John Harwood Pierce: Ranger of the Plains

  Biography:     Part 1     Part 2     Part 3     Part 4     Part 5     Part 6    
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John Harwood Pierce
Biography: Part 2  1860 to 1876

Letterhead: 11th Illinois Volunteer CavalryCivil War. As a child of 14, John enlisted in the 11th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry to fight the Civil War. He enlisted three times and was rejected twice because of his youth. He served on the line in Bob Ingersoll's famous Civil War regiment. He may be one of the youngest veterans in the country who served in this capacity; typically most young enlistees served as musicians. He was discharged December 2, 1864, but reenlisted in the U.S. Veterans Volunteer Infantry where he served until June 25, 1865. As he began his Civil War service, John was still growing. At the time, he was listed as a blue-eyed, brown-haired young man with a height of only 5 feet, 3/4 inch. Later, as he aged into adulthood, he gained another 8 inches in height.

Below is a transcript of the Adjutant General's Report in the 11th Illinois Cavalry Regiment History for the period during which John served in this regiment.

The Regiment left Vicksburg about the last of March for home, on a Veteran furlough of 30 days and again returned to Vicksburg, Miss.; were engaged in scouting through the spring and summer, destroyed the R.R. track north of Jackson, Miss., for a long distance and burned all bridges of any size. At this time, they were with Gen. Osburn, and were in the fight at Yazoo City, in July 1864, where they co-operated with Elliot's Marine Brigade to relieve Col. Coats, with the Eleventh Infantry, who was besieged in that city by the rebels under Gen. Wirt Adams. Late in the fall of '64 the Regiment left Vicksburg on boats, and landed at a point on the east bank of the river, 50 miles below. Marched first in an easterly direction, and by a circuitous route reached Natchez, where the Brigade embarked on boats, and landing a few miles above Baton Rouge, marched rapidly east and north. Engaged in a fight at Woodville, La., in which a Battery of 6 guns was captured and about 100 prisoners. Marched to Mississippi River with guns and prisoners, and from there to Natchez, then embarked on boats and landed at Vicksburg, and a short time afterward left in boats for Memphis, Tenn. Here the non-Veterans and most of the officers were mustered out.

[NOTE: Evidently, there were two John H. Pierces in the 11th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry: John Harwood Pierce and John Hassett Pierce. See this supporting evidence.]

In his autobiographical poem, A Ranger's Biography, John writes about his years as a Civil War soldier as follows:

Civil War Photograph

What sounds are these I hear?
The cannon speaks!
Louder, nearer, yet more near,
And now Columbia shrieks,
And calls to arms her sons.

Sires of Revolutionary fame
Spoke to my soul.
And I essayed to place my name
Upon the roll.
And be a soldier in the ranks.

And then they looked upon my slender form
And asked my age,
Then turned away and said the storm
Of battle must not rage
Around such little boys.

But now the wreck of bloody fields
Is borne on every train
And every daily paper yields
Each page to one sad strain
Of woe and wounds and death.

And yet again, and still once more,
I stood rejected.
Then Captain Moffatt's open door,
And field white tented
Gave welcome call to me.

Poncho-roll, carbine, sabers, haversack, revolvers, and canteen
With very little boy
Rations, ammunitions, water, spurs and fifty things I seen,
All ready to destroy
Jeff Davis and his army.

And why so seed the field of strife?
Ah man is savage,
And war is dear to him as life;
He recks not of the ravage
The dragon's teeth can make.

And in our cause I saw the right,
The slaves glad jubilee,
The first faint dawning of the light
That was to make them free,
As God ordained.

Closely we struggled life for life,
The boys fell thick and fast.
Moffatt, Dature, Weaver, Fyfe
Scores from our hundred passed
Into their rest.

We struggled o'er the rights of men,
For liberty and light
And now we see what man saw when
Old Israel's flight
Was guided by the hand of God.

How proudly through the Red Sea waves
Our nation came;
While slavery found a crimson grave
And treason the same
In that dark tide.

Served as a Spy in Woman's Clothing In his later years, when John was a lecturer and showman, he often spoke to audiences about his days as a 14-year-old Civil War soldier. One story which occurs frequently in his papers, is that dealing with the time he served as a spy. Evidently, he was so young and small that his commanding officers felt they could dress him up to look like a respectable young woman. Thus, he was ordered to dress as a girl, and sent out to spy. As you can imagine, some interesting events occurred!

Sometime much later in his life, when John had access to a typewriter, he wrote down the full story of his forays as a spy. Three carbon copies were among his papers. A full transcript of this marvelous story, The Spy, is linked to this biography. It is well worth reading! No doubt in later years, he entertained audiences countless times with the retelling of this story. The five-page typed manuscript ends with these words:

The spy was John H. Pierce, Co. "H" 11th Illinois Cavalry, and the story is true in every detail.

Served as a Prison Guard for Charles Morey. In 1919, John Harwood Pierce happened upon a former Civil War friend of his while visiting the newspaper offices of the Oakland Daily Post (Oakland, California). More than half a century earlier, they had known each other in a Civil War prison at Camp Douglas, Illinois. One was a captive drummer boy of a Virginia regiment [Charles Morey], and the other was a Yankee corporal [John H. Pierce] acting as prison gruard while convalescing from a shell wound. The Virginia drummer boy was Charles H. Morey, now a dashing 70-years-young movie actor from Los Angeles, and familiar to millions of movie fans the world over as the man who played the part of Robert E. Lee in the "Birth of a Nation." A full transcript of the article Vets Meet After 55 Years, together with a photograph of the event, is linked to this biography. The article is both amusing and interesting. It gives further insight into John's engaging personality as well as some brief additional information about his days as a Civil War soldier.

Teaching and Wandering Years. After the War, John describes time spent wandering in the Southern States. He speaks of teaching the slaves to read. But his efforts to help the freed slaves were discoverd by the local Klu Klux Klan, and he was run out of town on fear of death. He also describes years spent wandering and adventure-seeking. Apparently, he supported himself by freelance writing, talking plainly about what it was like to live a life of adventure on the wild western frontiers of America.

Far in the South where hangs the funeral moss
Where walls have tears,
And cypress, pine and live oak toss
And moan their fears.

Far in the South by fevered swamp
And alligator's lair.
Where Ebon Dinah and her dusky Pomp,
Have gunnysacks to wear.
Far down where reeds like bamboo grow,
And serpents vile.
Fill the dark waters of the foul bayou,
Swimming in file.

Down where the cutthroat pirate crews
Started the towns
And the witches froth their children's brews
In coal black gowns.

And there this ghastly Ku Klux Klan,
Found me one night;
For teaching, I was under the ban
Of death or flight.

I wandered then through many states
Adventures seeking,
A freelance, careless of the fates,
And plain in speaking.

First Marriage & Birth of Edgar. At the age of 23, John married Marie E. R. De Belisle. At the time of the marriage (November 22, 1871), his bride was only 15 years old. John and Marie made their home in Omaha, Nebraska. The following year, John and Marie had a son (b. 10/18/1872) whom they named Edgar B. Pierce. Marie died the following year (3/24/1873) at the age of 17. Throughout his long life, John never forgot the exact date of Marie's death. Obviously this event was a profound tragedy that occurred early in his life.

In his autobiographical poem, A Ranger's Biography, John writes about the death of his first wife as follows:

And next with bride so sweet and fair,
A year went by.
Death came, and touched her raven hair,
"Don't cry so, John, don't cry."
[At another time, someone wrote next to this:
"These were her dying words = the last on earth. "

What need to tell the weary tale,
Of sorrow's blight.
Oh how I struggled, but to fail
To reach the light.

Sometimes the clouds dissolved
And youth held sway,
Life's problems must be solved.
We soon turn grey.

John leaves no information concerning who raised Edgar following the death of his mother. Most likely, Edgar's maternal grandparents took him in and raised him to adulthood. Lovingly, John refers to his first-born son in the dedication to A Ranger's Biography, "To Edgar, son, the six-foot man, may angels guard his way." One can safely assume that John did not lose track of his son, but saw him and wrote to him from time to time.

John reports in one of his pension application documents that his son Edgar served eight years the U.S. Navy and that he died in the Navy at Antioch, California as the result of a boiler explosion. This appears to have ocurred in 1908 during either the Spanish or Samoan campaigns, when Edgar was 36 years old. Among John's keepsakes was a card from the cemetery were Edgar is buried. In John's handwriting, it shows the exact location of his son's grave (Lot 47, Division 3, Section K) at Cypress Lawn Cemetary, near San Francisco, California. One can assume that John visited the grave on the day he wrote that location on the card.

John Harwood Pierce: Frontier's ManIndian Scout and Wild West Poet. After Marie died, John spent many years wandering on the wild western frontiers of America. First, he worked as a hired hand on various ranches. In his autobiographical poem, A Ranger's Biography, John writes about these years as follows:

For years the boundless plains,
The Rocky Mountains and the prairie
O'er ranch steeds I drew the reins,
Learned to be quick and wary.

Ranger of the Plains. In early 1876, when news of the discovery of gold in the Black Hills swept through the nation like a fever, the Omaha Bee sent two paid journalists into the Black Hills to report on the events occurring there. These two journalists were John Harwood Pierce, known as Ranger, and John W. Crawford, known as Captain Jack Crawford. During the months that followed, reports from these two journalists fueled the fire which helped spark the famous Black Hills gold rush. In turn, that gold rush caused the events leading up to the famous Battle at Little Big Horn, the death of Colonel George A. Custer, and eventually, the slow demise of the proud indian cultures of the plains.

During these years, he served as a lieutenant colonel in the Moraska cavalry, a regiment formed in Nebraska at the time of the Indian uprising in the Black Hills, but one which saw little active service. Thereafter, John referred to himself as Colonel John Pierce. This appears to have been a common practice among the Indian scouts. For example, Buffalo Bill, another Indian scout, was commonly referred to as Colonel Cody. But, neither Bill Cody nor John Harwood Pierce served as an officer in the U.S. Army.

He was a close friend and keen admirerer of Indian scout and poet, Jack Crawford. A study of John Harwood Pierce's personal papers makes it clear that he tried very hard to be a famous poet-scout like the legendary Captain Jack.

In the Sunday, August 26, 1917, Oakland Tribune article referred to in Part One, John explained how he...

...scouted on the plains for eight years, journeying from place to place, anywhere where there was any fighting to be done, or where frontiers were being raided, wherever there was need of a man who knew the Indian tribes.

The Oakland Tribune interviewer described how he saw on John's wall in his apartments, an autographed photograph of famous Wild West poet-scout, Jack Crawford, also known as Captain Jack. The photograph was described as showing a tall man with long flowing hair, much like John kept his own hair throughout his life. The man was surveying the Grand Canyon in Arizona. [The photograph described by the interviewer, was not found among John's papers. The photography below is a historical portrait of Jack Crawford.] The autograph said: "To my old Pard and Comrade, John H. Pierce." Below the photograph, the interviewer goes on to tell, was a poem that John had written earlier that same year, when he heard that his "Old Pard," had died in New York. The poem reads:

Captain Jack Crawford
Goodbye to Captain Jack.
The only foe that ever gained
Your conquest, has attained
The victor's place in fight.

I read you died last night.
I stand alone, Wild Bill
And Texas Jack. Buffalo Bill
And California Joe, none that I
Was wont to know
To hold the trait, when I am called to go
I stand alone, The Ranger of the Plains.

Jack Crawford, poet-scout.
So you are mustered out.
Goodbye, old Captain Jack,
I loved you, but I would not bring you back.


The Last of the Frontier Showmen. This poem is a very telltale piece, revealing a deep truth about John's personal self-image. He thought of himself as the last "to hold the trait," the last of a dying breed of Wild West showmen--men like Wild Bill Hickok, Captain Jack Crawford, California Joe, and Buffalo Bill Cody. At the time he wrote this poem in 1917, John Harwood Pierce knew he stood alone; he had outlived all the famous frontier showmen. These were men that he had known personally, and men whose lives he tried, in many ways, over many years, to copy and profit from. In the poem, he says that he loved Captain Jack, but that "he would not bring him back." Why? Because, he was deeply proud that he had outlived them all--the last "to hold the trait!" He knew very well that he had not attained the same level of fame as they had, but he had survived them all! Thus, in the opening lines of the poem, he brags that he, John Harwood Pierce, in living to be the sole surviving poet-scout, was...

The only foe that ever gained
Your conquest, has attained
The victor's place in fight.

Like Captain Jack, John tried to make a living as a poet, lecturer, and showman. "Ranger of the Plains," or just " Ranger" for short, was John Harwood Pierce's nom de plume--the name under which he wrote his Wild West verse. He also use that name as his byline while serving as a journalist for the Omaha Bee.

Click Part 3 here, or below, to continue this biography.

Biography:     Part 1     Part 2     Part 3     Part 4     Part 5     Part 6    
Genealogy:     1st     2nd     3rd     4th     5th     6th     7th     8th    
Send all inquiries to the author, Barbara Case, at:  ~  Last Updated March 20, 2009