Dime Novel Hero
Frank T. Hopkins first drew breath in Texas or Wyoming in 1865, the son of the sole survivor of the Little Big Horn and a Sioux chief's daughter. At age 12, he began working as a dispatcher for the U.S. Cavalry, delivering messages over long distances. He delivered the fatal dispatch which led to the Wounded Knee Massacre, an action which left many of his mother's people dead. The work, however, gave him the proper training to enter endurance horse races, of which he was to win four hundred or so.
The dreaded Ocean of Fire ranks among the most famous of his accomplishments. In 1890, he became the first non-Arab to enter this 1000-year-old, 3000-mile test of man and horse. His American mustang, Hidalgo, proved more than the equal of the Arabian stallions against which he raced, and Hopkins won the gruelling event.
Like many legends of the Wild West, he had a long-time association with Buffalo Bill, and headlined in his Wild West Show for a time. He also worked as spy for the American government, a translator on several Sioux treaties, a Pinkerton detective, and a courier for the Pony Express. He explored 19th-century Africa and saddled up with Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders.
Along the way he met Sitting Bull and Billy the Kid.
Then he single-handedly built the Panama Canal before becoming the first man to land on the moon, decades before Neil Armstrong.
Not buying that last part? Okay, he never said he built a canal (not even a small one), nor did he have anything to say about the moon. But Frank T. Hopkins claimed all of the rest, and convinced many people that his outrageous stories were true. Even today he has supporters despite a complete lack of historical evidence for any of his tales.
Just the Facts
A 1910 census provides the first verifiable reference to Frank T. Hopkins. At that time, he lived in New Jersey with his wife and children. His first claims to greatness appear in a 1926 article. He mentions working for Buffalo Bill, and states that he inspired some of Zane Grey's characters. He has nothing to say about his feats of endurance racing.
In 1929 he married for a second time; whether he had divorced his first wife, and the fate of that woman and their children, remain, at present, uncertain. At that time, however, he claimed to have been born in 1885, and not 1865. If that is true, he would have been too young-- or not even born-- when many of his stories take place.
In the 1930s Hopkins' tales, like Tolkien's, grew in the telling. Suddenly, articles appear, supported only by his word, about his fabulous adventures in the Old West and his unprecedented feats of endurance racing. These articles become the sole source for later writers, who sometimes include references to Hopkins in weightier books. In the 1940s, Hopkins and his second wife, Gertrude, contribute articles about his many achievements to various magazines. Again, these appear without corroborating sources.
What record we have of his employ showed that he indeed worked for a time with horses, as a handler for the Ringling Brothers Circus. By the 1940s, he held a job as a subway construction foreman in New York. In his later years, he worked for the preservation of the Mustang horse. His interest in the breed continued until his death in 1958.
Hopkins' Principal Claims and the Evidence
No official record exists of a Frank Hopkins working as a dispatcher, though a letter sent by a "Colonel R. Parker" to a Vermont horse magazine in 1942 recalls a dispatcher by that name. The rest of his 19th century accomplishments left no record, other than his own word, given decades after the fact. No known treaties include his name as translator, and the inclusion of the translator's name was standard practice. As for his account of the Wounded Knee Massacre, it has been lifted largely from John Neihardt's 1932 book, Black Elk Speaks (196-201).
He claims to have been a major star for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Circus, headlining during the first two European tours. He allegedly maintained an association with Buffalo Bill Cody for decades, and happened to be present at his death. Juti Wincester, curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum and others searched their records on the matter. Unlike other major stars of that circus, Hopkins does not appear in their advertisements. No record of his employment exists, despite meticulous records listing even many menial employees. The relevant passenger manifests for the first two European tours do not include his name. Indeed, months of searching failed to turn up even a passing reference to Hopkins in any of their documents.
Prior to the Ocean of Fire, his most spectacular endurance race took him from Galveston, Texas to Rutland, Vermont in 1886. Hopkins claims to have finished the endurance race in 31 days-- but he seems to be the only source for this accomplishment. No record of such a race, or of a Frank Hopkins entering a race in that area, can be found in the 1896 papers from Galveston or Rutland (Hard and Morrisey). Hopkins also claims that The Police Gazette sponsored the race; odd, then, that no record of it would appear in their archives (Hard and Morrisey). When the Vermont Historical Society researched this particular claim, all they could find were articles by Hopkins, dated (when a date could be found) decades after the fact.
Also, as a History Channel documentary notes, an island seems an odd place to start a cross-country horse race.
The Arabian desert would present even greater challenges.
However, the Ocean of Fire doesn't exist. No record can be found of any such race, despite Hopkins' claim that it ran for 1,000 years. No one in the Middle East appears to have heard of this event, except from Hopkins, whose own accounts can't decide whether the race covered 3,000 or 5,000 miles. In 2004, Awad Al-Badi of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies said that "such an event in Arabia any time in the past is impossible simply from a technical, logistical, cultural and geopolitical point of view. This race has never been part of our rich traditions and equestrian heritage" (quoted in O'Reilly and O'Reilly, "A Quick Overview..."). It makes for an exciting dime novel story, but in reality, no one would have survived such a competition.
By the 1960s, Hopkins had become a minor footnote to history. In the 1960s, Robert H. Land of the American Library of Congress and Bob Gray, editor of Horseman magazine separately indicated to Anthony Amaral, who had earlier written an article on Hopkins for Horse Lovers Magazine, that no evidence exists for the "Ocean of Fire" endurance race. In the Vermont Historical Society's 1970 News and Notes, researchers found references to the Galveston/Rutland race, and noted that it lacked any corroborating evidence.
And that might have been the end of the trail for Frank T. Hopkins had not Walt Disney made a movie.
In 2004, Walt Disney released the film Hidalgo, based on Hopkins' tall tales. It might have been simply a swashbuckling Indiana Jones-style action flick, but Disney stirred up several controversies. Some people complained about its depiction of Arabs and Islam, though the film's portrayals are decidedly mixed. The fact that the film depicts an American cowboy beating Middle Easterners on their own turf certainly raised eyebrows, given its release during the conflict with Iraq. Most of the controversy, however, surrounds the fact that Disney claimed the movie is "based on a true story," and screenwriter John Fusco created a website to bolster that claim.
Even before the film's release, the Long Rider's Guild-- principally CuChullaine and Basha O'Reilly-- began researching the veracity of Hopkins' claims. They then established a Hopkins-related page at their website, and published a heavily-annotated collection of Hopkins' stories. Staff at the Buffalo Bill Museum, meanwhile, who had advised Disney on certain aspects of the movie, also began examining their records. Others followed; the History Channel produced a skeptical documentary on Hopkins, released in March, 2004. A great many historians and students of history weighed in against Disney's and Hopkins's claims. Whether Hidalgo works as a movie is a matter of opinion, but its claim to be "based on a true story" rivals that of the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the dubious use of that phrase.
Hopkins found some supporters, however: fans of the film, its author, and its star. Some have been spurred, perhaps, by the vitriol of the Long Riders' Guild's attacks on Hopkins, which become at times rather personal-- though the evidence clearly supports their principal claims about him. The evidence of the supporters generally consists of unattributed references to an oral tradition that supports Hopkins' stories.* Oral traditions may be evidence of something, but most people prefer more than dusty stories before accepting the reality of Hercules, the New Jersey Devil, or the Easter Bunny.
A legend, like any good story, may be entertaining, revealing, or instructive. One almost wishes that Hopkins had applied himself to the writing of popular fiction. He would have made more money, and his tales might have been remembered alongside the novels of Zane Grey, instead of the e-mail from Nigerian bank officials
*Viggo Mortensen, who plays Hopkins in Disney's film Hidalgo, jumped into the fray by claiming that, while working on that film, he encountered Lakota natives who could verify Hopkins' claims, and that some of these people could not even speak English. Putting aside the question of how Mortensen communicated with them, Native historian Vine Deloria Jr. has challenged the actor to produce the names of these individuals, and explain "how he was lucky enough to find" them. According to Deloria, scholars have long-bemoaned the absence of people who could even speak the language fluently anymore, much less who speak no English. The historian states:
I am 71 years old and can recall but a few elders in my early childhood who could not speak English - but that was over 60 years ago and those people were rare and in their 80s and 90s at that time. I would like to have Viggo Mortensen give me the names of those families who only speak Lakota that he can converse with --he has uncovered people overlooked by the several educational programs that teach and analyze the Lakota language?... ...suddenly a Hollywood star is able to go to a Sioux reservation and immediately find families who don't speak English?
Mortensen has moved on to his next project.
Ally Burguieres. "Reigning in success after the Rings." The Diamondback. University of Maryland. Feb. 26, 2004. http://www.inform.umd.edu/News/Diamondback/archives/2004/02/26/diversions1.html
Cynthia Culbertson. "A Review of Hidalgo. (reprinted from Bob magazine at The Long Riders' Guild. http://www.thelongridersguild.com/culbertson.htm)
"Dr. Vine Deloria calls on Viggo Mortensen to produce his Lakota witness." The Hopkins Hoax. The Long Riders' Guild. http://www.thelongridersguild.com/deloria2.htm
Anuj Desai. "A Mirage in the Desert." Slate. March 4, 2004. http://www.slate.com/Default.aspx?id=2096671&
Bob Gray, letter to Anthony Amaral. February 10, 1967. http://www.thelongridersguild.com/amaral-horseman.JPG
Walter Hard, Jr. and Charles Morrisey."Horse Race in 1886 From Texas to Vermont Was 1, 799 Mile in Length (But Did This Race Actually Occur?)" News and Notes. Vermont Historical Society, 1970. http://www.thelongridersguild.com/vermont.htm
Peter Harrigan. "Disney Movie on Arabian Horse Race Raises Storm." Arab New. March 1, 2004. http://www.arabnews.com/?page=1§ion=0&article=40361&d=1&m=3&y=2004
Robert Land. Letter to Anthony Amaral. March 3, 1966. http://www.thelongridersguild.com/amaral-lib-congress.JPG
"Library Collections Debunk Current Movie." Library New. Vermont Historical Society, 2004. http://www.thelongridersguild.com/vermont-8.htm
Gregory Lalire. "Wounded Knee Memories." Wild West, August 2004. Reprinted at The History Net. http://www.historynet.com/we/editorial_08_04/
Bill Muller. "Poney Baloney." The Arizona Republic. March 4, 20004. http://www.azcentral.com/ent/movies/articles/0304onfilm04.html
John G. Neihardt. Black Elk Speaks. 1932. The 1972 edition may be found online at http://www.blackelkspeaks.unl.edu/toc.htm
Basha O'Reilly. "Hidalgo: From the Myth to the Movie." Trail Blazer. Oct. 2003. http://www.thelongridersguild.com/t-blazeroct.htm
CuChullaine and Basha O'Reilly. "Timeline of Deceit." The Hopkins Hoax. The Long Riders' Association. http://www.thelongridersguild.com/hoax-deceit.htm
"A Quick Overview of Hopkins' Fantasies." The Hopkins Hoax. http://www.thelongridersguild.com/hoax-summary.htm
R. Parker. "Riders and their Records." Vermont Horse and Bridle Train Bulletin, September 1942. http://www.frankhopkins.com/articles16.html
Antony B. Toth. "Disney's Hidalgo: A New Hollywood Low." History News Network. August 10, 2004. http://hnn.us/articles/3881.html
Juti A. Winchester. "Weaving a Cinematic Web: Hildago and the Search for Frank Hopkins." Buffalo Bill Historical Center. http://www.bbhc.org/bbm/HidalgoInfo.cfm