by Cliff Huntington
Its September and the year is 1877. Maurice Thompson
is flush with success after the simultaneous publication of "Hunting
with the Long-Bow" in Harpers Monthly Magazine
and "Bow-Shooting" in Scribners Monthly
two months earlier. Within a year Maurice will publish The
Witchery of Archery. Maurices home state of Indiana
is relatively civilized, but conditions to the west are less
settled. It has only been a year since the Custer Massacre on
the Little Big Horn.
Near the head of the Elkhorn River in western Nebraska, 14
year old William Compton slips up on a blowout [a wind eroded,
hollowed out hill peculiar to the great sand hills located in
this area] to check for bedded deer. He hopes to catch one unaware
and get a shot with the ash bow he carries. Its a ritual
young Compton has played out several times over the past month,
but until now the deer have always evaded the youngsters
"When I peeked over I saw the tips of a deers ears
about ten yards in front of me, and about twenty feet down. I
know he was lying on a sort of shelf up from the bottom two or
three feet and close in to the bank to get out of the wind. I
nocked my arrow, got into position, and stood up suddenly in
full view of Mr. Deer. He jumped to his feet and stood looking
at me almost broadside. I remember that I drew steadily and loosed
sharply. The arrow caught him just a little quartering and pierced
his heart almost exactly in the center. He stood for a second
or two as if paralyzed, and then gave two or three short spasmodic
jumps and fell over backwards, as dead as Julius Caesar. I fell
off the edge of that blowoutdidnt take time to climb
down or walk around the opening to get my deer. I believe that
nothing could have surprised me as much as that deer did when
he fell down and did not try to get up again. When I got beside
him I found he was a little spike buck. I never looked any further,
and the only spots I touched between that butte and camp were
the high ones. I knew father and Ames would be in camp curing
jerky, and was more than anxious to get near something human
to help share my joy, for it was far too generous in its proportions
for me to handle alone. When I hove in sight, going at a speed
no stop watch could catch, and the wind blowing straight through
meI had on no clothes worth mentioningthey both jumped
for their old needle guns as they thought that about twenty young
Sioux were on their trail. Old Dave said afterwards that no Injun
pony on the plains could have caught me. After they had disbelieved
me for a while, we all went back to the butte, and when we walked
into the blowout my deer was still there."
William John Compton was born in Flint, Michigan of the 28th
day of September, 1863 and moved to Norfork, Nebraska seven years
later with his family. Comptons early years were influenced
by the local Sioux and reportedly he was adopted into their tribe.
He became adept at making the Sioux style bows, making and straightening
arrows and stalking game under their tutelage. According to W.
B. Wescott, "Much of the quiet wisdom and deep humility
which so profoundly affected those who came to know him in later
life he accredited to the Indian tutors of his boyhood."
Compton lived and worked in Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and
Oregon during his early years. Still, with all the rigors of
making a living in this wild and largely uncivilized western
country, he continued his hunting with the bow. A letter written
to H. H. McChesney in 1916 and published in the January, 1950
issue of Archery, chronicles these early years and according
to it, he accounted for at least 20 deer, five antelope, a couple
of elk and even put an arrow in a bison which was finished by
Indians with guns during this period. This is a lifetime tally
for many archers, yet Compton accomplished all this by his 20th
birthday with primitive Indian bows of his own manufacture. He
closes the letter with the following, "I will add that I
did not know that there was another white man in the world shooting
a bow till 1908 or 1909."
Compton was in Montana when he first heard of the Oregon bowyer,
F. S. Barnes. In 1894 he moved to Oregon and began working for
Barnes harvesting yew and learning the art of making the English
long bow. Compton learned his craft well and upon the death of
Barnes in 1913, he packed up about 1000 fine yew billets Saxton
Pope later referred to as "an unlimited supply of yew wood"
and moved to California. Soon after his arrival he visited Ishi
and met Dr. Pope. He was instrumental in introducing Art Young
to Dr. Pope and instructed both in making and shooting the English
long bow. Compton taught and influenced a number of noted archers
to include Stanley Spencer, Frank Crandall, Donnan Smith, Dr.
E. K. Roberts, Chester Seay, Samuel B. McMeen, Cassius Styles
and Erle Stanley Gardner.
Compton, Dr. Pope, Young and Ishi shot and hunted together,
but it was only after Ishis death that the remaining trio
began hunting in earnest or as Dr. Pope phased it, "Then
our serious work began. We found it.....a delightful way of hunting."
It was during this period that Dr. Pope and Young bestowed the
name of "Chief" on Compton when they learned of his
early association with the Sioux Indians. Cassius Styles would
later comment that Compton "was a striking figure; that
the plains had molded his features into a profile much like that
of a Sioux; that his speaking voice was rich and manly while
his singing voice was an excellent bass." He goes on to
say that "it is tragic that Compton, who really was the
mainspring of the hunting idea in that heroic triumviratePope,
Young and Comptonis almost forgotten."
The "Chief" was well known for his superb craftsmanship,
even back in those early years, as is evidenced by the following
anecdote: "He [Compton] had a flat tire, had to remove some
of his tackle in order to get at his car tools, and drove away
leaving one of his bows by the roadside. A passing motorist picked
it up. He didnt know what it was but, seeing that it was
made of highly polished wood, took it to a furniture store in
Santa Paula [California] where it was placed in a display window.
Someone decided it was a bow and, knowing that Dusty Roberts
had been doing some bow-and-arrow shooting, told him about it.
Roberts bought the bow for a dollar and a half, tried it out
and decided then and there that there was only one man in the
country who could make a bow such as that one was. He wrote to
Compton asking if he had lost a bow; and the Chief
came in a hurry, to weep on Dustys neckwith gratitude,
we may be sure. It was Will Comptons favorite 80 pound
mountain lion bow."
Like many, "Chief" was partial to certain bows.
In an early article published in the February, 1917 issue of
Forest and Stream titled "The Bow of Yew," Dr.
Pope mentions a couple. "His [Comptons] favorite bow,
noted for its brilliant cast, pulls 65 pounds. It is light enough
for small game and heavy enough for large. He calls it Wolf
Voiceafter an old Sioux Chief. Another bow, pulling
80 pounds, which few men can shoot, he calls Old Horrible.
It could drive an arrow through a buffalo."
Compton never became the adventurer as Art Young or the writer
as Dr. Pope, much preferring the less public. His good friend
Ray Hodgson put it well, "Compton never went in for publicity.
He quietly went about helping others. He was a grand instructor
and an enthralling lecturer. I have always wondered why Will
Compton never got his name mentioned as an inspiration to the
archery world. Here in the West there never was a man who sold
the sport of archery so thoroughly as did Will Compton. Pope,
of course, was capable of writing; Young traveled and lectured;
but Chief Compton started them all. He was the root.
We were all his pupils and all of us oldtimers speak of Compton
as being responsible for it all."
William John "Chief" Compton passed on to a higher
calling on May 16, 1938, the last of that great trio, Pope, Young
and Compton. In honor of and gratitude for his unheralded contribution
to archery, the National Field Archery Association [NFAA] named
their most prestigious award, the Compton Medal of Honor.