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  • Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

    William F. Drannan
    told it like it wasn’t

    by Clay Coppedge

    William 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.

    One 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 Wells. Howard 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, Howard 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, buffalo and beaver.”

    Others, however, smelled a rat.

    One 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 about right.

    As 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 imagined. Probably.

    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. He wasn’t.


    © Clay Coppedge
    January 9, 2012 Column
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