29 April 2014
Former Negro Slave Reaches Age of Seventy-Five; Prefers to Shine Shoes Awhile Rather than Retire.
Most folks are ready to lay aside their tasks three-quarters of a century, but Jim Coombs spent his 75th birthday recently shining shoes at the Northern hotel stand in Billings, where his dusky smile and agile memory have welcomed friends and strangers for 18 years.
He could retire and live in comfort. “I saved my money,: he confided on the eve of his anniversary. “But I don’t know what to do with myself.”
His appearance belies his age. He looks to be no more than 50, does this jovial colored man. But he was born a slave, the property of Harrison Priest of the “Hannibal, Mo., Priests, shu!”
The date of his advent was April ?, 1859. “Uncle Jim” is a great hand for giving dates and days. Off-hand, he can recollect dates that to the average mortal would be obscured by time.
He was only six years old when the Civil war ended, but he recalls folks on the Priest plantation telling of how his uncle and Wash Winters ran away and got across the Mississippi ahead of the “patrollers.” These gentry were employed to detect and capture runaway slaves.
After the war the uncle living in Chicago sent for his mother, his sister, who was “Uncle Jim’s” mother, and the boy.
As a boy he used to go to church with his mother on Sunday nights and with his uncanny memory for dates, he recalls that they were attending a service when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern and started the great Chicago fire.
“We had to cross the old Twelfth street bridge to get home,” he recollects. “Before we could get there the fire was hot enough to almost scorch our clothes.
He has a wealth of memories from his years as a Pullman porter. There was the time, for instance, that he met a party of railroad officials at Chicago after the Northern Pacific’s “golden spike” ceremony. On the next track was the special car of President Arthur with Postmaster General James and Secretary of War Robert Lincoln aboard.
And the time he came downtown to take his car out of Washington and heard newsboys shouting the news of President Garfield’s assassination. That was July, 1881. The reporter later verified Uncle Jims memory by referring to a history.
“I walked over to the railroad station and there I saw the spot where Garfield was shot,” he adds. “They’s a star set in the tile floor now, so everybody can see where the president died.”
A great lover of travel, was Uncle Jim in his younger days. “Going to ??? wild,” he explains. He finally got tired of being a porter and found a job in a Seattle hotel. That was 34 years and 4 months ago. He worked at the coast hostelry until he came to Billings 18 years and 4 months ago, almost to the day.
Not counting polishes he applied while aboard Pullmans, Uncle Jim estimates he has shined119,000 pairs of shoes. He’s practically an expert at the profession.
And he’s on the job every morning unless his miseries get him down. Until he was 63 he didn’t miss a day’s work. Then he was sick and lost five month’s time.
“But when I’m well they don’t have to wonder whether ol’ Jim’s on the job,” he declares. “They know I’m there. If I don’t show up I’m generally gone a spell because I’m sick.”
He has two “kids,” both girls, 52 and 50. The younger one’s birthday helps his memory.
“They’s just 35 days between her birthday and mines and its 35 days from then to my wedding anniversary. That’s be 53 years agone this May.”
Shining shoes has given him a definite philosophy and he goes about his tasks “happy because I’ve always had plenty to ear and wear and always had a job.
[p. 6] [Wolf Point Herald 20 Apr 1934]
24 February 2014
Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:
Joe Wells: A Slave and His Confederate Master Go To War
By Ken Robison
The River Press
February 26, 2014
This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that came to Montana after the war. This issue features the fascinating story of a slave who followed his master into service of the Confederacy before coming to Montana’s gold mines to make and lose his mining successes. Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org.
When General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox in April 1865, thirty-six African-Americans were listed on the Confederate paroles. Most served as servants, musicians, cooks, teamsters, or blacksmiths. Throughout the Civil War thousands of blacks accompanied Confederate Army regiments though only a handful were accepted and armed as combat soldiers until the last months of the war. The Confederate fighting force was white but much of its support was black.
One young slave, Joseph Wells, went into the Confederate Army early in the war as a “body servant” for his master, Colonel Benjamin G. Wells. He would not have worn the “gray,” yet on occasion he may have fought alongside his master though we simply don’t know. We do know that Joseph remained in company with his master throughout the war before coming to Montana Territory.
In Joseph’s own words, Col. Wells was “a confederate soldier, and I went to war with him, waiting on him during his service in the army. He was with General [Sterling] Price. The first place we fought was at Blue Mill Landing. We had a little skirmish there. We had a scrap at Lexington, Missouri, where General Price, with 40,000 men, dislodged 3,000 Union soldiers, but not until he cut off the water supply. We had brushes at Elk Grove and Oak Hill and a battle right at Vicksburg. I went with the old man to Texas, from there we returned home” to Buchanan County, Missouri.
Former slave Uncle Joe Wells and his dog Nailer on the streets shortly
before his death (Courtesy of The Missoulian)
The slave that was to become Joseph Wells was born in 1838, the “property” of prominent John Fry of Lexington, Kentucky. His mother was sold shortly after his birth so another slave woman raised him. When he was ten years old Mr. Fry took Joseph with the Fry family to live near St. Joseph, Buchanan County, Missouri. The U.S. Census in 1850 recorded 57-year-old farmer John Fry living in Buchanan County with his wife Mary, four sons, and one daughter. The Slave Schedule of that census listed one 12 year-old Black Male slave (Joseph) in the household, and some 25 other slaves spread around other parts of Missouri.
When John Fry died his widow married Colonel Benjamin G. Wells in 1856. The U.S. Census of 1860 showed the family of Wells with one 22 year-old male slave living at Rushville in Buchanan County, and one year later off to the War of Southern Independence went Col. Wells and his young slave. While Missouri did not secede to join the Confederacy, a large segment of the population centered in northern Missouri and Little Dixie along the Missouri River favored secession and many men joined the Missouri State Guard under General Sterling Price to seize control of the state.
In September 1861, the pro-secession State Guard were ordered to recruit more troops from northwestern Missouri and concentrate at Lexington. Col. Benjamin Wells raised a company in Rush Township in southwestern Buchanan County and with other recruits departed to join Gen. Price. Some 4,000 State Guard troops including Col. Wells passed through Liberty to cross the Missouri River at Blue Mills Landing and proceed eastward to Lexington. A Union force of 600 men under Lt. Col. John Scott was sent to intercept the State Guard troops at Blue Mills Landing, arriving after most of the State Guard had already crossed the Missouri. Scott’s troops moved to engage the remaining 600 State Guard soldiers, including Col. Wells and his servant, who were positioned in the brush on both sides of the road leading to the landing. In mid afternoon on September 17th, Col. Scott’s troops marched into the ambush. In the one-hour skirmish that followed Price’s men held the advantage with 18 Union soldiers killed and 80 wounded, at the cost of just 3 State Guard soldiers killed and 18 wounded.
With this minor victory at Blue Mill Landing, also known as the Battle of Liberty, the northwest Missouri troops proceeded on to join General Sterling Price at Lexington, on the Missouri River twenty miles east of Kansas City. This First Battle of Lexington, known as the Battle of the Hemp Bales, was an engagement from September 13 to 20, 1861 between the Missouri State Guard and a Union garrison of some 3,500 men under Col James A. Mulligan holding the town. Over the next several days General Price’s Guard received ammunition wagons, other supplies and reinforcements including those from Buchanan County.
By the 18th, the State Guard now numbered more than 15,000 men, and Gen. Price ordered an assault on Lexington. The State Guard moved forward into the face of heavy artillery fire, pushing Union troops back into their inner defenses. On the morning of the 20th, Price’s men advanced behind mobile breastworks, made of dampened hemp that was immune to Union shells. By early afternoon, Col. Mulligan’s men stacked their arms and surrendered. Lexington, the Union stronghold had fallen, bolstering southern sentiment and briefly consolidating Confederate control of the Missouri Valley.
Further details of the activities of Col. Wells and his servant Joseph are sketchy although for the rest of the Civil War though they apparently remained part of the Missouri State Guard. Gen. Price with his men formally joined the Confederate cause in Neosho, Missouri on October 30, 1861. Despite his early victories in Missouri, Gen. Price did not have dominant popular support to hold the state in the face of Union determination to control this vital Border State.
By early 1862, Union forces had pushed Price out of Missouri, and with their defeat at the Battle of Pea Ridge in northwestern Arkansas March 6-8, Confederate hopes of occupying Missouri ended. For most of 1862-1863, the Missouri State Guard fought small skirmishes in Missouri and major battles in Arkansas and Mississippi. Missouri remained threatened by guerrilla warfare from southern bushwhacker raids throughout the war.
Although Joseph Wells does not mention whether Col. Wells and he participated in the Battle of Pea Ridge, he does state that they “had brushes at Elk Grove and Oak Hill and a battle right at Vicksburg.” Wells’s mention of Oak Hill is intriguing. The first major battle of the Trans-Mississippi was the Battle of Wilson’s Creek fought on August 10, 1861, near Springfield, Missouri between Union forces and the Missouri State Guard. That battle is also known as the Battle of Oak Hills. The battle led to the death of brilliant Union commander Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon and the retreat of Union forces resulting in the battle also being called the “Bull Run of the West.” Col. Wells’s role, if any, in the battle is not known.
During the decisive Vicksburg Campaign from May 19 to July 4, 1863, Missouri infantry and cavalry fought in the 1st and 2nd Brigades of Major General John S. Bowen’s Division of the Confederate Army. As Gen. Ulysses S. Grant began to move to capture Vicksburg, Gen. Bowen was assigned a division in Gen. Pemberton’s Army defending Vicksburg. After uniting with Pemberton’s Army, Gen. Bowen’s Division fought at the battle of Champion Hill, where their counterattack almost split Grant’s army in half. When the rest of Pemberton’s army failed to support Bowen’s attack, his Division was forced to retreat. Bowen’s Division suffered defeat at the Battle of Big Black River Bridge, retreated to Vicksburg, and took part in the final defense of Vicksburg. The surrender of Vicksburg July 4, 1863 was a devastating blow to the Confederacy. Not only were 2,872 men killed and wounded and 29,495 taken prisoner, but the Confederacy strategically lost control of the Mississippi River and was cut in two.
Details about the end of the war and surrender of Col. Wells and Joseph are sketchy. Joe Wells claimed that toward the end of the war, “I went with the old man to Texas, from there we returned home.” It is likely by May 1865, Joseph Wells, now a freedman, returned briefly to St. Joseph, Missouri. There he was warned by his former mistress to leave because of his Confederate Army service. In turn, Col. Wells offered Joseph a span of mules worth $500, a wagon, and provisions for a year if he would stay and haul timber from the river bottoms. But Joseph listened to Mrs. Wells.
Like many white Confederate soldiers, Joseph headed west in early summer 1865, stopping along the Overland Stage Line near today’s Cheyenne, Wyoming to work as a cook before proceeding on to California. Wells then decided to move on to Denver, Colorado, where he worked at odd jobs. From there he move northward to Alder Gulch, Montana Territory, to try his hand at placer gold mining, with some success accumulating $10,000.
By 1870 Joe Wells lived at Fort Shaw, a servant working for Brevet Major S. A. Russell, 7th Infantry Regiment, helping care for Russell’s four-year-old son Louis. Six years later, Joe Wells stampeded to the Black Hills gold rush, where he claimed that “Nigger Hill,” was named for him.
The Negro Hill district, as it is now known, is a section in the western part of the Black Hills that derived its name from a mountain that rears its head some 6,400 feet above sea level, and whose top is high above the surrounding peaks of the rugged neighborhood. The steep slopes of Negro Hill form the heads of various gulches—Bear, Mallory, Negro, Sand and Beaver—from which hundreds of thousands of dollars in placer gold were taken.
Negro Hill and Negro Gulch were named for several African Americans, including Joseph Wells, who owned an immensely rich placer claim from which they took a fortune during the summer of 1876. Four of these black miners took out $1,700 in a single day, hauling their gravel hundreds of yards to wash it. Several other black miners built a dam to accumulate water for sluicing and washed out $1,500 in one remarkable half day.
The reputation of these black miners was so colorful that the mountain was named to commemorate them. These were the first placer gold strikes discovered in the Northern Black Hills in the summer of 1876, and led to a stampede to the area. Joe Wells successfully mined Negro Gulch and accumulated $30,000. Unfortunately in just three months he squandered his riches, drinking and gambling before moving on to Deadwood, Dakota Territory.
In the early 1880s, Joe Wells returned to Montana to lived in poverty and ill health in Billings. Some years later he regained his strength and went back to mining with six placer claims on Williams Creek on the Shoshone Reservation.
By the early 1900s Joseph Wells arrived in Missoula to become a favorite of Missoulian reporters. In August 1910 the Missoulian told “Uncle Joe’s” story. Joe claimed an age of 120 years, perhaps identifying in his mind with the age of his older former master Col. Wells. His actual age was about 72 years. Other details of his story ring true and are consistent with facts that can be checked. He told about his early years in slavery, his service in the war with his master, and his migration westward.
The Missoulian reporter assessed Uncle Joe:
“There is no more unique citizen in western Montana than Joe Wells. The general impression among his acquaintances, both white and black, is that he has slipped a cog or two on his age . . . His warped limbs, his wrinkled face, and his white hair indicate that he is close to the century mark. In appearance he is scrawny and sharp. . . He is as cunning as a fox.”
In the interview the reporter quizzed Wells about his Black Hills experiences:
“’I went into the Black hills and crossed to Nigger gulch, where I lifted $30,000 inside a month.’
“’What! You took out $30,000 worth of gold?’
“’Yes, sir, and the gulch was named after me. I had $30,000 in clean cash at one time.’
“’What did you do with it?’
“’Squandered it,’ said he, indifferently as he looked down at his frayed trousers. ‘In them days I did not know the value of money. I drank and gambled my $30,000 away in three months.’
“’Were you not afraid somebody would rob you.’
“’Not a bit. I carried the best of arms and could use them like a man. I went with an English bull [Dog pocket revolver], a dangerous pistol, up my sleeve all the time.’
“’Where did you keep your money?’
“’With me. I wore two pairs of pants, one over the other, and had secret pockets. My outer garments were of buckskin.’
“’What sort of gambling did you do?’
“’Faro. That was the game them days.’
“’How long ago was that?’
“’Soon after the Nigger gulch find I went to Billings. I was broke, and sick. For two years I lay there in the Sisters’ hospital. Every now and then I would tell the nurses that I was burning daylight. As soon as I was able to travel I secured me a horse—a white one—and went to Copper mountain. After three weeks of prospecting I sprung off to Shoshone reservation and located six claims on Williams creek. I have them yet.’
“’Some fellow tried to get them out of me but I told him that I was from Missouri. He was tricky.’
“’What are you doing now?’
“’I am on the way to Flathead to prospect. If I get up there, and find anything I will go to work.’
“’How do you go about it?
“’I have done my work along. I cut the timber, and go in with my wheel-barrow. Give me a bit of giant powder and I can do the rest. I know how to handle that, boy.’”
In the opinion of the Missoulian reporter, “There is no more unique citizen in western Montana than Joe Wells. The general impression among his acquaintances, both white and black, is that he has slipped a cog or two on his age but all agree that he is far beyond the three score and ten milepost. His warped limbs, his wrinkled face, and his white hair indicate that he is close to the century mark. In appearance he is scrawny and sharp. On his face there stands, at irregular intervals, bunches of whiskers--sagebrush—and on his head a scanty stand of hair. On the point of his little black chin there hangs, like a bit of Florida moss, a tuft of beard done in a three-stand plait. The Missoulian man, when trying to locate him, asked a neighbor if she had seen him. She looked into space, in an effort to recall him, but the moment the twig of whiskers was mentioned, she smiled, and said: ‘He’s right there—next door.’
“Two friends Joe Wells keeps near him, a pocket magnifying glass to help in his search for gold, and Nailer, a big, shaggy dog. With these he roams in search of a fortune. The old fellow’s heart is full of hope and so long as he is able to move he will hunt for gold. News of strikes at Dixon has reached his ear and he is eager to get back in harness.
“’Oh, but if I could make one more lucky strike,’ is his song.
“If Joe Wells were to step into a Kentucky street some old-time southern man would greet him: ‘Good morning Uncle Joe, how are you?’ and he would respond: ‘Thank you, Marse John; poly thank Gawd.’ But out here, he is as gay and chipper as a tree frog, and knows all of the up-to-date vernacular. He is as cunning as a fox.”
Ten years later in 1920 Joe Wells remained in Missoula renting a house with a white lodger who worded as a barber. In December 1922 Joe Wells died at St. Patrick’s Hospital in Missoula. His death was noted with a short obituary with more exaggerations and a photograph published by the Montana Newspaper Association on January 8, 1923:
“Missoula Centenarian Dies. Joseph Well, colored, once winner of the Kentucky derby, believed to be the oldest inhabitant in Missoula, died at St. Patrick’s hospital a few days ago.
“‘Uncle Joe’ as he was best known in the city, claimed to have been born at Louisville, Ky., in 1807, placing his age at 115 years. His mother, a slave in the southern city, was sold shortly after his birth and . . . [he was] reared by another colored woman. The aged negro often narrated the vicissitudes of his fortune during early slavery times, the stirring days of rebellion and the new era following the Civil war. He made many trips up and down the ‘ol’ Mississippi’ with traders . . .
“His story of once winning the Kentucky derby as [a Negro] jockey, strapped to the back of the winner of the blue-grass classic, was one worthy of literary prominence. To have heard old ‘Uncle Joe’ tell it himself in his own mannerisms was still more interesting.“
Oh, to have been able to interview Joseph Wells, learn more details, and probe some of his stories. From the first Kentucky Derby in 1875 until Jim Crow laws ended it about 1900, almost all Derby jockeys were African American. Thirteen of the fifteen riders in the first Kentucky Derby were black jockeys, and fifteen of the first twenty-eight runnings of the Derby featured blacks. The names of these early day black sports superstars are readily available . . . and, sadly, Joseph Wells is not among them.
Despite his exaggerations, Joseph Wells, slave, Confederate service soldier, gold miner, servant, rich man, poor man, drinker and carouser, and finally kindly “Uncle Joe” the story teller, lived a more than full life before passing on in Missoula December 16, 1922. His burial location is unknown.
Ken Robison is a local historian and author of Montana Territory and the Civil War: A Frontier Forged on the Battlefield.
Photo: 1. Former slave Uncle Joe Wells and his dog Nailer on the streets of Missoula shortly before his death.