August 2, 2019 — It’s interesting how some characters sound good just because they have three names. Like South Dakota’s Wild Bill Hickok or North Dakota’s Limpy Jack Clayton. Well, here’s another one – Turkey Track Bill.
It was on this date in 1942 that Turkey Track died in Dickinson, and it seems that he was sorely missed by a lot of people, including his good friend Frank Fiske. Fiske was himself quite a character – photographer, steamboat pilot, journalist. A month before Turkey Track died, Fiske wrote a story about him for The Selfridge Journal, saying he would only do so because “Turk” was out of town, and it was safe. “He is still a fast man with a gun, either hand, and I am not taking chances,” he wrote. “There was never a more picturesque cowboy than this same Turkey Track,” Fiske told a friend. “I met him first 45 years ago, when he was cock of main street in Mandan. They couldn’t have the state fair without him, and it has been said that he used to run relay races all by himself. Figure that one out.”
Turkey Track was born William Molash in Vienna, Michigan, in 1875 to parents who were French, Chippewa and Spanish. No one knows for sure when he first came to North Dakota, but it is known that he trailed cattle for the Turkey Track Ranch in Texas.
In the Pioneer Chronicles, Larry Sprunk of Garrison related a story told by Keene rancher Brooks Keogh in 1975. Keogh’s father, Patrick, and Turkey Track worked together.
“Well, in those days,” Keogh said, “they would go out on these roundups, you see, and they’d sleep in an old tent. And Turkey Track and dad slept together,” he said, “and all this amounted to was a bedroll and a tarp over the top of it under this tent. And ol’ Turkey Track, dad said...two of the last things he took off, he seemed to hate to part with, was his hat – that’s the first thing he put on in the morning before he even put his pants on – and the second was his six-shooter. He never failed..., he never was without his six-shooter. When he went to bed he slipped it under his pillow.”
Another man who knew Turkey Track in those days was Isadore Smith, who lived south of Mandan at the time. When comparing today’s bronc busters with those from back then, he said, “All those guys would get liquored up before they’d ride, you know. Those days they was born in the saddle; they rode every day. They had these riders backed off the map, cause it come second nature. Fact is,” he said, “there was an Indian, George Defender, was top cowboy. He’d ride anything. Then there was ol’ Joe Wicks, he’s dead now, and Turkey Track Bill. He was the character, always carried two guns.
“Old Turkey Track came out pretty well drunk,” Smith said, “and the horse piled him and turned around and kicked him in the head with both hind feet. It sounded like he’d kicked a plank wall. Course it knocked him cold, and in those days, Kinelly was the undertaker, and he had to come down with a horse and buggy to pick up the body. So they better do something. So they laid Turkey Track down and covered him up with a blanket.
“Come time for ol’ Harry Engels to ride,” he said, “and Harry had a bottle he didn’t know what to do with, so he lifts up the blanket and puts it alongside Turkey Track. He made his ride and he come back pretty dry, so he had to have a drink. He lifted up the blanket, reached under and got his bottle, and it was empty,” Smith said. “So he lifts up the blanket, and here was ol’ Turkey Track laying there laughin’ at him.” And then he said, “That’s a true story.”
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.