Sometimes these days when he speaks to audiences, Paul R. Wylie of Bozeman will listen with knit brows as he is introduced as a historian.
It might be hard to prove in a court of law, since people in the legal system know Wylie better from that earlier career of his — as a legal expert on intellectual property whose services were in demand all over the country by Fortune 500 companies. He specialized in evaluating monetary damages for patent infringement, testifying as an expert in cases such as the $10 billion Polaroid vs. Kodak fight, for example.
“I don’t think I have the credentials for it. At the same time I’ve got two dissertation-length books out there approved by peer reviewers and so on. I guess I am, I guess I’m not,” says Wylie, now 79 and a retired Bozeman attorney. “I kind of think of myself as a lawyer writing history.”
Writing history about Montana, more specifically — the parts he missed while growing up.
Lessons from a classmate
A 1955 graduate of White Sulphur Springs, Wylie knew a pretty fine writer while he was growing up, only nobody knew it then. It was Ivan Doig, who lived across the street for a time. They used to walk to school together, though Doig was a little bit younger.
He was a quiet student but — it appears now — always taking in every detail about rural Montana, from the peeling paint to the cracking sidewalks and the turns of speech in the way folks talk. Wylie admires Doig's novels and memoirs about Montana and finds them exactly true to life, from the dialogue to the landscape and people.
"Ivan was always quiet but with those amazing powers of observation that the whole world would know about when he published 'This House of Sky,'" Wylie wrote in a letter in 2015 supporting Montana State University's successful effort to get Ivan Doig's papers into its collection for purposes of teaching and research. "Later in life, as I was retiring from the practice of intellectual property law and looking for something meaningful to do, I took a look at my own upbringing in White Sulphur Springs, now made more positive by Ivan’s writings. I was always so impressed that Ivan had become a famous writer, and I decided I might be able to get something published in history if I researched well."
Wylie added he doesn't think he'd have even attempted a book "if it hadn't been for Ivan's guiding light" to show that it could be done.
Wylie’s first effort as a writer, published in 2007, was “The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher.” It’s the same topic that the highly regarded writer Timothy Egan has written about in his “The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero,” published early this year. But some readers say Wylie may have written the better book.
“I was a little surprised, having grown up in Montana, that I didn’t know more about Thomas Francis Meagher,” says Wylie. “I started looking at Irish history and finding out that Meagher was a hero in Ireland and a famous person in Ireland. I didn’t know any of that. I just knew he was on the statue in front of the state Capitol and I knew the county I was brought up in, Meagher County, was named after him.”
Earlier this year, Wylie followed it up with a book about another chapter of Montana history that he simply wanted to know more about: the massacre of perhaps 200 Piegan men, women, children. “Blood on the Marias: The Baker Massacre” puts it in context by telling about the decades of strained relations between the Piegans of the Blackfeet confederacy and the whites leading to the Jan. 23, 1870, tragedy in which troops of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry under the command of Maj. Eugene Baker attacked the wrong Piegan village on the Marias River.
They were looking for the village of a man named Mountain Chief. Instead they destroyed the village of another man named Heavy Runner, where many of the people were already sick from smallpox.
Both Wylie’s books are published by the University of Oklahoma Press, which has always been generous about publishing books on Montana history and Plains Indian history, Wylie noted.
With the Baker massacre, Wylie marveled that he didn’t learn much about that event while growing up, and that seemed to be the case with other Montanans, too.
“Certainly we’d heard of the Custer battle, the Little Bighorn battle,” he said. “I remember going there as a fairly young person – I don’t know if I was even in my teens — and seeing that, yes, there was a battlefield there and there were graves down there. With the Baker massacre, there’s no identifiable battlefield. If you go there, you’re not sure you’re there, because it’s not marked in any way. If you don’t have a marker for the place, then it’s a story, and not one you can associate with any particular terrain or any of that. That’s one of the problems.”
Another problem, Wylie said, is that the Piegan tribe has been reluctant to speak of it, though that may be changing in recent years. There's now an annual commemoration of the massacre and Wylie was invited to attend the one earlier this year. He said he was honored to be asked.
Whites, too, Wylie said, need to know about what happened on the Marias River and how it happened. That's part of what his book does.
Wylie said his background as a lawyer serves him well when it comes laying down that history, plank by plank.
“It’s basically a fact-based approach. Just from years and years of being involved in major litigation: You can’t be wrong on the facts. If you’re in court and you’re trying to tell the judge that something is a fact and it’s not, and the other side knows it’s not and tells the judge it’s not, then typically you get thrown around the courtroom by the judge like a rag doll. It builds into one, I think, a discipline of getting the facts right.”
How he writes
Each of Wylie's books took him six years to do, counting the research and the writing.
He started “The Irish General” while he was still working as an attorney.
“When I would be in some city like St. Paul or Minneapolis or New York, if I had time in the evening, I’d go to the libraries there and dig up material,” he said. “I take boxes of files with me when I’m traveling so I’ll always have my source materials if I need them.”
He does all his writing on a laptop. He used a Dell laptop for “The Irish General.” He used a MacBook Pro to write “Blood on the Marias.” He’ll write at any time of day, but morning and evening are most productive.
And while his work as a lawyer was important — legal arguments about intellectual property and who owns a good idea help keep the economy greased and operating as it should — he thinks what he does now might be even more important.
“I worked on some very big and important cases involving high values as far as money damages," Wylie said. "Generally it was one large corporation against another large corporation, most of them Fortune 500 companies. But once the case is over, it just fades into obscurity. I like the idea of having a couple of books out there and I’m working on other things that may see the light of day, I’m just not sure. I enjoy doing the work. I love the process. And I like having the books out there because they may be there for a while.”