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Manitoba History: General Rosser’s Legacy

by Ken Storie
Gimli, Manitoba

Number 56, October 2007

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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What’s the connection between Rosser Avenue, Brandon’s “Main” street, and the Rural Municipality of Rosser near Winnipeg? What do the communities of Brandon and Stonewall have in common? How about the connection between The Battle of Little Bighorn and the creation of Manitoba’s second city?

It all starts with the railway. At the beginning of 1881 what we now call southwestern Manitoba was part of the Northwest Territories, as the western provincial boundary stretched only slightly past Portage la Prairie. It was, quite literally, not on the map. Specifically, it was not on CPR Chief Engineer Sanford Fleming’s map, dated 8 April 1880, and submitted as part of his report on possible rail routes westward. He mentions that the regions thereabouts had “so far as known, have not been explored.” [1]

Though perhaps not explored, the territory had been considered in an abstract way. Mr. Fleming, despite continuing to advocate for a slightly more northern route along the Little Saskatchewan Valley and skirting the Riding Mountains to the south, also envisioned a southerly extension that would cross the Assiniboine near the mouth of the Little Saskatchewan. He noted the agricultural potential of the region and that it might become a site for a future city that would “shortly become important.” [2]

This largely unpopulated area was slowly developing the first tentative forays into agriculture with the noticeable beginnings of towns seen at Rapid City, Minnedosa (Tanner’s Crossing), Millford (near the confluence of the Souris and Assiniboine Rivers), and Grand Valley (a few kilometres east of Brandon). These locations are mentioned in the George Wyatt’s 1881 Guide for Settlers, which includes a list of post offices and charts with destinations for both steamboat and stagecoaches, [3] while the site that would later become Brandon was an undeveloped homestead.

Before the end of 1881, this unassuming patch of riverside prairie had become a bustling town with hotels, grocery stores, restaurants and various outfitters popping up like crocuses on the sunny side of a hill. Now, in any normal prairie town, activity of this sort would be taking place on Main Street; or on a main street by any of the other generic names: Front Street, Railway Street, sometimes even Commercial Avenue. Even Winnipeg has a Main Street.

Instead, Brandon has Rosser Avenue and it was named after the CPR’s Chief Engineer who established the site: Thomas Lafayette Rosser. That’s a considerably enduring tribute considering that the man worked for the CPR for less than a year and departed in the midst of accusations, recriminations and scandal. And also considering that two of Rosser’s bosses, Alpheus B. Stickney [4] and William Cornelius Van Horne [5] find their surnames on less prominent avenues.

T. L. Rosser

Thomas Lafayette Rosser (1836-1910), Founder of Brandon, was a Confederate General during the American Civil War.
Source: Thomas Rosser Cochran, Jr. & Ann Cochran Culley

But then Rosser was not your ordinary railroad engineer. In fact, it is proper to refer to him as General Rosser, an American no less, southerner even, and a well-respected veteran of the American Civil War.

That said, the man liked naming things and in his short time in our province invoked his admiration for fellow countryman Stonewall Jackson by bestowing that name on an upstart town just north of Winnipeg and had his own name attached to a village and a municipality also near that city. He even had the village of Griswold, near Brandon, named after one of his American friends. [6] You might say that he left his mark.

In the spring of 1881 this former soldier, well into his second career as a Railway Chief Engineer, crossed the Assiniboine River at a point about 200 kilometres west of Winnipeg, bargained briefly with a Mr. Adamson and purchased the town site of Brandon for little more than a song. As with many other deals struck in the creation of railway towns in the era, potential profit for Mr. Rosser was a consideration. [7] He’d just rejected the site known as Grand Valley, the area’s most well-established settlement, a few kilometres downriver in a famous confrontation with area pioneer John McVicar, who had his own notions about profit.

The story of the founding of Brandon has often been told, in its various and conflicting forms. Where does fact give way to legend? Do we believe Mrs. Dougald McVicar, sister-in-law of the Grand Valley property owner who makes no mention of Rosser’s offer to purchase the town site. [8] How reliable are the various other accounts that have McVicar falling victim of bad advice from cronies? What about Brandon pioneer Beecham Trotter’s account wherein McVicar immediately asks for double what Rosser was willing to pay, only to be stung by Rosser’s, equally quick reply, “I’ll be damned if a town of any kind is ever built here.” [9] The most reliable account may be found in the memoirs of James Secretan, a CPR surveyor who worked with Rosser. He recalls that Rosser indeed made a $25000 offer, and when McVicar did counter with a request for $50000, the General abruptly ended negotiations and moved on upstream. [10]

Upon taking the suggestion of the captain of the prairie steamboat the Marquette, and naming the city Brandon in a nod to the nearby hills and former HBC post, he set about putting his stamp on the community. It was General Rosser who ordered the surveyor Mr. M. P. Hawley to keep the lots of the new city small, and the streets narrow (66 ft. as opposed to 99) — more profit was the first concern. [11]

If this and other decisions benefited Rosser, one must also acknowledge the benefit to both his employer the CPR and to the public. His policy of avoiding established towns, first evidenced in the Grand Valley episode, saved a fortune. The decision to establish the CPR headquarters in Winnipeg was a sensible business decision and certainly good for Manitoba, and of all the decisions he made, his selection of the site of Brandon has had the most lasting impact.

Who exactly was this “General Rosser”? There seemed to be a lot of Generals and Colonels involved in the opening of the west.

According to one of his surveyors, James Secretan, whom Rosser appointed to take charge of the line west, he was “… a most lovable man … a tall, handsome, swarthy Southern gentleman of the real old type, had fought in the ’late unpleasantness,’” [12] Biographer Thomas Beane referred to him as “a superb horseman, tall and muscular, with a firm jaw and a manner that exuded self-confidence.” [13]

He was, in fact, a Confederate Major General of Cavalry during the American Civil War, promoted to command by Confederate Army leader J. E. B. Stuart who cited his leadership, bravery and tactical ability. [14] That’s a pretty good resume, but on the other hand, biographers also note that he was a man driven by a quest for financial gain, and a person who could be “arrogant, aggressive, racist, and proud to a fault.” [15]

There is general agreement that, in an age when many self-important people tended to attach questionable military ranks to their identity, Mr. Rosser, in fact had earned his rank in battle.

He was indeed complex person, and undeniably, one with many talents and a wide variety of experiences. The two key aspects of his character: his almost ruthless, action-oriented approach to getting a job done, and his ever-present eye on the possibilities for profit, are amply demonstrated through his actions during his short time with the CPR.

It turns out that this authentic Confederate General was also a West Point classmate and friend of the illustrious Custer of Little Bighorn fame. It reminds one that the west was indeed a small place in those days and that, especially in this region, history intertwined often on a north-south axis regardless of borders. How did a Confederate General end up in Grand Valley as advance man for our national dream?

Rosser, who was born in Virginia in 1836, spent his youth on the Sabine River near the Texas-Louisiana border before entering West Point in 1856. Just weeks before graduation, the outbreak of the Civil War caused him to skip that formality and head home to enlist in the new Confederate Army. His colleague and friend, George Armstrong Custer, class clown and all-round hell-raiser, being from the north was able to stay on and finish.

Lieutenant Rosser soon distinguished himself as a cavalry officer, and moved up the ranks quickly. Superiors, in particular, noticed his calmness under fire and his ability to mould groups of raw recruits into an efficient fighting machine. He was a perfectionist who took great pride in his accomplishments.

From all reports he developed a flair for the dramatic. Perhaps he had taken to reading his own press. Describing a difficult situation during the turning point Gettysburg campaign he later reported: “The enemy greatly outnumbering us, appeared in force everywhere, and it became apparent that victory was the only means of escape.” [16]

And escape he did, and although the war continued to go badly for the South, and Rosser himself sustained several serious injuries, he continued to be a formidable presence, harassing the Union forces wherever he encountered them, capturing supplies, never avoiding a fight. [17] In fact he was so successful that the Union commander General Sherman ordered one of his young up-and-comers, George Custer to deal with his former classmate. Thus began a series of engagements and a gentlemanly rivalry.

A now famous battle against Custer at Tom’s Brook (8 October 1864) in the Shenandoah Valley saw Custer with his customary flare for the dramatic, or perhaps mere gentlemanly courtesy, ride between the lines before the onset of hostilities and deliver a gracious low bow to his worthy opponent. Rosser acknowledged the gesture with a smile and explained to his staff, “You see that Yank down there bowing? Well that’s General Custer, the Yanks are so proud of, and I’m going to give him the best whipping he ever got.” [18] It wasn’t to be. Custer easily prevailed this day in a contest later dubbed the “Battle of the Woodstock Races.” The moment, like so many in Custer’s career has been recorded for posterity in a drawing.

Custer, at one point, was fortunate enough to be able to capture Rosser’s luggage complete with a uniform. He wrote his friend thanking him for the wardrobe addition and suggesting that Rosser have his tailor make the coattails of his next uniforms a little shorter to accommodate his (Custer’s) shorter stature. [19]

As we all know, it was in a losing cause. But Rosser was not inclined to “cut and run.” He earned himself a place in the history books, and perhaps some grudging respect from the victors for refusing to surrender his unit when everyone else could see it was all over.

With his military career cut short by the end of the Confederacy, Rosser, with scant success, tried various job and business enterprises until in1869, like so many others, he headed west. There he landed a “starting level” position with a small railway concern and quickly established himself in this the growth industry of the mid-nineteenth century. [20] The building of railways across the “untamed” west offered travel and adventure, even a bit of danger. It was almost as good as the army! And Rosser rose just as quickly. Starting at the bottom he worked his way from roadman, to scout, chief surveyor and, soon enough, Chief Engineer of the Northern Pacific Railway. [21]

As he engaged in the task of surveying the line westward through Montana there was some resistance and harassment from the local inhabitants the Sioux, who for good reason didn’t trust the intentions behind this intrusion into what they had every reason to suppose was their home. To the rescue came old friend Custer, who, being on the winning side of the recent north-south conflict, hadn’t had to give up his profession. The victorious North hadn’t waited too long for a new enemy to appear and what we charitably refer to as the Indian Wars was underway, with Custer as a central figure.

This military-railway collaboration was perhaps the first of what some would insist became a trend in the U.S.; the use of military force to back the interests of large corporations whose endeavours are identified with the natural interest. It didn’t do much for relations with the west’s natives.

The meeting of Rosser and Custer in a camp on the Northern Pacific line must have been like a reunion of old friends. They no doubt recounted old times and those see-saw series of battles and skirmishes along the Shenandoah Valley and the exchange of notes and friendly jibes. [22]

Rosser Avenue

Rosser Avenue circa 1881, as Thomas Rosser might have seen it.
Source: Magnacca Research Centre, Daly House Museum, 93-487-16.

Rosser’s friendship for Custer was perhaps most famously displayed after Custer’s demise at Little Bighorn. With the Custer legacy under attack, and the President himself beginning to lay blame, Rosser jumped to the defence of his former adversary. In a letter to the Chicago Tribune he put the blame for the disaster on the shoulders of Custer’s subordinates:

I feel that Custer would have succeeded had Reno with all the reserve of seven companies passed through and joined Custer after the first repulse. I think it quite certain that General Custer had agreed with Reno upon a place of junction in case of a repulse of either or both of the detachments, and instead of an effort being made by Reno for such a junction as soon as he encountered heavy resistance he took refuge in the hills, and abandoned Custer and his gallant comrades to their fate.

As a soldier I would sooner today lie in the grave of General Custer and his gallant comrades alone in that distant wilderness, that when the last trumpet sounds I could rise to judgment from my post of duty, than to live in the place of the survivors of the siege on the hills. [23]

Rosser was soon forced to retract his impetuous attack on Reno, under threat of lawsuit, [24] but his spirited defence of Custer, aside from accurately highlighting a central point of a fascinating controversy, is indicative of a relationship that is much easier to understand when taken in the context of the times. The Civil War provided countless stories of friends and even family members taking opposite sides.

In any case Rosser and Custer made a good team, and the survey into Montana was a particularly dangerous operation. Rosser himself usually carried a rifle, a brace of pistols, and saddle bags full of ammunition when traveling and once had occasion to use his weapons in a stand-off with Sioux who had just killed his co-worker and friend. [25]

While Rosser and Custer were pushing the Northern Pacific westward, James Jerome Hill, a former Canadian based in St. Paul, Minnesota, was the president of the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway, a company he had taken over at the verge of bankruptcy and turned into a gold mine. [26] By 1881 he was a member of the Montreal syndicate with the first CPR contract, something he had at first undertaken with the hope of uniting it with the lines south of the border, thus creating the beginnings of a western transportation empire. At that time many thought that an all-Canadian route, north of the Great Lakes, through the Canadian Shield was neither advisable, nor economically feasible. The logical route was to go south of the lakes, through the United States, and through Pembina and on to Selkirk. Logical that is, if from a Canadian perspective, one forgets the political implications; or from the American perspective, one fully expects the U.S. to control the entire west in any case. In the meantime, Mr. Hill was a man with a track record and when he needed someone to solve problems in the operations north of the border he called on Rosser.

And what was in it for Rosser? A reasonable salary, to be sure, the element of challenge and fact that Rosser had worked with Hill briefly on the “Manitoba Road,” were all factors. [27] But there was also the tacit understanding that it wouldn’t be totally out of line to use one’s influence and inside information to make a few extra bucks. At least that’s the way Rosser seemed to see it.

The establishment of a railway in undeveloped country is the original ground floor opportunity for a venture capitalist. The laying of the rails is the first step in the creation of the new map of the area. Everything rides on a few key decisions. The locations of the general route, specific route, divisional points and sidings all determine the location of towns. The growth of those towns depends largely on the railway’s use of them. Divisional points, located about every 300 kilometres will be major supply centres, while stations or sidings will be less important. Either way, railway decisions will be the key determinant of land values in a given settlement.

Rosser had been through all this before with The Northern Pacific. He had been responsible for selecting town sites, and crossings – in fact his selection of crossing of the Red River at Fargo, and the land speculation profits he is assumed to have garnered, was the beginning of his personal fortune. [28]

Originally the CPR was to cross the Red at Selkirk, a preferred crossing in that the area near Fort Garry at the forks of the Assiniboine and Red was prone to flooding and that the route was then to follow the flat, easily-crossed area we now call the Interlake, through the narrows of Lake Manitoba and northwest towards the Saskatchewan River. The Carleton Trail, already in use for decades, followed the Saskatchewan River to Edmonton, and from there the Rockies were to be breached at the Yellowhead Pass.

The choice of this route was based on exhaustive research by two extensive exploratory expeditions. John Palliser, an Irish gentleman adventurer, who had already traveled widely in the American West was selected by the Royal Geographical Society and the Imperial Government to explore the area between Lakes Superior and the Rockies and report on everything from plant species to possible travel routes. After a two-year field trip he concluded that the only good land in the area lay in a belt along the North Saskatchewan. In fact the vast area comprising the southern third of Saskatchewan and Alberta, now called Palliser’s Triangle, was deemed thoroughly unsuited to agriculture. [29]

Another expedition, sponsored by Canada and led by Henry Youle Hind, a geology professor from Toronto, came to similar conclusions. There was, apparently, no real future for the southern prairies. Normally, railways are built where the customers are. In this case the railways came before the customers, so it was a case of deciding where the customers would end up.

And that’s the way it stood when General Rosser rode into the picture in the spring of 1881. He was at the table, when James Hill and the Executive Committee of the CPR changed the history of the Canadian West. In short order they decided that the route across the prairies, instead of following the northern route would take a much more southern route, essentially where it now exists through Brandon, Regina, Calgary and the Kicking Horse Pass. As to the reason for this dramatic reversal of policy, one theory is that it all turned on the work of one man, John Macoun. For he too was at that famous meeting. [30]

Macoun had accompanied Sanford Fleming on his first survey of the Carleton Trail route ten years earlier, and returned for extensive research in 1879 and 1880. His observations were that the southern prairies were indeed well situated for agriculture. Now we know that the reason for the differing points of view are a simple as the cycle of drought normal to this prairie region. Palliser and Hind made their observations in 1857-1859, the centre of a dry spell. Macoun in 1879 and 1880 witnessed the wettest years of the century. [31]

The decision, or more significantly, its approval by the government, may also have rested on a few other foundations. Politically it was advisable to locate closer to the American border to pre-empt possible competition from an American line and to keep a firm grip on the territory at a time when many prominent Americans viewed the annexation of the west by the U.S. as not only desirable, but inevitable. On a more practical note we were probably seeing the beginnings of the CPR’s policy of avoiding high prices and land speculation by bypassing expected routes and established communities. They truly were doing the unexpected in this case. Additionally the southern route was shorter and would be (they thought!) less expensive to build. Some have speculated Mr. Hill saw the possibility of some arrangement whereby his other venture the Great Northern in the U.S. would benefit from some arrangements with the CPR. [32]

So it was that in early May of 1881 we find Rosser at the end of the line near Portage La Prairie turning the sod to start what would be a season of frantic activity for the largely uninhabited stretch of prairie to the west. As they proceeded, General Rosser and his boss, Alpheus B. Stickney quickly found that creating new towns was also more profitable for them personally than using already existing ones. It was a short-lived relationship, but various reports have the pair making $130,000 between them during their brief careers with the CPR. Not a bad haul in 1881 dollars. [33] As an example of what could be done, Rosser was suspected of having had the preliminary survey of the line in Saskatchewan altered to bring it through present day Regina where he had invested. [34]

They made a lot of money, but it did not go unnoticed. The local press, especially in existing centres where hopes and speculations were dashed by CPR decisions, raised a hue and cry and almost before it began, Rosser’s career as a railway entrepreneur was over.

First, Stickney was replaced by William Cornelius Van Horne. Perhaps it was the bad press, or perhaps he actually was alarmed at the Rosser/Stickney speculations, but one of Van Horne’s first acts was to dash of a telegram firing Rosser. Rosser deemed it an inconvenient time to be sacked, ignored the message, and left town on urgent business. Van Horne again asked Rosser to resign. Lawsuits and harsh words ensued. In a famous incident in a Winnipeg club pistols were produced and only the intervention of friends prevented bloodshed. [35]

The end result was that Rosser sued for malicious prosecution, asking for $100,000 and getting $2,600, [36] then took his “earnings” home to Virginia where he dabbled in farming and in a succession of imaginative business ventures that never seemed to make it past the planning stage. By the 1890’s he was the most prominent living Civil War veteran, now slipping into the role of American Patriot. He did get one more shot at a military career, this time as trainer of recruits for the Spanish-American War in 1898. At the time his death in 1910 he was Postmaster of Charlottesville, Virginia, a political appointment he had secured in 1905. [37]

And here in Canada, his legacy is mixed, or worse still, unconsidered. By most standards, his accomplishments are noteworthy. In that crucial summer of 1881, when the laying of the tracks set in motion the pattern settlement would take, Rosser certainly tackled the task at hand. Supplies were purchased and delivered, men were hired, supervised and provided with food, towns were created. As Beecham Trotter, who worked on the railways that summer, so aptly noted in his account of the times, it was all done with the focus being the day-to-day, no one being overly conscious that history was being made. [38] There were lines to grade and bridges to be built.

So, tempted as we may be to find fault with some of General Rosser’s healthy regard for his own financial self-interest, we should examine his record through the lens of time and circumstance. To this day it is difficult to find fault with Rosser’s decisions regarding town sites, even if they also benefited him personally, and his work in pushing the rails westward during the summer of 1881 has perhaps not been fully recognized for what it was; a job very well done.

Thomas Lafeyette Rosser

An elderly Rosser (circa 1905)
Source: Thomas Rosser Cochran, Jr. & Ann Cochran Culley


1. Sandford Fleming, C. M. G., Report: Canadian Pacific Railway 1880. Ottawa: Maclean, Roger & Co.1880, Appendix 15, p. 248. (The map referred to is Plate 7 on p. 232)

2. Ibid., p. 248.

3. George H. Wyatt, A Reliable Guide for Settlers, Travellers & Investors in the City of Winnipeg, Manitoba and the New North-West. Toronto: 1881, pp. 3 - 4.

4. Alpheus B. Stickney (1840 - 1916) was an American with extensive experience in railroad construction who, like Rosser had worked with J. J. Hill on his St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway. Stickney was appointed General Superintendent of the Canadian Pacific Railway in April of 1881 and was Rosser’s immediate superior. He resigned in October of that same year amid accusations that he was speculating on Manitoba properties based on his knowledge of routes. Manitoba History Biographies, Alpheus Beede Stickney (1840 - 1916).

5. William Cornelius Van Horne (1843 - 1915) was hired as general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway by J. J. Hill in the fall of 1881, replacing A. B. Stickney. Van Horne, an American who left his post as the general manager of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad to take on the Canadian position, is generally credited with providing the leadership and drive required to finish the CPR line across the Prairies and through the Rockies. Pierre Berton, The Last Spike Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1974, p. 44. Omer Lavallee, John M. Egan, A Railway Officer in Winnipeg, 1882 - 1886: An account of Canadian Pacific’s first years in the Manitoba capital, MHS Transactions, Series 3, no. 33, 1976 - 1977 Season.

6. J. B. Rudnyckyj, Manitoba Mosaic of Place Names. Winnipeg MB, Canadian Institute of Onomastic Sciences, 89. Geographical Names of Manitoba, Manitoba Conservation Winnipeg, 2000. Sources offer no details about Mr. and Mrs. Griswold or their relationship with Rosser.

7. M. Van Rhyn, An American Warrior, Thomas Lafayette Rosser 1836 - 1910. MA Thesis, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1998, 79 pp.

8. Mrs. Dougald McVicar, Reminiscenses of Early Brandon. Unpublished memoir, 1946.

9. Beecham Trotter, A Horseman and The West. Toronto: Macmillan Company of Canada Ltd., 1925, p. 89.

10. James Henry Edward Secretan, Canada’s Great Highway: From the First Stake to the Last Spike. Ottawa: Thorburn & Abbott, 1924, pp. 125 - 128; Berton, The Last Spike, p. 25. Berton relates conflicting accounts by J. H. E. Secretan, a CPR surveyor and memoirs of Charles Aeneas Shaw, a “locating engineer”. A. D. Doerksen, The Brandon Wheat Kings - 1887 Vintage Manitoba Pageant, Vol. 22, No. 1, Winter 1977) favours the account of Trotter. The evidence indicates, at the very least, a lost opportunity for McVicar and the Grand Valley speculators.

11. Berton, The Last Spike, p. 29.

12. Secretan, Canada’s Great Highway, p. 88.

13. T. O. Beane, Thomas Lafayette Rosser, Soldier, Railroad Builder, Politician, Businessman (1836 - 1910). MA Thesis, University of Virginia, 1957, 23 pp.

14. Ibid., p. 53.

15. M. Van Rhyn, An American Warrior, p. iv.

16. David Minor, Under Two Flags, Eagles Byte Research,, August 1998 no. 32

17. Beane, Thomas Lafayette Rosser, pp. 40 – 48.

18. Ibid., p. 44.

19. Minor, Under Two Flags.

20. Beane, Thomas Lafayette Rosser, pp. 55 – 57.

21. Van Rhyn, An American Warrior, p. 78.

22. Beane, Thomas Lafayette Rosser, p. 60.

23. From a letter by General T. L. Rosser, to the Chicago Tribune (8 July 1876). (Also cited in Boots and Saddles)

24. Van Rhyn, An American Warrior, p. 95.

25. Ibid., p. 87.

26. Pierre Berton, The National Dream. Penguin Books Canada, 1989, pp. 406 – 407.

27. David Cruise and Alison Griffiths, Lords of the Line Markham: Penguin Books Canada Ltd., 1988, p. 129.

28. Beane, Thomas Lafayette Rosser, p. 57.

29. Berton, The Last Spike, p. 14.

30. John Macoun, Autobiography of John Macoun, M.A.: Canadian explorer and naturalist, assistant director and naturalist to the Geological Survey of Canada, 1831 - 1920. Ottawa, 1922, pp. 183,184.

31. Berton, The Last Spike, p. 11 – 12.

32. Cruise and Griffiths, Lords of the Line, p. 101.

33. Ibid., p. 129.

34. Berton, The Last Spike, p. 113. Berton lists no specific source for his belief.

35. Cruise and Griffiths, Lords of the Line, p. 130; Berton, The Last Spike, p. 91; Both Berton and Cruise & Griffiths draw the account from the Winnipeg Sun, 13 July 1882.

36. Berton, The Last Spike, p. 91.

37. Beane, Thomas Lafayette Rosser, p. 81.

38. Trotter, A Horseman and The West, p. 102.

Page revised: 12 August 2015

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