Mystery of Benjamin Bones' collection remains

Every August, a Grants Pass eccentric known as Benjamin R. Bones counted meteors in the sky.

The stargazer, better known for growing gladiolus and writing the "Ben Roland Gospels," left a trail of mystery after his death on June 17, 1962, that still is being tracked to the present day.

Bones had a Cheyenne war shirt that is believed to have belonged to Chief Spotted Tail, a highly honored Lakota chief, though Bones' claim hasn't been fully authenticated.

The Benjamin R. Bones Collection of artifacts was donated to the Southern Oregon Historical Society in 1957 after being passed down through Bones' ancestors. Historians say the war shirt could have been given to Spotted Tail by the Cheyenne after he signed the treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868.

The collection will be sold at auction by British-based Bonhams on Monday in San Francisco. The Southern Oregon Historical Society hopes whoever purchases the collection can provide better preservation techniques and can delve more into its provenance.

Bones, who died at age 77 and has a room named after him in the Grants Pass library, provided a written and signed statement that indicates the shirt belonged to Chief Spotted Tail.

Bones and his wife, Queen Lynn Bones, didn't have children.

"He built this big house that looked like a ship on the inside," said Joan Momsen, a 69-year-old Grants Pass resident who remembers seeing Bones when she was a girl. The house was called "Edenfield."

"He was extremely thin," she said. "He was very nice."

According to records from the Josephine County Historical Society, Bones was the first commercial grower of gladiolus in Grants Pass.

He shipped his first train car of flowers in 1928. Bones' enterprise had various mishaps, including a fire that destroyed the bulb house in 1934 and a virus that swept through his flowers.

His book, "Ben Roland Gospels," described his own personal religious views, including his belief that Jesus was human, not supernatural, and disputing the biblical notion that the universe was created in six days.

He was an amateur photographer who often entered competitions. He had a keen interest in science, particularly the works of Darwin, and was well-known for his stargazing.

His grandfather, Marquis Fargo Cutting, was a post trader at Fort McPherson, Neb., in 1867, according to accounts from the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

Cutting was related by marriage to former U.S. Sen. James Rood Doolittle, who wrote the Doolittle Survey on the condition of American Indians.

A mourning dress worn by Sally Rood Doolittle, Bones' great-grandmother, also is part of the collection, as well as a beaded purse belonging to Cutting's wife, Delia Doolittle.

Cutting, Doolittle and Spotted Tail were all in the same area around 1867, according to historical accounts.

Spotted Tail, who was at Fort McPherson after being driven out of his hunting grounds, signed the treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, and the shirt might have been given to him for the occasion, according to an account prepared for the historical society on Oct. 28, 2011. The account says Spotted Tail's nephew was Crazy Horse of Little Bighorn Fame.

Spotted Tail was born around 1823 and died in 1881.

It's unclear how Spotted Tail's shirt originally fell into the ancestors of the Bones family, according to the historical society document.

Bones' account is difficult to authenticate and a study commissioned by SOHS on Sept. 1 indicated more investigation needs to be conducted on the provenance, but the assumption is that the shirt, pipe, pipe bag and bow case and quiver set likely belonged to Spotted Tail.

Ron McCoy, who prepared the study and is an American Indian historian, stated, "The provenance of these materials is better than for many Native American objects of 19th-century origin, albeit still thin."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email dmann@mailtribune.com.


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