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“I know I’ve seen that face somewhere,”
Big Jim was thinking to himself.
“Maybe down in Mexico,
or a picture upon somebody’s shelf.”
Bob Dylan - Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
The Renowned Indian Fighter & Canadian Scout
The Most Remarkable Marksman Living.
See him Shoot! Buffalo Bill’s Righthand Man.
(Advert for The Perth Theatre,
Perthshire Advertiser, 5th & 9th of June 1915)
‘Montana Bill’ was a Glasgow-based music hall turn and cowboy actor from the opening decades of the 20th century.
His act consisted of theatrical demonstrations of his prowess as a rifle shot. These performances involved exhibitions of his shooting prowess, carried out with the assistance of a lady who was billed alongside him as ‘Peteria, the Living Target’. Montana Bill would shoot apples and clay pipe bowls off Peteria’s head, and a nut from between her fingers. He would also cut a postcard through the middle at the thin edge. He would, as a matter of routine, take his assistant’s life in his hands several times in the course of each show.
There is some photographic evidence to substantiate that, for a time at least, Montana Bill ran a small-scale outdoor ‘Wild West Circus’ of his own but almost all the available press cuttings relate to his activities as a music hall artist.
His birth name was Robert Bailey Robeson but in the time-honoured fashion of the Western bad man, he also went by a string of aliases, amongst them William Bailey Robeson, William Montana, and William Montana Bailey.
A substantial part of his extraordinary life story can be pieced together from a handwritten manuscript, personalised stationery and a surviving collection of newspaper clippings.
According to his own account, Montana Bill was born on the Red Rock River, Manitoba, Canada in 1855. His father was a French-Canadian land surveyor and his mother a daughter of the famous Lakota chief, Rain in the Face.
After spending his early years among his mother’s people, he served as an Indian scout to the U.S. army and personally participated in a number of notable frontier incidents, the Battle of the Little Bighorn amongst them.
It is in connection with this period of his life that he frequently styled himself in his extravagant press releases as ‘Buffalo Bill’s right hand man in many wild adventures’.
He claims to have enlisted with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in 1886, in the capacity of Indian interpreter and trick marksman, and continued to tour with the entourage until 1892. At the end of this time, Buffalo Bill was about to return to the States and as Montana Bill wished to stay in Great Britain, he then signed up with Mexican Joe instead. He remained in this employment until the spring of 1894, when Mexican Joe went bust - according to Montana Bill at Barnsley, South Yorkshire.
Many of these details raise a number of doubts which cannot be resolved.
Firstly, he was the author of his own downfall in the diligent preservation of his various certificates of birth, death and marriage. These consistently indicate that he was born at some time between 1870 and 1874, making him at least fifteen years younger than he claimed to be; too young, in fact, for any of the historical incidents which he claimed to have participated in.
Nor can any independent record be found to corroborate his statements concerning his membership of Buffalo Bill’s entourage. The trick shooting acts in 1891-92 were Annie Oakley, Johnnie Baker, Claude L. Daly, and Buffalo Bill himself. No reference can be found to anyone else. Buffalo Bill’s Indian interpreters during this period can also be identified without significant difficulty but nowhere is there any mention of Montana Bill Robeson.
In Wild West history it is notoriously difficult to separate hard fact from deliberately concocted pulp fiction. However, it is now effectively established that Montana Bill never rode with Buffalo Bill Cody; he merely rode on his coat-tails.
Today, the man who called himself ‘Montana Bill’ has living descendents in Glasgow and Burntisland, Fife, as well as Liverpool and Syracuse, both New York State. Several of them are actively engaged in attempting to piece together the truth about the life of their extraordinary forbear.
“Montana Bill” was quite a picturesque object. He wore a red shirt trimmed with barbaric ornaments, and his long, dark locks hung down his back like a school girl. He had on his war paint, and he showed some good shooting with a Colts’ rifle. He finished his target practice by firing at a pipe head set on the head of the lady who acted as his marker – the William Tell feat modernised.
The Dundee Courier & Argus, 4th January 1897
Montana Bill also claimed to be a member of the Legion of Frontiersmen, advancing a membership number, 9601. This much at least may be true, for as he himself pointed out, the sole qualification was payment of the five shillings membership fee. Here he appears in Legion of Frontiersmen uniform.
Another catchy programme is promised at Perth Theatre next week. The variety turns include a special engagement of Montana Bill, the renowned Indian fighter and Canadian scout. Montana Bill was the famous Buffalo Bill’s right-hand man and his shooting powers are credited as being almost uncanny.
- Perthshire Advertiser, Saturday, 5th June 1915
MONTANA BILL’S OFFER TO CRACK SHOTS
A most attractive and popular programme is being presented at Perth Theatre this week. Comedy is one of the strongest features. In this sphere Rich and Russell are, of course, a power in themselves - “six feet of Scotch, and a little bit of English.” Their turns are keenly enjoyed, the patter being exceptionally good. Recalls are so insistent that these really popular artists have the greatest difficulty in bowing themselves off the stage. One of our coming Scotch characters, Bob Neil, is also receive (sic) flattering encouragement. Neil has only recently gone on the boards, but from his appearances at Perth and elsewhere, he seems likely to become very quickly a public favourite. To conclude reference to the vocal part of the entertainment, it must be said that no more dainty turn than that provided by Ray and Glennie, character comediennes, has ever been given at the Theatre. Beautiful dresses, and delightful dancing and singing make a very pleasing blend indeed. A somewhat unique and sensational turn is that provided by Montana Bill, who was the noted Buffalo Bill’s right hand man in many wild adventures. Certainly, the exhibition of shooting skills is extraordinary. Montana Bill appears to be able to do anything with the rifle, and from any possible position. One holds one’s breath while several daring feats are being accomplished, and one can readily imagine that nothing but the exponent’s confidence in his steady eyesight and nerve of steel would permit him to attempt the sensationally hazardous task of taking, as it were, his girl assistant’s life in his hands many times during his remarkable performance. The young lady, however, has also the most absolute confidence in her companion’s expertness with a dangerous weapon. Last night Montana Bill announced a shooting competition, the first round at the Theatre tomorrow (Thursday) evening, and the final on Friday, which will be a grand military night. Valuable prizes will be awarded. The pictures include a screaming Charles Chaplin film, entitled “His New Job,” in which the knockabout humorist is delightfully energetic as usual. A great three-part drama, “The Warning,” holds the house spell bound. For the week-end programme a sensational picture, entitled “Out of the Air,” will be shown.- Perthshire Advertiser, Wednesday, 9th June 1915:
These photographs of Montana Bill’s regalia, poster boards etc., are reproduced courtesy of Mr Graham Bailey. They were taken, c. 1997, at 62, Feeches Road, Southend-on-Sea, Essex, home of Montana Bill in his latter years. The gentleman in the third image is Montana Bill’s son, Mr Robert Bailey, born in Glasgow in 1917.