Wednesday, June 20, 2018


 Jack Bean in the early 1880s.

Of Scotch descent, John “Jack” Barker Bean was born in 1844 in Maine. His family moved to Wisconsin and then Minnesota, where he grew up. As soon as he was big enough to keep both ends of a gun off the ground, he became an insatiable hunter, so much so that sometimes his schooling took a back seat to roaming the Northwoods. While still in his teens, this young man “went West” and never looked back. His mother expected him to be gone for a few short months, but it was 29 years before she saw him again. During his life in the West he was a trapper, buffalo hunter, meat hunter, Indian fighter, Army scout, horse packer and hunting guide.
In January of 1874, the 30-year-old Bean and a partner were trapping the foothills of South-Central Montana’s Crazy Mountains where, according to Bean, they might see as many as five thousand elk in a day. They sometimes took a pack string carrying frozen deer and elk carcasses to Bozeman, where raw meat was selling for a handsome 15 cents per pound. Bean had already earned a reputation as an expert hunter who could bring home meat even when no one else seemed able to find game.
In Bozeman that winter, a group of local businessmen were organizing an expedition they were grandly calling the Yellowstone Wagon Road & Prospecting Company. As the name implied, the purpose of this expedition was supposedly to find a shorter, easier wagon route to provide access to Bozeman from the east and do a little prospecting for new gold strikes in the name of “economic development”. With such a long and cumbersome official title, folks around Bozeman began referring to the expedition as simply “the Boys.”

A great many people, then and now, believed the real purpose of the expedition was to quite literally stir a full-blown Indian war. The land along the Yellowstone River in what is today eastern Montana was a game-rich traditional Native American hunting ground, and large portions of the area had been ceded to the Crow, Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne tribes by government treaty. While the Crow were friendly to the whites, the Sioux and Cheyenne could be expected to react violently to an invasion of their territory. Quite a few citizens of Montana believed that once such a war got started, the US government would be forced to send in the Army to “pacify” the tribes via military force, after which the now depopulated Indian lands would become wide open to white settlement, development and exploitation.

With much local fanfare, the expedition departed Bozeman on February 13, 1874. It certainly looked more like a military invasion than a simple route-finding party, for it had grown in size to a total of 149 men. The Boys consisted in large part of seasoned outdoorsmen like Jack Bean; trappers, hunters, prospectors, scouts, and frontiersmen who were woods savvy, at home on a horse, and generally superior marksmen. Every man had been armed with a modern breech-loading or repeating rifle and at least one revolver.
Two hundred horses and mules wore pack saddles or, along with 28 yokes of oxen, were hitched to pull the expedition’s 22 wagons. The supplies carried included 40,000 rounds of extra small arms ammunition. The company even brought along two pieces of artillery, a US Army 12-pounder mountain howitzer “borrowed” from the troops at Fort Ellis at the insistence of the territorial governor, and an elderly locally-owned cannon known as the Big Horn Gun, with 150 rounds of explosive shells and canister ammunition.
Captain Frank Grounds, a Union veteran of the War Between the States, was elected to take overall command of the expedition. Under his leadership, the Boys traveled with the wagons in two columns so that they could more quickly form a defensive circle, with the pack stock between the wagons and experienced scouts, well armed and mounted, forging ahead, behind, and to the flanks. Each night’s camp was chosen with defensive terrain in mind. The wagons were circled tightly and joined by chains in the middle of the laager to corral and protect the horses and mules. Rifle pits or foxholes were dug around the perimeter, and the cannon were placed to cover the most likely avenues of approach.

By March 26th, 1874 Native American scouts had detected this private army marching brazenly through the heart of their wintering grounds. As a warrior society of superb horsemen, the Sioux in particular were not intimidated by the size of the company. With canny leaders like Red Cloud, Hump, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, the Northern Plains Tribes had already successfully fought larger parties of whites, including units of the US Army. Red Cloud’s War of 1866-1868 had forced the US government to abandon its three forts in the Powder River country and close the Bozeman Trail. Just two years earlier, a surveying party for the Northern Pacific Railroad escorted by three companies of US Army regulars had been so harried by the Sioux and Cheyenne along the Yellowstone River that they had turned back.
With budgets cut to the bare bones after the Civil War, the US Army of the era was badly under-strength and poorly trained, with a reputation for mediocre-at-best horsemanship and even worse marksmanship. It had gotten to the point where Native American warriors taunted soldiers into shooting at them so they could demonstrate their bravery by engaging in “bravo” runs. An individual warrior would ride, run, or even walk within range of the soldiers’ rifles and carbines and when he emerged unscathed from the hail of bullets his reputation and his medicine would be made. Some others waved or wore red blankets in battle to attract the soldiers’ eyes and bullets.
Some notable, almost legendary, examples occurred in 1872. In that year, a Northern Pacific railroad survey crew attempted to make its way up the Yellowstone River drainage through what is now the state of Montana to the town of Bozeman. The survey party was heavily escorted by US Army infantry companies and cavalry troops, but they were so heavily harassed by Sioux and Cheyenne attacks that the surveyors eventually insisted on turning around and going home.
The following year, another heavily escorted railroad survey team set off up the Yellowstone River… under the command of none other than George Armstrong Custer. Always prone to embellishment, upon the column’s early return Custer later claimed the Indians were better armed than the soldiers, equipped with, “…the latest improved patterns of breech-loading repeating rifles, and their supply of metallic rifle-cartridges seemed unlimited…Neither bow nor arrows were employed against us.”
A year later, the Boys’ assessment was likely more accurate. Although they noted finding a small number of cartridge cases for .50-70 Springfield breach-loaders and Spencer and Winchester repeaters, they recorded that by far the majority of Indian firearms encountered were single-shot muzzle-loaders and pistols and that most still carried bows and arrows. Even three years later at the Battle of the Little Bighorn perhaps only half of the warriors involved had firearms, and again the majority of these guns were again old and out-dated.
In spite of Custer’s claim of “unlimited” cartridges and despite some extremely creative and occasionally dangerous expedients for reloading spent cartridge cases, the Plains tribes in reality always suffered from a chronic shortage of sufficient ammunition and faced great difficulties in obtaining more.
In large part because they lacked enough ammunition of their own for more than a single battle, the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors instead harassed the soldiers escorting the 1872 survey party to get them to waste their ammunition. Crazy Horse himself reportedly made no less than twenty unhurried bravo rides back and forth in full view of the infantrymen and cavalry troopers and emerged unharmed despite the fusillades of bullets directed at him. Shortly thereafter, Hunkpapa Chief Sitting Bull had laid down his own arms and walked across the open prairie to within “about a quarter mile” (440 yards, well within range of a good rifleman) of the soldiers, where he calmly seated himself and had a leisurely smoke on his pipe while Army bullets kicked up dirt harmlessly all around him.
 Against the experienced marksmen of the Yellowstone Wagon Road & Prospecting Company, however, such bravo rides and even some conventional tactics proved unexpectedly costly. During their three-month trip, the Boys fought numerous minor skirmishes and three major full-blown battles with the Sioux and Cheyenne.
  An 1883 account of the expedition in the book The Chronicles of the Yellowstone by E. S. Topping, who interviewed several of the Boys, gave two examples of their superior marksmanship making the usual bravo rides a hazardous undertaking.
    Soon after this, an Indian, mounted on a handsome horse, and wearing a fine war bonnet, came out to make a bravo ride. His course lay across the bench and he was about five hundred yards away when thirteen of the boys fired a volley at him. The horse dropped dead and the warrior staggered to a coulie and out of sight. When examined later the horse was found to have been struck by nine bullets.”
    On another occasion: “As the party fled, one brave tarried a little behind his party, and was making his horse caracole and show off. Jack Bean took a good aim and fired. In three jumps the horse went into a sag. Just as the Indian went out of sight, he threw one hand high over his head, and in a moment more the horse came out riderless, and turning, came straight to the band.” A different account of this incident said the estimated range was, “about six hundred yards away.”
Bearing in mind that white sources of the era tend to inflate both the strength as well as the casualties of the Indians, an 1876 account by one of the participants claimed the boys had killed “about” fifty Indians and wounded nearly one hundred, while an 1883 source says “nearly a hundred” warriors were killed. The Boys suffered only one man killed and two men wounded by enemy fire. While we will never know the actual numbers involved, two major battles and numerous small skirmishes occurred between the opposing parties, and during these the range and accuracy of the boys’ rifle fire did come as a rude surprise to warriors used to facing the Army’s ineffectual musketry. One white account reported that Sitting Bull later declared that he “… had never seen such men …” and that the Lakota could “get nowhere near” the Boys without losing warriors and horses to their accurate and long-ranged shooting.
  Even in the company of quite a few other crack shots, Jack Bean is mentioned often in accounts of the expedition for his particularly well-honed sharp shooting skills. On one occasion, one of the boys on picket duty had been, quite literally, caught with his pants down. He was squatted down in the sagebrush taking a shit when surprised by approaching Indians and had departed so hastily for the shelter of the wagon laager…holding his britches up with one hand as he ran…that he left his pistol belt and holstered revolver lying on the ground.
    To keep the Indians from finding the valuable weapon and ammunition, Frank Grounds tasked Jack Bean to defend it from afar with his Sharps. The picket pointed out his former location and Bean attempted to pick off any warriors who came close enough to the area that they might find the pistol. He was successful in this endeavor.
     At one of the expedition’s lagers, they had posted mounted picket guards to stand lookout on nearby ridgetops to give advance warning of approaching war parties. Posted on the opposite end of the same ridge Jack Bean was on, a man named Bostwich saw a lone Indian signaling for a parley and foolishly rode down towards him, at which point eight more mounted warriors came racing out of the cover of a draw. Bostwich wheeled his horse around and fled for camp at top speed, but the fleet Indian ponies ridden by some of the world’s best horsemen easily overtook him. Despite wounds from four pistol bullets, Bostwich managed to stay on his mount as the warriors closed in to “count coup” by striking him with their riding quirts, their traditions making it a testament to a warrior’s skill and bravery to physically touch an enemy in battle before killing him.
    Seeing all this transpire from down the ridge, Jack Bean had galloped his horse up the spine of the ridge, trying to come to Bostwich’s aid. When one of the pursuing braves nocked an arrow in his bow to finish Bostwich off, Jack Bean yanked his horse to a halt and rolled off, raising his Sharps rifle and taking aim. A hurried shot at fairly long range at a fast-moving target, Jack’s first heavy lead bullet shattered one of the bowman’s arms and, by some accounts, unhorsed him. His continued fire made the remainder of the party to turn back and seek cover; examining their route the next morning, the white men discovered where two wounded warriors had been dragged to a lingering snowdrift in a gully to have their wounds treated with packed snow. Thanks to Bean’s covering fire, Bostwich was able to make it to the camp, where he fell from his horse gravely wounded. Amazingly, after a long struggle, the man recovered and went on to live a long life even though two pistol balls remained buried in his body for the rest of his days.
     The Sioux and Cheyenne surrounded the white intruders’ camp that night. Jack Bean later wrote, “As daylight commenced to come it give us fellows who were pretty good shots a show to do some long shooting.  There was a point up the stream about 400 yards & indians kept popping up there frequently when there was any excitement in camp…A little clay bank on the top of this ridge was covered with black sage brush & I trained my gun on this brush so I could knock the dust up at every shot.  Then I waited for more indians to appear.  Only waited a short time, fired about eight or ten shots at appearing objects and when we broke camp & moved we taken a look at this camp it was a mighty bloody looking place – all the dead & wounded having been packed away.”
     Jack Bean also fired the last and longest hostile shot of the expedition, and it was his most remarkable one. The two battles and sheer numbers of warriors had convinced Frank Grounds it was past time for the expedition to return to the safety of Bozeman. On April 16th, as the Boys departed from their campsite on Lodge Grass Creek in their usual pair of columns, movement was seen on a bald point that gave an unimpeded view of the valley floor the white men were traveling on.
     Atop the hill were two Lakota warriors, one named Shell Necklace and another warrior whose name has been lost to history, the latter armed with a big-bore Sharps buffalo rifle of his own. The unknown rifleman dismounted from his pony and lay down prone, took aim at the expedition below and fired a long-range Parthian shot at the departing intruders. Afterward, he apparently stood up again to observe the effects of his shot. The big chunk of lead from his Sharps landed within the wagon column, admittedly a large target, and kicked up a geyser of dirt just under one of the white men’s horses. Jack Bean was the only sharpshooter amongst the Boys who believed he could return the favor.
     One account of what occurred next comes from Topping: “Jack Bean returned the compliment, and when it was time for the bullet to get there, [depending on the actual range, the bullet may have been in the air as long as six seconds] the Indian who had fired the shot dropped. Several who were looking at the Indian with glasses, declared that the ball had hit him. The distance between the parties must have been nearly a mile. Jack used a long range rifle (one hundred and twenty grain, Sharp's), and had made several very effective shots during the trip.”
     In Jack Bean’s own words, recorded many years later, “…I made the remark that if they could shoot here I could shoot there.  So I gave the peep sight of my old sharps a pull – took a rest off of a wagon wheel and used my best judgement (sic) in allowing the wind to drift the ball & shot.  As fate would have it the indian fell.  There was no one in our party who judged the distance less than (1700) yards.”
     On the receiving end, Shell Necklace believed the range to be too long for return fire to be dangerous. Still mounted himself, Shell Necklace saw the puff of black powder smoke from the wagon train as Bean fired and, at about the same time he heard the report of the shot, his friend “jerked violently” and fell to the ground, mortally wounded. 

 The Shiloh Sharps Company of Big Timber, MT continues to manufacture modern replicas of the famous Model 1874 Sharps.

     Jack’s Sharps appears to have been a Model 1874, which, despite its nomenclature, the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company had actually begun producing in January of 1871. This single-shot breech-loader had a falling block action with an exposed hammer and had become a favorite among buffalo hunters since it was offered in a variety of powerful calibers ranging from .40-70 to .50-100; the first number indicated the caliber of the bore and the second listed the grains of black powder in the cartridge. Individual rifles could vary greatly from one another since the buyer could choose from many options to include octagon, round or half-round barrels ranging in length from 21-1/2 to 36 inches, double set triggers, and various sights and stocks. Buffalo hunters and frontiersmen came to call the Model 1874 Sharps “Old Reliable” and, keen to the marketing value of this, the Sharps Company stamped that moniker onto the barrels beginning in 1876. As famous as the Sharps was, less than 13,000 Model 1874s were made from 1871 to 1880.
We do not even know for sure the caliber of Jack’s “old sharps” since Jack himself failed to mention it in his memoirs and family members later could not recall what he had told them. Topping claimed “120-grain”, but the .45-120 Sharps cartridge did not become available until late 1878 or early 1879. Other sources say it was a .44-90. Sharps’ records say that this cartridge was not introduced until June of 1873 so it would have been highly unlikely for one to have found its way to Bozeman, Montana before Jack and his trapping partner Stewart Buchanan departed from that locale for their trapline in the isolated Crazy Mountains in “late summer” of 1873.
The .44-77 Sharps is one likely candidate. Introduced in 1869, factory loads included bullets up to 405-grains, although one of the most widely produced loads used was a 365-grain projectile with a muzzle velocity of 1,460 feet per second. It was Sharps’ most popular caliber until 1877, and was used by the American rifle team that bested the British and Irish teams in the early Creedmore Matches.
It could also have been a “Big Fifty”. The .50-90 was a mainstay of buffalo hunters since it could hurl a 473-grain bullet with a muzzle velocity of 1,350 fps. Lighter bullets backed by larger powder charges in this same caliber were known as the .50-100 and .50-110.
    Lastly there was the .50-70 Government cartridge, which had been developed for and used in the early models of the Trapdoor Springfield prior to the introduction of the .45-70 in 1873. The standard military load produced by Frankford Arsenal used 70 grains of black powder to launch a 450-grain bullet at 1,275 fps. The US Army having switched over to the newer Model 1873 Trapdoor in .45-70, the older surplus .50-70 Springfields were sold or given away outright to both settlers and reservation Indians. The vast majority of “the Boys” were in fact toting these older Springfields. Since they were actually muzzle-loaders that had been converted to breech-loaders, a long firing pin was required, leading the weapons to be commonly referred to in the American West as “Needle Guns”. This caused some confusion to later historians since the Prussian Model 1841 Dreyse light percussion rifle, the first military bolt-action breach-loader, was also nicknamed in Europe as the Zündnadelgewehr or needle-gun. The 40,000 rounds of small arms ammo provided to the expedition by Governor Potts was government-issue .50-70 ammunition.
    Whatever the diameter of the bullet Jack Bean fired, it was one hell of a shot. All of the old black powder cartridges, with their relatively low muzzle velocities and heavy, blunt lead bullets that were poorly stream-lined for their journey through the air, had a trajectory like a rainbow. This made accurate range estimation crucial in order to achieve hits at long range. Considering a .50-70 Springfield Needle Gun with its sights set for their maximum range of 1,050 yards, the bullet’s trajectory would take it 87 feet above line of sight at 700 yards, and the projectile required approximately 3-1/2 seconds to travel that far. Put another way, with the sights set for 300 yards, if a man with a Needle Gun had to take a shot at 150 yards instead, the bullet would impact just a hair away from 36 inches or three feet high at the shorter distance, more than enough error to shoot over a man’s head.

 Sharps rifle long-range aperture tang sight.

    Although a few accounts inferred that Bean’s Sharps had a long brass telescopic sight, from Jack’s own description a tang sight seems more likely. Its base attached to a mount screwed into the small of the stock wrist, a tang sight folded down flush to the stock when not in use. When used, it was raised to the vertical position and could be adjusted precisely for windage and elevation. A coin-sized metal disc with a small hole in the center made it an aperture or “peep” sight. When aiming through such an aperture, the human eye automatically centers itself to look through the middle of the peep, where the most light is available. Thus, the rifleman’s eye needs only focus in two planes, on the front sight and the target. At the time, however, most long-range tang sights were only graduated to 1,200 yards or 1,500 at the longest, meaning that Bean may have had to use some “hold-over”.
Topping, who had interviewed some of the Boys, claims the range to have been “nearly a mile”, a mile converting to 1,760 yards. Bean’s account says, “…no one in our party who judged the distance less than (1700) yards.” Two other accounts of the expedition give ranges of 1,350 yards and “about” 1500 yards. At any of the ranges mentioned, it was still an extraordinary shot.
In the annals of the West, nothing stands out like Billy Dixon’s legendary One Mile Shot. Dixon was one of just 29 hunters and traders besieged by hundreds of warriors from the Southern Plains tribes at an adobe-walled trading post in the Texas Panhandle. Their three-day siege in June of 1874 was known as the Second Battle of Adobe Walls. On what became the final day, June 28th, Dixon spotted several chiefs conferring on horseback on a ridge about a mile away. With a borrowed Model 1874 Sharps “Big Fifty” buffalo rifle, Dixon managed to knock one of the war leaders off his horse at a range Army surveyors claimed to have later measured as 1,538 yards or 9/10ths of a mile. His feat became legendary as the Shot of the Century.
Dixon’s shot was also a remarkable feat. It should be noted, however, that Dixon fired his famous shot at a mounted group of perhaps fifteen men and hit one of them. Jack Bean, on the other hand, singled out one man and hit him.
For whatever vagrancies of history, Billy Dixon’s shot has long been celebrated far and wide while Jack Bean’s equally if not more impressive feat only a few weeks earlier remains virtually unknown to this day.

          The best and most comprehensive account of the 1874 Yellowstone Wagon Road and Prospecting Expedition can be found in the 2016 book SittingBull, Crazy Horse, Gold and Guns by Col. French L Maclean.

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