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Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The Acid Test

 The Acid Test

C. A. Asbrey

There are a number of saying we commonly use which originate in the Old West. Their use has spread not just into common usage, but across the world, carried by the movies and books which were consumed by enthusiastic fans. Don't be surprised to hear people in Ireland 'call shotgun' or hear someone with a cut-crystal English accent 'take the bulls by the horns.' Let's look at a few of the most common ones, a I love finding out the origins of idioms and sayings. Riding shotgun is an obvious one, based on the guard who sat beside the driver, and protected him from robbers and marauders. The phrase was oft-repeated in movies. In  the 1939 movie "Stagecoach" Marshal Curly Wilcox says, "You boys take care of the office for a couple of days. I'm going to Lordsburg with Buck. I'm gonna ride shotgun." 

'Taking the bull by the horns' is about as Western as they come. Cowboys had to deal with steers, and they are powerful animals with huge horns, They could easily gore and maim a man. I don't know how the first person found out the easiest way to bring one down was to grab them by the horns, head on. From there they could be wrangled to the ground. Whoever it was, was braver than me. 

Some contend that the phrase came from bullfighting, but it clearly worked its way from a Spanish-speaking culture to Anglophones if it did. Again, this is a phrase used in many movies.

The acid test had a meaning which extended way beyond the psychedelic LSD parties thrown by Ken Kesey in the 60s. Way before then it was related to the gold rushes which swept the USA in various waves. Prospectors looking for gold could easily test their finds in the field. Aqua regia, a mixture of one part of nitric acid and three parts of hydrochloric acid, is one of the few things which can dissolve a Noble metal, and Gold is a Noble metal. Fools Gold, sulphides which resemble gold will not react in the same way. Some micas can also be mistaken for gold. Being able to drop some acid on the nuggets proved which finds were worth hauling into town, and which weren't.

If the materials forms gold-coloured crystals, it's Fool's Gold. If the gas smells like rotten eggs, it's not gold. Real gold isn't affected by these tests and won't smell. Weathered mica might shine like real gold, and will not be eliminated by this test, but weighs nine times less than the real thing. 

'Guy' is something we take for granted when uttered by an American actor. It's so embedded in American language that it's her to believe it's actually very old English. Immigrants brought the term over.  While it fossilized and fell out of use in England, it flourished in the USA. So much so that when it was used in movies, people in England though it was cool, new and novel enough to start using it again. 

It actually comes from the ploy to blow up The Houses of Parliament in the 16th century. Their leader was Guido Fawkes, known as Guy. He was caught and tortured to name others. He was sentenced to the terrible fate of of being hanged, drawn, and quartered, but weakened by torture, he died on the rope before he could be cut down while still alive. That was fortunate for him, as he was due to be cut down whilst still alive, have his entrails removed and burned in front of him. The sentence was carried out anyway as a warming to others. A tradition grew up where British people celebrated their parliament not being decimated by bonfires and fireworks on November 5th. It was traditional to burn an effigy of Fawkes on each bonfire, and it became known as 'the guy'. 'Guy' then became a way to refer to any man who looked so scruffy they were a scarecrow-like effigy.  

Evander Berry Wall - dubbed 
King of the Dudes

It descended into slang, and immigrants took it to the USA. Notably, it fell out of use in the UK, but it was maintained in the USA, evolving until it was just a casual term for a man. Movies took it back across the pond, where a new audience found it novel and cool. It eventually even became a synonym for people - male or female.

Related to guy are 'dude' and city slickers'. Dude is thought to be short for 'Yankee Doddle Dandy', and generally meant much the same as a Dandy; a well-dressed man. A man whose appearance is of the upmost importance to him. In the east it meant a man who bought his style off the peg, perhaps over-doing it to the point of vulgarity. In the west it meant an ill-bred man from the east, ostentatious, man from the city, unfamiliar with the ways of the locals.

This also gave rise to the term 'city slickers' which meant much the same thing. The two were later conflated, meaning wealthy men coming to the Old West. Dude Ranches became a place were outsiders could experience the authentic world of the cowboy for a short time. Both 'dude' and 'city slickers' came to mean tourists or visitors. The word 'dude' even became a job description in the 1880s as a general man of all works on the railroads.  'Dude' persisted into modern time. It evolved once more, until it now means a person of any gender, age or background.   


“She hasn’t got the combination to the safe,” said the manager. “You can scare her as much as you want. We all know you’re not gonna use that gun on us.”

Rebecca’s breath halted as she felt a careless arm drape around her shoulder.

“I don’t need a gun to hurt someone. Give us the combination.” The manager remained mute and turned his face away. “Your call, sir.” He pulled Rebecca around to face him as she gasped in alarm. “Just remember who you’ve got to thank for this, ma’am.”

He pointed over at the manager, who refused to meet her eyes. “That man right there.”

“Anything that happens to her is down to you. Not me,” said the manager.

Rebecca felt herself dragged from the room by one arm. She was pulled into the office next door and pushed against the wall. The man walked over and pulled down the blind before returning to her. Her breath came in ragged pants of fear. “Please, no. Don’t.”

He leaned on the wall, a hand on either side of her head, and pressed his face close. “You were gonna hold this place up. Are you some kind of idiot?”

She blinked in confusion. “Huh?”

The man pulled down his mask, revealing the face of the fair man who had walked into her office looking for Fernsby. “Don’t lie to me, honey. You had the same idea as we did— look at Meagher’s bank account to see where he gets his money. We’ve watched you march up and down outside this place all day, like you were on sentry duty, while you built up your courage. You even got in the way of us doin’ it. What the hell is goin’ on in your head? How dumb can a woman get?”

“You? Here?” She couldn’t quite decide whether to stop being scared or not.

“Yeah. Me.” He indicated with his head. “Now, Nat’s in there, and he needs the combination of the safe. It’s too new and sophisticated for him to crack the combination. You and me need to put on a bit of a show to make sure the manager gives it up.”

“You’re not robbing the bank?”

Jake huffed in irritation. “Try to keep up, Becky. I need you to scream for help so the manager gives Nat the combination to the vault. We want Meagher’s records too.”

She shook her head. “Me? I can’t scream.”

“What do you mean you can’t scream? All women can scream.”

“I can’t. I’m just not made that way.”

He frowned. “Look, Becky. If you won’t scream, I’m gonna have to make you. Let’s do this the easy way, huh?”

“Please, help! Noooo.”

Jake frowned. “You call that screamin’? That’s useless.”

“I told you. I can’t.”

Jake flicked up an eyebrow. “Last chance, Becky.”


“Nope.” A gloved hand reached up to her hat as his eyes glittered with mischief. “Don’t say you weren’t warned, sweetheart.” 




Monday, March 1, 2021

The Legend of Will James, Cowboy Extraordinaire by Elizabeth Clements


The Legend of Will James, Cowboy Extraordinaire by Elizabeth Clements

            I first learned about this amazing cowboy and gifted artist from a gentleman in our local historical society. A few years ago during our annual exhibition and stampede, Alan Jensen had a huge collection of his Will James memorabilia on display in a cabin at our pioneer village. A big fan, Alan, at the drop of a hat, could talk enthusiastically for hours about Will James. As I gazed at the newspaper articles, art work and books, I couldn’t believe I had missed reading this author’s stories. As a child, I had reread the Black Stallion series numerous times as well as any other books about horses, so how could I have not read Will’s most famous book, Smoky the Cowhorse and all the amazing illustrations in it? So, let me go back to when it all began….


Will James was born Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault to French-Canadian parents on June 6, 1892 in Saint-Nazaire-d'Acton, a tiny Canadian village near Montreal, Quebec. His father was a merchant and the family eventually moved to Montreal. Since childhood, he loved to read and was fascinated with the stories he read of the west. Spurred by his imagination, he sketched pictures of wild horses and cowboys on paper, on walls and even in the dirt. When he attended Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show that included Chief Sitting Bull, James knew he wanted to become a cowboy. In either 1907 or 1910, with a bag of biscuits and ten dollars in his pocket, the teenager caught a train west and began learning the cowboy way in the tiny settlement of Val Marie, Saskatchewan. He learned a lot from Pierre Beaupre, a local wrangler, and for a while they had two separate homesteads along the Frenchman River in the Cypress Hills of southwest Saskatchewan. (James's property later became part of the Walt Larson ranch, which has been folded into the new Grasslands National Park.)

            I can’t say for certain what prompted James to drift to Montana and eventually Nevada. There is conflicting research. One source suggests he may have shot someone in a barroom brawl and fled south to Montana while another source states he ran from the law for cattle rustling either before or after he headed for Montana. The cowboy life is a hard life with little pay. A little cattle rustling and rebranding provides quick cash. In 1914 James and a friend came across an untended herd of cattle in Nevada. He and his partner herded them to the train for shipment to the stockyards. James stayed behind, waiting for his partner to return with the money. Obviously, something went wrong because James was arrested and convicted for cattle rustling. He was sentenced and imprisoned in the penitentiary at Ely, Nevada.

Out of boredom and missing the freedom of the cowboy life, he sketched pictures of broncos on paper and when that wasn’t available, drew on the white-washed walls of his cell, stimulated by his ranching experiences. He gave some of his drawings to the prison guards. Perhaps that’s how they became published in The Ely Record with this statement: "with proper training he would soon be able to do first class work." When Will spent the rest of his imprisonment in Carson City, he became serious about working on his drawing skills. As part of his parole application, he made a sketch entitled A Turning Point, with the note: "Have had ample time for serious thought and it is my ambition to follow up on my art." Upon his release, he dreamed of a new life as an artist and the legend of William Robert James began.

            “According to cowboy and folksinger Ian Tyson, James traveled to San Francisco to sell sketches and began working as a stuntman in western movies there.”  Will James served in the U.S. army from 1918 to 1919 and after his discharge, was determined to further his artistic career. He returned to Nevada in time for the First Annual Nevada Round-Up in Reno and got a job as a horse wrangler for the round-up. He also illustrated the program cover and was paid $50. He reconnected with two pre-war friends and performed in their “broncobusting” exhibitions. During one such performance, James was thrown and seriously injured. He spent his recovery time at his friend’s ranch where he met Conradt’s fifteen-year-old sister, Alice. Impressed with his drawings, she encouraged James to pursue a career in art.

            After his recovery, James moved to San Francisco and enrolled in evening art classes at the California School of Fine Arts while earning income during the day taking theater tickets. Through a friend’s connections, James sold a couple of sketches, along with text, to Sunset magazine. The following year, James went back to Reno and married 16-year-old Alice. After a couple of moves, they settled near an artists’ colony in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, he befriended several ranchers who were instrumental in getting James enrolled in Yale University; they even supported James financially. It was not a good fit for James, who loved and missed the wide open spaces of Nevada. After his cowboy sketches were rejected by Life Magazine, the couple left New York and returned to Nevada. They lived in a cabin built by Alice’s father and there he began to seriously write for publication.

            At last success turned in James direction in late 1922 when his article on horse bucking was bought by Scribner’s Magazine for $300.  The editor, Max Perkins, liked the “authentic American vernacular” (likened to western Texas). He published James first story: Bucking Horses and Bucking Horse Riders, complete with James’ illustrations. His editor requested and bought more short stories and books, giving James the finances to finally buy a small ranch in Nevada where he continued to write. His most famous book, Smoky the Cowhorse, was published in 1926 and  the next year it won the Newbery Medal for children’s literature.

            With growing fame and fortune, there also came questions. People wanted to know more about Will James. Since coming to Montana, he had made up a new name and a life for himself that did not include his origins. He wrote to his parents not to reveal his true identity, denying his father the privilege of bragging about his famous son. Even though he irregularly sent money home, guilt ate at his conscience. Thus, sadly, his road to alcoholism probably began in earnest.

            To satisfy the curiosity of his clamoring fans, James wrote Lone Cowboy, a fictionalized autobiography, in 1930. He fabricated that his father was a Texan and his mother was from California and that they moved to Montana where he was born. He wrote that his mother died of influenza when he was a baby and three years later, his father was gored by a steer, leaving Will an orphan. Will claimed he was adopted by “Jean" Beaupré, a French-Canadian fur trapper whom he called "Bopy". No doubt he used Bopy to explain why he spoke English with an accent. (He had worked very hard at adopting an American jargon likened to cowboy slang.

Lone Cowboy became a bestselling Book-of-the-Month selection. Only twenty years after his death did the real truth about Will become revealed in a biography written by Anthony Amaral.  Yet, despite Will’s autobiographical fabrications, the popularity of his books never waned and his creative gift lives on in his books. A search on the internet will give you a list of all his books and the movies adapted from his books.

Will James is a legend in Nevada as one of their most famous cowboys. His depiction of wild broncos and their riders is often compared with Will’s hero, Charlie Russell. Will drew in black and white whereas Charlie Russell’s work was painted in oils. Ian Tyson also wrote a song about Charlie Russell titled: The Gift.  Whenever I listen to that song and see Russell’s paintings, I get a little misty. Ian Tyson The Gift - YouTube

     James enjoyed living on his 8,000 acre Pryor Creek ranch near Billings, Montana as well as his home in Billings. He was a devoted naturalist and truly wanted to preserve the old way of the west. He wouldn’t allow hunting or fishing on his ranch. When Will and Alice separated in 1935, Will sank deeper into alcoholism. Eventually, he lost his ranch. He returned to California and lived on a ranch that overlooked the Mojave River. There, shortly before his death from cirrhosis of the liver on September 3, 1942 at age 50 , James wrote his last book, The American Cowboy, with the memorable line: “The cowboy will never die.” His ashes were scattered by airplane over his beloved Montana ranch.  Will James Middle School, a public school in Billings, Montana, is named in his honor.

Spanning over two decades, James had written and illustrated 23 books, 20 of them published by Scribner Publishing House. Five books were made into feature films. There were several adaptations of Smoky the Cowhorse—the 1933 version included Will James himself, as the narrator.  This classic remains in print all these years since and is available on Amazon.

In 1988, the Canadian National Film Board sponsored a 83-minute biography, Alias Will James, to commemorate his life and legacy.  “This feature-length documentary tells the incredible story of Ernest Dufault, a.k.a. Will James, a French-Canadian man who became one of the most legendary cowboys of the American West. For over 30 years, as he went from cattle rustler to ex-convict, he managed to keep his secret. And when he took up the pen, he became a Hollywood legend.”    

I highly recommend you watch this documentary as the interviews and footage gives you so much more insight into the life and legend of Will James than I can possibly relate here in this short blog. Ian Tyson, the singer and songwriter I wrote about in my December blog, is interviewed in the documentary, which includes the musical score Ian wrote and sings in tribute to James, his hero: The Man They Called Will James. Some of the documentary was filmed on Tyson’s scenic ranch in the Alberta foothills near Calgary. Will James was his inspiration. Tyson’s father gave him many books, but the books by Will James were his favorites and hold a special place on his bookcase at his ranch.

I can’t help but think of the parallels between Will James and Ian Tyson’s lives. Just like Will, Ian was an avid reader, fascinated at a very young age with tales of cowboys and horses when he read the books Will James had written and illustrated. Ian, too, had left home at age 15 to take up the cowboy life (in Alberta), was active in the rodeo circuit and later studied art in California before switching to songwriting. Gathered around the campfire after a hard day in the saddle, James’s creative mind entertained the cowboys, spinning yarns he made up, thus earning him the nickname, Windy Bill. On the other hand, Ian Tyson had the gift of putting stories to music, just as entertaining. In their early days on the rodeo circuit, the two hard-drinking cowboys also earned the reputation of being womanizers. And they both ended up famous, owning a ranch, and living the cowboy way. No wonder Ian participated in the documentary.

Will James was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame in 1991. In 1992, on the hundredth anniversary of his birth, Will James was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1992. The Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Montana, has preserved the largest public collection of James' writings, artwork, and personal effects.   

Excerpt: Beneath A Horse Thief Moon

Someone’s behind me.

Chase Reynolds dipped his head to block the campfire with his hat brim while inching his hands toward his holsters. Better to die fighting than be shot in the back by a yellow-bellied bushwhacker.

“Touch ’em and yer dead,” snarled a guttural voice.

Chase froze. He risked a glance over his shoulder. Moonlight outlined a rifle aimed at his back. Teeth clenched, Chase raised his hands.

 “Git up.”

Chase rose slowly, turned and took satisfaction in towering over the bastard, who scooted back three steps. So much for knocking away his rifle.

But I still have my knife stashed in my boot.

A floppy hat shadowed the man’s face. Kinda puny, yet the menace in his voice was as real as the aim of his rifle. Light on his feet and good enough to sneak past his horse without Blaze snorting a warning. Could this man be a member of Billy Cranston's gang? The fact he hadn't been already killed gave Chase hope. And if I get real lucky, I might even be taken to your hideout. Alive.

First, he had to be sure. “What brand do you ride for?”


You’re an outlaw, all right. No name, no trail.

“Drop yer guns.”

Chase hated giving up his Colts. Felt naked without them. “Trust me, I won't try to shoot.”

“Do it.”

Grimly, Chase unbuckled his gun belt and slid it to the ground. You’re not gonna shoot me. Yet. So, what the hell are you up to? “Butch Cassidy's got his eye on a payroll shipment into Billings next week. He needs some extra guns to rob the train. You interested?”

The man went still. “Keep talkin’.”

Chase smiled inwardly. Good. This fool doesn’t know things got too hot for Butch and he’s headed east.

“I gotta lie low till things cool off in Montana,” he went on. “Butch says the Frank Jones gang is holed up here in the Cypress Hills. Frank's looking for a quick gun. Can you take me to him?” With a little luck, you'll lead me straight to Jones. Or better yet, Billy. Thieves tend to hang together.

“Why should I trust yuh?”

“Guess you're gonna have to trust me…like I trust you.”

The man snorted and whistled. “Fang,” he called out.

A wolf-like dog materialized from the darkness. Firelight gleamed on its shaggy gray fur and glittered in its pale eyes. The creature stopped in front of Chase and growled.

“Aptly named,” Chase muttered, his gaze riveted on the animal's sharp teeth.

The outlaw jerked his rifle at the flames. “Douse it.”

Warily, Chase bent and dumped his coffee pot. The fire sizzled, sputtered, and died. A plume of acrid smoke spiraled into the air, lighting a spark in the dry grass. The man stomped it into the ground. Interesting. Most outlaws wouldn’t give a damn.

“Call yer horse.” The outlaw picked up Chase's gun belt.

Chase smiled grimly. Somehow, I’ll get my guns back. And I’ll get you, too.

If his hunch was right, he was close to capturing Billy Cranston. Hell, the reward alone for recovering the robbery will put Big Jake back on his feet.

Chase whistled. A few moments later his big black trotted into view. The outlaw reached out and snagged the dragging reins, all the while speaking in a soothing voice too low for Chase to make out. Slowly, he extended his hand to the horse. Blaze snuffled the man's palm, then with a little nudge, allowed his nose to be rubbed.

Chase’s eyebrows shot up. You damn traitor. No rations for you.

With careful movements, the man removed Chase's rifle from its holder. He gestured with it. “Walk.”

Huh? Why not shoot me and take Blaze? “What do you want from me?”

“Shuddup. Walk.”

Sunburned grass whispered against his boots as Chase was ordered north toward the stretch of dense forest the Blackfoot called The-Thunder-Breeding-Hills. Full moonlight flooded this stretch of flat prairie sparsely dotted with pines. In the distance spanning east and west, the dense forest lurked, holding in its secrets. Any thought of making a run for it was hampered by the mongrel padding so close that the heat from his breath fanned Chase's leg. Nearby, an owl swooped from a cluster of pines and captured its prey in an explosion of squeaks.

The outlaw was nobody's fool and kept back a safe distance, holding onto the reins as Blaze plodded beside him, the well-oiled saddle creaking rhythmically. His voice suited a bigger man and he was clean, no stench of sweat on the breeze. Not your run-of-the-mill outlaw.

“Have you been with Jones long?” Chase said.


Real friendly, too.

They'd walked about fifty yards when the outlaw let out a low whistle. A horse whinnied. Chase glanced back. A dark horse emerged from a shallow gully screened by tall bushes. It trotted over and nudged the man's shoulder. Speaking softly, the outlaw patted his mount's neck, swung easily into the saddle and again pointed his rifle at Chase. “Mount. No tricks.”

Cunning bastard. Chase was glad he’d first stopped at the fort to identify himself and state he was here to recapture Billy Cranston. The major had mentioned there had been reports of ranchers missing cattle, but the hilly area was too big and the border to Montana too close for the small detachment to patrol. Chase had a strong hunch Billy was behind the rustling.









Sunday, February 28, 2021

Book review: A British Governess in America by Becky Lower



Eleanor Chastain has never left her hometown in Sussex, England. For ten years, she’s been a governess to the local earl’s young children, and now that the last of them has gone to boarding school, she finds herself unemployed. But the earl has other plans for her—a nephew of his in the fledgling country of America desperately needs a guiding hand for his five youngsters. Though Eleanor wants no part of America or the earl’s nephew, she has no choice but to accept the “offer” and set sail for the war-torn country.

Patterson Lovejoy’s wife died two years ago in childbirth, and chaos has ruled his household since that dark day. Though he’s glad to have Eleanor’s help, he begins to wonder if the peace of mind he has enjoyed since her arrival is worth the torment he is feeling as time goes by—and he finds himself falling in love with her. He can’t allow that to happen, since he feels responsible for his wife’s death. Marriage--ever again—is out of the question.

But with the deciding battles of the Revolutionary War approaching, can they take a chance on their love, after all? Will the war end their secret longing for what might be between them before they can admit their need for one another? When the battle hits their home and they are separated, Eleanor discovers an inner strength she didn’t know existed, and Patterson must make a decision he never thought he’d face.

My review:

Terrific historical story set in the time of the Revolutionary War, which gave a good history visit along with a sweet happily-ever-after.  Filled with drama/intrigue and adventure, we get a good dose of reality at that time, some adorable and challenging kids, and a gentle love story between two deserving people.

Purchase links:


Thursday, February 25, 2021

New Release —WINTER SILENCE byVella Munn

If she could, Carrie Walsh would live anywhere except Eagle Canyon, an isolated gold mining camp deep in the mountains of California. Forced into marriage by her father to a brute of a man, she has no choice but to do as her husband, George, has commanded. Two things keep Carrie from feeling despondent in this desperate situation—the rough, quiet loner known only as Nevada, who is George’s business partner, and the tiny life inside her.

Under sudden, questionable circumstances, Carrie becomes a widow. But what can she do to survive? The harsh winter has them snowed in, and she’s trapped. Though Nevada is suspected of murdering George, Carrie is still drawn to him, and he has vowed to make sure she and the child to come have a roof over their heads.

But Nevada has secrets and a past that haunts him. Can he dare to love Carrie—or hope she might love him? The truth about George could destroy Carrie—and eventually, her child. Nevada should run while he can—if he’s locked up, he’ll die. But this new feeling of wanting to belong somewhere, to be accepted, is something he can’t put aside. Is that dream worth risking his freedom and heart for in this deadly WINTER SILENCE?


  Carrie fell asleep curled in the rocker. A little after ten, she undressed, ran her fingers over the cover on the feather bed she shared with George, and tried to convince herself to get into it where smells and memories waited. Instead, she returned to the rocker and made herself as comfortable as possible. Despite the kink in her neck, she couldn't rouse herself enough to try to do anything about it. Neither could she talk herself into extinguishing the lantern and letting darkness surround her.

When she first heard the sound, she thought a strong gust had struck the door. Then, it was repeated, hard thuds that chased all sleep from her mind. She jumped to her feet, her hand going to her throat. "Who is it?" she called out, hating the fear in her voice.

"Carrie, it's me."

Nevada. She was halfway across the room before it dawned on her that George and he couldn't have walked all the way to and from Grass Valley in this amount of time, and she couldn’t imagine Nevada turning back once he'd started something. She opened the door and let him in along with a swirl of icy wind and snow. His face in the lantern light had a slightly bruised look. His eyes, nearly buried in their deep sockets, burned with something. She should look behind him for her husband but couldn't think how to free herself from Nevada's gaze. Not for the first time his expression held her; held, and refused to let go.

"What is it?" she asked.


Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Crusader for Justice: Ida B. Wells

     Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s name came up over and over as I researched the history of the women’s suffrage movement and the history of late 19th and early 20th century America. Although I haven’t included her as an actual character in a novel, I have referred to her in many of my writings. In these waning days of 2021’s Black History Month, I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce you to one of the African American women I most admire.

     Ida Bell Wells was born into slavery on July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, as the Civil War was raging. She was one of eight children. After the war, her parents became active in Reconstruction Era politics. They recognized the importance of education and enrolled young Ida in Shaw College (later Rust College) in Holly Springs, but she was expelled after starting a dispute with the college president.

     When Ida was sixteen, both of her parents and her infant brother died in the 1878 yellow fever epidemic. She convinced a nearby school administrator that she was 18 in order to win a job as a teacher in a Black elementary school. With the help of friends and other family members, she and her paternal grandmother were able to keep the rest of her siblings together.

     In 1882, after her grandmother had a stroke and one of her sisters died, Ida’s brothers found work as carpentry apprentices. She and her remaining sisters moved to Memphis, Tennessee to live with their aunt. There, Ida worked as a teacher and attended Fisk University, Lemoyne-Owen College and graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1884

     After college, she continued to teach school in Memphis and began writing articles attacking Jim Crow policies under the pen name, “Iola.” A local newspaper, the Free Speech and Headlight, invited her to write articles for them in 1889. She refused unless she was made an equal partner with the two male owners. They agreed and she bought a one-third interest in the enterprise. There she wrote about racial and political issues while continuing to teach at the elementary school. She was fired from her teaching job in1891 for being an outspoken critic of the conditions in the segregated schools.

     The 1892 lynching of a friend and his two business associates prompted Ida to investigate and collect information on similar cases. She traveled around the United States and in Britain, giving lectures on the horrific practice, especially in the South, of lynching Black men.  During this time, she also published articles and pamphlets condemning lynchings.  One of her editorials about the circumstances of her friend’s case enraged local whites, who mobbed her office and burned down her press. Luckily, she was in New York at the time or she might not have survived. Subsequently, she stayed in the north due to unrelenting death threats, and a few months later she moved to Chicago.

     There she met Ferdinand Barnett, an attorney and journalist who had founded Chicago’s first Black newspaper, The Conservator. He was also an established activist in their shared passion for civil rights. They married in 1895. Ida was one of the first American women to keep her maiden name. 

     In addition to Ferdinand’s two children from a previous marriage, the couple had four together. Throughout her life, Ida balanced her career in social activism with her family. She established the first kindergarten in Chicago in her local church, prioritizing Black children for admission.

     In addition to her crusade for racial equality, she worked tirelessly for the women’s rights movement. She organized the first civic club for African American women in Chicago and participated in the meeting that founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.


      Ida was strongly committed to the campaign for women’s suffrage. She believed that women should be enfranchised, but she also saw the vote as a way for Black women to elect African Americans, regardless of gender, to influential political offices. A long-time member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Ida attended the 1913 woman’s suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. Fearing that many white Southern women would refuse to march with Black women, the organizers decided that the African American women should march in the back.

      Refusing to follow this directive, Ida stood on the sidelines of the parade route. When the unit from Illinois approached, she stepped into the street and marched with the women of her state’s suffrage delegation.

     The U.S. government labeled her a dangerous “race agitator” and placed her under surveillance during World War I. Despite the risk, she continued traveling the country and writing articles in pursuit of civil rights. Throughout the 1920s, she pursued Urban reform in Chicago and participated in Republican party politics. However, she was disappointed by the Hoover administration’s support of segregation. In 1930, she ran as an independent for the Illinois Senate but was defeated.

     Ida began writing her autobiography in 1928 but was unable to finish it before she passed away on March 25, 1931. Her autobiography was edited by her daughter and published posthumously in 1970 as Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells.

 Ann Markim