In the early 20th century, Frederick Jackson Turner argued that interactions on the frontier formed American characteristics of rugged individualism, democracy, aggression and innovation. The “New” Western historians of the late 1970s attempted to debunk this theory, revealing the racial and ethnic diversity of the West, reminding us of the role of the environment and documenting how settlers and later corporations conquered land wrested away from Native Americans.
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While “New” Western historians shot holes in Turner’s thesis, the myths of the Old West prevailed. People craved the identity these myths offered in Western themed novels, films and tourism more than they craved historical facts. The new book, Showdown in the Big Quiet, demonstrates how the “Old West” speaks to the “New” and proves how the power of western mythology moved from background to central character, as is abundantly clear in the Claude Dallas affair detailed below .
Growing up, Claude Dallas loved to read and imagine the stories of the West. He soaked in the characters of Louis L’Amour’s books, ventured West with E.H. Staffelbach in Toward Oregon, and met with Indians in The Horsemen of the Plains by Joseph Altsheler, and Merritt Allen’s The White Feather. He could not get enough. With time he added Zane Grey and Jack London novels and repeatedly checked out every book on the West he came across, including two western classics — Owen Wister’s The Virginian and Andy Adam’s The Log of a Cowboy. Someday he hoped to live as these characters did in the West. Much of this history comes from the State of Idaho v. Claude Lafayette Dallas, Jr., 14935, Volume XIV, 2707, an Idaho Supreme Court transcript of the trial.
While the rest of his classmates worried about being sent to Vietnam, Claude fulfilled his lifelong dream and traveled west. He hitchhiked most of the way to California where he eventually found work as a cowboy on the Alvord ranch. “He had been searching for the Alvord all his life,” wrote author Jeff Long. Although Claude had no experience working on a ranch, he toiled relentlessly to prove himself and learn the lifestyle. When machinery broke down and others stopped working, Claude plowed ahead and labored by hand. Through sheer determination he completed in two days a week’s assigned work: He willingly took on the least desirable jobs. Hoyt Wilson, the owner of the Alvord testified, “Every morning before daylight he’d be packing seventy and eighty pounds of steel posts and barbwire on foot to a section five miles and a thousand vertical feet up the mountainside, then descending at dark. We knew a good thing when we saw it.” Excerpted from Chapter 6 of Showdown in the Big Quiet. Hoyt’s wife Coco Wilson concurred. “He’s the hardest worker I’d ever known.” She described Dallas as well mannered, level headed, intelligent and a pleasure to talk with. After two years she treated him practically like a son.
Showdown in the Big Quiet: Land, Myth, and Government in the American West
Texas Tech University Press (April 2015)
Winner of the Idaho Author Award
The public is invited to attend a reading and signing with Bieter at 5:30 pm, Thursday, November 12 at the Basque Museum & Cultural Center. This event is free and open to the public.
Those that worked alongside of him noticed something different; they felt like he played a part, worked hard to be someone else. Earlier, Dallas had traveled to town and purchased an outfit “that looked like a lift from a Frederic Remington portrait.”
“He’s playing cowboy,” one ranch hand commented, “and he plays it hard.” He used outdated cowboy vernacular and with money from his first paychecks bought a centennial Winchester Model 94 rifle, commonly known as “the gun that won the West.” He continuously packed the rifle with him, even when he performed simple chores. Once he hitchhiked three hundred miles to Reno to have a silversmith construct a silver-mounted spade bit, which had not been used since the turn of the century. Before long fellow workers also noticed that he wore a pistol strapped to his hip in the old western style. One local commented that Dallas “was the only man in decades who wore a gun just to pick up his mail.”
While Dallas played the western role, the United States government wanted him to play another – to be a soldier. When Dallas failed to report for induction to the military on September 17, 1970, the government issued a warrant for his arrest. His boss Hoyt Wilson later argued that Dallas simply lived the way he wanted and failed to feel any responsibility towards the government. “He was doing what he was doing. If they caught him, they caught him,” Wilson stated. After nearly two years of working for the Wilsons, Dallas finally confided to them about his draft situation and informed them of his plans to go to Canada. He purchased two horses from the family and loaded one with supplies. For two months he traveled the country and lived off what he carried and caught. It was during this time that Dallas first familiarized himself with the Idaho – Oregon – Nevada (ION) region, traveling the open high country desert as far as Paradise Valley in northeastern Nevada.
Eventually the draft board tracked him down and on October 15, 1973, three police officers dressed as cowboys arrested him. Dallas argued that the officers treated him poorly and failed to allow him time to care for his animals. Nevertheless, the government transported Dallas back to Ohio and released him to his parents’ custody. In preparation for the trial, Dallas’s attorney discovered a loophole in the draft boards’ notification and successfully had the case excused. Although he never was incarcerated, his supporters believed that this experience critically impacted Dallas and furthered his contemptuous attitude towards governmental authority.
After the trial, Dallas returned to the Alvord ranch, but he informed the Wilson’s that he wanted to work for a larger outfit that still “fed their hands out of chuck wagons.” He said, “I like sleeping on the ground. I like riding horses that’re so wild that you don’t dare get off even to take a leak ‘cause you might have to walk home.” Dallas assured them, “That’s the life for me,” and he successfully landed a job that met these criteria. With his army surplus overcoat, hand-made tapaderas that covered his Levi pants, and a set of silver spurs that decorated the backs of his boots, Dallas looked like he walked off a movie set.
The first year he apprenticed and learned how to shoe a horse, braid rawhide, reload cartridges, and make his riding gear. In the evenings Dallas devoured Louis L’Amour novels, often reading those three and four times. While others played cards or drank beer, Dallas oiled, polished, and repaired his gear. At a time when many cowboys wore Levi’s and tractor-sponsored baseball caps, Dallas looked like something “from the Buffalo Bill show catalogue.” Sometimes when he rode near the interstate, motorists stopped and took pictures of him — an opportunity for them to capture the “authentic cowboy.” Sipping beer with other buckaroos, he even posed for a picture that appeared in a National Geographic study: “The American Cowboy in Life and Legend.” When others went to town for their days off, he traveled to Montana to see the Charles Russell western art museum – “a seminarian going to Lourdes.” In typical fashion his favorite painting remained “A Bronc to Breakfast” in which a stubborn mount bucks up in front of an early-morning crew similar to the outfit he worked for.
However, the West that Dallas sought was not the West he found. Increasingly, the federal government regulated land use and ranch work practices modernized. For example, the Bureau of Land Management progressively tightened ranging laws, while ranchers frequently transported cattle by truck rather than employing traditional cattle drives. These changes unsettled Dallas and left him with little alternative but to go to town for work. By the summer of 1970, he ended up in a small, desolate, sagebrush-filled town in northeastern Nevada, just over the border of Owyhee County, by the name of “Paradise Valley”. Situated eighteen miles south of Paradise Hill, the town had changed little since its founding in 1863. However, rather than having the fake facades of movie sets, these few buildings that supported the population of eighty residents continued in use from the original days. An old rusted gas pump sat in front of the mercantile — it had pumped gas for Model T’s. The local slogan read, “It ain’t heaven, but its [sic] paradise.” Others disagreed. Washington Irving once declared this barren, treeless, high country desert “the ruins of the world.” Another author added, “Everything here seems to declare that, here man shall not dwell.” The Idaho Statesman, August 6, 1981; Give a Boy a Gun, 18, 27.
Within this context, Claude Dallas again established himself. He lived in a small trailer, worked at a variety of jobs, and continued to toy with guns, practicing his shooting “the way others hit a bucket of golf balls.” He became an excellent marksman, able to “throw a can out, turn his back to it, then turn around and keep it rolling.” Dallas began to shoot with speed loaders, guns with the capacity to fire rounds very quickly. Townspeople overheard him say, “People with the right equipment will be able to go into the mountains and protect themselves.”
Sources on Dallas
- Jack Olsen, Give a Boy a Gun: A True Story of Law and Disorder in the American West (New York: Delacorte Press, 1985)
- Bart McDowell, The American Cowboys in Life and Legend. (National Geographic Society, 1972)
- Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization 1800-1890. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998)
Before long Dallas and local bartender and California transplant George Nielsen shared poaching stories and traded hides. Since moving to the area, Dallas regularly set traps. Mostly he killed bobcats and sold them at fur auctions for two hundred dollars apiece. Initially he purchased a license to trap in Nevada and generally operated there until he gradually migrated into Idaho to take advantage of opportunities. Governmental trapper, Santy Mendieta, approved of Dallas’s hunting practices. “We trap the same areas, and he never bothers any of my traps and never picks up any of my coyotes. If he’s not an honest man he has plenty of chances to clean me out.” However, the Fish and Game Department headquarters in Boise heard contrary rumors. Reportedly, Dallas shot a mountain lion near Riddle, Idaho on the road to the Duck Valley Indian Reservation. One lead officer warned, “that guy Dallas has killed everything from lions to trophy rams to kit fox. Tell your men to be very careful.” Meanwhile from the bar, Nielsen bragged about owning mountain lion pelts. Dallas trapped five of them and sent two east to his father while Fish and Game tried to locate and confiscate the others.
Dallas transformed from a cowboy to a mountain man. He trained to walk for hours without tiring, appeared impervious to the heat and cold, and treated public lands and wildlife like personal property. He made comments to his friends about hiding and surviving on his own in the mountains. He declared that a solitary mountain life, “[would] be perfect, no government, nobody to bother me, nobody snooping around my camps.” He pointed out locations, “that would be a good place to hide. You could hide in there for a long time.” Or he imagined pursuits, “It’d be fun to be on the run, going from one cache of weapons to the next and fighting it out.” One friend acknowledged, “He gave the impression that his caches were already prepared.” In the fall of 1980 Dallas confided that if an enemy ever occupied the United States, he planned to hide in the nearby mountains. Just in case, he stockpiled five thousand rounds of ammunition and survival tools.
In the meantime, Dallas continued to poach, practice his shooting, and devour books on handguns. Two of his favorites included tips on how to draw quicker in No Second Place Winner and the book Kill or Get Killed with the tenet, “Be first or be dead — there is no second place in a gun fight.” In town Dallas presented a friend with five new deerskins and asked her to tan them and fashion a buckskin outfit. He even bragged to his friends about reaching the pinnacle of poaching – the grand slam, which required record-class heads from four different kinds of sheep. While complaints from the ION region continued, Dallas failed to stop. In fact, he pledged never to be caught again.
In spring 1980, Dallas canoed along the South Fork of the Owyhee River and identified it as an ideal location to trap. The next winter he returned and bivouacked at Bull Basin in Owyhee County. Dallas believed the area to be “maybe the most remote place in the United States, as far away as you can get.” He professed to love the seclusion. To prepare himself for the hard ground, he slept on the floor. In December 1980, three friends — George Nielsen, Craig Carver, and Jim Stevens — assisted Dallas in setting up his camp. Jim Stevens commented to Dallas that he enjoyed the outing and pledged to return for another visit.
No doubt Bull Basin remained isolated, but it also served as a portion of a federal grazing allotment for Don and Eddy Carlin, who recently had purchased the rights from the Bureau of Land Management. Their ranch, the 45, ran 220 head of cattle on nearly 200 square miles of public range. Out of this land the Owyhee River had worn away a mile long canyon and the Carlins relied on it to provide sheltered winter range and reliable year-round water. To buffer against difficult times, the Carlins also set a few bobcat traps in the basin, which proved profitable with pelt prices surpassing $250 [$642, in 2015 dollars]. Recently, the Carlins noticed other trappers had worked the area and identified a number of illegal traps. Since Don Carlin had been cited previously for setting unlawful traps, he wanted to ensure his innocence. Consequently, the Carlins called Bill Pogue, a Fish and Game warden, to appraise the situation.
Bill Pogue loved this land. Although he had been transferred to another county, he anxiously responded to the call and drove all night to the Carlin’s. Those that knew Pogue testified that this was typical. The fifty-year-old senior conservation officer passionately protected the Owyhee country from any illegal activity. His friends and coworkers described him as the “last of the real game wardens.” In the past, he rejected desk promotions in order to continue the job he loved. Like Claude Dallas he too read about the West; Vardis Fisher’s elegiac Mountain Man, which became the basis for the famous movie Jeremiah Johnson, remained one of his favorites. “My brother was born a hundred years too late,” his brother Eddie said.
He also loved western art in the Charles Russell style and painted and sold numerous western scenes. Many believed that his art reflected his personality; Pogue drew rough, hardened, western scenes but always with an element that softened the picture. One of his favorites graced the cover of Idaho Wildlife magazine, the official publication of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. It depicted a mountain man standing with a clenched fist around a barbed wire post. The character looked weathered and hardened but a teardrop in his eye revealed another side to the man. Since Pogue had sight in only one eye and used dots and lines to ink the paintings, the process took a considerable amount of time.
Similar to Dallas in so many ways, Pogue nevertheless reached many contrary conclusions. Rather than exploiting the land or wild game, Pogue preached protection. He identified poachers as prime examples of those who abused the environment and thought nothing about the future or sustainability, but rather killed for short-term gain. However, Pogue was not naïve. He fully recognized the $100 million [$257 million in 2015] netted annually from poaching and illicit trade in wildlife parts and wanted to do his part to stop it. Pogue rigorously enforced the law and worked tirelessly to protect these lands and animals.
When Pogue received the call from the Carlins he gathered his gear and went out the door. He nearly forgot his gun since on principle he had stopped hunting, but as a game warden he remained aware of the extremist “Wild West mentality” of many hunters and the large amount of drinking that often went on in their camps. Aware of these dangers, regulations required that wardens carry a gun and never travel solo. Pogue had lobbied for these stipulations. So he put in a late night call to a colleague named Conley Elms who agreed to accompany him and together they drove to the Carlins’.
Like Pogue, Elms loved the outdoors and from birth lived on an old fashioned ranch without indoor plumbing in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Growing up, he spent most of his time outdoors — working, fishing, and hiking in the area. After getting married he took a job in a lumber mill so his wife Sheryl could earn her teaching certificate. When she completed her degree and he earned his in wildlife management, the two decided to move to Boise. Above all else Conley wanted to work for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and after three years of working part time and taking other odd jobs he reached his goal. He loved his work. Although not scheduled to be on duty, when other officers failed to respond to Pogue’s call, Conley left with him despite his wife’s desire for him to stay.
Five hours and 175 miles later, Elms and Pogue arrived outside the Carlins’s ranch house at 3 a.m., slept a few hours in bedrolls in the back of their truck, and awoke at dawn to meet with them. The rancher informed them of his conversation with Claude Dallas and their agreement about trapping territory, despite Carlin’s initial reservations of the competition for pelts that Dallas’s presence posed. However, other things concerned Carlin about his conversation with Dallas. At one point Carlin claimed, Dallas turned towards a bobcat pelt and said, “That cat thinks it’s January 9,” the opening of the 1981 bobcat hunting season. “When the cat’s prime, you take him,” Dallas said. Dallas also informed Carlin that he rejected man-made laws and vowed to take matters personally if problems presented themselves. Dallas notified Carlin of his intent to trap this one final year, and by the next he would be in Canada. Carlin felt uneasy with Dallas, similar to when they first met two years earlier. He warned Dallas that “the Fish and Game came every year to check us out,” to which Dallas responded, “he would be ready.” Carlin again warned Pogue, who replied, “All right, we’ll keep each other covered.” The wardens left to investigate.
About fifty yards from the river, Claude Dallas had set up his camp. He stationed his white 10×12-foot wall tent and settled in with the other items that he and his friends hauled down from the canyon rim. One of them, Jim Stevens, made his way down the five-hour, bumpy dirt road drive from Paradise Valley. He looked forward to visiting with Dallas again. Early on the morning of January 5, Stevens first stopped at George Nielsen’s, picked up groceries and mail for Dallas, and continued on to the camp. Nielsen signaled as he and Dallas had agreed – two shots, wait ten minutes, and fire twice more. Stevens fired his shots and then ate a sandwich and drank coffee while he waited. He fired twice more but after a half-hour decided to hike down. Half way down he ran into Dallas who wanted to know if Stevens brought fruit. Stevens responded that not only did he have fruit, but baked goods and homemade pistachio pudding as well. “We’re going to have a real good time,” he told Dallas. Stevens continued down the trail and unloaded the supplies into Dallas’s tent. Then as he waited for Dallas to return with the rest of the groceries, Stevens meandered down the river with the metal detector he brought searching for Indian artifacts and arrowheads. As he returned to the camp he heard voices and noticed Dallas speaking with Elms and Pogue. At six feet, 280 pounds, Conley Elms made quite a presence. Pogue introduced himself and asked Stevens for his firearm. Pogue returned the gun and put the unspent shells in Stevens’s shirt pocket.
Jim Stevens sensed the anxiety in the air and attempted to converse with the wardens. Dallas seemed familiar with one of them and said to Jim, “Mr. Pogue here, he was chief of police in Winnemucca a few years back.” Stevens had been an officer there as well, but their times had not overlapped. Then the tone of the conversation shifted as Pogue sternly challenged Dallas regarding the reported trapping violations. Pogue also noticed a bobcat pelt in the tent and the deer quarters hanging from the tent poles — both violations of their hunting season. “I have some meat hung up. I have to eat,” Dallas admitted to the officers and reminded them of the distance from town. “Not anyone else I know that lives like I do or under the conditions I do.” Pogue countered that the law did not differentiate. “It’s unreasonable to give me a citation living this remote and under these conditions,” Dallas reportedly answered.
The questioning continued; Pogue interrogated Dallas while Stevens and Elms sat by silently and watched. After awhile Claude opened his wallet and produced his Idaho trapping license. Pogue argued that since he had Idaho papers, he certainly must have known that the bobcat season did not open until January 9. Pogue stated his intent to search the tent. Dallas asked for his search warrant. “That tent is my home. If you can’t produce a search warrant you can’t enter my tent,” Dallas declared. “You can go easy or you can go hard, Dallas. It doesn’t make any difference to me,” Pogue allegedly responded.
Then Pogue motioned to Elms to check the tent and heard him respond from inside “There’s a raccoon hide in here also.” Elms emerged with a fur stretcher in each hand and laid the pelts on the ground.
“We’re going to confiscate those cats, Dallas,” Pogue said.
Dallas stated, “I guess you know I’m gonna tell the judge I got those hides in Nevada.”
“You’re still being cited for possession of illegal cats,” Pogue answered. The confrontation continued with Dallas facing the tent, and Pogue off to one side. In the midst of the conversation Jim Stevens turned his back and looked towards the river. He felt awkward being there and withdrew, although he remained within earshot. He heard Dallas ask, “Are you going to take me in?” Then Stevens heard a shot and Pogue gasp “Oh, no!” He wheeled around just in time to see Dallas fire a second round at Pogue and saw smoke puff out of his chest. Dallas pivoted towards Elms and emptied two more rounds into the warden. He continued to shoot, the noise deafening and the action stunningly quick. Pogue fell face first, while Elms lay on his back, twitching. Dallas entered the tent and returned with a .22 rifle. He placed the gun to the back of each of the warden’s head and shot — what trappers call “finishing shots.”
Instinctively, Stevens retreated about eight to ten feet. He was stunned. His ears rang and he shook his head and asked himself, what happened? What just happened? He looked at Dallas and asked, “Why, Claude, why?” Dallas contested, “I swore I’d never be arrested again. They were gonna handcuff me.” Then he apologized, “I’m sorry I got you involved in this. I’ve gotta get rid of these bodies and you’ve gotta help me.”
This tragic ending actually marks merely the beginning of a chapter that reads like a western novel, but sadly is true. Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization 1800-1890. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998). Historian Richard Slotkin, when describing the importance of myths argued that, “myths are stories, drawn from history, that have acquired through usage over many generations a symbolizing function that is central to the cultural functioning of a society that produced them.” Claude Dallas, and many others, understood these myths in contrasting ways. As society marched forward into the twenty-first century, Dallas increasingly sought the traditions and values of earlier times in the West.
Although often historically inaccurate, Turner’s frontier, when mythologized, became “true” — like a B-Western brought to life. Despite the New Western historian’s attempt to shoot holes in Turner’s thesis, the stories and myths simply resonated too deeply with the American and international sense of identity. As settlers entered the Owyhees, in southwestern Idaho, the socio-political elite used whatever they could to exploit resources. Besides the implements of modern capitalism, they also employed control of the government and the western image to consolidate and maintain their position.
These battles involved intense confrontation that at times turned violent. Behind each episode the land served as the interactive backdrop. Owyhee County in southwestern Idaho rarely has been written about. Turner argued that in 1880 the frontier closed, but not in Owyhee County. It is the most remote and wide open space in the lower 48 states and still meets the 1880 U.S. Census Bureau’s frontier definition of less than two people per square mile. This dramatic landscape plays a crucial and connecting role throughout these stories and it’s there that this book begins.
Read more of Showdown in the Big Quiet.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.