One look at “Rocky Mountain” Joe Sturtevant in his fringed buckskins conjures up images of the Wild West, Indians, and adventure. And that is probably just what Joe wanted you to think. Much of what is known of Joseph Bevier Sturtevant’s early life came directly from him, and biographies and recollections provide little evidence to back up his claims. Due to the lack of documentary evidence, it is necessary to question the items presented as fact. Did Joe really enlist with the 4th Wisconsin Cavalry at the age of ten while with a traveling circus? Was he an actual participant in several brutal Indian skirmishes as a teenager? His apparent military career seemed a bit far-fetched, but I was willing to give Joe the benefit of the doubt. However, the deeper I dug into his early life, the more I began to question what was fact and what was fiction. Even during his lifetime, there were those who questioned the truth of his stories. Some believed that he had told the adventures so many times he began believing he actually lived them. All legends have grains of truth in them to make them believable, and in my search I am determined to uncover that truth.
Born February 8, 1851 in Boston, Massachusetts, Joseph Bevier Sturtevant was the second son of Samuel A. and Jemima (Depuy) Sturtevant. Moving from Lowell, Massachusetts around 1849, his parents lived in Boston for several years, before making an ambitious move to western Wisconsin in 1854 or 1855. Samuel Sturtevant applied for and received an 80-acre land grant in the town of Hudson, St. Croix County, Wisconsin in 1856. Located on St. Croix Lake, bordering Wisconsin and Minnesota, Hudson was a young town in an agricultural region, and the Sturtevants were only a few people of several thousands moving to the county during the decade.
The first several years of Joe’s life quickly became a period of interest. Conflicting newspaper articles claimed a variety of beginnings: Joe was born in 1848 in Boston; he was originally from Illinois; his family was attacked by Indians while traveling to California; he grew up in California amid the 1849 gold rush; as a young boy the family moved to Wisconsin where his father was an Indian trader; his parents allowed him to live with some nearby Indians in Wisconsin.
The only item in the entire list that has been proven is the family moved to Wisconsin when Joe was young. It is quite possible Samuel could have been labeled an “Indian trader” since he was a merchant of some kind in Lowell, Massachusetts and later ran a grocery and supply store in Hudson, Wisconsin. It is certainly possible Joe spent time with and learned from the local Native American peoples, but living on the edge of the northwestern frontier tension between the groups was more likely than tolerance.
Samuel Sturtevant died on July 2, 1859, leaving Jemima to care for four young children; Samuel Jr. eleven, Joseph eight, Florence four, and Blanche two. No records have been found yet as to the cause of Samuel’s death. Jemima supported her family as a milliner making hats and a variety of clothing trimmings. After his father’s death, Joe was supposedly apprenticed as a broom-maker, which was certainly a possibility for a young boy. Bored with his apprenticeship it is said he ran off to join Dan Costello’s circus. Then upon the outbreak of the Civil War, and seeing the opportunity for great adventure, he left the circus and convinced a recruiting sergeant from the 4th Wisconsin Cavalry to let him join.
It is at this point in most renditions of Joe’s life that the story becomes quite elaborate. One of my first tasks was to find out if Joe served in the 4th Wisconsin Cavalry. I found no official mention of Joseph Sturtevant in that regiment, however, Joe’s older brother Samuel enlisted at the age of seventeen in Company G of the 4th Wisconsin Cavalry and served from 1863 to 1866. Did he assume the experiences of his brother in order to tell a good story? Young boys did enlist, typically as drummer boys and fifers, and there is always the possibility that due to his age he was not officially accounted for.
The military engagements Joe supposedly experienced quickly took him all across the country with a variety of different state military units. According to his biographies, Joe went with the 4th Wisconsin he would have spent time in Alabama and Louisiana. Somehow he befriended General Alfred Sully and went north where his next battle occurred in Dakota Territory at the Battle of Whitestone Hill in 1863. He would have been twelve years old. He stayed in the territory until the close of the Civil War then became a civilian scout for the Army. In 1867 he fought along side Captain James Powell in the Wagon Box Fight near Fort Kearny in what is present-day Wyoming. Then in the following year, while transporting mail from Fort Stevenson to Fort Totten in Dakota Territory, Sioux Indians took him as a prisoner for two years. In 1870 he escaped with a companion and floated down the Missouri River in a stolen canoe. Over the next few years he supposedly spent time in St. Louis, New Orleans, Florida and Tennessee before returning to Dakota Territory and Fort Totten where he served briefly under the infamous George Armstrong Custer.
Besides being a bit fantastic, there is a significant problem with at least one of these stories. In 1870, when Joe was supposed to be escaping Indians and floating down the Missouri River, the 1870 census places him in St. Paul, Minnesota, working as a clerk, and living with his brother, sisters, mother and stepfather. A comment made by his own mother even brings some of his military claims into question. Prior to her death in 1906, his mother told a newspaper that “Joe was an affectionate son” and “it was while he was with her in the Northwest [Wisconsin/Minnesota] that Major Peck took her as his wife, after Joe had reached his manhood.” This suggests that Joe did not abandon his family after his father died.
Other curious coincidences relating to Joe’s supposed military career revolve around William Peck, his stepfather. Prior to marrying Joe’s mother, William spent three years serving in Company D of the 30th Wisconsin Infantry. According to a regimental history summary, Company D was one of four companies along the Missouri River that guarded boats and provisions for General Alfred Sully’s Northwestern Indian Expedition in the summer of 1863. That autumn Company D assisted in the construction of Fort Sully along the Missouri River in the Dakota Territory just south of Pierre. In September 1863 General Sully battled the Sioux in the battle of Whitestone Hill, the skirmish Joe claimed to have fought in. There is a chance William Peck heard stories from Sully’s men due to his close proximity to the troops while building the fort. It is certainly a possibility that William retold some of his war experiences as well as stories he heard from other soldiers to Joe at a later date.
In the late 1870s William Peck became a post trader at Fort Totten, Dakota Territory (North Dakota). By 1880 the census places him at Fort Totten while his wife and family remained in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fort Totten plays into some of Joe’s military stories, but there is currently little evidence, other than William’s association to the fort, to support Joe’s connection to it. If Joe spent time at the fort, the early 1870s was the most likely time, because by 1874 he made his way to Boulder, Colorado.
The years before Joe’s arrival in Boulder have been very difficult to research. The deeper I search into the military pasts of the people Joe knew, the more I think Joe absorbed the stories he heard and retold them as his own.
Arriving in Boulder, Joe quickly took up the sign painting profession before going into photography in the early 1880s. The combination of his love of the mountains and photography made him one of Boulder’s most prolific and well-known photographers.