Thursday, July 2, 2015
Revisiting the Mussel Slough Tragedy
Pictured Above: The Mussel Slough Five
By Doug Vehle, For The Daily Bosco
So I finally found another copy of 'One Shot' on YouTube, giving me the opportunity to finally see the whole movie. The first I found had a bad audio track, making it hard to understand what was said. Mostly not a problem with that particular movie, plainly inspired by Chris Kyle's memoir, 'An American Sniper.' Right down to the hero sniper being named Kyle. As often happens with the accounts that bootleg feature films on YouTube, it was interrupted some 15 minutes in with the notice that the account had been terminated for the violation of their terms of service. I hadn't actually caught the real name of the film, (The page said it was 'American Sniper' but that obviously wasn't true) so I was hard pressed to search out a chance to see what I had been thinking was an interesting film, based on what I thought I was seeing. Maybe I'd have been better off letting my imagination run wild on that 15 minutes worth.
I'd been amazed at the depiction of a "Mussel Slough" type situation. Most people are familiar with Marcus Luttrell, wounded and left behind in Afghanistan, but there's an even more improbable tale of survival, or at least near survival, right here in California in the early days of the state. More of an old west type shootout, one with more death than the O.K. Corral. In the tradition of 'Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction,' one man made a bid for survival in a manner that not even Jack London expected his readers to believe.
The role of the Clanton "Gang" from the O.K. Corral would be taken up by a group that called itself the 'Settlers League.' Those of socialist or other petulant outlooks try to depict the Settlers League as some sort of noble heroes. Whether in what is at least admitted fiction, as with the Franklin Norris novel 'The Octopus' that nonetheless claims to be inspired by the truth, or outright lies as told by the SFGate website, there's a lot of deliberately misleading material misrepresenting the group that preceded such spiritually similar groups as the ' Weather Underground Organization' or even ISIS by a century and more. The Wyatt Earp of this story would be a settler by the name of Walter Crow.
There's also a lot of misinformation out there on the matter of the "Real" deals the government was making to get more railroads built. The early adopters of the new technology were underfunded and going broke quickly. People like Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt made their fortunes buying existing railroad companies out of bankruptcy and figuring out something better than the "Hell of a way to run a railroad" business model that the original owners had been using. While the existing railroads were described as "Overbuilt," how else would you build a startup railroad? They were the first, how would they know how to do any of the business?
And how do we then get more railroads built, when original investors face the inevitable loss of their money? A lot of shoddy work by socalled historians contradict one another on what the ever evolving deal really was, but the picture emerges of the government providing land and cash in return for 6% interest bonds from the founding railroad companies. The land around the station would leap in value once the trains were running, even more distant land became farmable just for being able to ship the harvest to market. The government divided the land in a checkerboard pattern, half of the more valuable and half the less valuable for each party, the railroad and the government. At the very least the eventual sale of the land would guarantee repayment of the government money, as well as the government half of the land sale being extremely profitable.
So the Central Pacific Railroad of "The Associates" which included Leland Stanford (Yes, THAT Stanford) and Colis Huntington (Yes, THAT Huntington) went to work to build half the transcontinental railroad in 1863. By 1869 they were approaching the meeting point of the "Golden Spike" in Utah, only to realize they weren't on course to actually meet. But the problem was solved and the CP could then consolidate with the Associates 'Other' railroad, the Southern Pacific, and get to work selling their land. If only the government would complete the paperwork.
By 1878 the matter was mired in lawsuits. Owners of existing farms were selling out at perhaps $15/acre and heading to California expecting the railroad land to sell for as little as $2.50/acre, as a Central Pacific flyer mentioned the government land might sell some neighboring land for. What the flyer really said vs. what storytellers claim it said differs greatly, the storytellers count on noone having a copy of the real thing to prove them wrong. Homesteaders were suing the railroad for not routing the line through their neighborhood as they'd expected. Some simply expected they should be given the land they'd moved onto, even though there was no interpretation of "Squatters Rights" that could be applied to land officially designated to be transferred to the railroad but suspended in bureacracy. The courts were backing the railroad as the agreed upon owner. Thus came the rise of the Settlers League.
And here is where some of the accounts become outright delusional. Contrary to the small armies often attributed to the Marshal's group serving evictions that day, the railroad had sent one man by the name of William Clark. He was accompanied by a lone U.S. Marshal, Alonzo Poole. Neither Millis Hartt nor the aforementioned Walter Crow were Marshalls, or even officially part of the group, they were tagging along to see what land might be turning up for sale if the squatters refused to buy it. Many considered the land a bargain at the asking price.
The Settlers League, however, were burning the homes of anyone who paid, often wearing white sheets as they did so. Their reasoning seemed to be it didn't matter how many times they lost in court, California was still the frontier. The squatters were signing contracts to pay the League twenty five cents an acre if the league succeeded in intimidating the railroad into selling at $2.50/acre. As long as they were willing to wield their rifles, they expected frontier justice could carry the day. Crow was on record as having described the Settlers League as ". . . . Demagogues. . .." who were imposing “. . . .A reign of terror.” The total number of men in the gang that day were never accounted for, but estimates say perhaps 40 men set upon the Marshall, the railroad employee, plus two hangers on. They were told, at gunpoint, there were to be no evictions.
In addition to an order to quit the property, an eviction in this case included a check to cover the cost of improvements. What was once wilderness was by then plowed fields with farmhouses, barns, etc. But only in some cases. In others a farmhouse might have been built but no farming had been done. Often land was claimed by local merchants with no sign of an effort to develop it. Some had small amounts of minimal effort crops, such as hay, growing almost wild. Many had already contracted to sell the land for several times over what they were trying to force the railroad to take for it. Only small numbers had worked on irrigation and other serious farming development, usually those were quick to buy the land at the railroad price. Some acknowledged that developing the land had proved quite profitable even if they hadn't bought it, thanks to the settlement. However if noone was home to take the notice from the Marshall in person, it was left on the porch weighted against the wind by four rounds of ammunition, an unintentional foreboding of things to come.
So the mythmaking of those who try to use the incident as a parable for their own alleged righteousness contends that this huge party of U.S. Marshals and/or mercenaries working for the railroad set upon a small number of homeowners at a picnic and killed vast numbers of them. (In fact, sometimes these accounts claim they killed more than were even present.) If there really was a picnic, the outlaw gang that the Settlers League was had left it and ambushed the 4 men traveling from farm to farm. The Marshall and the railroad man were being driven off to warn the railroad, while the would be land buyers were to be made an example of. Thus was Walter Crow thrust into the role of hero.
It was moments such as this that fueled the most improbable western films. Two unarmed men, told they are to die to gratify the bad guys rage, lunge for weapons in their wagon, to threats of 'Stop or we'll shoot.' Well, the baddies were already shooting whether it was an accident or not. The two were to be shot if they did stop, so why stop? Hartt never made it to a weapon. Poole and Clark hid behind trees as the shooting started. Crow, somehow, reached the wagon.
Again the accounts vary. Crow is depicted as firing a shotgun, but in 1880, there was no automatic, magazine loading, rapid fire Benelli. Any pump action scatter gun was decades away. At most, any shotgun that Crow would have pulled from the wagon would have fired two shots. Since most accounts have been written by people who just don't care what really happened, it's apparently lost in time what weapon or weapons Crow might have pulled from the wagon. But it's known he made good use of what filled his hand.
And here is where the lines blur between fiction and fact. Knowing the accounts of Mussel Slough, which cannot dismiss the incredible effort of Walter Crow no matter how hard you lie about it, even the leading railroad hater of his time Ambrose Bierce called him "The bravest American." Though many, more than a century later, continue to create a jaundiced picture to suit their own agenda. Karl Marx at the time somehow managed to call the Mussel Slough shootout "Capitalist Oppression." The same Karl Marx who, three years earlier, had been supportive of "The Great Upheaval," the reign of terror by railroad workers killing and destroying because their hours were cut by struggling railroads.
All this insincerity was called to mind as I read review after review while trying to identify the movie 'One Shot.' I thought this was supposed to be an alien invasion of Earth, though it turned out the battle had taken place on the alien world. Our hero Kyle Matthews is awakened from a dream about a comforting woman I'd taken to be his wife, the same as seen narrating the open. I thought she'd been saying it was like a disease that afflicted him, I had the idea of a psychological drama that would outweigh the war. It seems he was being alerted to the enemy overrunning their position, as they're taken prisoner the executions begin. With nothing to lose, Kyle grabs a gun and shoots on the run, much like Crow. The enemy is simply caught off guard, none of that was in their mental script of the situation. Aliens lay among his dead compatriots, only one rises with his mask shot away. Boy, is THAT ONE pissed. If you know Hollywood, you know he'll figure prominently in the conclusion.
So I was surprised to see nobody liked the movie. I'll admit that once I found it again the better audio proved the opening narration made no sense as claimed, indeed I'd been filling in the gaps far better than the band of brothers who wrote, directed, etc. had done originally. And while I could suspend disbelief on that first Mussel Slough like escape, the continued improbable escapes came to ask a bit much. But I still don't agree that the film was as bad as they were saying. Especially the guy who insisted the character didn't react like a real sniper, without any documentation he knows how a real sniper reacts.
Indeed, if you can't believe this highly trained specialist in the movie can pull off that opening shootout, how do you explain that Crow, with no documented military experience and no reason to be combat ready, was able to take on such a large group of outlaws that included exconfederate soldiers, suspected KKK and Knights of Labor activists, etc.? In general highly experienced killers, some cold blooded at that, were trying to shoot him like the proverbial fish in a barrel. And yet as Millis Hartt has dying on the way to the ground, the attackers were themselves being shot off their horses. Five would die under 'Tragedy Oak,' where they were carried. A sixth would die of pneumonia later, attributed to gunshot wounds. Varying numbers of others are accounted as wounded in the many versions of the shooting. Yet somehow, Walter Crow slipped right though the shooting gallery that left seven mortally wounded.
Some of the attackers recount moments where a gun was swung to fire at Crow, then a man on the opposite side would fall from his horse. How many may have been shot by their own side was apparently never properly attributed. There are accounts that a man named Harris, who had a known emnity for Hartt, shot him and was then shot by Crow. The only acknowledged murderer is then in fact dead. But do the creators of this account really know what they're talking about? Supposedly "Uninvolved Witnesses" out there in the middle of nowhere lay all blame for the shooting starting on Crow, even though Poole, Clark, even the surviving baddies say there was a shot fired by one of the baddies as the Marshall stumbled, apparently instigating Crow and Hartt lunging for weapons. That Hartt is shot in the back before he reaches a weapon hardly backs up any exoneration of the Settlers League. The "Uninvolved Witnesses" are undoubtedly fabrications of those who wish to deceive others with a tale of the victimization of poor farmers. I wonder how much it irritated the haters who want to blame all misfortune on big business when no less than Ambrose Bierce suddenly gave the hero treatment to the man they most wanted to vilify.
Indeed, what a miracle that Walter Crow had survived to run past the outlaws. His one great mistake was that he'd run the wrong way. Had he run to the same tree the Marshall was hiding behind, the outlaws would have been hard pressed against chasing him down. Killing a Marshall would bring other Marshalls, maybe even the U.S. Army. The outlaws would be on the run. But this was no Marshall Matt Dillon, there to protect the victim. Poole merely shouted at Crow to keep running. With relatives about a mile and a half away, Crow ran over the hill and into history, mounted villains in hot pursuit. He could only turn and point his gun so many times before the outlaws would realize there was no need to dodge, he was obviously out of bullets.
Oh, I wish Stephen Ambrose had gotten around to an account of the railroad land issues in general and Mussel Slough in particular. Such an authority would be able to silence those who treat the 17 outlaws arrested as victims, the convicted as heroes, those who would resort to a reign of terror for financial gain as righteous. I always wish for a way to stop the romanticizing of the bad guys and the vilifying the victim who won't go as a lamb to the slaughter. I wonder what influence it had on the grumpy Bierce that Crow would run so far trying to reach safety, that he would come within sight of his family, that they would watch from a short distance away as the thugs caught him and shot him in the back, the death toll reaching eight. Could this be where he found the ending for his 'Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge?'
So 'One Shot' proved a disappointment once I watched the full, better copy. It's hard to put aside the near dead woman, shot by her own people and left alone, suddenly springing to life and battling the steroidal sniper to a standstill while he's flicking the bullet from her wound with this huge 'Crocodile Dundee' knife. Or that given a few hours to sleep it off she becomes cheerful and can run around and fight like a wildcat. But I still liked the moments such as when she expresses her contempt for his ability to kill so efficiently and he responds that as a piece inside dies every time he kills he's learned to grow something in its' place. Putting a little distance between this character and Chris Kyle.
Certainly there's a lack of creativity when the aliens on this desert planet seem so Bedouin like. But it's a nice touch when our hero is rescued by the only other known surviving compatriot, only to then have to choose between this man whose obviously lost his mind and the innocent victim who happens to come from the enemy population. When the much demonized angry alien, the very face of what our hero is fighting, comes across the evidence of the choice our hero made, he's surprisingly capable of thinking clearly of what he sees. That he's immediately faced with the same choice tells me this bit of fiction is the work of someone who was really searching for something a little better than what he was able to write. If anything, I think the reviewers I was reading were disappointed it wasn't worse, so they had to work overtime to be convincing.
And I think some of these people might be greatly aided in there work if they'd learn some history, some REAL, TRUE history. Such as just over a decade after the Mussel Slough shootout the financial instability of the railroads further doomed the U.S. economy as the Sherman Silver Purchase Act plunged the vulnerable finances into recession when some Argentinian agricultural investments went bad. So much squawking that the railroads were "Overbuilt," but it was only the accessibility of the land that made it possible to build communities there, how could you say a railroad that made your city possible was "Overbuilt?" Had the Central/Southern Pacific been cowed by the actions of the terrorists, they would have been similarly faced with bankruptcy and there'd probably be no Stanford University, as well as no public works bearing the name Huntington. Although the Settlers League would have counted themselves as pretty darn clever. I wish some of these writers would start writing stories that reflect what really happens, rather than some mythical distortion that they'd like to believe. Then a lot of these weak little stories might live up to the phrase "The human experience."
The Central Pacific continued to fight outlaw gangs in and out of the courtroom. The ultimate test was a court case, Santa Clara Count v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co. Corrupt politicians (Indeed backed by the Settlers League and others) passed illegal tax laws in the State of California intended to loot the Railroad. Much in keeping with the efforts of some to charge 100% property tax on landowners. Federal law was upheld, the case became a model of protecting the rights of corporations. Oak trees can last several hundred years, Tragedy Oak lasted into the 1990's as a landmark to the shootout before a storm uprooted it. The Central Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads later merged with the Santa Fe, Northwestern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, finally settling on the name Union Pacific railroad.
Meanwhile, did you know that the Settlers League survivors, including those who received ridiculously short prison terms, founded California's first Communist Political Party? I can't say I know that for a fact, but that's the claim of many of the socialists telling those wildly dishonest versions of the oppression of the working man by the capitalist pigs at Mussel Slough. Perhaps trying to explain their unquestioning support for the evil ones in the story. And many people buy that, also unquestioningly. In this case, history seems to be written by the losers. And if they succeed, we all lose because of it.