Friday, July 14, 2017

Black Bart -- California Bandit -- Part 1

Dear Friends,

Over the last few years, a number of you have written to ask about Black Bart. Many of you have noted the fact that he was a bandit, a highwayman, here in Calaveras County where I live. In my last article about the California Gold Country, I talked about Mark Twain's cabin in Jackass Hill and the place where Black Bart had carried out his last robbery.

To some Black Bart is not seen so much as an armed highwayman who stole strongboxes and robbed passengers of their hard earned money and family jewelry, but more some sort of a 19th century "gentleman" bandit. Some who have written about Black Bart have done so in a way that resembles how a fan today fawns over a celebrity.

For example, I read where one writer stated, "In the 1870s and 1880s, a certain well-spoken, finely groomed man was a regular fixture in respectable San Francisco society. Unfailingly polite and with a droll sense of humor, the prosperous mine owner was always impeccably dressed in a tweed suit with a velvet-collared topcoat, his cravat fastened with a diamond stickpin, an elegant bowler on his head.

He lived in pleasant furnished rooms at Webb's Hotel, at 47 Second St., and with his luxuriant white mustache and gold watch chain, he looked every inch the successful San Francisco businessman. And, in fact, he was. Except that his business was holding up Wells Fargo stagecoaches."

Of course, when reading something like that, my first thought is how did that know that he was a certain well-spoken, finely groomed, or a regular fixture in respectable San Francisco society? How did they know that he was "unfailingly polite and with a droll sense of humor"?

And as for saying that he "looked every inch the successful San Francisco businessman," it was only after his capture that authorities found out what he looked like. Lawmen described that when he was finally caught, that he was dressed in a suit, a topcoat with a velvet-collar, and wore a diamond stickpin and a bowler.

His name was Charles E. Boles, but we also know that he used the surname Bolton as an alias. He robbed stages in California beginning in 1875 until he was finally tracked down and arrested in 1883.

He was born Charles E. Bowles in Norfolk Co. England in 1829. He was seventh child of John and Maria Bowles who migrated to the United States when Charles was two years old. His parents settled in Alexandria township, Jefferson County, in upstate New York. His father, John Bowles was a farmed and they had a homestead of nearly 100 acres. Charles would later change his name to Boles.

It is believed that in 1849, at the age of 20, he and his brothers David and James left for the gold fields of California. They landed and started prospecting on the American River near Sacramento. I don't know how their luck was because it's said that much of the placer gold was actually played out pretty quickly. Some say as early as 1850 things started looking pretty bleak in the camps. That's not to say that gold didn't continue, it's just that it had reached its peak by 1852 when some $81 million was pulled from the ground. After that year, the total take declined gradually.

The mining camps that sprung up all over the Mother Lode were complete with saloons, brothels and all sorts of mercantile businesses selling all sorts of goods to those seeking to make their fortune. The claims were limited in many places to just a few square feet and the overcrowding created all sorts of problems. Yes, that includes gambling, prostitution, banditry, and other violent lawlessness. Armed bandits were dealt with swiftly if caught, usually by hanging.

I don't believe the Boles brothers hit pay dirt because they returned to New York state in 1852. The reason that I seriously doubt that they were successful is that they returned. Frankly, if they did hit big, then why leave? It is said that for every one miner that hit pay dirt and were a success, there were nine who left to stave off starvation. 

And though mining became more and more industrialized by 1852 because the placer gold was played out, Charles Boles is said to have later returned to California with his brothers David and Robert. It is believed that not long after their journey West, both David and Robert got ill and died. Charles Boles is said to have remained in California for another two years before giving up again.

Then in 1854, Boles is recorded as having married Mary Elizabeth Johnson. And while some sources say he and his wife lived in New York, the 1860 census had the Boles living with their four children in Decatur, Illinois. 

According to records, Charles Boles enlisted as a private in the Union Army on August 13th, 1862. He was assigned to Company B, 116th Illinois Regiment. Records show his name is spelled "Boles." Supposedly he was seriously wounded at the Battle of Vicksburg, and took part in Sherman's March. It is said that he also received a "brevet" commission as a First Lieutenant. Records also show that he was discharged from the Army on June 7th, 1865, with the rest of his regiment while in Washington, D.C.. From there, he returned to his family in Illinois.

There is no record as to what Boles did after returning from California while married, before entering the Union Army. We really don't know what his occupation was during that time. All we know is that he was a miner in 1854 and than a Union soldier in 1862. We also don't know what he did for work after leaving the Army in 1865.

We do know that by 1867, Charles Boles left his family and went prospecting for gold in Idaho and Montana. Then by 1871, he stops sending money home to support his wife and children. In reality, he deserted them as his wife never heard from him again. At the time, she simply presumed he had died.
What she didn't know is that her husband Charles Boles had made his way back to California. 

No one knows if he took up mining again after arriving, or if that was when he began robbing stagecoaches. There is a story about how he supposedly had a run in with a Wells Fargo agent in either 1869 or 1870, and that was his supposed reason for wanting to rob Wells Fargo stagecoaches. While I've tried to research this, I haven't found anything to support it. And even if that were true, it seems like someone is trying to excuse his breaking the law. 

On July 26th, 1875, Charles Boles robbed his first Wells Fargo stagecoach right here in Calaveras County, California, on Funk Hill in the Stanislaus River Canyon on the road from Sonora to Milton, about 4 miles east of the town of Copperopolis. And while some see it significant that Wells Fargo stages were targeted by Boles, we should remember that Wells Fargo had a reputation for carrying large shipments of gold as well as large company payrolls. So no, whether it was Boles or another bandit, outlaws specifically targeting Wells Fargo was not out of the ordinary. 

His "modus operandi", his method of operation, that distinct pattern or method of operation which he used was always the same. It was always the same in that he would suddenly appear and step out onto a road almost directly in front of a Wells Fargo stagecoach. It would usually take place close to dark  in some remote area when the coach was a going slowly uphill or making a slow turn at a curve in the road. From the driver's side, he would level his double-barrel shotgun at the stage driver, then demand that the shotgun messenger disarm. Only after that would he demand the strongbox. 

In that, his first robbery, with a shotgun as a persuader, he ordered stage driver John Shine to "throw down the box". 

It's said that a passenger inside that coach drew his revolver and was about to shoot Boles when another passenger told him not to for fear of the driver getting killed. Then when driver John Shine supposedly hesitated for a moment before throwing down the strongbox, Boles yelled "If he makes a move, give him a volley, boys."

Since it was very dark, driver John Shine said that he thought he saw rifle barrels pointed at him from the nearby bushes. Not wanting to get killed, Shine handed over the strongbox. Once Boles left on foot into the dark brush. It was then that Shine discovered that the "rifles" were actually carefully rigged sticks to resemble gun barrels. Boles bluff worked. His score though was much smaller than he thought it would be as his first robbery only got him $160.

Boles has been described by some as being an almost superhuman outlaw. I say this because some have stated that Boles was a "powerful walker." According to them, he was capable of walking 40 to 50 miles through the thick backcountry of California in a single day. Some say that's how he avoided capture. That "he simply out-walked his pursuers." These same people assert without proof that he never rode a horse and simply "out walked" the various posses who were after him. That means some people truly believe that he could out walk a horse which is a great trick. I discount such claims as being naive at best. At worse, being believers of Dime Novels.

For Part Two, click Black Bart -- California Bandit -- Part 2

Tom Correa


  1. Thank You, I look forward to part 2.

  2. Black Bart was known as the "Polite Poet" for leaving poems behind during his many stagecoach robberies. One of them reads as follows: "Now I lay me down to sleep to wake the coming morrow. Perhaps success, perhaps defeat and everlasting sorrow. I've labored long and hard for bread. For money and for riches. But on my corns too long you've tread. You fine haired sons of bitches!" Classy, huh? Not too polite, but classy. Black Bart sure did know how to write. Wouldn't wanna mess with him.


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