Colorado Charley Utter, a mountaineer, miner and more, made his lasting mark in Deadwood as a friend to the end of Wild Bill Hickok.
“Colorado Charley” Utter lived a life of adventure on the Western frontier. He spent time as a trapper, guide, packer and prospector in Colorado Territory before heading to Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1876. He later owned dance halls in the territory and reportedly became a professional gambler in the Southwest. Yet he is remembered today less for his own deeds than for having befriended the biggest celebrity in Deadwood and one of the most celebrated figures in the Old West—former scout, lawman and longtime gambler James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. Perhaps Utter’s best-known contribution to history was having written the touching epitaph carved on his good friend’s tombstone:
WILL BILL J.B. HICKOK
KILLED BY THE ASSASSIN JACK MCCALL
IN DEADWOOD, BLACK HILLS.
AUGUST 2ND, 1876.
PARD, WE WILL MEET AGAIN IN THE HAPPY HUNTING GROUND TO PART NO MORE.
COLORADO CHARLIE C.H. UTTER.
Charles Henry Utter not only wrote James Butler Hickok’s epitaph but also claimed his body and handled the funeral arrangements. No one would forget Wild Bill, and by association many would continue to utter the name Colorado Charley (also spelled “Charlie”). But when contemporary writers delved into Utter’s life story, they uncovered more questions than answers. How long had Utter ridden with Hickok? What was the nature of their friendship? Dime novelists conjectured all sorts of mayhem, but not until Agnes Wright Spring did an exhaustive search for every printed source about Charley Utter and wrote the 1969 book Good Little Bad Man was posterity confronted with a frontier enigma. In the 21st century more people than ever came to know of Utter (though not by his nickname Colorado Charley) through HBO’s popular Western Deadwood. The Utter character (portrayed by Dayton Callie) on that 2004–06 series proved tough and fearless but also honest and generous. There was some truth to that portrayal. The real-life Utter was generally regarded as an upstanding citizen, though on occasion, especially after Hickok’s death, he did plenty of wild deeds in Deadwood and beyond that might have drawn frowns in respectable society.
Charles Henry Utter was reportedly born in 1838 near Niagara Falls in western New York but grew up on his father’s farm in Illinois. Charley was only 10 at the outset of the California Gold Rush—too young to join that mad crowd—but he was on the lookout for a gold strike through most of his life. In his late teens he struck out on his own, traveling to the Middle Park basin in what soon became Colorado Territory, where he befriended Ute Indians and learned something of their language. He first worked as a trapper and market hunter, selling his game to the swarm of prospectors then flooding the region in search of rumored gold. When reality replaced rumor, there followed inevitable claim disputes, and in 1860 Utter, who apparently was literate (though no letters or journals survive), became first the assistant recorder of claims under Ed James, recorder of the Illinois Central mining district, and then recorder himself through 1864. Utter also filed about 60 claims on behalf of family members, including brother Stephen, a sometime business associate. Over the next few years, after the initial strikes thinned out, Charley sold off his claims to newcomers rather than invest in the heavy equipment required to extract gold from ore.
In 1864, with trouble brewing between Colorado settlers and the Plains tribes, Utter signed up as an assistant interpreter. According to one story, a band of Utes confiscated some of his horses on the say-so of their appointed agent, but once Utter explained to them in their own language it was all a misunderstanding, they returned the horses. The agent could not speak the Ute language, which was about typical for Indian agents.
Hunting for furs and food in the mountains, Utter spent months in isolation, more so the winter of 1864 after a grizzly bear killed his only companion, a dog. That winter he encountered an Army deserter named John Beckham, who sought shelter at his log cabin. Charley gave Beckham all the food he could spare, along with a sheath knife, but urged him to return to duty rather than trying for the settlements. But the determined deserter moved on. In the spring, as Utter left the mountains with his furs, he found what was left of Beckham, his scattered bones cracked by cougars for their marrow. The sheath knife identified the skeletal remains.
“Charley is probably the best mountaineer in the territory, and we regard his authority concerning the [mountain] passes &c as perfectly reliable,” The Daily Miners’ Register of Central City noted on June 28, 1865. Papers in those days often ran news stories as a form of advertising. A month later the Register noted: “Charley Utter is proprietor of a neat and elegant billiard hall at Empire City. His place has been open but a few days, and yet his drawer is reported to be weighty with greenbacks already.” A few months later Utter sold all property from the billiard hall to William L. Brill, with an agreed payment of $200 a month. Utter probably never got paid, as the pool table, bar fixtures and a barroom stove are listed as collateral on one of his subsequent mortgages.
One particularly bad winter Charley helped rescue and shelter a five-man party of Colorado Territory dignitaries—including his sometime boss Major Daniel C. Oakes, the Middle Park Ute agent—when they were caught out in a year-end snowstorm. When the party first appeared out of the gloom, Charley suspected they might be renegade Indians coming to kill him. His relief at learning that his guests were affluent white men may have motivated his extreme generosity.
“He insisted that we make free with everything he had and would not take no for an answer,” Oakes wrote a few weeks later. “Everyone going into that country would do well to call on Mr. Utter, as they will find him a perfect gentleman and very familiar with every nook and corner of that country.”
The party of five stayed with Utter for 15 days. At one point he set off by himself to find a team of horses or oxen to draw his guests to safety but had no luck. Utter then guided the party through the drifts to Empire, and the guests made it back to Denver when the weather broke.
In January 1866 the Territorial Legislature passed an act forbidding gambling, in which Utter apparently indulged from time to time. That development, and the growing opportunities in the goldfields, set Utter on a new enterprise.
“Charley Utter informs us that he has made arrangements to run a regular saddle and pack train during the present summer from Empire City, over the Berthoud Pass and through the Middle Park to the great hot soda springs [Hot Sulphur Springs],” the Rocky Mountain News announced from Denver on May 9, 1866. “Saddle horses can be obtained any time, and trains of pack animals will leave every few days.”
Among his first clients was Bayard Taylor, translator of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, who that June rented pack animals from “Charley Utter, the famous trapper and trader of the Middle Park.” In his journal of the trip Taylor proclaimed Empire picturesque and added that the inhabitants were “men of intelligence and enterprise.”
While building his transportation enterprise, Utter served as guide for another ill-fated tourist expedition, members of which included Territorial Secretary Frank Hall and Orville Babcock, a wartime aide de camp of General Ulysses S. Grant who was later disgraced in the Whiskey Ring scandal. What started as a hunting trip turned into an argosy of agony when a colonel in the party was stricken with some sort of paralysis and fell from his horse. The party first constructed a sled, but the light snow clung to the runners and made progress painfully slow. Next Utter and the other three healthy men towing the sled broke through the crusted snow up to their thighs. The party then constructed a litter by stretching their only buffalo robe across two sapling poles. Hoisting the contraption to their shoulders, they continued to lug the stricken colonel. Four grueling hours later they ran across German miners shoveling snow off the mountain path and hired some of them to help tote the improved litter. The party of eight trudged by fits and starts of about 150 yards at a time, but eventually they reached the crest of the range, survived the icy blast of wind, paid off the weary Germans and shared a bottle of whiskey sent ahead by friends waiting at a downhill stagecoach. “One of us generously took Utter’s share, as he never indulges,” the anonymous author of the tenderfoot horror story wrote. Once again Utter had brought back his wards alive.
After catching his wind for a few days, Utter joined a prospecting party of about 50 men, including old friends, bound for Hahns Peak country. En route they ran into suspicious Utes, but Utter quickly explained the white men had come looking for gold and not Indian land or women. The Utes held their fire. But later in the expedition Utter accidentally shot himself while bear hunting on the Bear River. The bullet reportedly passed through his abdomen and came out at the right shoulder. As soon as he was able to ride, he sensibly returned to Denver for medical attention. He found time to report that Bear River ore was not promising.
“Five men with a sluice succeeded in taking out 50 centsby working one week,” the Rocky Mountain News reported on August 1. “Another sluicing party of about the same number was not quite as lucky, getting only 43 cents in return for a week’s labor.” The newspaper quipped that Bear River was the cheapest place in Colorado to find grub, as prospectors were abandoning provisions in their haste to leave. By mid-August, Utter was once again guiding hunting and fishing parties. He showed the sportsmen excellent fishing, while convincing the Utes these particular whites were just visiting, probably saving lives on both sides.
Still recovering from his accidental gunshot wound, Utter settled down in Empire and expanded his horse and donkey rental service from the ranch he had established. On September 30, 1866, he married 15-year-old Matilda Nash, daughter of an English baker who had set up in the town three years before. The Rocky Mountain News called the match “the best season’s trapping that Charley has made.”
Utter kept closer to home after his marriage, especially when his pack-train business took off with discovery of the Anglo-Saxon Lode near Empire toward year’s end. “Lodged for the night with that princely young mountaineer Charley Utter,” Dr. Junius E. Wharton wrote in the Rocky Mountain News in May 1867. “Charley has a pack train engaged in conveying a ton of ore a day from the Anglo-Saxon Mine to Johnson’s furnace.…The animals are making two trips a day.”
“Wedded comforts seem to have produced the happiest and most beneficial effects, as he looks rosy, robust and amiable,” the Central City Register noted about the same time. “He has established himself and his family on a ranch about a mile below Empire.…He has a large and hardy herd of donkeys in excellent condition for work.” Branching out, Utter bid $946 per annum for the mail franchise from Georgetown to Argentine, but Joseph A. Love got the contract for $399 per annum. Love then sublet the contract to Utter, whose donkeys had to make the trip anyway. Soon Utter’s donkeys were packing ore from many of the new strikes in the area. He continued to serve as a hunting and fishing guide for Easterners, including French geologist and writer Louis Simonin, whose published account of the trip featured a pen-and-ink illustration of Charley. Utter struck quite an image. He wore fringed tailored buckskins and beaded moccasins, a big neat mustache and hair down to his shoulders, sometimes teased with heated curling irons and perfumed, and he took a bath every day, warm in a bathhouse tub if possible, cold in a mountain stream if necessary. People got up early to watch this odd spectacle.
In 1868 Steve Utter, with wife Elma and daughter Harriet, joined older brother Charley in Colorado Territory. A second daughter, Agnes, was born to Steve and Elma soon after their arrival. About this time Charley appears to have sold his pack-train business, and the Utter brothers lived near one another in Georgetown, where Civil War veteran Steve joined the Grand Army of the Republic. Though Charley was not eligible to join that veterans’ organization, wife Matilda helped stitch a flag for the G.A.R. Charley did join the Odd Fellows fraternal society, and he ran (unsuccessfully) for the office of marshal in Georgetown. Together teetotalers Charley and Matilda joined the local temperance movement. Charley also became a member of the Georgetown Lodge of the Independent Order of Good Templars, an abstinence group. A year later, though, ever restless Charley was back in the pack-train business.
When area miners pondered how to get a heavy wire hauling cable up a 15-mile trail to mountainside diggings, Utter offered to help. After sleeping on the “Pythagorean problem,” he hitched loops of the contiguous cable to the packsaddles of his donkeys and started them up the trail. “This process was continued carefully and patiently until the entire length of the cable was suspended from the weary backs of all the tired donkeys in the district, and then the grotesque procession started,” an observer wrote many years later. “The little beasts of burden, strung out a few feet apart, took up the white man’s burden and moved right off with it.…It was the strangest sight ever witnessed in Clear Creek County.” The donkeys made the trip in two days, and the miners strung the cable within a week.
In 1870 Utter struck rich diggings at a mine called the Ocean Wave, which produced ore for him and his partners valued at $1,000 a ton and plenty of business for his pack trains. By January 1871 he had bought out most of his partners and owned three-quarters of the lode. By year’s end, however, he had leased the property and was back in the pack-train business full-time. Fire destroyed a large part of Georgetown in 1871, but Utter’s friends rallied to save his livery stable. He kept up prospecting, guiding and running his pack trains. He also guided a number of Easterners, including the Rev. Henry M. Field, editor of the New York Evangelist, and Asa Gray, the eminent American botanist and namesake of Grays Peak whom Charles Darwin had consulted for guidance before publishing On the Origin of Species. A Scribner’s Monthly illustration from the period shows Charley, all 5-foot-6 of him, posing over a dead grizzly.
Charley and Matilda managed to hold things together during the global financial Panic of 1873—at least at first. They sold a property valued at $250 to the Father Mathew Total Abstinence Association, though that may have been a donation. But by May 1874 Charley was on the delinquent tax list in a big way and had been expelled from the Odd Fellows for contempt of some sort.
Then he encountered Wild Bill Hickok.
No one is certain exactly when or where Charley Utter first met Hickok. Ellis T. “Doc” Pierce made the unverified claim that Utter and Hickok had been friends for 15 years before Charley hired Doc as Wild Bill’s undertaker. Pierce also claimed to be both a doctor and dentist when he was actually neither. A rumored gold strike during Lt. Col. George Custer’s 1874 Black Hills Expedition was likely the catalyst that drew Utter and Hickok together. Charley knew the best routes into the hills, and he expanded his horse and donkey trade in anticipation of what he predicted would be “a real lallapaloozer.” While waiting for the starting gun, Utter helped found a volunteer fire company in Georgetown and became a trustee of the Leavenworth Mountain Mining and Tunneling Co. He may have been reluctant to enter the Black Hills as long as the Sioux Treaty of 1868 remained in force.
Charley and brother Steve also joined friend John Burns on an epic market hunt in Colorado Territory, during which they killed 100 elk, 140 antelope and 309 deer and also caught a wagon-load of trout to be sold to miners as provisions. Finally, in February 1876, after a delegation of Lakotas had declined to sell the Black Hills, the Grant administration dropped any pretense of holding prospectors at bay. Anticipating violence, Army officers at Fort Laramie instructed gold-seekers to bunch up into groups of 40 or 50 and take plenty of ammunition.
Utter swung into high gear as soon as word got out. He organized a transportation line to the Black Hills, and by May 27 —10 days after Custer rode out for the last time from Dakota Territory’s Fort Abraham Lincoln at the head of the 7th U.S. Cavalry—Charley had already shipped 37,500 pounds of flour to the Black Hills. He also organized a regional pony express, 15 years after the original Pony Express, to deliver mail to and from the hills. Utter’s riders made sure to bypass the Red Cloud Agency, where even those Lakotas who had not joined Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were angry and restive. They instead took a route along the Cheyenne River. On June 27, two days after Custer’s death at the Little Bighorn (yet unbeknown to the outside world), Charley and Steve Utter and Wild Bill Hickok left Cheyenne for the Black Hills. Twenty-four year-old Martha Canary, better known as “Calamity Jane,” apparently knew Steve and also joined the Hickok-Utter train.
A few months earlier Hickok had married Agnes Lake Thatcher, widowed circus owner, and he was reportedly in Cheyenne organizing an expedition to the Black Hills as early as March. Things had not worked out. According to one dubious source, Wild Bill was so broke he had to borrow $22.30 of a friend’s pocket money for expenses. Put bluntly, Utter’s friendship with Wild Bill appeared, at least initially, to have been a matter of convenience: Wild Bill needed money, and Charley —who had never killed a man—needed Wild Bill’s intimidating reputation when facing down outlaws, if not Indians.
Deadwood, a town that cropped up roughly in the excitement of the rush, soon boasted 10,000 raucous people, including Wild Bill, the Utter brothers and Calamity Jane. Charley Utter launched his pony express from Deadwood on July 22. “All mail arriving at Cheyenne for the Hills, for which they have orders, will be telegraphed from [Fort] Laramie,” The Cheyenne Daily Leader announced. The Utter brothers rode the pony express route. Calamity Jane found plenty of work, mostly as a dance hall girl. Wild Bill mostly gambled and practiced his shooting instead of prospecting.
Between rides Charley Utter looked after Hickok, at least according to Leander Richardson, a reporter and sometime fabulist. Richardson described Wild Bill as a hopeless alcoholic—though still impressive when his angry flared up—and Utter as a sort of male nursemaid. “Utter’s greatest hobby was his neatness.…He positively would not permit Wild Bill, or California Joe, or Bloody Dick or any of the rest of them to enter his tent,” wrote Richardson. “That, he declared, was a shooting point with him.”
Richardson wrote about one drama that reportedly played out between the men:
One day Bill did not get home until after breakfast was over and everybody gone. He brought with him a very superior article of Deadwood jag, and Utter’s fine blankets, seen through the open flap of the tent, were more of a temptation that he could endure. Pretty soon the big fellow was snoring, calmly rolled up in Utter’s bedclothing, and there we found him.…Colorado Charley was at first amazed by the presumption of his partner. For a moment he stood there and fervently cursed the unconscious sleeper, and then, catching him by the heels, dragged him bodily out of the tent upon the ground. After that he ran in, pulled out his blankets and hung them up on the surrounding trees, all the time straining his vocabulary for fresh epithets to hurl at the offender. During the whole proceeding Bill stared at him with lazy lethargy, and then, with a parting grunt, climbed into his wagon and went peacefully to sleep again.
Despite Richardson’s somewhat dubious description of Hickok as a terminal alcoholic, rumor had it some of the law-and-order types in Deadwood wanted to make Hickok marshal of the boomtown. Utter suggested they hoof it out of Deadwood the way Hickok had fled Hays City, after a saloon fracas in which Wild Bill shot two of Custer’s soldiers. But Hickok was not about to run from trouble. His stay in Deadwood lasted no more than 20 days. Utter was elsewhere, attending to pony express business, when assassin Jack McCall shot Bill in the back of the head on August 2, 1876, in Nuttall & Mann’s No. 10 Saloon.
Utter took full financial responsibility for the funeral, including a notice in the Black Hills Pioneer inviting townspeople to the services, which got an overwhelming response. He did not, however, join the posse that tracked down the fugitive McCall, who was tried and acquitted, then later rearrested, tried again—and hanged. Utter was too busy with his pony express business. Letters, sometimes numbering in the thousands, cost 25 cents each to deliver, and trips between Fort Laramie and Deadwood took 48 hours. Meanwhile, Utter’s mine in Colorado had suspended operations after its manager got irresponsibly drunk. Charley also paid $128 to bail out brother Steve, who got drunk in Georgetown and pulled a bowie knife while being arrested.
Utter experienced many ups and downs after Hickok’s murder. A severe snowstorm killed some of his livestock, and Utter drifted away from the pack-train business, as well as his Deadwood pony express. He gambled more and jumped into the dance hall business. Gone were the tailored fringed buckskins with meticulous Lakota beadwork. Charley took to wearing a top hat and Prince Albert coat, with a 2-foot watch chain made of gold coins studded with diamonds. By 1879 he was running a dance hall in neighboring Lead, a company town unlike wide-open Deadwood, and soon ended up in court. On June 24 he was convicted of “operating a nuisance,” but as Utter had closed the joint, the judge sentenced him to just an hour behind bars and a $50 fine, plus costs.
Rumors that Hickok’s grave at Deadwood’s Ingleside Cemetery had been robbed prompted Utter in 1879 to have Wild Bill’s body exhumed and moved to Mount Moriah Cemetery. “There was no odor and no perceptible putrefaction,” reported the August 4 Black Hills Daily Times. “It [Hickok’s corpse] was hard as wood. …His moustache was hard and seemed, like his body, to have been petrified.” Charley also paid for a proper marble headstone.
In Deadwood that fall Utter opened a dance hall and helped manage a theater, but both burned down in a September 26 fire. Later that year Charley and Matilda apparently separated, though there is no record of a divorce. In 1880 Utter was described as a “professional gambler” in Gunnison, Colo. Matilda’s short-term replacement was known as Cheyenne Nell—and short term is no exaggeration. Years later an old-timer named Harry Cornwall recalled the day Charley sent Nell on a shopping jaunt to Denver by stagecoach. Harboring suspicions, Nell disembarked at Teachout and took the return coach. “This stage reached camp late in the afternoon,” Cornwall wrote. “By that time the lady’s successor had been installed. Nell was equal to the occasion. She had a pistol and chased No. 2 out of the cabin, then proceeded to throw the furniture out the doors and windows. Her language was subject to the censor.”
By late 1880 Utter was supposedly in Socorro, New Mexico Territory, with a common-law Mormon wife named Minnie Fowler who ran a stud poker table with another sometime Mormon named Maude. Later, although it remains unsubstantiated, Maude and Minnie reportedly left town to marry others, but Minnie eventually returned and took up with Charley. Together they were said to have controlled most of the gambling in Socorro. Some sources say Minnie and Charley moved on to El Paso, where they stayed until city officials outlawed gambling in 1904.
But Upton Lorentz, who knew Utter personally, maintained that sometime in 1888 Utter had settled in Panama, where he posed as an American doctor and started a pharmacy business. Lorentz said that he last visited Charley there in 1910, and that his friend was blind but comparatively wealthy. The date and circumstances of Utter’s death are unknown. His demise was almost certainly more peaceful than that of Wild Bill, and it seems no one wrote an epitaph for Colorado Charley.
John Koster is a frequent contributor to Wild West and the author of Custer Survivor. For further reading: Good Little Bad Man: The Life of Colorado Charley Utter, by Agnes Wright Spring, and Wild Bill Hickok: The Man and His Myth, by Joseph G. Rosa.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.