“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): Chapter III Commentary

“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): CHAPTER III Commentary

Chapter II of the 1979 miniseries, “THE CHISHOLMS” focused on the second leg of the western Virginia family’s westbound journey to California in 1844. This last episode focused on their journey through Illinois and Missouri, culminating in their arrival in Independence, Missouri. Chapter III focused on the family’s trek along the eastern half of the Oregon Trail, culminating with an unwanted encounter on the plains.

A great deal had happened to the Chisholm family in Chapter II. Their traveling companion, Lester Hackett, managed to seduce Hadley and Minerva Chisholm’s older daughter Bonnie Sue and later, steal Will Chisholm’s horse in an effort to evade a group of men who suspected him of stealing some items of their friend. Will and the family’s second son, Gideon broke away from the family outside St. Louis and headed for Lester’s family farm in Iowa. The pair was eventually arrested for trespassing on the Hackett farm and forced to spend one month on a prison work gang. The other members of the Chisholm family encountered a family from Baltimore, Maryland named Comyns and formed a wagon party with them. Following their arrival in Independence, the family discovered that most of the wagon trains had set out on the Oregon Trail over a month ago. The two families encountered a former Army scout named Timothy Oates, who asked if he and his Pawnee wife could accompany them as far as present-day Nebraska. Unaware that Will and Gideon had been detained in Iowa, the Chisholms and their traveling companions continued their western trek.

Despite being a month behind and two missing members of the family, the Chisholms’ western trek seemed to be going well. For once, Hadley has managed to contain his prejudice against Native Americans and regard Timothy’s Pawnee wife, Youngest Daughter, in an affable light. The youngest member of the Chisholm family, Annabel, has managed to click rather well with the Oates. However, it was not long before the travelers encountered their first barrier on the trail. After their first river crossing (possibly the Wakarusa River), they encounter a family named Hutchinson. When the family’s patriarch informed the travelers that he and his family were returning east due to a mysterious fever striking their wagon party, Mr. Comyns decided to do the same. The youngest member of his family happened to be an infant and he did not want to risk the child becoming sick. The Chisholm family continued their western trek in the company of Timothy and Youngest Daughter Oates. They first encountered the very wagon train that the Hutchinson family had abandoned. Unfortunately, members of that wagon train were still stricken by the fever. The traveling party then encountered two Kansa couples traveling on foot, with whom they traded coffee for butter. Timothy hid his wife inside the Chisholms’ wagon, due to the Pawnee and the Kansa being at war. Eventually, the Chisholms said good-bye to Timothy and Youngest Daughter, who continued on to the latter’s Pawnee village. And the Chisholms continued their California-bound trek.

Ten or fifteen minutes into the episode, Will and Gideon were finally released from the prison work gang after thirty days. The pair stumbled across a ramshackle cabin in Missouri, where they found dead bodies, a wrecked interior and a traumatized Native American woman who seemed to have been assaulted. Will managed to convince her to accompany them as far as Independence for medical attention. The Chisholm brothers finally discovered the tavern where Hadley and Beau had first met Timothy Oates. The bartender informed them that the other Chisholms had already continued west. The pair also learned that their traveling companion was named Keewedinok and she wanted to accompany the two brothers on their journey. Meanwhile, back on the trail, Beau managed to shoot a buffalo, allowing the Chisholms to enjoy a meal with bison meat for the first time. Unbeknownst to them, a Pawnee warrior had spotted them and raced back to his companions to report their presence. The Pawnees hold a campfire before deciding to raid the Chisholm camp for the family’s mules and the women. The episode ended with Bonnie Sue becoming the first family member targeted by the Pawnee raiders.

I felt as if I experiencing an oncoming train wreck, while watching Chapter III. This is no negative reflection on the miniseries’ writing. The train wreck I was referring to were the series of decisions and bad luck that led to the episode’s last moment – the Pawnee raiders’ attack upon the Chisholms. To be honest, this series of bad luck and questionable decisions began when the family discovered they had set out for California a month late in Chapter I and continued in Chapter II. But the series of small disasters that the Chisholms experienced in Chapter III seemed to form a crescendo, until it ended with a pay off that culminated in a disaster.

Although the previous two episodes featured decisions made by Hadley Chisholm that led to that disastrous moment in the final scene of Chapter III, screenwriter David Dortort did a great job in building up to that moment with a series of memorable scenes. For me, the one most dramatic scenes included the Chisholms’ encounter with the fever-infected wagon train. This led to Hadley and Minerva’s last quarrel over whether they should continue west to California or turn back. I also enjoyed the Chisholms and the Oates’ encounter with the two Kansa couples. It featured an interesting mixture of comedy surrounding the Chisholms’ efforts to trade with the two couples; and dramatic tension over Timothy’s effort to Younger Daughter from the Kansa, due to a war between the two tribes.

Viewers got a chance to experience the beginning of Will and Gideon’s adventures on the road as they struggle to catch up with their family, following their release from the prison work gang. The miniseries never really indicated on whether they had met the widowed Keewedinok in Iowa or Missouri. But I cannot deny that Dortort did a great job in detailing the brothers’ budding relationship with her. I especially enjoyed how the pair, especially Will, went out of his way reassure Keewedinok that he and Gideon will not harm her with a soothing manner. Another interesting aspect about this scene was the brothers’ discussion on who was behind the attack on the cabin. When Will speculated on the idea of hostile Native Americans in that part of the world (Iowa or Missouri, circa 1844), Gideon responded with an even more interesting suggestion that whites may have been behind the attack that left a traumatized Keewedinok as the sole survivor. Although Will managed to convince Keewedinok to accompany him and Gideon, she barely spoke a word during their journey. She finally spoke up at an Independence saloon, where she revealed her name and asked Will if she could accompany the brothers further west.

One of the most interesting scenes in both this episode and the entire miniseries proved to be the conference between the four (or three) Pawnee braves who had targeted the Chisholms for a raid. Frankly, it happened to be one of the funniest scenes in the series as the Pawnees debated over the Chisholms’ valuable belongings. They also debated over who would lead the prayer for a successful raid. One particular brave seemed to be rather annoyed when the youngest Pawnee kept erroneously praying for horses, when it had already been established that the Virginia family only had mules. It seems odd to think that this rather humorous scene occurred right before they made their first strike at the end of the episode.

As usual, the performances featured in this episode of “THE CHISHOLMS” were top-notch. Solid performances from the likes of Stacy Nelkin, James Van Patten and Susan Swift, who portrayed the younger members of the Chisholm family. The episode also featured solid performances from the likes of Silvana Gallardo (whom I remembered from NBC’s “CENTENNIAL”), Tenaya Torres, Joe “Running Fox” Garcia, Ronald G. Joseph, Don Shanks and Jerry Hardin. I rather enjoyed Geno Silva’s entertaining performance as an Osage man named Ferocious Storm, who proved to be quite a canny trader when the Chisholms and the Oates made their river crossing. Another performance that caught my eye came from none other than Billy Drago, who portrayed Teetonkah, the leader of the four Pawnee raiders. Eight years before his appearance in the 1987 movie, “THE UNTOUCHABLES”, Drago made it clear in this production that he would become a screen presence that many would not forget. David Hayward proved to be both solid and charismatic as the dependable former Army scout, Timothy Oates. Hayward did a great job in conveying Timothy’s competence as a guide . . . to the point that his departure from the story was clearly felt when the character and the latter’s wife parted from the Chisholms on the Nebraska plains.

Both Ben Murphy and Brian Kerwin finally got the chance to develop a solid screen chemistry when their two characters – brothers Will and Gideon Chisholm – were released from the prison work gang. I especially enjoyed their performances in one scene that featured Will and Gideon’s discovery of the traumatized Keewedinok and their speculation on whether Native Americans or whites were responsible for assaulting her and killing the ransacked cabin’s other inhabitants. Speaking of Keewedinok, I thought Sandra Griego gave an excellent portrayal of a woman dealing with the trauma of being assaulted. Griego managed to perfectly convey Keewedinok’s state of mind without any acting histronics. She also formed a very good chemistry with Murphy. As for the miniseries’ two leads – Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris – they were outstanding as usual. However, there were two scenes featuring the veterans in which I thought they truly shined. The first was a small scene that featured Hadley and Minerva enjoy a brief private conversation together (which included Minerva’s astonishment at the different languages spoken by various Plains tribes) that led to more intimate nocturnal activities. Both Preston and Harris were at their most charming in this scene. I also enjoyed their acting in another scene that featured a brief quarrel between the couple over whether to continue west or not, following the family’s encounter with the fever-induced wagon train.

I did have a few quibbles regarding Chapter III. One, the passage of time struck me as rather vague. In fact, the passage of time for this production has been vague since the last half hour of Chapter I. The miniseries revealed that the Chisholms had arrived in Louisville, Kentucky in mid-May 1844. As of the end of Chapter III, I have no idea how much time had passed since their departure from Louisville. All I know is that Will and Gideon are probably a little over a month behind the rest of the family, thanks to their month long sentence on an Iowa prison work gang. I also had two problems regarding the episode’s photography. For some reason, cinematographer Jacques R. Marquette thought it was necessary to film this episode in earth tones, due to the Chisholms traveling west of Independence. I found this unnecessary, considering that the landscape in eastern Kansas and Nebraska is green and the Chisholms had yet to travel that far west. Also, unlike the production’s first two chapters, I noticed that this chapter’s photography not only did not seem that colorful, but also not that sharp. I get the feeling that whoever transferred this miniseries to DVD did not bother improve the visuals for this episode.

Quibbles or not, Chapter III of “THE CHISHOLMS” proved to be both entertaining and very interesting. The episode featured a major shift in the Chisholms’ western journey, the addition of new characters and dangers. Chapter III also featured some excellent performances, especially by the leads Robert Preston, Rosemary Harris and Ben Murphy and a series of interesting scenes that led to the episode’s cliffhanger.

“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.