Excerpt from The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Worst Hard Time

The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2005, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2006, 352 pages

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A few miles to the southeast, archaeologists were just starting to sort through a lost village, a place where natives, seven hundred years earlier, built a small urban complex near the Canadian River, the only reliable running water in the region. People had lived there for nearly two centuries and left only a few cryptic clues as to how they survived. When Francisco Vásquez de Coronado marched through the High Plains in 1541, trailing cattle, soldiers, and priests in pursuit of precious metals, he found only a handful of villages along the Arkansas River, the homes made of intertwined grass, and certainly no cities of gold as he was expecting. His entrada was a bust. Indians on foot passed through, following bison. Some of Bam White's distant forefathers — the Querechos, ancestors of the Apache — may have been among them. The Spanish brought horses, which had the same effect on the Plains Indian economy as railroads did on Anglo villages in the Midwest. The tribes grew bigger and more powerful, and were able to travel vast distances to hunt and trade. For most of the 1700s, the Apache dominated the Panhandle. Then came the Comanche, the Lords of the Plains. They migrated out of eastern Wyoming, Shoshone people who had lived in the upper Platte River drainage. With horses, the Comanche moved south, hunting and raiding over a huge swath of the southern plains, parts of present-day Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. At their peak in the mid-1700s, they numbered about twenty thousand. To the few whites who saw them in the days before homesteading, the Comanche looked like they sprang fully formed from the prairie grass.

"They are the most extraordinary horsemen that I have seen yet in all my travels," said the artist George Catlin, who accompanied the cavalry on a reconnaissance mission to the southern plains in 1834.

The Comanche were polygamous, which pleased many a fur trader adopted into the tribe. Naked, a Comanche woman was a mural unto herself, with a range of narrative tattoos all over her body. From afar, the Indians communicated with hand signals, part of a sign language developed to get around the wind's theft of their shouts. The Comanche bred horses and mules — the most reliable currency of the 1800s — and traded them with California-bound gold-seekers and Santa Fe–bound merchants. In between, they fought Texans. The Comanche hated Texans more than any other group of people.

Starting around 1840, the Texas Rangers were organized by the Republic of Texas to go after the Indians. A mounted Comanche was the most effective warrior of the plains. The Comanche were difficult targets but even better on offense. Years of hunting bison from horses at full speed gave them skills that made for an initial advantage over the Rangers. Once engaged in battle, they charged with a great, rhythmic whoop — like a football cheer. After a raid and some rest, they would charge again, this time wearing their stolen booty, even women's dresses and bonnets. They were proud after killing Texans.

"They made sorrow come into our camps, and we went out like buffalo bulls when the cows are attacked," said Comanche leader Ten Bears in 1867. "When we found them we killed them, and their scalps hang in our lodges. The white women cried, and our women laughed. The Comanches are not weak and blind like the pups of a dog when seven sleeps old."

The Comanche buried their dead soldiers on a hill, if they could find one, and then killed the warriors' horses as well. Bison gave them just about everything they needed: clothes, shelter, tools, and of course a protein source that could be dried, smoked, and stewed. Some tepees required twenty bison skins, stretched and stitched together, and weighed 250 pounds, which was light enough to be portable. The animal stomachs were dried and used as food containers or water holders. Even tendons were put to good use, as bowstrings. To supplement the diet, there were wild plums, grapes, and currants growing in spring-fed creases of the .atland, and antelope, sage grouse, wild turkeys, and prairie chickens, though many Comanche thought it was unclean to eat a bird.

Copyright © 2005 by Timothy Egan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.  

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