December 11, 2013

The Real Thing

by Vic Reiman, Museum Technician, Montana’s Museum

Teddy Blue Abbott at 18. "I had a new white Stetson hat that I paid
ten dollars for and new pants that cost twelve dollars, and a good shirt
and fancy boots. They had colored tops, red and blue, with a half-moon
and star on them. Lord, I was proud of these clothes! They were the
kind of clothes top hands wore, and I thought I was dressed right
for the first time in my life." [We Pointed Them North]
A small, black comb. A clothes brush. A shaving cup. These mundane objects were recently cataloged in Montana's Museum, but they do little to reflect the rollicking life of their owner, E. C. Abbott. In 1883, “Teddy Blue,” as he was known, rode into Montana as a 22-year-old, driving cattle from Texas. Fifty years later, he authored a memoir, We Pointed Them North—the only book-length remembrance by an eye witness to Montana’s open-range period. In the book, Abbott describes the art of herding cattle. But he goes on to reveal what went on in the “parlor houses” of Miles City, detailing the cowboys’ longing for women and love of liquor.

We Pointed Them North significantly informs today’s understanding of 19th-century Western life. Author Larry McMurtry studied it as background for Lonesome Dove, his 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The scene of naked cowboys swimming their horses across a river is taken directly from the memoir. Abbott is also quoted extensively in the PBS series, “The West.”

To grasp the book's singular impact on our culture, one has only to compare the sanitized Westerns of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s (for example, “Bonanza”) with a more recent portrayal, like “Lonesome Dove” or “Deadwood.” The profanity and sex in the latter works clearly show the influence of authentic cowpuncher “Teddy Blue.” Abbott was born in England 153 years ago next week. He died in Gilt Edge, Montana, in 1939.

The Research Center owns a first edition of We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher, by E. C. Abbott and Helena Huntington Smith (New York, Toronto: Farrar, Rinehart, Inc.) 1939, as well as the paperback editions published by the University of Oklahoma Press (1976, 1982).