I first came into contact with Gary Zaboly through others in the tightly knit Alamo history community, that includes another interviewee, Al Bouler, who in this highly talked about interview, discussed what it was like being a historian and impersonator of David Crockett. Zaboly, on the other hand, has focused his energies differently, which includes writing a book on a much-forgotten, and unfortunately so, chapter of early America history, and that is Major Robert Rogers and his unit of Rangers that fought in the French and Indian War and helped to tame life on the wild and rugged 18th century frontier.
There are few historians who can match the expertise on this subject than Zaboly can, who has written a massive coffee-table size book titled, “A True Ranger: The Life and Many Wars of Major Robert Rogers”. Zaboly is also a painter, who has illustrated scenes of Rogers and also Texas history, for other magazines and books as he is an avid Alamo buff as well. He also tends to comment on my Facebook when I post something about movies, and I guess you can say he is an expert of sorts on classic films. I asked him about his historical passions and much more in our interview below:
GC: Osprey Publishing has referred to you as a “highly regarded expert on 18th century Rangers”. Where did this interest develop from, and how long have you been studying history?
GZ: My interest in early American frontier history developed in my pre-school days, primarily from all the B Westerns on TV at the time, and then of course from Disney’s Davy Crockett series in 1954-55. From that point on I was hooked, and almost everything dealing with the subject—from illustrated books to motion pictures—captured my attention and stoked my curiosity. Over the years I began to study the subject more deeply, my emphasis focusing on such particular areas as the Alamo, Rogers’ Rangers, the French and Indian War, the Revolution, and Custer’s Last Stand. But when it came to dealing with colonial frontier history in the 1750s-60s, most of the available publications seemed to be largely bereft of the nitty-gritty details I hungered for, and so over the succeeding decades I personally rummaged through libraries and archives to find answers to the many questions I had. Being an illustrator, this was a doubly important task to fulfill. Transferring my eventual piles of research notes and images to organized binders and reference files proved to be a boon to both my writing and my artwork. I’ve written scores of articles related to the above mentioned subjects, and a few books, and illustrated many more; hence my reputation, such as it is, as an “expert.” But I can only claim expertise as far as my research—and my interpretation of same—has taken me. Sometimes what we think we know to be true is true only as far as research has taken us. It’s unfortunate that a single life is really too short in which to do all the research that’s necessary to arrive at the answers to so many nagging questions.
GC: Having seen the 1940 film “Northwest Passage”, with Spencer Tracy, which is a story of Major Robert Rogers, the foremost Ranger, what is your opinion on the film, and how accurate is it?
GZ: Northwest Passage essentially got me started on the subject of Rogers’ Rangers. I’d first seen the Northwest Passage TV series of 1958, but it only had a minimal impact on my boy’s mind at the time. About five years later the MGM movie version was shown on local TV, and it proved a watershed viewing for me: it was an entirely new, entirely different type of frontier history. I soon sought out the novel by Kenneth Roberts, and fortunately it appeared that year (1963) in paperback for the first time, published by Crest Books. It proved even more thrilling and inspiring than the film, and I’ve probably read it seven times again since then. As history, the film, like all Hollywood films, is inaccurate from many standpoints: in terms of the uniforms, the layout of the village of St. Francis, and much of the history itself. But when it comes to conveying an idea of the raw wilderness conditions Rogers’ men had to endure on that expedition, it succeeds very well. Even though filmed in Payette National Forest in Idaho, Northwest Passage did manage to credibly depict the rangers’ march through the swamps and rugged hills of southern Quebec, northern Vermont and northern New Hampshire, not to mention their voyage by whaleboat up Lake Champlain in northern New York. In 1759 those regions were just as barren and devoid of human habitation as shown in the film: a virtual no-man’s wilderness land. One of the ironies of 1940’s Northwest Passage is that it paints Major Robert Rogers as something of a racist. Nothing could be further from the truth. The real Rogers learned much of his craft from early, friendly contact with the Indians of New Hampshire, and he dealt fairly with the Mahicans and Mohawks and other English-allied Native Americans during the French and Indian War. When he became the British commandant of the integral British frontier trading post of Fort Michilimackinac in 1766, he was dubbed “the Good Father” by the local tribes because unlike his predecessors, he knew how to treat them with kindness and fairness.
GC: You are also an accomplished painter, and have illustrated scenes not only of the Rangers, but the Alamo and Texas Revolution as well. How long have you been painting and what is your favorite aspect of the Texas Revolution?
GZ: I’ve been illustrating books and articles relating to American history since the early 1970s. The Alamo continues as my major subject area of the Texas Revolution not only because it’s a hugely dramatic event, but also because so much about it remains a mystery, and much research and dissection remains to be done. The amount of progress, knowledge-wise, that’s been done on this subject over the past 50 years has been considerable, yet so much is still unknown, or blighted by long-held misconceptions.
GC: Tell us about your book, “A True Ranger: The Life and Many Wars of Major Robert Rogers”.
GZ: It’s the comprehensive biography of Robert Rogers that I always wanted to read but could never find. It’s very long, and fully footnoted and sourced, and it contains tons of information about Rogers that I had collected over the years, virtually all of it highly fascinating (to me anyway), and much of it new in terms of the scholarship. I think I wrote it mainly for other historians, not necessarily for the public at large, although I consider it readable for anyone. The book begins with Rogers being sprung from a New York City debtor’s jail cell by Highland troops and soldiers of the Royal American Regiment, which exemplifies how popular he was among even the British regular rank and file. But he had enemies in certain high places, and much of the book deals with the machinations they contrived in order to destroy him. Of course the book’s main concern is how Rogers transformed a motley collection of independent colonial ranger companies into a full-fledged, effective corps of rangers, and the skirmishes and battles they won, or lost. It also underscores his Ranger legacy, and how so much of his famous Special Forces “Rules” remain as viable and important today as they did in the 1750s.
GC: Whenever I post a link or picture of a classic movie on Facebook, you always seem to have your two cents about it. What is your favorite movie, and who are your favorite directors/actors/actresses?
GZ: Oh, I’m a big movie lover. I have my personal favorites, most of them historical in nature (1952’s The Big Sky, 1955’s The Last Command, the aforementioned Northwest Passage, 1960’s The Alamo, 1939’s Drums Along the Mohawk, and so on), but also high on my list are Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Citizen Kane, and such odd numbers as Inside Movies. I’ve long been a student of film history, and since teenage days have collected many classic films, of both the silent and sound eras. Director-wise, I’ve always especially loved [D.W] Griffith and [John] Ford. Actor-wise it’s a tough call, but high on my list are John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Charlton Heston. Actress-wise, there’s a wide range of names that come to mind: from Jean Arthur to Loretta Young to Ida Lupino to Anne Archer to Zooey Deschanel—the list is long!
GC: Lastly, I ask this to every historian I interview: why is it so important to keep the past alive?
GZ: Our past is our present; our present is our future. All of it is vitally, inextricably connected, and the more we know about where we came from, the better equipped we’ll be to deal with the challenges of the future. So much national conflict today arises from the fact that history ain’t taught a damn in our schools anymore. Also, even fiction can’t compete with the sheer drama, action, mystery, and color you can find in history. Which is why so much fiction is drawn from history.
I want to thank Mr. Zaboly for taking the time to conduct this interview!