The Untold Story Of Black Bart
By Bruce Bradley
I AM OLD now, far older than many thought these bones would ever get to be. One thing I have learned in my life is that, in nearly every situation that you may face, there are two roads. One road leads to power, the other, away. Many people think they know me, from having read of things I’ve done. I find it amusing that, of the current friends and neighbors I have, not one knows of the things I once did, or why, or of who I once was…
When I was two years old, my family moved from Norfolk, England to America. I remember nothing of that crossing. My first memories are of living on our farm in Jefferson County, New York. They are, for the most part, good memories—my mother, cleaning and cooking; me, playing in the yard or out in the fields with kids from nearby farms, my father coming in from working our farm and dinners around the table with my family. My father had a gentle patience about him and, although he never claimed it, a quality that spoke of nobility. Some have said that I inherited that. It may cause some who think they know me now to laugh, but from my father I learned the importance of honesty, hard work, integrity and a sense of justice. From my mother, I learned manners, how to read and write, and an indefinable quality she called ‘grace’. My memories of that time of my life are good ones. I was the seventh out of nine children—six boys and three girls. My older brothers protected me from the local bullies and taught me to wrestle, which in time I became better at than they. For a time, I was known as the best collar and elbow wrestler in Jefferson County. Those lessons served me well. On a number of occasions, during the war, knowing how to wrestle saved my life.
When I was six I contracted smallpox and nearly died. I survived, and my mother often said it was because God was saving me for something greater. I find subtle humor in that, these days.
People have often said that I’m afraid of horses. That isn’t completely true. I don’t trust horses and they seem to sense it. I’ve tried to change that a couple of times, but it’s too deep inside me. Horses, like dogs, have uncanny instincts. Every time I tried to befriend a horse it would shy away from me, so it’s something I’ve learned to live with. I do like dogs.
When I was nine years old there was this girl, Cassie Frye. Cassie was two years older than me and the prettiest thing you ever saw, and we were friends. Truth is, at the ripe, old age of nine, I was sweet on her. One day I was in town. I happened to look across the street and there she was. She looked up at the same time and, smiling, started to cross the street. She was wearing a bonnet, which must have limited her vision. She never saw the runaway wagon. When I yelled at her she just stopped. Two of the four horses went over her. The image of the hoof prints they left on her pretty blue dress is something I’ve never been able to erase from my memory.
I know it’s wrong to blame all horses for the accidental actions of only two, but it’s there and I’ve never been able to shake it.
My father tried to teach me to be a farmer, but it never really took. In 1849 I was twenty years old. News came of a huge gold strike in California. Half the people in America seemed to have caught gold fever, and I was one of them. My cousin David and I joined up with three other young men and headed west. In mid-March we boarded the steamer Zanesville in Muskingum, Ohio, headed for St. Louis, which was the jumping-off spot for anyone headed for California.
The energy aboard the boat was incredible. Whole families had sold their property and belongings for a stake that would get them to the gold fields. We watched the big paddle-wheel as it churned the waters of the Muskingum River, sending a light spray into the air. Despite the chill, the spray felt good. I watched the people lining the docks, many teary-eyed from their goodbyes, grow smaller as the steamer headed out into the center of the river.
The excitement of gold fever ran all along the decks of the ship, almost a living thing. Standing next to me at the rail, Henry Albright found it impossible to keep still.
“Think of it—California! We’re finally on our way! We’re going to be rich, Charley, I can feel it!”
“You have to get there first, Henry,” cousin David said dryly. “Then you have to find the gold.”
“We will, David! We will. Before it’s over, every one of us will probably be wealthy beyond our dreams!”
“Maybe, if we don’t get killed by Indians or God-knows-what along the way first.”
“We’ll be fine. You’ll see.”
“I hope you’re right,” David told him.
The people waving from shore had become tiny, almost too small to see. I moved away from the rail, happy to be under way. I hadn’t joined in with the conversation, but I was as excited about going as Henry was. I also knew David was right. We had a lot of hardship to face before we got to the gold fields. Somehow, I was eager for that, too. The Great Unknown had called to me—to all of us, and we had answered. The five of us, me, David, Henry and James and Carl Roberts had joined forces. We had pooled our money, formed a pact and were determined to make it to California and strike it rich. Despite David’s misgivings, I knew he was just as excited as the rest of us. The gold fever ran high. Few could resist it.
The Zanesville had originally been called The Zanesville Packet. It was built for river travel in 1843, then decommissioned in 1846. Three years later, the great rush for the gold fields brought the demand for riverboats to an all-time high and brought the Zanesville out of retirement. She was a stately, 88-ton paddle-wheeler. I wondered why she was ever retired in the first place.
No sooner had we gotten underway, than the great paddle-wheeler slowed once more to a stop. A short while later the Zanesville entered the first of a series of locks that we would have to pass through to get to the Missouri River. All in all, there were eleven locks, supported by ten dams and covering a 112-mile stretch of the Muskingum River. The system had opened eight years earlier, in 1841, enabling the Muskingum to become the main waterway in Ohio and a major thoroughfare for river traffic.
Once we were inside the lock, the gate closed and, after a short delay, the lock began to drain. The Zanesville’s deckhands kept her stationary during this time, using ropes that had been thrown to them from shore. Although I had heard of this type of river travel, this was my first time to be inside one of the locks. I found it interesting.
Once the water level in the lock had gone down several feet, the second gate opened and we were allowed to proceed on our way once more. I continued on my tour about the deck of the boat. When I reached the aft section I stood for several moments, regarding the great paddle-wheel and marveling at the unending ingenuity of man. After some moments of this I turned to go—and immediately had a collision.
The young woman I had collided with fell back, startled and angered by my clumsiness. The scent of her perfume—lilac, I think—brushed past my nose.
“Sir!” she began. “Do you not think you should watch where you are going?”
“I’m sorry miss, I—“ I stopped, momentarily unable to continue. The young woman I had bumped into was exceedingly lovely. Her long brown hair was curled and fell to one side, down across her breast. Her dark eyes had a fire in them that stole my words away. She was, perhaps, a little on the plump side, but that in no way detracted from her beauty.
“You what—?” She demanded.
“I—I was captivated watching the paddle wheel. When I turned to go I did not see you. Please forgive me.”
“Well…I suppose no harm was done, but you should pay better attention next time!”
“I promise,” I told her. Then; “Charles Earl Bowles at your service. My friends call me Charley.”
“Pleased, I’m sure,” she said without looking at me. Nor did she offer me her name.
“Are you…for the gold country?” I prodded.
Now she looked at me.
“Yes,” she said. “My father and I are headed there. You?”
“Yes, I am. My friends and I are going prospecting. We’ve formed a company,” I lied.
“Well, good luck to you and your friends, Mr. Bowles.” She turned to go.
“It’s Charley,” I told her.
“Yes, well, good luck.”
“Perhaps we’ll bump into one another again…”
She turned back and gave me a shocked look.
“I…meant that figuratively, of course.”
She continued to stare at me for a moment. Then she nodded, slowly.
“Of course.” Then she was gone, down the passageway, leaving behind only the subtle hint of lilac to remind me of her former presence.
Well, Bowles, I thought to myself, never let it be said that you don’t have a way with women. It’s probably a bad way, but it’s a way…
I moved off, still thinking of the young woman. I continued to think of her for some time after that, and kept hoping for a glimpse of her and the chance to speak with her again. Little could I know then that I would, in fact, see her again before we reached St. Louis, but that I would scarcely recognize her, for so changed would she be...