By M. Timothy Nolting
For The Sun-Telegraph 

Across The Fence: 'Medicine Bill' has plenty of mystery

 

William Averill Comstock – sometimes called "Buffalo Bill" and frequently referred to as "Medicine Bill" – was said to be a half-breed of Cheyenne and white ancestry.

Others would claim that he hailed from Kentucky and was part Cherokee and still others would say that he had been abducted as a boy and raised among the "Red Savages" of the plains. Of course, none of these supposed facts were true.

William Comstock was a quiet man, not prone to braggadocio or inclined to draw attention to himself. The events of his life can be found in scattered bits of history where his deeds have been recorded, not by himself but, by others who knew him. It could be argued that his time on the great plains of Kansas and Nebraska Territory were no less grand than the exploits of William F. Cody.

William Comstock was born in Comstock, Mich., the town named for William's father, Horace Hawkins Comstock. William's mother, Sarah Sabina Cooper, was the niece of novelist James Fenimore Cooper.

It's quite possible that the famous "Leatherstocking Tales" of his great-uncle sparked William's lure to the western frontier.

William was only 4 years old when his mother died and his father remarried. Little is known of William's childhood, though at the time of his father's death in White Plains, N.Y., in 1861, the Surrogate's record lists his minor son, William A. Comstock, as residing in "Pikes Peak, Nebraska Territory."


It would appear that William's arrival in Nebraska Territory was sometime around 1858 when he was 16. William's father had remarried twice, and young William had been living with his older sister and her husband, Eleazer Wakeley, who was the associate judge of Nebraska Territory.

It is possible – though some claim it as fact – that William Comstock rode for the famous Pony Express. However, the most current compilation of the names of Pony Express riders does not include William Comstock.

William would certainly have qualified given the requirements of young men, preferably orphans, of slight build. Whatever William's frontier education included, it is certain that by the age of twenty-one William had acquired a reputation as a hunter and guide, a capable interpreter of the local Indian dialects and an expert tracker.

His knowledge of the territory, and of the local Indian languages made him a valuable member of many negotiations between the military and Native leaders. As a hunter, supplying meat for troopers at Fort Wallace in western Kansas Territory, his skill with a rifle gained him the nickname of "Buffalo Bill."


Of course, no single territory was big enough for two "Buffalo Bills," at least according to William F. Cody – the "Buffalo Bill" of the Union Pacific Railroad. In Cody's 1879 memoir, "The Life of Hon. William F. Cody: Known as Buffalo Bill, the Famous Hunter, Scout and Guide."

Cody gives an account of a contest between the two men – Buffalo Bill Comstock and Buffalo Bill Cody:

"Billy Comstock ... had the reputation, for a long time, of being the most successful buffalo hunter, and the officers in particular, who had seen him kill buffaloes, were very desirous of backing him in a match against me."

Supposedly the wager was $500 to the man who could kill the most buffalo in an eight-hour period. According to Cody's account, Comstock used a 16-shot, 44-40 Henry rifle that he deemed inadequate to be fully effective on buffalo.

Cody, on the other hand, carried his .50-caliber Springfield, breech-loader. "He could fire a few shots quicker," Cody said, "...yet I was pretty certain that it did not carry powder and lead enough to do execution equal to my caliber 50."

Proof of Cody's claim was borne out by the report that Cody killed 69 buffalo in the allotted time, while Comstock downed only 46 of the lumbering beasts.

Cody wrote that the Union Pacific Railroad provided a special excursion train with tickets from St. Louis to the western plains where the exhibition took place. Cody further claimed that more than 100 spectators were aboard the train and that champagne was provided for all.


Perhaps such an event did occur but, oddly enough, the only mention or documentation of such an historic event is recorded only in Cody's self-written memoir.

At the seemingly young age of 26, William Averill Comstock had achieved the position of Chief of Scouts and Interpreter at Fort Wallace. He was much favored by General George Armstrong Custer.

Custer praised William's abilities in his book, "My Life on the Plains," writing, "No Indian knew the country more thoroughly than did Comstock. He was perfectly familiar with every divide, water-course, and strip of timber for hundreds of miles in either direction. He knew the dress and peculiarities of every Indian tribe, and spoke the language of many of them. ...perfect in horsemanship, fearless in manner, a splendid hunter and gentleman by instinct, as modest and unassuming as he was brave."

Perhaps because of William's adaptation of some of the ways of the Indians that he knew, there were some of his companions who thought him to be somewhat superstitious. It was said that even his "evil-looking" dog, whom William named "Cuss," wore a medicine collar. This would seem to imply that William also wore a medicine bag around his neck.

Further enhancing his reputation as "Medicine Bill" was the reported instance of William cutting off a man's finger to stop the poison from spreading after being bitten by a rattlesnake.

A more dramatic telling was reported by Private William Carney from the 2nd Cavalry who told: "One day a young Sioux squaw, while trying to catch a rattlesnake, got bit on the finger. Bill, who was standing close by, without a moment's hesitation, grabbed the wounded finger and bit it off, slick and clean. From this time he was called Medicine Bill."

In 1867, Col. Custer needed a scout at Fort Riley, Kan., and requested that Chief of Scouts, William Comstock, be assigned to the post. That spring, Comstock guided Custer's 7th U.S. Cavalry under the command of General Hancock, to seek out and punish hostile Cheyenne.

The expedition was less than successful. In early July of that year, Lt. Lyman Kidder, along with an 11-man detachment of soldiers, vanished with dispatches to Col. Custer. Comstock was sent out to find the missing detachment and found only their mutilated remains, victims of Cheyenne Dog Soldiers.

The year 1868 found William Comstock back at Fort Wallace where Indian troubles continued. Gen. Sheridan had replaced Hancock and gave orders to Lt. Fredrick Beecher to assemble an elite group of scouts to assist in subduing the hostiles. Lt. Beecher hired scouts Dick Parr, Frank Espey, Abner "Sharp" Grover and William Comstock as Chief of Scouts.

Beecher ordered Comstock and Grover to track down the village of Cheyenne Chief, Turkey Leg and persuade him to stop his warriors from their raids across the Saline Valley along the Solomon and Republican Rivers. Both Comstock and Grover knew Chief Turkey Leg very well, having spent considerable time in his village during their days as traders.

After finding the village, Comstock and Grover began negotiations with Turkey Leg but were interrupted by runners who brought news of a fight with Lt. Beecher's troops. The skirmish had killed four warriors and left 10 others seriously wounded.

News of the fight ended any chance of negotiations at the time, and Comstock and Grover were "escorted" out of camp. Cheyenne custom required that their guests be granted safety while in camp and to be escorted safely away.

According to Grover's report given to Captain Henry C. Bankhead, "The Indians then drove Comstock and Grover out of camp, and when about two miles away were overtaken by a party of seven, who at first appeared friendly, and after riding along with them, fired into their backs, killing Comstock instantly. Grover remained hid in the grass during Monday – Monday night walked to the railroad..."


Additional reports state that Grover used Comstock's body as a shield, hiding under the corpse and playing dead.

Some believe that it was Grover, and not Indians, who shot and killed William Comstock, with the motive being a desire to assume the role of Chief of Scouts.

In 1922, Frank Yellow Bull recounted that his father was present when Comstock and Grover had left camp and that the two men were arguing. "Maybe white man shoot white man," Yellow Bull suggested.

There are no official reports of the recovery of William Comstock's body. Family members who had inquired about the body were told that it was retrieved, returned to Fort Wallace and buried in the post cemetery – the third grave south of the northeast corner.

However, there is no official record of Comstock's burial on the post. A former Fort Wallace ambulance driver claimed that he had buried Comstock on the north bank of the Smoky Hill River, north of Hell Creek. The sight has not been identified.

Where the final resting place of William Averill Comstock might be, is unknown. There is no marker, monument or commemorative plaque where someone saw fit to inscribe; "William A. Comstock Chief of Scouts August 18, 1868 ... as modest and unassuming as he was brave."

M. Timothy Nolting is an award-winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. Contact Tim via email at acrossthefence2day@gmail.com.

 

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