Though not as well known in history as the more
famous "Buffalo Bill"
Cody ,the first man to hold the moniker of Buffalo
Bill was William E. Mathewson, a
daring explorer, hunter,
scout and fighter, who did much to prepare the pathway for western
immigration and settlement.
Born on January 1, 1830 in Triangle, New York, William was
the son of Joseph and Eliza (Stickney) Mathewson,
the seventh in a family of eight children. The family lived and worked on a
farm but from a young age, William was more inclined towards the wild and roving life of a hunter and he longed for the adventurous life of a frontiersman.
After his father's death he remained with his mother until he was ten years
old, attending country schools, and then resided with an older brother for
three years. At the age of thirteen he went into the lumber regions of
Steuben County, New York, and there and in western Pennsylvania was employed
in the lumber and mill business until he was 18 years old.
During this time, in the fall of each year, he would
set out with other hunters on long hunting expeditions, going to Pennsylvania,
Michigan and Canada, and returning home in the spring. A part of the time he was
engaged in looking up pine lands in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and at one time
acted as a guide to a party of land buyers through the unknown West. In 1849 he
embraced an opportunity offered him by the Northwestern Fur Company, with
While so employed, he began to travel with other trappers through Nebraska,
trading with the Indians
when they were friendly and fighting them when they were hostile.
It was during this time that Mathewson acquired his
first knowledge of Indian
warfare. At one time the party was surrounded by a band of
and did not dare to leave the stockade to give battle, but after severe fighting
were driven off.
After remaining nearly two years in the employ of the Northwestern Fur Company, Mathewson joined
with a party of hunters led by
Kit Carson in
1852. Within this party were several famous men of the time, including
Lucien Maxwell, James and John Baker, Charles and John Autobee, and others.
This party traveled south to the head of the
traversing the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, crossing the headwaters of the
Little Big Horn -- where
George Armstrong Custer
was later killed -- and the north and south forks of the Platte River, and
passed down through the country where Denver is now located.
Later in 1852, he entered the employ of the Bent-St. Vrain Trading Post, at the
foot of the Rocky Mountains, where he began to trade with the
and Apache Indians. In the fall of 1856, he partnered with Horace Green, employing
more trappers to work along the head-waters of the
Arkansas and Republican Rivers. In the spring of 1857 they traveled to Independence,
Missouri where they disposed of their pelts.
traveled over the entire unsettled region between the Missouri River and the
Rocky Mountains, Mathewson could readily see that immigration would soon burst
through the Missouri River boundary and the settlement Kansas
and regions farther west would be rapid. He soon determined to establish a
trading post along the
Santa Fe Trail in Kansas,
although no man had as yet dared to attempt such a thing, so far away from
summer of 1858, in partnership with Asa Beach, he established a trading post on
Cow Creek, which they made headquarters till 1861. He then traveled among the
different tribes on trading expeditions. Mathewson earned
the nickname "Buffalo Bill," when he saved numerous settlers from starvation
during the winter of 1860-1861. The drought of 1860 had ruined the crops that
the settlers had planted leaving them without a reserve food source for the
winter. Mathewson responded by supplying them with buffalo meat for which he
refused payment. He was said to have killed as many as 80 buffalo in a single
day for the settlers.
1861 he had a personal encounter with
(White Bear), at that time the boldest and most powerful of the Kiowa Indian chiefs. With a small band of
Satanta entered the post and announced his
intention of taking Mathewson's life, in revenge for the death of one of his
braves, killed while attempting to steal a horse from the post. It took but an
instant for Mathewson to floor the Kiowa chief and
give him a severe beating, and the followers of Satanta,
driven from the house at the point of a revolver, were forced to carry their
defeated leader back to camp. Satanta
swore revenge for this humiliating defeat, and Mathewson, hearing of this, and
deeming it best to settle the matter once for all, rode out alone on the
prairie, in search of his enemy. Learning of the pursuit, Satanta
fled and did not return for more than a year, and when he did return,
acknowledged Mathewson as his master and entered into a treaty with him, giving
a number of his best
Indian horses as a token of his
subservience. Mathewson was henceforth known in every
Indian camp of the plains as "Sinpah
Zilbah" (long-bearded dangerous white man).
In the summer of 1864, when the Indians
took the warpath and were terrorizing Kansas
warned Mathewson of an uprising three weeks in advance and entreated him to
leave, saying that in revenge for having been fired on by a regiment of
soldiers, the Indians
were not going to leave a white man, woman, or child alive west of the Missouri
River. Instead of fleeing, however, Mathewson sent all of the settlers to places
of safety and then hunkered down with a few brave men to hold his trading post.
He and his men, five in number, were armed with the first breech-loading rifles
that had had ever been used on the plains of Kansas.
On the morning of July 20th a band of 1,500 Indians
surrounded the Mathewson post, and for three days attacked and reconnoitered,
but they were repeatedly forced to retreat, upon coming within range of the
deadly fire of the breech-loading rifles. The Indians
lost about 160 horses and a score or more of their kinsmen before they finally
When first warned of the Indian uprising, among the first things
Mathewson did was to write to the Overland Transportation Company, and to
Bryant, Banard & Company, telling them not to send any wagons out. In reply he
received from the latter word that they had already started a train, loaded with
modern rifles, and the letter ended with the appeal, "For God's sake save this
train, as it is loaded with arms and ammunition." On the fourth day of the siege
this overland train of 147 wagons, loaded with supplies from the government
and in charge of 155 men, appeared upon the scene. Ignorant of the Indian uprising, the train had come
within three miles of the post, and upon the morning of the fourth day of the
battle, Mathewson discovered that the Indians
had departed during the night. He mounted the highest building of the post and
to the eastward, three miles away, saw through his field glass the government
train, drawn up in the usual camp half circle, and surrounded by Indians.
After studying the situation, he inquired of his most trusted man if the
stockade could be held in his absence. Being assured that it could he rode out
with his Sharp's rifle and six Colt's revolvers. When he reached the wagon camp,
he burst into its midst with guns blazing. He then quickly mounted one of the
wagons, split open the boxes, and handed out rifles and ammunition to the men.
In a moment a well directed fire was turned on the now astonished and bewildered
who, after continuing the fight for a short time, in which many of them were
killed or wounded, beat a hasty retreat. To make the victory complete Mathewson
organized and mounted the teamsters and gave chase, driving the Indians
miles away. Then, after burying the dead and repairing the ravages of the fight,
the train moved on to its destination.
Later, in 1864, Mathewson joined General James G.
Blunt's expedition as a scout, with whom he remained until the close of the
After the close of conflict between the North and South, the government
commenced sending troops out to subdue the Indians,
but later orders came to the commander of the Western Department to get someone
to go to the Indians
and try to get them to come into peace negotiations. Mathewson was finally
decided upon and he was duly commissioned for the purpose. He started from
Larned, Kansas going to the mouth
of the Little Arkansas River and on the fourth day of his journey, came in sight
of the Indian camp. He was entirely successful
in his mission and the desired council was held between the commissioners of the
government and the Indians.
In May, 1866, he was presented with a beautiful pair
of six-shooters—carved ivory handles, silver mounted and inlaid with gold—by the
Overland Transportation Company, in recognition of his saving 155 men and 147
wagons of government supplies.
In 1867 the Indians
were again on the war path, the result of being fired upon by a regiment of
soldiers. At that time Mathewson was in the South, trading with the Indians,
and did not get back for three weeks. When he returned he went to Junction City
and telegraphed to Washington, asking the recall of General Hancock and saying
that he would take care of the Indians.
His request was complied with and he got the Indians
together for another treaty, known as the Medicine Lodge Treaty, after which
they ceded all their rights and title to lands in
the government and went back to their reservations.
Mathewson lived and traded with them for seven
years, settling internal quarrels, and doing all in his power to make them
satisfied. During the years between 1865 and 1873 he saved 54 women and children
from death at the hands of the savages, or from a life of unspeakable slavery
and drudgery. One of these was a young woman who had been captured in Texas by
and brought into Kansas, where she
escaped. Learning of her escape and of a reward for her recapture Mathewson
determined to save the girl from being taken again by the Indians.
He soon trailed her, finding her more dead than alive, and then took her to
Council Grove, where she afterward married and lived for a number of years.
Mathewson also arranged with a Kiowa chief for
the release of two little girls held captive by them, and whose parents were
killed by the Indians.
In 1868 Mathewson acquired a homestead near the
the spot being now in the heart of the city of Wichita. There, he built a home
and began a profitable career as a civic leader and banker, which he continued
until his death in 1916. he was buried at Highland Cemetery in Wichita.
was twice married. His first wife, to whom he married on August 28, 1864, was
Elizabeth Inman, born in Yorkshire, England, in 1842, and immigrated with her
parents to this country in 1850. She became an expert in the use of the rifle
and revolver, and was her husband's companion among the Indians,
passing through many experiences of border life. She was possessed of undaunted
courage and was the first white woman to cross the Arkansas River
and go through the
and on more than one occasion stood by her husband's side and helped beat back
the savages who attacked their home and camp. At Walnut Ranch she became a
successful and favorite trader with the Indians,
who called her "Marrwissa" (Golden Hair). She died on October 1, 1885, leaving
two children -- Lucy E. and William A. Mathewson's second marriage occurred on
May 13, 1886 to Mrs. Tarleton, of Louisville, Kentucky.