The Saga of Two-Gun Nan


Miss Nan Aspinwall, Who Plans to Ride Across the Continent Alone, Los Angeles Herald 9 July 1910

Here is the tale of a long-forgotten publicity stunt that gave Nan Aspinwall national attention as the first woman to cross the North American continent on horseback in 1910.

Billed as “The Montana Girl” on the vaudeville circuit, Nan was a trick-riding, sharp-shooting, lariat-twirling cowgirl performer in the style of Annie Oakley.  In 1910 she and her husband Frank Gable came up with the idea to promote their show with a daring solo ride across country from sea to shining sea.

Starting in San Francisco, Nan would carry greetings from the mayor of the city by the Bay to the mayor of New York City. On the journey she gave performances to earn her way. Her husband Frank acted as her advance man, setting up shows and advertising her stunt. He traveled by train. But Nan herself did the entire journey riding on her faithful mare, Lady Ellen, accompanied only by her border collie, Ky-Ipp.

She customarily wore typical Western wear: a divided skirt, boots, a silk or flannel shirt with a bandanna around her neck, and a Stetson hat. She had long blond wavy hair and an engaging smile. She claimed to have grown up on a ranch in Montana, where her father taught her to rope and ride, She looked every bit the Girl of the Golden West.

DSCF6458 (2)Not all of her backstory was the truth, as we shall see. But her achievement as the first woman to cross the United States alone on horseback was genuine.

Stay tuned and in future installments I will tell you the true story of Nan Aspinwall.

And how did I learn about Two-Gun Nan? The poster you see above used to hang in my mother-in-law’s house. Her father (actually her step-father) was a cousin to Nan, although I do not know how closely they were related. I am really no relation at all. My daughter always liked this poster and now it hangs in her hallway. She found a book about Two-Gun Nan, a thesis written about her some twenty years ago and published by a small press that specializes in “equestrian travel classics.” Most of the information will come from this book, In Genuine Cowgirl Fashion: The Life and Ride of “Two-Gun Nan Aspinwall, by Mary Higginbotham.


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New Book News

My new picture book biography of Peter Lassen is getting closer to complettion. Everything is in the hands (and computer) of my friendly neighborhood graphic designer, Carla Resnick. Pretty soon it will be off to the printer and then a big box o’ books will come to my door.

Here are the front and back cover illustrations by Steve Ferchaud, without text:


Front cover

lassen back

Back cover

Gary Kurutz, retired but very busy curator of the California State Library, gave me a quote to put on the back.

Through comprehensive research and gifted writing, historian Nancy Leek brings out the magnetic life of this intrepid Danish pioneer who crossed the country to settle and tame the rugged and remote land of northeastern California. Like Captain Sutter, he was generous and welcoming to immigrants and respected Native Americans only to be murdered in 1859 on his way to the newly discovered Nevada silver mines.

––Gary F. Kurutz, curator emeritus, California State Library and executive director, California State Library Foundation

I am very pleased to have the endorsement of an eminent scholar of California history. I’m looking forward to having that book in my hands shortly!

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The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett


Peter Hardemann Burnett, about 1860

How many of us can name the first governor of California?

Well, now you can. He was Peter Burnett, Oregon pioneer, Oregon’s first supreme court judge, trailblazer to California, and first governor of the Golden State. He was handsome, ambitious, and the kind of man other men gravitated to as a leader. He was also often his own worst enemy.

The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett, by R. Gregory Nokes (Oregon State University Press, 2018), is the first ever biography of this fascinating man. I heard Mr. Nokes speak to the Butte County Historical Society a couple of weeks ago, and couldn’t wait to read his book. There are heroes and villains in history, and then there are forgotten men like Peter Burnett: intelligent, attractive, complicated men, full of contradictions, who failed as often as they succeeded.

Peter Burnett came from a poor family in Tennessee, but he had rich relatives. It gave him a life-long thirst for wealth, the kind of wealth that allowed a man to own slaves to do his work for him. As a merchant in Missouri, he went deeply into debt. He studied law, helped defend the Prophet Joseph Smith in court, and served as a district attorney. But debt continued to plague him and he decided to “light out for the territory.”

He organized the first large wagon train to set out for Oregon in 1843. Possibly he took two slaves with him, the record is unclear. He was elected captain of the wagon train, but he found the duties vexatious and one week later he resigned, a portent of his future political life. In Oregon he quickly rose to prominence and served on the first legislative committee. Notoriously, he promoted legislation that would bar African-Americans, slave or free, from residing in Oregon. Known as the “lash law,” the act provided that a severe whipping would be given any black person who did not leave Oregon within a prescribed period. Burnett would take his prejudice with him to California.

Oregonians were among the first to hear of the gold discovery and Burnett quickly organized a wagon train for California. Some of the men with him settled in Butte County, where they founded Oregon City on Table Mountain, but Burnett went on to Long Bar on the Yuba River. Soon he realized that the greatest wealth could be gained in real estate and he partnered with John A. Sutter, Jr. to sell lots in Sacramento. It made him a wealthy man.

Elected to a two-year term as governor in 1849, Burnett could not even make it that long. He resigned in January 1851, after serving not much more than a year. Once again his focus had been on making California a “whites-only” state, but the legislature did not back him up. He went on to serve on the California supreme court, where he maintained his racist reputation by ruling against Archy Lee, a slave claiming freedom in a free state. Luckily for Archy, a lower court circumvented Burnett’s ruling, which was widely criticized in the newspapers.

burnett bookAlthough he later wrote a lengthy book of his recollections and had a fairly successful second career in banking, Peter Burnett was soon forgotten in the political world, and is barely mentioned in California history. Greg Nokes has brought him back to life, complete with all his controversies and contradictions. His book is a window into early California politics and business. In spite of his flaws and his failures, Peter Burnett deserves to be remembered for his successes in pioneering and his place in Oregon and California history.



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A Letter Found in a Book

People use all kinds of things for bookmarks, just ask any librarian. Today I was given the first page of a letter, written in 1900, that was used as a bookmark in antique book on learning Greek.

The library staff gave the letter to me, knowing of my interest in the Bidwells and Chico history. We don’t know who wrote the letter, although it seems to be a young woman. We don’t have the complete letter. It was written on April 5, 1900, the day after John Bidwell died, and the writer says on the second page:

Poor Mrs. Bidwell will be lost without the General, won’t she? His death must have caused quite a sensation in Chico.

So we know that news got around fast. She also mentions the Neubarth and Epperson families, both well known names in Chico. Please comment on this post if you have any information to add about the contents of this letter.

Created with GIMP



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New Book Coming!


By December (if all goes well — I have my fingers crossed) I will have a new book out in the Golden State Biographies series for young readers. The new book will be about Peter Lassen, the enterprising immigrant from Denmark, who gave his name to a county, a national park, and an active volcano.

“Stunning” Steve Ferchaud has completed the illustrations, and everything is in the hands of Carla Resnick, my neighborhood graphic designer. Here are a few of Steve’s pictures to whet your appetite.


Peter Lassen the blacksmith


Peter and John Bidwell chasing a grizzly bear


Peter dreams of the legendary Gold Lake, where nuggets of gold lay on the shore, ready to be picked up.

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Who Was J.R. Poynter?


The author of Entewa, the Mountain Bird was J.R. Poynter, M.D. What can we find out about Dr. Poynter?

The book was published by the Marysville Herald in 1852. Possibly it was serialized in that newspaper, but I don’t know if digital or microfilm copies of the paper exist. It isn’t in the California Digital Newspaper Collection. But searching that online newspaper collection does find a few mentions of Dr. Poynter, and it turns out that he was a busy man.

He shows up in the 1852 California census, as I. R. Pointer, in Yuba County, age 28, birthplace V (for Virginia). He was probably born in 1824. If he came to California in 1849, then he was 25 years old when he joined the Gold Rush, with a newly minted medical degree.

One can imagine that Dr. Poynter joined a company of fellow Virginians and set out for California, but whether overland or by ship we don’t know. He probably tried his hand at mining, and found out that more money could be made doctoring or raising animals or almost anything else.

Sometime in 1852 he traveled back to the states. The Marysville Daily Herald reported on 30 August 1853 that:

Our old townsman, Dr. Poynter, has also just arrived. with a drove of about 400 cattle. He started in company with Mr. Holloway who was drowned in Green River. He came by Salt Lake city, and by taking the north side of the Humboldt, avoided the crowd of emigration. Dr. P. thinks that about one-fifth of the cattle started from the States, died on the way. The bloody murrain was prevalent, in many herds, and fatal. Most of those coming with stock, left here for the purpose of stocking their ranches with good American cattle. The proportion of beef cattle is not large. Holloway and Poynter started with several young calves in their train. Six of them toddled through. and arrived fat and thrifty. Enterprising young “oxens.”

When the 49ers arrived in California there was plenty of Mexican cattle around, but many stockmen wanted to improve their herds with the American cattle they were familiar with.

Early in the 1850s he tried his hand at politics. In 1851 he took part in a political meeting  in Weaverville, Shasta County, and was appointed one of seven delegates to attend the Whig Convention in San Francisco to support the nomination of Captain William Waldo for governor. And in 1854 he ran for state senator from Sutter and Yuba counties. The Whigs were a dying party at this point though, and Poynter lost the election.

During the rest of the 1850s Dr. Poynter bred and raised stock. He won prizes for mules and cows at the California State Fair: for instance, first prize of $25 for the best California-bred Jack (mule), first premium ($15) for the best jennies and the same for the best pair of  California-bred mules. (Sacramento Daily Union, 21 September 1859)

He also kept practicing medicine, and one incident made it into the papers.

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Sacramento Daily Union, 18 July 1855

So here is a man with an active life and a promising future. Unfortunately his life and future were cut short by his death in 1860.

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Marysville Daily Appeal 19 April 1860

And that is all we know about Dr. J. R. Poynter. But if I ever turn up anything else about him, I’ll let you know. He was a remarkable man, and the author of the first work of fiction ever published in California.

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Entewa, the Mountain Bird — The Conclusion

Would it surprise you if I told you that since Entewa is an Indian and Barkley is a “paleface,” their love is doomed? Probably not. And since you are not likely to ever read the book, I will go ahead and tell you how it ends.

Entewa mourns, because she thinks that Barkley has deserted her, but Kee-wano (the good Indian) assures her that the “paleface warrior” loves her. He goes to find Barkley and bring him to her at the Battle Rock.

But, alas, when they reach the Battle Rock, Entewa has disappeared! Kee-wano and all the tribe search for her, while Barkley returns to his camp to await news, and there he is attacked and kidnapped by Kan-tee-baw! (He’s the bad Indian.)

Just as Kan-tee-baw is about to execute Barkley, Kee-wano intervenes in his behalf and speaks on his behalf before the gathered tribe.

But as the last words fell from his lips, a battle axe, wielded by the unerring hand of Kan-tee-baw, was circling ready to descend upon the head of the pale face warrior. The chief saw it, and with a quick and well directed aim, he grasped his own and drove it with full force into the merciless head of the ungrateful savage.

Close call! but Barkley is saved. He and Kee-wano join Giles and Weedow, who suspect that Entewa has been stolen by the band of robbers. They soon come to a beautiful landscape of knolls, lakes, nearby mountains, and a cliff — keep your eye on that cliff. There they find four bandits in a card game, and the one who loses has a dreadful deed to carry out. “Here,” says the his companion, “take my pistol; place it in your bosom, I see him coming now — he’s left the pretty black-eyed forester upon the cliff. She will be ours, you know, when once we get this damn’d old captain dead.”

Our heroes attack: “Down ‘ith ’em! Drot their gallinipperd, blood-suckin’, Ingen stealin’, ‘sassinnatin’, devilish hearts!” cries Giles. They kill the bandits, then Giles go after Old Cub (the damn’d old captain), who is just coming down the hill. Although he has failed to reload his rifle, Giles has a secret weapon hidden in his bosom — a huge flask, filled with alcohol — what we would call a Molotov cocktail. He lights it, scuffles with Old Cub, thrusts it in his shirt, and Old Cub is blown to smithereens.

Indian cliff

She’s not standing — I couldn’t find that one.

But what of Entewa?

“But hark! across the water comes the soft and lute-like tones of a seraphic voice, singing a dirge.” Her friends see Entewa, standing on the edge of the cliff. Though they “flew toward the cliff with aerial wings of rapidity” they are too late. “Unknowing that her friends are near” (in spite of all the commotion) and robbed by the “tyrant ruffian” of her spotless purity, she leaps into the waters of the lake.

And so ends the tragic tale of Entewa and Barkley. Accompanied by his friend Kee-wano, Barkley leaves for San Francisco, where “on the morning if the 15th December 1849” he passes through the Golden Gate on his way home. Kee-wano lingers on the wharf, keeping his vigil until the vessel passes out of sight.

DSCF6024 (2)Next time I will tell you what little I know about J.R. Poynter, the author of Entewa, the Mountain Bird.




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