Tuesday, March 6, 2018

A Victim of Wild West Identity Theft

by Shanna Hatfield

In my recent research for a book set in 1912, I happened across a few articles in an old newspaper that mentioned a "champion cowboy" by the name of Buffalo Vernon.

In 1910, Buffalo Vernon wowed the crowds at the very first Pendleton Round-Up. The articles in the  newspaper touted him as the "champion of the world" at bulldogging and claimed his appearance was "hailed with delight."

Following the tradition started by Bill Pickett, Vernon would "bulldog" a steer by jumping from a racing horse, wresting a steer to the ground and biting it on the lip to keep it down. (We can be ever so grateful bulldogging gave way to steer wrestling and eliminated the lip bite!).

Vernon was also a champion steer roper and trick roper, delighting crowds from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Sacramento, California.

Image result for buffalo vernon cowboy pendleton roundup
Postcard from early Pendleton Round-Up 
At the 1910 Cheyenne rodeo where former president Teddy Roosevelt happened to be in attendance, Roosevelt was quoted as saying, "Then there was Buffalo Vernon. I noticed that when he went out ot bulldog the steer he wore a leather bandage around his wrist. I asked him why he wore it and he said he had broken his wrist the day before. Now, it is a pretty hard job for a man with every bone sound to bulldog a steer. Buffalo Vernon did it with a broken wrist." 

Buffalo Vernon was actually Jess Shisler, born in 1884 in Canada. The family farm was reportedly just across the river from Buffalo, New York. Around the time he was twelve, he and a brother went to Buffalo to stay with a sister and ended up changing his last name to Vernon. 

He eventually claimed he was from Texas, and embraced his Buffalo Vernon persona. 

In 1911, he was one of the star attractions at "Pioneer Day" during the Cheyenne rodeo, performing with top names such as Annie Oakley and Ambrose Means who was known as a "daredevil American." 

Buff, as he was known to his friends, went on to perform with some of the top Wild West shows of the day, traveling across North America, Europe and the Orient. He even performed for the King of Belgium.

Then one day he was gored by a bull and sustained a  "hernia wound" that wouldn't  heal, ending his cowboy career. When he disappeared from the rodeo and Wild West scene, people speculated what had happened to him, including everything from being incarcerated to getting shot. 

With his cowboy days behind him, Vernon turned his attention and efforts to working in a mine in Nevada where he remained until his death in 1939. 

Oddly, a number of letters from Buffalo Vernon appeared in the early 1960s, claiming to be from Buff. 

Through the years, a man named Tom Vernon attempted to steal Buffalo Vernon's identity and was at it again. Tom Vernon, a horse-thief, train-robber, convicted felon, and all-around bad guy, even used a copy of a real photograph of Buff to try to authenticate his proof as the well-loved cowboy. Not known for telling the truth, Tom Vernon also claimed to be one of two children born to Cattle Kate ( a fact that was never proved, particularly since she reportedly had no children). 

In spite of spending around three decades serving a sentence in Folsom Prison, Tom Vernon clung to the claim he was the real Buffalo Vernon. He tried to convince reporters he was raised by Indians after his mother died and was given the name because he could ride a saddle bison. He said he worked with Buffalo Billy Cody's Wild West show and was a ward of Annie Oakley, among various other fictitious claims. 

It's rather sad to think of identity theft being a problem way back then, but at least the truth eventually came out and Buffalo Vernon remains one of the early champion cowboys of the rodeo and Wild West performing world.

You can read a wonderful article about Buffalo Vernon that was published in 1963 in True West Magazine here.


Convinced everyone deserves a happy ending, USA Today best-selling author Shanna Hatfield is out to make it happen, one story at a time. Her sweet historical and contemporary romances combine humor and heart-pumping moments with relatable characters. When this hopeless romantic isn’t writing or indulging in rich, decadent chocolate, Shanna hangs out with her husband, lovingly known as Captain Cavedweller.

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