OLD DAN DUBOIS: FRONTIER CHARACTER ON THE GRANDEST SCALE
By Ernie Bulow
Many frontier figures enhanced their own epic status by some artistic embellishment and careful exaggeration, but nobody ever did it on the scale of the legendary Dan Dubois. Edward Vanderwagen said he could feel the many bullets and arrowheads lodged under Dan’s skin, but when the aged scout finally checked into the old soldier’s home in Sawtelle, California, under the name Dennis Donovan, they only noted an old leg break which caused him to walk with a cane.
His near scalping was attested to by Evon Vogt, Sr., who described a “scalp wound almost around his head,” courtesy of some hostile Apaches. This near-death experience came in spite of his long residence and friendship with Victorio’s band.
I have been aware of Dan Dubois since I came to Gallup. The great photo of him hangs in the Gallup Cultural Center showing the aging man with his Navajo counterpart Hash-Kay Yashi, oldest medicine man at the dedication of the El Navajo Hotel in 1923.
The only printed biography of him is a fairly obscure piece by archaeologist/ethnographer Frederick Webb Hodge who conducted excavations at Zuni and inherited Dan as a camp tender when Hodge took over from the ailing Cushing.
John Taylor, retired UNM-Gallup professor, was the principal at Chi Chil’Tah School for many years. Dubois’s last home and trading post, now completely obliterated, was not far from there on the old Zuni road. John got interested in Dan many years ago, but retirement gave him the time to pursue the story, and he did it with uncommon vigor.
Taylor has put together an amazing monograph on the man collecting hundreds of obscure references and many interviews with family descendents. What he found is absolutely amazing. The title John gave his book is indicative of the process he went through: Looking For Dan: The Puzzling Life of a Frontier Character Daniel Dubois.
While characters like Wild Bill Hickok sometimes embellished their biographies, or had it done for them like Billy the Kid, there is nothing to compare with the biography of Dan Dubois. He has at least six different birthplaces from Ireland to Mexican-era California, to a fabulous anti-bellum plantation in Louisiana.
Born in 1837, in one of half a dozen places, he was in California by 1850, hanging out with the famous poet/bandit Joaquin Murrieta. In the next sixty years he would meet or spend time with almost every notable figure in Southwestern history. He told Andrew Vanderwagen he had lived with the Apache and had a wife and children. John Taylor told me he found, in the F. W. Hodge papers, an assertion by Dubois that he figured he had fathered close to a hundred children in his life.
Either coming from or going to California, Dan spent some time in Taos as a fur trader and friend of Kit Carson. He drove a stagecoach for a time between Santa Fe and Denver and then went to work for New Mexico land baron Lucien Maxwell, something of a legend himself.
During the Civil War he was briefly enlisted in both the army and the navy, under the name Dennis Donovan, though later the Donovan family he claimed in Ohio denied his membership. Even his service is sketchy. For the first couple of years of the war he was supposedly living with the Utes.
He went to California, boarded a ship as a seaman and traveled around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, ending up in New York. He left the ship and went cross-country to Ohio to enlist in the Volunteers, using the name Dennis Donovan. He was actually in uniform less than a year when he was mustered out.
Dubois stayed in New York City for a short period, then enlisted in the Union Navy, also as Dennis Donovan. At the time he said he was 27 years old. With the job of shoveling coal, he served on four different ships involved with the Confederate blockade. By July 1865 – hardly more than two years total – he was back in the Southwest as Dan Dubois.
His service as Dennis Donovan (and the help of Gallup gentry like C. N. Cotton) got him a soldier’s pension at the end of his life.
Back in New Mexico and working for Maxwell, Dan hooked up with a family servant (read slave) named Rosa, the youngest daughter of Navajo chief Manuelito. They had several children and then Dubois decided to return to Navajo country. The date is uncertain, but must have been in the early 1870s. By then Rosa’s people had returned home to Arizona.
Dubois got work at Fort Defiance as an interpreter. Altogether he spoke something like ten languages. Maybe more. At this point we are on firmer ground since Dan went by the name Dubois and often worked for the government or other documented employers. One of his first notable skirmishes at this time was against the “worst agent the Navajo ever had to contend with.”
The Indian Agent was William F. N. Arny who, as John Taylor writes, “had serious flaws in character; he was a self-righteous bigot, an egomaniac, and none too honest when it came to administering government property.” That pretty well sums him up. There is a story that when he was finally run off the Navajo Reservation, investigators found a closet full of women’s shoes he was supposed to have given the Navajos. Nobody knows what he was planning to do with such a bounty.
Dan Dubois became embroiled in the Arny affair along with the popular Thomas Keam, who was later a famous trader at Hopi and had a small canyon named after him. At the time, Indian reservations had been doled out to various Christian churches to fulfill treaty promises like education that the government wasn’t up to.
Dubois, Keam and half a dozen other men were accused of “consorting with Indian women.” Meaning they had Navajo families. Arny and the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions really frowned on this practice and Arny had them all banned from Navajo land as “squaw men.”
Shortly after that, Dubois moved to the St. Johns, Arizona area and began ranching. His spread, known as Deer Springs, blocked the path to Zuni heaven and, for some odd reason, given his Indian background, he decided not to let the Zuni pilgrims pass.
His fence was one of those old “rip gut” cedar post affairs and the Zunis had no trouble setting it afire. This so enraged Dan that he lassoed one of the Zuni priests and dragged him behind his horse. There was an amazing show of firepower among the Zunis and several pistols appeared and shots were fired.
Frank Cushing was at Zuni at the time and he tried to deal with Dan without much success. Dubois filed charges in St. Johns, a matter of record, but the law seems to have ignored his attempt to get redress for the burned fence. I suspect they felt his actions against the Zuni priest were worse than his lost fence.
In the years that followed, Dan Dubois was a high profile character in the area, making friends or enemies of almost everyone around. By his own account he was involved in one of the clashes of the Pleasant Valley War, which took place in the area between Holbrook and the Mogollon Rim. It was the classic confrontation between sheepmen and ranchers and inspired many a novel and more than a few movies.
Sheepmen surrounded some cowboys in a bar in St. Johns. Like many Dubois stories this one comes in several versions. Dubois took credit for saving the cowboys and getting them safely out of town. Another account accuses him of goading on the sheepmen. Official records don’t mention him at all.
In 1884 Dan Dubois filed homestead papers on a spring near Cousins, New Mexico. It was on the road from Gallup to Zuni. At first he tried to make it with a small ranching operation, then opened a trading post. Usually the area is known as Coyote Springs. He got title to the land in 1905, but it was a precarious living, and he worked for several area traders.
When Cushing came back to Zuni in 1888 as leader of the Hemenway Expedition he hired Dan as camp keeper, wrangler, and to keep beef on the table from his own little spread. During that time he met many famous men of the period, including Dr. Hodge, who would collect material for his brief biography of Dan.
Most descriptions of Dan are rather brief, usually mentioning his impressively powerful physique and extreme courage. Though he was a heavy drinker, and was involved in any number of fights, he was generally well regarded and described as completely honest and prompt with his bills.
On the legend side, he and a group of mounted cowboys, would meet trains stopping in Gallup and pass judgment on them, encouraging them to either stay, or get back on the train and keep moving. This one is a little on the fantastic side. He is given credit for sending Andrew Vanderwagen to Zuni when the missionary asked to set up camp near his Coyote Springs trading post.
This brief account only scratches the surface, as they say. John Taylor has given a lot of time and energy to the project, only to find it ever more tangled and confusing.
When his amazing strength finally failed him, men of the Gallup area like C. N. Cotton, John Lorenzo Hubbell, the infamous Gregory Page, and Evon Vogt Sr. (by then editor of The Gallup Independent) came to his rescue and took him to the retirement home in California.
Imagine their surprise when he used the name Dennis Donovan. Then again, given his legendary status, maybe they weren’t so surprised to find the man had another name and biography. They didn’t know the half of it.