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Interview -- Douglas McChristian

Webmaster's Note: Historian Douglas McChristian shares insights into the world of a western historian and details about his book, "Fort Laramie: Military Bastion of the High Plains". Jump here to read the review of the book.

April 2012

Mr. McChristian's body of work is a required reference for many a historian. Always within armís reach of my desk is ďThe U.S. Army in the West 1870-1880: Uniforms, Weapons, and EquipmentĒ. Also, ďAn Army of MarksmenĒ -- if you can locate a copy at your favorite used bookstore -- is the definitive study of training in the frontier army.

Bob Reece: Youíve published some of the best material on the frontier army and the American West. ďFort Laramie: Military Bastion of the High PlainsĒ is just one of many and an incredible record of the place. What motivated you to write about this iconic fort?

Douglas McChristian: I appreciate your kind words. Doing the Fort Laramie history was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. A couple of years after I began working for the Intermountain Region as a research historian, one of the projects to come up in the priorities was a Historic Resource Study (HRS) for Fort Laramie. In view of the broad scope of that postís history, a decision was made to divide the study into three sections. In the end, a colleague who specialized in the fur trade era was assigned the first, while I took the military and post-military periods.

Sometime after the HRS was finished, Chuck Rankin at the University of Oklahoma Press contacted me to ask if he might read my reports with a view to publishing them. Although he liked them, he thought they were too long for a book and too detailed, which they were, for a general readership. Chuck also asked if I would combine the two reports into a book-length treatment. I told them I could do all that, but wouldnít have time until after I retired.

Were that not enough, Oklahoma also expressed an interest in publishing my Fort Bowie, Arizona: Combat Post of the Southwest, 1858-1894 study. However, my personal post-retirement priority was to complete Uniforms, Arms, And Equipment: The U.s. Army on the Western Frontier, 1880-1892 (Volume II) a sequel to The U.S. Army in the West, 1870-1880: Uniforms, Weapons, and Equipment, which Iíd been working on for several years. I certainly didnít have to worry about what I would do after I retired. Fort Bowie came out in 2005 and by the time Uniforms, Arms, and Equipment appeared in 2007, I was back at work on the Fort Laramie project. Combining the two reports and pruning them down proved to be more difficult than I had anticipated. Meantime, Oklahoma Press and the Arthur H. Clark Co. joined forces and selected Fort Laramie as a title in Clarkís Frontier Military Series. It finally saw print in 2009. That book was a long time coming to fruition, but Iím extremely pleased with it.

B.R. What is your personal favorite event and person associated with the fort?

D.M. Like a lot of folks, Iíve always been captivated by the Grattan fight. Itís certainly one of the salient events associated with Fort Laramie. However, I believe that Lieutenant Flemingís skirmish with the Sioux near the North Platte ferry in 1853 has been under-rated. In the past, it was given only a passing nod without placing it in perspective. While the Grattan Fight may have been the most immediate catalyst for the First Sioux War, the ferry incident was actually the first armed conflict between the Sioux and the army in that vicinity. For the Sioux, the confrontation sowed seeds of distrust that hadnít existed previously. On the armyís part, Flemingís skirmish should have alerted higher command to the potential for trouble at that isolated, undermanned garrison. But that didnít happen until a year later when Grattan really blew the lid off the situation, and his actions very nearly resulted in the destruction of Fort Laramie. And who was Grattanís immediate superior? Lt. Hugh Fleming. I think these incidents are properly viewed together in the context of deteriorating government relations with the Sioux.

A personal favorite of mine concerns the ďattackĒ on Fort Laramie in 1864. Everyone, including me, had always accepted at face value Capt. Eugene Wareís account of this incident because we considered Ware to be a reliable witness. I even related that story in a History Channel interview to illustrate that most western forts didnít have walls around them. Later, during my research on Fort Laramie, I discovered to my chagrin that Wareís version of the incident was an embellished, second-hand distortion of what actually occurred. We got it right in the book, but I cringed every time they re-ran that program on TV.

John Hunton is one of my favorite characters in the Fort Laramie story. Hunton, an ex-Confederate soldier, arrived at the post in 1867 and found employment with the sutler. He remained at or in the vicinity of Fort Laramie for the rest of his life and was responsible for saving some of the buildings extant today.

And thereís that fixture at the post, Ordnance Sergeant Leodegar Schnyder. What a crusty old curmudgeon. Schnyder came to Fort Laramie as a Sixth Infantryman in 1849 and stayed there until 1886. Can you imagine? He witnessed the entire pageant of Fort Laramieís military occupancy, everything except its abandonment. He was present during all the significant events, yet he didnít record a single word for posterity! Small wonder that historians curse him. What stories he and Hunton could have told us. Can you imagine sitting down with those two? They could have answered so many of our questions.

B.R. What was the title of the show on the History Channel so we can be sure to look for it in reruns?

D.M. The subject was forts, but I donít recall the exact title. I havenít seen it for a long time.

B.R. Looking back, do you recall a moment in your life when you discovered your love for the study of history?

D.M. It wasnít like being struck by a lightning bolt. I think I had a natural inclination toward history. My mother was a teacher and my maternal grandmother was the county librarian. Consequently I spent a lot of time just poking around the stacks. I remember reading juvenile mysteries and adventures, until I eventually stumbled onto the World War II section. There I discovered titles like Brave Men, Guadalcanal Diary (Modern Library War), The Battle is the Payoff, and a multi-volume pictorial history. I think I nearly wore out that set.

I also spent a lot of my time at the library during hot Kansas summers, at least when my older brother didnít press me into helping with his lawn mowing business. I recall discovering a real treasure-trove in Millerís The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes, largely neglected high atop a shelf, which required my grandmother to use a ladder. That got me started on the Civil War. I immersed myself in those volumes for many enjoyable hours, though I think my grandmother became a little annoyed with having to climb that ladder so often. Later, during my junior high years, I did a lot reading about the Civil War.

My dad influenced me too, though I think unintentionally. He enjoyed reading for pleasure, particularly things of a western historical nature. I grew up in the small town of LaCrosse, about midway between historic Fort Hays and Fort Larned. Of course, the forts hadnít yet been set aside as parks in those days. They were just there and he took me to see them. A family vacation in 1956, when I was nine, was especially memorable. We traveled to the state of Washington to visit relatives and along the way I remember stopping at Scotts Bluff, Fort Laramie, Fort Casper, and Custer Battlefield, among other places. I was really intrigued by the Battle of the Little Bighorn and I treasured the historical handbook my parents bought at the visitor center. In fact, I still have that worn copy here on my shelf.

B.R.  When did you know you wanted to make a career from history?

D.M. It was during another family vacation in the summer of 1964. I was about to enter my senior year in high school and was beginning to consider what I would do after graduation. My interests lay in the field of history, but my exposure to the profession was quite limited. The only historians I knew were high school teachers. I was certain of one thing-- I didnít want to spend my life teaching in a classroom. On that trip we again visited Fort Laramie and Custer Battlefield. I took notice of the park rangers and my wheels began to turn. I clearly remember thinking, ďNow that would be the job to have, working where history happened.Ē

After listening to a talk at Fort Laramie, I mustered the courage to approach the ranger. That ranger, he and I now believe, was none other than Jack McDermott, who was supervisory historian there at that time. He kindly briefed me about the types of jobs in the ranger series, the educational requirements, and how to apply. That contact, incidentally, made a lasting impression on me. Whenever young folks asked me the same question throughout my career with the National Park Service, I took them seriously, as he had done for me. I always hoped that one of those seeds might take root.

B.R. Thatís incredibly gracious of you Doug.

D.M. Thank you. Getting back to my story, I returned to school with a sense of direction. One day during study hall, I happened to find a two-volume encyclopedia on careers. (Small schools didnít have career counselors.) Upon turning to the National Park Service, I was presented with a photo of a ranger in Class A uniform standing beside a Civil War cannon talking with some visitors. I said to myself, ďThatís it. That what I want to be.Ē

I have to add that when I entered college the following year, I was assigned to Dr. Leo Oliva as my advisor and mentor. That was fortunate. Dr. Oliva happened to specialize in frontier military history. His first book, Soldiers On the Santa Fe Trail, was published a couple of years later, so we had a common interest. He was a great inspiration and encouragement for me to pursue my goal.

B.R. When I first met you, you were employed at Little Bighorn where you would serve as chief historian and acting superintendent. Where did you start your career with the NPS?

D.M. I started at Fort Larned National Historic Site, about thirty miles from my hometown. It was authorized as a unit of the Park System in 1966. By the following year the site had its first superintendent. My parents had read an interview with him in a statewide newspaper and suggested that I contact him about summer employment. So I made an appointment. He explained that they werenít ready to begin on-site interpretation and didnít yet have funding for seasonal rangers. However, the good news was that he hoped to be able to hire one the next year to establish an NPS presence at the fort. He encouraged me to contact him again the following winter and sent me home with an application form. The short of it is that I had the minor distinction of being hired in 1968 as the first seasonal ranger-historian at Fort Larned. After I graduated from college the following year, I continued working there until 1972, when I was offered the position as park historian at Fort Davis NHS in Texas.

B.R. When did you make the move to Fort Laramie and what did you do while there?

D.M. Iím assuming you mean the position I held there in the late Ď90s, but that wasnít my first stint at Fort Laramie. I served there previously as supervisory historian from 1975-78. During that assignment I was occupied with the usual operational duties--interpretive program management, division administration, working with the cooperating association, and so forth.

My second assignment at Fort Laramie came in 1995, but not as a member of the park staff. The position was that of research historian for the Intermountain Regional Office in Denver. Since the Service was in process of reorganizing and down-sizing central offices at that time, I proposed that my duty station be at a field area not too distant from Denverósay, Fort Laramie. Management bought into the idea, so thatís how I happened to go there again. Needless to say, I was tickled to return to one of my favorite places.

My job entailed producing studies requested by parks within the Intermountain Region and assigned by the history program manager in Denver. The projects were many and varied, including historic resource studies, administrative histories, and special studies. Sometimes I was detailed to do work for other government organizations that had funding for historical studies, but not the staff to produce them. So, I wound up doing projects for the Army and the Air Force at various times. Those provided me with valuable experience in researching subjectsóthe Cold War for instance--that I never would have pursued otherwise.

B.R.  What was the highlight for you during your career with the NPS?

D.M. Thatís not as easy to answer as you might think. Highlights come in various forms. For instance, I look back upon the summer programs at Fort Laramie during 1976 and 1977 with a great deal of personal satisfaction. We had a remarkably capable, enthusiastic bunch of people, including the maintenance personnel, on the staff at that time. The seasonal interpreters were really top-notch. It was a team effort and we had a lot of fun in the process. Two of those individuals went on to pursue careers in the NPS and another spent his career with the Wyoming Historic Sites Division.

B.R. Our paths came close to crossing back then. My first visit to the Plains was in August of 1978. On my way to the Black Hills, I stopped at Fort Laramie where I had my first experience with living history.

D.M. In terms of tangible accomplishments, one that ranks right up there would be the restoration and refurnishing of a Tenth Cavalry barracks at Fort Davis. That had been a lingering and seemingly unattainable goal of the parkís master plan since the 1960s. It was an ambitious, costly project and was competing for the available money in the historic preservation program. The preservation of original resources took priority, which it should. During my tenure there as superintendent, 1980-1986, we established the restoration as a goal and formed the Friends of Fort Davis. Working with that group, we raised money through grant applications and fund-raising events, and obtained donated in-kind services. Again, we had a dedicated staff that brought their own special talents to the effort. We accomplished our goal in about four years. That barracks continues to provide a permanent focus on the Buffalo Soldiers and their service on the frontier.

B.R.  Now that youíve retired from the NPS, what are you doing with the extra time you have?

D.M. I devote much of my time to research projects, large and small, and writing for publication. Itís something I enjoy doing, though it often seems a lot like work. I usually have a book project underway, but I maintain a ďto doĒ list of article topics as they come to mind. Itís nice to be able to establish my own priorities and not have deadlines, except when publishers set them. Then too, I read, review manuscripts for publishers from time to time, and do book reviews for some of the journals. Beyond that, Frances and I go antiquing, do some traveling, host friends from the north during winter months, go target shooting, and work around our place here in Tucson.

B.R. Regarding your books, how do you decide on the subject to write about?

D.M. It has to be a subject that interests me and arouses my curiosity. Then I consider what other publications on the same subject may be out there and whether there is a need to be filled.

Most of my books have stemmed from my longtime interest in the Indian Wars, the regular army of that era, and its material culture. My first, a monograph titled Army of Marksmen, began with my acquisition of an 1885 army marksmanship manual. That prompted me to question how and when army marksmanship training originated. Eventually I wrote it up for publication by our friend Mike Koury.

B.R.  I found a copy last year! Another great work youíve done.

D.M. Itís certainly no secret that Iíve been a collector and student of army uniforms and equipment of the Indian Wars. Many years ago, I commented to my historian-friend Gordon Chappell that I wished someone would write a comprehensive book on the subject. He challenged me with a simple question, ďWhy donít you do it?Ē That started me thinking, and eventually led to U.S. Army in the West and subsequently to Uniforms, Arms, and Equipment.

I was fortunate in being given the opportunities to write Fort Laramie and Fort Bowie as NPS history studies. Those came my way because I was familiar with the subject area and resources. As Iíve explained, I later re-worked them into books for general audiences.

B.R. Once you make that decision, what processes do you follow while researching a subject to publication?

D.M. It has a lot to do with how much I already know about a subject when I start. Some projects require a lot of background reading for basic grounding in the subject, others not so much. One also has to determine what resources are out there, which involves consulting bibliographies, published guides and indexes, library and archival catalogs, and on-line resources. The Internet has become a great research asset for surveying archival resources. We used to have to do that by letter, phone, and personal visits. Thatís still necessary to some extent, but going on-line can certainly narrow the field. Then I determine which collections I need to actually visit; then I work up a travel schedule. Once I begin gathering material, I organize it according to the nature of the subject. Iím a traditionalist, I guess, in that I compile notes. Itís laborious, but itís the way I was trained and I find it essential to comparing, evaluating, interpreting, and eventually writing up the material.

B.R.  What advice would you share with young aspiring historians?

D.M. 1. Be willing and able to invest much of yourself and your time. In my opinion, essential qualities include initiative, dedication, and self-discipline. One has to be able to maintain a focus for long periods of time.

2. Donít expect to get rich, and donít give up your day job. The reward for historians is largely the satisfaction one takes in producing and making a contribution to the field.

B.R. Excellent advice, Doug; especially your second answer. Are you working on a new book or project? If so, what is it and is there one interesting discovery so far that you can share with us?

D.M. The project on the front burner right now is a book tentatively titled, ďFrontier Cavalry Trooper: The Letters of Private Eddie Matthews, 1869-1874.Ē This was a significant discovery I made in the course of my research on another study. The letters present an unrivaled account of army life as seen through the eyes of an enlisted man on the Arizona/New Mexico frontier. Publication is projected for spring 2013 by the University of New Mexico Press.

B.R. I most definitely look forward to that. Finally, if resources and time were not an issue, what is the dream story in history to write about?

D.M. My forthcoming book of the Matthews letters comes pretty close to that. With my intense interest in the frontier regulars, Iíve always hoped to find a good, first-hand account that would warrant publication. Now Iím finally going to realize that. However, one historianís dream project is not necessarily anotherís. Each of us has to work in areas we find personally fulfilling.

B.R. I very much appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today, Doug. I want to also personally thank you for the work that you do. You have made great contributions in our understanding of life in the frontier army and how it equipped its soldiers.

D.M. You're welcome Bob.

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