The Poet of the Plains – Buckskin Bill

A recent acquisition to the Richardson-Sloane Archive and Manuscript Collection brought the fine line between fantasy and reality to the forefront and sent me on a fascinating research journey that took me from the onion fields of Scott County to the Wild Wild West and introduced me to some larger than life characters along the way.

A simple invitation to come for a family get-together and photo op was what started it. Handwritten, the 1931 invitation was on letterhead featuring a photo of a mustached man in a large cowboy hat and the imprint Col. Charles D. Randolph, “Buckskin Bill” Author and Publisher of the Booklet Western Poems. Describing the early West and Famous Plainsmen. Davenport, Iowa.

Addressed to Uncle Charlie F. Randolph, the author Charles D. Randolph had arranged for “The Randolph Boys” to meet at his address on East 13th Street in Davenport. Charles D.’s father, Aaron, would be turning seventy years old and a group picture with brothers Lewis, Michael, Edmund, and Charles F. had been scheduled. After sorting out the family relationships I became curious about the booklet of Western Poems and if it might be in our library’s collection.

Indeed, it was! So I took a look at the small booklet and found it was copyrighted and published in 1925, and bore the handwritten call number and “Trustee’s Room” label that meant this booklet has been in the library’s collection for a very long time.

The first poem was called “How I Won the Title ‘Buckskin Bill'” and described riding outlaw horses, camping in the sage, driving a stage, riding the Western range, and living in the mountains and plains. I would soon come to realize that this was a tall tale innocently enough started which soon would be accepted as a truth that continued to grow and grow more fantastical as the decades went on.

I looked up his 1982 obituary, which stated he retired as a guard at Rock Island Arsenal, was married, and was a veteran of World War I. It also mentioned he worked and was trapped in the West in the early 1900s and his life was the subject of a western novel. Again, back to the library catalog I went, but no success there or in WorldCat. So I decided to see if I could find anything in the newspapers about this book or his life.

I found a 1970 item in the Rock Island Argus with photographs and information stating the 82-year-old claimed he was a scout for the army, drove a stagecoach, got the rank of Colonel in the Montana militia in 1912, and rubbed shoulders with Buffalo Bill. Next came a 1959 Sunday Times-Democrat Personality Profile – a nearly full-page spread on the Son of the Wild West featuring an image of Randolph holding “a framed copy of the dime novel which featured him as the subject” titled Buckskin Bill, The Comanche Shadow. Now I had a title and went back to WorldCat.

Hmmm, that publication date of 1887 pre-dates this fellow’s birth by a year! Things aren’t really adding up here.

I continued with the article and found several items I thought I could fact-check. He said he met Calamity Jane as a “dissipated old woman” in a saloon, that Panther Pete gave him his nickname when he was in Deadwood at age nineteen, and that he had worked for the Western States Cattleman’s Association as an investigator.

First up was Calamity Jane. Turns out, Martha Jane Cannary lived from 1852 to 1903, so “Buckskin Bill would have been fourteen years old or younger if he really met her. It is possible but unlikely. As for Panther Pete, I find he is a fictional character prominent in dime novels and nickel weeklies published during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I found no Western States Cattleman’s Association. Closest I could get was the Montana Cattlemen’s Association or the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association. A 1964 article I found stated the group later became the Western States Rangers and Randolph received the title of Colonel from them. Wait, didn’t he get it in 1912 from the Montana militia? Oh, and no luck with Western States Rangers, either.

Now, I really like history and I am troubled. I had to find out if there was truth to any of these events. I continued finding more articles and snippets about Charles D. Randolph until a fairly thick file resulted and I could create a timeline of sorts. I then turned to the census records to see if Randolph could be placed in any of the western states from his birth in 1888 to his death in 1982. The answer? Never. He was always listed in Iowa for every state and federal census from 1895 until 1940. I was just about convinced he had established an entire persona based on imagination with fictional characters from dime novels as his supporting cast.

Something told me to search our archive and manuscript collection in ArchivesSpace at https://archives.davenportlibrary.com/

Manuscript date? 1924, the year prior to publishing the booklet of poems. This was the mother lode. I poured over the entire manuscript, adding dates and events to my timeline. Here’s what I found.

Charles D. Randolph grew up in Pleasant Valley township in a farming family, the oldest child of Aaron and Louella Randolph. He attended school and helped with farming chores. He joined a railroad crew going to work in Canada in 1911, then a threshing crew in Saskatchewan. From there he went site seeing in the western states and worked for an irrigation company, cattle ranch, sheep ranch, and alfalfa ranch in Montana for brief stints.

Home from his travels in September 1912, he settled into raising onions and raspberries on two acres in Pleasant Valley township for several years until August of 1913 when he and a friend rode the train to Montana where he took a stage to the S.O.W. cattle ranch, working for about a month. Randolph writes this is when he got the nickname “Buckskin Bill”. While riding on some roundups he broke a buckskin horse, saddling it most of the time from then on. For some reason, one of the guys started calling him “Bill”. There were several other fellows named “Bill” so Randolph became “Buckskin Bill”.

Leaving Montana, he went on to the Wenatchee Valley in Washington, hiring out to a fruit rancher for several months. He ventured further to see the Pacific Ocean and after spending some time on the beach he returned to the S.O.W. for the winter, cutting wood and running traps, returning to Davenport on April 25, 1914.

He talked about attending a Wild West Show in Davenport in May 1915 and working for Iowana Farms in 1916 where he was employed on and off for several years doing a variety of jobs. He and a buddy rode horseback 130 miles to Tama County, Iowa to work as a hired hand for a farmer from May to August 1917. Randolph said he absolutely loved riding horseback. Then Charles D. hung up his spurs for a while to work as a conductor for the Tri-City Railway in Davenport before enlisting in the Army for World War I. He was assigned to the Engineers, trained at Camp Dix, served honorably in England and France, and was discharged arriving home on July 20, 1919. October found he and two friends leaving in an automobile for the West again, stopping in the Black Hills to view the graves of Calamity Jane (no wonder she looked dissipated) and Wild Bill Hickok, continuing on to a ranch in the Bear Lodge Mountains of Wyoming owned by a first cousin to his father. From there he went to the Flying V Ranch in Montana for a cattle round-up before boarding a train back to the Plains arriving home just before Christmas 1919.

Randolph worked a number of different jobs for the next two years before his first marriage in August 1921 to Esther D. Haffner whom he had met while stationed at Fort Dix in Ohio during the War. Things did not go smoothly for the couple as his entry for September 1922 reads,

I had her [Esther] with me constantly from Sept. 1, 1921 to Sept. 23, 1922 then she left for Mansfield OH where she still is…she did not care for me but I worshipped her. 

She filed for divorce in Ohio in March 1924. The same month his divorce was finalized, the first poem I could locate in the local newspaper was published. It was titled “The Poet” and it appeared in the Daily Times. His heartbreaking final manuscript entry from September 1924 reads:

Charles Randolph’s duties on the island are walking posts – on guard he carried a revolver a forty five colt – He likes to work for the government and “pack a gun”  He is well liked and has not been late or lost a day in the past eight months – Charles is building up again – and saving money – He was married Aug 3rd 1921 and his wife left him three times each time breaking him – the last time she left Jan 3rd 1924, when she left Charles had lost every dollar he had. She run through with it. He lost $4000 dollars in three years. She got a divorce May 8th 1924 leaving Charles $2.50 in debt – today he is batching and has $100 in the bank and a good job and a girl who loves him who he may some time marry — Charles is a poet now and his poems appear in the papers often”

It is only through newspaper items and genealogical documentation I can fill in the rest of his life after such a detailed look at his early one.

We know he printed 1000 copies of his booklet of poetry per a 1927 newspaper item. That also seems to be the first time he refers to himself using the title of Colonel. He claims to have spent more than ten years employed on ranches in the western states and gained the title through service on the frontier. Each article from now on becomes more elaborate, filled with falsehoods.

He had a brief marriage in 1929 to Elverda M. Sears, twenty years his junior, which lasted one month. In 1951 he married Clara Belle Hatcher in August but filed for divorce in November of the same year. In July 1954 he married Betty Donaldson and retired from his position at the Arsenal in 1959. He collected dime novels and immersed himself in all things Western.

He had a long-distance correspondence with a woman in Colorado called Rattlesnake Kate who earned her nickname by killing 140 rattlesnakes in two hours with a signpost on her ranch near Greeley in 1925. His first letter to her in 1931 states he saw an interesting story about her and

…thought I’d drop you a few lines. I spent a good share of my life in the West and love the West. I write Western Poems and have a book published by that name 85 poems. I make scrap books and dedicate them to my Western Friends with pictures and write ups about them, would like to do so for you. I am an old friend of Pawnee Bill, Idaho Bill, Diamond Dick and knew Deadwood Dick, Buffalo Bill and Captain Jack Crawford.

The two corresponded for the next thirty years with him sending love poems to Rattlesnake Kate and making up stories about Buckskin Bill and Kate on exciting adventures in the Wild West.

For the remainder of his long life, Buckskin Bill continued to spin the yarn of living on the frontier as one of the last great cowboys, stating he had been an Army scout on raids in the Dakota Badlands and involved in uprisings that had actually occurred before he was born. No one seemed bothered by the far-fetched tales of the man with long white hair, mustache, and beard wearing the buckskin jacket and pants, showing off the saddle, rifles, and handguns he carried during those exciting days. He and his fourth wife lived in a little house on Jefferson Avenue where reporters came to hear him relate intriguing stories of life on the trail with Deadwood Dick, Panther Pete, and Buffalo Bill never doubting, or at least not admitting there might be some embellishment in the tales.

Top Photo:  Charles Randolph on “Tom” his favorite saddle horse he rode for many years. Tom was a red boy, with a white face, four white feet and a silver main [sic] and tail. (1915)

Middle Photo:  Charles Randolph on the back porch of the old Randolph Home dressed in his favorite “outfit”. (1918)
  
Bottom Photo:  Charles Randolph saddle, bridle, gun, hat, rope, blanket, revolver, and belt. His favorite picture of himself was taken in the orchard. (1917)

Was he so broken after Esther left him that he escaped in his mind to the Wild West, imagining himself a great frontiersman just to make it through the day? Did the artistic license given poets, artists and dreamers take over this man of modest means?  It’s as if the end of the manuscript marked the end of his life as Charles D. Randolph, deciding to adopt the glamorous character of Buckskin Bill as his future just so he could bear to live through it.

I looked at the Preface he had written again.

The manuscript helped me reconcile his sincere love of all things western – riding horses, clothing style, dress and hair, working as a guard “packing a gun”, all of this supported his western reverie. His fond memories of those three trips and the pleasures, trials, and tribulations indeed provided Charles D. Randolph with a wealth of material for the rest of his life, keeping him young at heart.

The Poet of the Plains, Buckskin Bill, rode off into the sunset a happy man, if not a completely truthful one.  

(posted by Karen)

Sources:

The Daily Times (Davenport, Iowa)

The Democrat and Leader (Davenport, Iowa)

The Rock Island Argus (Rock Island, Illinois)

Davenport Public Library Photograph Collection

Davenport Public Library Archive and Manuscript Collection

Hazel E. Johnson Research Center, Greeley History Museum, Greely, CO

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