Silver Tailings: Behind the Ox-Bow


The first time I heard of “The Ox-Bow Incident,” I was perhaps 13 years-old. One of my cousins had to do a report for a high school English class and had the “Cliff Notes,” on the book.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I actually saw the movie starting Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan. Eventually, I got around to reading the novel written by Walter Van Tilburg Clark.

Clark was born in East Orland, Maine, August 9, 1909, but his family moved to Nevada when he was eight. He grew up and went to college in Reno, where his father was president of the University of Nevada.

Besides being well-educated Clark had a number of interests, including sports, art, music, theater, chess, western history, Indian lore, geology, mining, and ranching. Many of these interests are touched upon in his writing.

He’s also credited with editing the journals of Alfred Doten, no easy task since Doten’s personal papers are contained in a three-volume set covering  the period of 1849 to 1903. And the fact that he grew up in Northern Nevada caused me to want to know more about how he came to write such an unforgiving portrayal of the old West.

The story takes place in Bridger’s Wells, Nevada, a town located in a valley on the western side of the Continental Divide. Ox Bow Valley’s to the west of town and jus’ over the mountains.

The valley’s two or three miles long and half or three-quarters of a mile wide. A creek, in the middle of the valley, winds back on itself like a snake and so is called Ox Bow.

There’s also a road along its edge at the south end, which is the only way in and out of the valley, because the mountains on the other three sides are steep. There’s a clearing right at the summit of the valley, but the road runs through the middle of it.

Technically speaking, neither Ox-Bow Valley or Bridger’s Wells exists geographically, but rather, they’re composites of other places. Instead, the landscape as described appears to be based on the historic Comstock town, Virginia City.

This is only supposition on my part.

As for the triple lynching — that comes from the biography of William J. Flake, who helped settle parts of Arizona, and was imprisoned for polygamy.

Authors Eric Kramer and Carol Sletten write in their 2010 book, “Story of the American West:  “He (Flake) went to Phoenix to recover livestock stolen during the Pleasant Valley war. He found the bodies of the young cowboys who were lynched near Heber in the true story that led to the writing and filming of the Ox-Bow incident.”

In August 1888, Jamie Stott, James Scott and Jake Wilson were arrested for allegedly shooting a rancher named Jake Lauffer. Furthermore, Deputy Sheriff J.D. Houck, who made the arrest, had a long-standing feud with Stott.

On their way to Prescott, a group of fifty masked vigilantes intercepted the deputy and his posse and took the three men from their custody. It’s believed Houck was in on the plan to take the trio.

Over the course of the next several hours, the vigilantes pretended to hang Stott’s friends, forcing him to watch. However when the two men refused to beg for their lives, their horses were driven out from under them and they were hanged for real.

They did much the same with Stott — stringing him up briefly then lowering him to the ground before he succumbed. However they left him hanging for too long and when they finally brought him down he was dead.

Their bodies were found a few days later by Flake and were buried in the same clearing in which they died. No one was ever punished as a result of the lynchings.

Along with some of the geography and history, the characters of The Ox-Bow Incident were drawn from real-life. For instance, Ma Grier, the burly proprietor of a boarding house, who is chosen as Major Tetley’s lieutenant, was based on an actual person.

One day Clark decided to stop at a roadside diner. Unfortunately, the place had been shut down and a group of people including the diner’s owner, a large woman, were in the process of loading equipment onto a truck.

When the time came to load the cook stove, the woman simply known as “Ma”, wrapped her arms around it, hoisting it onto the truck by herself. Clark recalled this and decided the image of “Ma” lifting her cook stove would make the kind of character rough-and-tumble men could respect.

Finally, the wide-exterior scenes shot during late June to early August 1942 were taken in Alabama Hills, near the small California town of Lone Pine, not far from the Comstock of Clark’s youth.  He would later serve as the writer-in-residence at the University of Nevada, Reno from 1962 until his death November 10th, 1971, in Virginia City.

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