The Widow Viles

Carrie Viles

Carrie Winsor Viles Blonger Hume

We’ve long known that Joe’s only marriage to widow Carrie (Winsor) Viles didn’t last long. A new article from the Albuquerque Daily Citizen, by way of the Las Vegas Optic, colorfully describes just how short it was.


Couple Were Married in Room Thirteen of a Hotel.

The Pecos Valley Correspondent of the Las Vegas Optic says:

Thirteen is a sure unlucky number. Some time about the middle of April Joseph Blonger, an old miner and a Grand Army man of Santa Fe, led to the hymeneal altar in the Plaza hotel at Santa Fe, Mrs. C. A. Viles. The solemn obligation that bound them together as man and wife was performed in room 13.

Hardly two moons had passed over the fair contracting parties till Blonger concluded it was a good deal more economical and not near so hard work to hold down a miner’s cabin, so he gathered up his bed, bid the fair bride of less than sixty days good by and again picked up the pick and shovel, departed for Cerrillos and gave all his right, title, and “herediments” back to the fair one, shook the dust of the Pecos from his feet anl [sic] left.

Albuquerque Daily Citizen
July 16, 1902

This is of particular interest in that we have recently been corresponding with Carrie’s grand niece, Sara Winsor Johnson (no relation to us).

Sara informs us that Carrie is remembered in the Winsor family as something of a dingbat. Sara’s grandfather recalled having to bail her out after her first husband died, and then when she and Joe split up. When her third husband, Ben Hume, died, she was on her own.  For what it’s worth, Joe is recalled as the best of her three husbands. Not sayin’ much, I guess.

According to Sara, the Winsor family — Windsor in some branches — can trace its roots back to William the Conqueror, and first came to these shores in 1638. Carrie, if I recall, was born in Vermont, just like all the Blongers.

As for those “herediments,” the story is a confusing one.

In March of 1892, Joe traveled far up the Pecos valley, north of Cowles, NM, to a place still barely accessible today. There he claimed 160 acres straddling the Pecos River as a homestead. (Just days later Sam and Lou would strike it big on the Forest Queen claim on Ironclad Hill, outside of Cripple Creek.)

Joe then went on to prospect in Colorado, Nevada, and Cochiti, north of Albuquerque. This is curious considering that a homestead claim must be occupied and developed to be retained. So how could Joe claim a homestead, and yet continue his itinerant ways?

In June of 1895, Carrie’s first husband, Charles Viles, passed away, and three months later she purchased Joe’s 160 acres. In 1896 she had a small cabin built.

In 1897 Joe was in Bonanza, and he bought property in Santa Fe. Carrie bought an additional piece of land in the Pecos valley. Then, in January of 1898, Joe finally recorded his 160 acre homestead.

In August Joe shot and killed Alexander Allan, operator of the Bottom Dollar Mine in the Cerrillos Hills, after Allan brandished a gun and threatened to kill Joe’s fellow miner Silas Smith with a rock. His trial was December 22, 1898, and he was acquitted.  About that time Carrie sold 140 acres of the land.

Joe continued mining around Cerrillos and Santa Fe. Then, in 1902, he finally married Carrie.

Less than three months later, they divorced, and Joe went back to the desert mountains of Cerrillos. The question then becomes, did they marry to somehow settle the rights to the land? Was Joe just doing Carrie a favor? Or was it truly love gone bad?

As for the land itself, it was eventually developed it into a dude ranch known as Mountain View.  In the late Seventies it was bought by the government, and is now just a meadow.

Mountain View

Mountain View Ranch

The Mark Inside on WILL

Sounds like Amy Reading will be doing another interview about The Mark Inside, this time in our old stomping ground, Urbana, on WILL-AM, the local NPR affiliate. Listen in on April 25th, or check it out afterward on the net.

Amy says her recent interview on NPR’s Saturday Edition was much longer than what was broadcast, and discussion of Lou got cut. Oh well. The WILL interview should be an hour, I’m thinking, so it should be well worth a listen.

Great New Photos

Amy Reading came up with a few photos for her book that are new to us. These two photos, for instance, of Blonger gang members Adolph Duff and George Belcher.

Adolph Duff

Kid Duffy didn't realize it was picture day

“Kid Duffy” managed the big store for Lou; as a matter of fact, Lou tried to throw him under the bus at trial, claiming they mostly just shared an office.

George Belcher

Tip wishes he'd gotten that haircut

“Tip” Belcher was the Blonger gang’s muscle, on hand when the touch came to make sure the money was safe even if the swindle went south.

I’m guessing both these photos were taken the day of the arrest, maybe even in the church basement that was used as a makeshift jail. Neither man seems yet reconciled to his fate.

This next one is “Big Joe” Furey, the leader of the gang that took rancher J. Frank Norfleet for $45,000. Furey worked Denver during the summer under Lou’s protection, but he could be found across the country, from California to Texas to New York to Florida, working the same game. I have long wondered what he looked like, but always thought he had the greatest name among a host of great monikers.

Joe Furey

Big Joe Furey looking dapper

Finally there’s this photo of Lou. We already had version, but this one is much better.

Lou Blonger

Another mugshot of Lou

Amy Reading on NPR

Amy more than held her own with Scott Simon last Saturday. You can listen in here:

True, she didn’t get around to Lou (it was only a seven minute segment), but we forgive her. Great job, Amy!

We’ll have more to say on her book, The Mark Inside, soon.

The Mark Inside

Looks like Lou will be coming soon to an NPR station near you.

The Mark Inside

Author Amy Reading will be on Weekend Edition with Scott Simon this coming Saturday, March 24th, to talk about her new book The Mark Inside (Random House Digital, Inc.).

For what it’s worth, she will also be on a Denver noontime TV news show on Wednesday (don’t have the details), and signing books at Boulder Bookstore on Thursday, March 22, at 7:30. 

Reading’s book focuses on Texas rancher Frank Norfleet’s quest to bring every member of the Furey gang to justice after they swindled him — twice — for a total of some $45,000. That would be some half-million bucks today. In the end his obsession brought him to Denver, then the epicenter of the American con, just in time to help Philip Van Cise spring his trap and bring down Lou’s machine in flames. District Attorney Van Cise convinced Norfeet to reprise his role as a sucker to help gather information on Lou’s Denver operation.

We first heard from Amy back in 2009, when her research led her to our site. In time she shared a few interesting items with us, including a depostion by Lou where he tries desperately to distance himself from his Big Store manager Adolph Duff.

My copy of the book is currently enroute, but Scott has had a look, and he is very suitably impressed — as is David Mamet, I might add, who wrote “Most scholarship reads like a trip to the dentist. The Mark Inside reads like a trip to the track.” Amy has really gone through the Denver archives with a fine-toothed comb, something we still hope to manage someday.

We will have more to say later; we justed wanted to give folks a heads up for this week’s interview.

Killer Kate Blonger Apprehended at Last!

Killed By a Woman

Back in 2003, one of the very first items we found when we began searching the Internet was an article about a prostitute by the name of Kitty Blonger. On February 22, 1888, in the mining town of Peach Springs, AT, Kitty was arrested for the murder of blacksmith Charles Hill.

It became clear early on that the name Blonger was (and remains) nearly unique to the five male sons of Simon Belonger who went west, and their families. None of them have known living descendants. So who was Kitty? A wife? Marriage records beg to differ. A daughter? The evidence suggests otherwise. So who was she?

That morning in 1888 Charles Hill, a family man, became enraged when he found his favorite prostitute in bed with another man – a tinhorn gambler, no less, who they called “Kid” Fay. Hill thus proceeded to bash in the door of Kitty’s room in the rear of Somerset’s saloon, and to give the Kid a sound thrashing.

According to court testimony, Kitty then produced a pistol, and shot old Charlie Hill in the head. Reeling backward, Hill fell through the doorway and into the hall, his brains spilling across the floor. Within moments, other patrons of the saloon rushed to the scene to find Kitty, gun in hand, saying “He broke my door open and I killed him, and I don’t allow no son of a bitch to break my door.”

Kitty and Fay were both arrested, and she was nearly lynched. A few days later they were both in Kingman awaiting trial.

Lou Steps Up

Which brings us to our next clue, discovered some months later. Shortly after Kitty’s arrival in Kingman, the local paper reports that one L. Blonger, of San Bernardino, California, had arrived in town. Until this moment, we had toyed with the idea that Kitty, sometimes called Kate, might be Joe’s common-law wife; Joe was a bachelor for most of his life. We couldn’t rule it out. But suddenly Lou seemed the more likely candidate for some kind of romantic link to Kitty.

Kid Fay

Dayton M. “Kid” Fay was the son of prominent Prescott publisher Artemis Fay, and the young gambler’s legal counsel, E. M. Sanford, esq., was suitably top notch. In fact, in short order the court moved to “ignore” Fay’s case, and he went free.

Though Kitty had a rougher time, she did, somehow, manage to retain Fay’s attorneys. After three days of testimony the judge instructed the jury to return a verdict of not guilty, and they complied.

Kitty, only the second woman in Arizona to be tried for murder, was remarkably composed throughout the trial, but on hearing the verdict she broke down and began to weep uncontrollably. Before leaving the courthouse, she told a reporter that she was going back east to the bosom of her family. This was not to be.

But who paid for Kitty’s hot shot lawyer? Fay’s father? Did Sanford take the case Pro Bono? Or had Lou come to Kitty’s rescue? And if he did, what was his motivation?


About a year later, a research trip to New Mexico turned up more clues. An article in the Albuquerque Evening Citizen, dated to the time of Kitty’s trial, mentioned in passing that Kitty was a “sporting woman formerly of this city.” Sam and Lou, of course, were in Albuquerque in 1882 — that was the subject of our trip to that city.

Then we found an article from September of 1882 describing an altercation between Lou and a companion, a bartender and gas balloonist who went by the name of “Professor” Park Van Tassel. On a visit to a local house of ill repute, the well-lubricated “aeronaut” happened to say something to the madam of the house that Lou deemed inappropriate. Lou showed his displeasure by pistol-whipping his friend, twice, knocking him to the floor, and then tossing his cocked gun to Van Tassel’s chest, muttering “You son of a bitch, you can’t talk to my woman that way.” The house, the news reiterated, was run by “Blonger’s woman” — thus all but declaring Lou a pimp.

For his part, Marshal Sam Blonger was never mentioned in connection with this whorehouse on Fourth Street, though he probably didn’t need to be. In fact, though the Blongers are often described as having a long history of offering sex for sale as well as liquor and gambling, hard evidence to that effect is scant. The Albuquerque episode is the only connection we have ever found between the Blongers and a particular brothel.

Mollie Blonger

About this same time, we learned from historian Chuck Hornung that hookers often took (and take, I suppose) the surname of their pimp – and maybe a new first name to boot, for good measure. That would explain a lot. Kitty had been part of Lou’s “stable” in Albuquerque, and had taken his name has her own. By 1888 she had drifted to Peach Springs, no doubt under the wing of some other pandering barkeep.

In fact, another article found on the same outing, coincidentally dated just two days after the conclusion of Kitty’s trial, indicated that one Mollie Blonger had just been detained in Albuquerque for “maintaining a nuisance” — legalese for running a brothel. Now we were wondering just how many soiled doves named Blonger were going to turn up. By 1888 both Sam and Lou had long been married (Sam since 1866, Lou since 1882), and yet there were still these women, popping up here and there, still going by the Blonger name years later as they continued to ply their trade across the Mountain West. I would point out that this could strain a marriage, but if being a pimp doesn’t strain a marriage, I don’t know what would.

While it was tempting to suggest that Kitty was “Lou’s woman,” the existence of Mollie emphasized that this was still an open question. Adding to the confusion, Lou got married for the first time late that year, in San Francisco, to a girl named Emma Loring. Might Emma also be Kate or Mollie? Or another girl from the house? Nothing to support that. Likewise we couldn’t confirm Lou was the romantic link to Kitty, though his connection to the brothel, coupled with his presence at the trial in Kingman, did seem to suggest it. In fact, I was certain of it.

Our only other clues were two dead letters addressed to Kitty, one in Aspen in 1889, and one in Deadwood in 1893. It looked as though Killer Kate had gone underground, never to be seen again.

And then, just a few days ago, a break in the case.

Mrs. Domedion

Denver Post, October 21, 1893, front page, center column. Two US Deputy Marshals are in hot water; charged with transporting a prisoner from Denver to Philadelphia, the suspect’s wife had boarded in Chicago, and the couple had gone AWOL upon arriving in Pennsylvania. The assumption was that the wife had boarded with a satchel full of cash, and the cops had looked the other way at an opportune moment.

Of more interest to us was the assertion that one of the marshals, Davis by name, had taken along a companion, a woman by the name of Kate Blonger. Interesting. And she was known around town by other names as well. In fact, it was as Mrs. Hank Domedion that she reportedly ran a “rooming house” on Curtis.

Adding insult to injury, the Post asserted that by virtue of Marshal Davis’ address, Kate was the deputy’s landlady to boot, and that “by reason of his handsome face, manly form and official position,” he had become “the star boarder of the Chicago block.”

Naturally we found the story entertaining; we’re as curious about Kitty as we are about any of the Belonger boys, and it was good to get a bead on her once again. But there was something familiar about the name Domedion; Scott and I both thought we’d come across it before.

Sam In Love

Upon Sam’s return from the West after the Civil War, he married Ella Livingston of Mt. Carroll, Illinois, the sixteen-year-old sister of Lou’s army buddy William. As far as we can tell, Ella – and her extended family – then traveled along with Sam and Lou as they relocated, once a year, like clockwork, from Iowa to Salt Lake City, where they had their first saloon, to Stockton and Dry Canyon, Virginia City, Cornucopia, Tuscarora and Silver Reef, following the booms, prospecting some, and running their various saloons and gambling halls – and, I suppose, brothels. Did “the girls” follow from town to town as well?

Then finally the gang landed in Denver, in the year 1879. Though they seem to have spent a fair amount of time in Georgetown, where they had a theater, and Leadville, where they had mining claims, and Sam even ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor, at that point Denver was a home of sorts, and it appeared they might settle in for the long haul.

But for whatever reason, the boys soon got hungry again, for the road and adventure and opportunity, and they were gone by the end of 1881, to Albuquerque, a new brothel, and a sweet new gig as town marshal for Sam. Ella remained behind in Denver, with their two children, Mable and Frank. Lou’s wife Emma was apparently MIA.

After Albuquerque, Lou wandered south to Deming, and by 1885 he was running a saloon in San Bernardino, California. Sam was running horses here and there, and otherwise hanging around Aspen.

Then, in 1888, Sam and Lou finally reunited in Denver, anxious to see what they could make of themselves in this burgeoning western metropolis – and their wives weren’t invited to the party. Within a year they were both divorced, Lou claiming the elusive Emma Loring had abandoned him.

Curiously, both remarried within weeks. Lou married Cora (Nola) Lyons, an actress, so they say, and they would stay together – despite Lou’s twenty-year affair with mistress Iola Readon, aka Blanche Blonger.

Sam, on the other hand, married Mrs. Sadie Wilson, twenty days after his divorce. And just four years later she would divorce him, on grounds of extreme cruelty. Several savage beatings were recounted in the news. An Albuquerque paper decried the crude and dangerous man that Denver had made of Marshal Sam.

And yet, shortly thereafter, Sam married Virginia Pierrepont, widow of a local fireman – though by doing so he apparently reneged on yet another promise of matrimony to one Jesse Wheat, who sued Sam for $25,000. Sam and Virginia remained together until Sam’s death in 1914.

Alias Sadie Wilson

Sadie remarried too, as it turns out, to a saloon owner by the name of Henry J. Domedion — but folks just called him Hank.

Yes, Kate “Kitty” Blonger was Mrs. Hank Domedion. And Sam’s second wife Sadie Wilson would later marry Henry J. Domedion. The circle was complete; Sam was the link. In fact, their relationship may have been longstanding even at the time of Sam’s divorce from Ella in 1889, maybe even causing the split.

Our Story So Far

Mrs. Sadie Wilson, maiden name unknown, was a prostitute for Sam and Lou back in 1882, and she shot Charles Hill in 1888. She married Sam in 1889 after breaking up his marriage, and then divorced him four years later when she could no longer tolerate his cruelty. She then married another barkeep, and by 1903 she was involved with a crooked US Marshal.

That about sums it up. Kate/Kitty/Sadie has suddenly become a much more important figure in what has already turned out to be a sweeping drama.

Joe Finally Shows His Face

Well, new information has been scant in recent months, but yesterday Scott turned on the spigot. Several new items from are now in the pipe, and one in particular that solves a longstanding mystery.

But first, since we were just talking about him behind his back, let’s briefly get back to Little Big Joe Blonger.

For what it’s worth, I feel a particular bond with Joe, the worn out old scout and prospector, and I’ve always been disappointed I couldn’t put a face to the character I’ve spent so much with over the last few years.

Frankly, Joe’s position in this story particularly lends itself to the duties of the narrator, and I sorely wanted to be able to see the man telling his stories, hopefully with a visage worthy of Eastwood, or HBO, at least.

Nevertheless, I was fully prepared that we might never find a photograph. I was incorrect. The following is from the Denver Post, September 13, 1912. I give you Uncle Joe Blonger.

 Joe Blonger

Isn’t he cute? He’s exactly what I would want from a genial old prospector.

Of course, we knew about the bullet, from an AP wire service article just two sentences in length, from the Armstrong account, and Joe’s pension records. But this article was long enough to answer another question, about Joe’s service with the 25th Michigan Infantry. Had Joe returned to service after his wound, possibly accompanying Sherman on his march to the sea?

Though he did muster out with his regiment, it sounds as though he did not return to action after his injury. It’s also interesting to hear that, despite chronic discomfort, Joe feared the surgeons more, and opted to stick with his little lead companion.

Grandpa Mike

For those of you who are unfamiliar with our website and version 1.0 of our blog, we’re starting out by taking a brief look at each of the Blonger brothers. In that spirit, let’s continue with great-great-grandpa Mike Belonger.

Mike and his daughter Clara

Mike and his daughter Clara

Born in 1841, Mike was the only brother of six that never adopted the Blonger spelling. He was also the only brother with living descendants – no surprise given he had nine daughters and a son, though his son was childless. Mike’s daughter Mary begat our grandfather, Orville Braley, whose daughter Charlotte June is our mother.

Mike’s primary claim to fame seems to be his talent with a fiddle. According to family lore, the famed Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, who toured the Wisconsin backwoods on several occasions, is said to have noted that “Mike Belonger has the world beat when it comes to playing reels, jigs, and clogs, on a fiddle.” Kudos to Mike for being an early proponent of World Beat music.

What’s more, Mike also had a fan in future president Ulysses S. Grant, who is said to have thought him “the best dance-fiddler on earth.” While this may seem to be a stretch, it’s more plausible than it sounds. Prior to the Civil War, Grant – already considered a hero of the Mexican-American War – was having a tough time in civilian life, and eventually went to work in his father’s leather goods store in Galena, Illinois, just a stone’s throw from the Belonger homestead in southern Wisconsin.

Mike's Fiddle

Mike's fiddle


The back of Mike's fiddle


With the outbreak of war, Mike was one of the first to enlist, joining Company I of the 3rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry on May 8, 1861. After training on a hilltop perched above the family homestead, Mike soon found himself bound for Maryland.

The 3rd Wisconsin had a distinguished record, and we assume Mike played his part. The 3rd began its service by arresting the Maryland Legislature in September of 1861.

But here the record becomes a bit more mysterious.

In March of 1862 the 3rd made its way into the Shenandoah Valley to confront Stonewall Jackson, but the Federal plan went awry and Mike was among those routed in the First Battle of Winchester. This is from Mike’s service pension file:

“While in said service, and in the line of his duty as a soldier, at Culpepper Courthouse, Va., or near there, in August or September, 1862, the command in which he was, was cut off from communication with its base of supplies, and for want of food & nourishment he was for several days nearly starved, by reason of which he incurred disease of heart and rheumatic affection of the entire left side. For this disease he was taken to Columbia College hospital in September or October, 1862, where he remained until about the first of January, 1863. He was removed from said Hospital to Convalescent Camp at Alexandria, Va., from which he was discharged.”

The dates here, fuzzy at best, are critical. Was Mike relieved of duty after Winchester? Did he later fight with his company at Cedar Mountain, or Second Bull Run? More to the point, did he make it to the infamous cornfield at Antietam? Of 335 men in 3rd Wisconsin Infantry, over half (173) were wounded and 27 were killed at Sharpsburg.

Mike’s record only muddies the waters.

Mar. 10, 1886, Surgeon’s certificate recommending a total pension: “That he first noticed a severe pain in his heart at battle of Antietam, Vir. 1862. He was sent to hospital where he remained over 6 weeks.”

Okay. Grandpa Mike did his bit, and fought side by side with his Shullsburg buddies at one of the most horrific skirmishes in the history of American warfare. Other medical entries don’t contradict this conclusion.

Sept., 1862, Surgeon’s certificate recommending a pension: “Claims he incurred disease of the heart from exposure, hunger & hard marching in summer & fall of ’62 near Winchester, Va. He once marched 35 miles in 5 hours & again marched 3 days without a mouthful of food. Was disabled & sent to a hospital at Washington for 2 or 3 weeks & discharged on account of disability.”

Oct. 1862, Company Muster Roll: “absent sick in hospital since Sept. 20/62 place unknown”

But not so fast. Later records seem to disagree.

Dec. 1862, Company Muster Roll: “absent sick in hospital place unknown since Sept. 15 1862”

That’s two days before Antietam.

Dec., 1886, Affidavit of Michael Belonger protesting reduction in pension: “I received my breast trouble during Banks’ retreat from Winchester. I was sent from Culpepper to the hospital at Washington with the same trouble in my breast. It was Columbia College hospital, from there I was sent to Convalescent hospital near Alexandria, and was discharged as I believe for my breast trouble.”

That would be back in May, even before Cedar Mountain.

June 20, 1888, Surgeon’s certificate recommending a total pension: “In 1862 at Williamsburg, Virg., got disease of heart, later was sent to Columbia College hospital, there about 6 weeks. On his request to be sent Regiment he was sent away [sic]. Did not find Reg and was sent to Convalescent Camp in Md. and was discharged 10 days after.”

This is even stranger. Williamsburg should probably be Winchester. And what is meant by “later sent to Columbia…” Before Antietam? After? It’s also curious to hear that he both requested to return to duty, and that he was unsuccessful in doing so.

Mar. 23, 1890, Surgeon’s certificate recommending a 10/18 pension: “Contracted heart disease near Winchester, Va., on Gen. Banks retreat – did not go to hospital then but did in September November following and remained there until discharged for disability in January 1863.”

Jan. 28, 1891, Surgeon’s certificate recommending a 12/18 pension: “Contracted heart disease summer of 62 in Va. near Winchester not in hospital at that time afterward in Columbia College hospital – for six weeks – then went into Convalescent Camp and discharged on account of disability.”

These entries suggest that Mike was not immediately relieved of duty after Winchester. Currently I’m inclined to believe that Mike fought on after Winchester, even as his condition worsened over the summer of 1862. Perhaps the stress of battle at Antietam finally sent him over the edge.

Then again, from time to time I change my mind and find myself dubious that he ever fought again after Bank’s retreat across the Potomac.

Or maybe Mike just had a bad case of diarrhea.

Dec., 1893, Surgeon’s certificate making no recommendation: “Had diarrhoea in Va. in 1862, September went to Col. College Hospt., Wash. D.C., & has left me with chronic constipation.”

In any case, Mike returned home to Shullsburg, where he married and raised a family, and remained there rest of his life. We have heard his doctor prescribed two bottles of wine a day to ease his pain, and Mike complied.

Mike died in 1924, not long after Lou, leaving Joe the last of the Blonger brothers.

Little Big Joe

Now let’s talk about Joe, the Quiet One, the Lone Prospector, Joe Straight-Tongue.

Born in 1847, Joe was eight years Sam’s junior, and two years older than Lou.

Joe enlisted in the 125th Michigan Infantry just shy of his fifteenth birthday. The 125th saw more than its share of action in the Civil War, including the siege of Atlanta, and Sherman’s march to the sea.

Joe was shot at Atlanta, the minie ball passing through his arm and into his chest. We don’t know how long he was in recovery, but he did manage to hang on until the war was over, mustering out with the rest of his regiment at the end of the war. By then he had the rank of Seventh Corporal.

The bullet was never recovered, but was located by Joe’s physician in 1912.

Joe Belonger wound drawing

Joe Blonger's war wound. Note final location of bullet under ribcage.


After the Civil War, Joe went back to the Midwest for a while before succumbing to the gold bug. He is reported to have joined his brothers in Salt Lake City in 1873, and by 1875 he was in a mining camp in California.

After this, he doesn’t reappear until 1879, when he finally showed up in the Cerrillos Hills of New Mexico. Notwithstanding the occasional prospecting trip to California or Colorado, Joe would be digging in the New Mexico hills for years to come.

Joe's mines in the Cerrillos Hills

Joe's mines in the Cerrillos Hills


The Western Blongers were many things, but perhaps most of all they were mining men.  Simon, Sam, Joe, Lou, Marvin — all made their living to one extent or another by pulling precious metal from the ground. And Joe, perhaps most of all, was the quintessential Western prospector.

Which makes the stories Joe told all the more intriguing.

Back in the 1920s, on his rare visits back to Wisconsin, Joe apparently regaled his extended family with tales of the Wild West. His nephew, Gene Swinbank, never forgot those stories, and committed some to paper. Others he shared with his grand-niece, some thirty-five years after the fact, and she wrote an essay on the subject.

Both accounts make extravagant claims about Sam, but Armstrong, in particular, saves most of the glory for Joe himself.

From Armstrong:

The most adventurous of all the Belonger men was Joe. Joe, a quiet, soft-spoken man who bothered no one, was a dangerous man to rile up. Joe shot and killed two men who tried to kill him. One was a hard-boiled desperado, and the other a close relative of Chief Cochise, the famous Apache leader. The young warrior, in war paint and feathers, was about to shoot an arrow into Joe, when Joe, snapping a shot from the hip, killed the Indian, then dragged the body and the riding gear to a nearby quicksand, dumped it all in and turned the horse loose. If they had known who killed the young Indian, Joe Belonger wouldn’t have lived very long.

We have yet to place Joe in Arizona, and even if we could, we’ll still likely never know what happened to Joe out in the desert. He does, though, have more to say on the subject.

For years Joe Belonger was a lone gold prospector to the Arizona and California deserts. He knew and had the friendship of all the Apaches, including Cochise and Mangus Colorado — and even the treacherous Geronimo, the most feared of all the Apaches. Many times in his lone desert camps parties of Apache Indians would stop and eat beans and bacon with him, and they always brought him plenty of fresh-killed meat. The Apaches called him Joe Straight Tongue because he never lied to an Indian.

At one time, Joe Belonger saved, single handed, a new settlement of 200 white people from massacre by Geronimo’s outlaw band. Joe, alone and at the risk of capture and unspeakable torture, crept in darkness near enough to Geronimo’s camp to hear the plans of the proposed raid upon the whites. At that time all the Apaches in the Southwest were on the warpath and had sworn death to all whites.

Joe, again risking capture, made his way over a mountain to the camp of his friend, Chief Cochise, who, by using Joe’s scheme, persuaded Geronimo to wait four suns before raiding the settlement, till he (Cochise) received an expected message from the Great Spirit. That was Joe’s clever ruse to hold off the massacre till the soldiers got there.

Joe always said that Cochise and Mangus Colorado were the best friends the white every had among the Apaches until certain arrogant white soldiers disgraced both the United States and their army uniforms by committing unpardonable acts of wanton cruelty against the reds which turned the two friendly chiefs and thousands of other Indians into ruthless white-man killers.

On one visit back to his old home in Shullsburg, Wisconsin, in 1927, Joe Belonger said, regarding Geronimo, the most deadly white-man-killer among all the Apaches: “In spite of all the cruelty of his Apache make up, it is only fair to say that many times when I was the only white man among a horde of red outlaws, Geronimo and his warriors treated me with respect. I could leave any of my belongings — even money, if I wanted to, in plain sight in the wickiup assigned to me, and not one Apache stole anything. And yet, maybe that very night parties of Geronimo’s warriors would go out raiding and steal many horses, mules, or cows, and, in returning, would bring back four or five white scalps, and put on a scalp-dance that lasted the rest of the night.”

Will we ever know if Joe was a friend of the Apache?

On the other hand, Joe’s “hard-boiled desperado” did eventually turn up. His name was Alexander Allan, and he was Joe’s boss. Here’s how Joe described the killing to a reporter:

“For over a month past, Alex Allan, Cyrus [Silas W.] Smith and myself have worked and camped together at the Bottom Dollar mine. Everything had been pleasant among us, and while Smith and myself were working for Mr. Allan, no contract for any special length of time had been made, we were on good terms and no trouble of any kind had come up. Several days ago Mr. Allan run out of lumber and none could be gotten except from Chicago. Smith and myself wanted to come to Santa Fe until the lumber came, but to this Mr. Allan objected as he would then be left alone. We consented to stay until last Monday. On Saturday Mr. Allan came to Santa Fe and remained until Tuesday morning, when he came back to the mine, reaching there about 10 o’clock.”

“Mr. Allan and Smith then walked to Cerrillos to attend to some business and I stayed to watch the camp. They came back just before dark. I had supper ready for them, and we sat down and ate. Just as we had finished Mr. Allan asked me what I was thinking and I told him I was going over to the Bonanza mine to get a team to take me into Santa Fe, and Smith said he would go along. This seemed to anger Allan and he said we were nice fellows to leave him all alone. To this Smith replied: ‘We have to look after ourselves and if we want to go away you can’t help yourself.’ Allan jumped up from the table and drew his gun and covered us with it and said he would see if he could not keep us there. At this time Ed Andrews came up to spend the evening at the camp. Allan lowered the revolver for a moment and then threw it at Smith. It fell near me and I picked it up. Allan clinched with Smith and threw him to the ground. Allan picked up a rock and as he held it over Smith’s head said: ‘I’ll brain you right here.’ I don’t know how it happened, but I fired at Allan and the bullet struck him either in the chin or just below. Allan sprang up and ran in circles, falling as he ran. In less than five minutes after I shot him he was dead. Before he died, I went to him and told him I was sorry, very sorry that the shooting had happened. He tried to answer me, but his breathing was so difficult and the blood was rushing from the wound so rapidly that I could not understand what he said.”

“So soon as I saw he was dead, I got on a horse and went over to the Bandana mine and hitched to a wagon and drove to town, and gave myself up to Sheriff Kinsell. That is all there is to it.”

Joe was eventually acquitted.

Armstrong claims Joe scouted with Buffalo Bill, and both accounts have him hanging out with Wild Bill in Deadwood when Hickok’s brains were blown out. Evidence has been in short supply. Armstrong does  mention Joe’s war wound. True enough. “He carried that bullet with him to the grave.”

Joe’s “chief” claim to fame, though, was his supposed report with the Indians of the Plains.

Joe Belonger joined the gold-rush to the Black Hill in 1874, and became a personal friend of both Sitting Bull, the great Sioux wars chief, and Crazy Horse, the powerful Ogalalla chief who commanded thousands of Northern Cheyenne warriors.

Joe, being quiet, friendly and honest enjoyed the good will and friendship of every Indian he met from the Sioux and Cheyennes in the Dakotas all the way down to the Mexican Border. Although a real hero of our early-day West, professional historians never heard of him because he never swaggered around talking about himself as many self-praising heroes do.

Easy going and fair dealing, Joe Belonger hadn’t even one real enemy, red or white in all our great West. Only the other members of the Belonger family knew about his many brave acts of personal risk.

Armstrong saves the greatest detail for Joe’s tale of the Little Big Horn.

Joe tried to enlist to go with General Custer into the battle that proved to be his last. If there had been enough horses and mules for all who wanted to go, Joe, with many other white men would have been killed along with Custer and his regular soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry.

Uncle Joe Belonger was on the Little Big Horn battle ground the day after General Custer’s last fight. A great deal of controversy has been going on all these years about which Indians killed Custer and his men. Some claim it was the Sioux under Sitting Bull; others declare that it was the Cheyennes. The truth is that not one white soldier escaped to tell the story; and both Sioux and Cheyennes were so frightened at what they had done that they all scattered and ran. The few who did talk told so many different stories that no white man could believe anything they said.

What follows is apparently Joe’s account of the battle.

To get the truth, that historians have been guessing at ever since that fatal day — June 25th 1876 — Joe Belonger questioned at least a hundred Sioux and Cheyenne children who had watched the battle in wide-eyed wonder. Those Indian children, every one of them, were Joe’s friends, pals, and admirers.

It is a well-known psychological fact that if a grown-up person likes children, is kind to them, and treats them fairly and honestly, those children will tell that person the truth.

Those Indian children, every one, liked and trusted the gentle and friendly Joe Belonger. So, when Joe asked those Sioux and Cheyenne children to tell him all about Long Hair’s big fight, they declared to the last child, in their earnest, childish ways, that while the Sioux under Sitting Bull had planned, intended, and were waiting ready to massacre Custer’s whole outfit, it happened — because of an unexpected move on the part of General Custer — that a large war-party of Northern Cheyennes, led by the Ogalalla chief, Crazy Horse, happened to be closer to Custer than Sitting Bull and his ten-thousand warriors, so, the Cheyennes, who had made no plans whatever to kill Custer, found themselves with a chance to wipe out Custer’s command — which they did to the last white soldier in approximately thirty minutes. The only human being to escape that death-charge of Crazy Horse and his war party of Cheyennes, was one friendly Crow scout called Curly.

The older Indian children went deeper, by tapping their foreheads and declaring to Joe Belonger, that they felt sure the white pony-soldiers must have all been crazy when, watching wide-eyed and speechless, those children saw Custer’s small command of less than 300 men, climb down from horse-back and attack the Cheyenne camp, on foot, that held at least 2000 warriors … and worse yet, when there were at least 10,000 Sioux braves under Sitting Bull close by, ready and waiting to charge into the fight.

According to earnest words from those eye-witnesses, Indian children who had no reason to lie, Long Hair and his small handful of soldiers might well have been considered as already dead the minute they dismounted and attacked hostile warriors numbering, all told, close to 15,000.

So it was, in spite of all official reports, that the soft-spoken, unassuming Joe Belonger learned the real truth about who killed Custer.

Joe, who kept his own counsel, told no one, except certain close relatives, the facts about Custer’s death. This is the first public report. Today, as this piece is being typed in 1962, Gene Swinbank, of Shullsburg, Wisconsin, is the only person living who heard Joe Belonger tell how he learned the real truth about General Custer and the Little Big Horn tragedy.

The picture of the battle he paints is still controversial, but the general gist of his account was at odds with common contemporary perceptions. In essence, the Souix tell him that Custer’s party was dead the moment they dismounted.

Joe married once, to widow Carrie Viles, for a very short time. He had no children.

Joe was retired from the mining life around 1908. He stayed  in several veteran’s hospitals and retirement homes over the years, and eventually he moved to Seattle. In 1930, he was beaten and robbed by a young man he had taken in. As his health declined, he found himself shuffling between caretakers, until his death in 1933 of gangrene poisoning.

Let’s wrap this up with Joe’s own words.

“I’ve lived in the toughest towns in the West — Abilene, Dodge City, and all the rest, and I kept out of trouble by minding my own business and staying sober. That’s my advice to all young men — mind your own business and don’t get drunk.”

How Bout Sam?

Lou’s older brother Sam was born, like Lou,  in Swanton Falls, Vermont, in 1839.

Though no photos of Sam are known to exist, it is said that in many ways he was Lou’s complement; where Lou was short, stout and affable, and prone to rely on his personality to get his way, Sam was tall and imposing, with a taciturn disposition, and a fiery temper.

The first of the Belonger brothers to go west, Sam’s early days are still something of a mystery. We know he crossed the Green River in 1859, at the age of eighteen, with a large train of seventeen wagons bound for California. By 1861 he was in Aspen, where he voted in a territorial election. In 1865 he took possession of a tract of land near Sacramento.

There were tall tales, though, that painted a more vivid picture. Brother Joe told stories of Sam arriving in Denver when it consisted of only a few cabins — which would have been a short window indeed, in the fall of 1858. He also claimed Sam scouted with Bill Cody in the hills above Denver, where they fought off an Indian attack. Sam’s obituary claimed that he hauled freight across the Sierra Nevada mountains between Sacramento and Austin, Nevada. Whether any of these stories are true, or partly true, we don’t know. What we can say with confidence is that this period in his life was surely filled with dangerous adventure.

Upon his return to the Midwest after the Civil War — purportedly via the Isthmus of Panama — Sam hooked up with little brother Lou, and soon they began their tour of the western mining camps. Over the next  fifteen years they had at least eight saloons in Utah, Nevada and Colorado, and soon became known across the West as the Blonger Bros., saloon men, gamblers and mining speculators par excellence.

In 1879 Sam ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Leadville. The Blongers had several mining claims near the town, and a theater in nearby Georgetown.

By 1882 the boys had moved on to the fledgling city of New Albuquerque — situated along the new rail line that passed within a mile or so of the old city — and shortly thereafter Sam was appointed marshal. A news account said that he already had extensive experience in “official work,” suggesting this was not the first time he had worked in law enforcement.

Sam’s tenure in Albuquerque is well-documented in the local news. His first official action seems to have been to extort a traveling peddler — who mysteriously recanted his accusation the next day. The local businessmen (who paid Sam’s salary) immediately began to question their support for Sam.

But then he got down to business. New Albuquerque was a rough young town, with more than its share of saloons and whorehouses, and the railroad was bringing a steady stream of dangerous and unpredictable men to town; a firm hand was needed to keep the peace. Sam seemed, at first, to fit the bill.

Over the next few weeks dozens of troublemakers were either jailed or sent packing, including the notorious Big Ed Burns. Along with his deputies — which included his brothers Lou and Joe, the local judge, and Earp crony Charlie Ronan — Sam faced horse thieves, pistol-packing barkeeps, and a host of gun-wielding drunks — all summarily (and peaceably) dispatched. Sam seemed to be just what the town needed.

As time passed, Sam continued his efforts to clean up the town. When the Rocky Mountain Detective Association set up an office in town, Sam and Lou joined up, and Sam even pursued an appointment as a deputy U.S. Marshal. But things were already beginning a downhill slide.

One of the local papers had taken a dislike to Sam, and what’s more, his brother Lou was not making things any easier. Lou had a brothel, and was occasionally caught cheating poker. It may well be that Sam was putting his thumb on the scale, using his position to protect the activities of some, while their competitors were compelled to move on.

Whatever the case, Sam eventually seemed to lose interest in the job, and on July 10 the local sheriff relieved him of duty.

After Albuquerque Sam and Lou parted ways for a time, with Sam devoting himself to his thoroughbreds, running horses in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, and elsewhere.

Finally, in 1888, Sam and Lou joined forces once again, this time taking Denver by storm.

In Denver they would again open a long series of saloons and gambling houses — nine at least — along with gambling outposts in policy shops, cigar stores and candy shops all across towns. Conniving with the likes of Soapy Smith, Big Ed Chase, and Bat Masterson, they fixed elections, and nurtured gangs of bunko men, who had a host of swindles but relied largely on crooked poker games run in private rooms at the back of their joints. When the police came calling, the Blongers were there to post the bail.

In 1892, Sam and Lou struck it (pretty) rich with the Forest Queen gold mine in Cripple Creek. As partners they had two present and former Denver district attorneys, who surely came in handy. The money also didn’t hurt when it came to making payoffs of various kinds. Their influence was on the rise.

In 1895, after members of Ed Chase’s gang were arrested for a swindle perpetrated by the Blonger’s crew, Sam was arrested in an attempt to pressure him into giving up the guilty parties. The case eventually fell apart, but it seems the damage may have been done. While Lou went on to consolidate his hold on Denver crime and politics, Sam largely disappears from the news after this incident.

Sam died in Denver in February of 1914.