saying. “Because Colorado is such a popular state, fifty thousand newcomers want to move in each year. We’d like to welcome them, but we haven’t enough water. And within the state itself, twenty thousand of our rural people a year want to move into Denver. Love to have them, but no water. We also have scores of industries that want to establish their headquarters here. Executives want instant skiing, and we need their tax dollars. But we simply don’t have the water.”

Harry Welch interrupted to say that the Colorado legislature had been handed a bill denying permission to anyone from outside the state to move into Colorado.

“We’ll set up checkpoints at the borders and turn them back,” he said.

“Completely unconstitutional,” Schneider retorted.

“Any American citizen can move anywhere he likes.”

“But not into Colorado,” Finch said. “The analog model takes care of that.””

On an original investment of three hundred thousand dollars the British picked up a neat profit of four million seven hundred thousand dollars, or a whopping 1566 percent.”

“That seems to work out,” Garrett said. “But one of my ancestors in that period invested rather liberally, and his returns were not nearly so good, as I can attest.” The professor ignored this remark. “Nor was ranching the only form of investment. Englishmen owned coal mines and gold mines and irrigation ditches and railroads and insurance companies. In fact, Colorado was a colony of Europe, and it remained so until about 1924. Year after year thousands of European-controlled dollars funneled into the plains while millions of dollars in profits made their way back to Europe. It was an example of economic imperialism at its worst.”

“Was it?” Garrett asked.

“The facts speak for themselves.”

“I wonder if they do? Colorado borrowed European money and on it paid a handsome interest, but in the end Earl Venneford had his dollars and we had a state. It’s my opinion that Colorado could have afforded to pay Venneford ten times as much for the use of his money, and still come out way ahead. The men in London who built the irrigation ditch did get their interest, year after year, but a thousand farmers got land that paid them infinitely more. I’d say the best investment America ever made was to allow Englishmen to develop our plains for us. No price would have been too great to pay for railroads and mines and irrigation. In the Venneford deal, which I know pretty well, it was the state of Colorado that made the killing.””



Austin Rose

I read non-fiction and take copious notes. Currently traveling around the world for 5 years, follow my journey at