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
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 Wells.
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
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 about right.
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. He wasn’t.
© Clay Coppedge
9, 2012 Column
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