18 November 2007

Dubious Documents: The Unlikely Life of William Drannan

While wandering about online looking for Dubious Document material I might have overlooked, I stumbled onto two different lists of the greatest literary hoaxes of all time (here and here). Neither broke any new ground, exactly, and both had some rather questionable entries. Secret Mark and a supposedly forged tragedy of Sophocles really don’t belong here, for example, and others—Clifford Irving's autobiography of Howard Hughes and Hitler's supposed diaries—were frauds so transparent that they really are more examples of publishers' impositions than literary hoaxes. Anyway, after thinking about it, I thought I'd put together my own list of, well, not necessarily the greatest literary hoaxes of all time, but, shall we say, the most interesting literary hoaxes of all time. I intend to start with the tenth item on my list and work my way up over the course of time to number one.

So first comes #10: William Drannan's Thirty-One Years on the Plains and in the Mountains (1899).

When I was looking through my grandmother's friendship book—that's a book people used to keep their collection of people in—there was a space for each person to enter his or her favorite book. There was an interesting range of books there. The Bible put in an appearance several times, and Riders of the Purple Sage, and so did another, perhaps less familiar volume. It was nothing less than the true-life adventures of a frontier scout—the boon companion of Kit Carson, and the chief of scouts during the Modoc War. William Drannan may not have made much of an impression in the history books, but he definitely made an impression on the minds of boys growing up in the days before World War I changed everything. Little Robert E. Howard—later to be the creator of Conan the Barbarian and King Kull—read his account avidly, and years later recalled seeing the author "wandering about the streets of Mineral Wells … trying to sell the pitiful, illiterate book of his life of magnificent adventure and high courage; a little, worn old man in the stained and faded buckskins of a vanished age, friendless and penniless." Howard—a contemporary of my grandmother and her friends, by the way—would have been about five or six at the time. "God," he wrote H. P. Lovecraft, "what a lousy end for a man whose faded blue eyes had once looked on the awesome panorama of untracked prairie and sky-etched mountain, who had ridden at the side of Kit Carson, guided the waggon-trains across the deserts to California, drunk and revelled in the camps of the buffalo-hunters, and fought hand to hand with painted Sioux and wild Comanche. … Always the simple, strong men go into the naked lands and fight heroical battles to win and open those lands to civilization. Then comes civilization, mainly characterized by the smooth, the dapper, the bland, the shrewd men who play with business and laws and politics and they gain the profits; they enjoy the fruit of other men’s toil, while the real pioneers starve."

The thing is, it wasn't really like that at all. Thirty-One Years on the Plains is actually a work of fiction, with precious little in the way of facts to back it up. No biographer of Kit Carson has ever taken it seriously. Actual participants in the Modoc war—Major Frazier Boutelle, whose cool courage saved the troops in the Lost River Fight; "Colonel" William Thompson, a leader of the Oregon Volunteers and a legend in his own mind; Jeff Riddle, the son of the interpreters Frank and Toby Riddle—all of whom were unquestionably present—denounced the work as a pack of lies. And so it is. William Drannan told of his conversations with the Modoc leader, Captain Jack—who spoke no English. (He apparently understood it well enough, but always spoke through interpreters.) Drannan described two failed attempts to take the Modoc stronghold—one under Frank Wheaton and one under General Canby—when only one (the former) took place. He wrote of a "Mr. Berry" who came in to negotiate with the Modocs (when he, Drannan, could have done a better job)—a man unknown to the history of the war. And he cast himself as the Chief of Scouts—a rôle actually taken by a fellow named McKay—Daring Donald McKay, as he billed himself in a dime novel version of his life.

The real William Drannan continues to elude researchers. He apparently was involved in the hotel and restaurant businesses in Seattle and Portland during the 1890s, and he and his wife hawked his books—according to some his wife actually wrote them—around the country during the early years of the twentieth century. Not much else seems to have turned up on him.

Is there any truth in the book? As a student of the Modoc War, I was fascinated by the oddity that while Drannan was wrong on major events, his details were often correct. He had the right people at the right places—the obscure people, that is. Not the major players. I got the feeling that he must have at least lived in the area at some time. Even his mistakes could be interesting. The "Mr. Berry" he referred to, for instance. The real person who took the rôle assigned to "Mr. Berry" was a lawyer named Elijah Steele. He had two partners in his law practice: Rosborough (who also played a part in the Modoc War) and Berry (who didn't). Now, naming the wrong partner in a local law firm is the kind of mistake that only a local would make.

And another thing—he remembered a footnote to the war that made a local stir but barely attracted any attention outside the area. When the Modoc leaders were hanged afterward, the reporters present had a kind of race going to see who could first get the news to the telegraph station. Relays of horses and riders were set up by rival papers to see who could get to the Yreka telegraph first—some sixty or seventy miles away. The San Francisco Chronicle man even tried carrier pigeons. One reporter tried to get ahead of the others by sending his report to a telegraph station further off, in Ashland, Oregon. There was quite a bit of local excitement over these preparations, but little outside interest. Drannan, however, cast himself as one of the messengers carrying the news of the execution.

According to his story, he was the one who came up with the idea of trying the Ashland telegraph rather than the closer Yreka station. In his version of events his trusty horse—I forget his name—came through for him and Drannan carried the day, getting the news out first from Ashland. Needless to say, this is not how events actually worked themselves out. In point of fact the Ashland rider got drunk on the way, fell off his horse, and came in last in the race. Was Drannan that rider? Probably not, but the significant thing is that he remembered the event at all, when it was so quickly forgotten by everybody else. (His is the only version of the Modoc War to mention it until Oliver Knight's Following the Indian Wars came out in 1960.)

Some slight confirmation for his presence at the time comes from a note buried among the Applegate papers; according to this Drannan was a civilian contractor bringing supplies to the army during the Modoc War. So perhaps he was there, somewhere, at the edges of significant events. What about the Kit Carson stuff? Again, there is a slight confirmation in a relatively recently discovered inscription in Arizona. Kit Carson was there in 1849, and if this inscription is to be believed, so was William Drannan. The rock inscription reads "Killed Indians here 1849 Willie Drannan." So maybe, just perhaps, there was a grain of truth here as well. "What do you make of this?" an Elder of an Arizona tribe asked, on being presented with the evidence. He was told that it was a part of history. "Well, I call it murder," he responded. A far cry from the "life of magnificent adventure and high courage" Howard saw it as.

Next: #9--Chief Seattle's Speech.

16 comments:

mannmd said...

Interestingly, I had reached page 185 of Thirty-One Years on the Plains and In the Mountains
by William F. Drannan, when certain elements of the book just didn't seem right. It was beginning to occur to me that my appetite for more first-hand accounts from early-American frontiersmen had outdistanced that common-sense screening mechanism that should be applied when a hero of this magnitude emerges in print, but seemingly is largely left out by other contemporary historians of his day. The initial snag for me came after reading Drannan's account of how he saved a previously kidnapped white girl from the Apaches, Olive Oatman. Researching this confirmed the event, but not a shred of evidence suggesting our Mr. Drannan was remotely involved. Like others have suggested, perhaps he was a man on the periphery, or even loosely connected to some of the more minor events published in the book. While I feel a bit "taken in" by this 100+ years-old humbug, I can only imagine just how PO'ed Kit Carson would have been to learn that this fabricator had attached himself to one of America's great and real frontiersmen and traders for fame and fortune!
Mark Mann
Cheyenne Nation, Oklahoma Indian Territory

Rusted Cage said...

I recently finished reading Drannan's book "Thirty-One Years on the Plains and in the Mountains" and, like the Mannmd said in their comment, things didn't add up. I am dissapointed this book may not be true, although I am intrigued by the Arizona inscription. Is it possible there is more fact than fiction in this tale, that Drannan is just a casualty of forgotten history? Or is that just wishful thinking?

Anonymous said...

Page 168 of the Thomas W Jackson publication finds Drannan in the company of Jim Beckwourth (Beckwith) about 1854 and in Hangtown (Placerville) where they cross the Sierra along the Carson River and Drannan names it Beckwith Pass and he says the name was adopted.

Well that is Carson Pass and Beckwourth Pass is way further North in California along highway 70 between Hallelujah Junction and Beckwourth.

Also Elinor Wilson's extensive research that went into her book "Jim Beckwourth", never mentions Drannan. In 1853 Beckwourth was operating his ranch/trading post and stopping place for emigrants using the Pass named for him.

I agree that Drannan's work does appear to be a fabrication from some facts but a lot of those facts seem to be wrong like locating Beckwourth Pass along the Carson River.

At Page 168 I put the book down and found this website. Thanks for saving me from the total 654 pages. I had been sucked in too.

Russ Taylor
Cayucos, CA.

Quenchcrack said...

I reached almost the exact same point in this book as Mark Mann when the bells begen to go off. I did some simple research and discovered the man is a fraud. The question is whether he tried to pass it off as truth or just a good tale. Kinda sad, really.

RK Nichols

Gringo said...

I had just yesterday started the Kindle edition. I got to the soda water fountain episode, and this morning started researching Carson and Taos a bit. I wondered why I had never heard of this Drannan guy. A kid that nonchalantly kills and scalps two full grown native American Indians at the age of 16, with a muzzle loading rifle....
And two indians stand there while he reloads, after killing the first one?

I was thinking that this alone was enough to propel the kid into fame and fortune by the age of 17. And I never heard of him?

Now I know why my alarms started going off.

GoWest said...

I received a Kindle reader for X-Mas & "Thirty-One Years On The Plains..." by William Drannan was one of the free titles I found online when I started searching for interesting reads. It bothered me that I couldn't find any mention of Drannan or the title on Wikipedia or on the public library's catalogue. Also, some of the feats supposedly performed by the author at the tender age of 16 yrs w/ little or no experience as a mountain man seemed a bit far-fetched. I've read several books about Kit Carson & wondered why none of those even mentioned Kit Carson's "adopted son". Furthermore, while "Thirty-one Years..." does seem to have a lot of historical facts weaved into the narrative, it seemed lacking in much of the actual detail that an actual participant would probably have. Thanks for the heads-up, but I enjoy reading accounts of those days before the West was settled that I might actually go ahead & finish the book w/ the knowledge that it's really historical fiction. Who wouldn't have wanted to be Kit Carson's adopted son?

Mike D said...

Unfortunately my read was skewed by this website. I did finish the book and found it to be entertaining. If Drannon wasn't there then he certainly had some knowledge of events and, unlike those above, I'll give the man the benefit of the doubt. I did begin to find the book a bit much with all the heroics and last minute saves that Drannan managed to pull off just in the nick of time but, I suspect that many of our "heroes are a bit braggadocios in their renderings of history. Anyway, I found the book to be entertaining and, if Drannon did get some of the history wrong at times he did write the book about 30 years of his life. I challenge anybody to remember incidents in their lives from that far back and get them exactly correct.

Portia Periwinkle said...

Being fond of diaries and memoirs, I borrowed an ancient copy of this from a friend. It took me about 15 pages to realize that it's a work of fiction. It's actually not uncommon to present fiction this way, it's up to the reader to decide.

My take is that it was a work written for boys. It includes all the key features a boy of that era would like: never going to school, playing with wild friends, being the assistant to a famous gun fighter, shooting, Indian fighting, etc.

As a factual work it would have been considered to be motivational and I expect parents supported it. In time lacking radio, TV, not to say all the distractions of the present, children learned to read early and well. It was their primary source of amusement endorsed by parents.

But the book isn't truth. Odds are the writer never got out of New England.

robertaccio said...

Very interesting. I have a copy of that book that is at least 100 years old, if not a first edition (I'd have to look, and I'm about 800 miles from home at the moment). I got it from my grandfather, who was one of those boys who grew up in Oregon before the First World War and lived the last 25 years of his life in Malin, Oregon and Macdoel, California.

I've tried to read it more than once, and never got through the first hundred pages

Harley said...

You suggest that according to Drannan's story of the dispatch race he tried the route that was farther away - you suggest this as Ashland, Oregon, the closer location being Yreka Station (I can't find this on modern maps so is this just nearby Yreka?)

Drannan's account of the dispatch race says that it was from Fort Klamath to either Ashland or Jacksonville. He suggests he went to Ashland because it was closer than Jacksonville.

Drannan's numbers state this is 80 miles of trail to Ashland versus 100 miles of wagon road to Jacksonville, modern trails and roads suggest a trip of 70 miles versus 75 to 90 miles so his guesses were accurate enough.

Modern day Yreka is not closer than either of these destinations, it is about 100 miles away.

If the next account of this story was in 1960 then Drannan's account is the only account that can be considered either first hand, or second hand and alive as an adult at the time. The 1960 account is written solely as a history from someone who was probably not born at the time of the events.

I found the book enjoyable.

The events, when spread across over 30 years of time show that his life was not a constant action packed thriller, but long periods of regular life interspersed with small bouts of violence. This is typical to what a soldier experiences. I think a modern forensic analysis of the events he presents may shed a lot more light on whether he participated in them or not compared to previous attempts.

Apparently Al Sieber is also the Chief of Scouts.

sbh said...

There is a wealth of contemporary evidence about the events surrounding the hanging of the Modoc leaders, including the horse race the reporters engaged in to get the news in first. Drannan's account, if true, has many fascinating details of the arrangements made for getting the news out first. The trouble is, it is a matter of fact that the reporter who used the Ashland route rather than the Jacksonville route (yes, I carelessly wrote Yreka when I should have written Jacksonville) got his story in last, and the contemporary accounts give as a reason that one of his couriers met with an accident on the road and broke his arm. Drannan claims to have come in first, and offers no explanation for the Ashland dispatch's delay.

Since as far as I know there is no comprehensive account of the race, I have written one here.

Valerie Mason said...

I have this book, as I got it from my mother. She is named after the Pima Indian girl Nawasa that saved Drannen in the book. Her Grandfather insisted that she be named after the girl in the book as he was one of those boys that believed and she did also that it was a true account. I found out it wss a fraud, but never told her as it would have been a great disappointment to her.

Anonymous said...

I've got this book as well. Seemed fascinating and rather outlandish (I, too, could not get through the whole thing). A google search revealed this website. I wonder if the mystery of the author will ever be solved?

hayduke said...

I am finishing up this interesting book of fiction. I, too, find it an interesting read, but from the very early pages was convinced that it was just fiction. I could not help thinking that it was a lot like Dustin Hoffman's character in "Little Big Man".

Rob Drummond said...

I am reading this book right now and I have to say that I suspected it was fiction. Come on........Uncle Kit!!!!!! Even as I read the book, which I will finish, I have trouble with the "Uncle Kit" name.

But I like to read first accounts and he may have been "in the area" enough to interwind himself into greater events. It wouldn't be the first time someone did that.

Rob Drummond

Margot said...

I have a first edition of this book, and it's much more believable when the pages are brown with age, the binding is fragile, and the type is faded. I'm enjoying all of it except the ambushing and scalping. Whether all of it is true or not, it's still a glimpse into the past.

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