Discarded in a gully in 1879, the rifle seems to have resurfaced.
I sat for hours on end, looking at the mountains, remembering all the experiences my life had provided, good and bad. I saw the men I had wounded, the Indians I had killed and those they had killed, the heaps of buffalo hides and bones, the wasted, rotting carcasses created through my greed. I thought of all the guns I had sold to anyone who needed a weapon, how those weapons might have been used for ill-gotten gains, even murder. The gunrunning days, and all the other seen and unseen deeds of my customers, associated and acquaintances. What had I become? What good had I left to the world? My gut was a knot.
A remorseful Wild West gunfighter reminiscing on his criminal career did not pen those words. They are among the memoirs famed Denver gunsmith and entrepreneur J.P. Lower related to son Clarence, who transcribed them word for word shortly before his father’s death in 1917. Despite the elder Lower’s regrets over some of the ways his guns were used, he had made a name for himself in a profession as essential— if not as glamorous—to expanding the frontier as that of the lawman or the Army scout. Indeed, Lower stated he had probably armed every Colorado Territory lawman, badman, Indian and gambler.
Born in 1833 to a Philadelphia carpenter, John Pray Lower soon developed a much keener interest in firearms than carpentry. At 13 he began an apprenticeship with J.C. Grubb, a blacksmith turned gun dealer and trader, and by age 20 Lower had become a master gunsmith with all the known arms of the day. After Grubb sent Lower on the road “drumming,” J.P. developed connections with every known firearms manufactory in the country. His travels as a gun salesman took him abroad and through the States (he avoided the draft during the Civil War, obtaining an appointment to an artillery unit at Fort Barry, Va., in 1863). On one of his trips to the West he met Indian fighter turned gunsmith Carlos Gove and they formed a brief partnership. In 1872 Lower brought his family to Denver and three years later bought out the gun shop of brothers Frank and George Freund.
At his Sportsman’s Depot, Lower primarily sold guns and ammunition but also fishing gear and camping supplies. He continued the practice he had started in the mid-1850s of stamping his name on most of the guns he sold, usually with his city of residence stamped beneath it. Between his gun shop and a partnership in a quarry, Lower was worth $100,000 by 1885. He was known as one of the best shots in Denver and had a private range behind his store. Lower’s wife, Fanny, died in 1888, and soon after his partner in the quarry ran off with their funds. Lower borrowed money. By the time he died on August 22, 1917, he had lost two sons and a daughter-in-law and was in debt. His memoirs reflect his depressed state.
Collecting guns shipped to Lower has become a passion for collectors like myself. Three years ago—and about 17 years after I first started researching Lower— I bought a relic Sharps rifle because it had J.P. LOWER stamped on the barrel. A prospector had found the gun in a Colorado gully near the White River. The gun had no wood, was heavily rusted, with a frozen action, and was missing its breechblock. The tangs were bent and broken, the frame cracked along one side. The gun was a 28-inch, heavy, round-barrel .45-70 Business rifle conversion made from used Civil War parts. I mounted it on the wall with my other relics and photos of J.P. Lower. Two years later, responding to a request on my Web site for Lower information, his great-great-niece Carolyn shared his long forgotten memoirs with me. J.P. Lower really had killed a few Indians. He writes:
I took a solitary hunt up near the White River. This was just after the Meeker Masscare in 1879. As I rode up the trail, I found two Ute men ahead about 100 yards out. I stopped and raised my hand. Immediately, a shot ran out, and my horse reared up. The Sharps that I had resting on the pommel tumbled back with me as I hit the ground. Quickly, I gathered up the Sharps, instinctively raising it to my shoulder, pointed down the trail.The two Indians were charging down on me as I fired, knocking the first off his horse. That shot went clean through and hit the one behind him in the arm, which stopped him momentarily. I reached for my sidearm but found it missing from its customary place. Tried loading another cartridge in the Sharps but found it had been deformed when I landed on it, wouldn’t enter the breech. The brave was nearly on me, unable to shoot with his left hand useless, but in his right was a club. Grabbing the barrel of my Sharps, I swung it at him just as he galloped up and struck. The weight of the Sharps carried through his blow and into his chest, felling him to the ground. My fear turned to rage, and I bashed his head with swings of the rifle. After several blows he was finished.…The Sharps was shattered in the fight, covered in gore, the stock completely removed. I saw the slide was missing, broken away, and the frame cracked, so tremendously violent were my blows.
Lower goes on to describe his horse, which had a neck wound, and his tossing the now useless rifle down a ravine. After bandaging his horse, Lower collected the Indians’ weapons (their ponies had run off) and buried the men under a pile of rocks and sage. He surmised they had been in his store earlier. Noting the location, Lower quickly rode back to Denver.
The relic rifle on my wall certainly matches the description of the Sharps he used in that Indian fight. The breech end has corroded enough to obliterate the serial numbers, and it looks heavily blood-pitted. It has the cracks and breaks described by Lower in his memoir. The barrel has fared better, its surface rough but smooth by comparison. Around the rear sight is more blood pitting, probably from his hands, but just behind the rear sight (an area scraped off by the previous owner) is the name of the man who once owned or sold this gun—J.P. LOWER. This stamping certainly ties it all together and provides evidence of an obscure and violent event in the life of a Colorado pioneer. Now, if I can only get that prospector to tell me exactly where he found the gun, I might find that breechblock.
Dave Lanara, of Medina, Ohio, is writing a book about J.P. Lower. For more about the author visit www.davelanaracolts.com.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.