“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): Chapter II Commentary

“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): CHAPTER II Commentary

The first episode of the 1979 miniseries, “THE CHISHOLMS” – otherwise known as Chapter I had focused on the Chisholm family’s last year at their western Virginia farm. The episode also explored the circumstances that led to patriarch Hadley Chisholm’s decision to move the family west to California during the spring of 1844 and their journey as far as Evansville, Indiana. This second episode focused on the next stage of their journey. 

This new episode or Chapter II focused on a short period of the Chisholms’ migration to California. It covered their journey from southeastern Illinois to Independence, Missouri. Due to the addition of a guide named Lester Hackett, who had agreed to accompany them as far as Missouri, the Chisholm family experienced its first crisis – one that led to a temporary split within the family ranks. The family’s journey seemed to be smooth sailing at first. They managed to become used to the routine of wagon train traveling. Lester proved to be an agreeable companion who helped with both hunting for game and cooking. He even managed to save Bonnie Sue Chisholm, who briefly found herself trapped in the family’s wagon being pulled away by their pair of skittish mules. Eventually, Bonnie Sue and Lester began expressing romantic interest in each other.

But alas, the family’s luck began to fade. A lone rider began trailing the Chisholm party. Lester discovered that he was a friend of someone named James Peabody, who believes Lester was responsible for the theft of some valuables that include a pair of Spanish pistols . . . the same pistols that Lester had claimed he lost in a poker match in Louisville. He and Bonnie Sue enjoyed a night of intimacy together before he abandoned the Chisholms . . . while riding Will Chisholm’s horse. Around the same time, Hadley’s violent encounter with a drunken Native American at a local tavern fully revealed his deep-seated bigotry towards all Native Americans and foreshadowed the problems it will cause. Then Hadley made one of the worst decisions of his life by allowing Will and middle son Gideon to pursue Lester to Iowa and recover the former’s stolen horse.

Upon their arrival in Iowa, Will made an equally disastrous decision. Instead of requesting information and help from the local sheriff, he and Gideon appeared at the Hackett farm, asking for Lester’s whereabouts. The two brothers ended up being arrested for the theft of chicken eggs and trespassing. Although the charges of theft were dropped, Will and Gideon were convicted of trespassing and ordered to serve on a prison work gang for a month. This left the rest of the family to continue on to Independence, Missouri – the jump-off point for all westbound wagon trains. During their journey through Missouri, the Chisholms joined with the Comyns, a family from Baltimore. Upon their arrival in Independence, the Chisholms and the Comyns discover that most of the wagons trains had already departed. However, they managed to form a wagon party with a plainsman named Timothy Oates and his Pawnee wife, Youngest Daughter. Unaware that Will and Gideon have been sentenced to a prison work gang, and aware that they are already behind schedule, the Chisholms have no choice but to head west into the wilderness.

For an episode that began in a light-hearted manner, Chapter II ended on a rather ominous note. You know, I have seen this production so many times. Yet, it never really occurred until recently how the turmoil caused by Lester Hackett in this episode, ended up causing so much turmoil for the family. What makes this ironic is that it all began with the sexual attraction that had sprung up between him and Bonnie Sue Chisholm back in Louisville. The first sign of this turmoil manifested in Lester’s abandonment of the family and especially, his theft of Will Chisholm’s horse. The horse theft led to the separation of the family at a time when it would have been more imperative for them to be together as a unit.

Hadley did not help matters by allowing Will and Gideon to search for Lester in Iowa. And the two brothers made the situation worse by failing to immediately contact the local sheriff before appearing at the Hackett farm – an act that led them to be sentenced one month on a prison work gang. Will and Gideon’s situation made it impossible for them to catch up with the rest of the family on the trail. And as Beau Chisholm had pointed out to Hadley in Independence, they were not in a position to wait for the other two. The Chisholms had no choice but to leave with two other westbound parties – the Comyns from Baltimore and the frontiersman Timothy Oates and his wife, Youngest Daughter. Two families and a couple does not seem large enough for a safe journey on the overland trail. But considering they were all behind schedule, they could either take the risk continue west or hang around Independence until the next year.

But I did notice that despite all of this turmoil, the light-hearted atmosphere of the episode’s beginning seemed to have persisted. More importantly, Chapter II seemed to be marked by a good deal of humor. The episode included humorous moments like Hadley’s negative comments about the Illinois and Missouri landscapes, Will and Lester’s lively debate over using mules or oxen to pull wagon overland, Lester’s attempts to win over the family – especially Minerva, and especially his sexy courtship of Bonnie Sue.

Once Lester had abandoned the family near St. Louis, the humor continued. Will and Gideon’s experiences in Iowa were marked with a good deal of sardonic humor. That same humor marked Hadley and Minerva’s low opinion of the Comyn family. Even Hadley’s quarrel with the Independence saloon owner permeated with humor and theatricality. Looking back on Chapter II, I can only think of two moments that really emphasized the gravitas of the Chisholms’ situation – Hadley’s violent encounter with the Native American inside an Illinois tavern and that final moment when the family continued west into the wilderness without Will and Gideon.

When the Chisholms left Virginia in Chapter I, their journey was marked with a good number of interesting settings. That episode featured a detailed re-creation of Louisville and travel along the Ohio River. There seemed to be no such unusual settings for Chapter II. The entire episode focused on the family’s journey through Illinois, Iowa and Missouri. Not once did the episode featured the family in St. Louis. And a few set pieces (or buildings) served as Independence, Missouri circa 1844.

The performances from Chapter I held up very well. Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris, as usual, gave excellent performances as the family’s heads – Hadley and Minerva Chisholm. I was especially impressed by Preston’s performance in the scene involving Hadley’s encounter with the intoxicated Native American. In it, the actor did a superb job in conveying both Hadley’s racism toward all Native Americans and his poignant regret over the tragic circumstances (Allen Chisholm had been killed by a Native American in a drunken fight over a slave woman from the Bailey plantation) behind his toxic attitude. Both Ben Murphy and Brian Kerwin clicked rather well during those scenes that involved Will and Gideon Chisholm’s search for Lester. The episode also featured solid performances from James Van Patten, Susan Swift, Katie Hanley (as the amusingly mild-mannered Mrs. Comyn) and David Heyward (as Timothy Oates). Veteran character actor Jerry Hardin gave an excellent performance the slightly proud, yet finicky Mr. Comyn, who seemed to run his life by his pocketwatch.

But if I must be honest, this episode belonged to Stacy Nelkin and Charles Frank, who did superb jobs in conveying Bonnie Sue Chisholm and Lester Hackett’s burgeoning romance. I was impressed by how both of them developed Bonnie Sue and Lester’s relationship from sexual attraction to playful flirtations and finally, to a genuine romance that was sadly cut short by Lester’s need for self-preservation from a charge of theft.

Overall, I enjoyed Chapter II. In a way, it seemed to be the calm before the storm that threatens to overwhelm the Chisholm family on their trek to California. The episode seemed to be filled with a good deal of humor and romance. On the other hand, Lester Hackett’s past and current choices in this episode seemed to hint an ominous future for the family by the end of the episode.

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“THE OREGON TRAIL” (1976; 1977) Retrospective

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“THE OREGON TRAIL” (1976; 1977) Retrospective

Nearly forty years ago saw the premiere of the NBC Western series called “THE OREGON TRAIL”. Produced by Carl Vitale, Michael Gleason and Richard Collins; the series told the story about the westbound journey of an Illinois widower named Evan Thorpe and his family in the 1840s.

NBC aired a ninety (90) minute pilot episode of “THE OREGON TRAIL” in 1976. Rod Taylor portrayed Evan Thorpe, a widower with three children who had recently remarried. Blair Brown portrayed his newly married second wife, Jessica. Douglas Fowley portrayed Evan’s widowed father, Eli. And Andrew Stevens, Tony Becker and Gina Smika Hunter portrayed his three children – Andrew, William and Rachel. Set during the year 1842, the pilot episode featured the Thrope family’s journey to the Oregon Territory from Illinois to as far as Fort Hall in present-day Idaho.

Another year passed before “THE OREGON TRAIL” returned to the television screen. A few changes had been made to the cast. Evan’s second wife Jessica had died and he found himself attracted to an Irish-born woman named Margaret Deviln, who was accompanying her gambler father to the west. In other words, Blair Brown had been replaced by Darlene Carr as the series’ leading lady. Eli had completely disappeared from the cast of characters. And Charles Napier had joined the cast as Luther Sprague, a former mountain man recruited by Evan to serve as scout/guide for the wagon train. At first, it seemed that the Thorpes’ destination had changed from Oregon to California . . . and back again. NBC aired six episodes of “THE OREGON TRAIL” before the latter was permanently yanked from the network’s line-up. The series faded into obscurity for thirty-three years, until the Timeless Media Group (TMG) released the entire series – the pilot and the other thirteen episodes – on DVD in 2010.

For the next five years, I ignored “THE OREGON TRAIL”, despite a deep interest in movie and television productions about mid-19th century western emigration. I was more interested in finding a DVD copy of the 1979 miniseries, “THE CHISHOLMS”, of which I owned a VHS copy. But eventually, I could not ignore “THE OREGON TRAIL” and purchased it at a reasonably cheap price. I must admit that I was impressed. It struck me as a decent series that featured excellent drama and some first-rate performances. Rod Taylor did a superb job in carrying the series on his soldier – which is not surprising. And he clicked very well with not only his two leading ladies – Blair Brown and Darlene Carr – but also with Charles Napier, Andrew Stevens, Tony Becker and Gina Smika Hunter. The series also featured excellent performances from guest stars such as Kim Darby, Gerald McRaney, Stella Stevens, Robert Fuller, William Smith, William Shatner, Nicholas Hammond, Linda Purl, Claude Akins, Clu Gulager and Kevin McCarthy. The series featured story lines regarding racial discrimination, religious beliefs, Native American culture, military oppression and especially survival. I am not saying that “THE OREGON TRAIL” was perfect. But I believe that it was a solid television drama. So what went wrong? Why did it fail to draw viewers after six weeks on the air?

First of all, “THE OREGON TRAIL” had the bad luck to compete against ABC’s new ratings hit, “CHARLIE’S ANGELS”. But I suspect that in the end, the series’ premise – wagon train emigration – proved to be the series’ Achilles’ heel. If the Thorpes had spent the series merely traveling from one location to another, without any real fixed destination – for example, the 1960-64 series, “ROUTE 66” – perhaps the series could have survived. But the Thorpes had a definite destination – Oregon (or possibly California). If “THE OREGON TRAIL” had been an anthology series, like NBC’s “WAGON TRAIN” (1957-1965); and Rod Taylor’s character could have been some frontiersman that guided wagon trains across the continent on a yearly basis . . . perhaps it could have survived. But “THE OREGON TRAIN” was about a family’s westward journey to Oregon (or California). And Taylor did not portrayed a wagon scout. The traits behind this particular series made it difficult to last as a long-running series, let alone one that could last more than one season.

What made the premise for “THE OREGON TRAIL” even harder to swallow were the number of characters that the Thorpe train encountered during their journey. They encountered outlaws, Army personnel, mountain men, Native Americans, settlers, miners, etc. Encountering Native Americans and mountain men during a wagon train journey in the 1840s struck me as plausible. Encountering settlers, miners and Army personnel during that same period did not. “THE OREGON TRAIL” was set either in the early or mid-1840s. There were no non-Native American settlements between western Missouri and Oregon (or California) . . . at least as far as I know. The only Army outpost in this region was probably Fort Leavenworth, established in northeastern Kansas in 1827. Fort Kearny was established in 1848 and Fort Laramie became a U.S. Army post in 1849. I could see the Thorpes encountering outlaws in present day Kansas. But further along the Oregon Trail? I just cannot see it.

Despite these hiccups, I still enjoyed “THE OREGON TRAIL”. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I was able to list five episodes that truly impressed me, as shown below:

1. (1.01) “Pilot – The Oregon Trail”

2. (1.04) “Trapper’s Rendezvous”

3. (1.07) “The Man Who Wouldn’t Die”

4. (1.02) “The Last Game”

5. (1.11) “Evan’s Dilemma”

It is a pity that “THE OREGON TRAIL” did not last beyond thirteen to fourteen episodes. And it is even more of a pity that NBC lacked the good sense to either make it an anthology series or a miniseries. Oh well, I still have my DVD box set to enjoy.

“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.