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Æthelred the Unready: New Book Re-examines Infamous Anglo-Saxon King’s Military Practices

After a year and a half of writing, editing, and revising (and many more years of research), it’s finally out: my new book, England’s Unlikely Commander: The Military Career of Æthelred the Unready, is now available from Rounded Globe Scholarly E-Books.

View it online, completely free, here on Rounded Globe’s website.

Synopsis:

In the realm of popular history, it’s common to hear the claim that Æthelred the Unready, King of the English, was a military failure in an age where kings had to be warriors. Due to the unflattering nickname (unraed actually means “poorly-advised”) and the Danish Conquest of England, it might seem that these critics have won the argument before it’s even started.

That isn’t the case, though, as Bender’s research has found. This book seeks to redress King Æthelred’s military reputation, arguing that he was militarily prepared and often successful against his many enemies, including the Vikings. Tracking the king’s movement and activity over his 38-year reign, this book argues that Æthelred the Unready was anything but a battle-avoider.

Early Praise for England’s Unlikely Commander:

In this exciting new book, Brandon Bender sheds considerable new light on the life and military career of one of England’s most notorious kings. Both scholarly and accessibly written, it deserves a wide audience both within and beyond the halls of modern academe.

-Dr Levi Roach, author of Æthelred the Unready (Yale University Press, 2016), Senior Lecturer in Medieval History, University of Exeter

A print version will be following soon, hopefully within the next few months. Follow me for more updates!

Lecompton: The Pro-Slavery Capital of Bleeding Kansas

No territorial governor or distant president could bring order to Kansas: “You might as well attempt to govern the devil in hell.”

Some say the American Civil War started not at Fort Sumter, but years earlier in the sparsely populated territory of Kansas. In the years leading up to the war itself, Kansas became a land marred by massacres, sacking, looting, and murder. The cause? The same issue that dominated the rest of the nation in the 1850s and 1860s: slavery. The capital of the Kansas Territory during these wild years was a now-obscure town called Lecompton, where the pro-slavery government set up its base, backed by pro-slavery presidents, despite the abolitionist sentiments of the state itself. The result? Four constitutions, rampant voter fraud, and a territory that descended into complete anarchy.

It probably shouldn’t have been this way, though. Before 1854, while the contentious issue of slavery had not been settled, it had at least been held in check by a skillful and careful blend of compromises. The northern parts of the country wanted nothing to do with slavery — some were abolitionists, favoring the complete destruction of the institution for its immorality. Most northerners, however, were content to let slavery exist where it had been for generations, but its expansion into the western frontier was unacceptable. The south, on the other hand, advocated for slavery’s spread. The resulting compromises kept armed conflict at bay for a time. There was the Missouri Compromise from 1820, which admitted Missouri into the Union as a slave state but prohibited future slaveholding states north of the 36°30′ line. Then there was the Compromise of 1850, which was actually a series of several bills intended to maintain equilibrium between the increasingly hostile pro- and anti-slavery camps. Finally, in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act re-opened the whole question and directly led to the tumultuous era known as Bleeding Kansas.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act said that territories coming into the Union could decide for themselves whether they wanted to be free or slave states, effectively negating the earlier compromises. The idea of territories voting on slavery was called popular sovereignty and had already been implemented in Utah and New Mexico (the former was north of the 36°30′ line) as part of the Compromise of 1850. Kansas was different, though. Utah and New Mexico were arid and ill-suited to plantation work, meaning slaveholders were not especially interested in them. Kansas was fertile and right next to Missouri, which had relied on slaves for decades. The result was disastrous.

Over the next decade, the state was embroiled in all kinds of violence and controversy. Bands of armed, pro-slavery men from Missouri poured over the Kansas border, voting fraudulently in elections and terrorizing their opponents, hoping to make Kansas a slave state under the new popular sovereignty policy. The town of Lawrence, known as a fiery abolitionist stronghold, was famously sacked in 1856 and was the site of the Lawrence Massacre in 1863. Nearby Olathe was sacked in 1862. Osawatomie was the site of a battle in 1856, as was Baldwin City. The free-staters had their moments, too. They led a raid into Missouri and plundered Osceola. Abolitionist John Brown initiated the Pottawatomie Massacre, hacking several pro-slavery men to death with swords.

For much of this time, the officially recognized capital of the territory was Lecompton, best known as the place where the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution was drafted. President Franklin Pierce and his successor, James Buchanan, appointed a series of pro-southern governors, but none of them lasted long. Kansas burned through at least six of them in six years — it depends who you ask. One source actually claims there were nine and another says ten, perhaps allowing for interim or acting governors, as some of the “official” ones quickly fled the territory. One governor, Wilson Shannon, later reflected on his time overseeing the territory: “You might as well attempt to govern the devil in hell.” Pierce and Buchanan (neither of whom have gone down in history as especially active presidents) did little to put an end to the chaos. Pierce once even remarked that the corrupt and fraudulent government in Kansas Territory was “beyond the sphere of action of the Executive.” In other words, it wasn’t in his job description. No territorial governor or distant president could bring order to Bleeding Kansas.

Soon enough the Civil War broke out. The Lecompton Constitution was eventually rejected and Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1861. The new free-state government chose Topeka as the capital, the border ruffians went home to Missouri, and Lecompton faded from history. But what remains of the town today, the site of an uneasy pro-slavery government in an anti-slavery land?

I decided to visit on my way back from Manhattan, Kansas. I had always seen the signs along I-70 for Lecompton’s historic sites, but I did not know exactly what I would find there, if anything. After all, Lecompton is relatively obscure today, especially compared to some of its Bleeding Kansas counterparts. Its rival, Lawrence, grew into a thriving city — about 95,000 strong — and is home to The University of Kansas. Lawrence retains its strongly liberal reputation 150 years after the end of Bleeding Kansas. Topeka, with a population of over 120,000, is still the state capital. Olathe, which had been sacked by pro-slavery raiders in 1862, is now a prosperous Kansas City suburb with almost 140,000 residents. What of Lecompton?

It turns out that Lecompton does still exist as a town in its own right — something I am ashamed to admit I did not know despite living just an hour away. It has about 600 residents and is home to a handful of well-preserved historic sites. Surprisingly, the town now bills itself as the place “Where Slavery Began to Die” and features Abraham Lincoln on some of its signs. That’s a bit of a stretch, especially considering this place served as an ardent pro-slavery base during the bloodiest years in Kansas history — a sentiment others have echoed.

The Territorial Capital Museum in April 2019

That said, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found in Lecompton. It’s a charming town, well-marked with signs and arrows to direct visitors to its museums and sites. The Territorial Capital Museum was the highlight of my visit (I didn’t have time to see Constitution Hall). The museum is a strange mix of historical site and antique store. You can find everything from furniture used by the original legislators to dollhouses, period-era clothing, and what must be the most varied collection of barbed wire in the world.

A desk used by territorial legislators
Who knew there were so many kinds of barbed wire?

The interior is also adorned with numerous portraits of James Buchanan, who is generally ranked as the worst-ever US president. It may seem like an amusing choice, but it makes plenty of sense when you consider the era when Lecompton was most prominent. President Pierce’s acceptance of the Kansas-Nebraska Act may have sparked Bleeding Kansas, but under Buchanan it spiraled further out of control. A man like Buchanan may have been a relatively harmless president during the 1880s or 1890s, but during the years leading up to the Civil War, he was the wrong man for the job. Plagued by a narrow and restrictive view of presidential power, Buchanan turned to the Supreme Court to decide the slavery issue, pressuring justices in the Dred Scott case to put an end to the debate. Instead, Chief Justice Taney’s ruling enraged the nation. Buchanan likewise took a passive role when southern states began to secede, complaining that there was nothing he could do. Like Pierce had claimed, it wasn’t in his job description. Buchanan is immortalized in the Territorial Capital Museum — he was a man whose actions (or lack of them) made the full effects of Bleeding Kansas possible.

The first President Buchanan portrait I spotted
Another one

The Territorial Capital Museum has one last surprise up its sleeve, though: it has a direct connection with the Eisenhowers. President Eisenhower grew up in Abilene, Kansas and his parents had married in chapel of the Territorial Capital Museum building. At the time of the wedding in 1885, the building was home to Lane University, a small Christian college. Eisenhower’s parents had both met there as students. Fittingly, the museum has a huge collection of Eisenhower paraphernalia today.

The chapel where President Eisenhower’s parents were married in 1885. This room is on the upper floor of the building and is surprisingly large. Today it is decorated in territorial government regalia, but at one point it was actually used as a basketball court.
President Eisenhower collectibles

Other curiosities include a Chester Arthur campaign button (which is even stranger considering that Arthur barely made an effort to get re-elected in 1884 since he was dying), a pen signed by President Nixon, and some pioneer-era washbins and scrubbing boards.

A campaign button for President Buchanan (top) and one for President Arthur (bottom)
President Nixon pen from 1972

Outside of the museum and the signs, there is little to give away Lecompton’s secrets. As Beth Reiber at Unmistakably Lawrence writes, Lecompton “doesn’t look like the kind of place that might have played a hugely significant role in our nation’s history,” but the town “played a pivotal role in steps leading up to the Civil War.” That was my impression, too. It’s hard to imagine that this sleepy town, with its dirt roads and American flags, was once at the epicenter of national politics. Only a lone Confederate flag (a rarity on the Kansas side of the border) hints at a more complicated past. The south had tried to extend the reach of slavery beyond its traditional borders, and it didn’t go over well. Rather than the place where slavery began to die, Lecompton may instead have been closer to a desperate last stand on the wild frontier, a disastrous experiment in popular sovereignty.

A reminder that Lecompton was once at the center of national politics

The Unappreciated Career of Ron Parker

Parker spent six seasons with the Chiefs, never missing a single game until his benching: that’s 94 straight appearances, including 76 consecutive starts from 2014-2018.

Above: a 2018 Facebook post from the Kansas City Chiefs thanks Parker for his tenure with the team.

The Kansas City Chiefs saw a lot of momentous change between 2013 and 2019, especially on defense. The unit was one of the best in the league and one of the worst. Its star players were young, and they grew old. Marcus Peters came and went. Justin Houston recorded 22 sacks in 2014 and was released in 2019. Eric Berry was healthy, then he had lymphoma, then conquered it, then he was injured for two seasons, and finally he was released. Dee Ford went from promising rookie to alleged-bust to breakout star to playoff villain — and then he was traded. One mainstay during those years was a rather overlooked member of the defense: Ron Parker, fittingly nicknamed “Ghost” since his early days.

Parker is one of my favorite NFL players, which might seem odd given that my hometown team has more obvious choices like Patrick Mahomes II and Travis Kelce. I love them, too. But once you realize that I like an underdog, it all makes sense. There is hardly a bigger underdog story in the NFL than Ron Parker. Sure, Kurt Warner bagged groceries and Matt Cassel never started a game in college, but Parker isn’t a quarterback, so his journey has been far less covered (although ESPN gave him some much-needed attention recently).  

When you look at the stats from his Chiefs career, it would be easy to assume that Parker’s origin was typical — maybe he was a mid- to high-round draft choice who was developed and became a full-time player. That was not the case, though. Parker played his first two years of college football at a community college in Kansas, followed by two seasons at Newberry, a Division II school in South Carolina. Despite his immense physical talent, he was not selected in the 2011 NFL draft (he ran a 4.35 40-yard dash, very impressive for a safety). Part of this may have been the relative obscurity of Newberry, as well as his age. At 24, Parker was on the old side for a rookie player in a league where careers are often short and brutal.

Early NFL Career

That physical ability, mainly his stunning quickness, put Parker on the radar, though. He made it into the NFL, but spent the next few seasons bouncing around the league in practice squads and battling for roster spots in preseason. He was released at least eight times (five by the Seattle Seahawks alone). Much of that time was spent playing out of position, with coaches putting Parker at corner due to his speed rather than keeping him at safety, which he was more accustomed to.

In 2013, Parker joined the Chiefs, who had sunk about as low as an NFL team could go. They had gone 2-14 in 2012, with one of their defense’s starters making international headlines in a murder-suicide. The organization cleaned house, swapping Scott Pioli’s Patriots-based regime for one led by Andy Reid and John Dorsey. Matt Cassel was out and Alex Smith was in. Bob Sutton became the defensive coordinator.

The Chiefs turned around in 2013, going 11-5 for one of the biggest comeback seasons in league history. Parker appeared in every game, but in a backup role. More importantly for him, though, he had hung on to a roster spot all year. Now he just needed a big break.

Chiefs Mainstay

That break came in 2014 when Andy Reid named Parker as one of the team’s starting corners. When starting safety Eric Berry was hurt for five weeks, however, Parker moved back to his more natural position, safety, to fill in. When Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma later that year, Parker was again his replacement. After seeing significant playing time for the first time in his career, Parker set career-highs in all categories. He made 15 starts, racking up 94 combined tackles, while his 84 solo tackles led the team. He also intercepted a pass (he’d picked off two others in 2013 as a backup), but more importantly, he had stabilized a position that was in flux without its leader. The secondary could depend on Parker.

The Chiefs rewarded Parker for his efforts, inking him to a long-term deal potentially worth over $30 million. It seemed odd that an undrafted, 27-year-old defensive back (DB) who had been cut eight times could reach such heights, but he had. The typical NFL player (undrafted or not) is already out of the league by 27, especially if they are a DB who relies on speed and quickness. Those are often the first traits to deteriorate. Parker was just getting started, though.

In 2015, Parker was cemented at safety as the starter alongside Berry, who had recovered. They combined to form one of the most effective safety duos in the league, with Parker responsible for 76 combined tackles; he also made three interceptions, good for second-most on the team. He was utilized as a pass rusher, too, recording 5 sacks, which remains the Chiefs’ single-season record for a DB.

2016 brought more of the same, with Parker remaining a stable, if often unrecognized, force in the secondary. The common statistics showed a slight downturn (64 tackles, 1 INT), but analytics sites like Pro Football Focus (PFF) actually graded 2016 as one of Parker’s best seasons. While the NFL’s advanced stats have a long way to go before they hold the same kind of weight as MLB’s, Parker excelled in 2016 by the eye-test, too. Sometimes being a deterrent is just as good as making plays.

Pro Football Focus recognized Parker as one of the NFL’s best safeties in 2016.

By 2017, at age 30, it appeared that Parker was beginning to slow down. PFF graded him as one of the league’s least effective safeties, but he managed to record a pair of interceptions and was still regarded as an unquestioned starter, especially with Berry injured for nearly the entire season. Curiously, though, Parker’s 2017 may not have been as disastrous as some would like us to believe. One article called Parker “extremely disappointing” in 2017 only to point out that passers managed a rating of just 71.9 when targeting him. Other safeties on the roster like Eric Murray were far less successful against the pass, surrendering a passer rating of over 100. Daniel Sorensen was lit up for a rating of 111.2, while also missing an astounding 17 tackles. At least in coverage, the stats make Parker look almost godlike compared to his 2017 alternatives, declining or not. However, Parker was released after the season in a cost-saving move, with Reid preferring to move forward with Berry and Sorensen as his starters.

Departure and Triumphant Return

Parker signed on with the Atlanta Falcons in the 2017-18 offseason. Despite four straight seasons of consistent starting duty, Parker was signed to be a reserve for the Falcons. Meanwhile, trouble was brewing in Kansas City. The Chiefs had parted ways with star corner Marcus Peters. Eric Berry was hurt. Sorensen suffered a severe injury. The Chiefs defense would have to enter the season with unknowns and reserves in the secondary. With no obvious successors to Peters, Sorensen, or Berry, they could really use a guy like…Ron Parker.

Luckily for the Chiefs, the Falcons had been less-than-impressed with Parker during preseason and cut him — the 10th time in his career that Parker had been released by an NFL team. In typical humble Ron Parker fashion, he announced his own termination and thanked the Falcons for the chance. The Chiefs moved in swiftly and reclaimed Parker, immediately reinstating him as their number one safety.

Perhaps reinvigorated by his triumphant return, Parker dominated in the 2018 season opener against the Chargers. He piled up eight tackles and intercepted Philip Rivers. He darted across the field after the interception — a sign that there was still some agility and quickness left in those legs. The return would eventually be called back (the interception counted, though), but the point had been made: Ron Parker had returned.

Another highlight came during a rout of the Cincinnati Bengals, where Parker returned an interception for a touchdown. It was the first touchdown of Parker’s career.

An Inglorious End

That said, the 2018 season also saw plenty of lows for the aging Parker. The entire Chiefs secondary was historically bad in 2018, with Murray and corner Orlando Scandrick attracting most of the fans’ ire. Berry also began to test the patience of a vocal segment of fans, who were upset over his nearly two-season-long absence. Parker largely escaped criticism for the first half of the season, as though there was an unspoken understanding that Parker was at least acceptable — even if all else failed, fans seemed to spend little time fretting about Parker in particular.

That began to change as the season wore on and the Chiefs defense failed to adapt to a league that ran and passed all over them. By October and November, Parker too became a lightning rod for angry fans, who often complained of his deteriorating speed and missed tackles. Then there was this infamous moment against the Patriots, which is still being played in offseason highlight reels as I write. The Chiefs seemed unwilling to take Parker out of the lineup, however, or even to let him come off the field. A common theme in the 2018 snap counts was Parker’s ubiquity: “Ron Parker Plays Every Defensive Snap Once Again” says a headline from October. The same article actually notes that Parker had not missed a snap all year up to that point. Whether fans liked it or not, it seemed that no one could unseat Parker.

Until it happened. It was sudden and swift, but on December 23rd Parker was inactive for the game against the Seahawks, just after ESPN ran their aforementioned story. There had been no lead-up, no gradual decline in playing time. Then Parker was not just benched, but completely ineligible to play. Was Parker chosen, along with Scandrick, to be a scapegoat for a defense that had been atrocious all-around? Was he caught in a power struggle between Sutton’s old guard and Reid’s younger acquisitions? In any case, Parker would not regain his starting job this time. He appeared in the next game against the Raiders as a backup, but was listed at the tail end of the depth chart. He had fallen from the top to the very bottom of the hierarchy in one fell swoop.

Finally, after a playoff victory against the Colts in early 2019, the Chiefs released Parker, just days before they would face the Patriots for a chance to advance to the Super Bowl. After the Chiefs lost to the Patriots, Parker mysteriously tweeted out “God don’t like ugly,” with no other context. It’s impossible to say what prompted this comment, but it seemed out of character for a man whose daily tweets usually just consist of “thank you God.” It’s hard not to speculate. After all, this was an inglorious and insulting end to the tenure of a player who had been a Chiefs mainstay for years.

Parker’s Chiefs Legacy

It’s hard to say where Parker goes from here. He’ll be 32 at the start of the 2019-20 season, at which point most corners and safeties are not merely over the hill, but are careening down the other side. Fifteen-year careers like Champ Bailey’s are the exception, not the rule. Offseason speculation has not been kind to Parker, with one resource listing him as the 10th-best free agent safety. It could be the end of the line, but I would also be far from shocked to see him pop up somewhere in 2019. Parker has overcome greater odds, after all.

That said, for all of us Chiefs fans, 2018 is not how Parker should be remembered, as the guy who was cut before a playoff game, or the guy who was slammed to the ground on national TV. He should be remembered as one of the most stable Chiefs players of the decade, a “Ghost” who often materialized out of thin air to snag an errant pass — sometimes one-handed. He should be remembered as Eric Berry’s trusty sidekick who ensured that teams could not beat the Chiefs secondary merely by avoiding Berry, or as the guy who could be utilized all over the defense, whether he was at free or strong safety, outside corner, covering the slot receiver or tight end, or as a lightning-quick pass rusher.

In all, Parker spent six seasons with the Chiefs, never missing a single game until his benching: that’s 94 straight appearances, including 76 consecutive starts from 2014-2018. He was never suspended. He was never too beaten up to play. He was never fined for an illegal hit (at least not that I could find reference to online). He never taunted or brawled.

He recorded 11 interceptions with the team, along with nearly 400 tackles (395 total and 345 solo). He holds a franchise record for most career sacks by a DB (8.0) and another for most sacks by a DB in a single season (5). Pro Football Reference lists his career Approximate Value at 28, which ranks just behind Dante Hall and Marcus Peters, and just above Dee Ford (AV is a counting stat, which means that it favors every-down players like Parker and Peters more than specialists like Hall).

That’s a pretty good place to be in Chiefs history, especially for a guy who had never started an NFL game before age 26, didn’t enter the league until 24, and started his college career at Independence (Kansas) Community College. On top of that, Parker represented Chiefs Kingdom well, proving himself to be a dependable and hard-working man of character who just so happened to make it big.

Well done, Ron Parker, and best of luck to you from Kansas City.

New Book: England’s Unlikely Commander

My first book is getting published! It’s called “England’s Unlikely Commander: The Military Career of Æthelred the Unready.”

My first book is getting published! It’s called England’s Unlikely Commander: The Military Career of Æthelred the Unready. While I have been fortunate enough to publish articles, stories, and poems, this is my first book. It’s not a very long book, but it’s taking on a subject of English history that has yet to be fully explored.

About England’s Unlikely Commander:

This book is about a king of England named Æthelred the Unready whose reputation is exceptionally poor. In a list of “worst kings ever,” his name is sure to come up. There have been numerous books and biographies on Æthelred: Ryan Lavelle wrote one in 2002, Ann Williams in 2003, Levi Roach in 2016, and Richard Abels just a few months ago. Those books cover the 38-year reign in its entirety, and I’m deeply indebted to the research contained in them. Each one has its own bent – its own set of themes. Lavelle’s focuses on the king’s surprisingly strong use of his authority, while Roach’s deals heavily with religion in Anglo-Saxon England.

My book also has its own focus, and I am less concerned with covering the reign as a whole – that has already been done extremely well in each of the existing books. Mine is different, however, in that it focuses on perhaps the most-criticized aspect of the reign: the military strategies of King Æthelred. During his long reign, Æthelred’s England was relentlessly harassed and invaded by Vikings, culminating in two Danish conquests: one in 1013 and another in just after his death in 1016. In popular history books, podcasts, and articles, it’s common to hear the claim that Æthelred was a military failure in an age where kings had to be warriors. The more careless writers and presenters sometimes go so far as to claim that the king never marched into battle at all! Due due to the unflattering nickname (which actually means “poorly-advised” – unraed) and the conquests, it might seem that these critics have won the argument before it’s even started.

That isn’t the case, though, as my recent research has found. My book seeks to redress this aspect of Æthelred’s reputation and argues that he was militarily prepared and often successful against his many enemies, including the Vikings. And yes, he did march into battle and often left a trail of destruction in his wake. He even became one of the few English kings to reconquer his own country after being deposed, something most other exiled monarchs never accomplish.

About the Publisher:

Rounded Globe is home to some of the best scholarly e-books available, including two others on Anglo-Saxon England by Eleanor Parker and Christopher Monk. Rounded Globe’s goal is to be both accessible to the public and academically thorough. In other words, their readers don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for access to a thick tome full of academic jargon. In addition to being readable, all of Rounded Globe’s books are free to read online and free to download.

That does not mean the authors make no money from their books, however. Rounded Globe also affords plenty of freedom to its authors, who often sell their books on Kindle and Amazon. This leads to the final advantage of this publisher: the reader can decide for themselves what they want to do. If they merely wish to skim the article on the site, they can. If they want to download it, they can. If they wish to buy a print copy, they can. If they want to purchase the Kindle version, they can.

This was also appealing to me because in my own research, I frequently was blocked by a paywall. Unless you’re a member of academia, it’s hard to gain access to a lot of scholarly research.

Finally, I wrote this book for one main reason: so people would read it! This publisher will allow me the platform to share my research with the world. A print and Kindle version will be following soon. Stay tuned.

About the cover:

The cover art and design are by Dasha Lebesheva. The cover art is a re-imagined version of the most famous image of King Æthelred, which comes from a copy of the Abingdon Chronicle (13th Century).

The image that my book’s cover is based off of. Although this is the most famous image of Æthelred the Unready, it is probably not an actual representation of what he looked like. This image comes from the 1200s, whereas Æthelred himself died in 1016.

Tucumcari, New Mexico: The Heart of Route 66 History

Tucumcari is something of a time capsule; the fading memory of Route 66 survives here.

Time seems to stand still in Tucumcari, New Mexico, and in more ways than one. On a mundane level, this is the same kind of sleepiness found in small towns across America: people drive and walk slowly, meandering through town with no apparent deadline or urgency. On another level, though, Tucumcari (pronounced TOO-come-carry) is something of a time capsule. The fading memory of Route 66 survives here. In many ways, the town thrives on it. Route 66 murals, signs, and artifacts dot the landscape.

This mural is one of many that celebrate Tucumcari’s Route 66 heritage.

In the days before the interstate highway system, Route 66 was the main road across the west, starting in Chicago, Illinois and running through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and finally terminating in California. Although the official start of Route 66 came in 1926, parts of the road date back to the dawn of automotive travel. 

The heyday of the road came between the 1920s and 1960s, when towns like Tucumcari catered to cross-country travelers with motels, hotels, cafes, diners, roadside attractions, and tourist traps. Bright neon lights fought for customers’ business, boasting of clean rooms, warm meals, and “100% Refrigerated Air.” While in many respects Tucumcari was not exceptional compared to other Route 66 stops, in other ways, it was one of the Mother Road’s crowning jewels; it was the largest settlement between Amarillo, Texas and Albuquerque, New Mexico (in fact, it still is). Tucumcari reeled thousands of travelers in with its aggressive “Tucumcari Tonite!” billboard campaigns and abundance of motels. Drive through town, especially at night, and it must have looked like a miniature Las Vegas.

The Blue Swallow Motel still boasts “100% Refrigerated Air.”

When President Eisenhower championed the new Interstate Highway System in the 1950s, however, Route 66’s days were numbered. The mainly two-lane Route 66, which ran straight through the main streets of small towns across the nation, would soon be replaced by four-plus-lane freeways that didn’t connect directly to any city, but instead utilized formal entry- and exit-ramps for access. Over the coming decades, Route 66 would be replaced by interstates, bypassed by them, or be recommissioned into business loops. By the 1980s, Route 66 (at least in the sense that it had existed in the 1920s-60s) was no more.

Many Route 66 towns died out when the interstates bypassed them, but Tucumcari was not one of them. It managed to get I-40 to pass through the fringes of its city limits, with original stretches of Route 66 (now rebranded as “Historic Route 66”) remaining fully drivable.

Today, many of Tucumcari’s businesses are clustered around the freeway exits. There are the usual hotel chains and fast food restaurants, which are largely neon-free, except for maybe an OPEN sign. You have to drive for a bit to know that Tucumcari is something special. A cruise down authentic Route 66 is a one-of-a-kind experience.

Some of the older parts of Tucumcari are almost unchanged from their Route 66 days.

This Route 66 mainstay has survived where others have long since vanished, but the town is not hanging on by much. Several of the famous motels and establishments have since been abandoned. Many buildings have collapsed or have been vandalized. Sometimes it was hard to tell (especially during the day) which motels were abandoned shells and which ones were still operating. Many of the residences (or ex-residences) are the same way, because the population here has fallen dramatically since the heyday of Route 66. According to the Census Bureau, Tucumcari reached a peak of 8,400 residents in the 1950s.

This business is abandoned, but the sign has survived.

The city has experienced population decline in each decade since, with the exception of the 1990 census, which reported a 1% increase (the population in 1990 was about 6,800). Today, Tucumcari is home to fewer than 5,000 residents thanks to an especially sharp slide in the 2000s and 2010s.

One of Tucumcari’s many abandoned structures.

Tucumcari is a real-life version of Radiator Springs from Cars. It’s not a ghost town, but it’s clearly seen better days. Cars even took countless ques from Tucumcari. From the “R” butte overlooking the town (Tucumcari Mountain has a large “T”) to the Cozy Cone Motel’s “100% Refrigerated Air” slogan, there are countless tributes to this place.

Sunrise in Tucumcari — Tucumcari Mountain is visible in the background.

It’s no wonder Cars based so much of its fictional Route 66 town on Tucumcari: this half-abandoned city in the New Mexican high plains is a last refuge of Route 66 history. Remnants and artifacts from the Mother Road can be found all over the southwest, but for some of the best-preserved, most famous, and most easily-accessible ones, there is no contest: Tucumcari, like in the 1950s, is the place to be.

Pioneer Graveyard: Johnson County History

What kind of rough existence did these early settlers endure? The headstones show that life as a pioneer was precarious at best.

When I was growing up, the cemetery along 135th street fascinated me. Located between Pflumm and Quivira in Johnson County, it looked haunted, far older than the modern cemeteries with their fresh flowers, checkerboard lawns, and tidy fences. Back then (in the late 1990s or early 2000s) there was little development along that stretch of 135th, but my family drove past the cemetery all the time. It would have been easy to miss — from the road, the tombstones were almost completely obscured by trees.

To this day, I’m convinced that the only reason I ever knew this old cemetery existed was because I was young; I was always looking out the window, not at the road. Today, I’d drive right past and not even know what I had missed. It was tiny. I know it’s a cliche, but blink and you could miss it. Seriously — with all the trees, you had to be looking straight out the passenger side window to get a glimpse of it.  

Pleasant Ridge / Redpath Cemetery as it appeared when I was a child. This image was taken in 2005 or earlier.

A few years ago, the cemetery caught my eye again. I had forgotten all about it until a new apartment complex sprung up on that deserted plot. Despite how easy it would be to interpret this in a cynical manner, it actually ended up being a lifeline for the graveyard: as part of the new development, the trees were cut down. The weeds were gone. A new fence was erected, wrapping the graveyard — perhaps for the first time in a century — within clear boundaries.

Shortly after this, I Googled “cemetery 135th and Rosehill.” I wasn’t expecting anything. After all, it looked like it had been out of use for a hundred years. Much to my surprise, it came up. It had been known as the Pleasant Ridge Cemetery, and was also listed under the alternate name of Redpath Cemetery. A history reference site called Johnson County KSGenWeb has an entire article on it.

The land the cemetery stands on was owned by March 1855, predating both Johnson County (established in August 1855) and the state of Kansas itself, which achieved statehood in 1861. As a territory, Kansas had only existed for a year. This early group of settlers lived in Johnson County during the tumultuous period known as Bleeding Kansas, which saw nearby Olathe attacked at least three times between 1862 and 1864. Meanwhile, Olathe’s famous Mahaffie Stagecoach stop was functioning by 1858. Wild Bill Hickok was also present in Johnson County, serving as lawman for a nearby pioneer community in modern-day Lenexa, while Buffalo Bill Cody and Jesse James spent time farther north in Leavenworth and St. Joseph, respectively.  

What kind of rough existence did these early settlers endure? The headstones show that life as a pioneer was precarious at best: a number of the graves are those of infants, while numerous others died in their 40s. A handful of them lived into their 70s and 80s, though, so a long life was not out of the question. It must have been harsh, but surprisingly, the earliest gravestone I could find dates from 1863, seven years after the land was first settled (it is possible that some of the illegible tombstones are earlier). The KSGenWeb site lists the earliest burial as 1865, instead interpreting the “1863” grave as 1868. It’s hard to tell either way.

The earliest date of death I could find, 1863, although KSGenWeb believes this actually reads 1868.

I decided to stop in and pay these original Johnson County residents a visit:

Illegible tombstones


One of the infant graves

Mary Harsh, who died at 45. Her obituary is still available and lists her cause of death as typhoid fever.

Several Hutchesons can be found in the cemetery. One of them, Elizabeth Mitchell, reached 85, dying in 1916. Her obituary sadly notes that “the closing years of her life were passed in weakness and considerable suffering…” She left behind an astounding 32 grandchildren.

Two of the Hutcheson graves.

The cemetery was widely used from the 1860s-1880s, with a handful of early 20th century burials, too. The final interment occurred in 1960, when a woman named Mary Everett was buried alongside her husband, who had died in his 40s during the Coolidge administration.

Mary Everett is the final burial in the cemetery.

Today, Johnson County is half a million strong, made up of middle and upper-middle class suburbs, but the foundations were laid (perhaps literally) by people whose graves stand just a few feet away from where we drive every day. The Pleasant Ridge / Redpath Cemetery is a vital piece of Johnson County history, and its graves date back much farther than I ever imagined as a child. These old tombstones are not only a reminder of Johnson County’s early days, but of how difficult and unpredictable life could be at that time.