Are You a Cowboy or a Colonel?

“’Jim,’ said he, ‘here are two gentlemen going to Deadwood, Dakota. What is it that has occurred at Deadwood lately? Haven’t the Indians scalped the whole population?”
“’No,’ said Jim, throwing himself back in his chair and lifting his eyes to the ceiling with an air of deep meditation. ‘It is in Colorado where that took place, it was not in Dakota.’”
“’Then the cow-boys have taken possession of the city, and burnt the whole of some quarter.’’”
“’No; that was in Montana.’”
“’Ah yes, you are right. It is a flood: I remember now. The river overflowed and carried away all the city. It was last month.’”
“’Ah! After all, it is some weeks since that. The post-office must be restored and reopened.’” (2)

For such a cool book that was really popular in its day, you have to do some searching to find out more about Edmond Mandat-de Grancey and his book, Cow-boys and Colonels. Originally written as a series of newspaper articles about the French baron’s travels in the Dakota Territory, it was popular enough to have been published as a book in 1887, translated into English, and made de Grancey a successful travel writer for the rest of his life (he later wrote travel stories from trips to the Eastern U.S., Ireland, and a couple of other locations too). 75 years later, it was republished by Yale University as part of their Western Americana series but has since been out of print and isn’t easy to find.

I came across this book purely by chance, one of those happy accidents that you read about in book introductions or articles about discoveries in dark and dusty libraries. Well, McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland is a little dark and dusty, and it is where this story began for me. A few years ago, I was there on the sixth or seventh floor to get some books for a paper I was writing.

books
My adventure began in a row just like this. Photo Credit: UMD Libraries

If I remember right, I was walking down a row of books looking for the right call number, and I happened to notice the faded title on a book: Cow-boys and Colonels. That was enough to get me to take the book off the shelf.

It was a rebound copy, pretty worn and unremarkable looking, but for some reason I decided to open it up and read the first few pages. Well, that was enough to get me hooked. I sat down on the floor and  ended up reading the first chapter right there in the stacks before I decided to check the book out and be on my way. I wish I had more lucky library stories like this one! I think its always worth it to wander and browse around your library, there’s always something you’ll never, ever find on the internet or in a catalog, you just have to look at the shelf.

In the busy-ness of graduate school, Cow-boys and Colonels sat on my bookshelf for two years before I picked it up again. I kept on renewing it hoping that I’d have to time to read it but never did. But before I knew it, I had graduated and had to return all my books back to the library. As I packed the book into my backpack to take back to UMD, I remembered how cool it was and that I never had a chance to read it. So, I wrote down the title and added it to my list of books to read for fun now that I wasn’t in school anymore. Half a year after that, I finally got my own copy of the book, a Christmas present from my father-in-law. He has his own farm in Missouri and I don’t think he’d mind having a ranch in the Dakotas, so I think the book title stuck out to him too. I’m finally finished reading now, three and a half years after I discovered it. Well, it was definitely worth the wait! Continue reading “Are You a Cowboy or a Colonel?”