SPIRIT OF THE TRAIL NIGHT PAGEANT
Inducted in 2006
“Night Shows” have always been an important part of the Ellensburg Rodeo and Kittitas County Fair weekend. At present, locals and visitors can choose from three night shows, including a Friday evening performance of the Rodeo, Saturday night’s “Extreme Bulls,” competition, and Sunday’s Ellensburg Rodeo Posse Night Show.
Eighty years ago, rodeo and fair attendees were offered an equally exciting night show featuring scores of Kittitas County residents and Yakama Indians. This theatrical production was called the “Spirit of the Trail Night Pageant.”
The “Spirit of the Trail” Pageant was a mounted theatrical production staged in the rodeo arena as a night show from 1926-1939. The pageant script was written by Central Professor H. C. Fish and first directed by Nellie Burke. Mirroring similar pageants across the American West, “The Spirit of the Trail” acted out the early history of the Kittitas Valley. “The Spirit of the Trail” featured members of the Kittitas Band and Yakama Indian tribes alongside other local riders and amateur actors and volunteers. They acted out early Indian scenes, U.S. Army exploration, “Manifest Destiny” and the coming of the pioneers, the Yakama Indian War, and the ultimate civilizing of Ellensburg and Kittitas County.
Professor Herbert Clay Fish, the creator of “Spirit of the West,” was born in Moline, Illinois in 1875. After earning his college degree and teaching high school in the Midwest, he became the first Curator of the State Historical Society of North Dakota from 1907-15. An interest in early exploration of the trans-Mississippi West took him to the University of Washington, where he earned an MA in 1920, writing a thesis on Lewis and Clark and other early explorers.
During his North Dakota days, Fish developed an expertise in Indian history and material culture that he honed at University of Washington and Ellensburg’s Washington State Normal School (now CWU). “We often had Indians as guests in our home,” remembers daughter Virginia Fish Tozer, adding that her father maintained “continual contact with Indians” to better learn their history and culture.
“Throughout his career,” Tozer has written of her father, “his aim was…making history come alive for his students.” Soon after coming to the State Normal School, Professor Fish pursued this end by co-writing (with Floy Rossman) a play for elementary school students to aid their learning Washington State history. “The Trail Makers” was an early version of “The Spirit of the Trail” performed in McConnell Auditorium in 1921, Fish also authored “The Spirit of the Snohomish,” a 1920s historical play performed in western Washington State.
Shortly after the 1923 birth of the Ellensburg Rodeo, Professor Fish decided to adapt his work for performance as a night show. His grand vision included scores of mounted Valley actors and actresses alongside members of the Kittitas Band and Yakama tribes. He revised his original script and recruited Nellie Burke to produce the show. The Ellensburg Daily Record described Burke as a “daughter of pioneers.” with “boundless energy and executive ability.” She wrote the program notes introducing each of the three acts of “Spirit of the Trail.”
A subsequent Daily Record September 9, 1926 headline shouted “Spirit of the Trail Night Pageant Will Be an Important Feature of the Rodeo…Faithfully Depicts Coming of the Whites into the West [and features a] Spectacular Battle Scene.”
By the time of the 1926 rodeo weekend, all of the actors, stock, costuming, music, and sound effects were ready. The show proved to be a great success and was renewed intermittently, with changes in cast and producers and script, until 1940. In 1932, prior to his untimely 1934 death, Fish copyrighted “The Spirit of the Trail.”
The basic script for “Spirit of the Trail” followed the first three acts of the five-act “Trail Makers” play. The audience first saw an Indian encampment, burning campfires (which lit the arena) and the sights and sounds of the early Kittitas Band Indians. Soon, however, explorers Lewis and Clark appeared on the scene, followed by other European-Americans—explorers, hunters, trappers, ranchers, farmers, and townspeople—some of whom entered on horseback, pulling wagons down the Craig’s Hill trail into the rodeo grounds. Strife resulted, and the audience witnessed a staged battle scene between Indians and whites, complete with gunshots and cannons, a kidnapping, and ultimate rescue by the “United States Cavalry.”
The script bent history a bit: Lewis and Clark never visited the Kittitas Valley (though subsequent US Army explorers did); nor was the Yakama Indian War fought here (though battles were fought close by).
A Yakama Indian Chief’s elegiac speech ended “Spirit of the Trail” in a somber manner significantly reflecting the attitudes of author Fish and others:
I am an old man…Once I killed many…[But then] an evil day came upon us…wars came. Thousands fell [and now] our days are numbered…I can see the glory of the white man rising…I go now to my teepee. I have spoken.
The cast and crew of Spirit of the Trail” reads today like a “Who’s Who” of early 20th century Kittitas County history. Actors included local farmers, ranchers, townspeople, and members of the Kittitas Band of Indians, most notably John and Ida Nason.
At the same time, the play and its cast tell us much about the attitudes of early 20th century Kittitas Valley residents. Although many of the actors in the play were descendants of early pioneers or Indian people, theirs was a world of electricity, automobiles, radio, airplanes, world war, and the blessings (and drawbacks) of modern civilization. It was obviously important to them to take time to reflect on the “old days” and the march of progress.
It is also significant that both whites and Indians worked together to make the pageant a success. Although the pageant script often reflected a non-Indian perspective of past events, Professor Fish’s knowledge of Indian history and culture was evident. Moreover, both groups deemed it important to participate in “The Spirit of the Trail.”
With Professor Fish’s passing and the advent of World War II, interest in the “Spirit of the Trail” waned. An April 6, 1939 Record article announced “Rodeo to Revive…Spirit of the Trail” but with “elimination of all speaking parts” substituting a rodeo announcer’s amplified narration for the actors’ voices. World War II soon ended the Ellensburg Rodeo for three years. When the rodeo returned, the “Spirit of the Trail” did not.
In closing this look into a forgotten part of Ellensburg Rodeo history, it is fascinating to return to Professor Fish’s first 1921 script, “The Trail Makers” which continued for two acts past the battle scene into the modern era. At play’s end an “Old Pioneer” spoke to a sprightly modern character named “Miss Today.” The Pioneer reflected on the “old days” and stated, “Yes, the Indian troubles are past and we have grown mightily. See what a wonderful State we have.” In response, Miss Today concluded: “Yes Pioneer, we do thank you for your good work…And Mr. Pioneer, we have something more wonderful in this state than anything you have seen. We have a great power we call Hydro Electric!”
Indeed, much had changed in the Kittitas Valley in the five decades since the original settlement. The “Spirit of the Trail” portrayed and reflected upon that momentous change.