Chronicles of Frontier Days.
Chronicles of Frontier Days.

Chronicles of Frontier Days.

From the Denver Inter-Ocean.

    Those people who are now living, and were here in Denver as early as 1860 and 1861, will remember a curious specimen of humanity who perambulated the streets in those days, and came to the call of "Big Phil." He was more of the beast than human, and was very repulsive in appearance. He lived with a squaw for a wife and burrowed in a dugout on the Platte. He had a gigantic frame and was possessed of great physical strength. He stood six feet four in his stockings, and turned the scale beam at two hundred and forty pounds. The sound of his voice was like the growl of the mastiff or the muttering of a lion. There was something unhumanlike in its sound. He hankered for none of the luxuries of life, but was satisfied to dine upon the raw flesh of animals. In his cabin he required but little fuel, except to warm his body, since he partook of his food in the raw. He and his dog were on equal terms--they dined from the same joint. But after the frugal meal was over the dog was the superior animal of the two. The master washed down his bloody food with libations of bad whisky, while the dog slaked his thirst in the running brook. Yet both were terrors to the surrounding country in the dead hours of the night, when honest people would sleep. The dog howled and bayed at the moon, while the master made "Rome howl" in the grog shops and along the deserted streets. There were but few police in those early days, and they feared Big Phil, and dodged his approach. And well they might, for he was a gladiator in strength and tossed men about like toys. It was muttered about that he was a modern "Blue Beard," and had skeletons in his den down by the river. But to say the least of him, he was a monster.
    "Phil." could neither read nor write, but could speak every Indian tongue, of whatever tribe, from Denver to the British possessions. He had been among them for eighteen years, and had known them well. He knew their history and their legends, but his own he tried to forget. He did not forget, though, that he was a Philadelphian; that as a boy he was a wharf-rat--born in the slums there and nursed in filth. As a lad he had worked upon an oyster boat that went down the bay, and was knocked and cuffed about by a brutal captain, whom he resolved to kill. He determined when he should be old enough he would kill this captain, seize the boat and sail upon the high seas and become a pirate. He remembered "an old hag"--as he called her--a sort of "Meg Merrilles," down by the Spruce street wharf, who taught him to be a villain. She taught him to eat raw meat, sometimes sprinkled with gunpowder, that he might become ferocious and hanker for human blood. Said he to the writer one day: "Oft-times did she tell me to watch my time and chuck this captain overboard some dark night and then be a captain myself. She would tell me what a bold boy was Captain Kidd, and advised me to be a bolder one. There--I have told you all I am going to about myself, except, my name is not 'Big Phil.' Old General Harney gave me that name on account of my size and the town I came from. He first called me Philadelphia, but then changed it to 'Big Phil.' He never knew my correct name." Major E. W. Wynkoop, one of the original town company of Denver, one day met this strange man and recognized him as a refugee from a Philadelphia prison. There had once been a large reward offered for him but it had died out by limitation, and Wynkoop kept his secret until after "Big Phil." was dead. His proper name was Charles Gardiner. During the native American riots in 1844, Charles Gardiner was one of the desperate men who burned the Catholic churches and murdered the priests as they attempted to escape from the flames. For a time the city government was powerless, until the state authorities came to their rescue. During this reign of terror an hundred people had been murdered. At last the ring leaders of the rioters were captured and thrown into the Moyamensing prison, one among whom was this man Gardner. He had been there but a short time when he saw an opportunity to escape by the aid of his gigantic strength. He seized his keeper, dashed him against the wall, and walked deliberately out under the cover of darkness, and was never captured afterward. Large rewards were offered, but it did not bring him. He succeeded in getting to the Rocky mountains, and here joined a roving band of Indians and soon became a chief among them. For thirty years he lived with them in war and in peace. When Denver was first settled he came here and remained for a time while he was at outs with the Indians. They, like the authorities at Philadelphia, would have paid a price for his head, yet they never got him. Ten years after Denver first knew him, he was shot and killed in a gambling den in Montana in 1870. So ended the career of one of the most remarkable brute characters ever known in Colorado or in the far west.
    In 1856 when General Harney started out upon these plains in his memorable Indian campaign, and when at Fort Bridger, this mysterious refugee came to his camp one day and offered his services as guide, interpreter and scout. He soon satisfied the General that he knew the whereabouts of all the skulking tribes of Indians from the Missouri river to the Pacific. He imposed but one condition, and that was that the General was never to ask his name. This was his secret.
    "What shall I call you then?" inquired Harney.
    "Call me Philadelphia," said the brute, "that's good enough for me."
    The General engaged him and did as he agreed, but becoming tired of so long a name he one day shortened it, and thence after called him "Big Phil." and the name followed him until his death. During this famous campaign he rendered efficient service to the government. At the battle of Ash Hollow he led the troops upon the unsuspecting Indians and slaughtered the latter in great numbers. This was the greatest Indian killing of modern times, and stood without a rival until ten years later, when Colonel Chivington at Sand Creek, with his Colorado troops, killed two Indians to Harney's one.
    A characteristic story is told about this human monster, when with Harney's troops in the country which constitutes Wyoming territory at the present time. At the time we write of, Wyoming was but a wilderness, with no post roads or telegraph lines. There was a military post at Laramie. The General one day sent Phil., to make all haste and carry a dispatch to the fort or post, and return with a reply. He was accompanied by an Indian, and the two set out on foot. They reached the fort in safety, but on their return were caught in a terrible blizzard that swept across the country with great fury. It was such an one as kills every living thing that is caught without shelter. The couriers not returning at the expected time, it was concluded that they had perished in the blizzard. But one day Phil. was seen approaching camp with something across his shoulder. The General went out to meet him and welcome his safe return. On approaching he inquired, "what has become of the Indian?" "Here is what is left of him," said Phil. as he threw a human leg on the ground. "You see, General, the first day out from Larmie that blizzard struck us and carried away our guns and our provisions, and in drifting about we lost our way. That was the worst of it. Then for a few days we traveled without food. I was getting pretty hungry, General, and I had heard it said, 'an Indian is as good as a white man,' so I thought 'I will just try a piece of this fellow.' Now if you hear me, General, Indian is pretty tough meat, but it beats nothing--and don't you forget it. After I had downed him and made the first meal, I thought it was best not to get short again, so I took his legs along with me, and you see, General, I have some provisions left."                                             FAT CONTRIBUTOR.


Fat Contributor, "Chronicles of Frontier Days," Fort Collins Courier, Fort Collins, Larimer County, Colorado, Thursday, 4 May, 1882, p. 1.

Created July 26, 2006; Revised July 26, 2006
Comments to [email protected]

Copyright © 2006 by Christopher H. Wynkoop, All Rights Reserved

This site may be freely linked to but not duplicated in any fashion without my written consent.

Site map

The Wynkoop Family Research Library