December 21, 2011

Anachronisms in Hell on Wheels, S1 Episodes 3 and 4

Please be aware that this post contains spoilers.

Hell on Wheels is a new period drama on AMC that is set in 1865 and involves the building of the trans-continental railroad.  It airs on Sundays at 10:00 p.m. EST.  All screenshots are © of AMC.

These posts are not strictly a discussion of outright anachronisms in the show, but also discussion of the portrayal of historical events as a part of the overall story, and whether or not (I think) they are used effectively.  In other cases, I’ve only provided more information about historical events mentioned in the show.

For my post on the pilot, please click here.
For my post on Season 1 Episode 2, please click here.


  • Photograph Technology.   Photographic technology underwent a revolution in the mid-nineteenth century.  Most people know that the speed with which photographs are taken has improved over time, but don't give thought about the material on which those photographs are printed and how that has changed.  The types of photograph mediums that would have been available prior to 1865 are: daguerrotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, and albumen prints.

    The third episode of Hell on Wheels opens with Bohannan rifling through Johnson's belongings.  First he flips through a photo album with very stiff pages, which I think are most likely albumen prints.  He then finds a photograph of Johnson in uniform, followed by a photo of all the men he blames for the death of his wife, complete with names. Bohannan then easily folds this photograph in half at the end of the scene, which means that this photograph is obviously not a daguerrotype or ambrotype as these were mounted on glass.  Tintypes were metal, and also could not be folded. Albumen prints, however, were the size of calling cards and were typically mounted to thick cardstock, just like the photo album.  An albumen print could be folded, but it shouldn't have been that flimsy.  Plus the two loose photos are the wrong size for albumen prints--the photographs Bohannon finds are much larger than calling cards (think slightly larger than modern business cards).  [Source: Victorian Fashion in America: 264 Vintage Photographs by Kristina Harris, google books]

  • Indian Princess.  "That must be the new girl.  The savage woman. ... She was but a girl, white as we, taken captive years ago, sold to the highest heathen bidder.  Some say she was a slave, others an indian princess." 

    First, there is absolutely no such thing as an Indian princess.  This is a huge pet peeve of mine.  When I hear someone say their great-great-great-grandmother was an Indian princess, it takes everything I have to remain polite.  No Indian tribe has or had any such social rank as princess.  If your family legend includes this, you should research it or at least stop repeating it.  It's a legend, and most likely you do not have Indian ancestry.  I've heard that some people research to find out they actually have a line of African-American ancestry, and speculate that the "Indian princess" thing was likely a way for the family to cover that up.  I've also heard/read rants that the "Indian princess" myth is a way for white people to not feel so guilty about having direct connections with some of the darker aspects of American history (slavery, killing Indians, forced removal of Indians, etc).

    I'm not saying Hell on Wheels is necessarily guilty of perpetuating the "Indian princess" myth...  The other McGinnes brother says right after this, "Stop with your tall tales."  Which is exactly what that is.  Now that we've got that out of the way... 

  • The Girl With The Chin Tattoo.  This character is most obviously based on the story of Olive Oatman.  Olive's family was traveling alone through Arizona, when they were ambushed by a group of Yavapai Indians.  The Yavapai murdered all of the family members except for Olive, age thirteen, her sister Mary, age seven, and Lorenzo, age fifteen, whom they clubbed and left for dead (but survived). The Yavapai Indians took Olive and her sister Mary into captivity.  Mary died from starvation while the girls were still in Yavapai possession.  Olive was later traded to a group of Mohave Indians, supposedly for two horses and some blankets.  Olive lived a much happier life with the Mohave.  She assimilated with them completely, becoming one of their group. The significance of the tattoo was to identify her as a Mohave in the afterlife, thus the tattoo indicates that she was accepted fully into the Mohave tribe.
Olive Oatman
Source for photo: wikipedia
    Although I have not read it, if you want to know more about Olive Oatman's story I think the best place to go would be to this book, The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman by Margot Mifflin, published in 2009. But please note, I haven't read it; I only offer this suggestion because there is a lot of misinformation available on her life, not just on the internet, but in period newspapers and books as well.  For example, during her life a man by the name of Royal B. Stratton published a work called Captivity of the Oatman Girls, which was an imaginative work of fiction that he masqueraded as truth.
    Now I know that the character in Hell on Wheels is not supposed to be her exactly.  She has a different name, Eva, so any discrepancies between Olive Oatman's life and the character are to be chocked up to creative license.  However:
    1.  I dislike that in Episode 4, Eva states that the chin tattoo is a mark that she was a slave, because that perpetuates misinformation about the customs of the Mohave tribe.
    2.  Also in Episode 4, Eva tells Elam that she was only worth two horses and some blankets to her captors, because that's what they paid to buy her.  This makes no logical sense, regardless of whether or not it corresponds with Olive Oatman's story.  Think about it.  That would have been her worth to the people who sold her, not necessarily to those who bought her.  To illustrate, here's an example:  Peter Minuet supposedly purchased Manhattan Island from the Indians living there for about 60 Dutch guilders worth of beads and trade goods.  In this situation, would anyone ever say that the Europeans felt Manhattan Island was only worth the price of some beads?  Or would that be the value according to the Indians who sold it?  Likewise, if your child was kidnapped and the kidnappers wanted a $5,000 ransom, and you paid it, does that mean your child is only worth $5,000 to you?  Of course not.


I chose to combine these two episodes into one post because I wanted to discuss Olive Oatman / Eva, whose backstory spanned both these episodes.  Another reason I combined them is because this episode got deleted off my DVR, so I'm going to go completely by memory. :-/

  • Bleeding Kansas and Abolitionism.  The Preacher tells Bohannan that he was in Kansas prior to the Civil War.  When he said, "Have you ever heard of Bleeding Kansas?" I yelled out loud, 'Let me guess, John Brown???'  And of course the Rev knew him.  Assigning all the characters backstories involving the most popular/famous aspects of the Civil War does nothing to give depth to the story, it makes the characters into cardboard cut-out figures from the era.  The purpose of revealing character backstory is namely to give depth to those characters, but instead it it actually reinforces the writers' one-dimensional 'interpretation' of the era.

    Nothing was wrong about how antebellum Kansas was portrayed in their exchange as I can remember, though. I did like that Bohannan said some negative things about Brown; I liked that Brown was not portrayed as some great hero.  Brown was guilty of murdering people who weren't slave owners, and never had been.  Sure he may have been against slavery, but for what purpose?  It is a common misconception to assume abolitionists were motivated solely because they believed blacks deserved equal rights.  I'm not saying that the show has been guilty of this so far, it is just something to keep in mind for any drama set during this time period because it is such a pervasive misconception.  Racism and anti-slavery sentiments were certainly not mutually exclusive.  Many Northerners felt the existence of slave labor was unfair economic competition for free whites.  How could a white man without slaves expect to keep up with the Jones', if the Jones' owned slaves?  Lincoln himself said that the West needed to be slavery free so it could be preserved for free white men:
    In Peoria, Illinois in 1854, Lincoln told his audience, "Whether slavery shall go into Nebraska, or other new territories, is not a matter of exclusive concern to the people who may go there.  The whole nation is interested that the best use shall be made of these territories.  We want them for the homes of free white people.  This cannot be, to any considerable extent, if slavery shall be planted within them.  Slave States are for poor white people to remove from; not to remove to.  New free States are the places for poor people to go to and better their condition.  For this use, the nation needs these territories..."

  • Prostitutes.  Anyone else out there a Deadwood fan?  How different are the prostitutes in that show from this one?  It's night and day, right?  In Deadwood, the women were subjugated, broken, mistreated, and under the strict employ of a oppressive male proprietor.  They are often sick or in need of medical attention, so much so the barkeep has a contract with the town doctor to tend to the girls on a routine basis.  In the very first episode of Deadwood, Trixie gets the crap beat out of her for telling Swearengen to 'do what you will with me' ('Don't tell me what to do,' he says, then hits her). In Hell on Wheels the prostitutes all are self-employed, empowered, healthy, high-end call girl types who all appear to be enjoying themselves and their chosen profession immensely.  They all seem to be in it for the thrill, not for a lack of other choices. I'm not saying that the prostitutes portrayed in Hell on Wheels are completely unfounded, as I'm sure there were some women like this, but it was a minority.  No different from today, really.  It certainly does not represent the whole story.  Deadwood does an infinitely much better job on portraying this.  Hell on Wheels seems so hellbent on exploring the black/white dynamic, they've completely glossed over the male/female one.

    "Research of the nineteenth century has found "the majority of prostitutes were young, usually illiterate, poor and from broken families. These women had a limited number of options available to them during the nineteenth century and because of that, some turned to prostitution as a means of survival.  Immigrant women arriving without money or brought into the country forcibly, as with many Asian women, had only prostitution as a way to make money.  There were also the women who turned to prostitution as an escape from typical professions.  And for others, they were as adventurous as the men heading west in the 1800s and this way of life was seen as temporary until something better came along." (Source)

If I've made any mistakes myself, please let me know.  Everyone makes mistakes, including television set designers, writers, and producers.  I know that this show is just a drama, and is meant to be entertaining, not educational or historically accurate.  Every historical drama has errors, I know this.  That doesn't make the exercise of finding/discussing them any less worthwhile.  That's like saying everyone spells words incorrectly from time to time, so we shouldn't bother proofreading anything, ever.  I did not write this out of anger or contempt; quite the opposite.  I wrote this for entertainment purposes as well, because I love westerns and I love history.  If I harbor any ill-will towards AMC at all, it is only because they cancelled Rubicon.  :)  All screenshots are © of AMC.


Anonymous said...

I found your blog today and it was like a cool drink of water. I must admit that I loved HOW when it first appeared. Over time, I realized that the producer and writers have a point to make and they don't mind using a club to do it. I stayed with it until the end of the season, hoping it would redeem itself, but it didn't.

Anonymous said...

If you stayed with H.O.W. until the later episodes, you saw the Common character, Elam, shoot the racist Irishman Toole in the mouth. Toole had his mouth almost closed when he was shot; when he fell, smoke billowed through his lips. I was sure he was a goner when Elam left him in the woods, miles from the Camp. But lo and behold, when Elam and Eva are gettin' it on a few days later, Toole staggers into camp and pitifully, on his knees, begs Elam to forgive him for his racist attitudes. Toole does have a couple of teeth missing and an exit wound in the back of his neck, but that's all. Had that been a real wound, he'd be dead; at the minimum, his head would have been as big as a watermelon, tongue missing, infection raginng, lips shredded, etc. But nope, just the blown out lower incisor and a moderately bloody exit wound --but hey: he'd seen the error of his ways and that needed driving home (just before hanging Elam, he'd said the Irish were the n----rs of the British empire)I think what bothers me the most is that these writers take us all for idiots who need teaching about correct racial attitudes. Icing on the cake: Soon after, Toole is all well and working like a demon on the railroad again.

Lisa said...

Oh, I forgot all about that Irish guy! Thank you for reminding me about that. I was so fed up with Hell on Wheels that I quit watching in December, and didn't write that last post until Feb... so I know I forgot a lot of great examples. I may finish up the season sometime eventually and go back and add to my existing posts, or do a new post, idk.... anyway, thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

Please, hold your nose, watch the remaining episodes, and comment o them. There are too many gems there to ignore. :)

Anonymous said...

I've actually been enjoying HOW, although it is depicting racial issues with moderrn sensibiliti3s at heart,, so it's soometimes a stretch. I like the characters, even the ones I don't like! However, I did notice one anachronism: just about every rifle in the series is a Winchester 1866 "Yellowboy", and the season is set in '65. Even the cavalry troopers are carrying Yellowboys, dedspite the fact that Winchester never got the Army contract. I THINK (and could be wrong) that cavalry troops were issued Spencer carbines, at this point. It's especiially odd, given that they've been careful with their revolver choices.

Anonymous said...

For the record, when Eva makes the comment about her worth to the captors and then says that was all they paid to buy her, she may well have been making references to 2 different captors. I do agree with most of the observations here but don't overstretch.

Anonymous said...

the slave remark was taken directly from what olive oatman said very herself.. whether or not it was true she state this several times in her life time........

Anonymous said...

I totally agree about the way the prostitutes are portrayed. It irritates me no end that they all seem so cheery all the time. And I also agree completely about Rubicon! That was AMC's best show ever. What a shame they cancelled it.

musselmant said...

I want to commend the show with an "A" for effort. Don't forget unlike the people here viewers weren't history majors and probably never read a single history book at all besides part of an assigned text. The writers have made a valiant effort to bring in different strains of history from 1860 to 1890 in an entertaining way and at great expense. I think all the racial groups come off as reasonably complex characters, and most of the evilest ones depicted are white men. Kudos to the writers and producers.

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