Amateur Historians

Alvin Josephy loved amateur historians. When I opened the Bookloft in Enterprise in 1976, he was still working full time at American Heritage in New York City, writing his big history books and newspaper and magazine articles in the midnight hours. He and his wife, Betty, would come west each summer, she for the summer, he for a few weeks before he went back to the job.

And the Bookloft was always one of his first stops. He would comb the western and local history shelves for new books like 35 Years on Smith Mountain and Hells Canyon of Snake River, make a big stack of them at the counter, and ask about more. Were there new novels, books or pamphlets, diaries, books of letters, anything on the Nez Perce, fishing the Columbia, on Lewis and Clark and the Indians.

He would talk about academic historians missing out on the West because they confined themselves too much to official documents—treaties, proclamations, occasionally the newspaper article, although journalism was suspect. And Indians didn’t have much written history of their own. There were the treaties and the accounts of military officers in campaigns against them, but their own stories, carried from generation to generation by families and tribal storytellers, were invisible to most academic historians.

Stories of women and accounts of the Chinese and Japanese, the people whose written records were in different languages and scripts, were likewise invisible or hard to find in standard texts—although in the 70s, the women’s movement and women historians like Sue Armitage at Washington State University were finding and publishing women’s diaries and letters. But, in the 1970s and 80s, most of these things were still mostly found in small, local, often self-published editions, the things Alvin had made a habit of collecting since he heard and was captivated by the Nez Perce story while a journalist at Time Magazine.

According to him, amateurs kept the stories of the West alive. Here in the Wallowas, “Pioneer Society” stalwart Harley Horner assembled a “History of Wallowa County” in big scrapbooks in alphabetical order by names and places, with letters, news accounts, and his own reportage pasted in. When Grace Butterfield, whose father was a newspaper man, moved to town, she worked with Horner and transcribed his scrapbooks into a typed document that has had an amazing journey of its own. Fortunately, the “Horner papers” are now back in the Wallowa County Museum–but that is another story!

When Alvin wrote his book on the Nez Perce, Grace differed on some local matters, and Alvin encouraged her to get the details straight. She did, in The Wallowa Country: 1866-76, a fine locally published book about the ten years of White settlement leading up to the Nez Perce War.

Later, Josephy worked with Grace and her Nez Perce husband, Harry Bartlett, to get the true history of the Appaloosa horse to the public. Alvin wrote a piece and helped publish one by Harry and Grace about the spotted horses in the Brand Book a magazine published by a group of artists, writers, librarians, and aficionados of the West who called themselves “Westerners.” This New York posse would meet monthly for dinner and discussion of Billy the Kid, General Custer, and, as Alvin once wrote, “which side of the river Lewis and Clark traveled on.” Famed writer Mari Sandoz was a member of the New York posse, and there were brother or sister posses in Chicago, Denver, London, and Los Angeles.

I don’t believe any of the articles in these magazines were written for PhD theses—but there their contents must have been used by many later candidates for the degree.

The “Westerners”

Hello all,

It’s been a while since I posted anything new on the blog. Apologies. Still getting used to this new technology. And I am going to pass on the heavy lifting this time to Jo Tice Bloom and the Western Historical Quarterly for a marvelous little introduction to the “Westerners.” This is interesting to us right now because our new Josephy Library Reading Group will be looking at Alvin’s pieces–and the rebuttal by Francis Haines–on the Appaloosa Horse, which were all published by the New York Westerners in their “Brand Book.” We meet at noon Monday, November 15, at the Fishtrap House to discuss.

Alvin had recieved another version of the Appaloosa story–one that did not credit it as the Nez Perce War Horse–from local author Grace Bartlett and her Nez Perce horseman husband Harry. Alvin was involved with the New York Posse of Westerners, so took their story and his own historical research to the Brand Book in 1967.

Alvin loved amateur historians, “history buffs,” he called them. And the Westerners across the country–and in England too!–were certainly that. Here’s the story from Western Historical Quarterly. Well, the first 600 words or so of a 2800 word piece. I imagine they won’t mind my posting it here, as I will encourage you to go to their site, and possibly to enroll so that you can get the whole story.

“Hello Joe, You Old Buffalo: Skulls, Brand Books, and Westerners”


For more than sixty years, Westerners have been researching, writing, sharing, and having fun with the history of the American West. Westerners were among the founders of the Western History Association. This article discusses Westerners and Westerners International, the umbrella organization

FOLK HEROES AND THE ROMANCE OF THE WILD have always stirred minds and imaginations—consider Greek mythology or Robin Hood or the Nordic sagas. In our American history, the folk traditions have often been obscured by the written histories of our past. Thus, we have few folk heroes from the early colonial period. The new nation, however, blossomed with Daniel Boone, Simon Girty, George Rogers Clark, and Major Robert Rogers. Consider the homage being paid to William Clark and Meriwether Lewis these days. We love our heroic figures who moved through the West, generating stories of their adventures, the land, and the people they encountered.

Out of this heritage came the Westerners. Founded in 1944 in Chicago by Great Plains natives inhabiting a foreign urban society, the Westerners sought to evoke the romance and the heroes—the Jules Sandozes, the Kit Carsons, the cowboys. But they were also devoted to accurate and unprejudiced history.

Those founders, journalists Leland Case and Don Russell, and professors Ray Allen Billington and Elmo Scott Watson, among others, decided to meet once a month over dinner and to have a paper or talk about the American West. For them, as for us, it was to be an evening of good history, good conversation, good food, and good camaraderie. As the Chicago group organized, they named themselves a corral and elected a sheriff, a deputy sheriff, a keeper of marks and brands, etc., to lead them. A trail boss would roundup new members. There would be no constitution, no bylaws, just a posse to run affairs. When incorporated to conform to Illinois laws, the corral stated their purpose was simply “Fun and Scholarship.” Early on, the corral acquired a buffalo skull from the Great Plains, and today members still open in the evening with the unveiling of the skull, named Joe, and a toast, “Hello, Joe, you old buffalo.” When the skull is covered and saluted with “Adios, Joe, you old buffalo,” the meeting ends.

Naturally, other men heard about the Chicago Corral. Soon, corrals popped up in Denver (1944), Los Angeles (1946), New York, (1952), Washington, DC (1954), London (1954), and other places. As the informal organizations grew, each adopted its own traditions. As David Dary wrote in 2003, the Denver Posse “established the principle that each group of Westerners was to be independent of all other groups.” And this has been the case ever since.

By 1958, when Westerners International was born, corrals were active in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, St. Louis, New York City, Tucson, Laramie, Kansas City, and Spokane, along with the Black Hills Corral, the Potomac Corral, the English Society, and the French Corral. Leland Case, who played father, mentor, and overall sheriff to these groups, conceived the idea of an umbrella organization that would keep corrals in touch, help new corrals get started, and offer prizes for outstanding historical contributions by corral members. Thus was born Westerners International (WI).

Case lived in Stockton, California, and established the Home Ranch there. Later the Home Ranch moved to Tucson with Leland and then, after his death, to Oklahoma City, where it is housed in the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. The Home Ranch is WI’s “headquarters.” Dedicated volunteers keep the Home Ranch running

This story is from the Summer 2008 edition of Western Historical Quarterly. For more info: