Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Teaching history with stories

by | February 13, 2012 | 8 comments

Two things happened last week that prompted this blog.  There was a discussion on our loop about the lack of history knowledge in today’s students, and I watched one of my favorite movies.  The movie was Red River (1948), a western staring John Wayne and Montgomery Cliff.  As a history professor tried to make history real for my students, and one of the ways I did this was to show the first twenty minutes of this film for a discussion of the westward moment in America history.

For those of you who haven’t seen the film, here’s a brief summary of what the students saw. Thomas Dunstan (John Wayne) and his friend (Walter Brennan) are on a wagon train west before the Civil War, 1851 when they pull their wagon out of line and head south to Texas to start a ranch. 

Wagon Master: You can’t leave, you signed on.

\Dunstan: I signed nothing, if I had I’d stay say, no I didn’t, I joined the train after you left St. Louis. (He keeps looking over his shoulder down the line of wagons).

Wagon Master: But there are signs of Indians #1.  The Comanche’s are welcome to you, but not your bull and cow, we need the beginning of herds in California. #2

Dunstan: I’m starting my own herd.

As they start to leave, the girl Dunstan has fallen in love with wants to go with them.

Dunstan: I decided last night.

Girl: I have too, I want to go with you.

Dunstan: I’ll send for you

Girl: I know you have work to do, Tom.  I want to be part of it. I love you.

Dunstan: It’s too much for a woman.

She pleads with him, but he says no.

Dunstan:  I’ve made up my mind.  I’ll send for you.  Will you come?

Girl: Of course I’ll come. #3

But Dunstan says he has work to do, and he’ll send for her when he gets the ranch set up.  So Dunstan and his friend head south. 

Dunstan and his friends, reach Texas, and in the middle of nowhere, they stop, brand their bull and cow to start their ranch. 

Dunstan: This is it, good water and grass.

Garth (as a boy): Who this belong to?

To me. Someday this will all be covered with good beef

 At this point two Mexican arrive from the south.

Mexican: Where do you travel

Dunstan: No where

Mexican: You may remain here on Don Diego’s land. You are welcome for day, a week, a year

Dunstan: Are you Diego?

Mexican: No senior

Dunstan: Where is he?

Mexican: At his home across the river, 600 kilometers south

Groot: How far is that?

Dunstan: About 400 miles

Groot: That’s too much land for one man. Why it ain’t decent.  All this land aching to be used. It ain’t decent, I tell you.

Mexican: But it is for Don Diego to decide.

Dunstan: Where did he get the land

Mexican: In grant from the king of all the Spains

Dunstan: Took it away from those who were here first. Indians maybe. Well, I’m taking it away from him. #4

 This is essentially the prologue to the rest of the movie which deals with the first cattle drive north after the Civil War. And, of course, there is a romantic element that comes into the story.


One of the things I tried to teach was critical thinking.  After seeing this part of the film, I’d asks question as to what they’d seen.  What might have been incorrect?  What did you learn about the lives of the people of the time? 


Here are some of the things I pointed out to the class (from the numbers above).


#1 – Indian attacks on wagons trains were not common before the Civil War, as the wagon trains were just traversing the Great Plains.  Indians attacks happen mostly during and after the Civil Was as the Indians realized the people were planning on staying on the land.


#2 – they didn’t need cattle in California. The Spanish had brought cattle, and they multiplied until they were killed for hides and tallow.  Hides went back to New England to make into shoes.


#3 At this point I asked the women in the class to think about this scenario – This man is the love of your life, you go on the Oregon.  How long are you going to wait for him to send for you?  A year?  Two years? Forever?  Eventually marry someone else and hope you don’t hear from him? For the men this is the scenario – This woman is the love of your life, and you’ve made a success of your ranch.  How are you going to send for her? How are you going to send a letter or massager?  Go yourself?  Where is Oregon are you going to look? Say the heck with it and marry whoever’s available?


#4 this film (in addition to being a good movie –OK I admit it’s one of my favorites) has a good example of Manifest Destiny (you remember that from you history classes, right?).  Land belongs to those who can utilize it.


Have you ever seen a movie (or read a book) that made history come alive for you?  I hope I made my students think about who we are and where we come from that has shaped up into who we are today.  And I think that what, in some way, all of us who write historical novels do – tell today’s readers about the past and make it come alive. 



  1. Caroline Clemmons

    A book that brought the westward movement alive for me was Louis L’Amour’s HOW THE WEST WAS WON. The movie was good, but the book was so much better.

  2. Angelyn

    Nice post. My family loves The Searchers, based on the Cynthia Ann Parker story.

  3. Joy Smid

    Fact #1: You are correct that before the Civil War, wagon trains weren’t attacked if they stayed in a safe areas patrolled by the American Army. When the Comanches realized the Army was involved in the Civil War, they began raiding and pushing the frontier back.
    Fact #2: The miners in the West needed food (cattle). The survivor of the Oatman massacre (1851) married a Texan who made a fortune in driving cattle to the gold fields.

  4. Joy Smid

    You mentioned that the movie setting was 1851 , not 1830.
    In the book Trail Drivers of Texas (oral history), cattle drives from Texas took place from 1833 to 1871. Eighty percent took place in 1840s and 50s. Cattle were destined for packeries in midwest and northeast. Other herds supplied Indian reservations & military posts. Others went west to(mining camps) and to Mexico.
    Texas had free cattle (from Spanish herds) , which could be rounded up from the south and driven along known water holes to wherever they were needed. Many settlers came to Texas to go into ranching.
    I suspect that the waste of the Calif. cattle in the 30s may have led to the need for cattle to supply the huge number of miners with gold fever in the west.

  5. Terry Irene Blain

    I read some of Louis L’Amor. But mostly short stories. I did like the film HOw the West Was Won.

  6. Terry Irene Blain

    The Searchers is a great film, too. Both Searchers and Red River are two of Wayne’s greater film roals. In face when John Ford who had previously directed Wayne saw Red River (directed by Howard Hawks)he was to have said “I didn’t know the big lug could act.”

  7. Terry Irene Blain

    you are correct that the gold rush created a need for cattle, but the didn’t need the START of cattle herds in California (as the film suggests). On of the standard works on the history of early California is titled Cattle on a Thousand Hills, by Robert Glass Cleland.

    Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Befor the Mast details a voyage to California in the 1830’s where he tells of loading hides and tallow with the meat being allowed to rot.

    Thanks for the further details.

  8. Emma

    E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (pre-WWI) and Peter Quinn’s The Banished Children of Eve (NY Draft Riots) are two of my favorites. Can I also throw in Mary Doria Russell’s Doc (Doc Holliday) and her A Thread of Grace (WWII)? All unbelievably good. At least two of those made me cry and I still want to ‘warn the Archduke.’



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