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William Mathewson - The Other Buffalo Bill

 

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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, Indian 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.

 

 

William "Buffalo Bill" Mathewson

William "Buffalo Bill" Mathewson

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 headquarters at Fort Benton, Montana. While so employed, he began to travel with other trappers through  Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Wyoming, 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 Blackfoot Indians and did not dare to leave the stockade to give battle, but after severe fighting the Indians 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 Arkansas River in Colorado, traversing the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, crossing the headwaters of the Little Big Horn -- where General 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 Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, 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.

 

Having traveled over the entire unsettled region between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains, Matthewson 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 military protection.

 

In the 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.

Chief SatantaIn 1861 he had a personal encounter with Satanta (White Bear), at that time the boldest and most powerful of the Kiowa Indian chiefs. With a small band of warriors Satantaentered 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 settlers, Satanta, 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 retreated.

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 posts of New Mexico 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 Indians, 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 Civil War. 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 Kansas and Colorado to 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 Kiowa Indians 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 Arkansas River, 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.

Mathewson 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 Indian Territory, 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.

 

Although a man of great accomplishments, Matthewson is not so nearly well known as other frontier characters as was a modest man who refused to talk to newsmen or sell the story of his life to a publishing house. Therefore, news of his exploits were rarely printed in newspapers or in the dime novels of the time that were so popular in the East.

 

 

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of Kansas, updated April, 2010.

 

Primary Source: Cyclopedia of Kansas

 

 

William Matthewson's home in Wichita, Kansas

William Matthewson's Wichita home, illustration by

 Everts & Co., 1887.

 

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