F. Drannan described himself as the “Chief of Scouts” for the U.S. Army but later
accounts have labeled him as more of a great pretender. According to two books
that Drannan wrote he was a contemporary and brother-in-arms of such icons American
icons as Kit Carson, Jim Bridger and General George Crook. The adventures he described
having with these men were mostly of the heroic and hair-raising variety.
Drannan wrote his two books late in life, about the same time he ended up in Mineral
Wells, hawking his books on street corners and at county fairs. His first
book, published in 1900 when Drannan was 68, was titled “Thirty-one Years on
the Plains and in the Mountains.” The second one, “Captain W.F. Drannan
– Chief of Scouts,” was published ten years later. The books helped satisfy
the American public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for stories about a frontier
that had been there not that long ago but wasn’t there any more at the turn of
the century. Young boys were especially keen on the books, as they described a
life full of adventure that was the fundamental stuff of their dreams.
of those boys was Robert
E. Howard of Cross
Plains, who would grow up to write the “Conan the Barbarian” series
and many other novels of sword, sorcery and fantasy. Howard
reportedly loved Drannan’s books and recalled seeing the author in Mineral
described him as “a little, worn old man in the stained and faded buckskins of
a vanished age, friendless and penniless.”
In a letter to H.P. Lovecraft,
commented on what a lousy ending it was for a man “whose faded blue eyes had once
looked on the awesome panorama of untracked prairie and sky-etched mountain, who
had ridden at the side of Kit Carson, guided the wagon-trains across the deserts
to California, drunk and reveled in the camps of the buffalo-hunters,
and fought hand to hand with painted Sioux and wild Comanche.” Another writer
recalled seeing Drannan during the same time and claimed that he “reeked of Indians,
Others, however, smelled a rat.
of those people was W.N. Bates, who wrote the 1954 book “Frontier Legend:
Texas Finales of Capt. William F. Drannan, Pseudo Frontier Comrade of Kit Carson.”
The book claimed Drannan made up the material in the books and didn’t even write
them – his wife did. That Drannan was not mentioned in any of the histories or
biographies of Kit Carson and the others seemed to suggest that Bates had it figured
is often the case, the truth may exist somewhere between the stories in Drannan’s
books and Bates’ debunking. Was he chief of scouts during the Modoc war as he
claimed? Not a chance. That distinction belonged to Donald Mackay, who
would be known as Daring Don Mackay in a dime novel version of his life. Was Drannan
even where he said he was in those books? Did he actually gaze upon that “awesome
panorama of untracked prairie and sky-etched mountain” as Howard
Students of the Modoc War, which pitted the
U.S. army against the Modoc tribe of northern California and southern Oregon and
figured prominently in Drannan’s second book, have noted that Drannan was generally
wrong about major events but surprisingly accurate about some of the details.
Recently discovered historical notes show Drannan working as a civilian contractor
for the army during the Modoc War, which puts him where he said he was at the
time he said he was there.
Most intriguing of all is a carved rock that
was found southeast of present-day Prescott, Arizona a few years ago. The inscription
on the rock read: “Killed Indians Here, 1849, Willie Drannan.” Drannan would have
been 17 at the time, which was also the time that Kit Carson was in Arizona. Archaeologists
and historians examined the rock and determined that it was “probably” authentic.
This doesn’t mean that Drannan’s books are reliable descriptions of what
happened on the plains and in the mountains and during the Modoc War. All it means
is that the old man walking around Mineral
Wells with long hair and buckskins in the 1900s had seen some things and done
some things, just not all the things he claimed to have seen and done.
Drannan died in 1913 and is buried in Mineral
Wells’ Elmwood Cemetery, where we learn that in addition to being a frontiersman
Drannan must have also been a pathological liar right up the very end and beyond.
A stone placed at his gravesite identifies him as having been a Texas Ranger.
9, 2012 Column
"Letters from Central Texas"