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By M. Timothy Nolting
For The Sun-Telegraph 

Across The Fence: From Wounded Knee to the Land of Oz

 

Lyman Frank Baum, born May 15, 1856, was the seventh of nine children born to Benjamin Ward and Cynthia Ann Baum. Frank, as he preferred to be known, was one of the five children who survived to adulthood.

Benjamin Baum became quite wealthy during the Pennsylvania oil boom through the manufacturing of barrels used in the storage and shipping of the refined product. Consequently, Frank was raised under the privilege of wealth on his parent's substantial estate, Rose Lawn, in Mattydale, N.Y.

Young Frank was a fragile youth and given to excessive daydreaming, an unfortunate preoccupation that resulted in excessively harsh punishment during his pre-teen years at Peekskill Military Academy. The militaristic discipline exacted on Frank created such extreme emotional stress that the young man suffered a psychogenic heart attack and was dismissed from the Academy, no doubt much to his pleasure.

When Frank was in his early teens his father gifted him with a printing press and he began what would become a long career in writing and publishing. Frank, and his brother Clay, produced The Rose Lawn Home Journal, a publication of brief duration that was printed on his personal press.

In 1876, one fad of the time was the breeding of exotic poultry. Frank quickly joined the ranks of enthusiasts and specialized in the Hamburg breed. Along with the raising of these fancy chickens, Frank also wrote about them. In 1880, he published a periodic trade journal that he called The Poultry Journal. Continuing to immerse himself in the trades of publishing and poultry, Frank authored his first book entitled: The Book of the Hamburgs: A Brief Treatise upon the Mating, Rearing, and Management of the Different Varieties of Hamburgs.

Also in 1880, Frank's father built a theatre for him in Richburg, N.Y. Another of Frank's passions, other than writing plays, was to act as well. The theatre gave him the opportunity to do both since he had tried, unsuccessfully, to break into theatre as a writer and actor.

At that time, author William Black had written the novel, A Princess of Thule and Frank adapted it into a melodrama that he called, The Maid Of Arran. Not only did he write the script, he also wrote the songs and acted in the lead role. This melodrama was possibly one of the first musical productions where the songs actually related to the narrative of the play. Unfortunately, Baum's theatre burned down during a production of another of his plays, a drama entitled Matches. All was lost, the theatre, costumes, production equipment and many of Baum's original manuscripts.

In 1888, Frank and his wife of six years, Matilda Joslyn Gage, moved to Aberdeen, Dakota Territory where they opened a general merchandise store called "Baum's Bazaar." Frank's generosity exceeded his business savvy and an overabundance of uncollectable sales on credit led to bankruptcy. With no other options at the time, Frank assumed the role of editor for a local newspaper, The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, and wrote an opinion column entitled, Our Landlady. It was here that L. Frank Baum gained national attention with his editorial comments on the death of the Sioux leader Sitting Bull.

In The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer on Dec. 20, 1890, L. Frank Baum wrote the following passage:

"Sitting Bull, most renowned Sioux of modern history, is dead.

He was not a Chief, but without Kingly lineage he arose from a lowly position to the greatest Medicine Man of his time, by virtue of his shrewdness and daring.

He was an Indian with a white man's spirit of hatred and revenge for those who had wronged him and his. In his day he saw his son and his tribe gradually driven from their possessions: forced to give up their old hunting grounds and espouse the hard working and uncongenial avocations of the whites. And these, his conquerors, were marked in their dealings with his people by selfishness, falsehood and treachery. What wonder that his wild nature, untamed by years of subjection, should still revolt? What wonder that a fiery rage still burned within his breast and that he should seek every opportunity of obtaining vengeance upon his natural enemies.

The proud spirit of the original owners of these vast prairies inherited through centuries of fierce and bloody wars for their possession, lingered last in the bosom of Sitting Bull. With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are. History would forget these latter despicable beings, and speak, in later ages of the glory of these grand Kings of forest and plain that Cooper loved to heroism.

We cannot honestly regret their extermination, but we at least do justice to the manly characteristics possessed, according to their lights and education, by the early Redskins of America."

And then, three weeks later on Jan. 3, 1891, after the massacre at Wounded Knee, he wrote:

"The peculiar policy of the government in employing so weak and vacillating a person as General Miles to look after the uneasy Indians, has resulted in a terrible loss of blood to our soldiers, and a battle which, at its best, is a disgrace to the war department. There has been plenty of time for prompt and decisive measures, the employment of which would have prevented this disaster.

The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination [sic] of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies future safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past."

It has been argued that these editorials were not to be taken literally and that Baum, through obnoxious argument was attempting to garner sympathy for the Indians. I would suggest that the meaning of the printed word, when not made clear, is subject to the interpretation of the reader.

When Baum's newspaper failed shortly thereafter, he and Maud along with their four sons moved back east to Chicago. Baum hired on as a reporter for the Evening Post and continued writing for other advertising publications. In 1899 he published Father Goose, His Book, which was a collection of nonsense poetry that became the best-selling children's book of that year. This was followed by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, which was the best seller for two consecutive years and gained Baum the acclaim and financial success that had long eluded him.

The setting of a drought-stricken Kansas, in the story of Oz was based somewhat on the author's time in Dakota Territory. Also, many believe that the story itself was inspired by the first ever protest march to the nation's capitol at Washington D.C.

In 1894, the second year of the worst financial depression in the history of the U.S. at that time, Jacob S. Coxey Sr. led a protest march from Massillon, Ohio, to the front steps of the Capitol in D.C. Coxey led his 500 protesters, called Coxey's Army, to a farm site in Maryland where 6,000 jobless men were camped. When the protesters reached Washington on April 30, 1894, Coxey and other leaders of the protest were arrested for walking on the grass of the United States Capitol. In addition to the charges of trespass, at that time, it was illegal to protest on the Capitol grounds. Coxey never had a chance to read his prepared speech.

L. Frank Baum was among those protesters and some have interpreted his story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as having political implications related to the protest march of Coxey's Army. In Baum's story, the scarecrow represented the American farmer and the Tin Man was representative of the industrial worker. The cowardly lion was intended to represent William Jennings Bryan and the journey along the yellow brick road was the march to Washington to see the President, (the Wizard). In the book, Dorothy's shoes were silver, which represented using silver to back the U.S. Treasury, due to the shortage of gold that had caused the panic of 1893. Hollywood changed the shoes from silver to ruby for technicolor effect.

For The Sun-Telegraph

L. Frank Baum 1911

Coxey's march was intended to be a platform to advocate the formation of a public works program that would put unemployed workers back to work. The types of jobs that Coxey proposed were public service jobs that would provide a modest income for those needing work.

Fifty years later on May 1, 1944, five years after The Wizard of Oz hit the big screen, Jacob Coxey, at 90 years old, was finally permitted to read his speech on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. The program that he had planned to propose back in 1894 was very similar to President Roosevelt's, Civilian Conservation Corps, public works program.

M. Timothy Nolting is an award winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. To contact Tim, email: acrossthefence2day@gmail.com

 

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