PAYETTE — If cowboy stories are your thing, one Payette man has quite the tales for you. Les Sweeney will be heading back to his home state for a spell as one of 90 guest presenters and performers in the 36th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, taking place at the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada, from Jan. 30 to Feb. 1.
He will be reading works from his first book, “Henry Harris: 1865-1937,” as well as promoting his second book, “Only one survived.” The latter is a story about Mary Jo Estep, who along with three siblings survived the massacre of her Native American family in 1911 and was the only one to survive “white man diseases” by 1913. Sweeney began researching for this second book in 1990, publishing in 2019.
Sweeney summarized one story he would be sharing at the gathering in a Jan. 6 interview.
“Henry Harris was [an African-American] … brought to Idaho in 1884 by John Sparks,” according to Sweeney. “They put together a cattle empire in southern Idaho and northeast Nevada. They had an operation from … Twin Falls to Wells, Nevada. By 1890, he was actually … running four ranches.”
Sweeney notes that most of Harris’ crew were white, uncommon for the era. He also says the book came about while he was researching for “Only one survived.”
According to the gathering’s website, Sweeney was raised on a large cattle ranch in northern Nevada, received his degree from the College of Agriculture at the University of Nevada, Reno and has successfully nominated two old-time buckaroos, Albino Tais, a Yaqui Indian, and Henry Harris, an African-American cowboy, to the Buckaroo Hall of Fame in Winnemucca, Nevada.
Sweeney said the opportunity to speak at the gathering came by invitation.
“The theme of the poetry gathering is Black History … in Nevada in the early days. My name was sent in to them and they called me and asked me if I’d come and talk about him,” to which Sweeney obliged.
Sweeney encourages folks to check out his new book, to learn more about Estep’s survival story.
“She became a concert pianist and a teacher,” Sweeney pointed out.