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Interview With Robert Utley

Webmaster's Note: Historian and Friends board member, Robert Utley brings us forward with his life since the publication of his memoirs, Custer and Me. Visit Mr. Utley's personal website.

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April 10, 2008

We very much appreciate you granting us this interview for the Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield website.

Bob Reece: You’re memoirs, Custer and Me, end with your visit to the battlefield during the 125th commemoration events and the signing of 150 copies of Custer: Cavalier in Buckskin. It is my wish that this interview bring our members and website visitors up-to-date with the latest news from your life and career as a historian still researching and writing.

First, thank you for your continued service as a board member with the Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield. We’ve been fortunate to have you in that capacity since June 2001. Also, I personally cannot think you enough for your straight forward counsel you’ve given me over these past seven years with the sometimes difficult obstacles faced in leading this non-profit organization.

Speaking of Friends, I sometimes receive a very interesting question asking why the NPS would need a Friends organization. There are hundreds of Friends organizations across the entire NPS system, so they obviously serve a worthwhile purpose. How would you answer that question?

Robert Utley: Yes, the many Friends organizations serve a valuable purpose, aiding their parks with services and funds to purchase needed or desirable items not covered by appropriated funds. Perhaps as important, they cultivate the interest and support of the local community, giving them a share in the fortunes of the park and keeping them informed of conditions and developments in the park. Unfortunately, some Friends groups contain in their leadership people of considerable political influence, and they sometimes have interfered with the independence of park superintendents and urged measures inappropriate to the park’s mission. Also, as the parks are yearly more starved in the appropriations process, superintendents often turn increasingly to Friends groups for basic funding that should be covered by appropriations. The constant hike in fees for entry to the parks and other services is another feature of this inadequate funding. If the Administration and the Congress were to provide adequate funds for park operations, interpretation, and maintenance, Friends groups could play a more helpful role than some have in recent years.

B.R. In what ways could Friends organizations have a more helpful role if funds were appropriated better from Administration and Congress?

R.U. Many Friends groups could concentrate on truly helpful priorities that only outside groups can provide: tangible items, interpretive, and other services. They could also devote more effort to aiding the parks in ways that don’t require money, such as local support for park goals and using their clout with various political levels to help the parks.

B.R. Looking back over your career as a historian and a writer of many great books, which of your books is your personal favorite and/or that you are most proud?

R.U. My favorite and in my opinion my best book, and the one of which I am most proud, is The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull. This was published by Henry Holt & Co. in 1993 and has been by far the best-selling of my sixteen books. It endured for many years in paperback under the Ballantine imprint. But that recently went out of print, and Holt recaptured the rights and issues it this spring as one of their Owl paperback series. It has a new cover and a new title: Sitting Bull: The Life and Times of an American Patriot. I am proudest of this not only because it has received such positive critical acclaim, but because I think I succeeded in accomplishing what I wanted to do. This was to understand the culture within which Sitting Bull lived and portray his life and times within that framework, making him a real person in terms of his culture. Indispensable in achieving that goal were the recollections of old Indians in the 1920s and 1930s who knew and were close to Sitting Bull and were able to provide good material to narrate his unfolding life.

B.R. And, what do you consider to be the best book about Custer/Little Bighorn ever published or that influenced you?

R.U. That is a two-part question, my choice of the best book and the book that most influenced me. Perhaps straining the bounds of modesty, I select my own biography of Custer as my choice for the best. It was first published in 1988 as Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier, and reissued in 2001 in two incarnations: a paperback with the same title and a big, lavishly illustrated hardcover with the title Custer: Cavalier in Buckskin. The latter was published in London in cooperation with the University of Oklahoma Press. Both the 2001 editions are revised. I completely rewrote the final two chapters, dealing with the Little Bighorn, but made almost no changes in the rest of the book. I was prompted to do this rewrite by Larry Sklenar’s book, To Hell with Honor, which brought convincing new interpretations to the Little Bighorn. As for the most influential, I have to name Frederick Whittaker’s Complete Life of Major General George A. Custer. This may come as a surprise, but the explanation is that at age twelve, having been instantly transformed into a Custer enthusiast by Errol Flynn in “They Died with Their Boots On,” Whittaker was the first book I pulled from the public library in Lafayette, Indiana. Of course it was all there in print, scarcely to be challenged by a teenager. This was early 1942, the opening of World War II, and like most Americans I needed a military hero. Whittaker provided one—and with Errol Flynn launched me in a lifelong fascination with Custer and into a career in history.

B.R. What would be 1-3 most fascinating moments you have experienced throughout your life; career or otherwise?

R.U.  I’ll combine fascinating with significant and memorable. By all odds the turning point was when I took early retirement at age fifty and went from Washington back to Santa Fe. There in 1980 Melody Webb and I were married. She was Regional Historian of the National Park Service Southwest Region, a post I had held twenty years earlier. Almost twenty-nine years of wonderful marriage ensued. I followed her Park Service career as a house husband, meantime writing books. At age fifty, in 1996, she too took early retirement at Grand Teton National Park, and we returned to the Texas Hill Country, where she had been superintendent of Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park for three years. Second in importance was the May day in 1947, just after I graduated from high school, when I received a letter from Captain Edward S. Luce, superintendent of Custer Battlefield National Monument, saying “come.” All winter I had badgered him to hire me as a ranger historian for the summer, but the answer always was that I had to be twenty-one. He worked his way around the regulations, however, and hired me at age seventeen. I spent the next six summers, while going to college, as a summer seasonal at the battlefield. That experience, combined with colorful Cap Luce, influentially shaped my future. Third was the May day in 1954 when I pinned on the gold bars of a second lieutenant of infantry in the U.S. Army. I had long been an arrant militarist, as I am not now, and had for years yearned to be an army officer. The Korean War provided the pretext, and a year of intensive infantry training led finally to the culmination of six months of Officer Candidate School at the “Benning School for Boys.” I did not end up in the infantry but in the historical section of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon.

B.R. Your most recent work, Lone Star Lawmen: The Second Century of the Texas Rangers has just been released in paperback. It is the 2nd volume in your Texas Ranger’s history with Lone Star Justice being the first. How did you become interested in wanting to tell the story of the Texas Rangers?

R.U. When Melody and I retired to Texas in 1996, I was finishing the manuscript for A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific (reissued in paperback After Lewis and Clark: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific), which came out in 1997. My New York agent was calling for another book. Ever since Custer, Billy the Kid, and Sitting Bull, I have believed that if one is to invest five years of life in a book, it should be a title that commands universal public recognition. I offered three choices. One was Buffalo Bill. Another was the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma. The third was the Texas Rangers, which held special appeal because all the sources would be locally available, I would not have to travel, and everyone had heard of the Texas Rangers. Ten years and two volumes later have ended my connection with the Texas Rangers. It has been a great adventure, an exciting story, and fun to research and write

B.R. Telling the story of the Texas Rangers can be controversial. What kind of reception did you receive from the Rangers after the publication of your books?

R.U. The retired Rangers are a close-knit “band of brothers.” They share little with the outside world, always fearful of embarrassing this elite corps. I managed through indirect means to access a number of Ranger sources to combine with official records. Through the same indirect means, I learn that the Rangers are reading and applauding my book. Only one, however, has told me so directly. He is Captain Barry Caver, who led the siege of the “Republic of Texas” militia in the Davis Mountains in 1997. He is still captain of the Ranger company based in Midland. I have not encountered any controversy, indeed hardly any reaction at all. I sought to replace the 1935 history of the Rangers by Walter Prescott Webb. But he is a Texas icon, and still commands Texan affections with what is in truth not a very good book.

B.R. Congratulations are in order because it was recently announced that Lone Star Lawmen will receive the SPUR award. How do you feel about that and when will you actually receive the award? Do you know what other books were considered for this award?

R.U. This is my second Spur from the Western Writers of America. The first was for the biography of Sitting Bull. Naturally I am pleased because the Spur is prestigious and helps sales and publicity. This Spur is in the category of Best Western Contemporary Nonfiction. The runners-up were Michael L. Johnson, Hunger for the Wild: America’s Obsession with the Untamed West; and Richard A. Walker, The Country in the City: Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area. The award is presented at the annual WWA convention in Scottsdale, Arizona, early in June. In 1993 WWA also awarded me the coveted Owen Wister Award for distinguished lifetime service. I hasten to add that my lifetime is not yet finished.

B.R. You continue to research and write with your next book to cover Geronimo. Can you share with us what you have discovered so far with its subject or is it too soon to say? Do you have a title yet for Geronimo and when can we expect to see the book in the stores?

R.U. It’s probably a little too soon to say, but I’ll say a few things. Unlike Sitting Bull, Geronimo is very hard to personalize within his culture, my aim with Sitting Bull. The sources are very thin until he begins to appear in the white print. By then he was in his fifties. My impression so far is that, while he was reared within the traditional culture, he has not always exemplified that culture as Sitting Bull did. Geronimo was pretty erratic in his behavior, and while an outstanding war leader was not a chief and alienated many of his people. I went into this with the idea that Geronimo was essentially a thug. That’s not true, but his character embraced some thuggish tendencies. Yet he was the last of all North American Indian leaders to surrender, and that day in September 1886 marked the close of Indian warfare in North America. I am now digesting white official sources, mainly army records from the National Archives on microfilm. I seek to draw an official framework from the white perspective around him and then to develop him within that framework. Like the current paperback release of The Lance and the Shield, which is titled simply Sitting Bull, this too will bear the main title Geronimo, with subtitle remaining to be worked out. The public instantly recognizes both names and responds to them in ways that The Lance and the Shield did not until the subtitle revealed the subject. Consistent with my record of taking five years to turn out a book, then adding a year for the publication process, I predict Geronimo will emerge from Yale University Press in about five years.

B.R.  What are your plans after Geronimo?

R.U. I regard Geronimo as my last “big” book. Such undertakings require a sustained commitment of time and effort and are tiring. I’ll be about eighty-three by the time he is in print. I want to slow the pace of life and not be consumed by any further “big” projects. I want to have more time for other interests and personal associations. I’ll still write history, but much more slowly and on subjects of interest at the moment and requiring little or no travel to distant libraries and archives.

B.R. Is there any subject(s) or person(s) you wanted to research but were never able to, and why? What was it that struck your interest in those subjects?

R.U. I can think of none that appealed to me in the past that I could not undertake. The fact is, I can get deeply immersed in almost any subject of interest. That’s one reason why my publication record is so diverse. Most historians chose their specialty early in their career and pursue that for the rest of their years. My first was the frontier army, which still appeals to me, but I sought other topics and researched and published them. Two remain to be tackled. While at Yale University as a fellow in 2001-02, I researched the records in the Beinecke Library of an army surgeon named John Vance Lauderdale. He served at various western stations, and his observations on people and events in a circumscribed military environment are of value and interest. Also, as an expression of gratitude for Yale’s generosity in sustaining my fellowship, I need to publish some results of those two semesters. Even more pressing because deferred for almost a decade is a book I want to do comparing our Billy the Kid of history and legend with Australia’s comparable Ned Kelly. Beyond those two projects, none has yet aroused my interest. And by then, anyway, I’ll be a pretty ancient guy.

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