The history of the American West is filled with stories about men who made their marks on the land with guts, gunfire and gore. People never seen to tire of hearing them and the closer to home they are, the better. Fortunately Virginia Dale has such a wonderful character. His name is not as famous as Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp, but it should be; he was as reckless and as notorious as any of them. His name was Joseph A. Slade, better known as "Jack", and in less than two years he managed to become a part of our history, forever. It is a tale of high adventure on the high plains of Colorado.
Jack Slade was born in Illinois, perhaps in 1831. When he was 13 years old, he had already developed a reputation for an uncontrollable temper. He killed a man who was bothering him and his school friends by hitting him in the head with a rock. Slade enlisted into the army in 1847 and was sent to Texas where he served in the Mexican War.
While he was in Texas, or perhaps later--the accounts differ--Slade met and married the woman who would remain with him for the rest of his life. She was the voluptuous and lively Virginia Dale, a woman of handsome features even though she weighed in at 160 pounds on a tall frame. Jack, on the other hand, was rather on the small side--perhaps five foot eight, and about 150 pounds. Virginia was an admired and impressive woman of the frontier. She was reported to have been a dead shot with guns, an expert horse rider, and also a very capable manager of the lonely wilderness station at Virginia Dale. She also had a rather unlovely character and was forever interfering in her husband's business. In fact, a lot of their troubles seem to have originated with her. Well, this sweet couple spent the next few years in the Front Range of Colorado, where between 1850 and 1858 Slade was a captain of wagon trains transporting freight along the Oregon Trail.
By 1859, Slade had become an stage driver, and was a superintendent of the Central Overland stage line through some of the most lawless and dangerous stretches of the route in Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming. In early 1860 Slade supervised the construction of the almost 200 relay stations for the Pony Express. He took care of the horses and hired drivers, including Buffalo Bill Cody, whom Slade hired in 1861 when Bill was only 15 years old.
When Slade became an employee of Ben Holladayís Overland Stage Company, he had an important job as a division chief. This meant that his job was to make sure that nothing . . . NOTHING, interfered with the movement of passengers, mail or freight on the Overland Stage. His single-minded efforts were very much appreciated by the stage line and he was valued as a man who could get the job done and bring the stages through on time and intact. This, in spite of hostile Indians, bandits and other ruffians who wandered the West in search of easy prey. The main problem, besides his terrible temper, was that Slade drank; and when he was drunk, he was capable of anything . . even murder.
Right on the border of Colorado and Nebraska was a trading post that was established in 1859 run by a man named Jules Beni. A French Canadian, Beni had been trading with the Indians, but now found it more profitable to trade with the emigrants heading west. He named his trading post and way stop for the wagon trains "Julesburg." Not long after, the Overland Stage established a home station at Julesburg to take advantage of this profitable trade with pioneers. Slade was put in charge of this new section of the line and proceeded to improve the quality of all the services by upgrading the livestock, personnel and stage stations. This put him into immediate conflict with Beni. On one occasion, Slade came to Beniís ranch and found horses that clearly belonged to the Overland Stage. Slade proceeded to confiscate them. Jules Beni swore vengeance and disliked Slade intently.
In the spring of 1860, Slade rode into the stage station where Jules was living. Jules, seeing that Slade was unarmed, came running out shooting as Slade started to enter the combination general store and bar. He hit Slade with all six shots from his pistol. Unsatisfied with that, he ran back in, got a shotgun and emptied both barrels of buckshot into the helpless Slade. Satisfied that he had finished the job, Beni told a couple of bystanders. "When he is dead, you can put him in one of those dry goods boxes and bury him." Slade looked up from the ground and said, "Iíll live long enough to wear your ears on my watch chain." With that Jules laughed.
Now Slade vowed revenge upon Beni. In time, Beni was killed...by Slade. He then took out his knife, cut off Beni's ears, and did, in fact, wear them on his watch chain. This was not missed by anyone, as the rotting ears put off an ungodly stench.
When Jack Slade was drinking, he became wild and reckless. Fortunately Virginia was able to control him. It's been said that she was almost like a mother to him; he always went with her with not opposition. He was definitely a strange man.
While legend has painted a rather negative picture of Slade as a kill-crazy demon, people that actually knew him say that he was a generous and considerate gentleman, and a thoroughly competent manager for the Overland Stage Line. Unfortunately, legends never die--they continue to grow, and local tradition along the front range of Colorado tells of Slade robbing stages, rustling cattle, and stealing horses long after he had gone from the area, and even after he was hanged by vigilantes in Virginia City, Montana, on March 10, 1864.
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