First published in the Overland Monthly in 1869, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” closely paralleled its companion story, “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” published in 1868, by introducing Americans in the eastern United States to the rough, violent, ungoverned West. Bret Harte’s story both romanticized and stereotyped the gold mining camps, creating an enduring view of the West. Even today, movies and books incorporate his Wild West character types—the stoic gambler, the soft-hearted prostitute, the unthinking drunk, and the vigilante committee driven by personal interests and blinded by the passion of a moment.
The story begins with John Oakhurst, a professional gambler, sensing a shift in the moral weather of Poker Flat, a shift that foreshadows the literal weather change that dooms the characters. In a sudden move to eliminate unsavory residents, Poker Flat has hanged two and determined to evict four others—Oakhurst, Mother Shipton, the Duchess, and Uncle Billy. The four head toward Sandy Bar, a nearby camp. Oakhurst, whose stoicism contrasts sharply with the invectives of the other three, assumes the role of unselfish leader. The four soon bow to the Duchess’s insistence she can go no farther. In an act of inexplicable fate, two young people from Sandy Bar—Tom Simson, otherwise known as the “Innocent,” and Piney Woods, his fiancée—encounter the exiles and, naively accepting all four as upstanding citizens, cast their lot with the outcasts. With the exception of Uncle Billy, who steals the mules and abandons the little band, the outcasts soon rise to Tom’s and Piney’s expectations.
When a sudden winter storm blocks the trail, the bond between the three outcasts and the two innocents strengthens. They divide the few provisions Tom carries, devise myriad wholesome entertainments, and wait for a break in the weather, a break that does not occur. Mother Shipton, once the healthiest of the group, fades rapidly. Just before her death, she instructs Oakhurst to examine the packet under her head. There he finds her rations for the past week. A true “mother” in deed, she has starved herself so that her “daughter” can live. Oakhurst devises some crude snowshoes and instructs Tom to go for help, insisting that is the only way to save Piney. Days later, rescuers find them, the Duchess and Piney dead and indistinguishable as to innocence or sin. Oakhurst, “at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts,” has committed suicide.
Harte depicts the West in typical romantic fashion as “wild and impressive,” its primitive beauty guaranteed to impact easterners. However, the natural beauty of the Sierras and the picturesque calm of the snowstorm become ironically intertwined with the hidden natural goodness of the characters. Harte projects even the most hardened sinners as having a heart of gold; under the right influences, they discover their real qualities. With the exception of drinking, every sin can be absolved. Perhaps Uncle Billy’s weakness for alcohol and his subsequent desertion that leads to the death of the group is a bow to the temperance movement.
Although readers chuckled at the incongruity of the self-righteous reformed citizens of Poker Flat exiling those without the foresight to reform, the story raises the serious question of what values will prevail in the West, who will administer the law, and whether the rule will be local or global. Indeed, as those who evict the outcasts are motivated by self-interest—whether they have won money from or lost it to Oakhurst— Harte leads readers to understand that those settling the frontier must not abandon their values, even though no civilizing force of law exists. However, Harte also seems to question the vigilante committee and its secret meeting. The arbitrary selection of the outcasts evokes images of Massachusetts witch hunts.
Another major concern of the story is community. Poker Flat and its sister camps exist because of the nearby gold mines. The bond of mining connects the inhabitants. The unsavory elements who trail after the workers—gamblers, prostitutes, and thieves—conflict rather than bond with the miners. But even Tom and Piney have violated some community standards: They refuse to let her father dictate their life. Harte, however, suggests that, for the West to prosper, the creation of community based on shared values must occur. Upon leaving Poker Flat, Oakhurst makes an initial overture toward community by giving up his horse for the Duchess’s mule. That sacrifice fails to impress the others, who continue to be connected only through their vices. To form a community, each of them must willingly sacrifice, must willingly conform to the values so much a part of Tom and Piney, as Oakhurst does when he repeats the refrain of Tom and Piney’s hymn. Even Tom and Piney sacrifice also—Tom by leaving Piney, whom he hopes to save; Piney by aligning herself with the Duchess and acknowledging she cannot pray. Although the group is doomed—a kind of nod to the survival of the fittest—they affect others in death. The self-appointed “law” of Poker Flat accepts the connection of sinner and innocent and does not separate the Duchess and Piney, who have died in each other’s arms.
The story has ties with an oral tradition and southwestern humor. Tom’s rendering of the Homeric epic contrasts both his ordinariness and the epic undertaking of settling the West. None of the characters is Achilles; indeed, all have their Achilles heel. Oakhurst, the self-appointed leader, is closest to having heroic qualities, but the story’s final line insists readers must consider his morality, his moral frailty, and recognize that he and so many others who traveled west, for whatever reason, are heroes. Oakhurst simply could not face watching Piney and the Duchess die. Although Harte frequently employs humorous ironic understatement, he deviates from the standard formula of southwestern humor—his story has the ring of reality. He gives it historical resonance through the use of dates and places. This is no tall tale; the potential for death while traveling in winter was real. Although Harte is not necessarily retelling actual events, easterners would have been familiar with the Donner party and its fate.
Harte, Bret. “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” In The American Tradition in Literature. 9th ed., Vol. 3. Edited by George Perkins and Barbara Perkins. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999.