Frontier exploits of California Joe

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Survival on the frontier was for the toughest of the tough. It was a life of adventure, hardship, danger and the unexpected. Sometimes it brought riches and fame - but more often an early grave.

California Joe was born Moses Embree Milner, in Standford, Ky., on May 8, 1829, some nine years after the death of fellow Kentuckian Daniel Boone, perhaps the greatest of all American frontiersmen.

The Kentucky frontier may have become too civilized for young Moses. At age 14 - with a passion for the wilderness - he quit school, left his family, shouldered his Kentucky long rifle and headed for points west.

Moses Milner was not destined for a long life, but a lot happened in the years remaining.

He became a crack shot, scout and guide for the U.S. Army and Gen. George Armstrong Custer called him his favorite.

He prospected for gold in California and Idaho, was almost eaten by a mountain lion, built a wagon trail in the middle of Idaho that bears his name, took part in the Mexican-American War, fought in the Indian Wars, knew the famous of the Old West, married a 13-year-old and had five children.

Though he didn't spend much time there, he earned the nickname California Joe.

After leaving home in Kentucky, teenage Moses arrived in St. Louis where he joined a party of fur trappers headed for Fort Laramie, Wyo. He was the youngest of them all and had to grow up in a hurry.

Moses and a group of American Fur Company trappers out of Fort Laramie unexpectedly tangled with Blackfoot warriors camped by the Powder River. During the ensuing fight, he killed three of them. He was only 15.

He adapted quickly to life in the frontier West.

The Army employed him as scout and guide for one mission after the other, quickly earning the reputation for being the best.

Years later, Buffalo Bill said, "They needed not only a fearless, but a tried, wary, cunning, reliable guide, and California Joe was all of these."

In 1846 he was a guide for Col. Alexander William Doniphan in the Mexican-American War, when U.S. forces were fighting to take over the rest of the Southwest, after annexing Texas the year before. Doniphan was well known for saving Mormon founder Joseph Smith Jr. from execution in 1838.

In 1850, Joe married Nancy Emma, a 13-year old from Tennessee, and the next day they headed for the California goldfields.

Two years later, they acquired a 645-acre farm/ranch near Corvallis, Ore., and started raising quality horses and cattle. Soon however, Joe longed for the frontier life again.

Leaving his wife to run the ranch, he headed north to Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River. There he met West Point graduate Lt. Philip H. Sheridan, who gave him a contract to supply wood for the fort.

When gold was reported in eastern Washington and North Idaho in 1859, he joined the rush. He was one of 52 men who found gold at Elk City.

The next year, he filed a claim near Grangeville and built a log cabin at a spot he named Mount Idaho. Because of miners trekking through rough terrain between there and Florence, he decided on making travel easier.

He cut a pack route called Milner Trail and charged man and animals a dollar a head toll. Then he expanded his cabin and served food to hungry travelers at a dollar a meal.

In the fall of 1860, his Kentucky mare was stolen. Taking a shortcut, he chased down the thief and shot him in the head, leaving the body with a note of warning to other horse thieves.

By the mid-60s, he was in Colorado witnessing the Sand Creek Massacre when 700 members of the Colorado Territory militia destroyed a village of friendly Cheyenne and Arapaho, killing and mutilating 170 to 160 Indians, two-thirds of them women and children.

It was one of the darkest events of the Indian Wars.

(The Army also killed hundreds of Indian horses, as they did in 1858 when they shot 800 Palouse Indian horses and ponies in eastern Washington. A stone monument marks the site, located just west of Post Falls, Idaho, to the north of Highway 90, between the Port of Entry weigh station and the Spokane River.)

During the 1860s, California Joe became friends with many of the main characters of the Old West, including Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Jim Bridger and Kit Carson.

Wild Bill said, "I've two friends, my six-shooter and the other is California Joe."

Carson hired him as a civilian scout exploring for a site for an Army post along the Santa Fe Trail. Joe also joined him later at the Battle of Adobe Walls in north Texas panhandle in 1874.

At Adobe Walls, Carson and a troop of 300 men defended 28 buffalo hunters against attack by thousands of Comanche, Apache and Kiowa. The tribes resented intrusion on their traditional buffalo hunting grounds. The battle yielded little results and few casualties, with both sides pulling back.

Joe was known as a heavy drinker. After Custer hired him as chief of scouts for the Washita Campaign in western Oklahoma in 1868, he became so drunk celebrating they had to lock him up and he was fired from his job before he even started. That may have been a good thing for him.

Sadly, his old friend Gen. Sheridan gave Custer "total war" orders to defeat the Indians. The results were unconscionable. Captured warriors were hanged, the wounded executed and women and children killed.

California Joe was not part of it, except to deliver Custer's battle report to Sheridan. He made the 100-mile journey by mule through snow and hostile Indian land. He did it in 18 hours.

In 1874, he rejoined Custer in South Dakota as lead scout and guide for the Black Hills Expedition, seeking a suitable site for a fort and to look for gold. They found gold and soon there was a flood of prospectors. This infuriated the Sioux Indians who had been promised protection of their sacred land.

Two years later, they got their revenge at Little Big Horn.

Joe wasn't at that battle either. Later he told his son and others, "If I had waited at Fort Lincoln for Custer to return and gone with him as his chief scout, I don't think such a thing would have happened."

In 1876, Gen. George Crook hired him as scout for the Big Horn Expedition in Wyoming, hunting for the Sioux who massacred Custer and his men. It would be his last mission.

Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie made him scout for the forthcoming winter Powder River Expedition against Cheyenne Chief Dull Knife, but he never fulfilled the assignment.

On Oct. 19, 1876, Joe was in an altercation with Tom Newcomb at Fort Robinson, Neb. Trying to defuse the situation, Joe suggested they put down their pistols and have a drink. Newcomb left, while Joe thinking the matter had been resolved, was speaking to some friends when Newcomb returned with a Winchester rifle and shot him in the back. He was 47.

Two years later, the very same fate befell Newcomb - possibly revenge by Joe's sons or friends.

Within a 4-month period, Gen. Custer, Wild Bill Hickok and California Joe were all killed - the last two shot in the back.

California Joe looked the quintessential frontiersman. He was over six feet tall, had long, thick, curly black hair, beard and moustache and a kindly look. He wore buckskins, a slouch hat, tall boots and was almost never without his dog, rifle and briar pipe.

Historians disagree on what is truth and fiction about California Joe. Some say he was a murderer, others a true frontier hero and the greatest of scouts.

Joe was buried in Fort Robinson Cemetery. When the cemetery was abandoned in 1948 and the remaining graves moved to McPherson National Cemetery in Maxwell, Neb., Joe's tombstone was relocated but his remains could not be found. Their whereabouts is still a mystery.

In Idaho, folks will remember the Milner Trail. In the enduring lore of the Old West, the world will remember the name - California Joe.

Syd Albright is a writer/journalist/biographer living in Post Falls. He is chairman of the Kootenai County Historic Preservation Commission. Contact him at

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