Uncle Billy: The Evolution of a Legend, Part One

Billy Rubottom

William Wiley Rubottom, a California innkeeper and entrepreneur known to everyone as “Uncle Billy,” provided the inspiration for some serious storytelling.  Conflicting versions of two of these stories, set down twenty years apart,  offer a glimpse of the way in which stories can be used to reinforce the values of a place and time, and thus to shape their society.

Uncle Billy, the most adventurous of all the Bettis cousins, was born in his family’s small community of Greenville, Missouri, in 1809.  As a young man he moved to Arkansas, along with several of those cousins.  In 1849, according to one account, he set out for California in search of gold.  Horace Bell, a Union officer in the Civil War and later a lawyer, journalist, and freelance gadfly, picks up the story from there.

In The Old West Coast, written in the last years of the 19th century, Bell tells of meeting Billy in a mining camp in 1851, “the purest specimen of the rough diamond that it has ever been this author’s privilege to know….honest, generous, and just, a lover of right and a hater of wrong.”  Among the other residents of the camp was a young slave named Harry, who was traded around among the miners as the prize in a weekly card game.  Eventually Billy, who appears to have been one of the leaders of the group, became fed up with this ritual.  He interrupted the game, told Harry that he was in a free state and therefore free himself, and offered him a job at four dollars a week.

Harry’s “owner” of the week, a Mr. McGullion, took it badly, but did not pursue the matter at that time.  Instead, he returned to Arkansas and swore out a warrant for Billy’s arrest on charges of stealing “his” slave.  A year later, Billy too returned to Arkansas, collected a party of kinfolk and friends, and set out again, intending to settle permanently in California. Just beyond Indian Territory McGullion and two of his friends caught up with him and tried to arrest him for the theft.  No other men in the party were around, and Billy had nothing but a knife. As he related it to Bell, when he came to after the struggle he was lying in the wagon, covered with blood but unhurt.  His wife told him he had killed all three men.

Bell, a man of strong principles and forcefully asserted opinions, found in Billy a kindred spirit. Frank Parkhurst Brackett, 35 years younger than Bell, was writing for a different audience.  In Brackett’s highly romanticized History of Pomona Valley—published in 1923, at the height of the Jim Crow era—the story of the young slave Harry takes an entirely different form. There is no mention of a mining camp or of a card game. Now there are nine slaves, borrowed from an Arkansas slaveowner for the trip to California, and they all “emancipate themselves” rather than being liberated by Billy. When Billy returns to Arkansas without them, their former owner and another man meet Billy on the street and accuse him of selling them and keeping the profits. In the course of the heated discussion that follows, the slaveowner draws a gun and shoots at Billy, wounding him in the hand. “With incredible stamina he drew a silk handkerchief through the bullet hole to stanch the flow of blood, and then in a frenzy of rage he dashed after the two men. With his whole hand he drew his knife from his belt and pulled off the sheath with his teeth.” He then chases his assailants into a nearby tavern and stabs them both to death.

It is entirely possible that Bell’s story contains as much fiction as Brackett’s.  But while Bell’s stories about Billy consistently emphasize his human decency and his aversion to slavery, Brackett prefers to celebrate an ideal of reckless courage and homicidal rage. Billy’s fair and honorable treatment of his Mexican employees, emphasized in several of Bell’s stories, also disappears in Brackett’s telling.  Brackett, however, is quoted on the internet far more often than Bell.  It is his version of this story that is remembered.

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