Saturday, January 7, 2012

"Buckskin" Johnny and the Spearfish stockade

Vernon Davis of Beulah, Wyoming, comes from a family of pioneers.  His ancestors migrated from Wales to Massachusetts in 1636.  Born in Redig and raised in Belle Fourche, Davis says he served with the Navy Seabees from 1968 to 1972 and went on to retire from the Naval Reserve.  He operated a plumbing and construction business in California for nearly 20 years before deciding to “come home.”

Vernon Davis outside Buckskin Johnny's cabin
“My grandmother was a real pioneer lady,” Davis told the Spearfish Area Historical Society this week (1/3/12) as a prelude to sharing information he has gathered regarding the old Spearfish stockade – along with a narrative about some of his ancestors.  They included his great great Uncle, “Buckskin” Johnny Spaulding, and his grandfather and grandmother Davis.
“She traveled about 6,800 miles before 1886.  As a young girl, she went from Massachusetts to Wisconsin, Wisconsin to Illinois, Illinois to Nebraska, then to Minnesela, on to Camp Crook, Portland – and then to Bandon on the Oregon coast.”

That’s when President Roosevelt appointed Davis’ grandfather, T.J. Davis,  postmaster of Camp Crook.  T. J. and his family returned to Dakota Territory in a covered wagon.  Vernon Davis shared an old photograph showing his grandfather in a Corporal’s uniform during the Civil War, but expressed a bit of bewilderment, since he’s found no records indicating that his grandfather was ever a Corporal, even though he served “through every battle in the Civil War.”

Davis focused most of his attention upon the old stockade that once stood in downtown Spearfish – often referring to it as a “fort.”

It was apparently built rapidly – right on the heels of Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn in June of 1876.

“The fort was built in July of 1876…and there were a lot of unhappy Indians running around the country.”

Vernon Davis speaks to SAHS members
Davis says the walls of the stockade were constructed of 10-foot long logs, buried two feet in the ground and with a point on the top.  A beam was soon placed along the inside of the wall, a few feet off the ground, allowing defenders of the stockade to shoot over the wall.

Davis presented a map he had drawn based upon his research, indicating that the “fort” was situated near the present day Wells Fargo Bank on Hudson Street.  It showed Spearfish Creek running through a southern corner of the stockade.”

Citing discrepancies with another map that was drawn with information attributed to author Annie Tallent, Davis stood by his contention and added “that creek bed has moved a long way…since I was a kid here.”

He noted that a diary kept by “Buckskin” Johnny listed only a few cabins inside the stockade, and there was “no way that all those people” listed by Tallent, could have lived inside there.”
Davis said that the stockade was gone by 1880.

“The railroad took it,” he said, indicating the logs from the stockade were moved by the railroad to the steep walls up in the area of what is now the Snapper’s Club in the city campground.

“They were used to catch falling rocks” before they impeded rail traffic that once went through the area.  While Spearfish no longer has rail service, in earlier years a spur ran from near the mouth of Spearfish Canyon into town.  It ran approximately along what is today Canyon Street.

Davis also told of the Pettigrew party of about 13 wagons that set out from Spearfish heading west.  They were attacked by Indians in July of 1877 in the general vicinity of Beulah, Wyoming.  However, since they had ample warning, the group was able to dig rifle pits in front of the wagons and a huge “hole” in the center of the circled wagons to protect the women and children.  Trapped for a couple of nights, according to Davis, the group was rescued after one of the party returned to Spearfish for help.

Davis also told of an incident that likely contributed to his interest in preserving cemeteries and tombstones.  It occurred on September 10, 1876 near St. Onge.  A scout by the name of Jimmy Iron was killed by Indians.  Davis says his grandfather and Uncle John returned to the site some time later and put down a marker.  It can still be seen on a knoll near the fairgrounds at St. Onge.

Area residents have long heard about “Buckskin” Johnny Spaulding.  Many have even toured his old cabin, one of the very earliest settlements along the Redwater River southeast of Belle Fourche.  It was restored by the Belle Fourche Lions Club and is open to the public on the grounds of the Tri-State Museum.

Inside the Buckskin Johnny Cabin in Belle Fourche
Spaulding earned his nickname by dressing in buckskin from his wolfskin cap to the soles of his feet.  Born in Wisconsin, he harvested buffalo hides in Nebraska before striking out for the Black Hills in the mid-1870s. During the ensuing years, he maintained a diary that recounted his many interesting experiences in the Black Hills – including several encounters with Indians.

According to his friend, journalist R. B. Hughes, Johnny “used neither liquor nor tobacco in any form, and an obscene or profane word I never heard pass his lips.”  A particularly significant feat, given those rough and tumble times along the frontier.

“He didn’t like riding a horse,” said Davis.  “He always said that if you’re going to ride a horse in Indian country, you’re going to get killed, because they’ll follow horses.”

 “They don’t leave as big a signature.  They step light, and he used them as pack animals .  He walked practically all the time.”

Johnny Spaulding eventually migrated to Oregon, Washington and California.  On June 14, 1898, he enlisted in the Army during the Spanish-American War and served in the Philippines.   Some years later – in 1916 and 1917 – he resided in a California home for disabled volunteer soldiers.  When admitted to the facility, he was listed as having chronic rheumatism, artherio sclerosis and defective hearing.  He also had some heart problems.

But those heart problems wouldn’t affect romance. Ten years later – at age 78 – “Buckskin” Johnny Spaulding reconnected with his sweetheart from some 56 years earlier, Nettie Dobbs.  They were married in October of 1927.  Alas, Johnny passed away four years later at the Napa Valley Veterans Hospital.  Nettie died a few months later.