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.”