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NWC News Desk

Local historian Jeremy Johnston talks about history writing in Thursday, Jan. 29, program

Posted January 16, 2009

P O W E L L,  W y o. - If you're looking for a story that's dramatic and heroic, local historian Jeremy Johnston recommends against asking a historian to tell it. Johnston will talk about the differences between a few local heroic stories and the actual history they're based on at a 7:30 p.m. program Thursday, Jan. 29, in Room 70 of the Fagerberg Building at Northwest College.

Johnston's presentation kicks off the spring semester of the 2008-09 NWC Writers Series.

Considering the research and writing of history as both his vocation and avocation, Johnston said the ultimate goal in writing history is to be accurate. This is a limitation he says makes him jealous sometimes of other kinds of writers.

"History isn't clear cut," Johnston said, "it's never a simple case of good guy versus bad guy. The black-and-white scenario that storytellers can create with their characters makes for a more theatrical story, but history is never that simple. History offers us a more complex and interesting story."

Johnston was a student in a Northwest College history class when he first learned how deflating the difference can be. "Davy Crockett had always been a big hero to me," Johnston said. "I grew up on the image of Fess Parker swinging "Old Betsy," his trusted rifle.  I was in Roy Jordan's history class when I first learned the different historical suppositions of Crockett's demise at the Alamo. It was hard to take."

Johnston will draw from some of his published works to illustrate several local histories that have evolved into great stories with little or questionable factual basis.

With "The Great Equestrian Statue Race: Theodore Roosevelt and the Efforts to Memorialize Buffalo Bill," he'll pull the reins on a popular local legend about a posse that was rounded up in 1917 to steal Buffalo Bill Cody's remains from their Denver, Colo., resting place. Published in 2007 in "Points West," the article involved some detective thinking on Johnston's part. A photo used to exhibit the hostilities between the Cody and Denver communities vying for Bill Cody's remains shows a military tank present at what was allegedly Buffalo Bill's interment in 1917. Because the tanks wouldn't have been employed by the National Guard for domestic use until after World War I, Johnston suspects the funeral depicted in the photo was really that of Mrs. Cody who died in the early 1920s.  Surprisingly between the time of Buffalo Bill's and his wife's death, both Cody and Denver actually worked together to raise funds to erect monuments for each of their communities.

"We Want Them Dead Rather Than Alive: Buffalo Bill's Fight Against Wyoming Outlaws," another article by Johnston published in "Points West," looks at some of the stories that sprang from the 1904 bank robbery in Cody.

After the robbery, Bill Cody happened to be traveling to this area for a hunting expedition when members of the Eastern press stopped him to find out his intended role in tracking down the bank robbers and bringing them to justice. According to the press, Cody would not rest until he had captured the robbers, which were by this time rumored to be part of the Wild Bunch (also known as the Hole in the Wall Gang) or maybe even Kid Curry himself.

"I felt sorry for Cody," Johnston said. "Here's this heroic figure who's put on the spot by the media. What's he going to tell them, that he's not going to try to catch the bad guys?" Cody went hunting, but only for four-legged prey. The heroic stance expressed in the newspaper stories, however, became part of the Buffalo Bill legend.  It's also doubtful that the Hole in the Wall gang or any of its former members participated in the bank robbery.

In addition, Johnston will look at the lore surrounding Teddy Roosevelt's experiences (or lack of them) in this region, including a famous hunting trip and near fatal bear attack that never happened.

"Americans are great at examining and debating every aspect of issues happening today," Johnston said, "but we don't do that with the past." He intends to show how this practice robs us of the larger value of our country's history.

An assistant professor of history, Johnston has taught at Northwest since 1994. His writing has been published in Annals of Wyoming, Yellowstone Science, Colorado Heritage, Readings in Wyoming History, Buffalo Bones and more. He's presented his research several times at the Biennial Scientific Conference on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and has given public presentations on topics as varied as the Hispanic and African-American experience in Wyoming, to homesteading on the Shoshone Reclamation Project, to the relationship of Bill Cody and Theodore Roosevelt.

Johnston has received both the Coke Wood Award and the Philip A. Danielson Award from Westerners International, as well as the Clyde A. Dunnaway Prize, William R. Steckel History Award and in 1991, he was the Wyoming Almanac Public History Award runner-up. Johnston holds bachelor's and master's degrees in history from the University of Wyoming.

Admission to his presentation in Powell in free.