The Road to Buckskin Joe
By Tom Knebel
Self published, 2014 ISBN 978-0-692-22999-6
Reviewed by Laura Van Dusen
Tom Knebel used the long-gone mining town Buckskin Joe for the setting of his historical novel. It was a few miles west of Alma and one of the richest gold rush towns in the Mosquito Range from 1860-1868.
The setting and title may make Central Colorado residents pick up the book, but it’s the story that will keep the pages turning. It tells of 16-year-old Tom Boone, who left his Missouri home in 1861 with a goal to make a fortune in the Colorado goldfields.
He had very little help from his parents; they didn’t want him to leave. His father eventually relented and gave Tom six untrained burros. In the months before he departed, Tom trained those burros to work together and carry 100 pounds each while he walked beside them.
The burros turned out to be the best gift young Tom could have received. Unpopular in Missouri, the burros, with their sure-footed pace and strong backs, proved their worth time and time again after Tom and his friend Jake Lewis arrived in Buckskin at the height of the gold rush.
Tom and Jake traveled across the endless prairie for two months. When they made it to Buckskin Joe, they discovered that it wasn’t that easy making a living panning for gold. Tom, with his burros, ended up working for Horace Tabor. They carried provisions to the miners in Buckskin Gulch and brought back bags of gold. Jake became a carpenter and built homes in the new town.
The story takes readers on a captivating ride across the Great American Desert to the western frontier. It tells of horse thieves and Indians on the trail, the crowded gold panning stream at Fair Play Diggings, and the arrival of Silverheels in Buckskin Joe and her nursing of miners through the small pox epidemic.
It tells of how mountains Lincoln, Democrat and Silverheels were named and how the town’s name of Buckskin Joe won out over Laurette, the name the post office preferred.
It was the time of the Civil War. Fights between northern supporters and southern sympathizers are woven into the story, as well as what might have been the first burro race in the area. It went from Alma to Buckskin Joe to Park City and back to Alma.
In March 1862, Tom Boone decided it was time to go back to Missouri and acquire more burros to sell to Colorado miners. He was also missing Becky, the girl back home.
But after an overnight in Denver City, Tom and his traveling companions were recruited into the Union army at gunpoint by Major John Chivington. They are forced to drive a wagon to New Mexico to fight in the battle of Glorieta Pass. There they were united with miners from Buckskin Joe called the Buckskin Brigade.
Knebel expertly weaves historical facts into the tale of young Tom Boone. The battle did indeed take place under the command of Chivington for two days in March 1862, and recruits from Buckskin Joe were there.
When the battle was over, Tom Boone was released from duty and went again on his way to Missouri. He arrived in town and was devastated to see eight new graves dug in the town cemetery. It was the day after Becky’s family was attacked in their home by Civil War southern sympathizers.
Tom Knebel wrote this book over a period of six years for assignments in a Wednesday night writing class in Fort Collins, where he now lives. He told the teacher of difficulties in keeping the characters straight. She advised him to name the characters after people he knew, and once the book was done, to change to fictional names.
Knebel took the first part of the advice, but didn’t change to fictional names. Readers may recognize, among other Fairplay and Alma residents, the names Richard Hamilton, William Reeves, Erik “Svensson” and possibly a burro named Egg.
The Road to Buckskin Joe is a good read with an interesting story line. It is available at Fairplay Antique and Art Gallery, the South Park City Museum gift shop in Fairplay and at amazon.com.