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William Least Heat-Moon

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Author William Least Heat-Moon (of Blue Highways and Prairyerth) has for most of his life claimed to have Osage ancestry, and has been willingly presented as such by others. As far as I can tell, he has no biological or cultural connection to the Osage, nor probably to any Native Americans. I am surprised that this does not seem to be common knowledge, considering his fame as a writer, since all the facts about him have been in plain view for a long time.

He was born William Lewis Trogdon on 8/27/1939, in Kansas City, and started using the name Least Heat-Moon in public around 1982, when Blue Highways came out. In that book he writes:
--- Quote ---Call me Least Heat-Moon. My father calls himself Heat-Moon, my elder brother Little Heat-Moon. I, coming last, am therefore Least. It has been a long lesson of a name to learn. To the Siouan peoples, the Moon of Heat is the seventh month, a time also known as the Blood Moon—I think because of its dusky midsummer color.

I have other names: Buck, once a slur—never mind the predominant Anglo features. Also Bill Trogdon. The Christian names come from a grandfather eight generations back, one William Trogdon, an immigrant Lancashireman living in North Carolina, who was killed by the Tories for providing food to rebel patriots and thereby got his name in volume four of Makers of America. Yet to the red way of thinking, a man who makes peace with the new by destroying the old is not to be honored. So I hear.

One summer when Heat-Moon and I were walking the ancestral grounds of the Osage near the river of that name in western Missouri, we talked about bloodlines. He said, "Each of the people from anywhere, when you see in them far enough, you find red blood and a red heart. There's a hope."

Nevertheless, a mixed-blood—let his heart be where it may—is a contaminated man who will be trusted by neither red nor white. The attitude goes back to a long history of "perfidious" half-breeds, men who, by their nature, had to choose against one of their bloodlines. As for me, I will choose for heart, for spirit, but never will I choose for blood.
--- End quote ---

An interview with Edgar I. Ailor, in Blue Highways Revisited (U. of Missouri, 2012), p. 15:
--- Quote ---I said to Heat-Moon, "We know from reading Blue Highways that you have Indian heritage, but in the book there isn't much detail about it." He replied, "I don't consider myself an Indian, although it's part of my ancestry, which also includes English, Irish, Osage, and even a touch of German. Yet I don't call myself an Englishman or Irishman, so I'm not going to call myself an Indian; but that aspect of my background has been important to me. My Osage heritage—even though it was covered over for years—is important to me as a writer. In the last century any kind of Indian blood was frequently hidden away. I think that's somewhat changed today, but even years ago my father was proud to acknowledge all aspects of our family."

"Your dad's name was Heat-Moon, but yours is Least Heat-Moon."

"My elder brother is Little Heat-Moon. My father took the name Heat-Moon in the 1930s and used it exclusively in Boy Scouts. He was a scoutmaster and a member of the tribe of Mic-O-Say, a Scout organization in Kansas City, Missouri. The heart of the organization is in St. Clair County on the Osage River. The group draws upon the customs of the Osage. When my father had to choose a name, he took Heat-Moon for several reasons. Because there were twelve adult leaders being brought into the tribe that summer, somebody thought to use the twelve names of the moon translated from Plains Indian lore. My father choose July—the moon of heat—because that, as far as we know, was the month of the birth of our last full-blood Osage ancestor. What the grandfather's name was in Osage I have never been able to learn. Indians were not citizens of the United States until 1924, so records give only his Anglo name. Years later when my elder brother came along and became a member of the tribe, he chose Little Heat-Moon. When I turned thirteen, I wanted to continue the family tradition, and that made me Least Heat-Moon. I had no idea at the time I would put it on a book. We didn't spell it with a hyphen because we rarely wrote the name. When Blue Highways first appeared, there was no hyphen and people began calling me Moon. That's half a name. I added the punctuation so librarians would know how to alphabetize the book and people wouldn't call me Mister Moon. On the early editions of Blue Highways, my Anglo name, William Trogdon, also appeared."
--- End quote ---

John Price, in Not just any land : a personal and literary journey into the American grasslands. (U. Nebraska 2004), pp. 100-101 (footnote: "taken from an obituary of Ralph Trogdon on display at the Chase County Historical Society Museum in August 1994. The article has since been removed."):

--- Quote ---William Trogdon was born the youngest son of Ralph G. Trogdon, a Kansas City lawyer with a small amount of Osage heritage. Ralph was active in Boy Scouts for many years and was named Chieftain Heat-Moon in the Scout-created tribe of Mic-O-Say in 1959. "Heat Moon" was a name invented by Ralph who, though he knew of his distant Osage heritage, did not know any of his Indian family names. When his eldest stepson, David, entered the tribe, he took the name Little Heat Moon. When William entered the tribe at the age of thirteen—shortly after he and his father drove through Chase County for the first time—he became, in turn, Least Heat Moon.
--- End quote ---

More on the Scout "Tribe of Mic-O-Say" can be found in the Wikipedia article. Their founder was H. Roe Bartle, a white man who never claimed any other ancestry. Bartle was nicknamed "The Chief", and after him was named the Kansas City Chiefs football team. Bartle reportedly had an Arapaho friend who told him about "Indian Culture". There's more about the "Tribe of Mic-O-Say" in Sean Daley et al., For $1,000 You Can Be A Dog Soldier: The Tribe of Should-Be-Ashamed. Practicing Anthropology, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Spring 2015), pp. 17-21:

William himself did not claim any cultural connection through anything that came from the "Tribe of Mic-O-Say". He expresses a spiritual or poetic connection with his supposed Osage ancestor or ancestors, but without demonstrating actual cultural transmission, through the family or otherwise. Nevertheless he considers the connection sufficient to speak with authority of Indian ways of thought, or of the experience of having both Indian and White ancestries.

For example, he says in a 1988 interview with Hank Nuwer:
--- Quote --- You can see throughout Blue Highways the emergence, the reemergence, I should say, of the Osage notions of time. The notion is that time is circular and cyclical, rather than linear. The Anglo notions of cause and effect—the rational approach to life—get subsumed to Indian notions that are a little more mystical and cyclical.
--- End quote ---

--- Quote ---[The open range] has a particular resonance for someone of American Indian background, since the open range was in so many ways the essence of life, particularly for the Plains Indians that my people came from.
--- End quote ---

--- Quote --- Yes, the structure of Blue Highways comes about through my perception of the Indian vision quest in which the young man, the young woman, goes into the wilderness and once again, does what he [or she] can to enlarge his perceptions, to get out of the restrictions of self, the restrictions of egotism ... Indians that I’ve heard from who have read the book almost immediately pick that up. It’s part of their background and understanding.
--- End quote ---

--- Quote ---Even though I’m not a full blood, there certainly are any number of Indians who are capable of writing a book like Blue Highways. If the book in any way would help to break down that American notion of Indian stereotypes, I would be very happy about that.
--- End quote ---

In a 1991 interview with Daniel Bourne, WLHM goes into great lengths discussing what it means to be "half-breed", as he puts it, etc. There's too much to quote here.

There are more quotes of that sort in various interviews.

And being known as an Indian writer helped him: in an interview in People, 4/18/1983, pp. 78–, he says,

--- Quote ---Eight publishers had rejected a 25-page sampler, but Pantheon had just said no to the whole manuscript. That's when I figured it would not be published in my lifetime, but would be found someday in an attic. It was strange out there in the cold—suddenly it popped into my head that what was wrong with the book was that I was trying to write it purely from an Anglo point of view. The book already had all the Indian information, the history, the anger in places. But the narrator was looking from just one side and sounded hollow to me. I was not drawing on the Indian heritage my father, Heat Moon, had taught me. The next morning I couldn't wait to get started rewriting. The title page no longer said "by William Trogdon." It said "by William Least Heat Moon." I excised about 100 pages about Bill Trogdon's failed marriage and his dissatisfaction with life as an academic. And I added a new chapter explaining that the author was part Osage, a man who stood in two worlds. Years ago I had taken the name Least Heat Moon because my father was Heat Moon and my older brother was Little Heat Moon.
--- End quote ---

There is no indication I can find, from WLHM himself or from anyone else, of any connection with Osage or any other Native American culture. What he had, including his name, came from what the Boy Scouts of America had concocted while his father, Ralph, was associated with them. He anchors his Indianness, as it were, on his supposed partial Osage ancestry.

A few authors have criticized him for misrepresenting himself as Native American, while accepting that he had some Native ancestry. For example, Jim Crace, in a negative review of Blue Highways, writes, "It is true that Trogdon/Moon is a melting-pot American with forebears both Sioux and Lancastrian; but whatever the ancestry, he himself is not an Indian—apple or otherwise—any more than he is a pilgrim father" (Times Literary Supplement 8/26/1983, p. 902). Alan Velie and Gerald Vizenor write, "Bill Trogdon, with a trace of Siouan genes in his veins, changed his name to William Least Heat-Moon, and wrote a bestseller." (A.R. Velie, ed., Native American Perspectives on Literature and History, University of Oklahoma Press, 1995, p. 5). And the Osage News, Official Newspaper of the Osage Nation, (v. 10, no. 4, April 2014, p. 21), favorably wrote, under the title "Osage author establishes scholarship at Univ. of Missouri", that "while his ancestry includes European lineages, it it is his Osage heritage that now paves the way for his personal and family legacy through a gift..."

But I can find no evidence that WLHM has any Osage ancestry.

Since William's supposed Osage ancestry comes from his father's side, that is the side I will concentrate on (I have also looked briefly at his mother's side. Her family was from Ohio, far from Osage country. I didn't find any recent Indian ancestors there.)

WLHM's father, Ralph Grayston Trogdon (1/12/1910 – 5/15/1993) is pictured in his Find a Grave page, wearing a feathered headdress:
His biography there also mentions that he "was named Chieftain Heat Moon in the Tribe of Mic-O-Say, and had received the Silver Beaver Award."

An interview with WLHM in the Springfield Leader and Press of 4/17/1983, page 1G:
says that his grandfather was Alpheus Trogdon, his great-grandfather was William Grayston, and his great-great-grandfather was David Grayston, who came from England to work on building the Erie canal. That matches the genealogy I put together. I haven't found any mention anywhere of who the Osage ancestor is supposed to be, only that he was born in July ("heat moon").

Ralph Trogdon's family tree follows. Generations of the family migrated westward over the years. Since the question is whether Ralph had any Osage ancestry, I stopped looking once the ancestral line reaches well to the east of Osage territory. It is possible that there was some Native American ancestor further back, from an Eastern, non-Osage people, but I haven't found any, and William and Ralph have never claimed any, so that would be beside the point.

All locations are in Missouri unless otherwise noted. "F" and "M" stand for father and mother. "FG" stands for Find a Grave. "c" stands for the Federal census.

- F Alpheus Franklin Trogdon. b. 8/11/1879 (gravestone, FG) in Springfield. d. 1/27/1939 Springfield. Race White (c 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930). Parents confirmed in c 1880, 1900.
- FF Daniel Ferree Trogdon. b. 7/11/1856 (gravestone, FG) in North Carolina (c 1880, 1900, 1910). d. 10/7/1919. Self & parents White (c 1870). Both his parents were born in North Carolina and were White (c 1880). (This is the only ancestor I could find who was born in July. In photos he seems Caucasian, with light-colored hair.)
- FM Mary Ann Reiff. b. 8/5/1858 (gravestone, FG) in Pennsylvania (c 1880, 1900, 1910). d. 8/27/1953 (FG). A newspaper obituary on her FG page calls her "one of the first settlers of Springfield". Both her parents born in Pennsylvania and are White (c 1880).

- M Gertrude T. Grayston. b. 2/1886 (c 1900) d. 7/3/1937 St. Louis. Married Alpheus Trogdon in 9/15/1903, remarried to Wallace Grady Lewis in 10/2/1926. White (c 1900, 1910, 1920). Parents' names confirmed in Missouri death certificate (as William Graceton and Mary M. Witte).
- MF William Edward Grayston. b. 4/1862 (c 1900) in Illinois (c 1880, 1900). d. 11/21/1901, Joplin (newspaper accounts). White (c 1880, 1900). Father born in England, mother born in Virginia, both White (c 1880). After divorcing his wife Mary, he married Pearl Payton on 2/5/1896 (Missouri marriage record).
- MM Mary Molissa Witty. b. 2/1/1865 (Death certificate) Tennessee (c 1870, 1900, 1910) or Middletown, KY (death certificate); d. 10/9/1941. Future husband Grayston was her parents' boarder (c 1880). After the Graystons divorced (mentioned in the Springfield Leader and Press, 11/22/1901, she is called Witby), she married Asa R. Vanderford in 1892 (Missouri marriage certificate, as Mrs. Mollie Grayston; In c 1900 she is listed as Mary Vanderford, widowed and living with daughter Gertrude.) White (c 1870, 1880, 1900). Mother and father both White, both born in Tennessee (c 1880). Their parents were apparently from North Carolina and Virginia, but I haven't looked carefully at that side of the family tree.

To sum, Ralph's great-grandparents were from Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and England, and were recorded as White. When Ralph was born, three of his grandparents were still alive. There would be no mystery as to where they were born. I am at a loss to explain how the family came to believe they had an Osage ancestor, unless one of Ralph's parents or grandparents was conceived extramaritally, or adopted and presented as born to white parents.

Although WLHM, now in his eighties, is no longer in the limelight as he was in the 1980s, but he's well-known enough that his history should be known.

I forgot to mention: one of the few people to call WLHM outright fake was Rayna Green, in her survey of pretendians, The Tribe Called Wannabee: Playing Indian in America and Europe, Folklore 99:i, 1988, p. 30 (
--- Quote ---In the first mode, writers (such as 'William Least Heat Moon' of Blue Highways) whose early work is not popular, drop their Anglo persona and take up an Indian one, finding a loyal and devoted following in the impersonation phase. As the phrase goes, Indian-ness somehow makes good press if promoted well, though it has rarely worked for Indian authors in that competitive business.
--- End quote ---

Unless you subscribe to you can't access the website.

This is the clipping where he talks about his family.

It would be nice to be able to read it.

--- Quote from: cellophane on November 13, 2022, 12:01:34 am ---This is the clipping where he talks about his family.

--- End quote ---


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