Reporting from a war zone — in Montana

The opening of this “Frontier Gentleman” radio drama from 1958 sounds appropriately like a lead sentence for a newspaper feature story:

“The great chief of the Sioux Indians is Sitting Bull. He’s a rather difficult chap to meet, especially when he’s preparing for war…”

When the series’ hero, London Times correspondent J.B. Kendall, arrived at the edge of Indian territory in the mid-1870s, he discovered a kindred spirit — an American newsman, Charlie Meeker of the Montana Telegraph-News. (Click his name to download a half-hour mp3 of the episode from The journalistic camaraderie between the two fictional newsmen is immediate, despite their different backgrounds.

At least I’m assuming Meeker was as fictional as Kendall. Virginia City, the territorial capital, did have its first newspaper by then, but I’ve found no record of a real Virginia City Telegraph-News. Neither did Christine Kirkham, coordinator of the Montana Digital Newspaper Project, who graciously checked several databases for me.  She discovered only one paper with the word “Telegraph” in its title: The Walkerville Telegraph, 1891-93.

Kendall was portrayed as a cool-headed adventurer, a veteran of the other “Indian wars” — in India, as a British cavalry officer. (His suggested cure for Meeker’s hangover involves tea, ginger and a cobra’s head.)

Despite the series title and Kendall’s cultivated accent, this mild-mannered reporter was no dandy. He was handy with a six gun, a knife and his fists, while spinning prose poems from Missouri to Montana. He was even a wordsmith when getting the drop on the bad guys. None of the “Drop yer gun, varmint!” from him. Instead, it was:

“You may very slowly and carefully unbuckle your gunbelt and let it drop to the floor. If you try to be foolish and brave, I shall be delighted to shoot you in the stomach.” —  (from the episode “Remittance Man”)

While the "American Correspondent" wasn't by-lined, The Times of London did have the biggest news out of Montana In July 1876, the same period as the fictional J.B. Kendall.

The script writer was a bit heavy-handed in naming the American  “Meeker,” along with describing him as short, thin and round-shouldered, in a plot about the courage of the somewhat frail and alcoholic reporter.

Unlike Kendall, Meeker doesn’t carry a gun. But he agrees to help the Englishman try to get an interview with Chief Sitting Bull, and then — inspired by Kendall — insists on accompanying him on the assignment, rather than let the foreigner risk his life alone. The ending is foreshadowed, but well played, including a brotherhood-of-reporters theme not uncommon in popular culture portrayals of otherwise competitive correspondents.

In this and later episodes, Kendall relies on local journalists to direct him to colorful characters and stories that might interest his British readers, such as the old prospector named Short Horned Tom (in the episode “The Lost Mine”), who Kendall describes as “the most unwashed individual I’ve ever come across in my life.”

John Dehner starred in the weekly series “Frontier Gentleman,” a 1958 CBS adult Western.  As J.B. Kendall, correspondent, he explored the American frontier of the 1870s for The Times of London. The show’s opening:

Herewith, an Englishman’s account of life and death in the West. As a reporter for the London Times, he writes his colorful and unusual stories. But as a man with a gun, he lives and becomes a part of the violent years in the new territories.

“Adult” westerns in the 1950s were not as “white-hat-good, black-hat-bad” as The Lone Ranger and other cereal-selling juvenile series. Characters could have a beer now and then, but they still couldn’t use expletives any stronger than “son of a gun!” The “Frontier Gentleman” writers clearly had fun with that in an episode titled “The Honky Tonkers,” where one character uses the phrase “son of a gun” a dozen times in the first three minutes. Adding whiskey and dance hall girls, and more son-of-a-gun foul language (with ladies present!) offends Kendal and eventually leads to a fight, a shooting, and an opportunity for Kendall to perform emergency surgery as learned on some distant battlefield. I suspect  Richard Harding Davis would have been proud to have him as a colleague.

Historical figures were woven into many of the plots, including newsmakers Col. George Armstrong Custer (in “Kendall’s Last Stand,” a few episodes after the Charlie Meeker story), as well as Jesse James and Wild Bill Hickok. From the scripts and acting to the cinematic musical score, “Frontier Gentleman” was a state of the art example of radio dramatic production, just before radio drama disappeared in the glow of television.

Each story has narration by Kendall woven through the dialogue, as he interviews Indian scouts, gunslingers, homesteaders, gamblers, exotic women, a man who herds cats, and other colorful characters. It’s not hard to imagine his  descriptive narratives being printed in London as newspaper features.

Thanks to the Library of Congress and university libraries’ access to digitized 19th century newspapers, students researching the series can have fun looking for accounts or actual incidents or individuals mentioned in the series — remembering that 1958 radio script writers had much more limited research resources. Here’s a Montana-newspapers search for “Sitting Bull” in the 1870s at Chronicling America.

While the introduction to each episode is comparable to a newspaper’s “lead” or a television broadcast’s opening “tease,” the endings sometime tell another angle that rings true — Kendall heading to the express office to see if his latest remittance check has caught up with him. Often, it hasn’t.

If you want to hear more, has a collection of 41 Frontier Gentleman episodes. The series is also available in CD-quality audio from Radio Spirits, with notes from radio historian Jack French.

Learn more about the series, its cast and history, at DigitalDeliFTP’s Definitive Frontier Gentleman page.

Note: As an experiment, I composed this item with the WordPress app on a 7-inch Pandigital Android tablet. Images were added and typographical errors were (or will be) fixed later from a real keyboard. Among other things, the tablet likes to change the word “an” to “Android” or transpose “of” and “or” when I’m not looking. Apologies if you struggled through the first draft.

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who found computers & the Web in grad school in the 1980s (Wesleyan) and '90s (UNC); taught journalism, media studies, Web production; retired to write, make music, photograph sunsets & walks in the woods.
This entry was posted in 19th century, foreign correspondents, historical figures, journalism, newspapers, reporters. Bookmark the permalink.

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