Bayside author was prolific chronicler of the Old West

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Several years ago, the late Howard R. Driggs, who lived in Bayside, was a neighbor of the Wettingfeld family and gave autographed copies of “The Old West Speaks,” one of many books he had authored over a lifetime, to my father−in−law, me and my husband. I was perusing our copy the other day and thought it a worthy topic for this column.

Known for his experience in and expertise of our Western territories, Driggs had published a number of books on the subject. The son of Mormon parents, Driggs was born in Utah and from childhood listened with rapt attention to the stirring tales of the making of America.

In the 1950s, he was professor emeritus at New York University and devoted to writing the real story of the American frontier. He served as president of the American Pioneer Trails Association for more than 28 years and had published many books which dealt with his knowledge of the old West from the time he was a youngster.

I treasure our copy of “The Old West Speaks,” which also features color illustrations by painter William Henry Jackson and which gained him an honored place among artists of America.

A prolific writer, Driggs said “for 80 years I have known and loved the mightiest province of a mighty nation. I have tried to show you freshly the past of your nation in the words and through the eyes of the men and women who made that past possible. To them it was the present as real as our own daily lives and often more vivid.”

Driggs absorbed much of his book from his elders and neighbors, as they sat about his family’s fireplace many years ago. His father’s store was also a gathering place where he heard trappers, Indians and hunters swap stories. His stories made the West come alive. The paintings in the book were done from sketches and highlight the reality of the text.

The Indians and settlers and trappers of the West were generally friendly to one another, though there were clashes. Generally, pioneers who were understanding had little trouble, though the attitude of the Indians toward white settlers varied with tribal leadership.

One of Driggs’ pioneer friends, Nick Wilson’s foster mother, had known Sacagawea, “The Bird Woman.” She was the Shoshone who helped Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in their expedition west. She was born in the Salmon River region. The Minitaries captured her at one of the forks of the Missouri and later sold her to the Mandans when she was 11. By good fortune, Lewis and Clark had found her there, as their camp in 1804 was near the Mandans’, close to present−day Bismark, N.D. At that, time she was the wife of French trapper Toussaint Charbonneau, who had won her in a gambling game.

What was important to the explorers was that Sacagawea knew her way to her home in the Rockies. Therefore, Clark had hired Charbonneau as an interpreter to gain Sacagawea as a guide. She soon won the confidence of all. Clark, however, took on the task of protecting her from her husband, who had no concern about beating her. An invaluable guide, she was helpful in nursing the sick and finding edible food. She even saved the expedition’s scientific equipment from the Missouri River.

First reports were dispatched to President Thomas Jefferson on April 7, 1805, while Sacagawea led them, happy at the prospect of rejoining her own people. Upon her back was her newborn son, Baptiste. When they came to a divide with three streams, they named them the Jefferson, the Madison and the Gallatin, after the president, the state secretary and the treasury secretary.

When asked which of the three streams they should choose, without hesitation Sacagawea pointed to the Jefferson. At the top of a hill, they saw an Indian encampment and Sacagawea began to dance, a sign she was sure they were her own Shoshone people. In an exchange of news, she learned her father, mother and sister were dead. She asked for her sister’s son and found him at another Indian encampment. Not only did she find her nephew, whom she named Basil, but the chief turned out to be her own brother. Basil was to stay with the Shoshone chief, while in the spring Sacagawea and her baby went all the way to the Pacific Ocean with the expedition.

In the spring, she journeyed back up the Columbia and Snake rivers, over the Rockies and down the Missouri to Fort Mandan, where she parted with the party she had led. She would meet Lewis in later years in St. Louis, Mo., and it was to him that she entrusted the education of her son and his younger sister.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and freelance writer.

Updated 6:35 pm, October 10, 2011
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