Buckskin Joe : White Man Devil
Straight-shooting, fiddle-playing, gold-mining founder of the Ragged Ass Militia (and ever so much more)
— Glenn Shirley (original author of this article)
In 1888, when Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show was playing Providence, Rhode Island, the following appeared in The Daily Telegram: Down at Boyden’s Crescent Park, taking an active part in the show, can be seen the far-famed Professor E. J. Hoyt, who has guided many a party through wild and woolly country.
For the benefit of our many friends who have not heard of him, we present a genuine portrait of this celebrated frontiersman and border musician, known for 35 years as “Buckskin Joe.”
From Canada to the Gulf, from Vancouver to Eastport, his sobriquet is a byword of the student of Western life, and every boy who follows the movements of government scouts has heard of this compact piece of grit, endurance, good nature, and dead shot.
He is small of stature with short arms and legs, but his long torso indicates tremendous vitality. His face is arresting with keen, grey eyes which often have glanced along a rifle barrel that sent a bullet crashing through some painted savage sometimes called “poor Lo.”
The Indians speak of him as the white “man-devil” because he used to delight in surprising them with his gymnastic and acrobatic feats and somersaults. Much of his life has been spent among them, and often he has been their captive, escaping only after great hardship and danger.
Buckskin Joe was born October 4, 1840, near Magog, Canada, Province of Quebec, in a little log cabin under the shadow of old Mt. Orford and the great mountain forests. His parents, Samuel and Judith Hugins Danforth Hoyt, named him Edward Jonathan, a name he used little afterwards.
From the beginning, it seemed his lot to come face to face with death. The country was a wilderness inhabited by wild animals and Indians. Still in swaddling clothes, he took little part in his first adventure except to give the alarm that a one-year-old could muster through his lungs. His mother had gone to do the evening milking, leaving Edward in his cradle. His cries brought her on the double, the milking stool in her hand.
A wild hog had entered the cabin and was running into the woods with the baby in its mouth. During the chase, and about to collapse in despair, she threw the milking stool. The hog squealed and so did the boy. The hog escaped with part of the child’s clothing in its snout, leaving the subject of our narrative for further actions by land and sea.
His early life reads like Peck’s Bad Boy. A schoolhouse had been built at a settlement called Ward’s Corner, but Ed was so full of mischief and devilment that he thought more of fun than of books. He spent most of his time jumping out the window to escape punishment.
Finally, the school board paid the schoolma’am a visit, complaining that she did not use the rod enough. Ed was invited to come forward. A large birch stick was plied most vigorously while Ed kept time bounding up and down on top of the wood box. The blows descended until the stick and schoolma’am were worn out. Ed’s back was cut open in a dozen places and his clothing stained with blood, but not a tear nor yelp came from him.
When she’d finished, he thanked her kindly, kicked the stovepipe down, tore the door off its hinges, and left only to get another licking when he reached home. So Ed took a stagecoach across the Canadian border to the United States, caught a train to Boston, and boarded a freighter to work his way around Cape Horn to the California gold fields. He was met by a member of his family when the ship docked in the Charleston Navy Yards.
Ed went back to Canada, but he never went back to school. He went to work in his father’s lumber camp and became quite an athlete. When being a lumber-jack and log-rolling expert lost its excitement, he joined his grandfather, an old trapper, and took to the woods to live among the Indians. The boy took up their habits and learned to use a bow and arrow.
His grandfather taught him to use a gun and knife, drink “hot toddy”, and wear his hair long. Under the tutelage of this old scout, Ed gave up citizens’ clothes; he wore the buckskin raiment and trappings of the natives, and thus acquired his moniker.
Eventually even this life began to pall, so he joined the old J. T. Johnson Wagon Circus, touring the eastern United States as an aerial performer and acrobat. Already he had shown a talent for music. By 1858, he had mastered the violin, clarinet and cornet. He organized and directed a number of bands and orchestras, achieving the distinction of becoming the first “Border Musician”, and for a time gave music lessons, acquiring the title of “Professor.”
With the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, “Buckskin Joe” enlisted in the Federal Army. It was the beginning of a long and honourable service to his adopted country. Joe fought with the Army of the Potomac under General George B. McClellan in the first Battle of Bull Run and in so many subsequent battles that he “lost track of them.”
When the war ended, he married and returned to the circus ring to “strengthen his poke.” He walked strands of wire stretched between the tallest buildings of cities throughout the country. Once he signed a contract to walk a rope across the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas.
Buckskin Joe played 16 musical instruments; was the first person to successfully turn somersaults over the backs of horses, elephants, and camels; astonished thousands with his fancy bow and arrow work, hitting small objects held in many ways by his assistants.
His military career did not end with the war. It simply left him with a taste for it. So-called “Indian troubles” in the West brought him to southern Kansas in 1870 as a scout under Captain C. M. Scott. He was one of the first men to settle with his family on the present site of Arkansas City, and made the town his headquarters the next 20 years for his expeditions into the Indian Territory, Texas, and the Rockies.
During the Indian wars of 1874, he scouted for O. P. Johnson, and when the panic and grasshopper plague struck Kansas, he organized the “Ragged Ass Militia,” so-called because many of its members were so poor they fought in their tattered overalls and underwear.
There was no work and no money, Kansas asked for relief from the East, and the Indians were still nervous. Joe decided the only way to resolve the situation was to create the threat of another uprising. By firing on the Indians, then riding from town to town and warning the settlers to expect an attack at any moment, he and his men induced the governor to form home-guard companies. Thus the farmers got paid for their services and kept from starving.
Buckskin Joe (seated on box with his violin) with a group of miners and prospectors at their cabin in Leadville, Colorado about 1880
In the late ’70s, Joe turned miner and prospector. The silver strike in Colorado drew him to Leadville, where he sank 22 mining shafts and made several men millionaires from his discoveries. He survived numerous brushes with claim jumpers and was trouble shooter for Horace A. W. “Haw” Tabor, Colorado’s “Silver King.” He explored the Gunnison and Cripple Creek regions, discovered famed Glenwood Springs and was there during the Ute uprising in ’79. A gulch near Aspen and an old mining town near Canon City still bear his name.
During the ’80s, Joe guided wagon-trains across the Kansas plains to the Colorado mining country and the Western Slope. In his idle periods at Arkansas City, he reared four daughters, organized a Wild West orchestra called the “Border Brass Band” and a family “Cow Horn Band,” a novelty feature which Pawnee Bill quickly added to his Historical Wild West show.
The instruments consisted of ox horns cut or lengthened to form chords (bass, alto, etc.), playing the “on and after time” to Joe’s aria on the cornet. When the Cow Horn Band was in full swing, it sounded like a steam calliope.
Pawnee Bill closed his show in Maryland in 1888 and returned to Kansas to head the Boomer movement into Oklahoma, and Buckskin Joe joined the “rush” into the unassigned lands.
In 1890, he served as deputy United States Marshal for the federal court at Wichita, with jurisdiction over the newly formed Oklahoma Territory. but he soon returned to show business and for the next two years toured the country with his own Buckskin Joe’s Wild West Show. Again, in 1893, he raced for a home in the Cherokee Strip opening, obtaining 160 acres along the Salt Fork River, and tried his hand at stock-raising and bee culture until seized with the gold fever by the rush to the Klondike.
His last big adventure was into the jungles of Honduras in 1901. His partner on this expedition was the noted Indian fighter and Civil War veteran, William Palmer, known as “Rocky Mountain Bill.” For nearly four years they worked an old Spanish mine, then became involved in a revolution and hat to flee the country, badly wounded and leaving behind several gold discoveries from which others profited.
By this time, Joe had had it. In 1909, he settled down to a quiet life in California and became, as he put it, “something of a hard-headed, one-horse philosopher.” One day he and Palmer compared notes on the number of occupations they had engaged in successfully. Palmer could list only 22, while Joe enumerated 65.
In his unpublished biography, compiled just before his death at Los Angeles, April 20, 1918, he wrote: “Part of my versatility came from a natural daring to try all manner of experiments from which others would shrink, and part from a strong feeling and confidence of physical strength and endurance to stand by me in whatever I undertook…”
His grandson, Dr. Vance Hoyt, of Topanga, California, writer-naturalist and widely known for his books on nature and wild animal biographies, explains his grandfather best:
“Some animals may be successfully tamed or domesticated, some may not. This is not predicated upon intelligence or its lack; rather it is simply and literally the nature of the beast. So it is with human beings, Most are congenitally domesticable, conventionally subservient to authority either actual or implied. Only in rare instances do we find a man or woman who is, by nature, untameable or basically unconventional. I do not mean they are fractious or wilful, as a spoiled child. They are not intent upon having their own way for the reasons that motivate the brat, who is merely manifesting selfishness. These rare individuals are basically super-men and women in that they have a little more than average of certain human characteristics while at the same time lack certain inhibitions and deterrent factors common to the herd.”
“Gramp was an example of the essentially untamed. With a keen mind, plenty of curiosity, and a tremendous desire for life and its various manifestations, he was always searching for distant scenes and never reckoning in space or hardship what lay between that which he visualized and its accomplishment.”
“Knowing nothing of fear, he could conceive of no reason why he should not have what he wanted. He did not compensate for his small stature with bluff and bluster he showed ’em by surpassing his fellow.”
“Gramp was, in fact, a superman, because he was not only untameable but because he had the raw strength to dare to be unpredictable.”
Buckskin Joe as he appeared during his expedition to Nova Scotia prospecting for gold in 1884. As he left the train a little girl spotted his long hair and ran to her mother crying, “Mama, Christ has come ! I saw him get off the train.”
This wonderful story about Buckskin Joe was published in True West Magazine in December, 1963, under the title “White Man-Devil” by Glenn Shirley. It was submitted by the multi-talented Jacques Boisvert (1932-2006) of Magog, Quebec. Expert diver, avid historian and the world’s leading authority on Memphre, the legendary monster of Lake Memphremagog.
Buckskin Joe’s cup and saucer made in Germany, 1900-1914 (photo courtesy of L. Gagné)