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From the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: Cowboy Joe Marsters

Thursday, August 6th, 2020

‘Cowboy Joe’ Marsters

By Susan Couso

Lassen County has been home to some really interesting people. Joseph Claude Marsters is one of these. He was better-known as ‘Cowboy Joe’ Marsters, and he became famous in a rather unusual way.

Joe was born in 1894 in Oregon, but as a 13-year-old he left home. His mother, in an effort to have her boy returned, offered a reward, but Joe was well on his way to the Wild West.

With no money and no place to go, Joe hopped a train and ended up in Wyoming. There, he met a stranger named Phil Mass who took him in and sent the boy to school. But Joe was not successful as a scholar.

Phil Mass’ son was a member of the Wild Bunch, led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and he took young Joe to the gang’s ‘hide-out’. Here, Joe was introduced to Butch Cassidy (Robert Leroy Parker), who asked what sort of work he could do. Joe responded that he could work horses pretty well, and Butch sent him to work with the herd.

According to Joe, the Sundance Kid (Harry Longabaugh) was not happy having him there, and Joe was never too crazy about Sundance, accusing him of a violent temper. But he admired Butch.

As the gang worked the West, Butch Cassidy took young Joe ‘under his wing’ and taught him the things necessary for life in the west, and a lot of not-so-necessary stuff too. Joe always looked up to Butch. In 1972 he said, “Give or take, no better ever lived. Butch had but one face; and talked with just one tongue.”

A man named Clifford Norten once tried to show his prowess at shooting by having Joe hold a cigarette and attempting to shoot the cigarette out of his hand. This resulted in Joe losing the end of his finger, a very painful result. Joe was taken by the gang to Etta Place, who took him to a doctor. Joe thought she was the prettiest woman he had ever seen.

Life with the gang wasn’t always glamorous. Once, when Sundance killed a man suspected of being a Pinkerton agent, Joe was forced to bury the deceased victim. After the killing, Butch and Sundance left for South America.

Joe was left with nothing but future. It was 1909 and he was fifteen years old and on his own. Luckily, he met Pawnee Bill and joined the 101 Wild West Show. Now, he was Cowboy Joe, the renowned rodeo performer, and his life took a turn for the better.

In 1915, after a performance, Joe was approached by a member of the old gang who told him that the ‘Boss’ wanted to say, “Hi”, and pointed to the audience. There, Butch waved his hat to Joe. This spurred the notion that Butch had not died in a hail of bullets in Bolivia, as reported.

In 1924, Joe was appointed by as one of J. Edgar Hoover’s first F.B.I. agents, and he was awarded a plaque by President Truman for his work. He remained an agent for the rest of his life, although ‘inactive’ for his later years.

Joe also continued working as a ‘cowboy.’ He did stunt work for motion pictures, including work in Stagecoach in 1939 – the first western in which John Wayne starred.

Lassen County became Joe’s final home as he settled on a ranch near Doyle with his wife, Nellie. He died in 1978, and is buried on the ranch.

So now, as you make your way down U.S. Highway 395, between Milford and Doyle, and see the sign, ‘Cowboy Joe Road’, you’ll know what it’s all about.

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