John Fleming Wheeler served the town of Mendocino as dentist for less than a year and a half in 1878-1879. His name lives on because of his central role in the most notorious crime in Mendocino County's 19th Century history. See the previous AVA for more on Wheeler's childhood and his early endeavors in Mendocino.
A closer examination of Wheeler reveals a life rich in adventure before he arrived in Mendocino County. A decade before his arrival on the north coast, he was employed as a U.S. Deputy Marshal to help quell a shooting war that had broken out between mining companies in Silver City, Idaho. He gained that position due to his remarkable skills with guns and his horsemanship.
With that behind him, Wheeler turned his attention to horse trading in and around Silver City. However, in late June and early July, 1868, some of his finest steeds were stolen from a corral. Through intuition or straightforward information, Wheeler believed the horse thief to be none other than Bigfoot.
The presence of the figure 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.”
Sutton described Bigfoot as “the boss horse thief of the plains.” The mythic description of Bigfoot caused boys in the area to create gigantic moccasins in order to leave seventeen inch footprints at the sites of many pranks over the next few years. The man, myth, or legend purportedly stood six feet, eight inches tall, on a two hundred eighty pound frame. Most who proffered such descriptions probably never saw the real Bigfoot.
The account of what happened after John Wheeler's horses disappeared remains supposition, though it has been recounted in several serious works of history. Apparently, the legend of Bigfoot, which had grown throughout the 1860s from Montana on across Idaho, did not dissuade Wheeler. He garnered information that Bigfoot and two Bannock confederates planned to rob a stagecoach that traveled the rutted Silver City to Boise run. Wheeler lay in wait amid sagebrush south of the Snake River. Before the stage appeared, he spotted the potential hold-up trio and commenced firing. One Indian fell dead, another headed for the hills, but Bigfoot stood in the open shooting and hollering for his opponent to show himself. Wheeler obliged. Bigfoot emptied his gun to no effect, but was hit with at least one round then turned to run. Wheeler strode toward him, Henry rifle in one hand and revolver in the other. Bigfoot drew his large hunting knife and lunged forward. Wheeler holstered the revolver and emptied his Henry, with round after round striking Bigfoot's barrel chest and other parts of his body. He fell in the dirt on his back. With both legs broken and one arm shattered by the bullets, Wheeler considered him still so dangerous that when the big man asked for a drink of water, Wheeler supposedly said, “Hold on til I break the other arm, old rooster, then I'll give you a drink.”
“Well, do it quick,” Bigfoot responded, “and give me a drink and let me die.”
With his revolver, Wheeler shot him through the second arm then strolled down to the stream, filled his canteen, returned and held it to Bigfoot's lips. In a matter of less than a minute it lay as empty as his gun.
Bigfoot allowed as how he could do with some whiskey. Wheeler said he always carried a flask in case of snakebite. “Give it to me quick, I'm getting blind,” the fallen man said.
Wheeler pulled the flask from his breast pocket, knelt, and tipped it to Bigfoot's mouth, into which every drop sank in a series of swallows until the Indian's head slumped to one side. At first the pistoleer and rifleman assumed Bigfoot to be dead, but in a matter of a few minutes the mythic figure raised his head, saying that he felt much better.
At this point logic compels interjection to offer that a man shot through with so many rifle and revolver rounds could scarcely hold the water let alone the liquor. However, the encounter of Bigfoot and Wheeler has been told thus so many times, and no alternative offered, what transpired next must be related as well.
Bigfoot claimed his real name was Starr Wilkinson, with a white father, Archer Wilkinson. His mother was a half Cherokee, half Negro woman. Starr said his father had been hanged for murder, but his mother was a good, religious woman. Because of his size he had been called “Bigfoot” as long as he could remember.
He came westward driving a wagon as a member of a emigrant train in 1856. He fell in love with a young woman on the journey. She seemed similarly inclined until an artist from New York City joined up with the group. Suspecting the artist had insulted him, an argument commenced while the two rounded up the stock one morning along Goose Creek, near the Crazy Mountains, between Bozeman and Livingston, Montana. The artist admitted to derogatory statements about Wilkinson’s parentage.
“This made me mad,” Bigfoot told Wheeler. “I told him if he called me that again I would kill him. So he drew his gun on me and repeated it. I was unarmed, but started at him. He shot me in the side but did not hurt me much, so I grabbed him and threw him down, and choked him to death, then threw him into the river. I took his gun, pistol and knife and ran off into the hills.”
According to the tale, Wheeler told Bigfoot/Wilkinson that he was part Cherokee. At this juncture Bigfoot asked two favors of Wheeler: that none be told of his death and that his body be buried where it could never be found. Wheeler agreed, and Chief Bigfoot died content.
Apparently, a sizable reward existed for the capture or killing of Bigfoot. No records document Wheeler seeking that monetary reward.