Born in Iowa in 1861; Died in Arizona in 1928

"Poet of the Old Southwest"

The next few paragraphs are a foreword by Dr. Russell E. Bidlack, Editor of "The SparksQuarterly", the official publication of "The Sparks Family Association":

Collectors of rare books who specialize in the publications of the American West place high value on a volume that was printed in Los Angeles in 1926.  Its publisher was the Skelton Publishing Company.  Entitled The Apache Kid, A Bear Fight, and Other True Stories of the Old West, this 215-page book was written by William Sparks.  Your editor has owned a copy of this rare volume for many years and has long planned to share a bit of its charm with our readers, but before doing so, he had hoped to be able to identify this William Sparks with regard to his ancestry and the exact place of his birth.  Having failed in this endeavor, he hopes that now, with the publication of this article, someone reading it may be able to identify William Sparks's parentage for us.

Although his name was well known in the west during his lifetime, William Sparks rarely talked about his boyhood, and, while much of his writing was quite personal, he revealed nothing about his origin.  When Sparks died in 1928, and an effort was made to locate relatives, those who knew him best believed that he had been born in January 1861 at Ottumwa, Iowa.  Ottumwa is in Wapello County, but a search of census records there has revealed nothing about his parents.

Although his nickname was "Bill" among his cowboy friends, he was often called "Timberline Bill Sparks" when his poems and stories appeared in newspapers.  He told friends that he "had been thrown on his own resources" while still a boy, which may suggest that he was left an orphan at an early age.

Whatever the reason may have been for William Sparks to "go west" as a boy, he became a "cow puncher" and miner at a very young age.  From his writings, we know that he was in Dodge City, Kansas, when it was commonly referred to as a "hell-hole," and there he came to know such famous western "characters" as the Earps and Bat Masterson, about whom he would write in later years.  He was on the Blue River in Arizona as early as the winter of 1878-79, and he spent a number of years in or near Tombstone, Arizona.  Arizona claims him as one of its literary pioneers.

It is highly doubtful that William Sparks had much formal education, and it is a mystery how he learned to write so well.  Writing biography and poetry is scarcely an avocation usually associated with cowboys, hunters, and miners.  It seems apparent that he wrote for the joy of expressing himself in print rather than for profit.  Newspapers of the time paid almost nothing for original literary productions.  Although his only book is now a collector's item, we doubt that Sparks received much in royalties during the two years that he lived after its appearance.

A number of Sparks's poems were, or appear to have been, autobiographical, and we wonder whether the following lines may tell us something of his youth.



By William Sparks

Long, long ago, when the world seemed new,
   And the skies, now gray, were an azure blue,
Three truant boys from home and school,
   Played on the brink of a swimming pool;
While the brown thrush trilled his notes of glee
   To his hidden mate in the old elm tree,
And the sun beams down through the maples sweet,
   In shimmering bars played hide and seek
With the dew bright flowers on the grassy bank,
   Where the buzzing wasps, and the wild bees drank.

With many a shout and boyish prank
   They shoved from its berth in the rushes rank,
The old red skiff; and the dim woods rang
   With the echoes sweet that quivering came
As they paddled down where the rapids splashed,
   And the waves on the rocks their white spray dashed,
And laughed, as they clutched its rocking side
   While they shot through the whirlpools foaming tide,
At a scolding squirrel on a leafy bough,
   As he raged in vain at the noisy row

The summer passed with its torrid days;
   And the autumn came with its smoky haze;
And the maples turned to gold and red;
   And the wind whirled the elm leaves brown and dead;
While high in the air in a lazy cloud,
   The southbound geese were honking loud,
As out to the woods, now stark and bare,
   Went the laughing boys with never a care,
To gather the haws, and wild nuts brown,
   That the stinging cold of the frost brought down.

Long years have passed since the boys were men,
   And the locks are gray that were ebon then,
And the eyes that flashed with the pride of youth
   Have long been dulled by the world old truth
But one still dreams of those distant days,
   Of the rocking boat, and the autumn haze,
Of the singing birds, and the leafy lane,
   Ere he knew the world and its pride, and shame;
And he longs for the days when he, happy, dreamed
   That the things that he loved were what they seemed.

The preface to William Sparks's book published in 1926 was written by a former U.S Army officer and later the warden of the Territorial Prison at Florence, Arizona, named Thomas H. Rynning.  He seems to have known more regarding the life of William Sparks than most.  His preface was as follows:

To those who love the old Southwest and are students of its history, this series of historical tales by William Sparks (Timberline) will be of exceptional interest, reflecting as they do an accurate picture of those stirring pioneer days when Civilization was struggling with Marauding Apaches, and White and Mexican outlaws.
When the undersigned first came to Arizona as a member of the Regular U.S. Cavalry, during the Indian Wars--later in Cuba during the Spanish American War as an officer in the First U.S. Cavalry (Roosevelt's Rough Riders), and during the early years of the present century when I was commanding the Arizona Rangers--I came into close and intimate association with the author, William Sparks, better known throughout the Southwest as "Timberline Bill."  A word as to his adventures, career and character may not be amiss in order that the reader, by knowing something of the man himself, may be able to judge as to the truth and accuracy of the pictures he draws.

Pioneer, prospector, miner, professional hunter, cow puncher, Government packer in Arizona, and Cuba, and peace officer extraordinary, he has run the entire gamut of hardships and adventure incident to those thrilling days, and has rendered gallant and useful service to his state and country.

A man of exceptional courage, rectitude and proven worth, it was my good fortune to secure his services as 1st Sergeant of the Arizona Rangers, and he served as such during the time I was Captain commanding that organization, 1901-1907.

Previously he had been a line rider on the White Mountain Indian Reservation, where he came into close contact and acquaintance with the Chiricahua Apaches, including the notorious "Apache Kid."  In the early days he was a professional hunter, supplying the market in the new mining camps with venison.  It was during that period that he matched [sic] the Bear Fight described in this book, the details of which are well known to myself and many of the old-timers in Arizona.
He went to Cuba as a packer with the Carter P. Johnson Expedition which took arms and ammunition to the Cuban Insurgents, and not only "carried a message to Garcia," but guns and cartridges as well.  Later he went to the Phillipines.

From his arrival on the Blue River in Arizona in the early winter of 1878-1879, and up until the past decade, he has had a full and creditable part in the stirring activities of Tombstone, Clifton and Globe;  as well as the mining camps, the cattle ranges, and the mountains and deserts of Arizona.

It is refreshing to read a series of historical stories by one who knows his subject so intimately, and who describes it so accurately, and I heartily commend them to the public.

Thos. H. Rynning.
San Diego, Calif., Feb. 3, 1926.


So far as we know, William Sparks was never married. His poem entitled "Marguerite" may suggest a youthful romance. The final verse reads:

When the years have come and gone, Marguerite,
   That to you are like a song,
May they be happy as the dawn
   Of these days that pass so fleet, Marguerite,
While the child and woman meet
   All the future's years to greet
Where their mystic secrets keep, Marguerite,
   On the brink of childhood's shore,
Ere its sparkling waters pour
   Where the floods of ages roar, Marguerite.

As often happens with a popular hero, some of the accomplishments credited to him may well have become exaggerated.

For example, in an obituary of Sparks appearing in the Miami, Arizona, Gazette of December 15, 1928, the story was repeated of how his actions led to the election of the first president of Cuba.

Sparks came upon a detachment of Cuban revolutionists in the vicinity of Santiago.  They were in possession of a long range gun, which they had captured, but which they were unable to operate.  Sparks, who had watched the operation of such guns, though never having had any actual experience with them, took charge of procedures and directed the fire on a blockhouse, which was blown up.

The commander of the revolutionists was given credit for the victory, and rose to an important command, finally reaching eminence as a great leader and eventually becoming president of the new republic.

Researchers at the Arizona Department of Library, Archives and Public Records report, however, that Sparks's name has not even been found in the books written by Theodore Roosevelt and others about the famous Rough Riders.

In the fall of 1928, when friends of Sparks learned that he was living in meager circumstances," a clerkship was arranged form him at an Indian Agency at Fort Apache.  When "Timberline Bill" arrived there to assume his new post, however, he complained of illness.  He did not recover from this illness and died on December 15, 1928.

The story told most often regarding William Sparks is that involving his fight with a grizzly bear in 1888.  He told this story in his own words in his book published in 1926.  We believe that our readers will find it to be of interest, even though it does not contribute to our knowledge of Sparks genealogy.

Because there were many doubters that a man could live to tell of a fight with a grizzly bear, Sparks included in his book a statement by the physician who had treated his wounds, John H. Lacy, M.D., who was company physician for the Arizona Copper Company at Clifton, Arizona.


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