Thursday, October 29, 2015

"Dr. Livingston, I Presume?"

When I engaged in my research about the construction of the first transcontinental railroad in preparation for writing my trilogy, I discovered the delightful, comprehensive reports that Henry Morton Stanley wrote for the St. Louis Missouri Democrat in the late 1860s. As a youth, I was fascinated with the history of world discovery and had read books about the man who uttered the famous phrase: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

To my surprise, I discovered that Stanley’s “explorations” included extensive travel in the western United States. Stanley’s newspaper articles are contained in his autobiographical book My Early Travels in America and Asia, Volume 1. In my book, Eagle Talons, The Iron Horse Chronicles—Book One, I initially included Stanley as a historical character my protagonist, Will Braddock, meets in Julesburg, Colorado, in 1867. Subsequently, I eliminated Stanley, deciding it was an “information dump.” I did rely upon Stanley’s extensive descriptions of the hell on wheels town of Julesburg and the dozens of wagon trains gathered in eastern Colorado.

In searching for books containing information about Stanley that would appeal to middle grade readers, I found two older history/biography books. Unfortunately, I have not located any historical fiction nor have I found any recent history books on the subject. Certainly, Stanley’s own autobiographies are readable by middle grade students. Stanley was a prolific writer, and his works cover all aspects of his interesting life.

Henry Stanley and the European Explorers of Africa by Steven Sherman, Chelsea House Publishers, New York and Philadelphia, 1993, presents a broad description of the better known explorers of Africa. Sherman introduces the reader to the efforts of several African explorers, including Mungo Park, Hugh Clapperton, Richard Burton, John Speke, and of course David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley. Sherman’s book includes a short summary of Stanley’s life prior to his explorations in Africa. The reference to his work as a journalist in the American West is brief and provides little information about that period of Stanley’s life. The book does contain extensive modern and period illustrations and maps that make for an interesting read.

Henry Stanley and David Livingstone by Susan Clinton (a volume in The World’s Greatest Explorers series), Childrens Press, Chicago, 1990, might more appropriately be classified as a dual biography. Clinton provides alternating chapters on the lives of the two explorers. She delves into their early years in some detail. The reader learns that Stanley’s birth name was John Rowlands, the son of an unwed mother. At age seventeen, he escaped his dismal life in Wales and sailed as a cabin boy to America. He deserted in New Orleans, where an English cotton broker took him under his wing. The ensuring relationship resulted in John changing his name to that of his new mentor, Henry Morton Stanley. The American Civil War began when Stanley was twenty years old. He enlisted in the Confederate Army and was captured at the Battle of Shiloh. After several weeks in a northern prison camp, he switched sides. He only lasted a few days as a Yankee because he came down with dysentery, and the Union Army discharged him. Over the next few years he bounced around at various jobs including merchant seaman and legal clerk. He even tried his hand at prospecting for gold in Colorado. In 1866 Stanley began submitting articles about his travels in the American West to the St. Louis Missouri Democrat.

James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald, impressed with Stanley’s writing, hired him to find the “long-lost” Dr. David Livingstone. Early in his journey into Africa, he happened to be present in 1869 at the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt. It was this engineering feat that put an end to one of the hoped for benefits of the first transcontinental railroad across the United States. The railroad lost the anticipated China trade to the new canal.

Stanley continued deeper into Africa in his search for the missionary-doctor, and in late 1871 uttered: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Livingstone did not realize he was lost, and he did not want to be rescued. When Stanley returned to England, he was snubbed by the Royal Geographic Society. This so infuriated the new explorer that he subsequently embarked upon additional journeys throughout Africa, becoming the first known individual to cross the entire continent. His books describing his adventures became best sellers, and Stanley gained the reputation of being the greatest African explorer.

Perhaps my research contributed to the success of my first book, because on October 24, in Ft. Worth, Texas, Eagle Talons, The Iron Horse Chronicles—Book One, was awarded the 2015 Bronze Will Rogers Medallion for historical fiction for young readers. I obviously owe Henry Morton Stanley and his wonderfully descriptive writing for providing me with fascinating material to use about the rough and tumble life engaged in by the builders of the first transcontinental railroad.


  1. Congratulations, Robert! I am sure the time you spent in research contributed to the success of your book.

  2. Stanley sure got around, per your research--and not just to Africa. I find this very interesting.

  3. Excellent post, per usual. I'm certain your wonderful trilogy will garner more historical kudos!

  4. I had no idea Stanley had such an interesting life. I'd love to read more about him! The lack of MG books about him means it's time for a new book--opportunities for authors!

    Deb Watley