The Wild West and Remembering Robert H. Smith
This issue we ride back to the Old West and encounter the Battle of Little Bighorn and re-live the Pony Express, two of the most mythic and fascinating subjects to shape our view of the American past. One of our favorite writers, Nat Philbrick, the National Book Award-winning author of books on the Mayflower, Wilkes Expedition and whaleship Essex, gives us a rollicking, insightful look at Custer and Sitting Bull.
We also asked Chris Corbett, one of the foremost authorities on the Pony Express, who will keynote the upcoming 150th anniversary celebrations this summer, to write about the legendary venture. Several of us in the office have already planned trips this summer to visit the Little Bighorn and canter a few miles of the 2,000 mile re-ride sponsored by the National Pony Express Association. (Take a look at the guide in the back of this issue—we’ve created a map and listing of sites so you can plan your own trip and perhaps ride the trail yourself.) Saddle up!
On a sadder note, American Heritage and the history community lost a great friend last December when Robert H. Smith passed away at 81. The Virginia real estate developer was the largest donor to the beautiful new visitor centers at Mt. Vernon and Lincoln’s Cottage, and funded the research center at Jefferson’s Monticello, among many other projects.
“Bob Smith was one of those people whose passion was not just for giving financial support, but for really getting involved in the project,” says Robert Wilburn, former President of the Gettysburg Foundation. He had a particular interest in bringing people face-to-face with our greatest presidents. The life-size statue of Thomas Jefferson greeting visitors on the sidewalk above Monticello’s visitor center was his idea. The bronze figure, tall, lean and graceful, smiles disarmingly at visitors, who are surprised to find themselves standing next to a Founding Father. Similarly, at Gettysburg a pensive Lincoln sits ready to give his Address while at Montpelier James Madison relaxes with a book in his backyard.
When we were looking for financial help to save American Heritage, I sent letters to dozens of philanthropists. Unlike most others, Smith contacted me right away. “Recognizing the importance of understanding American history,” he wrote, “I would like to be helpful in attaining your goals.” He did just that, not only pledging money but making a generous offer to spur others by matching their contributions. American Heritage would simply not be here today without his help.
There was no one like Robert H. Smith, and he’ll be sorely missed.
Edwin S. Grosvenor, Editor-in-Chief