‘Centennial’: The history behind the characters

Pawnee Buttes, the landmark setting for Michener’s Centennial.

Pawnee Buttes, the landmark setting for Michener’s Centennial.

“The Platte River,” said the editor.

“That’s the sorriest river in America. You’ve heard all the jokes about the Platte. ‘Too thick to drink, too thin to plow.’ That’s a nothing river.” I replied.

“That’s why we chose it.” replied the editor.

These words were penned by the late James A. Michener in his opening of his blockbuster book Centennial. Published in 1974, the Colorado epic swept the country and later came to the television screen as a mini-series. Another blockbuster for Michener, it was television at its’ best becoming the most watched television miniseries since Roots, and was not surpassed in ratings until 1993’s Lonesome Dove.

Michener was the master at epic storytelling, with rich history as the backdrop. His previous works included Tales of the South Pacific and The Source, and later, Chesapeake and Texas, to name only a few. Yet it was Centennial that gripped the country and the Colorado audience, including this writer. Centennial was the sweeping saga of Colorado history and superb storylines that captured the reader’s interest as well as the television mini series.

Both the book and the movie center around the Platte River. From the beginning of time, the Platte has wandered slowly through the plains of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska. The Indians knew it as a landmark of their hunting grounds, and when the trappers came West, it became a highway through the Western Plains. Throughout Colorado history, the Platte River has remained vital to the state, depicted in each and every character Michener created.

Col. John M. Chivington  was portrayed in the book and movie as Col. Frank  Skimmerhorn.  Photos courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

Col. John M. Chivington was portrayed in the book and movie as Col. Frank
Skimmerhorn. Photos courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

Characterization is another gift Michener possessed which makes the historical epic true to human nature and therefore so compelling. Many of the characters in Centennial
were based on real people or composites of actual historic figures. Take the opening segment of The River, a French trapper sings merrily as he paddles his canoe down the shallow Platte River. At this particular time of the year, the river is low, dramatized as the trapper pulls his canoe to the shore and continues his journey on foot. The trapper is a composite of Ceran St. Vrain, one of the first French trappers of the Colorado Plains and later a partner with the Bent brothers. The character is called Pasquinel, played by Robert Conrad in the television movie. He forms a bond of friendship and respect with the Plains Indians and through his journeys, meets Alexander McKeag, played by Richard Chamberlain, a composite of the Bent brothers, of the historic Bent’s Fort. The two form a life-long friendship that is the basis of the story and the beginning of what would become Colorado.

“Yellow Apron” is the chapter that depicts the annual Mountain Man Rendezvous, a gathering and celebration of the great trappers such as James Beckwourth and Jim Bridger, brings the Colorado history forward into a new era. McKeag moves on to a new beginning as he realizes the beaver trade is dying out. He builds a new fort on the bank of the the Arkansas River on the southern plains of the Colorado Territory, where soldiers, trappers and Indians, all come together to trade.

It is in the chapter, entitled “The Massacre,” that Michener’s historic characterization is at its finest. Through the story thus far, Westward Migration has gripped the country and affected the Indian way of life. Mjr. Maxwell Mercy, based on the Colorado Indian agent Edward Wynkoop, tries desperately to keep the peace. He has many talks with Lost Eagle, a peaceful Indian, whose character resembles that of Black Kettle, chief of the Cheyenne.

Mercy loses his command of Bent’s Fort with the arrival of Col. Frank Skimmerhorn, who in history, we know as John M. Chivington. His mission is to wipe out all the Indians, in particular, the Pasquinel brothers, loosely based on the half-breed Bent brothers, the sons William Bent, of Bent’s Fort.

The question of Indian replacement and reservation displacement comes to a head. Skimmerhorn rides into southern plains of the Colorado Territory to take the Indian matter in hand. He unleashes hell and thunder when he strikes a peaceful Indian village near the fictional Rattle Snake Butte, in history known as the Sand Creek Massacre site. The culmination is the massacre, where hundreds of innocent Indians, primarily women and children, were brutally slaughtered. Major McIntosh, (in history, Silas Soule,) refuses to join the slaughter and facing a court marshal, tells the truth of the slaughter. Superb historical reenacting and character depiction, as we know this to be the Sand Creek Massacre.

Michener’s Centennial is obviously historical fiction. The history in this epic story is true, yet with all fiction, names and places are often changed. Centennial takes place in northeastern Colorado, therefore the massacre is placed at Pawnee Buttes, northwest of Sterling, rather than the true southeastern Colorado location. There are other reasons Michener chose northeastern Colorado as the setting for his film. One is the Oregon Trail, where Levi Zendt sets out west from St. Louis and meets McKeag, where R.J. Poteet brings a herd of Texas longhorn cattle north, following the true Goodnight-Loving Trail. Northeastern Colorado is also where he places Jim Lloyd, an adventurous young cowboy who builds the largest cattle ranch in all of Colorado. The Lloyd character is based on John Iliff, who actually did own over five million acres of land from Colorado to Wyoming, and east to Nebraska.

As the Colorado story continues, Michener expands his use of description in the chapter called “The Dry Years.” In vivid detail that only Michener could define, one almost feels the dirt and grit, hear the constant wind, and see the whirling dust bowls as he describes a young homesteader couple with three young children. The woman, (Alice) faces a constant battle with dirt in the food, the baby’s crib, even the icebox. The wind is loud and constant and it works against her nerves.

Her husband fights desperately against the bugs and grasshoppers, as his crops wither and die before his dust filled eyes. In the television movie, we watch in horror as Alice desperately cleans dirt off the food, then turns to the crying baby covered with dust. Alice grabs the kitchen knife and ends the hopeless situation for the entire family. Desperation, loneliness and human emotion are portrayed with heart-wrenching realism.

The narrative continues, as the town of Centennial grows through the ups and downs most small towns go through on the Colorado plains. The family generations continue to play a part in the storyline, as the tale weaves through history and into the 20th century, including sugar beet farming, immigrant workers and politics.

In the end, Jim Lloyd’s grandson, running for political office against a tyrannical industrialist, recalls the words his grandparents told him: “The best will survive, as will the land.  But to do so, you must respect the land.”

Michener set out to write a novel surrounding the Bicentennial of America. He did that…and wrote an epic story based in Colorado, encompassing a rich history we would all do well to remember.

Bent’s Fort - The true fort depicted as Zendt’s Fort in Michener’s Centennial. Photo by Linda Wommack

Bent’s Fort – The true fort depicted as Zendt’s Fort in Michener’s Centennial.
Photo by Linda Wommack

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