Grand Junction History: Cherokee Bill, dead at 126
GJ History Columnist
Little did census enumerator Frank Thompson know while counting the 10,000 people who lived in Mesa County, Colo., on April 28, 1910, that he would find one of the oldest people in the United States living here in Grand Junction.
Living in the old abandoned city water pumping plant was a 112-year-old half Black, half Indian man by the name of Cherokee Bill. Some of the stories told by Cherokee Bill to the census taker about his life were documented by Bible records and newspaper stories supplied by him.
Frank Thompson reported the information to his office and his supervisor came to town in May for Memorial Day to talk about the census. The Associated Press picked up the story of the man who fought at New Orleans; saw Halley’s Comet in 1835; was married five times; and lived the life of a hermit in Colorado for the last fifty years; thus bringing his story to the view of the world.
Cherokee Bill was born of a Virginia slave woman and a Cherokee father on June 6, 1797, in Indian Territory, then the lower Mississippi Valley region of this continent. It was there the young man grew up and lived his early life.
As a young man Bill fought with his tribe against other Native Americans to preserve their lands. Chief Pushmataha, of the Choctaw Nation, fought against aligning with Tecumseh and the British during the War of 1812, and together with General Andrew Jackson helped to defeat the Creek at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend before marching his Indian troops to help with the Battle at New Orleans. This is where Cherokee Bill claimed to be part of the Pushmataha force. Bill said he enlisted in the army at age 15 with other Indians, and using bows and arrows they fought the British in 1815.
The Cherokee Nation was among the first tribe to accept Christianity, and adopt their own constitution and written language. The Cherokees moved westward, some by their own accord and some by force, known as the “Trail of Tears,” to the Oklahoma Territory.
How Cherokee Bill came to Grand Junction is a bit of a mystery. He shows up on the 1910 census as “Bell, Cherokee,” living in the same cabin as Charles Brown. Brown is listed as age 70, black, and employed as a janitor for the Grand Junction Post Office. Bill is listed as a laborer, age 112, and half black and half Indian.
Bill said in 1910 he had about $70,000 to $80,000 dollars in gold that he had panned during his life in Leadville, Cripple Creek and along the Grand River, and it was hidden around his little shack and other areas of Grand Junction. Bill reportedly melted his own gold with an improvised furnace to make several hundred dollars a year.
He said he shoveled 40 or 50 tons of black diamonds (coal) a day for the Palisade Coal Company. He figured when he became a 125 years old he might die, but that day was far into the future for him, so until then he would just keep on working hard.
In 1913, at the age of 115 years, the Mesa County Clerk and Recorder registered him to vote under the name of Cherokee Bill and he proudly made his mark. During this time he joined the Handy Chapel guided by the Rev. John W. Fant. He told Pastor Fant that he had been toothless for 50 years and was almost blind but now at age 115 he was growing a third set of teeth and his eye sight was returning to him. He attributed this to obeying the Lord’s Word and not working on Sunday. The Lord had let him live long and prosper while others who disobeyed had “long gone to the bone-yard.”
Newspapers reported in 1913 that he had made himself a nice home in a cave near the Fifth Street Bridge, and was placer mining in the Grand River a few yards from his home. He said he was so old he couldn’t hold a regular job, so he dug down several feet and standing in the water nearly to his hips, he washed black sand nearly all day long, week in and week out. It produced some very flour-like gold and he stored quite a pile of the fine black sand and gold. He hoped to reap a fortune from his placer mining and had been in contact with the mint authorities regarding his mining operation. In the meantime he raised chickens and made a very meager living by selling eggs. He said he had not been able to afford anything but bread or buy beef for the past five months.
Bill’s belief for life was to get into the open air, perform manual labor six days a week, enjoy plenty of sleep, and on the seventh day rest and give your thoughts to the Almighty. He observed that men who worked at desks and do “brain work drop off young.” He also mentioned he drank a little and smoked, but neither seemed to brother him. It was noticed that his face was almost unwrinkled for which he attributed to a preparation given to him by a Cherokee medicine man years before.
During his life in Grand Junction between 1910-1923, he was the subject of many stories picked up by the AP and published in newspapers nationwide. As stories about the passing of other people who were 100 years or older were written, Cherokee Bill of Grand Junction, Colo., was always referred to as still alive. He was even written about in the London Newspapers.
Bill always traveled by foot, gathered his fuel along the railway embankments and streets of Grand Junction, and he always managed to obtain and raise enough food to stay alive. He made himself a cap of fur and would wear it in local street parades as he hobbled along with the friendly aid of a cane. He continued to dig for gold, catch fish in the summer, and remembered the days he lived in the old city water works pumping station, but enjoyed living in his cozy cave.
But as all good stories must come to an end, we find Cherokee Bill listed in the 1920 census of Grand Junction, Mesa County, Colo., as an inmate (patient) at St. Mary’s Hospital. Bill had long stated that the influenza, grippe, smallpox and other illnesses never bothered him, but between 1920 and 1923 his mental health declined. On April 23, 1923, Cherokee Bill died at the Mesa County Poor House, the cause of death was senility. A request for funds to bury Bill in the local cemetery went unanswered and his remains were buried in the County Cemetery on April 27.
Today the location of Cherokee Bill’s grave is unknown. No records have been found in the county or city records as to the location of his grave. This is sad, because if he was a veteran of the Battle of New Orleans, he would be entitled to a headstone from a grateful nation and the only War of 1812 veteran in Mesa County.
On his death certificate his age was listed as 104 and his real name as Samuel E. Cowell. After much research by this writer, no information was found regarding a Samuel E. Cowell, or his five wives, or his $70,000 to $80,000 in gold he supposedly had.
I would like to think that Cherokee Bill was truly born in 1797; fought at New Orleans in 1815; lived most of his life with his tribe before the west was settled; that as a young man he ran with the wind; had a great life; had five wives; saw the untamed wilderness of the west; found his pots of gold; and died at 126 years old.
The one thing we do know for sure is he chose to live his last 13 years on this earth as the reputed oldest man in the U.S. right here in our home town.
He is buried where his Creator wanted him to be, here in Grand Junction, Colo.
Photos: Museum of Western Colorado, Loyd Files Room, Michael Menard: David Bailey: Marie Tipping; Grand Junction News:The Daily Sentinel files: Mesa County Library Obit Files: Snap Photo: City of Grand Junction Cemetery Information, Vicki Beltran: Mesa County Coroner, Doctor Dean Havlik: Mesa County Heath Department: Mesa County Clerk & Recorder’s Office: Lavada Palmer of the Mesa County Assessor’s Office.
Garry Brewer is storyteller of the tribe; finder of odd knowledge and uninteresting items; a bore to his grandchildren; a pain to his wife on spelling; but a locator of golden nuggets, truths and pearls of wisdom. Email Garry at email@example.com.
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