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Campus News
Your faculty and staff news since 1965
February 16, 2004
Volume 39, Number 12

Hutton writes wild frontier stories for History Channel

By Carolyn Gonzales

HuttonGrowing up in San Angelo, Texas, watching "Davy Crockett" and old TV westerns helped shape History Professor Paul Hutton into UNM's own "king of the wild frontier."

"Well, I did spent first grade in England, but when I returned to Texas, they made me repeat the grade," said Hutton, always historically accurate.

Although many of his contemporaries let go of their fascination with the old west, Hutton said, "I really do retain that childlike affection for the old west, the Alamo, the hero stuff."

Mark Hebenstriet portrays Wyatt Earp (left) and Chip Houser as Doc Holliday.

Others have also caught on. A regular "talking head" on the History Channel, his role has evolved into fulltime scriptwriting for "Investigating History," a new program scheduled to air beginning in April.

"The episode on Billy the Kid is 'in the can.' It was shot at Las Golondrinas," he said. Filming for the Wyatt Earp show is underway in Old Tucson and one on Butch Cassidy is scheduled for filming during the spring and summer. "I might even get to go to Bolivia for part of the Butch Cassidy filming," said Hutton.

Hutton pitched the idea of the series to the History Channel after working with Governor Bill Richardson to try to verify the Kid's identity through a DNA comparison with his mother. The right to exhume his mother, Catherine Antrim, from a Silver City cemetery, has been cause for controversy.

Richardson, who dubbed Hutton "Doc," appointed him historian on the Billy the Kid issue. "I interviewed the governor, people in Lincoln and Fort Sumner and asked them how they felt about the governor pardoning Billy the Kid, and why we even care," said Hutton.

Hutton claims to have been "weaned" on Billy the Kid. "His crimes were understandable. There was widespread corruption. I see our work as glorifying someone who fought for justice in a corrupt time," he said.

"I think this brings positive attention to the state and raises awareness of New Mexico's history," he said.

Paul Hutton on the set in Old Tucson.

Of all old west figures, however, Davy Crockett is still Hutton's favorite. "He is a perfect representation of an American. He helped 19th century Americans define themselves," he said. Hutton has written extensively about Crockett, in both popular publications and scholarly journals. "I've been working on a biography of Crockett for 10 years. If I didn't have so many things going on, I could probably finish it," he said.

One of Hutton's favorite Crockett projects was to put together an exhibit for the Texas State History Museum in Austin. He got to chance to appeal to the kid in him and all the museum's visitors by recreating a 1955 era living room complete with an old black and white television playing the last two minutes of the old Disney program, "Davy Crockett."

"We had a kid's bedroom decorated completely in Davy Crockett - bedspread, toys, coonskin hats," he said. "I loved watching the kids point out which toys they liked the best," he recalls. Hutton purchased most of the display items off eBay. Quite adept at online bidding wars, Hutton's office looks like an oversized post office box with all the USPS packages. "eBay is the wild west of capitalism," he said. Caveat emptor.

Setting up the OK Corral gunfight scene.

Hutton believes it's important to make history publicly available. "I'm at a point in my life and career that I am interested in reaching out to a popular audience," he said. Hutton thinks there's not much difference between writing for a television audience and preparing lectures. "I bring in depth and detail and boil it down, make it exciting. Whether for freshmen or for television, you want to hold their interest," he said. Hutton's classes are popular - last semester he had 180 in his military history class. They had to change classrooms three times to accommodate his audience.

This semester Hutton teaches one graduate course and as executive director of the Western History Association, he is helping to organize a conference for about 1,000 historians to be held in Las Vegas, Nev. He is also the elected president of Western Writers of America, a 600-member group of novelists, historians, others. He writes a column for their publication, "Round Up."

Hutton isn't interested in going back in time to know the old west firsthand. "I'm too wedded to creature comforts to make the transition," he said. But he would certainly enjoy having Crockett as a lunch guest. "I wouldn't mind sitting down with General Custer either, but he would probably just talk endlessly about himself," Hutton said.

Bringing history to life is what Hutton does best.