Son of a Gamblin’ Man is Mari Sandoz’s historical novel about the gambler, entrepreneur, promoter, controversial, bold, and visionary John J. Cozad. Book descriptions note that it is Robert Henri’s story. It is, but the book is every bit as much the story of an ambitious man who chooses to develop a community in mid-Nebraska near a 100th meridian sign, a Pacific Railway Act of 1862 benchmark. Every village, town, and city has its own story. The community that became Cozad, Nebraska, has an especially unique and colorful history. While fictional, Son of a Gamblin’ Man includes real people, experiences, and events.
The book evolves from the 1870s with John J. Cozad’s relentless recruitment of settlers to establish this new mid-Nebraska community. Described with much exaggeration, the imagined community was not the paradise described and promised to easterners hoping for a better life. Settlers experienced – as settlers did elsewhere – harsh winter months, drought, illnesses, hunger, massive grasshopper invasions, prairie fires, lawlessness, and more. Some left. Others stayed on to overcome the many challenges of life in a new and growing community.
There were also the challenges, clashes, and violence that emerged between cattlemen and settlers. The need for feed and the open prairie were an on-going source of conflict. And there was the early rivalry that developed between Cozad and Plum Creek (later to become Lexington).
The book is rich in detail with descriptions of family and community life in the latter part of the 1800s. Within is the story of the Cozad family, friends, neighbors, and enemies. As described in the book’s introduction, the story is essentially that of Robert, John Cozad’s youngest son. Robert, still in his teen years, was given responsibility for local management of family business and properties. These tasks were needed during his father’s frequent business absences and his brother’s location in Denver selling hay. Robert had an early fascination with stories and art. He imagined, wrote stories, and drew throughout childhood. Later came fame as an internationally recognized artist and teacher. The Robert Henri Museum, in Cozad, is a remarkable destination for viewers of his art.
Sandoz, Mari. Son of a Gamblin’ Man: The Youth of an Artist. University of Nebraska Press. 1960.