Sunday, September 17, 2023

Q&A with Chuck Raasch




Chuck Raasch is the author of the new book Life Painted Red: The True Story of Corabelle Fellows and How Her Life on the Dakota Frontier Became a National Scandal. Raasch, a longtime journalist, also has written the book Imperfect Union. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area.


Q: How did you first learn about Corabelle Fellows, and at what point did you decide to write a book about her?


A: This is one of those I'll-get-to-it-someday hopper. In 1989, during an early career fellowship at Stanford University, I was researching how a sense of place and migration shapes politics, and as part of that I was looking at old newspapers from the 19th century.


I ran across an advertisement from the spring of 1888 in a St. Paul, Minn., newspaper (a paper that was filled with so much racism and sensationalism I was literally gasping), and a half-page ad caught my attention. "She Married A Savage!" it said in huge type.


It was an advertisement for a dime museum appearance by a young couple: a white woman who, while teaching and serving as a missionary on Dakota Territory Sioux reservations, had married a man of Native and white blood. Essentially, these two young people were being treated as main attractions on a freak show that featured other acts ranging from a man wrestling a bear to the world's tallest woman.


I thought, "There HAS to be a lot behind this young couple's story." I did some initial research into them, and found out that, yes, there certainly is. And finally, I got time to research and write it after my journalism career ended. 


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: It's a line from a late 1880s newspaper article ridiculing the marriage and predicting it could not last. The author said the young woman, Corabelle Fellows (who, by the way, had been disowned by her family), had accepted Native customs so much she might as well be "painted red." Her husband, Sam Campbell, was blamed for ruining her life simply because of who he was. It was a logical title for the book. 


Q: How would you describe the relationship between Corabelle and Sam, and how did they become a national story?


A: They were clearly in love. They embraced the challenge of the Dakota frontier together. They courted very formally, dated in the presence of mutual friends, and got married in a little chapel on the prairie after showing up four hours late to their own wedding, splattered in mud, because their horse and buggy got stuck in Dakota gumbo mud. (That's a real term!)


But her family, in particular her mother, a Washington, D.C., socialite and acquaintance of President Cleveland, disowned her, never talked to her again. Eastern papers, who had correspondents traversing Dakota Territory because of tensions over forced relocation of Natives and the brewing Ghost Dance movement that had been banned by the government, got wind of it, and turned them into instant celebrities. For all the wrong reasons.


Much of what was written about them was either wrong or highly sensationalized. I hypothesize in the book that this was one of the early examples of Yellow Journalism, which gripped American journalism into the turn of the 20th century.  


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I was very lucky, but I have found that luck usually comes only after hard work and persistence. A book had been written about Corabelle in the 1930s, but it ended just as she was getting married, and it totally overlooked the grief and heartache she had endured when ridiculed in the press.


Believe it or not, I crowd sourced online, found out that family members had passed down through several generations hundreds of pages of memoir that Corabelle had written, while blind, in her 70s. The family was very helpful; they did not know a lot about Corabelle beyond what was written in her memoirs.


I also spent many hours in the Center for Western Studies and other research libraries that had kept papers of famous missionaries that Corabelle had worked with.


And I discovered that Corabelle had written many articles for The Word Carrier, a newspaper by the famous Riggs missionary family that had established schools and missions all along the frontier. Corabelle was a wonderful writer, and those  provided both a window into her personality and character, along with facts and real-time descriptions of events, many of which differed from accounts in the 1930s book written by a woman by the pen name of Kunigunde Duncan.


I discovered in Corabelle's memoirs, for instance, that for a short time Corabelle and Sam had appeared on Buffalo Bill Cody's world-famous Wild West Show. I also discovered that a woman associate of Corabelle's, who was ridiculed and largely overlooked in the 1930s book about Corabelle, Blue Star, was actually a Dakota Sioux woman of tremendous strength and character, and renown among Natives and whites on the frontier.


My book attempts to give a more honest and full account of this remarkable woman's life, starting with how, at age 2, she hid for two days under an overturned cooking kettle after her father had been killed in a raid by an enemy tribe. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A book about Negro League players who, shunned by the Major Leagues and unable to play in many places in the South, barnstormed through the Upper Midwest during the Great Depression to play on a robust amateur baseball circuit that still is going strong. These country farm boys and Negro League All Stars produced some of the greatest baseball teams of all time. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My book is mainly about women, and that is not always the case with histories of the frontier and the West. And that history is alive, not mere words written in stone never to be challenged. It is rewarding to give voice to people that too often get lost in the narratives.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Chuck Raasch.

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