Joe Leonard, Buffalo Bill, Gen. Custer, et alJun 1st, 2009 | By Leonard Legends & Legacies | Category: Legends & Legacies, Real People, Real Stories
As a child of the fifties (meaning I was a child in the fifties), nothing could be more exciting than the possibility of an ancestor who might’ve crossed paths with the heroes of black-and-white TV westerns. Nevermind that characters like Rowdy Yates (Clint Eastwood of Rawhide fame) were imaginary.
I wasn’t even sure where Bonanza’s Ponderosa Ranch was located, but based on the landscape, I was pretty sure it wasn’t in southern Iowa. Imagine my delight, decades later, when I discovered Joe Leonard, who actually met, maybe even worked with General Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Wild Bill Hickok!
Joseph Leonard (b. 20 Dec. 1837) was the sixth of nine children born to William and Mary (Van Ort) Leonard of Washington County, Pennsylvania. Shortly after his parents and most of his siblings decided to “go West” to Ohio in 1855, Joe decided to go WAY West to a place known only as “Indian Territory.” And there he disappeared for close to fifty years.
When Joseph’s father died in 1881, he left a tiny piece of Ohio to Joe, provided he “appear or make his wishes known within three years.” Joseph never did, and the property was divided among his siblings. Near the end of his own life, Joseph did reconnect with his siblings and his remarkable story began to unfold. Part of it came from a letter he left behind.
Joe had taken the riverboat Jacob Strader from Cincinnati, Ohio, down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1858. From there, he took the Polar Star (once described by Mark Twain) up the Missouri River to Kansas Territory. Landing in Fort Leavenworth, Jospeh joined the Army Quartermaster Corps.
For the next several years, Joseph spent his time supplying horses to various forts in Indian Territory, later known as New Mexico and Oklahoma. That’s where he met the two Bills. Buffalo Bill Cody was in a similar line of work, supplying buffalo robes to the Army. And Wild Bill Hickok was, well, being wild… first as a professional gambler in Kansas City and later as a frontier sheriff in Kansas Territory.
In 1868, Joseph was shuttling horses between Forts Harker and Hayes when a young George Armstrong Custer came through looking for recruits among the hardy plainsmen he found there. Fortunately for Joe, he had the good sense to decline Custer’s Last Offer.
At some point in his travels, Joseph met and married Na-nia, a Caddo Indian also known as “Minnie.” He became a member of the tribe and lived among them for the next several decades. That fact alone probably explains why Joseph never claimed his Ohio inheritance.
Na-nia was quite likely the sister of Caddo chief Sho-E-Tat, also known as George Washington and Little Boy. Na-nia and Joseph had two children… a boy who died in infancy and a girl named Margaret, who was raised by Catholic nuns after Na-nia died in childbirth.
From that point forward, Joseph served as the official translator, guide, and scout for the Caddo tribe. He ushered tribal leaders to Washington D.C. at least twice to negotiate with government officials. Joseph eventually earned himself a reputation in Washington as “a notorious mischief maker” and was once arrested by the infamous US Marshal Jack Stilwell.
Joseph died in 1925, but not before reuniting one last time with his older brother William, who had spent the majority of his life in nearby Kansas. The two were photographed together with an unknown infant girl, possibly a great granddaughter, in the early 1920s. Joseph is said to buried in a Catholic cemetery in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but his grave has yet to be found.
Joseph’s only descendants came through daughter Margaret and her Cherokee husband, John Downing. Their eight children were named James, John, Earl, Pearl, Renna, Thelma, Edwin, and Ernest. To date, none of those descendants have been located.