This stunning set of Colt Model 1861 Navy revolvers was presented to western hunter, scout, and fur trader William "Buffalo Bill" Mathewson (1830-1916) by fellow fur trade businessman Elias Hicks Durfee (1828-1875). Mathewson’s history is detailed in "Cowtown Wichita and the Wild, Wicked West" by Stan Hoig, "The Ranch at Cow Creek Crossing" by Louise Barry in the Kansas Historical Quarterly Winter 1972 issue, "William Mathewson: The Original Buffalo Bill" by Richard Latin at Kansas State University in 1989 (copy included), "History of Sedgwick County" (1910) as well as multiple period and early 20th century newspaper articles and subsequent books about antique firearms. Both he and Durfee were born in New York and worked in the fur trade along the Santa Fe Trail. Mathewson worked as a trader starting in 1849 and continued in the trade in Kansas starting in 1853 after an 1852 expedition into the Rockies that included Kit Carson. He was nicknamed "Buffalo Bill" after hunting buffalo to feed starving settlers in the winter of 1860-1861 during a famine after a drought. From 1853 to 1863, he operated a trading post at what is now Great Bend, Kansas. He also established a post at Cow Creek Crossing near present day Lyons, Kansas. In 1867, he was given the dangerous task of bringing in various tribes for the Medicine Lodge Treaty to end hostilities on the Kansas plains. That same year, he moved to a farm near what is now Wichita. He continued to trade with Native Americans until 1875. He was one of Wichita’s founders and also helped create the Wichita Savings Bank at which he served as president. He was police commissioner in 1889-1891 and was active in civic and fraternal organizations. According to Latin and "History of Sedgwick County," "Between 1865-73, Mathewson was credited with saving the lives of 54 women and children on the Kansas plains." His home was a popular stopping point for military officers and other travelers, and there are reports of parties meeting up with him at his home to go out with him on buffalo hunts. Durfee arrived in Leavenworth in 1861 from New York as an agent to buy furs for Swift, Hurlbut & Co. He eventually established multiple trading posts up the Missouri River and purchased a whole line of steamboats to move his goods up and down the river. In 1867, he was working as an importer and wholesaler of Indian trade goods in Leavenworth. The day before the presentation date on the case, Durfee signed an affidavit relating to a dispute concerning details relating to a delivery of buffalo robes and characterizations of "Hancock's Indian Expedition." The expedition is detailed in General George Armstrong Custer's book "My Life on the Plains," and Custer was in command of the cavalry component of the expedition. Durfee’s statement indicates Mathewson delivered to him $160 in buffalo robes that were presents for U.S. Indian Agent J.H. Leavenworth. It appears that Durfee was Mathewson’s sources of goods that he used to trade with the Indians and purchased furs from him. According to the "Portrait and Biographical Album of Sedgwick County, Kansas" (1888), "in the spring of 1866, Peck, Durfee & Co., of Leavenworth, Kan., presented 'Buffalo Bill' with a very handsome pair of revolvers, mounted in silver, inlaid with gold, as a token of their appreciation of his bravery during the trying times of 1864." According to an article in the "The Wichita Beacon" on March 21, 1916, (at the time of his death) "While in Leavenworth he was presented a pair of ivory-handled, silver mounted revolvers by a government representative. . ." and also indicates the year was 1866. The included copies of pages from "History of Sedgewick County" indicate that in 1866 "about the 1st of May, Mr. Mathewson went to Leavenworth to dispose of a train load of furs that he had collected during the winter" and notes that Peck, Durfee & Company bought furs and shipped them east and also supplied trade goods. "The next day after Mathewson’s arrival in Leavenworth, Mr. Durfee told him that the leading citizens were going to have a banquet at his house the next night, and ma[d]e a special request that he should attend. Mr. Mathewson thanked him for the invitation, but told him it would be impossible for him to attend. The next day Mrs. Durfee and Mrs. Peck came down to Mr. Durfee’s store and insisted Mr. Mathewson’s coming, and told him they would not take no for an answer, and he was finally induced to go. . ." At the dinner, Mathewson was asked to tell some tales about rescuing women and children from captivity among the Indians, and when he was preparing to leave, he was presented a rosewood case. "As the case was opened, there was displayed to view a most beautiful pair of six shooters which had carved ivory handles and were silver mounted and inlaid with gold. . .the sentiment was that they were presented to him by The Overland Transportation Company in recognition of his saving 155 men and 147 wagons of government supplies. General Curtis in speaking said: ‘Nothing in the annals of history compares with the feats of bravery done by you.’ In speaking of the affair afterwards, Mr. Mathewson said: ‘You could have knocked me down with a feather when they gave me those guns with my name carved in them. I have been in tight places in my time, passed through many a danger, but nothing ever took my nerve away so completely as the presentation of those guns. I was speechless, but stammered some sort of appreciation and rode away over the starlit prairie that night, the proudest man on the frontier.’" The case is dated "May 15th, 1867" (just six days after Mathewson settled with his family at the mouth of the Little Arkansas River per at least one source), but the description of the guns in various sources clearly matches this set other than the mahogany case. The sources may simply have gotten the year wrong and the case material wrong. Alternatively, this case may have been presented to him separately a year later to replace the original case. In the spring of 1867, Mathewson was authorized by the government to go out and call upon the local tribes to assemble for the Medicine Lodge Treaty Council held that October. As alluded to in the passage above, the set was presented to Mathewson in return for his actions in the summer 1864 while the Kiowa and other area nations were attacking towns, trading posts, and wagon trains. The exact details of the incidents vary, but the basic details that seem to be agreed upon is that the Kiowa attacked the trading post at Cow Creek Crossing and a nearby wagon train. Mathewson had been forewarned of attacks by Kiowa Chief Satanta who apparently had hoped his admonitions would scare off Mathewson and others from the trading post and thus make them easy targets. Satanta had previously been severely beaten by Mathewson during another encounter back in 1861 and had nicknamed him "Long-Bearded Dangerous Man" as a result. Instead of abandoning the post, Mathewson and less than a handful of men held off their assailants for three to four days before sending them scattering by firing a howitzer loaded with shot and scrap as the Kiowa came across the bridge to the post. He had told Bryant, Banard & Co. and the Overland Transportation Company not to send out any wagons, but they received his message too late and replied that they had already sent a wagon train that included arms and ammunition and asked him to save it. The train came under attack within a few miles of the trading post the morning after the Kiowa had broken off their siege. The wagon train’s encircled teamsters were unaware of the weapons available to them because the crates had been disguised. Mathewson, on the other hand, had been told of their contents. After surveying the situation, he left his companions behind to defend the trading post in case of renewed attack and charged in on his horse with a Sharps rifle and six Colt revolvers, broke through the enemy lines at breakneck speed, and rushed over to break open the crates and began passing out guns (reportedly Sharps and Colts). This turned the tide of the battle and caused the astonished attackers to flee. This set is pictured and discussed on p. 234 and 262-265 of "The Art of the Gun: Magnificent Colts, Selections from the Robert M. Lee Collection by Robert M. Lee and R.L. Wilson as well as the cover and p. 23 of "Frontier Guns: Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, Fort Worth," p. 197 of "The Book of Colt Engraving" by R.L. Wilson, p. 234 of "Colt Engraving" by R.L. Wilson, p. 294-295 of "The Colt Engraving Book: Volume I" by R.L. Wilson, p. 273 of "Steel Canvas" by R.L. Wilson, p. 112-113 of "The Colt Heritage" and "Colt: An American Legend" both by R.L. Wilson, and p. 206 "Samuel Colt Presents" by R.L. Wilson. The case is inscribed "Presented/to/Wm Mathewson/by/CH Durfee/May 15th, 1867." The revolvers have elaborate etched floral patterns once backed by gold highlighting on the barrels, frames, and cylinder. The style is similar to revolvers done by Tiffany & Co. of New York, and the work has been attributed to them and listed as their work by the Nevada Museum of Art in their exhibit "Tiffany & Co. Arms from the Robert M. Lee Collection" (February 11, 2012 - May 20, 2012). As Wilson points out in "Magnificent Colts," very similar etching is on the pair of Smith & Wesson No. 2 Old Model Army revolvers presented to Custer (see p. 191 of "Steel Canvas: The Art of American Arms" by Wilson). He also notes that both of the revolvers appear in the factory ledgers for July 18th, 1863, and "proves the revolvers have been together prior to their being customized by Tiffany & Co. Such documentation in the plant records is difficult to establish for a great many Colt percussion firearms. In this case, the numbers even include the serial number of the revolver (14114) which appears on the back strap of the Navy no. 14239." He notes that Tiffany & Co. were known jobbers for Colt and other artisans in New York also did similar etching on private commission. The grips have raised relief carving consisting of Columbia on the left sides and a patriotic bald eagle and Columbian shield motif on the right sides both accented by scroll patterns. The butts are inscribed "Wm Mathewson." The sights and factory markings are standard for Model 1861 Navy revolvers other than that the "36 CAL" on the trigger guard of the first gun is inverted and the noted non-matching but period correct number on the back strap of gun B. The case is French fitted to the guns and also contains the following silver plated accessories: "Wm Mathewson" inscribed James Dixon & Sons powder flask, two Colt patent dual cavity bullet molds, and two L-shaped combination tools. There are also compartments with silver pulls on the lids in each of the corners where caps, bullets, and other equipment could be stored. A file of research on Mathewson as well as copies of pages from several of the books mentioned are included and contained in an attractive book style case made specifically for this set and marked "THE PRESENTATION INSCRIBED/CASED AND ETCHED/COLT MODEL 1861 NAVY REVOLVERS/TO/WM. MATHEWSON/THE ORIGINAL ‘BUFFALO BILL’/FROM C.H. DURFEE [sic]/ETCHED, SILVER PLATED, INSCRIBED, AND CASED/BY TIFFANY & CO., NEW YORK/SERIAL NUMBERS 14143 AND 14239/THE HISTORY THAT FROM WHICH/BOOKS ARE WRITTEN/AND/WESTERN MOVIES MADE."
Exceptionally fine overall. 90% plus Tiffany Co. applied silver plating remains. Most of the loss is on the muzzle and the grip straps as well as some patches on the cylinder. The exposed brass has attractive aged patina, and the iron has dark brown patina. There is some light pitting. The gold wash that was in the textured background of the etching has simply faded away with time. The etched patterns, inscription, and markings remain distinct. The grip is excellent and has attractive natural tones, crisp carving, some shrinkage and slight warping from age, and minor handling and storage wear. It remains mechanically excellent. The case is also very fine and has a distinct inscription, light scratches and scuffs on the exterior, and fading and some staining and tears on the lining. The accessories are all also very fine and have attractive light aged patina on the silver which remains essentially 100% complete.
Exceptionally fine overall. 80% plus Tiffany Co. applied silver plating remains. Most of the loss is on the sides of the barrel and heel section of the back strap. The spots of exposed brass has attractive aged patina, and the iron has dark brown patina. There is some light pitting. The gold wash that was in the textured background of the etching has simply faded away with time. The etching, inscription, and markings remain distinct. The grip is also very fine and has attractive natural tones, crisp carving, some shrinkage and slight warping from age, and minor handling and storage wear. It remains mechanically excellent. This is an absolutely outstanding set connected to genuinely historic man from the Old West: William Mathewson, the original "Buffalo Bill." The level of documentation relating to this set is absolutely outstanding. Rarely do we see presentation revolvers with such detailed history or connected to such interesting events. This is truly a set that will serve as the centerpiece of any advanced public or private collection. There simply isn't another set like it in terms of rarity, artistry, and history. Provenance: Robert M. Lee Collection.
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