Char­lie Neebo was Kent County’s For­rest Gump

The Chatham Daily News - - NEWS - JIM & LISA GILBERT

Last week, I be­gan re­count­ing the un­likely – but ab­so­lutely true – story of Charles Coombes Knee­bone, who for most of his life was known as Char­lie Neebo.

Char­lie lived his early life in Or­ford Town­ship, Kent County, but by the time he was 19 de­cided he wanted a more ex­cit­ing life than be­ing a toll-keeper at the Thames River at Mo­ra­viantown, as his dad was pur­su­ing.

Char­lie set off for the United States in 1861 and, through pure good luck (or is that bad luck?), be­came part of some of the Wild West’s most con­tro­ver­sial, ram­bunc­tious, ex­cit­ing and vi­o­lent episodes.

Last week, I left you with a puz­zle. I wanted you to guess the name of the fa­mous out­law Char­lie be­friended in New Mex­ico dur­ing the tu­mul­tuous Lin­coln County Wars. The man’s name and whose pic­ture is fea­tured here this week was “Billy The Kid”,

Af­ter Billy the Kid’s death at the hands of Sher­iff Pat Gar­rett, Char­lie’s com­ment was, “He wasn’t that ruth­less a fel­low that West­ern his­tory had made him out to be.”

But per­haps Char­lie was com­par­ing Billy the Kid to his own vi­o­lent and ruth­less life.

Char­lies de­cided in 1885 to set­tle down. He pur­chased his own ranch (called “H3”), lo­cated near the bor­der of Ne­braska and South Dakota. There he made friends with the lo­cal Sioux tribes, as well as the French set­tlers liv­ing in the area. He loved horses al­most as much as he did hard drink­ing and ex­ces­sive gam­bling, and started to train and trade an­i­mals with the Sioux at a nearby reser­va­tion.

In 1885, Char­lie also mar­ried. He was 43 when he mar­ried 24-yearold Anna Soren­son (1861-1929). The cou­ple had three chil­dren born at Fall River, S.D.

Al­though older now, Char­lie could still not re­sist a good fight and be­came in­volved in the var­i­ous skir­mishes lead­ing up to the bloody mas­sacre at Wounded Knee, S.D. In­jured be­fore the Wounded Knee mas­sacre, he was again able to es­cape sure death.

In 1892, Char­lie sent word back to Kent County and to his 16-year-old nephew, John Thomas Knee­bone, that he wanted him to come out to South Dakota and be­come a rancher. The young lad took his un­cle up on the of­fer and soon be­came a rancher near Char­lie’s ranch.

In 1920, Char­lie and his wife, Anna, moved to Port­land, Ore., where he took up gar­den­ing and writ­ing let­ters to the many friends he had made dur­ing his rather bizarre and tu­mul­tuous life. Since he never learned to read or write, he dic­tated his let­ters to his daugh­ter Maud, who du­ti­fully sent them off to the in­tended re­cip­i­ent.

In one of the let­ters sent to an old ac­quain­tance, Char­lie summed up his life as fol­lows: “I have been a cow­boy for over 40 years. I have driven herds of cat­tle from the Gulf of Mex­ico to South Dakota. I have driven on sev­eral oc­ca­sions cat­tle for 96 miles with­out any wa­ter. I am a vet­eran of the Civil War and an ex-Texas Ranger. I knew Bil­lie the Kid well. He was a good friend to me. I have known Buf­falo Bill since 1867. Now, how­ever, I have set­tled down here on a ranch.”

Very few cow­boys from the time re­ceived as much men­tion in ob­scure ar­chives, per­sonal let­ters, books, mem­oirs and jour­nals of the time than the boy from Canada’s Kent County.

Char­lie was de­scribed in one as “a man as ready to take a life as a drink. He was a staunch friend to the few he cared for but a dan­ger­ous en­emy for those he didn’t. He was a man who would, ei­ther sober or drunk, heed very few re­strain­ing voices.”

Like For­rest Gump, Char­lie Neebo had that un­canny ta­lent of be­ing present at some of the most im­por­tant and most his­toric events in Amer­i­can his­tory. He was part of the Amer­i­can Civil War, the Lin­coln County Wars of New Mex­ico, a mem­ber of the Texas Rangers, part of the rise of the cat­tle in­dus­try, played a piv­otal role in the bit­ter dis­putes be­tween cat­tle­men and home­stead­ers, and was at Wounded Knee and many other but im­por­tant de­vel­op­ments in U.S. his­tory.

He was also lucky enough to have known per­son­ally many of the key his­tor­i­cal fig­ures of that time. Peo­ple like Gen­eral Wil­liam Te­cum­seh Sher­man, John Chisum, Charles Good­night, Wil­liam Bon­ney (“Billy The Kid”), Gen­eral Custer and Buf­falo Bill, to name a few.

He was one of the most talked about ar­che­typal fig­ures of the Wild West that most peo­ple have never heard of – and he was from Kent County.


Wil­liam Bon­ney, bet­ter known as Billy the Kids, was a friend of Kent Coun­ty­born Charles Knee­bone, who was bet­ter known in Wild West cir­cles as Char­lie Neebo.

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