In 1829, Charles Earl Bowles was born in Norfolk, England. Although his friends called him Charley,
he would be known as Charles Boulton, C.E. Bolton, and also "Black Bart" the poet outlaw.
Charles had 6 brothers and 3 sisters. When he was 2, his parents moved to Jefferson County, New York
where they purchased a small farm.
In 1849, Bowles and 2 brothers took part in the California gold rush and mined the North Fork of the American River in
California. Not fairing well, he returned home in 1852. A few months later, the gold bug hit him again and returned
to the gold fields with 2 other brothers. Unfortunately, his brothers fell ill and died; however Bowles continued
mining for 2 more years but quit again.
In 1854 Bowles married Mary Elizabeth Johnson and had 4 children. They settled in Decatur, Illinois in 1860.
On April 1861, the American Civil War started. Charles enlisted in the Union Army on August 13, 1862 as a
private in Company B, 116th Illinois Regiment out of Decatur. His records showed his name as "Charles Boles."
He proved to be a good soldier, rising to the rank of 1st Sergeant within a year and took part in many famous
battles including the "Battle of Vicksburg" where he was seriously wounded, and "Sherman's March to the Sea."
He received field commissions on both as a 2nd Lieutenant and then a 1st Lieutenant. On June 7, 1865, Charles
was discharged in Washington D.C. and returned home to his family in Illinois.
In 1867, Charles started prospecting in Idaho and Montana. Not much is known about him except in a
letter, which he wrote to his wife in August 1871, where he mentioned that something happened with
some "Wells Fargo" employees and he "vowed to exact revenge" upon them. He stopped writing and
his wife "assumed" he was dead.
On July 26, 1875, Bowles robbed his first stagecoach in Calaveras County, on a road between
Copperopolis and Milton. He was very polite and well mannered for an outlaw.
It seems that Charles was terrified of horses, and made "all" of his robberies on foot. He
surprised a stagecoach when it was resting its horses next to a long line of bushes, a frequent
stop. Charles told "John Shine," the stagecoach driver to "Please throw down the box!" As
he tossed the strong box then Charles yelled "If he dares to shoot, give him a solid volley,
boys!" Seeing rifle barrels pointing at the stagecoach from the bushes, the driver quickly
drove away and Bowles vanished too. When Shine returned to get the strong box, he noticed
that the "men with the rifles" in the bushes were actually carefully rigged sticks to resemble
rifles. This robbery netted Bowles $160.
Bowles, aka "Black Bart," as sheriffs called him robbed Wells Fargo Stagecoaches 28 times
across northern California between 1875 and 1883. This included many robberies along the
historic "Siskiyou Trail" between California and Oregon. He dressed in all black except
for a flour sack with holes to see and talk including a gentleman's boller (hat). He had
long black hair, including a black mustache and black beard. Black Bart fit his nickname.
Whenever he robbed a stage, he would leave a "poem" behind. This became his signature and
successfully absconded with thousands of dollars each year. He never fired a gun or used
harsh language. Black Bart was a classy, courteous, and witty gentleman.
In the 1870's, the "Sacramento Union" ran a story called "The Case of Summerfield" by Caxton,
aka William Henry Rhodes. It was about a highwayman dressed in black, had long straggly
black hair, a black beard, and wild grey eyes and was known as "Black Bart." Some folks
say that Bowles may have read this and decided to "steal" the name, but nobody knows for sure.
There are only 2 authenticated poems in existence. One was at the scene of the August 3, 1877
hold up of a stage traveling from Point Arena to Duncan Mills which said:
I've labored long and hard for bread,
The second poem was left at the site of hi July 25,1878 hold up of a stage traveling from Quincy to Oroville. It read:
For honor, and for Riches.
But on my corn too long you've tread,
You fine-haired sons of bitches.
-----BLACK BART, 1877
Here I lay me down to sleep
To wait the coming morrow,
Perhaps success, perhaps defeat,
And everlasting sorrow.
Let come what will, I'll try it on,
My condition can't be worse;
And if there's money in that box
T'is munny in my purse.
During his last robbery in 1883, Black Bart was wounded and fled the scene. He left several
personal items behind including a pair of eyeglasses, food, and a handkerchief with a laundry
mark of "F.X.O.7" on it. It was found by Wells Fargo detective "James B. Hume" which looked
so much like Bowles, he could have been his identical twin, including the mustache. Hume and
fellow detective "Harry N. Morse" visited over 90 laundry outfits, before they finally traced
the mark to "Ferguson & Bigg's California Laundry" located on Bush Street in San Francisco.
Bowles had been living in a boarding house a few doors down from it.
Bowles described himself as a "mining engineer" and made frequent "business trips" that
happened to be at the same time as the "Wells Fargo robberies." After denying he was
"Black Bart," he eventually admitted he had robbed a few Wells Fargo stages but only
ones that occurred before 1879. He figured that the statute of limitations exempt him
from the other robberies, but he was mistaken. When he was booked, he gave his name as
"T.Z.Spalding." Unfortunately, the police discovered a Bible, a gift from his wife,
with his "real name" inscribed in it. Upon this discovery, Bowles made a few witty
comments and quietly went to jail like a "gentleman."
Wells Fargo pressed charges only for the "last" robbery. Bowles was convicted and
sentenced to 6 years in San Quentin Prison. In January 1888, Bowles was released
early, only serving 4 years. He aged severely. His eyesight was failing and had
gone deaf in one ear. A reporter asked if he was going to rob anymore stagecoaches?
He answered "No gentlemen, I'm through with crime." Another reporter asked if he
was going to write more poetry?" Bowles smiled and laughed and said "Now, didn't
you hear me say that I am through with crime?"
Bowles never returned to his wife, but he did write her occasionally. He was tired
of being shadowed by Wells Fargo detectives. They followed him everywhere; from the
Nevada House to the Palace Hotel in Visalia. February 28, 1888 was the last time
anyone had seen this old outlaw. Many rumors of his whereabouts stretched from
California to New York City, to the wilds of Montana, or to mines in Nevada. Black
Bart just vanished.
On Highway 101 on the Ridgewood Summit between Redwood Valley and Willits is a stone
which is known by locals as "Black Bart Rock." It is rumored that he held up many
In Oroville, California in Butte County there is a road named "Black Bart Road."
There is a monument and plack with a description of a robbery that took place there.
It was put up by the County.
Many books, magazines, and movies have been made about the exploits of Black Bart; these are but a few.
Gary "Colonel Klink" Klinke
John A. Sutter-Historian