A friend and local historian once told me that it is nearly impossible to get all our historical facts right, simply because of the passage of time and the loss of much information. But we can do our best. It's important to check to see that our sources didn't all use the same basic source.
Here are some notes I found that never found a place in the book. "Ponies feed on cottonwood bark. Indians cut the white branches into four foot pieces and throw them to the ponies. They place one forefoot on the limb in the same manner as a dog secures a bone and gnaw the bark from it."
"Buffalo grass grows on the uplands, thick rich grass grows on the plains but only around streams. Buffalo grass blades reach a growth of from three to five inches but instead of being straight it assumes a curled or waving shape. When walked on it is like walking on thick moss."
The enjoyment of research comes in the little known facts we unearth, but each one still should be verified. There are times when we can trust our source. That was true for me when I began researching for Stone Heart's Woman. Mari Sandoz, a well known and much respected historian and writer, wrote a little book called Cheyenne Autumn. Published in 1953 by the University of Nebraska Press, the book includes information she gathered by interviewing some of the Northern Cheyenne survivors. A few requested anonymity, but her notes do include original source material which she used to support the stories. This book became my main source, but I did check many unusual facts I wanted to use. I researched other facets of real characters I wanted to include, especially George Armstrong Custer, Dull Knife and Little Wolf, and Libby Custer's role.
In addition, and we can't always do this, we drove the route the Northern Cheyenne took from the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) to Ft. Robinson, stopping at Camp Supply and a few museums along the way. I find it helps in my writing to walk the land where my characters walked so long ago.
In my research I found so many tidbits of history that I didn't use in the book. Here are a few of these "little" facts that didn't make it into Stone Heart's Woman. This is the story that convinced me to write the book. I have paraphrased some of the information to shorten it:
From the Indian Territory to Dakota was 1500 miles through settled country. The army would pursue them and no doubt kill some. No sooner had they started than the telegraph wires sang one song: "The panther of the Cheyennes is at large. Not a child or a woman in Kansas or Nebraska is safe."
After six months his weary and starving people were surrounded by the army and taken to Fort Robinson in the Dakotas (now Nebraska). There the men were put in prison, and their wives guarded in camp. They were allowed to visit their men on certain days. Many of them had lost everything; there were but a few who had even one child left. They were heartbroken and broken in spirit.
The book begins at this point with the final battle when they make one last attempt at freedom.
Dull Knife's people had earlier separated from a small group led by Little Wolf who managed to avoid the imprisonment and reach their home.
When I gathered information on this flight, I found one post online that claimed Dull Knife and all his people perished in the battle at Ft. Robinson. This is not true according to reliable sources. Dull Knife and his people were finally allowed to go to the Pine Ridge Agency. Dull Knife was allowed to go home to Montana's Rosebud Valley where he was born. He died there in 1883 at the age of 73.
After the last outbreak at Fort Robinson when so many Cheyenne were killed, public sympathy turned in favor of those who survived. They were sent to live on the Pine Ridge Agency with the Lakota Sioux until 1884 when President Chester Alan Arthur granted them a reservation along Montana's Tongue River by executive order. Those killed in Nebraska remained in a mass grave, some of their skulls removed by army surgeons and sent East for study.
Almost 115 years later some of the people finally went home to rest. They were sent to Montana in 18 boxes containing their skulls, released after long negotiation by museums such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Should readers wonder where I came up with the idea that Custer fathered children with Northern Cheyenne women. The Cheyenne spoke often of a yellow haired son named Yellow Swallow and a girl child fathered by Custer. He never admitted to that, and his wife Libby, who spent her lifetime trying to save his reputation, denied them all. Custer wrote in his book that Mo-nah-se-tah – The young grass that shoots in the spring,-- was a daughter of a chief high in rank by the name of Little Rock. She never liked her husband who had purchased her for 11 ponies. She shot him in the knee, crippling him for life, then accompanied two other Indian women and went with Custer while he visited hostile tribes. She remained with the troops, imprisoned but not under guard, until the incident at Fort Hays when she returned to the Cheyenne.
Custer never mentioned in his book that she became the mother of his son Yellow Swallow, a sickly boy with golden hair, who was about nine when the breakout occurred. His existence is told in many stories by the whites and the Cheyenne, who also tell of a girl child fathered by Yellow Hair (the Cheyenne name for Custer). Mari Sandoz wrote in Cheyenne Autumn: "Then there was a light-haired boy called Yellow Swallow, the Cheyenne son of General Custer." He is referred to again in several places.
After reading this I asked myself: Could another Cheyenne woman have born him a son much earlier? To fit my timeline he would have been 18. At that time he traveled each summer to Ohio from West Point to spend time with his family.
The possibility is there, and that child became my hero Stone Heart, who is 24 years old, and totally fictional. Torn between two cultures, he chooses the Cheyenne following Custer's massacres of the Sioux and Cheyenne. He pledges to never speak a word of his white father's language.
As for the heroine, she was much easier to research. At the unmarriagable age of 30, she agrees to accompany her fiance from St. Louis into the wild, wild west where he promises to marry her. She is abandoned and left on her own in Benson, Nebraska. It's fairly easy to get her and Stone Heart together in a soddy out on the plains. A blizzard strands them there and they fall in love, but the conflicts have only begun when the soldiers searching for survivors of the battle discover them. Discovering characters and novels hiding within the truth we find in research is a most exciting experience.
Velda Brotherton writes of romance in the old west with an authenticity that makes her many historical characters ring true. A knowledge of the rich history of our country comes through in both her fiction and nonfiction books, as well as in her writing workshops and speaking engagements. She just as easily steps out of the past into contemporary settings to create novels about women with the ability to conquer life’s difficult challenges. Tough heroines, strong and gentle heroes, villains to die for, all live in the pages of her novels and books.
Visit her website: http://www.veldabrotherton.com
Check out Velda's books, including Stone Heart's Woman, here: http://www.tinyurl.com/7dr9mbn