TWO FOR ONE: How My Research Trip to Wyoming for
SO WIDE THE SKY inspired COLOR OF THE WIND.
My husband and I flew into Cody, Wyoming the first week in June. There was snow on the ground when we landed; by the end of the week it was ninety degrees. Which was probably a fitting introduction to this beautiful and rugged land.
Inspired by this photograph of Olive Oatman, (See previous blog.) I read everything I could get my hands on about Olive’s capture by Indians and her return to her own people. By the time I finished my research, I’d decided the story I wanted to tell was best served by using a fictional heroine. That meant more research. This time I focused on relations between the Plains Indians and the whites between 1851, when Olive was taken, to the Battle of Little Bighorn in June of 1876.
The time and location that seemed best suited to my story was the year 1866 at Fort Casper, Wyoming Territory. This was where a bridge crossed the Platte River connecting the road from Fort Laramie in southern Wyoming to where Fort Phil Kearney was being hastily constructed in the north to protect the Bozeman Trail, which led north to the gold country in Montana and connected with the Oregon Trail.
Since the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 had ceded much of the area north of the Platte to the Cheyenne and Sioux, that made the gold miners, the soldiers and the settlers intruders.
Our first research stop in Cody was at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center <centerof thewest.org> where I spent two days focusing on the life and art of the west.
Most of my time was spent with the artifacts from the Plains Indians. The pieces these people made and used in their daily lives—the Cheyenne war shirts and weapons, the men’s beaded pipe bags and paraphernalia, the women’s high-pommeled saddles, their deerskin dresses beautifully beaded and shivering with fringe and the brightly patterned parfleches where they stored their belongings—speak as much of their lives as their artistry. The museum complex proved to be a good introduction to the natural history of Wyoming, the cowboy life, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the artists who immortalized the natural beauty and life in the west.
We drove east from Cody to Casper to see the partial reconstruction of the 1860’s fort. It was a drive that helped us better understand the lay of the land in Wyoming. Watctching “the deer and the antelope playing” on the planes delighted us.
These are some of the photographs of the barracks and stables at Fort Casper. (Referred to in SO WIDE THE SKY as Fort Carr in the book.) Since no officers’ housing had been reconstructed at Fort Casper, I based my descriptions in the novel on other forts of the period.
This is a drawing of the area in about 1866.
We also spent a day exploring the area around the fort. That included the Red Butes area, about four miles north and west of the 1867 bridge. This was where Cassie and Drew and Drew’s daughter Meggie have their winter picnic, and where
Cassie rescues her stepdaughter when she falls through the ice. We also hiked around Caspar Mountain, which makes a cameo appearance later in the novel.
Driving south, we visited Fort Laramie. This is the headquarters building, known at an earlier period when it was the bachelor officers’ quarters, as Old Bedlam.
East of the fort, we visited a place where wheel ruts had been cut deep into the rocks. This happened when the pioneers on the Oregon Trail “locked” their wheels with chains and “skied” their wagons down the rise and into the Platt Valley.
Before we left Wyoming, I was eager to revisit the Big Horn Mountains. When my college roommate and I drove cross-country, the Big Horns were the first “real mountains” we flatlanders had ever seen. We stopped at EVERY overlook to take pictures and gape, completely awed by the mountain’s majesty. The Big Horns proved to be every bit as magnificent on my second visit.
Somewhere on our ramble through the mountains and back to Cody, we stopped in a rustic town for lunch. In the bookstore up the street, I discovered some fascinating nonfiction books about the cattle ranches that flourished along the face of the Big Horns in the 1880’s. What surprised me was that for a time English investors owned many the ranches in this part of Wyoming.
What intrigued me more was that this was where the aristocracy would exile their n’er do well younger sons when they had disgraced the family. Most of these “remittance men” reformed and went back to England to lead productive lives—but some of them stayed to prosper and build ranches of their own. What was it about this wild and beautiful place that drove them turn their backs on Europe and stay?
That was the question that inspired COLOR OF THE WIND and brought one determined spinster, three orphaned children and a remittance man together.
But then, that’s a story for another day.