When the Great Northern Railway freight train stopped in the prairie town of Granville, North Dakota one day in 1901, a number of free riders disembarked from the train.
Among them was a full-blooded Indian. He reasons for being on the train, or for getting off at Granville, may have been the same as many of the others - to get something to eat or to get a drink of water from the town pump.
The Granville Station was the terminal for a branch line that the Great Northern Railroad had build back to the Canadian border. That spur connected to the main track of the Great Northern, and that was the reason that so many transients were coming and going, either in legitimate passenger cars or just riding the rails for free. This was also why Granville had four hotels with dining rooms, a bank, three livery barns, two pool halls, four general stores, and two lumber yards.
After leaving the train, the Indian headed for the back door of one of the hotel dining rooms. Probably, if he had been able to find a free meal, he would have returned to the train for somewhere else. As it was, the owner needed a handyman for cleaning and repairs. He owned, not only the dining room, but one of the pool halls as well. After feeding the Indian, he offered him a steady job.
When the Indian was asked his name, the only answer was "Joe". Indian Joe was a mysterious figure. He was about 5' 9" tall, in his mid-30s, and had long, straggly hair. By his features, he was Sioux. Joe never revealed anything about his personal life before coming to Granville.
Prohibition was in effect at the time, but there was never a shortage of liquor. Joe swept out the pool hall, kept plenty of fuel on hand for the hotel dining room, and performed a number of tasks around the two businesses. In return, he was given three meals a day, a place to sleep, and some spending money.
At regular intervals, he would go on a three-day drunk, and be useless for the time.
Whenever a group of Indians camped outside of Granville on their way through, Joe would leave his sleeping quarters and camp out with the Indians for the time that they were there. He never left with any of them, and he always returned to his quarters as soon as his friends left the area.
People tended to speak freely in front of Indian Joe, assuming that he spoke or understood very little English. He was taken for granted. On his part, Joe kept quiet about whatever he may or may not have absorbed. The only time that his tongue would loose at all was when he was drunk but, even then, he was pretty careful about what he said. Nevertheless, this weakness was probably what led to his end.
It began when one of Granville's most prominent businessmen received a threatening message. The message directed him to place a large sum of money into a paper bag, then drive his team, alone, across the tracks and north of town to Buffalo Creek Bridge. There he was to place the paper bag under the bridge, get back into the buggy, and return to town. If he refused, the note threatened, harm would come to his son.
The businessman was Clayton Stubbons, the town banker, and the threatened child was his son, Donald.
Clayton Stubbins, his wife, Molly, and their small boy, Donald, were popular with Granville's citizens. Three more children would later follow but, at this time, there was Donald.
The threatening note was viewed as amateurish, even to the point of being comical, but Clayton wasn't going to take any chances with his son, Donald. Rather than ignoring the threat, six of his trusted friends agreed to stake out the Buffalo Creek Bridge. They scattered out around the bridge, hiding in the tall broom grass and weeds that edged the banks of the creek.
At midnight, as directed, Clayton Stubbins drove his team of matched blacks across the railroad tracks, and headed north to the wooden-railed bridge. He pulled the team to a stop just short of the bridge, and stepped down from the buggy. Knowing that he was surrounded by six of his friends in hiding, Clayton skidded down the embankment and placed the paper bag under the bridge, securing it with a large rock. He then returned to his buggy, and went back into town.
Quietly, the six men kept watch from their hiding places. Nothing happened. As dawn approached, they could see that the bag was still in place, and the rock was holding it fast.
Then, they heard the sound of horse hoofs. Someone was coming!
The six men crouched in the tall broom grass as the the sound of buggy wheels could be heard approaching. When the buggy stopped, a man stood up and looked around. It was Clayton Stubbins.
"It's a false alarm," he called out. "Come on, men, let's go."
Clayton skidded back down the embankment and under the wooden bridge. Kicking the rock aside, he picked up the bag. As he brought the paper bag back up the embankment and approached the buggy, he opened it and dumped its contents on the ground.
"You see," he said. "That amateur con-man wasn't going to get way with anything anyway."
The bag had been filled with crumbled newspaper.
The blackmail story spread through town throughout the day. Everyone had a theory, suspicions, and imagined motives, but it was generally believed that, if anyone knew who the culprit was, that person would be Indian Joe. No one suspected Joe himself, but most everyone agreed that if Joe ever decided to loosen his tongue, the rest would be easy.
Perhaps that consensus and the tension that surrounded it was the reason that Indian Joe went on another drunk and, knowing that whiskey was the one thing that might cause Joe to loosen his tongue, perhaps that is why the perpetrator began to panic, as well.
Three days later, four men from the railroad section crew found the dead body of Indian Joe along the tracks near the Granville Depot.
There was no autopsy, and no church funeral, but there was a lot of gossip. Many were convinced that Indian Joe had been murdered to keep him quiet, then dumped along the tracks so that it might look like he had been hit by a train.
Others argued that he may have been staggering along the tracks when the train hit him.
Indian Joe was placed into a pine box and buried just outside the fence, at the farthest corner of Granville's cemetery, without a marker.
A couple of months later, a blood-red tombstone was found at the head of Indian Joe's grave. It had been handcarved from a piece of red sandstone that was familiar to the area. Carved at the top in a half-moon style, the stone rose conspicuously from the weeds that surrounded the grave.
An inscription had been chiseled out by hand. It read, "J.M. Oct. 14, 1903". The only new thing that the inscription revealed was that Joe's last name started with the letter "M".
No one knew who had placed the tombstone there.
Some of Granville's citizens were getting a little edgy. Where Indian Joe had come from had always been a mystery, and now there were the circumstances of his death, and the mysterious tombstone.
Perhaps as a matter of conscience, the townspeople decided to have Indian Joe's remains moved over the fence from the outside prairie to the inside of the cemetery. As a sort of a compromise, the new grave was going to be inside the cemetery, but just barely.
Two men were hired to dig Joe's final resting place three feet inside the fence. When that was completed, they began digging the mound where he remains were currently buried. When the casket was free from the clay around it, the two men raised it to the surface.
It was late afternoon, and the few cottonwood trees inside the cemetery were casting shadows across the earth. The two workers hurried to lift the coffin over the fence to its new resting place and, in their hurry, the coffin tilted and something inside shifted noisily to one side.
Both men were visibly shaken as they set the pine box near the new excavation. The sound they had heard did not sound like that of a body shifting, and they were curious.
Using the blade of one of the spades, one of the men carefully pried the lid of the pine box open. Inside was a broken piece of buggy wheel and two discarded rusty shovels. Nothing else!
The red engraved tombstone remained whole, serving as a monument and as a reminder of three mysteries associated with Indian Joe. Where did Joe M. come from? How did he die? Where is his body?