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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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Covers from British Columbia to Puget Sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan, Snohomish & BC. An evolving history dedicated to committing random acts of historical kindness
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Poker on the Wenatchee

By Frank Wilkeson, New York Sun newspaper, circa 1885, No. 17 in Journal series
(Frank middle-age)
Frank in middle age, circa 1883.

      Some years ago I served the Northern Pacific Railroad company on a barometrical survey of some passes through the Cascade mountains and of the eastern approaches to them. In early August, when the Columbia plains were brown and the air dry and hot my business called me to the Wenatchee river. At its mouth I met the butcher, familiarly called Butch, a red-haired, yellow-eyed ruffian from Virginia. I have forgotten his real name, if I ever knew it, which I greatly doubt, as it was not considered polite to inquisitively inquire into the antecedents of gentlemen one met in mining camps or at isolated trading posts. If you were introduced to a merry man who gloried in the name of Buckskin or Arkansas or Spraddle-leg Tim, it was eminently proper and healthful to address him as such, and it was considered highly improper and vulgar to endeavor to climb into the genealogical tree of any gentleman who might have sought solitude for the benefit of his health.
      Butch was a one-eyed man. The missing eye, I afterward learned, had been dropped in a California mining camp one evening when Butch was having a little fun with the boys. He was a merry, thoughtless man, and incautiously raised an ace-full, which he had been at considerable trouble to gather, directly after a cold deck had been wrung in the game. In the confusion that followed the discovery that six or seven aces were on the table, Butch's eye had been promptly extracted by another merry man, and he had been awkwardly carved by a third and bunglingly shot by a fourth. On his recovery, Butch said that [while] he thought he did not mind having a little fun with the boys, the boys of that camp played a little too roughly for him. So he left and established himself at the mouth of the Wenatchee. He traded for furs. He played poker with the Indians. He raised cattle. He sold whisky to Indians and provisions to Chinese miners.
      Butch was a grand scamp, a brave, reckless ruffian, but he had some very good points. For instance, he could make excellent hoe cakes and he was cheerful and companionable, and could tell highly interesting lies. We became attached to each other, and, though I knew he was a murderer and a thief, and that he was selling whisky to the Indians, and smuggling opium across the line from British Columbia, I did not care. I was young and careless [about 23], and besides, as I said, he could make excellent hoe cakes. One evening, as we sat side by side on the sandy soil, leaning against the house and smoking our after-supper pipes, and I was listening to a remarkably good lie about a bear that frightened all the other bears out of an extensive mountain range by fraudulently using a long pole to mark his height on the trees, a group of Indians, driving cattle before them, rode behind a rocky point that was thrust into the waters of the Columbia.
      Instantly Butch sprang to his feet and rushed into the cabin. He put on a cunningly devised harness that held two navy six-shooters in a handy position under his arm. He put on his coat. He pulled at the pistols to see if they were loose, and that there would be no hitch in the performance if any more than a rehearsal should be required. In a few minutes the party of horsemen drew rein in front of the cabin. There were three young bucks from Moses's camp in the Grand Coulee. Butch greeted them cheerfully and helped to corral the cattle.
      Then he told me that these men were the selected poker-players of the Columbia Plains Indians; that they had been staked by the tribe to play with him in hopes of winning a number of cattle. Yes, he said, the cattle were the stakes. Before the first hand was dealt Butch quietly informed the Indians that English and Chinook only could be spoken at the table, and that the first Indian who spoke in his own (and to Butch unknown) tongue would have the top of his head shot off. The braves cheerfully agreed to this condition. Then the relative value of cows, calves and steers was agreed upon. They decided to play table stakes. The checks were pistol and musket balls. The pistol balls were equal in value to a calf or to a musket ball. Three musket balls equaled a cow in value.
      A heavy California blanket was thrown over a rough table. A candle was thrust into a tomato can that was filled with beans, and the game began. The strong wind ceased blowing. The silence of the plains was broken only by the mysterious groaning and sighing of the mighty river as it swept past the cabin to the sea. Hour after hour passed and not a word was spoken by the players. With faces as unchangeable as bronze the three Indians played, and, favored by the dim light and the fact of Butch's having but one eye, how they did cheat! The luck varied as it always does in a poker game. Now they would be ahead, now Butch. I dropped asleep, and when I awoke it was nearly morning.
      Butch's back was toward me. I saw some cards thrust under his coat collar. I knew he was waiting for the end to come. One of the Indians dealt. Butch picked up his cards, raised his right hand to scratch the back of his neck, adroitly exchanged the cards he held for those in reserve, and then thrust the cards he had received below his shirt collar. Then he turned to me, exposing the back of his head to the Indians, and then winked a wink of great sagacity at me. He talked to me for an instant and then turned to the table.
      He was an aged man. The Indian to his left bet a calf. The next one straddled it. The dealer went a cow better, and Butch saw it all and raised the pot two cows. All stayed. All stood pat. Then the betting began in earnest. It went on until all the cattle the Indians had brought were staked. Then came the showdown. Butch had four queens and an ace. The Indians all had fours, which they had stolen, of course. They grunted loudly. They struck their mouths with the palms of their open hands to express surprise. Then they bade us good-by and mounted, and, singing as they rode, disappeared in the faint gray light of early morning. Butch had won thirty head of cattle. As we got breakfast the king of clubs fell out of Butch's right trousers leg.
      What finally became of the Butcher? He was accused of stealing cattle—a lie, probably. The vigilantes visited him and ordered him to bring in his herder. He did so, but, owing to some misunderstanding, brought him in dead. He was past answering awkward questions. So the exasperated vigilantes hung the butcher as a murderer, a cattle-thief, a whisky-seller, and a bad man, generally.
      What? Yes, I believe they did divide Butch's cattle and goods among themselves. You see, Butch was dead and did not need cattle or provisions, but they did not hang him to obtain his herd and goods. Of course not. He was simply a bad man, and they hung him for the good of the ruffian community (he lived sixty miles from his nearest neighbor) living on the frontier. And they took charge of the ownerless cattle, so that the poor creatures should not suffer during the following winter

      The time period that Frank wrote about here ranged from the winter of 1870-71 through 1872. He had just finished exploring the Skagit River watershed with D.C. Linsley in the spring and summer of 1870 on assignment for the Northern Pacific Railroad. In later writings he described the subsequent barometrical surveys of the Cascades and Eastern Washington, where he also rode with Chief Moses around his camp at Grand Coulee. Trained in mining and steelmaking at the Cambrian Iron Works in Pennsylvania, he also rode on horseback through different sections of the Rocky Mountain territories.
      In the other Wilkeson transcription in Issue 43, you can read "Old Mose of Whoop-Up," a column that he wrote for the Sun River Sun in Montana in 1885, where he recounted other adventures of that time. He had married Mary Crouse in 1869 and their son, Edward Bayard Wilkeson was born back East in 1870. Later in 1872, they leased and then soon bought a large ranch near Gypsum, Kansas, where they are both buried. Wilkeson was living on Long Island, New York, when the Sun column was published. He went on to write dozens of columns about the West for the New York Times and in 1889 he moved to the new state of Washington, where he continued posting columns for the Times, which were bylined Sedro, Hamilton and Fairhaven. He lived in both Skagit and Whatcom counties off an on for the next dozen years and died while vacationing near Lake Chelan in 1913.
      While living in New York in the mid-1880s, Frank Wilkeson completed a book about his own military service that has become one of the most quoted accounts of the Civil War, and has been reprinted at least three times: Turned Inside Out: Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac, first published in 1887. A copy is available in the Sedro-Woolley library. Some question the factual narrative of the book, but we realize that he created composites of characters to illustrate his broad points about the war and his own anti-authoritarian streak. Patricia McAndrew, a biographer of Wilkeson who in Pennsylvania, notes that when William Dean Howells reviewed the book, he praised it highly and saw certain aspects of Tolstoi in the work. Considering that Frank had very little education in the liberal arts after secondary school, he seems to have had a natural ability to write, as did his father. Running against the grain of glorious accounts of battle, his book was in the Stephen Crane mold. In the introduction to the most recent edition, editor James McPherson wrote: "[The memoir is] unlike most others by Civil War Veterans who tended to romanticize and sometimes glorify the experiences they went through . . . . His emphasis on the seamy, unheroic, horrific side of war is a healthy corrective to romanticism."

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Story posted on April 30, 2008 . . . Please report any broken links so we can update them
This article originally appeared in Issue 43 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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