Jim Gatchell collected a great many things. He collected American Indian headdresses and firearms. He collected letters and fossils. He collected so many things -- about 1,000 artifacts in all -- that family members donated the items for the creation of a museum following his death.
The Jim Gatchell Museum has been a presence in downtown Buffalo since 1957.
Of all the items Jim Gatchell collected, one is of particular interest. Why? No one can quite explain it.
The item is a steel bow of impeccable condition. It exhibits no signs of rust despite being thought to be around 150-years-old. It is fully intact. Bulbous mushroom-like nobs mark either end. A notch, where an arrow would be placed, is still evident at its center.
And if it looks like it could still be shot, that’s because it can. Several years ago, a museum in Germany borrowed the bow and shot it in an archery competition.
“It just doesn’t make sense to why it’s here,” said Sylvia Bruner, the museum’s assistant director, standing over the bow one recent day.
The museum owns a great many American Indian bows, she explained. They are made of wood or horn or sometimes both, materials typical of tribes living in the Plains and the Rocky Mountain regions. As Bruner put it, “All have a valid reason for being here.”
But a steel bow? No one has record of American Indians, or white settlers for that matter, using a steel bow, she said.
The little that is known about the bow comes from an index card Gatchell kept to catalogue his artifacts. It says only that the bow was found near Peno Creek, the name used by soldiers at Fort Phil Kearny in the 1860s.
Mention of Peno Creek is curious, as it suggests the bow is from the 1800s. Peno Creek is now called Upper Prairie Dog Creek. Peno Creek is also near the site of the Fetterman Fight, which pitted troops from Fort Phil Kearny against a force of Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapahoe. The Indian force wiped out the troops. It was the Army’s biggest defeat in the Indian Wars until Custer’s loss at Little Bighorn 10 years later.
Perhaps the bow was used in the battle? Not likely, Bruner said. The fight is well-recorded. The club used by the native warrior American Horse to kill Capt. Fetterman, for instance, is on display at a museum in Nebraska. The historical record, both oral and written, makes no mention of a steel bow.
“Why it would be in use is pretty inexplicable,” Bruner said.
The bow has puzzled Jeb Taylor for two decades. Taylor runs an artifact company in Buffalo and has penned a book about American Indian bows, “Projectile Points of the High Plains.” He has never seen, or heard of, a North American bow like it.
“That bow is such an anomaly it is difficult to make real positive claims about it,” he said.
He nonetheless has a theory about its origins. The steel is an anomaly, but its design and form are not. The bow is a reflex bow, meaning that it is bent away from the shooter when unstrung. When strung, its ends are brought back in the direction of its holder. It is a design typical of North American tribes, he said.
American Indians commonly sought out blacksmiths in white settlements to make items. It is not out of the question that the bow was one such request, he said.
“The skill level involved in making this is incredibly sophisticated,” Taylor said.
The skill level involved is one reason Bruner believes the bow wasn't made by an American blacksmith. She doesn’t discount the possibility, but it would have been odd for a blacksmith in the late 1800s to specialize in such a bow, she said.
Metal bows themselves are not uncommon. They were used in Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia, Bruner said.
So perhaps that is the answer? Not really.
“This seems really European or Middle Eastern almost, and even there this technology was kind of in the past, too, because firearms had already replaced it,” Bruner said.
The truth is no one may ever know where the bow came from. The museum isn’t even sure when Gatchell acquired it. The collector was a pharmacist by trade. He operated a pharmacy between 1900 and 1954 in the building that is now Treasure Chest Antiques.
Many people gave him items. American Indians traded artifacts for medicine. Many of Gatchell’s acquaintances growing up were from the Lakota Tribe in the Dakota Territory. Later in life, he often acted as an intermediary between natives and whites.
Many of the items white and native acquaintances gave him can be seen in photographs of his shop. The bow is not one of them.
“Gatchell was a great keeper of things, but not a great keeper of records, unfortunately for me,” Bruner said with a frustrated laugh. “I don’t think he intended to keep it a secret. He just knew the story and didn’t plan on what was going to happen after he passed away and everyone lost the oral histories.”