Who Wrote Joe Bowers?
By John Quincy Wolf
Vol. XXIX, No. 2Volume 33. 1969.
©Copyright California Folklore Society
Few American folksongs have enjoyed as wide-spread and enduring popularity as “Joe Bowers.” Its verse appears to be little better than doggerel, its melody is homely, and its story of a forty-niner who was jilted by the girl back home is commonplace. Yet from the 1850s until the early years of the twentieth century it was an established favorite in most sections of the country. It was, says Edward Arthur Dolph, “intimately a part of the life of the soldiers and settlers in the early days in California” and was popular among the soldiers during the Civil War; 1 John and Alan Lomax find that it was a favorite among Confederates during the 1860s; 2 and Louise Pound says that it was still current in the Central States in the 1930s. 3 According to Edwin L. Sabin, who remarked on its popularity among those who followed the Western trails in the days of Buffalo Bill, it was “a very long song, especially when the men made up verses to fit it. Charley [Martin] said that anybody could begin it at Leavenworth and end it at the mountains.” 4 Apparently the song spoke to the heart of the American frontier. Its lack of conventional literary qualities, its earthiness and grass-roots honesty, its comical, poke-sallet hero, and its homely language found ready response in the South, Midwest, and West. 5 And its ending doubtless seemed a trifle salty in late nineteenth-century society and hence was quite palatable.
Its widespread popularity accounts for the attention it has received from patriotic Missourians as well as from men of letters.
The former have been principally interested in the identity of Bowers the adventurer, and the latter in the identity of the composer of the poem and song. Who was this Missouri greenhorn who went to California to find wealth in order to provide a home for Sally and himself and a year or two later found himself handsomely jilted? And if Joe did not write the song about himself, who did? The name Joe Bowers and the honor of creating the song about him have been claimed for a considerable number of men and have produced legends that are more interesting than factual. In some of the claims Joe is a historical figure who composed the song about himself, in others a fictitious person whose story was invented by a jokester or satirist. According to Dolph the poem has been attributed “to Mark Twain; to a miner known as ‘Squibob’; 6 to John Woodward, who was with a minstrel show in Frisco in 1849; and to a man named English. . . . Then there is the story that the original ballad was written by an unknown Missourian in Colonel Doniphan’s expedition to Mexico, and that it was later carried to California by soldiers of Kearney’s command.” 7 Despite the quantity of speculation, including the work of modern scholars, opinions concerning the ballad are varied and too often inconclusive. The purpose of this paper is to evaluate the various claims of identification of hero and author and to offer explicit conclusions, as well as to present information hitherto not found in the work of students of folklore.
The earliest available prose account of Joe Bowers the man and of the origin of the folksong was written by Harry Norman for the St. Louis Republic of 27 May 1900. Norman gives the following information, excluding what we are told in the ballad: Bowers was born in 1829 of poor parents in a cabin on the Salt River in Pike County. His father died when Joe was a youth, and his older brother Ike took charge of the “meager estate.” Joe assisted Ike “in the summer season, and for a few months in the winter attended the rude log-cabin school of the community. At intervals he worked at Matson’s mill. . . .” In 1849 Captain Abe McPike organized a wagon train to go West, and both Bowers boys enlisted. The preceding spring Joe had been employed at a sugar mill owned by a neighbor named Black, whose “fair daughter Sallie” also worked there. Joe asked her to marry him, and though she was “fond of him, for she knew him to be honest and true,” she protested that she was too young (sixteen) to marry, that he had no money to establish a home, and that he should go to California and save some money--then she would marry him. Following her advice, Joe joined McPike’s company. On the trip to California he was so efficient that McPike promoted him to the rank of scout, his duty being to go ahead of the train and select sites for camping. Again he proved himself “efficient and trustworthy,” for when the company arrived “they always found a campfire burning and all preparation made for supper and rest.” Among the company was Frank W. Smith, a rhymester and later an official in the government of California, who saw in Joe a rare character and as a joke on him composed the poem “Joe Bowers.” One night when the company gathered about the campfire, a Presbyterian minister, the Reverend James W. Campbell, read the poem aloud. Another of the party adapted music to the words and within forty-eight hours everyone in the train was singing it. Every camp in the West soon knew it, and it was sung across the whole country and even in England. Nothing is known of Bowers’s later history except that he died among strangers in California. As for Sally legend has it that “she died of a broken heart.”
That Norman’s story is in large part a fabrication is shown by the absence of such data as honest research would have revealed. When the story was written in 1900, Sally should have been only sixty-seven years old, Bowers seventy-one, and only fifty-one years had passed since Joe left Missouri. Did no one in Pike recall specific facts about them? If they had been people of flesh and blood and not legends, scores of Pike Countians should have been able to contribute facts, and legal records should have been available. Where on the Salt was Joe born? What kind of “small estate” did his father leave? In what way did Joe assist Ike during the summers? What “community” school did Joe attend? When did Sally die and where is her grave? The account of the journey to California may be accurate except as it relates to Joe, but Norman’s comments on Joe’s efficiency invite suspicion. Moreover if a man of later prominence in California politics (actually John Franklin Swift, not Frank W. Smith as in Norman’s account) were the author of the ballad, the fact would have been confirmed many times over.
Nine years after Norman’s story appeared, R.J. Hawkins wrote a “History of Joe Bowers” for the Independence Kansas City Spirit which was reprinted in the Missouri Historical Review for October 1929. 8 Hawkins follows Norman closely and occasionally borrows his words. His additions to the story are such minor details as: Ike Bowers first planned to go in McPike’s train but changed his mind when Joe made his bargain with Sally; Sally stirred the sugar at her father’s mill, where Joe also worked; and the first mail home from California after Joe’s departure brought a copy of “Joe Bowers,” which was published in the Salt River Journal.
Had Hawkins been able to discover new facts, they would have differed from the ones he produces which clearly derive from inference and fancy and not from legal records and neighborhood recollections. In pressing to tell a good story, he occasionally sentimentalizes: for example, he reads from the ballad the line about Joe’s leaving his “poor old mammy” (some versions have “mother”), and from it he spins this ridiculous bit: “He was industrious always, but his most marked quality was his love for and devotion to his dear old mammy, as he was wont to call his mother.” Another example, this one sentimentally rhetorical: Joe and Sally “had walked home from the log house school together, had plucked wild flowers by the roadside and floated down the river in Joe’s little canoe in the twilight of many evenings.” Hawkins’s penchant for embellishment leads him into occasional lapses from established fact, as when he says that Frank Swift later became governor of California.
Henry Childs Merwin in his Life of Bret Harte follows the general lines of the Norman legend but adds unimportant details of his own. He says that Joe was known as a “humorist,” an “original,” a “greenhorn,” and a “good fellow”; “the whole company became his confidants and sympathizers.” After Swift composed and read or rather sang to a popular air several stanzas of a poem about Joe Bowers, which he had composed during the day’s journey, it caught the fancy of the company . . . and soon every member was singing it. The poem grew night by night and long before they reached their destination it had become a ballad of exasperating length. . . . Upon their arrival in California the two hundred men who composed the party dispersed in all directions and carried the ballad with them. It was heard everywhere in the mines.9
If any refutation of the Norman-Hawkins-Merwin story is needed, it may be found in a single piece of evidence: the preamble of a resolution passed by the Missouri Legislature, signed by the governor on 23 March 1897, authorizing the construction of a suitable monument to Bowers. 10 The monument was to be constructed, no matter whether he was a “real person or merely an imaginary hero.” The fact that only forty-eight years after Joe’s supposed departure from Pike no one in the Legislature including representatives from his own county and surrounding territory was able to assure an assembly obviously eager to claim Joe as a native son that he was a flesh-and-blood man is conclusive evidence that he was legendary. After enjoying nearly fifty years of nation-wide fame, he should have been one of Missouri’s best-known sons.
In the course of the next half-century, Missourians, if an article in the Kansas City Times is representative, became disillusioned about Bowers and swung to the extreme of considering him a mythical, satirical character, “uncouth, rough, poverty-stricken . . . whose appearance and habits were the jest and the disgust of those who conferred the title” of Piker on Midwesterners promiscuously. 11 For many years it has been recognized among scholars that Bowers as the man from Pike is a satirical figure. In 1911 Merwin observed that in the early days Californians recognized only two types of character, the Yankee and the Piker, and he attributes the notoriety of the latter “chiefly to a copy of doggerel verses. . . . Joe Bowers thus became the type of the unsophisticated Western miner, and Pike County became the symbol of the West.” 12
The best account of the “gentleman from Pike” as a satirical character is found in an illuminating article by G.R. MacMinn, who shows that during the first decade of the Gold Rush the Pike County prospector became a legendary character in California and that in the literature of the early West any uncouth newcomer would be likely to have the label Pike pinned on him. The Pike County “gentleman,” first satirically described by George Horatio Derby (“John Phoenix”) in August 1854 is a gaunt, lanky, yellow-haired, hungry rustic in homespun clothes, the father of numerous, barefoot, butternut-colored children who “smell unpleasantly.” Other writers grant him a few merits such as bravery, good humor, and good marksmanship with a rifle, but most of the sketches are satirical. 13 The available evidence indicates that Derby’s caricature predates the ballad, though both could have been the product of widespread popular comment and jest. It was the song, however, that first made the nation aware of the Piker and so contributed to the popularity of the satirical sketches of Hay, Harte, and others during the later 1800s.
In the light of this unflattering tradition which attached itself to any prospector from the Midwest and Missouri in particular, the 1897 resolution of the enthusiastic Missouri legislators who praised Bowers as a hero is amusing. The preamble reads in part:
Whereas, the true-hearted and illustrious Joe Bowers, late of Pike, has done more than any thousand other men . . . to advertise the great state of Missouri and her splendid people . . . causing her name and fame to be sung and rung in every clime, on every sea, in every land; and whereas, his soul-stirring ballad . . . has served to rekindle patriotism and filial devotion in the heart of every true Missourian. . . . 14
Along with the search for the man from Pike who loved Sally Black, attempts of greater importance to the student of folklore have been made to identify the writer of the song, several of which I have already mentioned. The first and probably most important information of a reliable nature came from Judge Thomas J.C. Fagg of Louisiana, Missouri; in an article which is said to have appeared in the Pike County News of 27 June 1899, he ascribes the authorship of the ballad to a traveling entertainer from Pennsylvania named Johnson who showed in the “low theaters and ‘dance houses’” of the West during the days of the Gold Rush. 15 A few years later Judge Fagg possibly modified his views somewhat as a result of a visit to San Francisco. In a letter to William Elsey Connelley, 5 October 1906, he writes that not Johnson but a member of his troupe composed “Joe Bowers”: “I have the sworn testimony of an old actor connected with ‘The Melodeon,’” that “the song was written by John Woodward,” a singer who was with Johnson in 1849 and the early fifties. Woodward, with whom the actor was “well acquainted, . . . brought out” the song in 1850. Fagg says that he had corroboration of the old actor’s statement from another man in San Francisco connected with the same company. 16 Since the newspapers in which Fagg gives his original opinion are not available, we cannot be sure whether he later amended that opinion or merely added to it. If Lingenfelt and Dwyer are correct in attributing the words to Woodward and the music to Johnson, possibly there was no change in Fagg’s earlier views. 17 His investigation and conclusions carry weight because of his background and experience: he was a Pike Countian, a local historian, a judge, and for a time justice of the State Supreme Court. He should therefore have been reliable in evaluating testimony.
I have found in the files of the St. Louis Republic for 25 April 1906 a letter commenting upon an article by or about Fagg, which is said to have appeared in the newspaper on 1 April. 18 The date assigned to the article is erroneous; I have searched through the files of the Republic from 1 January to 25 April and have failed to find any reference to Fagg. If his article were available, we should doubtless have a much fuller statement than he gives in his brief letter to Connelley, including possibly his reasons for shifting from Johnson to Woodward as the writer (I personally have seen no evidence showing the Fagg ever believed Johnson to have been the writer).
Under the caption “Another History of ‘Joe Bowers,’” the letter reads as follows:
The unsigned letter in the Republic is important for three reasons: (1) it shows that some months before the letter to Connelley was written, an article appeared in the Republic about Fagg’s researches in California; (2) it shows that by 1863 the poem had made its way far to the east; (3) it gives what purports to be one of the earliest known popular versions of the ballad.
In “Yet Another Joe Bowers” Louise Pound discusses the likelihood that the composer might have been John A. Stone, who is said to have come west from Pike County in 1849 and died in 1864. In fact she considers him the “likeliest candidate.” He headed a group of touring singers who performed at mining camps and at the Melodeon Theater in San Francisco, wrote the words to a number of songs including “Sweet Betsey from Pike,” and published three books of his own songs. His credentials in addition to those above are that he was known as “Joe Bowers” by his friends in and around Greenwood, Nevada, where he seems to have made his home, and was locally thought to be the composer of the song. He therefore has many “vouchers,” whereas Woodward has but two. But Pound also makes a strong case against Stone. The earliest testimony, from such forty-niners as Meredith T. Moore and Francis Withee, and the later though still early opinions of Medwin and Fagg assign the song to 1849 or 1850—at the latest to 1854. Stone’s songsters, made up of his own compositions with no repetitions from earlier books, were published in 1855 and twice in 1858, yet none of them contains “Bowers” or any reference to it. Even the posthumous collection of his songs published in 1868 omits it. There are only two ways to account for its omission from the first three of the songbooks: to assume that it was written after 1858 or to assume that it had been published before 1858 in some cheap form such as a broadside. Pound rejects the former as contrary to well-established evidence and inclines to the latter: it may have been printed in penny-sheet form and omitted from the songsters because of Stone’s practice of not publishing songs that had already been printed.
The case for Stone seems to me unconvincing. The fact that his friends and neighbors considered him the author of the ballad means little in the absence of any claims attributed to him, and the argument concerning the number of vouchers for him as opposed to Woodward overlooks the date and quality of the vouchers. Fagg obtained sworn testimony in 1906 from an actor who associated with the early singers at the Melodeon; Pound found only a tradition of community opinion in the 1950s, some ninety years after Stone’s death. As she points out, his friends might have given him the name because he sang “My name it is Joe Bowers” or because any Missourian from Pike might have been called Joe Bowers. Other fortune hunters in California who sang the song have been so called. In my own ballad-hunting I have encountered a case in point: Fred High (1878-1962), a ballad singer living near Berryville, Arkansas, maintained with never a doubt that his wife’s great-uncle, Frank Standlee, was Joe. Standlee left Pike in the early days of the Gold Rush, settled in San Francisco, and he and his family kept in touch with their kin in Missouri. Many years ago High visited the Standlees in San Francisco, but after Frank’s death early in this century High had no word from his children and did not know the location of his grave. Yet he was certain that Standlee’s claim to be Bowers was authentic and that Standlee had himself in mind when he wrote the song. I have never taken this claim seriously. But if the number of vouchers is important, Standlee wins over Woodward because of the High and Standlee kin who believed Frank to be the composer. 19
The omission of the ballad from Stone’s songbooks seems to close, or very nearly close, the case against him. Though he did not publish songs that had appeared in his earlier books, there is no reason to believe that he would not publish in his songsters any of his compositions that had appeared in so ephemeral a form as the penny-sheet. For every sensible reason he should have done so, if for no other purpose than to give them permanence. It is inconceivable that he would permit an arbitrary, self-imposed practice to prevent himself from taking every advantage of having composed the most popular song in the West.
By and large the case for Stone is based on too many assumptions: we must assume that he told his friends he was the author; we must assume that he would not reprint in his books any song that had already been printed in sheet form; and we must assume that it had been printed as a broadside before his songsters were published. The absence of evidence to support any of these assumptions leaves the case for Stone without a solid foundation. A letter to me from Richard Lingenfelter adds another facet to the argument: he points out that the words of Stone’s songs were always adapted to popular or traditional tunes, whereas the words of “Bowers” were apparently set to an original tune. There are no comparable difficulties involved in accepting the judgment of Fagg. The sworn testimony of actor-acquaintances of Woodward, the relatively early date of the testimony, and the appearance of the song in two or more editions of Johnson’s songbooks beginning in 1858 make a strong case for Woodward. As the evidence now shapes up, I see no reason to doubt Fagg’s claims in Woodward’s behalf.20
The date of the ballad is probably later than Pound believed, although the evidence that she cites for a date between 1849 and 1854 cannot be disregarded. For example, Francis Withee, a forty-niner who gave her a good text of the song in 1915, was positive that he first encountered “Bowers” no later than 1854. Other sources indicate an even earlier date. In addition to Norman and the other legend makers, Fagg’s two interviewees at the old Melodeon Theatre in San Francisco and Meredith Moore, cited by Connelley, dated it before 1854. Merwin, writing in or probably before 1911, places it early in the Gold Rush and adds that it was published in a cheap form in San Francisco in 1856. No such publication is known, but the aptness of his references to form and place suggests that he may have had access to a source of information now unknown to scholars.
On the other hand the ballad seems to have been first published in the 1858 edition of Johnson’s Original Comic Songs, and Lingenfelter writes me that it does not appear in the British Museum copy dated 1855. This information indicates a birth date for “Bowers” between 1855 and 1858. The inferences that can be drawn from these two dates of publication are firmer than evidence based on the memories of old men. Yet 1854 cannot be ruled out because we have no way of knowing whether Johnson would rush a song into print immediately after it had been composed or would prefer to withhold it from publication until his company had established it as a success with California audiences. Moreover Woodward as author of the ballad might consider himself its proprietor and wish to be known as long as possible as the only man who could sing it. Though I am inclined to give it the earliest possible date, I do not think it was written before 1855 or 1856 because to me it reads as if it appeared after the myths and satirical sketches of Pike had taken hold in the minds of Californians. That is, the poem seems to assume that everyone knows that Pike is virtually a synonym for Missouri, and it connotes the caricature of crude forty-niners. The literature of the Piker had apparently caught the public fancy by 1856 but hardly before 1855. Probabilities decline as we move toward either 1850 or 1858.
From the beginning there has been little speculation about the identity of the composer of the music for “Bowers.” Norman, identifying Smith as the author of the words, says that another member of the wagon train “adapted music to the words.” Merwin attributes the rhymes to Swift and says that he adapted them to a popular tune. We have no solid information on which to base a conclusion, but is very likely that the music was composed by one of Johnson’s company of entertainers. Lingenfelt and Dwyer ascribe the tune to Johnson but do not make a case for him. The evidence, tenuous and inconclusive as it is, gives an iota of support to him: (1) according to early reports “Bowers” was first sung by his company; (2) the first copy of the ballad appeared in his book (1858); (3) an article by Dan De Quille in 1887 refers to him as the author of “Joe Bowers”; 21 (4) Judge Fagg is said to have written in a Pike County newspaper that the song was his work; (5) Woodward, the probable author of the words, wrote no known music, whereas Johnson composed music for at least one other Western song. The case for him is weak, but there is no case at all for anyone else except Woodward, who, being a professional singer ingenious enough to invent the story in verse, may have composed the simple melody as well.
A final question may be raised about “Joe Bowers”: is it worth the speculation and study that it has received? Earlier in this article I called the poem “doggerel.” It is of course more than that, but even doggerel has a legitimate place in satire. From the first lines when Joe introduces himself the tone is set and all details fall into place. The flat rhymes, the easy clichés, the homely phrases, all play a part in shaping the timely and effective satirical portrait of Joe, the man from Pike. And the author must be credited with a creative achievement in recognizing likely material for satire and in drafting an appropriate narrative sketch. The poem deserves respect for what it does not do as well as for what it does. Despite the claims of the Hawkinses and the Missouri Legislature of 1897, Joe is neither sentimental nor heroic. His love story is pleasantly unromantic: the two young people do not gather wild flowers in shady lanes or go canoeing in the moonlight, and there is humor rather than tenderness when they part—Joe proposes marriage, Sally says “It’s a whack”; when the deal is made for the California venture, she proposes a kiss and “chucked a dozen in.” In California Joe’s struggles are prosaic: he puts in his “biggest licks” and at the mine “comes down upon the boulders/Just like a thousand bricks.” The conclusion is treated with the same sand-and-gravel humor as the rest of the story: Joe is hardly broken-hearted; he doesn’t receive distressing tidings from home—he got the darndest” or golderndest news” ever heard. The punch line at the end leaves Joe not a pathetic but a comic figure. And as such he is worthy of the satirical Piker myth to which he contributed and of the popularity which he enjoyed for more than half a century.
Southwestern at Memphis
3 “’Joe Bowers’ Again,” Southern Folklore Quarterly 1, no. 3 (Sept. 1937): 13.
Useful information about most of the early discussions of the ballad may be found in the articles of Louise Pound. Back to Text
4 Buffalo Bill and the Overland Trail (Philadelphia, 1914), p. 233. Charley permitted himself a good deal
of latitude in this remark, even after allowances are made for deliberate exaggeration. The song as reported by collectors is not long, and
with one exception there is no great amount of variation among the versions reported. Austin E. Fife, whose files contain about one hundred
and fifty references to the ballad, has called my attention to a unique version titled “Joseph Bowers,” which makes no mention of California or
mining. Joe decides to join the army to earn money for his marriage and goes to Galveston, where he enlists and comes down upon
“the breastworks/Just like a thousand bricks!” Here he gets the news about Sally and her redheaded baby (Allan’s Lone Star Ballads,
A Collection of Southern Patriotic Songs Made During Confederate Times, comp. Francis D. Allan [Galveston, 1874], pp. 36-37.
15 Lomax, p. 421. Pound refers more than once to Judge Fagg’s article: Southern Folklore Quarterly
1, no. 3 (Sept. 1937): 13 and 2 (1938): 131, and Western Folklore 16 (1957): 111. Unfortunately I have been unable to see
this article. The librarian of the Pike County Library can give me no information about it, and an officer of the Pike County Historical
Society writes me that no files of the newspaper exist. Back to Text
16 Doniphan’s Expedition (Topeka, 1907), p. 9. When Merwin wrote his life of Harte in 1911 he knew
of Johnson’s use of the song: “In 1856, it was printed in a cheap form in San Francisco, and was sung by Johnson’s minstrels at a hall known as the
Old Melodeon” (p. 59). Back to Text
18 Sec. 2, p. 2. Though the original letter must have been signed, the Republic does not give the name of
the writer. (I was assisted in my researches in the St. Louis Public Library by Paul and Mary Jones of St. Louis.) Back to Text
19 One more Joe Bowers appears in Joseph Kinsey Howard’s Montana Margins (New Haven, 1946),
p. 262. Among the first settlers in Summit Valley, later Butte, was a miner who sang the ballad so often that his real name
was forgotten and he was called Joe Bowers. A conduit that he constructed for mining purposes was named Joe Bowers Ditch.
It is not reported, however, that he was thought to be the author of the song. For this reference I am indebted to Austin E. Fife. Back to Text