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. 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

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

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.