March 2, 2012

Did Soapy Smith work as a cowboy in Canada?

Who in hell do you think wins?

Jim Lynch left the following message on the Soapy Smith Discussion Forum.
"Jeff, I ran across this in a Canadian local history book called The Leaves from the Medicine Tree, it's online.In it it says that Soapy lived and worked in Canada as a man named Jim Johnson, a refined man from a southern state. He is listed in the section called desperadoes along with Sundance."
I responded back to Jim telling him I would check it out and here is what I found. The book is entitled, Leaves from the Medicine Tree, published in 1960 by the High River Pioneers' and Old Timers Association in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. The book is advertised as "a history of the area influenced by the tree, and biographies of pioneers and oldtimers who came under its spell prior to 1900," and can be found at the Our Roots - Nos Racines (Canada's Local Histories Online) website.

Part four, The Cattle and the Cowmen, was "researched" and written by Bert Sheppard. Unfortunately Mr. Sheppard did not include footnotes or provenance. The part that is of interest to this blog is on pages 257-58, posted here for your enjoyment.
The next outfit to start up was the HL (monogram). They located south of the Bar U. Lord Castleton was one of the shareholders, as well as being a shareholder in the Northwest Cattle Company. These men were Irishmen. Godfrey Levinge ran the place. They bought their first cattle from Emerson and Lynch, who sold them their entire herd. In 1885 they bought a bunch from Sewell and McGinnis, that came in on the railroad from British Columbia. It was on the HL ranch during the hard winter of 1886 and ’87 that a spirit thermometer froze up at seventy-two below zero.

The Desperadoes

While most of the people that came into the country were good, solid citizens, it was only natural that there were some that were not. If things got a little hot for anyone south of the Border, it was sometimes convenient to hire with a trail herd that was going across the Medicine Line. The authorities on the American side were usually quite content to let sleeping dogs lie, as long as they did not return, and no questions were asked in the Territories as long as they behaved.

In 1884 Emmerson and Lynch brought in a trail herd of two thousand head. Some of these were sold to the Quorn and the balance to the Military Colonization Company. A very able cowman who went by the name of Joe Johnson was a trail boss.

Johnson was a very dignified Southerner, well educated, a first class roper and very handy with a six-gun. Incidently [sic] he had pretty nearly been shot to pieces in various gunfights. He wore a neatly trimmed black beard and was careful of his appearance. Although he was well liked, people took care to treat him with respect.

He got a winter job with the Bar U hauling out logs with a bull team of six bulls. The summer of 1884 he ran the Bar U wagon, left that fall and went to the Oxley as foreman. In 1885 he ran the Oxley wagon. The winter of 1885 and ’86 found him running the hotel in High River, which he rented from Buck Smith. He left the country in 1886. Herb Millar saw him in Vancouver some years later on his way to Alaska to participate in the spoils of the Yukon Gold Rush. Some people believe he was “Soapy” Smith, the notorious outlaw, who after nearly taking over Alaska, was killed in a gunfight with vigilantes on Skagway Wharf.

I do not know where Mr. Sheppard learned of the theory that Joe Johnson was Soapy but there are some holes in the story.
  • I can't really say much about the name of "Joe Johnson." We know that Soapy's birth name is Jefferson Randolph Smith II but if he had crossed the border into Canada he could have used an alias name. We know he did so when he was arrested in Juneau, Alaska in 1896 and surely that was not the first time.
  • History shows that Soapy was never a cowboy as often described in older biographies of his life. Those early biographies put the cowboy years between 1876-80, well before the 1884-86 time period described in Canada. In 1884 Soapy was traveling around cities in the United States following the fair routes working his prize package soap sell racket. The short con was very successful. Far too successful for Soapy to abandon it, cross the border and accept the low wages of a cowboy. By 1885 the con man was deeply embedded inside the criminal world of Denver and gained the alias of "Soapy" by the newspapers.
  • Mr. Sheppard states that "If things got a little hot for anyone south of the Border, it was sometimes convenient to hire with a trail herd that was going across the Medicine Line." While this may be true, there is no evidence Soapy ever crossed the border into Canada during his lifetime. As I stated earlier, in 1884 he was traveling around cities within the US working short cons. Although what he was doing was criminal in nature many of the cities did not recognize his short con sales rackets as any sort of swindle. In fact, in each city and town he applied for, and received a city business license or permit as a street vendor. In many of the locations he stayed just a few days and moved on to the next town on his list. Complaints of being swindled by his victims were most likely dropped by the victim and shunned by the local lawmen, once it was learned that Soapy was no longer within city limits. Being taken for $30 by a bunco man was hardly a reason to form an investigation, or even a posse to hunt down Soapy Smith. The point is that there is little reason Soapy would have needed to cross over the border into Canada.     
It may not be a true story but I love these folk-tales just the same!

~A big thank you to Jim Lynch for informing me of this interesting story~

Jeff Smith


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Thank you for leaving your comment and/or question on my blog. I always read, and will answer all questions left here. Please know that they are greatly appreciated. -Jeff Smith