Broncho JohnThe colorful character of Valparaiso . . . .
An Indian Princess From the Carnival
Delving into family history sometimes resembles a walk through strange woods. The trail twists and turns back on itself. You've no idea where you are. And when you finally stumble out of the woods, you're not sure where you've been. But it's a good walk for all that. Such was the search for the surprising kinship with a western showwman known as "Broncho John" Sullivan.
The quest began when my sister Bettie Gordon found a yellowed newspaper clipping in Grandma Wehrley's little hymn book. It read:
Heir to $100,000 estate
Mrs. Nellie Fiedeke of this city, who was formerly Miss Nellie
Sullivan, is heir to a $100,000 estate at Lowell, Mass. The estate
was willed to charity by an aged woman, who, it is asserted, was
imposed upon by lawyers. Efforts are being made to break the will.
John Sullivan of Valparaiso, who is known as Broncho John, is an
heir. So is Jack Sullivan of Goshen.
Although the clipping was unidentified as to source or date, it was obviously from a newspaper in Goshen, Indiana, because that's where Aunt Nellie lived. And it appeared before 23 Oct. 1917 for that's when Jack Sullivan, Nellie's brother and our grandfather, died. Most likely time frame is 1915-16.
A call to the public library at Valparaiso produced a helpful researcher. Yes, she knew of "Broncho John," whose full name was John Harrington Sullivan. "He was quite famous around here," she said. "I'll send you Xerox copies of some stories we have in his file." The essence of the clippings: Broncho John came East and settled down in Valparaiso after "Doc" Carver's Wild West Show hit the rocks in 1884 and stranded its troupe there. Sullivan, who had been in charge of the show's Indians all along, tended the raggle-taggle group for a couple weeks until they could be returned to their reservations in the West.
Then, after fulfilling some sort of obligation in the East, Sullivan came back to Valparaiso and settled down. He put together a small "wild west" of his own and did whatever it is "retired" Indian scouts do to make a living. The clippings hint of performances at fairs and carnivals with a bear named Uno and a group of would-be western hands known as the Valpo Boys.
In later years -- he lived into his 90s -- he rode as guest of honor in local parades, participated in the Chicago "Century of Progress" exposition in 1933, and gave talks "on plant and animal life and Indian lore" wherever anyone would listen, including history classes at Purdue University.
"John has told me of his experience in Russia and in Turkey," editor A. J. Bowser wrote in a Valparaiso newspaper on 9 July 1935. "To some, it may be, his stories sound improbable, but I know they are undercolored."
"Today we do not appreciate this type of man who helped conquer the wild West," Bowser continued. "He was one of those stage coach drivers that 'went through' with the mail, regardless of all obstacles. He shot many buffalo to help feed that army of railroad builders who put down the rails that opened up to civilization an empire. He knows what gunfire means. He was in Cuba [during the Spanish-American War] and performed feats that brought him praise from those on high that he richly earned."
A photo accompanying one of the newspaper articles shows a rugged face with a slight resemblance to actor Burt Lancaster in his later years. Sullivan himself says he stood "a trifle over six feet" and wore his hair "in the style of the Western prairieland from where I came ... in thick loose curls about my shoulders."
Excerpts from serialized memoirs written in first-person style (as told to his son "Texas Jack" Sullivan) and printed in the Valparaiso Vidette-Messenger:
"From my earliest boyhood I had known intimately the hardy life of the saddle-trails of the frontier prairies. At the age of 10, I possessed first-hand knowledge of the almost unknown vast territory that stretched across what is now the states of Dakotas, Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado.
"At 12, my services were in demand as a guide by emigrant prairie-schooner outfits, freighter trains, and by officers in command of U.S. Cavalry movements -- who were then making pioneer advancements across the vast regions to the west of the Missouri River, that year of 1868.
"Before I reached my 20th year my trails had crossed the Rio Grande, the Mobile, the sun-kissed land of the California Dons, and the Oregon Trail to the far Northwest. By then I had given up working for emigrant trains, freighter and stagecoach outfits, and the cattle trails in favor of service as scout, guide and courier-dispatch bearer in the service of the U.S. Military."
Sullivan goes on to relate how his duties "brought me into intimate contact with many men who were later destined to be hailed as great figures in American life." They included "Wild Bill" Hickok, Gen. George Armstrong Custer -- both killed in 1876 -- and "Buffalo Bill" Cody. The newspaper narrative continues:
"At Taos, New Mexico, I met Frederic Remington, whose realistic paintings of the West are known to all, and entered his employ as guide on a three-month trip into the Grand Canyon. ... Mr. Remington used me many times on this trip and later as his model in various poses afoot and ahorseback. In Philadelphia today, down on the Riverpark Driveway, may be seen a massive statue from Remington's painting The Cowboy, of which I was the model when he painted the picture in the '80s."
These were the twilight years for the cowboy, Sullivan continues, since the Indians were "pretty well subdued and rounded up on reservations; buffalo herds had disappeared; [and] the long drives of the big cattle herds were about finished, for the ranges had become well stocked with Texas cattle all the way to the Canada line ..."
It was show time. Sullivan's narrative continues:
"A group of men ... had tried a theater tour venture in the East and had met with great success [Sullivan goes on]. Ned Buntline introduced and popularized the long-haired Westerners through the medium of the dime-novels. This wave of of popular interest and the public demand for their appearance on the stages in the East opened for the cowboys a new and remunerative field of endeavor, and they were not slow in annexing the safest, most hilarious, and best-paying jobs they had ever had."
Sullivan said he turned down offers from Cody to join earlier stage ventures in 1881 and '82, choosing to stick with his job as a cavalry scout, but accepted in 1883 when the show went big-time as "The Wild West." (A subhead on the colorful posters proclaimed the show as Hon. W.F. Cody and Dr. W.F. Carver's Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition, but everyone called it simply "The Wild West.") Broncho John describes himself modestly as "one of the long-hair cowboy riders, ropers and shots throughout the entire tour of that first season."
After six months of constant squabbling, Cody and Carver decided to go their separate ways. It is said there were no profits to split, but they divided the stock and other property and Carver launched a show of his own the following spring.
"He [Carver] made me an attractive proposition and I agreed to join his outfit [Sullivan writes]. I was Dr. Carver's aide, and he placed me in charge of all cowboys, Indians and livestock. We carried about 35 Indians ... I was the only one who could handle them, as they had known me in their own country and trusted me."
Carver's show lasted only until early August, when it "went flat," in one editor's words, in Valparaiso. Sullivan assumed responsibility for the care of the Indians, first in Valpo and then in Chicago, until they could be returned to their reservations.
Twelve years later, in 1896, Sullivan published his memoirs under the title "Life and Adventures of the Original and Genuine Cowboys." The 40-page booklet tells a lot about cowboy life, but very little about Sullivan himself. He notes, for example, that cowboys favored flowing tresses not out of vanity but in the Samson-like belief that "long hair strengthens our sight and makes our hearing more acute." As for personal data, he says he's a native American, but doesn't say when or where he was born. He doesn't offer us his father's name, although he describes him as a scout for Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War who "saw 'Wild Bill's' famous escape when he ran the gauntlet across the Union lines unscathed through a fusillade of hundreds of minie-balls. "What does all this have to do with the Sullivans of Goshen, Indiana, and why is "Broncho John" a potential heir to a $100,000 estate in Lowell, Massachusetts, along with our grandfather and his sister? Lord knows.
A guess: The fathers of John H. Sullivan of Valparaiso and Jack Sullivan of Goshen may have been brothers, which would make the potential heirs first cousins. Both were born in 1856, although Broncho John swore in later years that he was born in 1859.
Moreover, Jack and Annie Sullivan named their third son, who was born in 1895, John H. Sullivan -- possibly in honor of a colorful long-haired cousin who had come to town with "Doc" Carver's Wild West Show. (Goshen lies about 45 miles east of Valparaiso and the show might well have played there first.)
My brother Ed thought the unresolved tale may have shed some light -- however faint and flickering -- on an offhand remark our Uncle Sully once made that "red-headed Uncle Danny ran off with an Indian princess from the carnival." Jack Sullivan's younger brother Daniel was born in 1863 and would have been 21 years old when the show came to town. If the show came to town.
Maybe Broncho John's wild west tribe was shy one Indian maiden when they returned to the reservation.
Prepared by Larry Sullivan, 1992
After years on the trail ...
I so like the ending of this tale that I refuse to change it to fit facts unearthed, one by one, in later years. Tradition is on my side, after all: Broncho John himself never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Besides, most of my shots in the dark were pretty much on target.
Broncho John was, indeed, the first cousin I suspected him to be. His own wild west show, launched in the spring of 1888, probably did make an appearance in Elkhart County -- most likely in the city of Elkhart, rather than the smaller town of Goshen -- and "red-headed Uncle Danny" certainly did perform with the troupe now and again as a singer and comic musician.
As for "Doc" Carver's Wild West coming to Goshen, that never happened. The show hit the road sometime in the spring of 1884 and played a few engagements in the East before coming to Indiana. They performed in Ft. Wayne, Indianapolis, and Columbus. Valparaiso was its fourth stop in the state -- and in Valpo the sheriff, holding a court order obtained by a disgruntled investor, closed down the show before even one shot could be fired.
Getting back to Broncho John, a 1962 newspaper article written as part of a historical series takes him back to Day One in the town of Valparaiso:
40 Destitute Indians
Stranded In Valparaiso
By THE STROLLER
On Aug. 5, 1884, the Fort Wayne night freight brought the livestock and 40 Indians belonging to the Dr. Carver Wild West show to Valparaiso. In two days the animals were shipped to a zoo, the Indians were being cared for by Mrs. Margaret Beer and her "Relief Committee," and the show was in the hands of the sheriff.
When the animals -- consisting of 12 horses, a lazy bear, a deer, two elk, two buffalo and two antelope -- arrived that night the two hostlers accompanying them put them in the railroad corral, and the station agent herded the Indians into the trackside stock yard.
he next morning a passenger train brought Dr. Carver, a dozen cowboys, a 16-piece Negro band, and a number of miscellaneous performers.
During the forenoon the livestock, the Indians, the band -- and all the show people, assembled at the fairgrounds.
There were 22 braves, 11 squaws, and nine children, some of the papoose category, in the Indian group. They were dressed in buckskin suits and colored headdresses. There were about 75 people in the show. Mess tent personnel fed them all at noon.
By 1 p.m. the customers began to arrive. The show had come with a good reputation. It had experienced some bad weather and was in financial difficulties -- but a long line of people waiting at the box office promised an improvement.
By 2 p.m. there were perhaps 500 people in the line and over $200 taken in. Everyone was happy. But by 2:15, just 15 minutes before the doors were to open, a Chicago attorney came and put an attachment on the money, the equipment and all the show property. The show was called off. A money-lender who had $5,000 in the show at 10%, was getting scared.
Dr. Carver told his musicians he couldn't pay them, so they'd better claim the instruments in lieu of salary. The show's attorney said the attachment couldn't affect the box office money for that had to be returned to the customers.
In the final sale of show property only the wild animals, six horses, a few saddles and an old stage coach were left to sell at auction. The whole outfit brought only $529.50. The money-lender got the $29.50 and the attorney got the $500 for his fee.
Nobody wanted the wild animals, so they were donated to a zoo. One elk escaped and headed for Washington township. The cowboys took their horses and saddles and left town -- all but one. He had no particular place to go. He wasn't broke by any means. He said he liked Valparaiso and would remain here until he got another engagement with a show. The Indians were sent back to the railroad yard. Dr. Carver returned to Chicago to see if he could re-finance the show.
The band played at the street corners and before the various saloons, until they collected enough money by hat-passing, to get back to Chicago.
The next afternoon the station agent came up town to tell the citizens that the Indians were destitute, had no food and were without shelter from the day's beating sun. Four of the children were sick.
little package of corn meal, a handful of rolled oats, and a bucket of water had been the only food the children had -- a cold-uncooked gruel. The men and women had nothing since the one noon-day meal at the time of the planned performance.
he lone cowboy got busy at once. He enlisted the services of Marshal Maxwell, Harry Stanton, and of the local ministers.
Mrs. Margaret Beer organized a Relief Committee. With the cowboy driving a light wagon, she and her committee solicited pigs' feet, soup bones, hearts and liver, and trimmings from the meat markets while other solicitors made the rounds of the bakeries asking for stale bread. From the grocers a bushel of potatoes and a sack of onions were obtained.
Mrs. Beer had supervised many a church supper and she knew how much it took to feed 40 people. In this case there was no knowing how long this group of stranded Indians would be on the Valparaiso charity rolls.
That afternoon -- with a cooking fire permitted by the fire department, and with a collection of tin dishes and kettles and cups -- those Indians had a grand stew. The first food they had eaten in two days.
Rev. Beer got in touch with the Chicago office of Winnebago Indian Affairs. The cowboy made a deal with the Salisbury & Sloan Skating Rink for a two-night benefit show, at which time the Indians would appear and give their several tribal dances. The town Marshall rounded up most of the colored headdresses that had been sold by the sheriff and returned them to the Indians.
The two-night show brought in a goodly sum -- for all the people in town were both anxious and distressed about this unfortunate company of Indians that had been permitted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to join the show and who were now utterly destitute.
The cowboy hunted up a local medicine woman named "Princess Viroqua" who had bought the old stage coach for $10 and gave her $15 for it. He took it down to the skating rink for the show.
Over in Washington township one of the Baums caught the escaped elk and came to town bringing it along meekly tethered to the end gate of the wagon. By the sheriff's orders it was sold to a local butcher -- and the money was donated to the Indians.
James McGill had a few rampaging steers he couldn't corral on his farm. He hired the cowboy to go out and rope them and the cowboy donated that payment to the Indians' fund also.
So after two more days of uncertain waiting there came word from the Indian Bureau to ship the Indians back to Chicago, at which point the agent would take charge.
And thus ended the engagement of Dr. Carver's Wild West show in Valparaiso.
Oh yes -- the lone cowboy who liked Valparaiso and decided to make it his home was named Broncho John Sullivan, a nationally known Wild West showman during some 60 years of his life. He died in Valparaiso in 1951, age 93 [sic], and is buried in Graceland Cemetery.
Broncho John was 92 years old at his death if 1859 was the correct year of his birth, as he claimed, or 95 years old if he actually had been born in 1856, as his memoirs indicate.
Other newspaper articles on file at the Valparaiso Public Library offer a sketchy outline of Broncho John's long life. Local historian George Neeley said he also found "solid evidence" in Sullivan's extensive personal files at the Porter County Historical Museum that Sullivan handled the shipping of livestock and meat from eastern seaboard ports to Liverpoool, England, prior to his show business career.
"Apparently in 1879, Sullivan moved a herd of cattle from Colorado to the East Coast and put them on a ship for England, sailing with them himself to oversee their safe arrival," Neeley told the Gary Post-Tribune in 1969. "He made similar voyages for the next four years, and, on subsequent trips, took excursions to the Holy Land, Ireland and to the continent of Europe."
That pilgrimage may be the source of "experiences" in Turkey and Russia to which newspaper editor A. J. Bowser refers in his introduction to Sullivan's memoirs.
Some personality traits -- strong-willed, gregarious, sober, daring, and perhaps a bit prudish -- can be inferred from some of the news items. Here's a sampling:
"A party consisting of six ladies and three gentlemen, mounted on mustang ponies, and under the guidance of Broncho John, passed through here last Tuesday on their way from Valparaiso to the sand hills in search of the festive huckleberry and the cooling lake breeze" -- item in Chesterton (IN) Tribune, 24 July 1890.
"Broncho John was his own press agent and his story lost nothing by his telling. In several press releases we find him born in six or more different places -- in a covered wagon in Arizona, at Ft. Kearney, at Ft. Omaha, on the prairie, and at other historic sites (even Goshen, Indiana)" -- from Valparaiso: A Pictorial History by George Neeley. Article adds that in 1930 Sullivan declared in a federal pension application that he was born 1 Jan 1859 at Providence, RI.
"In my youth I had always been intensely interested in all manner of wild life, and as my interest was purely friendly and protective there had been a certain reciprocity of understanding and peace between myself and all wild animals. ... For pets I had, at one time and another, wolves, bears, rattlers, deer, elk, eagles, wild-cat, mountain lion and buffalo" -- Broncho John, from his memoirs published in 1935.
"One day he showed me his book of autographs from famous army men, and distinguished Europeans he had met and served. I do not believe that book can be matched by anyone in America. It was a list of the Who's Who of the land" -- Valparaiso editor A. J. Bowser.
"To anyone who contemplates trying a season's riding [as a cowboy] I would say this: You will build up your constitution for life, you will meet rough fellows, hear hard swearing and see some fighting, but you will hear fewer indecent stories on the range than you will in the average club smoking room" -- Broncho John, from Life and Adventures of the Original and Genuine Cowboys, first published in 1896.
"He and his cowboys always tried to camp by running water so they could bathe and wash clothing. One man that went with the shows said Broncho would say, 'After working with horses and riding all day the people coming to see our show don't want to smell your sweat.' This gentleman told that he was a very decent person to work with and very strict that there was no swearing or foul language" -- from an undated booklet printed by the Porter County Historical Museum.
"Broncho John is a character, a type of the West now beginning to pass out of existence. In no sense is he a 'bad man,' but one of the cool, nervy men, with no worse vanity than Buffalo Bill's, that delight in stirring scenes and trying situations where their peculiar qualities make them indispensable" -- interview in Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 12 Jan 1900.
"It's hard to separate press agentry from fact in Broncho John's life, but one fact remains, he was a showman rated highly in those days, and his life, devoid of its theatrical exaggerations, would make an interesting book" -- former "Valpo Boy" A. W. Shinabarger in a 1956 interview.
Here is a rough and abbreviated chronology of Sullivan's later years:
Fall 1884 -- Leaves Valparaiso to join effort to round up Apaches in New Mexico and Arizona and force them back on their reservations
1887 -- Returns to Valparaiso, nursing wounds suffered in the Apache campaign
1887 -- Marries actress Mae Abbot Wallace (stage name Sylvia Bidwell) in Chicago
Spring 1888 -- Launches Valparaiso-based wild west show
Fall-winter 1888 -- Produces stage play, '49, or The Miner's Daughter
23 Jan 1891 -- Son John H. Sullivan Jr. born at Valparaiso
24 Aug 1893 -- Gives stage coach tours around Chicago during World's Fair
16 Aug 1897 -- Takes wild west show to Monticello, Illinois
April (?) 1898 -- In Tampa as train master for 4th Army in Spanish-American War
January (?) 1899 -- In Seattle as train master for 7th Army in Philippine Insurrection
12 Jan 1900 -- Interviewed by Seattle paper on recent return from the Philippines
20 Dec 1901 -- Visits relatives in Goshen en route back to Philippines
21 July 1902 -- Takes wild west show to Grand Rapids, Michigan
Fall 1902 -- Sues wife for divorce
24 Dec 1902 -- Wife's vaudeville show folds in Elkhart
9 April 1903 -- Divorce case comes up for hearing
22 July 1904 -- Takes wild west show to Hobart, Indiana
16 July 1908 -- Takes wild west show on Illinois tour
4 March 1909 -- Attends Taft inauguration as aide to grand marshal J. F. Bell
17 May 1911 -- Breaks leg in stage coach accident at season-opening parade
20 May 1911 -- Wild west show erupts in riot at Hobart
6 Dec 1911 -- 24 May 1911 -- Takes wild west show to Whiting, Indiana
11 Feb 1913 -- Gives talk at Chesterton, Indiana, High School
25 Aug 1916 -- Lends stage coach to Michigan City, Indiana, for parade
1933-34 -- Joins son Texas Jack in "Days of '49" show at Chicago Exposition
25 Sep 1936 -- Gives talk on western lore with son Texas Jack at Chesterton
18 Oct 1936 -- Escapes nighttime fire at Valpo home
24 Sep 1951 -- Dies at age 92 or 95
Broncho John's name was not found in any reference books on Buffalo Bill or his Wild West show, but brothers John and Patrick Sullivan, both train engineers living at North Platte, Nebraska, were involved in transporting the show and fans during the initial 1883 season. There is no reason to believe they were related to us.
A biographical sketch in a Porter County history says Broncho John's failed marriage produced two sons, Clarence and John Harrington Sullivan Jr. (Texas Jack), both of whom preceded their father in death. Clarence, however, turned out to be May's son from an earlier marriage. After John and May's divorce, Clarence was raised by May's parents in Chicago and took the name Clarence Byron Bidwell.
Survivors named in "Bronco John's" the obit included a brother Neil and a sister Susan, both living in Boston. When Broncho John went East in 1911 to seek a job with the Army, he visited people in Boston named Sadie, Francis, Neil and Josie, who might have been his brothers and sisters.
Texas Jack died November 10, 1937, at a Nashville hospital of complications from an accidental gunshot wound in the left thigh. He was 46 years old. Obit shows mother and brother still living. There was no police report of the shooting, which had occurred six weeks earlier, and neither of Nashville's two newspapers printed the story. Death report lists his occupation as gun dealer, and other newspaper accounts tell of him regularly giving gun-handling demonstrations before audiences of police officers. These clues lead me to suspect Texas Jack accidentally shot himself in the leg demonstrating how quick he was on the draw.
Given his tendency to move about the world, it's unlikely any census enumerator ever caught Broncho John before 1910. However, there was a John Sullivan listed in 1880 at Rawlins, Carbon County, WY, which is just west of the city of Laramie. Sullivan's memoirs, published in 1935 in Vidette-Messenger, tells of getting a letter from Buffalo Bill Cody in 1883 inviting him to join a new Wild West show and making "the long trip ahorseback from Fort Laramie" to Cody's ranch at North Platte, NE. (Caution: Fort Laramie and the city of Laramie are not close to each other, and neither is situated in Laramie County, the county seat of which is the state capital of Cheyenne. And none of these Laramies ever was in Carbon County.)
Prepared by Larry Sullivan