Clark B. Stocking put his life on the line many times as a soldier, scout, sheriff ’s deputy and shotgun messenger, yet he survived well into the 20th century and got a third chance with his first love.
Most men went West during the California Gold Rush either to line their own pockets or to boost their family income. But for some, such as Clark B. Stocking of Michigan, the journey was more a quest for adventure than a quest for gold. Perhaps fortune hunting just didn’t work out for Stocking (his later forays into business certainly didn’t), but he did find more than his share of adventure while roaming the frontier from the Southwest to the northern Rockies. He served two stints as a soldier, scouted, hunted, trapped, traded and enforced the law (with and without a badge). Along the way Stocking put his life on the line more than a few times and somehow survived to a ripe old age. He even managed to spend his golden years with the “girl” he had twice left behind.
This man destined for frontier adventure was born on September 18, 1839, in Pontiac, Mich., the son of a cabinetmaker and wheelwright named Jared Stocking and his wife, Lucy. His parents christened him Clark and gave him his mother’s maiden name, Bigelow, as a middle name. (As a man Clark preferred to go by just his initials, C.B.) The Stockings raised and schooled their boy in the small town of Otisco, Ionia County, Mich. In 1852, as he was entering his teens, Clark met Olive Spencer, a girl one year his junior, and the youngsters struck up a romance and agreed to marry when old enough. But another passion, the lure of adventure in the vast country lying to the west, turned Clark’s head, and while still in his teens he left home and followed the setting sun to seek that adventure and perhaps his fame and fortune.
He was not yet 21 in the summer of 1860 when enumerated in the U.S. census as a resident of Eel River Township, Humboldt County, Calif. The census listed his occupation as “farm laborer,” but it is unlikely restless young Stocking had undertaken the dangerous and grueling journey to California to work a farm, an occupation he could have pursued back in Michigan. He was undoubtedly prospecting for gold, like thousands of other fortune hunters in California. Whatever Stocking tried, he did not get rich quick, but he wasn’t about to pack up his gear and return to a settled life in Michigan.
In the 1850s the white residents of Humboldt County, in far northeast- ern California, faced periodic raids by the Klamaths from their lands farther north. To defend against these Indian forays, the Humboldt miners formed militia units. One such outfit, commanded by Captain Seaman Wright, incurred much disrepute when, on February 26, 1860, it attacked an encampment of peaceful Wiyot Indians on Gunther Island in Humboldt Bay and slaughtered dozens of Wiyots, women and children included. (Enraged by the atrocity, soon-to-be famous author Bret Harte, then writing for a California newspaper, penned a blistering editorial denouncing the perpetrators.) Although Stocking is reported to have served in Wright’s company during this period, his name does not appear on a list of militiamen who took part in the massacre.
Following the outbreak of the Civil War in the spring of 1861, the federal government, concerned that Confederate forces from Texas might disrupt the Union’s contact with the far-off state of California and its rich gold mines, authorized formation of a military unit to guard the Butterfield Overland Mail route. This 1,500-man volunteer force, initially comprising the 1st Regiment California Volunteer Infantry under Colonel James H. Carleton and the 1st Regiment California Volunteer Cavalry under Colonel Benjamin F. Davis, came to be called the California Column. Lieutenant Colonel George W. Bowie and his 850-man 5th Regiment California Volunteer Infantry later beefed up the column. Stocking joined the latter regiment at Yreka on December 9, 1861, as a private in Company A, under Captain Joe Smith.
Proceeding eastward into Arizona, New Mexico and then Texas, the column met resistance from Confederate troops on only two occasions: a bloodless skirmish in late March 1862 at Stanwix Station, on the Overland Mail route about 80 miles east of Yuma, and a sharp engagement on April 15 at Picacho Pass, 50 miles northwest of Tucson. Stocking’s company participated in the Picacho Pass fight, which claimed three Union soldiers killed and three wounded. The Confederates later reported two wounded and three taken prisoner.
The column did see plenty of action from Apache bands led by Chiefs Cochise and Mangas Colorados, which subjected the Californians to frequent raids during the campaign. Stocking faced particular risk as an express rider, carrying messages between the encampments and Army posts. By all accounts he boldly and skillfully completed his assignments, and his superiors promoted him to corporal.
From his experience on the campaign Stocking developed an intense antipathy for Apaches. Those feelings only intensified after he served as member of a detail that cut poles and fenced off the graves of the Oatman family on the banks of Arizona’s Gila River. Eleven years earlier Apaches had slaughtered six members of the family and captured two young sisters, Mary Ann and Olive. Stocking made clear his hatred when he said of the later capture and execution of Mangas Colorados, “He got what he deserved, and no one in our command pitied him or cared about it.”
The 5th Regiment disbanded at Franklin, Texas, and Stocking mustered out on November 30, 1864, after three years of service. But the military life appealed to him, and less than two months later, on January 21, 1865, he re-enlisted at Franklin in the 1st Regiment California Volunteer Infantry and served another 20 months before his final discharge on September 15, 1866.
Following his military service Stocking returned to the “States” for a lengthy visit with his family and an attempted revival of his long-neglected dalliance with Olive Spencer, who had not married. But he was still not ready to settle down to a life of domesticity, and Olive was equally unwilling to join him on his quest for Wild West adventure, so once again he left her.
In 1867 he turned up in Cheyenne, Dakota Territory, a new boom camp at the end of the westward-building Union Pacific Railroad, where he worked as a scout for the Army command stationed at nearby Fort Laramie. Between scouting assignments he hunted professionally, providing elk and antelope meat for the post and railroad construction crews.
The summer of 1868 found him in Green River, Wyoming Territory, where on August 28 he displayed his reckless bravery by single-handedly riding into a mob of saloon bums bent on lynching a doctor named Johnson. The doctor had gunned down one of the hard cases for insulting his wife, and the man’s friends had in turn gotten a rope. Seeing the doctor’s plight, Stocking leaped into the saddle and, firing a pair of six-guns, charged the mob. The mob shot the scout’s horse from under him and wounded him in the arm and foot, but in the confusion both he and Johnson were able to flee. Suffering severely from his injuries, Stocking hid out for two days before a friend found him and took him to Salt Lake City to recover.
Stocking resurfaced the following year in the burgeoning mining camp of White Pine, Nev., where Lieutenant George M.Wheeler employed him as boss packer for his early surveys of the vast territory west of the 100th meridian. Returning to California in 1871, Stocking took a respite from his frontier adventuring to open a business in Stockton. But a destructive fire soon put an end to this attempt at domesticity.
Stocking then headed for Montana Territory. Working out of Fort Benton, he hunted, trapped and traded with the local Indians. In the spring of 1872, with the funds acquired in this enterprise, he again ventured into the world of business, opening a hotel in the Dakota Territory town of Edwinton. The town changed its name to Bismarck in 1873 and boomed with the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874. Stocking’s hotel likewise prospered.
Now 35, an age by which most 19thcentury men had found their vocation and settled down, Stocking might have stayed in Bismarck and grown up with the community, but for another clash with members of the criminal underclass that seemed to proliferate in these remote boomtowns.
The trouble arose between a pair of “sure thing” gamblers named Charles “Shang” Stanton and Dave Mullen and a square gambler named Ed Hayes, whom Stocking had befriended. When Hayes, riding a lucky streak, acquired a large bankroll, Stanton and Mullen plotted to rob and murder him. Picking a fight with their intended victim, they drew pistols and opened fire. But their aim was as bad as their intentions, and Hayes, unhurt, managed to escape into a nearby building, which the crooked gamblers and their friends quickly surrounded. Going to the aid of his friend, Stocking created a disturbance in front of the building, enabling Hayes to escape out the back. He and the gambler then slipped out of town. Hayes, delighted to have escaped with his winnings and his life, kept on going, but Stocking returned to Bismarck. The hoodlums soon learned how Stocking had tricked them. Cornering the hotel owner in a saloon, they locked the doors and beat him unmercifully. Stocking fought his way to a door, kicked it open and got away. Convinced he could no longer safely remain in Bismarck, he disposed of his hotel and moved on.
Stocking rode north into Manitoba, Canada, where he hunted and trapped along the Saskatchewan River and Lake Winnipeg for the Hudson’s Bay Co. In 1875, after a detour to Salt Lake City, he was back hunting out of Fort Benton.
In 1876 the allure of gold drew Stocking to the Black Hills boomtown of Deadwood, Dakota Territory. Finding the most promising claims already taken, he took work wherever he could find it, including service as a shotgun messenger on the stagecoaches running the dangerous routes from town. Lawmen found him particularly useful as a scout and tracker whenever they organized posses to hunt down the road agents who preyed on the stages. Following the September 26, 1878, robbery of a treasure-laden stage from Deadwood, in which gunmen killed one passenger and severely wounded messenger Gale Hill, Stocking, described in local papers as “a noted trailer and gunman,” joined one of several posses in search of the brigands. Once such posses succeeded in breaking up the outlaw gangs and either shooting, lynching, jailing or driving off their members, Stocking sought adventure elsewhere.
In late 1878 owners of the Iron Silver mine in Leadville, Colo., were having trouble with “jumpers,” crooks who tunneled in from adjoining properties to strip away much valuable ore. They hired Stocking to organize and head up a force of guards to protect their interests. After a few sharp engagements deep underground, he and the five gunmen he had enlisted drove off the interlopers. The “Captain of the Stipendiary Fighters,” as Stocking became known, then set up a regular guard of 37 men to patrol Leadville’s mines around the clock and prevent the jumpers’ return.
Stocking spent most of the next year in Colorado trading with the Ute Indians. He then went back to his old stamping grounds in California, where in 1883 he met and married a young woman in San Francisco. After only a few months of married life, however, Stocking again kicked off the dust, this time heading down to Mexico, where he worked for several different mining companies, providing security for shipments of bullion from their Sonora and Sinaloa offices to the coast.
On one occasion, while supervising a Sonora railroad work gang, Stocking tangled with a bunch of thieves trying to make off with a contractor’s four-horse wagon. Charging into them with nothing but a pick handle, he laid out a few, but the others overcame him and pummeled him so severely that he almost died from his injuries. Railroad and mine officials ministered to him and, when he had recovered sufficiently to be moved, arranged for his transport to Clifton, Arizona Territory. When he finally regained his strength, Stocking returned to shotgun-riding duty, guarding ore shipments from mines near the new camp at Carlisle, New Mexico Territory. He also pinned on a deputy’s badge, working for Grant County Sheriff James Woods.
About this time the editor of the Enterprise, a newspaper in nearby Silver City, extolled Stocking in a lengthy account of his career, describing him as “an ideal far-westerner, upwards of 6 feet in height and built proportionately.” The editor, who claimed to be an old friend, went on:
His bearing, together with the genial but firm expression of his countenance, command at all the times the attention of strangers….He possesses to an exceptional extent all the characteristics of the true, generous, brave-hearted frontiersman of the Rocky Mountains. Holding his integrity above the reach of suspicion, he has held many positions requiring not only sterling honesty but fearless courage as well. During his experience as bullion messenger for different mining companies he has carried hundreds of thousands of dollars safely to their destination. This, too, often in the face of temptations that would cause the fall of many…reasonably honest men….No man more fittingly represents the better class of men…than does Colonel Stocking.
When Stocking learned that the wife he had left behind in California was several months pregnant, he went to San Francisco and brought her back with him to Carlisle, where, in February 1885, she gave birth to a daughter named Francis. Perhaps believing boosters’ predictions that the community was destined to blossom into a great city, the couple set up housekeeping there. But the mines never produced to expectations, and the town gradually died, eventually joining some 400 other New Mexico ghost towns.
Seeing the signs of that impending demise, Stocking moved on. In 1887 he was in Tucson, Arizona Territory, working as a deputy for Pima County Sheriff Matthew F. Shaw, when a gang of six desperadoes from Mexico terrorized residents with a drunken spree and tortured an old man they believed had a stash of money, burning his hands and feet in an effort to make him talk. Shaw and Stocking raised a posse and pursued the criminals. In an ensuing gunfight Stocking was credited with winging gang leader Librado Puebla, and the lawmen captured all six of the band, who were duly convicted and sentenced to long stretches in Yuma Territorial Prison. Soon thereafter Puebla engineered an escape attempt during which prison officials gunned down the gang leader and three of his followers.
Two years later Stocking was serving as jailer at the sheriff’s office in Florence, Pinal County, Arizona Territory. One day when an obstreperous prisoner named Juan Avenento gave him trouble, Stocking struck him over the head with an iron bar, fracturing his skull and nearly killing him. Authorities charged Stocking with assault with a deadly weapon, convicted him and sentenced him to a year in the territorial prison. But acting upon petitions signed by many influential citizens of Pinal, Yuma, Pima and Graham counties, Arizona Territorial Governor John N. Irwin pardoned him.
By the time of his pardon Stocking was in his 50s and getting a bit long in the tooth for the kind of dangerous frontier work that had engaged him for so many years. He was 60 in early 1900 when a U.S. census taker interviewed him at Morenci, Graham County, Arizona Territory, but Stocking still gave his occupation as “scout.” When asked his marital status, he replied “widowed” (his wife having passed away five years before). Daughter Francis, 15, was living with the Charles Martin family in Stockton, Calif.
Stocking soon accepted the fact he had grown too old to scout and chase adventure anymore. He returned once again to California and took up residence in the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Veterans at Sawtelle, Los Angeles County.
Surprisingly, this hard-bitten old frontiersman enjoyed reading and writing poetry. A few years later the Los Angeles County Pioneer Society appointed Stocking its poet laureate.
In 1910 the 70-year-old was still living at the veterans’ home when he met with a sudden and unexpected turn of fortune. He and a friend, acting on an old prospector’s tip about a rich ore deposit near Kelly, New Mexico Territory, traveled there and found a promising ledge above an abandoned mine. The two men filed a new claim and extracted 40 tons of valuable ore before heavy rains halted the work, then sold their claim for a sizable sum.
Flush with money, Stocking opted not to return to the veterans’ home, but dreading the thought of living alone, he again turned his thoughts to matrimony. He wrote to Olive Spencer, his first love, and found to his delight that she remained unmarried and had not forgotten the restless boy who had left her a half-century before to seek adventure in the Wild West. He proposed, and she accepted. The old love/new bride entrained for California and reunited with Stocking in San Diego, and in June 1910 Clark and Olive got married in the home of her brother Milton.
Clark and Olive spent their last years together in a Los Angeles home. She died in the 1920s, and he joined her in death on June 24, 1934. Stocking was 94 years old.
R.K. DeArment, of Sylvania, Ohio, is a frequent contributor to Wild West and an award-winning author of numerous books about the frontier West. His book Deadly Dozen: Forgotten Gunfighters of the Old West is suggested for further reading, along with The Red-Blooded Heroes of the Frontier, by Edgar Beecher Bronson, and Gold Rushes and Mining Camps of the Early American West, by Vardis Fisher and Opal Laurel Holmes.
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.