Willoughby: Facts without context — no better than context without facts
Legends & Legacies
Sometimes I forget that in isolation Aspen’s history offers only a limited view of the larger world. My single-minded focus may lead to a myopic understanding of the past.
A couple of weeks ago, my focus tightened when I noticed the achievement of Nan Aspinwall, known as Two Gun Nan. Billed as the “champion woman revolver shot of the world,” Aspinwall starred in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. On a bet with Cody, she rode a horse solo from San Francisco across the country. Aspinwall departed Sept. 1, 1910. On July 8, 1911, she rode her horse into a New York elevator.
The company that owned the major circuses also owned the Wild West Show. The entertainers travelled anywhere a railroad would take them to perform. The operation required 41 railcars to accommodate the performers and their horses. I felt eager to find out whether Aspinwall passed near Aspen on her journey.
She did not. And none of the Colorado newspapers mention her undertaking. Born about the time Aspen was founded, 1879, Aspinwall lived until 1964. Local papers that covered the Wild West Show for their towns did not mention her. A woman riding solo across the country at that time certainly sounds like a greater accomplishment today than apparently it did in 1911.
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When I wondered why Aspinwall’s trip garnered so little notice, I delved into the context of her time. Perhaps Westerners did not feel impressed by the feat because they, also, may have ridden a long distance on horseback. And by 1910, a cross-country automobile ride may have better captured the American imagination.
But when Aspinwall was featured in a movie in 1926, Coloradans started to recognize the name Two Gun Nan. In addition to her shooting talent and equestrian skill, she built a vaudeville career. Hollywood may have boosted her fame more than did riding a horse across the country.
Fresh with the research about Aspinwall, I realized I did not know how Edmund A. Willoughby, my great-grandfather, got to Colorado. Had he ridden a horse from New York? One of Denver’s early pioneers, he arrived in 1858 at the age of 22. He came for the Colorado gold rush, but discovered he could earn more by building houses in Denver. He opened a contracting business, and later served as one of the first sheriffs in the county.
Great-grandfather began his journey in Groton, New York, and we know he journeyed to Omaha, Nebraska, in 1857. In my search for context, I realized the transcontinental railroad had not been completed until 1869. Even then, it bypassed Colorado in its early years. He had arrived by other means.
During 1858, many headed west by wagon. Wagon trains for the Oregon Trail formed in Independence, Missouri and Omaha. People who headed toward Colorado territory either split off at Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, or followed the Platte River southwest to Denver. Alongside others in a wagon train, Great-grandfather may have ridden a horse, driven a wagon, or walked.
My cloudy understanding of the big picture stemmed from years of focus on his arrival in Denver. I didn’t ask relatives, while they were alive, how he got there. The story of his journey, now lost, might have provided insight into transportation at the time.
I try to broaden my view of Aspen’s history, and force myself to explore context. I remind myself to do this through an observation I shared with my American history students. Visitors arrive in Santa Fe, New Mexico, steeped in the lore of their hometowns and the American history they learned in school. Their eyes pop and their jaws drop to discover that a decade before the Mayflower landed in Plymouth, Santa Fe was founded. An Anglo-centric point of view may be too narrow a lens to see our country’s rich heritage.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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