Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Interview with LESLIE WHEELER
Does the fact that you can trace your ancestors back to the Mayflower have anything to do with your love of history?
I credit my paternal grandfather for giving me my love of history rather than my Mayflower ancestry. My grandfather, Burton K. Wheeler, was a U.S. Senator from Montana from the 1920s to right after World War II. He was a colorful, larger-than-life figure, and a wonderful raconteur. All he had to do was walk into a room and start talking to become the center of attention. In his early years in the Senate, he helped expose the Teapot Dome scandal during the Harding administration, and the movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, is based on his battle against corruption. Later in his career, he fought Roosevelt when FDR tri
ed to pack the Supreme Court. I grew up listening to his stories, and since he lived until he was almost ninety-three, I was able to spend lots of time with him. Because of him, I took many American history courses in college, even though officially, I was an English major, specializing in medieval literature. My Mayflower connection stems from my grandfather Wheeler, but it wasn’t a big deal to me for a long time. I even forgot about it until reminded by my sister on the above-mentioned visit to Plimoth Plantation, when she and my brother-in-law raced around trying to find the interpreters who portrayed our ancestors, Susannah White and Edward Winslow.
My interest in Native peoples goes back to the summer vacations I spent in Montana at the family cabins in Glacier National Park. My grandfather Wheeler was responsible for legislation that was favorable to the Indians, so members of the Blackfoot nation would come to visit him in Glacier, sometimes bringing gifts, including a spectacular headdress which used to hang on the wall in the main cabin. My grandfather arranged for my cousins and I to be “adopted” into the Blackfoot tribe. There was a ceremony at which we were given Indian names (mine was Morning Girl) and beautiful beaded necklaces. (I still have mine.) Later, in my work on American history textbooks, I often wrote the “Closing the Frontier” chapter, which, among other things, deals with the Indian wars in the West toward the end of the nineteenth-century. But it wasn’t until I started researching my first mystery,