The blazing guns of legend

Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is the author of, most recently, "God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism."

The gunfight is the single most iconic image of the Wild West, depicted in countless dime novels, motion pictures and television shows. Indeed, the spoofs and satires of the shootout may be just as numerous and just as pervasive. Surely there were real gunfights in the Wild West, but exactly where does history end and myth begin?

Terry Beers, an English professor at Santa Clara University, was inspired to ask and answer the question in "Gunfight at Mussel Slough: Evolution of a Western Myth," a work of historical scholarship that compares one famous gunfight as it actually happened with the many and different ways it has been depicted in fiction. It's a fascinating and illuminating exercise.

The real-life gunfight took place May 11, 1880, in a district of the southern San Joaquin Valley called Mussel Slough. The U.S. marshal was intent on evicting a few farmers from land that belonged to the Southern Pacific Railroad, and the farmers were ready to resist by force of arms. The shooting started when a skittish horse accidentally knocked the marshal off his feet -- no one knows with certainty who fired first -- and when the smoke cleared, seven men were dead.

"The facts of the tragedy at Mussel Slough were transformed into the popular fiction of the Mussel Slough massacre," writes Beers. "... If historians want to tell us otherwise, it's hard to hear them over the more stylish voices of film directors and novelists who reinterpret the legend, reinforce the myth and reconfirm us in our deep-seated beliefs about the nature of American heroism."

The most famous account of the shootout at Mussel Slough is found in "The Octopus" by Frank Norris, a 1901 historical novel set against the ruthless and bloody encounter between big business ("the iron-hearted monster of steel and steam, implacable, insatiable, huge -- its entrails gorged with the life blood that it sucked from an entire commonwealth") and the outmatched farmers of California.

But the same event inspired a great many other works of fiction, including "Blood-Money" by W.C. Morrow (1882), "The Feud of Oakfield Creek" by Josiah Royce (1887) and "First the Blade" by May Merrill Miller (1938), all of which are generously quoted and considered in Beers' book.

The work of these novelists is compared with broadsheets, newspaper editorials, political cartoons, songs, letters and photographs from the time of the shootout, thus allowing us to see the same people, events and causes through the lens of historical scholarship. What we glimpse is an era in California history when politics edged toward open revolution; the farmers at Mussel Slough were armed and dangerous when the law sought to put them out of their homes.

Along with the high drama, Beers shows us the unglamorous factors that put the farmers around Mussel Slough into conflict with the law. The railroads lured farmers to the frontier with the tantalizing prospect of land as cheap as $2.50 per acre, but when the homesteaders were ready to buy they found that market demand had driven up the price tenfold. And it was the U.S. marshal's job to put buyers with ready money in possession of the land the farmers had pioneered.

Some of the artifacts are startling and even sensational. In a letter to the editor of the Visalia Weekly Delta, dated less than a month after the shootout, a woman named Mary E. Chambers ponders "the late fearful slaughter" and blames the "railroad lords," for the death of her brother. "Is there no justice for the poor settlers?" asks the fiery correspondent. " ... Talk of poor oppressed Ireland, and the miseries of the landlord system. Why, Ireland never had such landlords as these."

So the shootout at Mussel Slough was seen at the time as class warfare rather than frontier lawlessness. One political cartoonist places the railroad baron Leland Stanford at the site, where the plutocrat ignores the heart-tugging pleas of a little farm girl and issues an eviction order: "Marshal, do your duty."

Somewhat lighter but no less pointed is bit of doggerel in the California Mailbag published in San Francisco:

And now that Stanford owns the railroads and the boats,

One half the State and more than half the Legislative


For Frisco or for Oakland he doesn't care two goats

At moments, the evidence Beers has collected is highly poignant and even haunting. Smudged photographs show the modest homestead on the bare patch of ground where the gunfight took place and the nearby tree, "Tragedy Oak," under which the casualties were laid out. A formal portrait captures the stern faces of the young men who survived the shootout and ended up in jail on charges of obstructing a federal officer, much to the outrage of those who saw them as heroes.

Beers encourages us to look beneath and beyond the novelist's imagination, which "tends to favor the vulnerable over the powerful, often ignoring the irony that, at least in the case of the Mussel Slough farmers and the railroads, both sides shared many of the same values, including a healthy respect for the American dollar." But he concedes that "even if the details are just plain wrong -- or perhaps skillfully embellished -- the truth that will prevail lives in novels more than history books."

"Gunfight at Mussel Slough" is Beers' sturdy effort to rescue history from the myth makers. At that self-appointed task he is wholly successful. And yet he takes nothing away from the pain and pathos of the events he evokes in such telling detail. His book can be understood as nothing less than the re-invention and the re-imagining of the Western myth. *

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World