Thus begins the story of Kansas’s own legendary hero and Paul Bunyan figure, Johnny Kaw. Read More
A new year—a new reading challenge!
This year, Kansas is the theme. To complete the challenge, you must read 12 Kansas-related books by the end of 2018:
- A book about Kansas prior to 1854.
- A book about Kansas flora.
- A fictional book written by a Kansas author.
- A book about territorial Kansas.
- A book about Kansas travel.
- A book about Kansas fauna.
- A book about Kansas in the late 1800s.
- A book of poetry written by a Kansas author.
- A book about a famous Kansan.
- A book about Kansas in the 1900s.
- A book of Kansas photography.
- A book about a current issue in Kansas.
Here are the rules:
- Books in electronic formats count.
- Both fiction and nonfiction books count.
- You can read the books in any order.
- Books cannot be counted twice, even if they fit into more than one category.
If you can complete a book a month, you will be able to complete the challenge easily.
Let us know what you’re reading this year! We’d love to hear from you!
The Homestead Bookshelf
Looking for a good book? Start here.
The early cowboys seem to have been artists at heart. Every aspect of their daily lives seems to have made it into verse, from their love of nature to their battles with wild horses to their prosaic bacon-and-beans diet.
Many of the first cowboy poems were song lyrics. Thus, this poetic style shares the same cultural origins as Western music. The ballad form of the British Isles became a key feature early on. The repetition and sense of rhythm popular among black cowboys did, as well.
That said, cowboys did not always set their verses to music. Recitation was a popular pastime all over America in that day. Often at night, the cowboys would simply enjoy reciting and listening to recited poetry, copying the example of their acquaintances back East.
A Range of Topics
Cowboy poetry primarily deals with the West. Long-standing favorite subjects have been cattle chores, love-hate relationships with horses, observations on nature, religious musings, and thoughts of home and family.
As the West has evolved to fit the modern era, so has cowboy poetry. Favorite topics today include everything from politics to the woes of adapting to new technology, but the traditional ranching flavor will remain as long as the cowboy way of life does.
In the days of the cattle drives, cowboys had to find ways to pass long nights on the prairie. One favorite was swapping yarns. Ever since, telling a story that can evoke a laugh, a thrill, or a tender sentiment has been a key goal of cowboy poetry. The method of concocting the story varies by poet. Some prefer to stick to the facts, especially if offering a historical narrative, but the tall tale still rides on today.
The poems that tended to last the longest were those that could be memorized the easiest. Cowboy poetry was frequently published in newspapers, but recitation was at least half the fun. Here is where the African-American influence proved to be extremely helpful. A definite rhythm makes memorization easy. So does a good rhyme scheme. As previously mentioned, the ballad form has long predominated, but anything with a solid rhythm and a catchy rhyme scheme is commonly accepted.
Is That Cowboy Poetry?
One sticky question is whether only true cowboys and cowgirls can write cowboy poetry.
The stricter school of thought is that it takes a working cowboy to write about the life of a working cowboy. A tenderfoot will never be able to properly appreciate the joys and hardships of the Western way of life and will sooner or later betray his inexperience in his poetry.
The looser school of thought is pleased to recognize an appreciation of the West wherever it can be found. So the poet only rides in his imagination? Well, at least he showed his love for all things Western. After all, some of the earliest writers of cowboy poetry were Easterners who never worked cattle in their lives.
The result of this diversity of thought on and approach to cowboy poetry is an equally diverse genre. Cowboy poetry, one might say, is the poetry of life, life in the West in particular.
John Greenleaf Whittier was probably best known for his book-length poem Snowbound, but as a Quaker he was also an ardent abolitionist, even taking an active hand in political lobbying for the cause at one point.
When the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 plunged the entire nation into a debate on slavery and the respective roles of state and Federal governments in regulating the practice, it was not possible that Whittier could overlook such critical events. People on all sides of the question felt that Kansas would be the testing ground for their respective philosophies.
Whittier, therefore, took up his pen and contributed a series of poems on events in Kansas which have been collected and preserved at KanColl, a volunteer-based website dedicated to archiving the primary sources of Kansas.
The first poem is “The Kansas Emigrants,” also known as “The Song of the Kansas Emigrant.” These lyrics, originally sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne,” were written to inspire the abolitionist pioneers who were moving to make Kansas a free state.
The second is “The Burial of Barbour,” written after the death of Thomas Barber on December 6, 1855. Earlier that year, the murder of an abolitionist settler led to a series of retaliations, culminating within a proslavery posse besieging the Free State stronghold of Lawrence. Barber had been among the defenders of the city, but was returning home briefly to check on his own affairs before returning to Lawrence. He was stopped and shot by the besiegers after refusing to join their side. Barber was considered the first Free State martyr of Kansas by many, and Whitter’s poem became a rallying cry for the abolitionist cause.
The third poem is “Le Marais du Cygne.” It commemorated the Marais des Cygnes Massacre of May 19, 1858. A group of Missourians captured 11 unarmed Free State men, marched them into a ravine, and opened fire. Five of the victims were killed and five severely wounded. A shaky truce between the two factions was formed shortly after the massacre. Although matters still appeared to be precarious, the men on each side concentrating around their strongholds, Marais des Cygnes proved to be the last major act of violence in Kansas prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.
The fourth and final poem is “John Brown of Ossawatomie,” written upon the notorious abolitionist guerrilla leader’s execution. John Brown had left his base of operations in Osawatomie, Kansas, in late 1856 to raise funds and followers back East. Meanwhile, he developed an idea of ending slavery by leading a large-scale slave revolt, culminating in the creation of a new free state, complete with a constitution written by Brown himself. The first major act in the revolution was the failed raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in October 1859, for which Brown was hanged.
These four poems provide an interesting look into the minds of the Northern abolitionists of the 1850s. Whittier eloquently encapsulated the sentiments of the antislavery cause with regard to Kansas, leaving us a poignant record to enjoy and ponder.