Comanche Bill | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Comanche Bill

Oct 10, 2020

 

Ballad hunters of the early twentieth century captured from memory the folksong, “Dreary Black Hills”--“Stay away I say, stay away if you can / Far from that city they call Cheyenne.” The ballad is a lament by a gold-seeker in the Black Hills Gold Rush of 1876 who goes home broke and disillusioned.

There were many such disappointed argonauts who went home singing the song. I discovered the earliest known text of “Dreary Black Hills” published in an Ohio newspaper in June 1877, and I found versions published in Kansas, Nebraska, Illinois, and other places within a year of that. All the song texts express terror and trauma about Indians and scalping--or, I am beginning to suspect, mock terror and mock trauma. It may be a spoof.

 

The well-known Lomax text of 1910 warns, “For Big Walipe or Comanche Bills / They will lift up your hair on the dreary Black Hills.” Big Walipe, who ever heard of such a native? And Comanche Bill, what sense does that make? The Black Hills were six hundred miles away from Comanche territory!

 

Let’s settle this hash. I think the song originated as a music-hall ballad, composed and sung to entertain men in the mining towns. Music-hall songs were a mix of the sentimental, the bawdy, and the comic. The made-up Indian names are a sort of joke. Still, where did they come from?

 

There really was a character at the time who called himself Comanche Bill. He was not an Indian, but a white guy, a frontier celebrity. In fact, there appeared in 1872 a hundred-page dime novel about him entitled, Comanche Bill, Or, Black Wolf’s Scalp! Being the Truthful History of a Western Hunter, Who Lived on Rattlesnakes, Had his Ten Finger-ends Pounded Off, but Lifted Ten Indian Scalps for the Ten Finger-Ends, and, Finally, Tore the Scalp from His Mother’s Murderer. I haven’t been able to lay hands on a copy of the novel, but I have tracked Comanche Bill--who said his real name was George W. Porter--through the newspapers.

 

In 1871 Comanche Bill gave interviews to newspapers in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, Chicago, Illinois, and probably other cities, apparently ramping up his reputation for the book. His story was that his whole family had been killed in the Minnesota Sioux War of 1862, that as a young lad he had returned from an errand away from home to find his dear Scots mother with an ax buried in her head. His little sister was taken prisoner.

 

“I swore to God I would never rest until I had had revenge--a bloody revenge,” said Bill. And he searched high and low for his sister, all the way down to Arizona for some reason--the story sounds a lot like the plotline of the Western film, The Searchers. Comanche Bill wore buckskins and a broadbrim hat and sported luxuriant hair and mustache. He looked the part, he talked the part--but it is unclear whether he ever really traveled the plains at all. He claimed to have been a scout for various military authorities from Oklahoma to Montana.

 

In 1881 Comanche Bill landed in Kansas City and regaled reporters with all his best tales, in the course of which he made disparaging remarks about Buffalo Bill Cody. The remarks were reported in eastern papers, after which Buffalo Bill showed up in Kansas City and demanded to see “the coyote they call Comanche Bill.” Reporters located Comanche Bill, who had been drunk for weeks, and who claimed acquaintance with Buffalo Bill--but Buffalo Bill disdainfully disclaimed the acquaintance. Upon which local authorities hauled Comanche Bill off to the county poor farm.

 

One more thing--Comanche Bill was said to have a favorite horse named Walleyed Pete. There’s your origin for “Walipe” in the ballad, I reckon.

-Tom Isern