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Further tales of White Beaver

Sun, Aug 20th, 2000
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Monday, August 21, 2000

A few weeks ago I wrote a feature article in the Journal regarding the historical origins of Lanesboro’s Buffalo Bill Days, (It all started with White Beaver, July 31, 2000). Due to the usual constraints of space, the finished piece was only a fragment of what it could have been. During the research, I uncovered so much information about both, Buffalo Bill Cody and his best friend, White Beaver Powell, that I could have easily turned the article into an eight part summer mini-series.

I’ve continued to discover interesting facts and anecdotes about Dr. David Franklin Powell, originally of Kentucky, who preferred to go by his Indian nickname, White Beaver.

According to historian Eric Sorg of Laramie, Wyoming, Powell was also called ‘Fancy Frank’, the ‘Surgeon Scout’, and ‘Medicine Chief of the Winnebagos’. Sorg, who has completed a biography of Powell, recently sent me three articles of his that have appeared in various history related publications.

"One of the biggest liars God ever let live," a newspaper of the day wrote of Powell. Yet, Sorg points out that few people dared to challenge the "wildly exaggerated claims" of Powell and that "no matter how free he might have been with the facts, Powell was still a brilliant doctor."

Sorg told me by telephone last month that he believed Powell’s military career as a surgeon at Ft. McPherson, Nebraska, came to an end when he discovered that his wife was having an affair with another officer. Powell promptly went into an emotional tailspin and spent the next six months on a drinking binge. It was shortly after that, in 1877, when Powell first showed up in Lanesboro. He was 30 years old.

Powell was a tall and rugged looking man, who often dressed in buckskin and wore his long flowing hair to his shoulders in the style of his good buddy, Buffalo Bill Cody. Sorg writes that White Beaver and Cody had spent much time together in Nebraska and that both men, "liked to drink, smoke cigars, live under the stars, hunt and share adventure."

Powell’s brothers, George (Night Hawk) and William (Bronco Bill), also doctors, eventually followed White Beaver to Lanesboro to practice medicine. In 1880, the Lanesboro Journal noted the arrival of the Powell boys stating that: "The brothers are plainsmen and for the past fourteen years have lived adventurous lives among the savage beasts and still more savage men of the wild west.
They have been all over the country, from British Columbia to Texas. They are just from California and propose to make Lanesboro their home."

Sorg writes that it was in Lanesboro that White Beaver, "spread himself liberally over the regional print media, both in advertisements and in articles and news stories that he paid for." In 1880, White Beaver, published his ‘Declaration of Independence’, a bombastic and exaggerated self-promotion that in today’s world would have likely landed him in a psyche ward or at least the subject of a segment on Hard Copy.

White Beaver wrote that his patients often asked, "Is (White Beaver) man or is he devil that he can read our very thoughts, and tell us exactly what ails us and hardly ask a question?" White Beaver went on to say that many people thought he was a medium, a ‘magnetizer’, and others thought he was clairvoyant. "If possessed of any or all the above powers, I am unconscious of the fact," Powell humbly concluded.

Once again, I fear that space is going to prove to be a limiting factor in this, the further tales of White Beaver. So, briefly here are a few other anecdotes about the good and eccentric doctor that I’ve recently come across:
• In 1878, the Chatfield Democrat reported that White Beaver was given the skull of Little Crow by a man named J.D. Farmer of Spring Valley. Little Crow was the notorious Sioux chief primarily responsible for the Minnesota Indian Uprising of 1862.
• In 1878, White Beaver excavated the skeletal remains of 600 Indians from a field just northeast of Lanesboro, where, legend had it, a fierce battle between the Sioux and Chippewa had occurred some two hundred years or more earlier.
• In 1907, George Powell wrote to a professor at the University of Minnesota, that his brother, White Beaver, had been in the process of preparing a manuscript of the legends of the Winnebagoes. "But, I know not if it was completed or where it is," George wrote.
• White Beaver Powell, while serving one of his four terms as mayor of La Crosse, Wisconsin, was the intended victim of an assassination attempt by a drunken Sioux Indian, but the pistol misfired. White Beaver promptly took the gun and pistol-whipped the would-be assassin into unconsciousness.

Both Eric Sorg and local historian Don Ward of Lanesboro have told me that in La Crosse, there is a silversmith with a shop near the historic Powell Building, who has an extensive collection of Powell memorabilia. I've heard, too, that the La Crosse Historical Center has some interesting Powell related stuff.

And then, just this past week somebody told me that there's a place called Doc Powell's, a restaurant-brew pub, across from the Civic Center in La Crosse.

Now, that’s beginning to sound like a research trip worth taking!

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