John Fleming Wheeler arrived in Mendocino City in the summer of 1878. He set up a dentist office within the Norton Hotel on Main Street. For a short while previously he had practiced dentistry in San Rafael. In 1877, he could be found for a time in the mining boom town of Bodie where he was involved in two shooting affrays.
In Mendocino, he soon gained renown as a crack shot with a rifle. The local newspaper took note of him bagging multiple bucks in one day during deer hunting season. Elite members of coastal society went to him for toothache care and to have their rifles sighted precisely. Late in 1878, Wheeler traveled back to Marin County and returned with his wife. Eventually, they would reside in their own home in Mendocino while his practice expanded from dentistry to occasional forays into full on medical practice after Dr. McCornack took a sabbatical back east to expand his training.
Rumor had it that Wheeler was born in the Cherokee Nation around 1842. Census documents place part of his childhood within McDonald County, at the southwestern corner of Missouri. The county's western edge bounded the Indian Territory. McDonald County's western border bore west several miles as it traversed from north to south. This crooked line, with a governmental stamp of approval, may have foreshadowed John Wheeler's own fate.
When he reached the age of ten, the Wheeler family also bore west, for California. A year later, young John and at least one sister appear to have traveled eastward again along with their father. According to John Wheeler's own telling, somewhere along the way he was taken captive by Indians. What became of his father and sister remains a mystery.
John Wheeler claimed that his riding and shooting skills were nurtured in this early experience of living with Native Americans. He told acquaintances in Mendocino that after a few years as a captive, he escaped from the Indians. Not long after, he apparently served as a scout for the U.S. Army on the Great Plains and on into the Rocky Mountain region. In this line of service, he supposedly crossed paths with both Buffalo Bill Cody and George Armstrong Custer. No documentary evidence seems to have survived to verify the matter; however, the locale and timeline of Wheeler's whereabouts do fit together enough to make this a reality.
During 1879 and 1880, Wheeler would be at the center of the action in the most notorious acts of violent crime in Mendocino County's 19th Century history, but he had already experienced more than a lifetime's worth of adventure a decade earlier. The late 1860s found John F. Wheeler in Idaho Territory where he sought fortune in gambling halls, served on the side of the law, and encountered Bigfoot.
Wheeler's skill on horseback allowed him to make his way on roads, trails, and cross country in places few others would attempt and in practically all weathers. At some point he wended his way along the rocky roads to Silver City, at 6,200 feet elevation. Accounts from the winter of 1868 show that he spent a good deal of his time at the gambling tables of this boom town about seventy miles south of Boise. On the outskirts of Silver City, competition between two mining companies, the Ida Elmore and Golden Chariot, at a spot known as War Eagle Mountain, reached a combative pitch in March, 1868. The two competitors for ore dug furiously right next to one another until they broke through each other's shafts, resulting in full scale confrontation. A Boise newspaper reported on March 25, 1868, “A large number of well armed men are in both mines, well fortified and closely watching each other. Occasional shots are fired.”
Truth be told, in a single night one hundred fifty rounds were discharged. By mid-month, random shots had turned into underground battle. Gunfire killed the owner of the Golden Chariot and several others on either side lay mortally wounded.
On March 29th, U.S. Marshal Orlando “Rube” Robbins took control of the disputed grounds at the behest of the territorial governor. Due to his skill with guns, his horsemanship, and apparently his favorable reputation as an Army scout, one of those deputized to monitor the combatants John F. Wheeler.
By late May the troubles at Silver City had subsided enough that deputies like Wheeler were no longer needed for deployment. At this juncture he moved across the territory and crossed over the line to ride the other side of the law. A Boise paper told much of the tale. “When a hundred miles beyond Port Neuf canyon [southeast of Pocatello near the Port Neuf River, a tributary of the Snake], three masked highwaymen stopped the stage, ordered the driver to throw out the Express box [there were actually two strongboxes, one containing about $1,800, the other holding $10,000], and the passengers to alight, at the same time covering them with with their Henry rifles. The driver threw out the way box [ with $1,800 in it]...”
The use of a Henry rifle proved just one of a pile of circumstantial details that point to Wheeler being one of the leaders of this little band of highwaymen. One of the passengers handed over $300 in greenbacks, but a man named Mullaney “protested his innocence of anything valuable so stoutly, and offered himself for search with so earnest an air that the robbers believed him and let him slide unsearched. After getting this booty they ordered the driver to go on. By his cleverness the Express box with $10,000 was saved... Mullaney thinks they are the same who robbed Ramey and Welch... and killed the latter after having robbed him.”
The similarities between the Port Neuf canyon robbery and the robbery and killing of Mr. Welch were undeniable. One of Wheeler's compatriots, John Billings, shot down Mr. Welch in cold blood. According to the survivor, Ramey, the whim displayed in the murder and the corresponding whim of allowing Ramey to escape, relieved of money, but physically unscathed, remained a shock he never got over. Such was the character of the companions Wheeler oft times chose.
Wheeler also engaged in horse trading in and around Silver City. Some of his finest steeds were stolen from a corral in late June or early July. Through intuition or straightforward information, Wheeler believed the horse thief to be none other than Bigfoot.
The presence of the man known as Bigfoot was first noted at the scene of an Indian raid in 1862. In the following year, when gold fever brought thousands to southwestern Idaho, any number of raids and late night stock thefts held a common clue, one of the perpetrators left enormous footprints behind.
John Hailey, early Idaho historian, quotes T.J. Sutton, an Indian fighter [and scout for an Idaho force that in many ways mirrored Jarboe's Rangers of northern Mendocino County in the late 1850s] attached to an expedition in 1863, describing the footprints he witnessed first hand: “We also discovered and measured Bigfoot’s track, which was 17 and one-half inches long by six inches wide.” Sutton also wrote. “At that time we had no knowledge of the man, but the enormous size of his track attracted our attention and so roused our curiosity that careful measurements of its dimensions were made, and no little discussion indulged in as to whether it was a human track.”