In recent writings I’ve been reminiscing about my quest, in 1997, for the historic ranch site of Virginia Bill Hamilton, in the Cave Hills of South Dakota. This is, I suppose, a matter of nostalgia for me--a longing for that pre-pandemic time when I would load my gear and my Labrador retriever into an F150 and roar off in search of the wonders of history and folklife across open country.
“Nostalgia,” I am informed by Psychology Today, is itself a historic term, coined in 1688 by a Swiss medical student named Johannes Hofer. He used it to describe the mysterious malaise of Swiss mercenary soldiers serving in low country and longing for Alpine landscapes. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said the Swiss soldiers were ordered to cease singing their songs from the old country in order to stop the slide into nostalgic dysfunction.
What sent me into the field in search of Virginia Bill, homesteader and rancher, was a commission to write a new introduction for his memoir, Dakota: Autobiography of a Cowman. I cannot do a job like that without going over the ground, as I already have described. I also did a careful reading of the work, and the most compelling impression I got from it was--nostalgia.
Bill and his brother Jone, you see, established a successful ranch in the Cave Hills during the 1890s, the time when the big Texas outfits were in decline and family operations were settling in. Bill and Jone really took to the country. After a visit back home to West Virginia, they concluded they no longer belonged there, because they had adopted, Bill writes, “the ways and habits of the West.”
Bill married his schoolteacher sweetheart back east and brought her to the ranch, where she, too, flourished for a while. When the kids got old enough to go to school, though, she insisted they needed to have a proper education. Bill assented, sold out, and moved the family to a farm in Missouri.
He pined all his life, however, for those golden days in Dakota Territory when the land seemed young. I do not think it an unusual thing that much of his nostalgia centered on animals.
Wolves, in particular. The Hamiltons were introducing Hereford bulls and upbreeding their herd, but gray wolves preyed ceaselessly on the calves and yearlings. The wolves were too smart to be poisoned. The men ran them down and roped them, shot them on sight, but could not stop the predation.
“We had to fall on some plan for getting rid of the wolves on the ranch or go out of the stock business,” Bill writes, “so we decided to try dogs.” They had both greyhounds and foxhounds shipped in from relatives back east, then crossed the two to produce wolf-hounds that could both track and run down the wily wolves.
This was effective, but as I studied the narrative, I read the nostalgia in it. Bill wasn’t exactly feeling sorry for the wolves, but he felt regret, a longing for that time when he and the wolves were at large in a spectacular landscape. I know that feeling.
Most of all, Virginia Bill longed for his wonderful cutting horse, Old Fox. He recalls the day Old Fox, unbroken, jumped the corral fence, and Bill swore he would make that horse his own.
Then later, just before departing Dakota, he recalls a trout fishing expedition up Sand Creek--trout for breakfast--with Old Fox. “That was the last ride I took on my favorite saddle horse,” Bill writes.
“My greatest regret in leaving Dakota was in parting with my faithful old horse,” he says. “He was ten years old when I sold out.”