Charles Leland Sonnichsen, Southwestern historian, folklorist, writer, editor, and teacher, son of Henry Matthew and Mary (Hults) Sonnichsen, was born in Fonda, Iowa, on September 20, 1901. He attended public school in Wadena, Minnesota, received a B.A. at the University of Minnesota in 1924, and both an M.A. (1927) and Ph.D. (in English Literature, 1931) at Harvard University. After teaching assignments at St. James School in Faribault, Minnesota, and Carnegie Institute of Technology, Sonnichsen moved to El Paso, Texas, in 1931 as associate professor of English at the Texas College of Mines and Metallurgy. He rose through teaching and administrative ranks to professor, chairman of the English Department (a post he held for twenty-seven years), dean of the graduate school, and H. Y. Benedict Professor of English. He retired from UTEP in 1972 after a forty-one-year career there and moved to Tucson, Arizona, where he was editor of the Journal of Arizona History from 1972 to 1977 and continued to write and edit books.
When he arrived in El Paso Sonnichsen was a scholar in English literature with a special affinity for seventeenth-century authors. Once he decided to stay, however, he turned his scholarship and writing skills to what he called the "more realistic" (for a West Texan) area of Southwestern history and folklore. He developed a special skill in balancing assiduous research among court records, letters, newspaper accounts, and other obscure archives with old-timer interviews and called this work "grassroots history." He described himself as of the "genus Historianus herbidus," which, he said, "recognizes that the original researcher was an old plainsman lying in a buffalo wallow standing off a bunch of Comanches-and too busy to write anything down." (Later he characterized grassroots history as "conversational dentistry-every fact wrenched out by the roots.") Sonnichsen's self-taught historical research, combined with an admired light-hearted writing touch, produced twenty-seven books, beginning with Billy King's Tombstone (1942), the biography of an obscure saloonkeeper and deputy sheriff of Tombstone, Arizona, who had witnessed Geronimo's surrender. His best-known books, most of which remain in print, include Roy Bean: Law West of the Pecos (1943), Cowboys and Cattle Kings (1950), The Mescalero Apaches (1958), Tularosa: Last of the Frontier West (1960), Pass of the North: Four Centuries on the Rio Grande (two volumes, 1968, 1980), Colonel Greene and the Copper Skyrocket (1974), From Hopalong to Hud: Thoughts on Western Fiction (1978), and his books on Texas feuds, I'll Die Before I'll Run (1951), Ten Texas Feuds (1957), and Outlaw: Bill Mitchell, Alias Baldy Russell (1964). Toward the end of his life, even with his eyesight failing, Sonnichsen continued his researches and edited a number of books, including Geronimo and the End of the Apache Wars (1987), Pilgrim in the Sun: A Southwestern Omnibus (1988), and several on Western humor, such as The Laughing West (1988) and Arizona Humoresque (1990). A few weeks before his death he completed work on a new collection of essays, "Late Harvest," which was retitled Final Harvest and published posthumously in 1991 by Texas Western Press.
Sonnichsen was president of the Texas Folklore Society, the Western Literature Association, the Western History Association, and the Western Writers of America. He was a long-time member of the Texas Institute of Letters and the Texas State Historical Association. Among awards he received for his teaching and writing were the Bowdoin Prize from Harvard, the Friends of the Dallas Public Library Award from the Texas Institute of Letters, the Minnie Stevens Piper Professorship, the Wrangler Award of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame (twice), the Golden Spur Award and Saddleman Award of Western Writers of America, and awards of merit from the Western Historical Association and the Association for State and Local History. In 1989 he received the Barbara McCombs/Lon Tinkle Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. Sonnichsen died on June 29, 1991, at his home in Tucson, the day after he returned from Oklahoma City, where he had appeared on a panel at the annual convention of Western Writers of America. Surviving him were his second wife, Carol, and their children.
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Dallas Morning News, April 30, 1989. Bruce J. Dinges, "In Memoriam: C. L. Sonnichsen, the Dean of Grassroots Historians," Persimmon Hill, Autumn 1991. Dale L. Walker, C. L. Sonnichsen: Grassroots Historian (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1972).
English and Journalism
Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
Scholars, Editors, and Critics
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Dale L. Walker,
“Sonnichsen, Charles Leland,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed August 15, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
December 1, 1995