Doc Rioux At Large

Recreating legends of the Western frontier

Richard "Doc" Rioux · February 9, 1997

The Western frontier of the United States advanced during several generations of exploration, purchase and conquest when a "manifest destiny" gripped the nation and settlers went west in the pursuit of land, gold, adventure and freedom.

When we travel across America today it's rare that we think about what it took to push the borders of the United States from Appalachia across the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains and then to the Pacific over the 200 years since the Founders gained their independence from England in 1783.

Who enters Yellowstone National Park and remembers the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 when Thomas Jefferson bought land from Napoleon, that doubled the size of the country, then commissioned Lewis and Clark to go out and survey the territory? How many of us travel the freeways of Los Angeles every day thinking about President James K. Polk and the 1848 war with Mexico that resulted in the acquisition of New Mexico, Texas and California? And how is it that we acquired the states of Oregon, Washington and Alaska?

Except for historians of the West, there aren't too many people who know a lot about Western expansion and what that meant to making this country the most powerful in the world. Yet the myth of the Old West lives on as a major part of our heritage and folklore. Cowboys can still sell products in the marketplace, Hollywood still makes Westerns, and this city is committed to rebuilding Newhall with the history of the West in mind as a driving force for its theme and architecture.

I met a man recently whose commitment to keeping alive the frontier's importance inspired me to read "The Oxford History of the American West" and to reflect on how really important it is for us to revitalize Old Newhall.

Clifford Thatcher and wife Dee live in the Southern California mountains. Cliff belongs to the American Mountain Men Association, comprised of 650 men who seek to recreate the life and times of legends like Kit Carson, Jedediah Smith and Joseph Walker. The members of the association gather or "rendezvous" periodically, dressed in hand-made clothes, equipped with old guns and long rifles, carrying knives and eating food much like their heroes did in the 1820s when one had to be tough and resourceful to survive on the frontier.

Cliff and Dee's home cabin is a veritable museum of things mountain men once used to survive in the wilderness. Bowie knives, bows and arrows, hatchets, black powder, medicine bags, rifles, trading beads and leather clothes hang from the walls of a home that echoes with the sounds of times long ago when America was in its infancy and when men and names like Zebulin Pike, Sacajawea, the Hudson Bay Company, Tecumseh, Tippecanoe and the Oregon Trail dominated the news emerging from the western fringes.

When Cliff "Earpaw" Thatcher goes out into the mountains, he doesn't take a modern down sleeping bag and geodesic tent with him. He and his friends take the basic necessities: wool blankets and canvas for a lean-to, a bit of food, and rifles to hunt what they'll need to eat. They start fires with flint and steel.

If you've watched the 1972 film "Jeremiah Johnson" with Robert Redford recently, you might come away with a view of the life these modern mountain men are seeking to recreate. They are true romantics in the tradition of James Fenimore Cooper, whose books "The Pioneers" and "Last of the Mohicans" helped to create the images of a natural and pure life wedded to the rigors, dangers and demands of survival in the deep woods and along the ever-changing and relentless frontier.

If you're a school teacher and want Cliff to come and talk to your class about the frontier in American history, give him a call at (805) 242-1655. He'll come dressed in an original costume, ready to tell tales about Davy Crockett, Sam Huston, Daniel Boone, Buffalo Bill, river boats and fur trappers that are sure to thrill, inspire and mesmerize your students.

Meanwhile, visit the William S. Hart Museum and Heritage Junction in Newhall and make plans to attend the City of Santa Clarita's Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival scheduled to begin on April 4. And please get behind the revitalization of Old Town Newhall. It's significant to everyone who lives in this valley.

I've learned that people without their boots stuck in history are destined to wander as lost souls on the plains of ignorance, never able to find water holes of meaning and understanding. It's important to have wooden corrals and general stores to go to when you're tired of asphalt parking lots and cement super structures. The restoration of the Old can be often more rewarding than building the New.

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