“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Four – “THE CHISHOLMS” (1979)

Below is Part Four to my article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon the 1979 CBS miniseries, “THE CHISHOLMS”

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Four – “THE CHISHOLMS” (1979)

I. Introduction

The 1979 television miniseries, “THE CHISHOLMS” began as an adaptation of Evan Hunter’s 1976 novel of the same title. It told the story of a Western Virginia family’s trek to California in the mid-1840s.

It began in 1843 with the wedding of Hadley and Minerva Hadley’s oldest child, Will. Life for the Chisholm family at their Appalachian farm seemed charmed, until the members suffer a series of misfortunes by the early spring of 1844. Will’s new wife died after giving birth to a stillborn child. Hadley managed to alienate the local plantation owner, known as “the Squire”, after he terrorized the local preacher for using the wrong Bible passage at his daughter-in-law’s funeral. And the family lost a valuable piece of land to an antagonistic neighbor, thanks to Hadley’s late older brother. Years earlier, the latter had abandoned the neighbor’s sister before a wedding could take place, and willed the land to her as compensation. Stuck with land unfit for farming, Hadley decides to move his family to California.

The Chisholms suffer a few more misfortunes during their trek to California. They discover from a Louisville merchant that they had began their westward trek at least a month too late. They made a second mistake by hiring an Illinois man named Lester Hackett to guide them west. The latter fell in love with Hadley and Minerva’s older daughter, Bonnie Sue and ended up getting her pregnant before abandoning the family near St. Louis. Will and middle son Gideon left the family to track Lester to Iowa and ended up serving on a prison work gang for a month, for “trespassing” on the farm of Lester’s mother. By the time the family reached the western plains, it suffered a major tragedy, which convinced them to end their journey at Fort Laramie, in present-day Wyoming.

II. History vs. Hollywood

Like “CENTENNIAL”“THE CHISHOLMS” managed to be that rare period drama that managed to be historically accurate . . . or at least 95% accurate. In fact, I was only able to find one topic that struck me as historically inaccurate. And it proved to be minor.

When the Chisholms began their journey from western Virginia to California in 1844, they had left their old cabin in mid-spring. After all, they reached Louisville, Kentucky by May 16 or 17. Most wagon parties usually left Independence, Missouri, the jump-off spot for the western trails by that period. Even the infamous Donner Party left western Missouri sometime between May 16 and May 20 (in 1846). At least two people remarked on their late departure – a Louisville merchant and a saloon keeper in Independence. Aside from Minerva and youngest daughter Annabel, the rest of the Chisholms decided to continue the trek west in the hope of encountering more wagons.

Aside from “CENTENNIAL”“THE CHISHOLMS” is the only production I know that covered a wagon journey east of Missouri. Most movies or television productions usually have wagon parties begin their journey in St. Louis or Independence. The Chisholms’ journey included a river journey down the Ohio River aboard a craft similar to the flatboat; the crossing of the Big Blue River; and passing famous landmarks such as Scott’s Bluff, Courthouse Rock and Chimney Rock.

Just prior to the Chisholms’ westward journey, they acquired a larger wagon through barely fair means (which is another story). Surprisingly, the new wagon proved to be a decent-sized farm wagon, suitable for overland trails and not the lumbering Hollywood favorite – the Conestoga. However, the family not only loaded their wagon with essential goods, but also with furnishings that may have proven to become a burden on the animals pulling it – including a grandfather clock. The Chisholms never dumped any of their non-essentials along the trail. However, Will, Gideon and an Objibwe woman named Kewedinok they had met in Missouri did find several furnishings that had been abandoned by previous emigrants along the trail. The Chisholms used mules to pull their wagon across the continent. However, a lively debate onmules vs. oxen sprung up between Will and Lester Hackett. The family’s mules also attracted the attention of a small group of young Pawnee braves, when the family traveled alone.

In the 1979 miniseries, the Chisholms’ westbound journey only took them as far as Fort Laramie. A brief, yet brutal encounter with the four Pawnee braves and a family tragedy convinced them to remain and settle on land near the fort. The miniseries’ depiction of the emigrants’ encounters with Native American seemed pretty realistic and balanced – except in regard to one matter. “THE CHISHOLMS” featured at least three violent encounters between family members and Native Americans. Family patriarch Hadley Chisholm brawled with a middle-aged Chickasaw man inside an Illinois tavern, which ended with the latter being nearly choked to death. And there were the four Pawnee braves who attacked the family (traveling alone) in order to take their mules and the women. A scene before the attack featured a rather funny conference between the four braves, in which they argued on whether or not to attack the family. The surviving brave of the attack discovered the Chisholms’ presence at Fort Laramie in the last episode, and convinced a few other braves to help him rob the family’s cabin.

But not all of the Chisholms’ encounters with Native Americans were violent. The miniseries revealed Kewedinok’s back story of how she became a widow, her violent encounter with white trappers in Western Missouri and her eventual meeting with Will and Gideon. The rest of the family became acquainted with former Army scout Timothy Oates and his Pawnee wife during the early leg of their journey, west of Independence. They also met two Kansa couples traveling eastward by foot in an encounter that led to some friendly trading. The same Kansa couples were later killed by whites, aside from one survivor who was found by Will, Gideon and Kewedinok.

I have only one major complaint about the miniseries’ depiction of Native Americans. Many white characters such as Hadley Chisholm, Timothy Oates, and the Fort Laramie trader Andrew Blake never hesitate to express concern about Native Americans consuming alcohol. Hadley was the first to claim that “Indians had no business drinking whiskey”. One could have easily dismissed Hadley’s words as prejudice on his part. But other white characters also expressed the necessity of denying Native Americans any alcohol. I will not deny that alcoholism has been a problem for many Native Americans. However, it has also been a problem for other ethnic groups, including white Americans of Anglo-Saxon, Scottish or Irish ancestry. This was certainly the case in 19th century America. For example, at least two-thirds of the U.S. Army’s officer corps were believed to be heavy drinkers. However, many white Americans (and perhaps other groups) tend to view certain certain groups – which included German and Irish immigrants, African-Americans and especially Native Americans – as naturally heavy drinkers, due to their own prejudices. The screenwriters could have been easily expressing the prejudices of these 19th century white men. But the gravity of Timothy Oates and Andrew Blake’s words seemed to hint that this particular prejudice still existed by the late 1970s, when this miniseries was made.

Like “CENTENNIAL”“THE CHISHOLMS” managed to adhere a lot closer to historical accuracy than the first two productions featured in this series. And like the 1978-79 miniseries, only one topic seemed to be the result of Hollywood fiction, instead of fact. In the case of “THE CHISHOLMS”, it failed to overcome the myth of Native Americans’ susceptibility to alcoholism. Otherwise, the mixture of historical fact and literary fiction proved to be well-balanced.

The Major Problems of “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986)

The Major Problems of “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986)

In the eyes of many fans of the trilogy of miniseries based upon John Jakes’ saga, ”The NORTH AND SOUTH Trilogy”, the only miniseries not worthy of the entire saga is the third one – ”HEAVEN AND HELL: North and South Book III”. I wish I could agree with them. After all, the production values for ”Book III” had not been as impressive as the other two. And of the three miniseries, ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” had the best costume designs. But looking at the three miniseries from the prospective of a writer, I have finally come to the conclusion that it was ”Book II” (set during the Civil War), and not ”Book III” that ended up being a lot more disappointing to me.

None of the three miniseries were exact copies of the novels from which they had been adapted. Changes were made in all three. Despite some flaws, I had no problems with most of the changes in ”Book I” and ”Book III”. But I found some of the changes in ”Book II” to be very questionable. In fact, some of these changes really did nothing to serve the miniseries’ story, except pad it unnecessarily in order to ensure that it would last six episodes.

Below are some examples of the questionable plotlines I found in ”BOOK II”:

*Around the end of Episode I, Brett Main Hazard (Genie Francis) – a South Carolina belle who had recently married Pennsylvania-born army officer, Billy Hazard (Parker Stevenson) – and her maid, Semiramis (Erica Gimpel), had left Washington D.C. just before the Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861). The former had received a written note about Madeline LaMotte (Lesley Anne Down)’s kidnapping by her estranged husband (David Carridine) and the injuries that Brett’s mother – Clarissa Main (Jean Simmons) – had suffered following a barn fire at the Main’s South Carolina plantation, Mont Royal. Brett and Semiramis finally reached Mont Royal in November 1861. I have a lot of problems with this.

1) Why was the message about Clarissa and Madeline sent to Brett in
Washington D.C. and not to Brett’s older brother, General Orry Main (Patrick Swayze) in Richmond? It would have been easier to reach him, since Richmond was inside Confederate territory.

2) Would it have been easier for Brett and Semiramis remain in Richmond and wait for Orry to depart for South Carolina? What was the point of them leaving him a message and continuing their journey south? They would have reached Mont Royal a lot sooner.

3) Why did it take them three to four months to reach South Carolina? It took them at least less than a week to travel from Washington D.C. to Richmond, Virginia – despite being delayed by Union troops. They were on horseback. So why did it take them an additional three-and-a-half months to reach Mont Royal in South Carolina?

*Episode I revealed that both George Hazard and Orry Main served as military aides for their respective political leaders – Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Between Episode I and early Episode III, George provided information to Lincoln on battle results and on the President’s behalf, interviewed General Ulysses S. Grant in Tennessee, to see if the latter was the right man to take over the Army of the Potomoc in Virginia. George became a field commander right before the Battle of Gettysburg. Orry not only provided battle results and other information to Davis, he also served as some kind of quartermaster and investigator of corruption within the Confederacy. He became a field commander right before the Battle of Sayler’s Creek in Episode VI. I had a lot of problems with this.

1) Although both George and Orry had graduated from West Point’s Class of 1846 and served in the Mexican-American War, they only served for a duration of at least eighteen months. Both men, due to personal reasons, had left the Army by the late winter/early spring of 1848. How on earth did both managed to acquire such high positions – militarily and politically – at the start of the Civil War, thirteen years later? Even the younger members in their families – Billy Hazard and Charles Main – had more military experience before the war – nearly five years apiece.

2) Neither George or Orry had acquired any further military experiences or participated in any political movements or organizations in their respective home states of Pennsylvania and South Carolina, during those thirteen years between 1848 and 1861.

3) Although George primarily served as an adviser for Lincoln before becoming a field commander, Orry served in a confusing mixture of duties that included military adviser, quartermaster, and investigator. What the hell? It almost seemed as if the screenwriters could not make up their minds on what capacity Orry had served in the Confederate Army, before becoming a field commander during the war’s final month.

4) In the early summer of 1863, George became an artillery commander in the Army of the Potomoc. I am aware that he had graduated from West Point near the top of class, ranking sixth. But in 1846, George decided to choose the Infantry in which to serve. His only previous military experience before the Battle of Gettysburg was fifteen months as a junior infantry officer. How on earth did he end up in artillery, with no previous experience in that particular field?

George and Orry’s military experiences during the war smacked of a great deal of bad continuity, lack of logic and confusion.

*In Episode III, despondent over being unable to see Brett for two years, Billy decides to go AWOL, following the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) and head south to South Carolina to see Brett. Upon his arrival at Mont Royal, he stays there less than 24 hours and leaves to return to the Army. He returned to duty in Hiram Burdam (Kurtwood Smith)’s Sharpshooter regiment in late April/early May 1864, in time to participate in the Battle of the Wilderness. And I had problems with this.

1) It took Billy less than a month to travel from Southern Pennsylvania (Gettysburg) to Mont Royal in South Carolina. Yet, it took him at least eight to nine months to rejoin his regiment, who were back in Virginia by the time of his arrival. Why did it take him longer to travel from South Carolina to Virginia, than it did for him to travel from Southern Pennsylvania to South Carolina? He was on horseback.

2) Billy had been AWOL from the Army for at least nine to ten months (July 1863 – late April/early May 1864). Why did Colonel Burdan fail to punish him for abandoning his post without permission . . . for so long? In the spring of 1864, the Union Army was not exactly desperate for an increase in manpower, unlike the Confederate Army. In fact, Billy never even faced a court martial or trial of any kind for his actions. His only punishments were a stern lecture from Burdan and being passed over for a promotion to the rank of captain. This is illogical . . . even for a fictional story.

*Charles Main (Lewis Smith) and Augusta Barclay (Kate McNeil) first met each other while the former was on a scouting mission for the Confederacy and the latter was smuggling medicine in July 1861. They met again, the following year, when Charles appeared at her farm, wounded. In the spring of 1864, following the Battle of the Wilderness, they began a love affair that lasted until they said good-bye for the last time in February 1865. Two months later, following the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox, Charles returned to Barclay Farm and learned that Augusta had died while giving birth to his son. Charles learned that Augusta’s South Carolina relatives had taken custody of Charles Augustus Main and returned to Charleston. There, Charles took custody of his son for the first time. I have a problem.

1) Charles and Augusta saw each other for the last time in February 1865. When Charles returned to her farm, two months later, her former servant – Washington (John Nixon) – informed him that she had recently died from giving birth to Charles’ son. Yet, Augusta certainly did not look pregnant, during Charles’ last visit two months ago – when the unborn baby should have been at least six to seven months old. And she was wearing a corset.

2) Following his discovery that he was a father, it did not take Charles very long to return to South Carolina and claim his child. Yet, the recently Charles Augustus Main looked at least between one to two years old. If that had been the child’s real age, Charles and Augusta’s son would have been born a year earlier – before they had consummated their relationship in May 1864.

*After being driven from Mont Royal by the discovery of a family secret by Ashton Main Huntoon (Terri Garber), Madeline Main (Lesley Anne-Down) settles in Charleston around July-September 1863. The following spring in May 1864, she meets a former slave/refugee named Jim (Bumper Robinson) and his sick mother. Because of this meeting, Madeline decides to offer aid to many of Charleston’s war refugees – whether they are ex-slaves or poor whites. She also learns about Jim and his mother’s personal history. Apparently, they were Tennessee slaves who were freed upon the arrival of Union troops at their former master’s plantation, who decided to make their way to Charleston.

1) WHAT IN THE HELL IS THIS? Why on earth would recently emancipated slaves make their way deep into Confederate territory? Did the writers of the miniseries honestly believe that slaves were that stupid? Jim and his mother were from Tennessee. They could have made their way to any of the following cities:

*Nashville, Tennessee – which fell to Union troops in February 1862
*Memphis, Tennessee – captured by the Union in June 1862
*New Orleans, Louisiana – fell to Union troops in April 1862
*Louisville, Kentucky – which remained in the Union throughout the war

Any of the above cities were closer to the plantation owned by Michael’s master and could have provided safe refuge for him and his mother. Certainly not Charleston, South Carolina, which was too far and still Confederate territory by the spring of 1864.

2) The writers could have written Michael and his mother as South Carolina slaves. And yet . . . they would have been wiser to head for Hilton Head, the only safe refuge for runaway slaves in South Carolina, until February 1865.

“NORTH AND SOUTH Trilogy” – Historical Inaccuracies

After reading a list of historical inaccuracies in the movie,  “TITANIC”, I could not help but think about the historical inaccuracies I’ve found in the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy – no matter how much I loved it. So, here it is: 

“NORTH AND SOUTH Trilogy” Inaccuracies


1. George and Orry’s journey to West Point – I could be mistaken, but I thought most cadets who traveled to West Point from New York City, did so by a steamer up the Hudson River in the mid-1800s.

2. Orry’s sword duel w/Bent – I realize many of you found it exciting, but after asking around, I discovered that it is impossible for someone with Orry’s difficulties in studies to be an excellent swordsman. Actually, someone like Bent should have kicked his butt.

3. Ulysses Grant did not graduate from West Point two years ahead of George and Orry (as indicated in ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”). He graduated three years before them in 1843.

4. The Mains should not be at Mont Royal during the summers of 1844, 1846 or 1854. Summertime was considered fever season in the South Carolina low country. South Carolinians planters usually vacationed in the upcountry or somewhere else – preferably at Newport Island.

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5. When Virgilia made the “slave bordellos” reference in her speech during the abolitionist meeting in Philadelphia, she had been very close to the truth, despite Orry’s reaction. Due to a Federal law that forbade the import of African slaves in 1808, prosperous slave owners like Tillet Main encouraged their slaves to breed. Female slaves were encouraged to breed by the age fourteen.

6. Fredrick Douglass never referred to God in his speeches. A bitter encounter with the clergy in Maryland had erased any religious fevor that he had.

7. Robert Guilliame was too old to be playing Fredrick Douglass in 1848. During that year, Douglass was only 30 years old. Guilliame was at least 56 or 57 years old when he appeared in ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I”.

8. The song, “Dixie”, was written by a Northerner in 1859 and became popular throughout the South in 1860. When James Huntoon sung it at a rally in New Orleans, he may have sung it a year or two early.

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9. Orry had been premature in referring to John Brown as insane in December 1859. The abolitionist was never considered insane until the 1890s, when the “Lost Cause” myth became very popular.

10. Contrary to the miniseries, Major Robert Anderson was not in his mid to late 30s – the age of actor James Rebhorn, who portrayed the officer when the miniseries was filmed – around the winter of 1860-61. He was at least 55 years old.

11. Hiram Burdan, commander of the Sharpshooters, was not the stickler as portrayed by Kurtwood Smith in the miniseries. In fact, he was not a very good commander and left the Sharpshooters sometime in early 1864.

12. Lincoln had never made a comment about suggesting his other commanders drink the same brand of whiskey as Grant.

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13. Although he remained sober throughout most of the war, Grant did go on an alcoholic bender sometime during the Vicksburg siege – May to July 1863.

14. West Point never held a ball for its graduates during the mid-1800s. The graduating class usually went to the Astor House in New York City for a graduation supper.

15. Generals Grant and Sherman had met President Lincoln a few weeks before the war ended, they met on a James River steamboat around City Point, Virginia. They did not meet on the field, with General Sheridan, as indicated in “BOOK II”.

16. William Stills had been 34-36 years old during the winter of 1855/56. The actor who portrayed him in ”BOOK I”, the late Ron O’Neal, was at least 47 years old at the time of the miniseries’ production.

If you can find any further discrepancies, please let me know.