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Hell on Wheels Handbook
Often called “the first cowboy rifle” because its lightweight design made it easy to carry in a saddle-side scabbard, the Yellow Boy rifle debuted in 1866 to wild success. It was the first gun to bear the fabled Winchester name. Officially known as the Model 1866, it had a patented side-loading gate for bullets which simplified loading and firing. (The era’s other high-profile repeating rifles loaded from the top of the barrel.) Other innovations on the Yellow Boy included a wooden forearm under the barrel, which made the rifle easy for novices to handle. Speed, however, was the rifle’s calling card. The gun’s lever-action system accelerated the process of ejecting a spent cartridge and moving another bullet into the chamber, allowing the user to get off more shots per minute than with comparable weapons.
Named for the color of its solid-brass loading gate, the Yellow Boy was one of a trio of Winchester rifles — the others being the Model 1873 and Model 1876 — that became collectively known as “the guns that won the West.” An early advertisement anticipated the Yellow Boy’s advantages “for single individuals traveling through a wild country, where there is reason to expect a sudden attack from robbers or Indians.” Even if a bullet misfired, the ad declared, another would replace it “in just half a second, thereby giving two chances, even though the enemy should be within twenty feet.”
In contemporary terminology, the slur “snake oil salesman” refers to hucksters promoting fake products or philosophies. Its original usage, however, described actual peddlers of (usually phony) variations on snake oil liniment, an established folk remedy used by Chinese laborers building the transcontinental railroad. The workers applied the liniment, which was made from the oil of the Chinese water snake, to ease joint and muscle pain and reduce inflammation. When their American counterparts discovered the liniment’s curative properties, word spread and producers of “patent medicines” jumped on the bandwagon with their own versions. Unfortunately, products advertised as genuine snake oil were more likely to contain vegetable oil, mineral oil, or the oil of rattlesnakes or other breeds. So many of the products were completely ineffective that snake oil and its sellers became synonymous with deception.
The Central Pacific Railroad hired its first dozen or so Chinese workers in 1864, and 50 more were taken on in 1865, in part to break a wage strike by Irish employees. Charles Crocker, the Central Pacific’s contractor and one of the “Big Four” railroad barons (a group which included Collis Huntington), reportedly overcame opposition to hiring the Chinese by arguing that their ancestors were, after all, responsible for erecting the Great Wall.
Crocker’s strategy of hiring the Chinese was successful on multiple levels. Fearing the loss of their jobs, Irish laborers quickly returned to work. Despite the common prejudice that Chinese laborers lacked sufficient stamina and intelligence, they proved reliable at track laying and other tasks. The Chinese later showed skill at more complicated endeavors, among them blasting away the granite cliffs of the Sierra Nevada range to make way for the tracks.
As the need for rail labor outstripped the supply of willing Americans and Europeans, recruiters began soliciting workers in China itself, mostly from Canton (now Guangzhou) Province. During the final push to complete the railroad, the Chinese constituted as many as 12,000 of the Central Pacific’s 15,000 workers, and about 90 percent of those laying track. According to a book published in 1867, the Chinese laborers received $31 a month without board, while the Irish were paid $30 plus board.
On Sep. 13, 1848, a railroad worker named Phineas Gage suffered severe brain damage when an ill-timed gunpowder explosion propelled a 3-foot 7-inch tamping iron upward through his left cheekbone and out the top of his skull. The 13½-pound rod had a pointed tip and was about 1¼ inches wide at the bottom. After piercing his skull like a bullet, the rod landed about 25 yards away. Despite the trauma, Gage survived and didn’t even lose consciousness.
According to a modern scientist, Gage “skipped five ways to die.” He survived because the rod clipped his brain’s frontal lobe (which affects behavior and memory), but missed the areas that control body functions. Additionally, his attending physician, Dr. John Martyn Harlow, kept the wound clean and successfully treated infections, despite the era’s ignorance about sterilization.
The accident left Gage blind in one eye, but he recovered physically otherwise. His personality, however, changed drastically. Before the incident, he was known as a polite, responsible, even-tempered man. Afterward he reportedly suffered wild mood swings and became easily agitated and abusively profane. His friends described him as “no longer Gage.”
The Sazerac, one of America’s earliest cocktails, dates back to 1830s New Orleans. Antoine Peychaud, a French Quarter pharmacist, mixed medicinal bitters — sold as a cure for dysentery and other stomach ailments — with sugar and water, and added the solution to brandy. Peychaud’s concoction became an instant hit, launching a brand that endures to this day. However, the drink did not receive its current name until 1859 when a liquor importer replaced the brandy with the French cognac Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils (to which he happened to hold the local sales rights) and opened the Sazerac Coffee House saloon.
With the help of the steamboats that traveled up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, the popular drink quickly found its way into Midwestern bars, later spreading as far as the Pacific Northwest. In the mining boomtown of Virginia City, Nevada, the fancy Sazerac House saloon, named for its signature drink, was already doing a bustling business by the mid-1860s. (Its owner, who died in a gun battle in 1866, is the model for a character in Roughing It, Mark Twain’s western road-trip epic.)
The development of the American West in the 19th century was marked by violence via Indian raids, outlaw robberies and vigilante justice. Range wars, which erupted around land conflicts, were also common as pioneers forged West into uncharted, largely unclaimed territory. These armed conflicts — typically undeclared — occurred when settlers battled for “open range” and often triggered cycles of retaliation, resulting in massive deaths. Since range wars often occurred where law enforcement was weak, police, if they got involved at all, tended to side with one faction, forcing residents to find other ways to defend their property including cattle.
While these conflicts were sometimes rooted in long-standing feuds, the point of contention was generally land ownership. One of the most notorious range wars was the Johnson County War, which took place in the late 1800s in Wyoming. Small settlers fought against their more established counterparts until the dispute culminated in a lengthy shootout between locals, hired killers, and a sheriff’s posse. Eventually, the United States Cavalry was called to intervene.
The Central Pacific Railroad was the company responsible for building the western segment of the transcontinental railroad. Theodore Judah, a civil engineer and one of the Central Pacific’s founders, figured out a pathway through California’s treacherous Sierra Nevada range, lobbied Congress to fund the transcontinental railroad, and in 1861 assembled a group of investors to finance it. Even before he became president, Abraham Lincoln was an enthusiastic supporter. The first western track was laid in Sacramento in 1863, but Judah died later that year, just as his lead partners were taking over control of the railroad: Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington (right), Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker became known to the public as “The Big Four” railroad barons.
Although none of “The Associates,” as the four called themselves, had experience building railroads, collectively they possessed the skills necessary to accomplish the task. Stanford, an early governor of California, handled state and local politics and was the face of the corporation. Hopkins was good with the books. As construction chief, Crocker assembled a labor force that at its peak numbered 15,000 men (about 12,000 of them Chinese). Huntington was the master maneuverer by most historical accounts, fashioning complicated financial schemes and bribing or otherwise convincing federal legislators to back bills favorable to the Central Pacific. A contemporary described Huntington as “scrupulously dishonest” — despite creating holding companies like those that resulted in the Union Pacific’s Credit Mobilier scandal, Huntington and the Central Pacific emerged relatively unscathed from government investigations. Then again, that could have been due to the fire that conveniently destroyed many of the company’s records just prior to Huntington’s testimony before Congress.
This week’s Hell on Wheels Handbook takes a closer look at the Gatling gun, the weapon Psalms operates in the Hell on Wheels Season 2 Finale.
The legendary Gatling Battery gun, invented by Richard J. Gatling, was an early hand-cranked machine gun that played a significant role in the conquest of the American West. The original design, patented in 1862, was fairly simple: as the crank was turned, six rifle barrels rotated around a central axis. Bullets were loaded, and strikers behind each barrel fired shots. The earliest models released 200 shots per minute, far more than even the most experienced marksman could achieve.
Despite the weapon’s destructive capabilities, Gatling promoted the gun as a humanitarian device. He reasoned that a regiment armed with it would fire more rounds per soldier than one without the weapon, reducing the number of men needed and therefore the number of casualties.
Gatling spent the entire Civil War trying to convince the Union Army to adopt his gun. While the weapon was deployed in a few battles, the U.S. Army didn’t officially approve it until 1866. By then, Gatling had refined his design substantially, and the Army was frequently equipped with Gatling guns to defend railroad workers, settlements, tracks and materials against Indian attacks.
This week’s Hell on Wheels Handbook takes a look at the Irish Claddagh ring Sean gives Ruth in Season 2, Episode 8.
The Claddagh ring — with its signature design of two hands clasping a heart topped by a crown — is a multipurpose piece of traditional Irish jewelry. If worn on the right hand with the
heart pointing outward, it suggests the wearer is available for
courting; if worn with the heart pointing inward, the wearer
is spoken for. If worn on the left hand with heart pointed outward, the
wearer is engaged; if pointed inward, married.
One legend about the ring’s origin involves an eagle dropping a Claddagh ring into a rich Irish widow’s lap as a reward for her charitable deeds. A more credible tale tells of a real-life 17th-century Irishman named Richard Joyce who was captured by pirates and enslaved by a Turkish goldsmith. Freed many years later (and by then a master jeweler), Joyce returned home to find his sweetheart waiting faithfully for him. To honor her loyalty, he created the Claddagh ring and named it after a fishing village near his home. To this day, Irish mothers pass the rings down to their daughters with the following traditional verse: “With these hands I give you my heart and I crown it with my
This Hell on Wheels Handbook takes a look at Native American sweat lodges like the one featured in Season 2, Episode 7.
The spiritual and therapeutic benefits of steam were well known to 19th-century Native Americans, who constructed domed sweat lodges within which medicine men would heal the sick and conduct religious ceremonies. Water poured over hot stones created intense vapors whose purpose varied from purification to preparation for larger rituals.
Lakota holy man Black Elk describes the sweat lodge ritual as drawing on all the elements of earth, water, fire, and air. “The water represents the Thunder-beings who come fearfully but bring goodness,” he said. “The steam which comes from the rocks, within which is the fire, is frightening, but it purifies us so that we may live as Wakan Tanka [the Great Mystery] wills.” If the participants became truly pure, Black Elk believed, Wakan Tanka would sometimes grant a vision.
Sweat lodges were constructed of simple materials — branches, stones, and animal hides — but these materials were rich with significance. For instance, willow branches were chosen because of the tree’s proximity to the water used in the ritual, and because the deciduous nature of the willow meant it underwent a rebirth each spring akin to the sweat lodge participant’s experience.