“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): Chapter IV Commentary

“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): CHAPTER IV Commentary

We finally come to the fourth chapter of the 1979 miniseries, “THE CHISHOLMS”. And like the first chapter, it had a running time of at least 90 minutes. This fourth chapter marked the last episode of the actual miniseries and the end of Evan Hunter’s 1976 novel . . . despite the Chisholms’ story continuing in a short-running television series.

Chapter IV began some thirty seconds before Chapter III ended. What happened in the previous episode? Hadley and Minerva Chisholm made the decision to leave Independence (in western Missouri) and continued their family’s western journey along the Overland Trail without their two older sons, Will and Gideon. Why? The latter two had left the family to search for one Lester Hackett, who had stolen Will’s horse near St. Louis. During this time, the Chisholm couple and their other three children had accompanied a former Army scout named Timothy Oates, the latter’s Pawnee wife and a family from Baltimore named Comyn. Upon hearing a rumor about fever on a wagon train that was ahead of them, the Comyns returned east. Oates and his wife Youngest Daughter eventually bid the Chisholms good-bye and headed for her family’s village. Meanwhile, Will and Gideon spent a month on a prison work gang in Iowa as punishment for “trespassing” on the farm of Lester Hackett’s mother. Following their release, they encountered a wounded Ojibwa woman named Keewedinok, who had been staying at a Missouri farm that was attacked by drunken trappers. Will and Gideon allowed Keewedinok to accompany them as far as Fort Laramie. Being alone on the trail, the Chisholms attracted the attention of a small band of Pawnee warriors who wanted their horses and the women. Chapter III ended with the Pawnees’ initial attack.

In the end, the attack proved to be brief, brutal and tragic. The Chisholm family managed to kill at least three of the Pawnee warriors. Only one – Teetonkah (the one with the Wolf’s Skin) – managed to survive after Minerva attacked him in defense. Unfortunately, Hadley sustained a blow to the head . . . and young Annabel sustained a mortal blow to her chest. She managed to survive for a day or two before she finally died from her wound not far from one of the Oregon Trail landmarks (Scott’s Bluff, I believe). Eventually, the traumatized family reached the Fort Laramie trading post. Meanwhile, Will and Gideon Chisholm continued their trek west in the company of the widowed Keewedinok. In a surprising twist, the trio encountered a tragic scenario on the plains. The two Kansa couples who had encountered their family in Chapter III were found dead and their teepees burned. Actually, only one survived – the Kansa man who had admired the Chisholms’ mules. During this moment, the Chisholm brothers discovered that the Kansa couples had been attacked by white men. And Will eventually learned that that the men who had attacked the Missouri cabin where they had found Keewedinok, were also white. One or more of them had raped her. Following this revelation, Will and Keewedinok grew increasingly attracted to each other. But their newfound emotions were eventually tested when trio finally reached Fort Laramie and the remaining members of the Chisholm family. Will’s new romance led to an estrangement between him and the racist Hadley. And the Chisholms received a bigger surprise with the unexpected arrival of one Lester Hackett at the fort.

When I first saw “THE CHISHOLMS”, I found it odd that the Virginia family had only made it as far as Fort Laramie. I could not understand why they did not continue their journey to California. I eventually realized that certain factors prevented this. One, they were very far behind by time on the trail before Will and Gideon had appeared at Laramie with Keewedinok. It would have been unwise for them to continue their journey west with no guide or without the accompaniment of other wagons . . . especially after what happened to Annabel. And by the time they reached the eastern side of the Sierra Mountains foothills, a late fall weather would have made the mountain crossing very dangerous. Remaining within the safety of Fort Laramie seemed like the smart move to make. They would have to wait until the following summer for the arrival of another overland wagon train, if they had wanted to continue to California. I also suspected that Annabel’s death had traumatized them so much – especially Hadley and Minerva – that they were unwilling to continue west. But Hadley was also reluctant to return to Virginia – especially since their best land had fallen into the hands of the Cassidy family. And they would have to travel between Laramie and Independence without a guide and other wagons. At that point, Hadley and Minerva were determined to remain near Fort Laramie.

But certain factors threatened their plans. One, their sons – especially Gideon – were still anxious to continue west. Actually, I am not certain about Beau. At least I was not at first. After all, he was the only son who had experienced the Pawnee attack. He may have been less eager than Will or Gideon. Two, with Will and Hadley estranged over the former’s relationship with Keewedinok, it was not that surprising that Will also longed to leave the fort and continue west to California. In the end, so much happened in the following months – Lester Hackett’s reunion with the Chisholms, the birth of his and Bonnie Sue’s baby, the end of Will and Hadley’s estrangement, the appearance of Teetonkah aka Wolf’s Skin at Fort Laramie, and the near fatal attack on Keewedinok. I think these string of events, along with enough time finally led the family – especially Hadley and Minerva – to come to terms with Annabel’s death. And I believe this, along with the realization that their children planned to join the first wagon train to arrive in the following summer, finally led the couple to continue their journey to Califorina. Looking back, the Chisholms’ journey had been tainted by bad luck, bad timing and bad decisions since the moment they lost their most fertile corn field to the Cassidy family. With no such impediments and their emotional acceptance of Annabel’s death preventing them from continuing on to California, it was not surprising to see Hadley, Minerva and the rest of the Chisholms joining the next westbound wagon train in the summer of 1845.

I have to be honest. Chapter IV is not my favorite episode in the miniseries. It did feature scenes and performances that I truly enjoyed. This was certainly the case while watching Will and Keewedinok grow closer, as they traveled west with Gideon to Fort Laramie. I have to give kudos to Ben Murphy and Sandra Griego for making this an enjoyable and emotional segment to watch. Another romantic sequence that I found satisfying was Lester Hackett’s renewed courtship of Bonnie Sue, thanks to Stacy Nelkin and Charles Frank’s performances. Both Robert Preston and Murphy acted the hell out of one scene that featured Hadley and Will’s bitter quarrel over Keewedinok. And both Preston and Rosemary Harris were superb in one scene in which Hadley and Minerva had finally decided to join their children on the continuing trek to California. The episode also featured excellent supporting performances from James Van Patten, Brian Keith, Christopher Allport, Billy Drago and Susan Swift, who gave a very effective performance during Annabel’s death scene.

Chapter IV featured less action or conflict than the previous two chapters. But it was bookmarked by two action sequences featuring Drago’s character, Teetonkah. I have already described the Pawnees’ attack on the Chisholms’ lone wagon at the episode’s beginning. Near the end of the episode, Teetonkah had arrived at Fort Laramie and immediately spotted the Chisholms’ cabin and the ponies that the family had taken from him and his deceased comrades. He managed to convince a few braves to steal back the ponies and a few other items from the family. During this robbery, Keewedinok tried to stop him and was badly wounded. This led to a quite interesting and brutal fight between Teetonkah and Will that struck me as well choreographed.

Although I have possessed a VHS copy of “THE CHISHOLMS” for years, I was very happy to finally get a DVD copy of the miniseries. Even after many years, it still remained both enjoyable and fascinating to me. And frankly, I feel it is one of the best productions about westward migration in the mid-19th century. You can read the 1976 novel that it is based upon. But for me, I feel that this television adaptation is the better version. And one can thank David Dortort, Evan Hunter, director Mel Stuart and a superb cast led by Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris. The miniseries must have been very popular when it aired in the early spring of 1979. For it generated a short-lived television series that I plan to eventually view.

“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.