Debbie Croft: Writer's stories focus on Old West

August 16, 2013 

— Chris Enss writes about ordinary people of the Old West, because she finds their lives to be anything but ordinary.

"Their drive to settle in a new land is so compelling," she said.

They were average people but brave souls, and they shaped history as well as the folklore of the West. She admires their struggles to survive, and their determination to make a better life. Imagine the hardships of squeezing a family of eight into a wagon to travel for months halfway across a continent.

"I admire the whole camping thing, too," she continues. "I fell asleep at my desk once, and that's the closest I've ever come to camping out."

As an author of 30 books, she depicts the lives of obscure women who were prospectors, saloon operators, entertainers, outlaws, physicians, teachers and writers.

She also chronicles the lives of famous and not-so-famous men and the loves of their lives, including Buffalo Bill, Roy Rogers and young John Wayne.

Her one children's book is about a cowboy's Christmas adventure.

At times she wonders about western pioneers and how they handled the situations facing them. Regarding the marriage of George and Libbie Custer, Enss was curious. Did they fight? What made them such a bold couple? How did Libbie handle the attentions of another woman toward her husband? And what happened to Libbie after her husband's tragic death?

Her questions led to more research which produced her book, "None Wounded, None Missing, All Dead: The Story of Elizabeth Bacon Custer."

Other books tell of less famous women.

Eleanora Berry, a mail-order bride, traveled west by stage coach. Unfortunately the coach was robbed, but she managed to arrive at her destination in time for her wedding. While standing at the altar and seeing her husband-to-be for the first time, she realized he was the robber she had met only hours before.

Kate Rockwell became known as the Flame of the Yukon. Her successful singing and dancing career began on stages in Alaska. Her husband underhandedly invested her money in playhouses and left her for his mistress. His name was Alexander Pantages of Pantages Theatre fame.

"Thunder Over the Prairie" is a book Enss co-wrote with Howard Kazanjian, about the posse that hunted down the murderer of Dora Hand. The story is being adapted for film by director Walter Hill.

Living in southern Arizona as a girl gave Enss access to the historic town of Tombstone.

At the University of Arizona, she majored in drama and cinematography, with the hope of being a stand-up comic. While in college she wrote comedy plays, and won an award for one. Following graduation she worked in television and radio. Her favorite job was at Old Tucson as a stuntwoman.

After moving to Grass Valley, she began working in radio again. One of her responsibilities was putting history reports together. In her research she discovered a huge lack of information about women.

She and a co-worker combined their efforts and wrote a few historical books. Her fascination kept her writing.

"There were so many things that women did in the West," she says. "I'm in awe of them and their strength."

Enss will be at the Mariposa Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center on Saturday for the national book launch of her latest non-fiction work, "High Country Women: Pioneers of Yosemite National Park."

Inside the pages readers will meet:

• Sally Dutcher and Elizabeth Pershing, the first women to climb Half Dome

• Florence Hutchings, who lived a brief life, but inspired all who knew her. Florence Lake and Mount Florence were named after this legendary lady.

• Clare Marie Hodges, who became the nation's first female park ranger, during World War I

Copies of "High Country Women" are available for purchase at the park's visitors center. Enss will be on hand to sign books and answer questions between 1 and 4 p.m. The chamber is at 5158 Highway 140 at the intersection of Highway 49 North. For more information visit, www.chrisenss.com.

Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. She can be reached at composed@tds.net.

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