Will the Real Calamity Jane Please Stand Up

Here’s my latest in The Wall Street Journal, a review of “The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane,” which does much to separate fact from fiction.

CalamityOn Aug. 2, 1903, a day after she died in faraway Terry, S.D., Calamity Jane’s obituary appeared in the New York Times. The subhead described her as a “Woman Who Became Famous as an Indian Fighter” and as someone who had “Served with Gens. Custer and Miles.” The article went on to explain how Calamity Jane had been a leading U.S. Cavalry scout, a mail carrier through hostile Indian territory and the woman who had been present when the card cheat Jack McCall, in 1876, shot Wild Bill Hickok in the back of the head in a saloon in Deadwood, S.D.—after which she had single-handedly used a meat cleaver to capture him.

Most of these claims were untrue, but the Times wasn’t alone: Newspapers across the country repeated as fact the bravura stories that had come to make up the legend of Calamity Jane, many of which had first been recited by Calamity herself.

Her real name was, improbably, Martha Canary. She was a farm girl from Princeton, Mo., whose parents chased the Gold Rush to Utah in the 1860s. After being orphaned in her early teens and drifting from one mining camp and boomtown to another, she began to tell tall tales to anyone who would listen, including the dime novelists of the 1870s and ’80s whose job it was to feed heart-quickening copy about the Wild West—true or not—to Eastern readers.

Calamity’s improvised life story was codified in the mid-1890s in a ghostwritten autobiography, really a piece of publicity that was prepared ahead of her cross-country tour with the Kohl & Middleton Wild West Show. An extended appearance at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., thrust her further into the national psyche and ensured that her legend would live on.

In “The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane,” Richard W. Etulain, a former director of the University of New Mexico’s Center for the American West, conscientiously and engagingly tries to separate fact from fiction. After poring through census records, newspaper stories, diaries and eyewitness accounts, he concludes that Calamity Jane’s autobiography “wilded up her life” by taking liberties with the facts. “Her claims of having served as George Custer’s scout in Arizona in 1870 and 1871, at the age of fourteen and fifteen,” he writes, “are a bald falsehood since Custer was not in the Southwest during this period.”

Mr. Etulain also dismisses her “brags” of later being with Gens. Custer and Nelson Miles, because they were not involved in the Indian outbreak during which she claimed to have ridden alongside them. Even the origins of her name are suspect. In her autobiography, she said that she became Calamity Jane when she saved “Capt. Egan” from an attack by Nez Perce Indians during an expedition to the Black Hills in 1875. In gratitude, Egan had supposedly declared: “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.” But the dates and details don’t match with what we know of the attack. Besides, as Mr. Etulain reports, Egan later said that “there was not an iota of truth in Calamity’s tale.”

It is true that she was on the Big Horn and Yellowstone Expedition in 1876—one of many Army efforts to corral Indian tribes onto reservations—but in what capacity is uncertain. Her true role is “hazy,” Mr. Etulain politely notes. “During this march,” she had claimed in her autobiography, “I swam the Platte river at Fort Fetterman as I was the bearer of important dispatches. I had a ninety mile ride to make, wet and cold. I contracted a severe illness and was sent back in Gen. Crook’s ambulance to Fort Fetterman where I laid in the hospital for fourteen days.” Mr. Etulain can’t find any evidence for such details and concludes that she joined the expedition not as a scout but probably “as a teamster or bullwhacker, or even as a camp follower or prostitute.”

As for the events in Deadwood in 1876, Calamity did arrive there with Wild Bill Hickok after she had been foisted on him by Army officials in Wyoming. They had found her, Mr. Etulain writes, “in drunken and nearly naked circumstances.” Hickok was reluctant to take her along on his travels—a venture into the Blacks Hills consisting of “a half-dozen stout wagons pack with supplies, and containing enthusiastic men overflowing with hope-for possibilities.” But one of Hickok’s partners on the trip agreed to “look after her.”

As it happens, Calamity knew Hickok for only five weeks, though popularizers, Mr. Etulain notes, have portrayed the two of them as a couple in biographies, novels and movies. Contrary to the Times obituary, “Calamity was most assuredly not with Hickok on the fateful day of 2 August 1876,” when he was killed by McCall in the Deadwood saloon. Still, she transformed her nonexistent role into one of her greatest deeds: “I at once started to look for the assassian [sic] and found him at Shurdy’s butcher shop and grabbed a meat cleaver and made him throw up his hands.” McCall did flee to a butcher shop but was cornered by other gamblers and surrendered.

Even as Mr. Etulain dismisses Calamity’s tales of derring-do, he uncovers a feminine aspect to her nature lurking beneath the manly ranch-hand attire. He recounts a story about her and William “Billie” Lull, the manager of the Porter Hotel in Deadwood, who nursed her back from a near-death bout of mountain fever. When he left Deadwood to go back east, Lull wrote years later, “for the first time in her life there was a Tear in her Eyes as she bid me goodbye.” The Lull-Calamity friendship, Mr. Etulain writes, “provides intimate glimpses of Calamity missing in most accounts.” Mr. Etulain’s excellent book is a reminder that history can be a version of myth—in this case, a harmless and entertaining myth that we may be reluctant to give up.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Chicago. His latest book is the e-book novel “Cooper’s Daughter: A Rick Crane Noir.”

Clearing Out Stock for ‘Jimmy’s Nephew’

Jimmy's NephewMy great publisher, Stay Thirsty Press in Chicago, is having a one-day giveaway of my best-selling noir thriller, “Cooper’s Daughter,” today.

We’re clearing out the stock room to make room for “Jimmy’s Nephew,” the second book in the Rick Crane Noir Series.

Here’s a blurb from  the new book, due out in October:

I looked down at the olive-green metal trashcan in the far corner and laughed out of the corner of my mouth. Before I could look up again, Lt. Swift had crossed the six feet separating him from me and delivered a hard right across my jaw. For a few seconds, I thought I might pass out.

“That one’s gonna leave a mark, Swifty,” I said after shaking off the punch. “Too bad. Up until now, your technique’s been pretty good.”

I didn’t know if his friends called him “Swifty,” but what else would you call a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, freckled Irish cop named Sean Swift? Besides, I was pretty sure they weren’t too worried about leaving evidence of the good old-fashioned interrogation-room beating they were giving me.

 “I told you guys,” I said, giving Swifty a look that told him he hadn’t broken me yet.  “You got this all wrong.”

 It was a line they’d heard a thousand times. Adding to my troubles, I wasn’t some run-of-the-mill perp they’d picked up from a bar fight or a DWI they’d nabbed driving home from the local Kiwanis Club.

I was the lead suspect in the biggest case these two had ever had drop in their laps.

The murder of a priest.

And not just any priest.

The bishop of the Diocese of Rochester, one of the biggest Catholic communities in Upstate New York.

And right now, the best suspect they had was me.

Rick Crane.

Local private investigator with shady connections to Jimmy Ricchiati, one of Upstate New York’s biggest mob bosses.

Whether I did it or not, they were gonna make this one stick. 

“Yeah…” Swifty said, leaning over to remind me who was in charge. “How do we have it all wrong, tough guy?”

I wasn’t going to tell them.

Not now.

Not without my lawyer.

But they did have the wrong man.

The Facts of Oklahoma City

My WSJ review of the expanded and renovated Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum, a site and event often overshadowed by 9/11.

Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, New York’s World Trade Center has been ground zero for terror-attack remembrances in the U.S. (with the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., a distant second and third). That’s understandable. But one of the unintended consequences of the 9/11 focus has been the marginalization of the site of America’s other major terrorist attack: Oklahoma City in 1995.

OKCThat may be about to change. The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum has reopened after an extensive $8 million refurbishing and expansion that includes 19 new interactive stations and 1,100 additional artifacts, including never-before-seen forensic evidence released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Nine of the 12 galleries are now open, with the other three slated to open by December, just ahead of the 20th anniversary of the attack.

You may recall that on April 19, 1995, two antigovernment extremists, Timothy McVeigh and accomplice, Terry Nichols, successfully detonated a 4,000-pound fertilizer bomb hidden in a Ryder rental truck parked outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The museum and memorial are now on that site.

Museums often begin their exhibitions by providing historical background, but this one is unflinching in taking visitors immediately back to the scene of the crime. The primary image in the first gallery is an 8-by-8-foot grainy photograph of the yellow rental truck that contained the bomb. The time stamp in the lower-right corner reads “04-19-95, 08:56:56,” about five minutes before the crude explosive detonated, killing 168 people, including 19 children. The photograph, taken by a security camera at the Regency Tower, is mounted next to a window that looks out on the apartment building, still there, connecting today’s visitors to that fateful day.

Photos, panels and interactive maps explain that the Murrah building housed 17 federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Customs Service, and a Marine Corps recruiting office. On the second floor was a day-care center where, one panel chillingly tells us, cribs lined the windows on the side of the building where the bomb went off. Across the street was the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, which was holding a routine hearing that produced the only known recording of the bombing.

Visitors are ushered into a reconstruction of the hearing room, the doors are closed, and the tape begins. After visitors hear about 30 seconds of routine business, an explosion is heard in the background of the tape. The lights in the mock hearing room flicker, and the wall in front of the hearing table lights up with portraits of the victims. On the tape, we hear people screaming as they evacuate the hearing room. Then a door opens, directing us into the next exhibit space, which the museum calls “Chaos.”

A video of early local-news coverage plays while visitors make their way through a room strewn with debris. Actual ductwork from the Murrah building, chipped and scarred, hangs just overhead. Wide columns are covered with images from that day. Glass display cases hold some of the personal items recovered at the scene. When visitors first look at the glass, there are images of the bombing scene. Then the images fade and the glass is clear, showing recovered artifacts. For instance, a glass panel initially shows the bombed-out parking garage across from the Murrah building. When the image disappears, we see dinged up and dirty car keys found in the rubble. A larger display case reveals a banged up desk and twisted filing cabinet with charred file folders. It’s all done very well, and gives visitors some sense of what it must have been like to be there.

The Gallery of Honor is a sparse room with a sweeping concave wall filled with 168 neatly aligned shadow boxes—one for each victim. Every box has a photo of the victim, and most have small mementos chosen by family members. Those displays with no mementos were purposefully left empty by the family, museum officials said, symbolizing the loss.

The children’s memorials are the most moving. Zachary Taylor Chavez, 3, is seen in a birthday photo along with some Lion King toys. Eighteen-month-old Blake Ryan Kennedy’s box has just one tiny sneaker. A panel in the room explains that 30 children were made orphans that day, while 219 kids lost at least one parent.

The Survivor gallery catalogs just that, with photos and quotes of office workers who survived and helped their injured colleagues. One of the most incredible stories told here is that of Florence Rogers, president of the Federal Employees Credit Union. She was holding her weekly staff meeting when the bomb went off. She was unharmed, but the other eight people in the room “just disappeared” when the building was sheared in half by the explosion and the floor collapsed under them. Her dress, looking like she just bought it, is on display.

The brand-new Trail of Evidence gallery details the police work that began almost as soon as the dust cleared. The museum has the truck axle housing that was the first major clue in helping the FBI track down the perpetrators. It landed 575 feet away. That wasn’t uncommon; parts of cars and buildings were blow so far away by the blast that it initially made it harder for investigators to determine which debris was from, say, the truck with the bomb and which was from cars belonging to workers. Police eventually cordoned off 20 blocks to look for clues, including some that were embedded in the sides of nearby buildings.

All of this is well organized and, most important, presented in a way as to not make McVeigh and Mr. Nichols the focus of the exhibit. There is also little sentimentality or sensationalism, just the facts, which makes the exhibit even more powerful. Yes, much of the evidence used to convict McVeigh and Mr. Nichols is here, including personal items such as the 1977 Mercury Grand Marquis McVeigh was driving when he was pulled over about an hour after the bombing near Perry, Okla. The museum also has the plastic fertilizer barrel found in Mr. Nichols’s barn, along with fragments of the barrel that held the fertilizer for the bomb.

Near the end, large touch screens allow visitors to trace the entire criminal case—from the Dreamland Motel just outside Junction City, Kan., where the truck was rented and the details of the plot finalized, to the trial that ultimately sentenced McVeigh to death (he was executed in 2001)and Mr. Nichols to life in prison. Images of their fingerprints appear alongside each piece of evidence that directly connected them to the crime.

But the clear focus of the exhibits is on the victims and the aftermath. As it should be.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Chicago.

Sponsors: The Only Ones Who Can Change the NFL

I’ll be on The Roy Green Show at 2:45 CDT on Saturday, Sept. 20, talking about the scandals roiling the NFL.

Unfortunately, this is not an unusual week in college and pro sports. Assaults and run-ins with the law happen weekly. The only difference is the media spotlight that’s been focused on Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and a few other players.
This will blow over.
The NFL is doing all the necessary — not right, but necessary — things to get the press corps to move onto something else.
Hiring female advisors.
Having a former FBI director investigate, etc.
The one red flag is this (and it’s minor): Sponsors. That is what will really get the NFL’s attention. If sponsors start to get nervous.
Varsity GreenBut the sponsors are — so far — dropping individual athletes, not the NFL. In fact, the sponsors need the NFL more than the NFL needs the sponsors. It is the biggest audience, delivering the most important demographic. Sponsors want this to blow over as much as the NFL does.
And, of course, all this starts when these kids are just 10 years old, playing in “youth” leagues that even then are sponsored by Nike and Adidas. They’re told to foresake academics for athletics, often by their parents. They get special treatement in college. “Tutors” who really write the papers and take the exams for them.
Special dorms, special food.
And then when they get millions of dollars, after a lifetime of never being told “No,” we wonder why they turn into monsters.
Roy and I will discuss. Tune in on the Corus Radio Network in Canada, or on the Internet.

‘Cooper’s Daughter’ on WGN Radio

My publisher, Dusty Sang of Chicago’s Stay Thirsty, was interviewed recently on WGN Radio.

He was nice enough to mention “Cooper’s Daughter: A Rick Crane Noir.”

But more important than that, you’ll get a sense of what a really interesting guy he is. And why I’m lucky to be doing business with him. He’s been a great editor, a great mentor, and done much to make me a better novelist.

Check it out.


Remembering Ed Beyea

This is a piece I originally wrote for the St. Paul Pioneer Press back in 2006. 

I reprint it here every Sept. 11 to remember Ed Beyea, and everyone who was there on Sept. 11, 2001.

Shortly after I joined the Lake Elmo (Minn.) Fire Department, Chief Greg Malmquist
asked me if I’d think about writing a piece for the local paper about my

“You’re a writer,” he said. “Maybe you can help us with

It’s been a year and I’ve been through Firefighter I and II and Hazardous
Materials Operations, and took the extra step of getting my EMT
certification (most volunteer fire departments require only First
Responder). After all that, I was still struggling with what to write. Then
on June 20, a letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal caught my

Ed BeyeaIt was written by Michael Burke of the Bronx. His brother, FDNY Capt. Billy
Burke of Engine Co. 21, was inside Tower 1 of the World Trade Center when it
came crashing down on Sept. 11, 2001. Why was Billy Burke there, even though
the order to evacuate had been given and most who weren’t trapped on the top
floors had already escaped? Because he refused to leave the side of Ed
Beyea, a quadriplegic trapped on the 27th floor. I grew up with Ed Beyea in
New York and know all too well how he died that morning.

Ed was paralyzed in a swimming pool accident three years after he graduated
from high school in 1978. He eventually moved into an assisted living
apartment complex on Roosevelt Island, which sits in the East River between
Manhattan and Queens. Never one to sit around and let life pass him by, Ed
became proficient enough with his oral joystick to land a data-entry job at
Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield in the World Trade Center.

The trip from Roosevelt Island to midtown Manhattan, then to the Financial District, was
taxing enough for regular commuters; it was doubly so for a guy in an
electric wheelchair. But one of Ed’s co-workers, Abe Zelmanowitz,
volunteered to help him get to and from work each day. It was a commitment
that he would not abandon, even under the most dire circumstances.
Shortly after the second plane hit Tower 1, workers were told to evacuate.
This was obviously a problem for Ed, who couldn’t get down the stairwell
easily. It wasn’t long before Ed had difficulty breathing. Abe could have
easily left Ed there and made it out alone, but he refused to leave Ed
behind. They were soon joined by Billy Burke, who also refused to abandon
Ed. All three were killed – together – when Tower 1 collapsed. (Their
stories can be read in the New York Times’ Portraits of Grief and at
memorial sites on the Internet.)

The inscription on the Marine Corps’ Iwo Jima Memorial reads, “Uncommon
valor was a common virtue.” I think the same can be said of Sept. 11 in general, and of Billy Burke and Zelmanowitz specifically.

Reading Michael Burke’s letter and remembering the details of Ed’s tragic
death crystallized for me why I’m a firefighter. I think I speak for a lot
of firefighters when I say that I do it mostly because it’s a commitment to
something more important than myself. Yes, we all love the camaraderie and
the trucks and the thrill of the call (90 percent of which turn out to be
routine). But it goes deeper than that.

We don’t talk about it much, but we all know that one day we might be asked
to do for our neighbors what Billy Burke and Abe did for Ed. We hope that if
that time comes, we’ll have the courage to answer the call. The fact that
we’re willing to even try is what makes us respect and care for each other.

This selfless commitment is certainly what motivated Billy Burke and Abe.
Thanks to them, Ed didn’t die alone. As terrible as that scene was, I’m sure
Ed was comforted by their presence.

As firefighters, we hope we give similar hope and comfort to the victims we
treat and the communities we serve. Working in Lake Elmo and other small
town and cities across the country, we certainly don’t expect to be part of
a mass-casualty incident like Sept. 11. And even if we never do get “the
call,” we know that in our own small way we make a difference in peoples’
lives every day.

We’re often a calm voice, a reassuring pat on the hand, welcome relief in
their hour of need. And while these victims may not be at the center of the
most devastating terrorist attack in history, the world they know and love
is often crumbling around them. In many ways, it’s just as tragic and
devastating for them as it was for Ed Beyea.

I’m not sure if this is the piece that Chief Malmquist was looking for, but
I now know that this is why we’re firefighters.

Just Call Me Jerry

Jerry LewisSolid four-star review of “Cooper’s Daughter” from France. 

Crisp, snappy writing, very much in the “noir” style.

I really like that. 

Here’s the rest of the review:

Characters are well developed & there are far fewer errors than I typically find in indie books. Having spent my 4 years of college in upstate NY, not too far from the locale of this book, I enjoyed Mr. Yost’s depiction of an area he depicted so well. I will look for other books by this author.

That makes 20 out of 24 reviews that are either four or five-star. 

And the second book in the Rick Crane Noir Series is just around the corner. Stay tuned. 

Variable Pricing Comes to the NFL

Interesting AP piece today on the NFL embracing variable pricing, meaning they charge more for high-demand games (Packers-Bears) and less for other games (Chargers-Jets). And, of course, the Minnesota Vikings still can’t give tickets away.

At the Packers-Titans pre-season game in early August.

At the Packers-Titans pre-season game in early August.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Many NFL teams are following the leads of other sports — dropping prices for less desirable games while jacking up costs for the biggest matchups.

“The reality is not every game is created equal,” said Jennifer Ferron, senior vice president of marketing and brand development for the New England Patriots.

In cold-weather cities, games in December may be less attractive than those in early fall. Weeknight games pose more of a challenge to fans who must work the next morning. It’s tougher to sell or re-sell tickets to games between bad teams where no rivalry is involved.

Variable pricing already is used in major league baseball, the NBA and NHL. After several years of study, half the NFL clubs are making the move this season, particularly with preseason games.

“The advantage to the league is we have season ticket members that are more satisfied with their NFL experience. That’s clearly our priority,” said Brian Lafemina, the NFL’s senior vice president for club business development.

Seven teams use variable pricing for season tickets and single-game tickets — Arizona, Buffalo, Detroit, New England, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Seattle.

Nine use it only for single-game tickets — Atlanta, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Miami, Minnesota, the New York Jets, St. Louis, San Diego, and Tennessee

How are they doing?

“Anecdotally, it has certainly been seen as a positive from season ticket members,” Lafemina said. “There really haven’t been any negative implications yet and I don’t think there will be.”

The Green Bay Packers are one of the teams looking into variable pricing and likely will use it next season.

“Over the evolution of the game and the preseason, preseason games are just a lot different than they were 15-20 years ago,” Packers President Mark Murphy said. “Starters play fewer minutes. The feedback that I’ve gotten from fans is, with the face value as high as it is, for preseason it’s hard for them to re-sell them.

“I think if we lowered the price for preseason it would help fans.”

With NFL ticket buyers now exposed to the plans, it could become easier for them to be satisfied with future increases for games in one price tier while others remain unchanged.

For now, “I don’t think you can infer that any pricing increase was due to variable pricing,” Lafemina said.

The Patriots charged $117 for each of 10 games for certain seats last season. Now those seats cost $57 for each of two preseason games, $117 for four regular-season games and $147 for the other four. The total cost, $1,170, is unchanged.

For the Chargers, “the varying of single-game prices provides an opportunity to more closely align face value and market value, which should improve sales,” chief executive officer A.G. Spanos said.

The Bills have three regular-season tiers for their most expensive seats — $130 for the “gold” level against New England and Miami, $112 for “silver” games against San Diego, Minnesota, the Jets and Green Bay and $99 for “bronze” games against Cleveland and Kansas City. The top price for those seats for each regular-season game last year was $102.

“So far so good,” Bills chief marketing officer Marc Honan said. “We’re seeing the games we thought would move are moving well.”

In Miami, it costs $80 to $165 in section 430 in the upper deck to watch the season opener against the Patriots. If you wait to see the Chargers on Nov. 2, that cost would range from $41 to $71.

Tom Garfinkel took over as the Dolphins’ chief executive officer last summer and made it a priority to increase attendance in a stadium that has had more than 10,000 empty seats in recent years.

The Packers don’t have trouble selling seats, with people waiting years to get season tickets. The added challenge is that the team has a separate season package for Milwaukee-area residents, who make a two-hour trip north to get to games.

They typically get the second and fifth games of the season, no matter the opponent. But in a variable pricing structure, the strength of an opponent would have more weight.

Would that package cost more if the opponents were the division-rival Bears and Vikings? Would it cost less if the two opponents were less desirable, non-conference teams?

“A little bit of an issue somewhat with the variable pricing is kind of accurately predicting what games are worth more in terms of face value,” Murphy said.

The Patriots have done that analysis.

They decided that watching the rival Jets in mid-October this season is worth more than possibly driving on snowy roads for the last regular-season game against Buffalo three days after Christmas.

“We felt like we had enough data to make some educated decisions,” Ferron said. “We haven’t received any negative feedback.”

Celebrating the 200th Birthday of Gunmaker Samuel Colt

By Mark Yost

The Wall Street Journal

Springfield, Mo.

Not only the 100th anniversary of World War I but the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812’s Battle of Baltimore—which produced the “Star Spangled Banner”—and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battles to capture Richmond and Atlanta are being remembered this year. But one anniversary has (not surprisingly) gone mostly unnoticed by the mainstream media: the 200th birthday, in July, of gunmaker Samuel Colt.

One of the Colt 1911s used in the 1907-11 trials.

One of the Colt 1911s used in the 1907-11 trials.

Colt’s innovative early revolving pistols and John Browning’s semiautomatic Colt M1911—the official sidearm of the U.S. military for seven decades and still considered one of the best handguns in the world—played important roles in U.S. history. And one of the best collections of Colt revolvers and M1911s is at the National Rifle Association’s National Sporting Arms Museum in the Bass Pro Shops’ flagship store here.

This museum, opened just a year ago, was a perfect marriage. The NRA had too many pieces and not enough display space at its national headquarters in Fairfax, Va.; Bass Pro Shops founder John L. Morris is a respected firearms collector who wanted a high-caliber way to draw more people to his store.

Even without the Colt collection, the museum would still be a lure given its nearly 1,000 pistols, rifles and shotguns dating from the 1600s to today. The walls of glass cases tell the story of firearms in America—the collection of rifles alone including such highlights as the Kentucky rifle, Lewis & Clark’s revolutionary air rifle, and the 1903 Springfield championed by President Theodore Roosevelt after he found his Rough Riders outgunned in Cuba.

Roosevelt and his son Teddy Jr. play a prominent role here. On display is the father’s c.1910 Frederick Adolph double rifle in .450-500, used for big-game hunting, as well as the Browning Model 1900 .32 semiautomatic pistol he kept on his nightstand in the White House. A panel nearby tells visitors that he also used the gun to teach his grandchildren to shoot from the balcony at the family’s Sagamore Hill estate in Oyster Bay, N.Y. Also here is a painting of Teddy Jr. killing a panda in the Himalayas, which he brought back to researchers at Chicago’s Field Museum.

Ike's favorite shotgun.

Ike’s favorite shotgun.

President Dwight Eisenhower’s Winchester Model 21 shotgun is at the museum, too, his name and five stars inlaid in gold. In the Hollywood display cases, there are guns used by James Garner in the television version of “Maverick” and by Mel Gibson in the film; several of John Wayne’s guns, including his Springfield Model 1873 .45-70 from John Ford’s “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949); and the Uberti Model 1847 reproduction used first by Kim Darby in “True Grit” (1969) and then by Clint Eastwood in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976).

The museum is also home to the guns and artwork of the Remington Arms Co. factory collection, the National Trap Shooting Hall of Fame and an impressive collection of Old West guns from Jesse James, Annie Oakley and others.

But the reason to come here this year is to celebrate Colt, and the museum certainly does that, displaying his guns just inside the entrance in chronological order and putting them in historical context. In the 1830s, when Colt began designed and manufacturing, most pistols were single shot. Colt’s Patterson was unique in that it was a revolving cylinder around one barrel, versus the more common pepperbox shooters in which the multiple barrels in one housing rotated with each pull of the trigger. Despite its revolutionary design, the .36-caliber, five-shot pistol never caught on with the public or the Army, which found the Patterson, N.J.-made guns fragile and the charge weak, according to NRA curator Jim Supica, who walked me through the exhibit. Colt went broke and the story might have ended there if not for Capt. Samuel H. Walker of the Texas Rangers, who came to Colt and suggested design changes and a higher caliber. The .44 Colt Walker, the most powerful handgun until the .357 of the 1930s, put the gunmaker back in business, and his manufacturing was improved by Elisha K. Root, who took over Colt’s new factory in Hartford, Conn.

The Colt Model 1873.

The Colt Model 1873.

Colt continued to improve on his design until his death in 1862, ensuring the company’s continued success through the turn of the 20th century. For instance, the Walker cylinders were known to crack because of too much gunpowder and the poor metallurgy of the day. Colt’s Dragoon series, with shorter chambers and a lighter load, fixed that problem. By the start of the Civil War, Colt’s factory, the largest in the world, employed 1,000 people and turned out 150 revolvers a day. And while Smith & Wesson is credited with making cartridge rounds popular, Colt quickly adopted the technology.

Among the famous Colts on display here are the 1851 Navy in .36 caliber carried by Commodore Perry when he opened Japan to the West; the 1860 Army model in .44 caliber favored by Union officers (Colt ended his contracts with Southern states in 1861); and, of course, the Colt single-action Model 1873, the classic handgun of the Old West.

Fast forward to 1900. The military sidearm of the day was the .38-caliber Long Colt, which proved ineffective at stopping Moro tribesmen in the Philippines. Trials for a replacement began in 1900 and lasted until 1911. The U.S. Cavalry first tested 1,000 Lugers in 7.65mm to prove the efficacy of semiautomatic pistols. By 1907, the field was whittled down to just three guns, all .45s: Savage, Colt and only two or three Lugers ever made in that caliber. Luger ultimately dropped out, figuring the fix was in for a U.S. manufacturer. Between the remaining two, the John Browning-designed Colt won hands down. Government testers fired 6,000 rounds through both guns; the Savage experienced 37 jams, while the Colt had none.

The museum has both the Savage serial No. 4 and Colt serial No. 134 pistols used in the 1907 trials, as well as one of the 1,000 Luger 7.65mm tested in 1900. These guns alone are enough to draw visitors to the museum to remember the man of whom it was said, “Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal.”

Mr. Yost is a writer in Chicago.