John Boessenecker discusses the process of researching and accurately writing about key figures from the Wild West.
John Boessenecker is a former police officer, current trial lawyer, and considered one of the leading authorities of crime and law enforcement in the Old West. His book Shotguns and Stagecoaches is about the men who rode for Wells Fargo in the 19th century.
Unknown History: Shotguns and Stagecoaches focuses on the years of the Wild West. What inspired you to write a book about this time period?
John Boessenecker: I have been interested in the Wild West since I was a boy, for I was raised on TV westerns of the 1960s. I began to wonder whether the Old West was accurately depicted in television and film, and as a freshman in high school I began reading everything I could about the topic. I would ride my bike to the local library and load up with books about the frontier. I found that I enjoyed writing, and at age fifteen I wrote a short piece for a western magazine, about a stage robbery in Nevada. I kept it up, and have now been writing magazine articles and books about the Wild West for fifty years.
UH: What figures played key roles in the Wild West era? How did you capture their voices and personalities while writing about them?
JB: As a former police officer, my particular interest has always been the lawmen and outlaws of the Old West. The noteworthy ones were men of action, and few of them left diaries, letters, or correspondence. Therefore their stories have to be dug out from old newspapers, court records, and collections in museums, libraries, and archives. It is often fairly straightforward to describe what they did, but why they did it is a bigger problem given that these were not introspective men who spent a lot of time recording their thoughts and their emotions. So you have to interpret their acts and make judgments about their lives, their ethics, and their personalities. And that is where many writers and historians get into trouble: they judge historical characters by modern standards, instead of viewing them in the light of their own times.
UH: How do you bring history to life while staying true to its record?
JB: I try to use primary sources—newspapers and memoirs—and stay away from other writers’ secondary accounts that are often colored—sometimes by the author’s own biases, and sometimes by basic errors of fact. I also like to write about characters who are largely unknown; that way there is no paper trail of false narratives. I try to present my narrative in a factual way but also in a way that is exciting to the reader. That is the conundrum: keep it factual and keep it interesting. A cautionary tale exists in two of the most popular biographies of the 1930s: Carl Sandburg on Abraham Lincoln and Stuart N. Lake on Wyatt Earp. Their books are beautifully written, but modern historians recognize that both are larded with fiction and myth, along with the mortal sin of invented dialogue.
UH: What is something you want readers to take away from your book that they might not have previously considered about the time period or the figures you highlight?
JB: Modern Wells Fargo has been ridden by scandal and moral corruption. The men that I write about in my book—the shotgun messengers (guards) and detectives of Wells Fargo—risked their lives to protect their customers’ property. By comparison, the morally bankrupt Wells Fargo managers who defrauded their own customers were highly educated and sophisticated. Of the twenty Wells Fargo men profiled in the book, not one had more than an elementary schooling. They did not need a high school diploma, let alone an MBA, to know the difference between right and wrong. It does seem incredible that a group of rough, uneducated frontiersmen would be scrupulously honest and incredibly brave, while their modern MBA-toting counterparts are neither.