Malta cowboy was an early Western star in Hollywood


Courtesy of John W. Heap

John W. Heap, whose step-grandmother was married to Wallace Coburn, said this undated photo of Coburn apparently was taken on a movie set in Hollywood.

“Wallace D. Coburn, the original shoot -’em -up, watch-my-smoke, whoopee-ky-otee cowpuncher and movie star, is in town.”

That was how the Honolulu Star-Bulletin trumpeted the May 1917 arrival of northern Montana’s original cowboy poet and movie star in the islands.

Wallace, famous as a writer, rancher, daredevil, bronco-fighter, traveler, and entertainer, had gone to Hawaii to publicize his latest film “The Sunset Princess,” produced in Los Angeles.

Wallace was accompanied by his son, Robert, 16, and daughter Dorothy, 12, “also well known screen performers in western plays,” according to the Hawaiian newspaper.

His appearance “caused quite a sensation,” according to The Bear Paw Mountaineer, a newspaper in Big Sandy, Mont., that kept tabs on Coburn, his wife and “their two bright-eyed children.” Indeed, the Coburn name was a type of patent of nobility.

“The whole Coburn family are as essentially western and still as truly refined and as educated as he — which is the best,” ran the story in the Mountaineer. “Mrs. Coburn knew the west when it was endless, unfenced stretches, just as well as her nervy mate; she has instilled in the two fine looking children the same spirit and all together they are striving for love of the west.”

According to Mountaineer, Coburn liked it at the Pleasanton Hotel in Honolulu for there was running water in every room, “which reminds him of the Big Muddy which ran (almost) all the year around in his great blue room up north for years — the blue sky above, the buffalo grass under foot and the walls — mile wide and cactus dotted; some sagebrush and greasewood, too.”

Wallace David Coburn was born on May 31, 1872, in northeastern Montana, among one of the last and widest mixed-grass prairie landscapes in North America.

His father, Robert Coburn Sr., founded the Coburn Circle C Ranch in 1886, raising Wallace on one of the three “big spreads” that owned or controlled most of the range in southern Philips County. One account said the Coburn ranch “spread out larger than many a European principality.”

Some of the earliest references to Wallace are several old newspaper ads selling farm machinery and implements, including two placed in the June, 1899, issue of Choteau’s The Montanian (sic), encouraging readers to head down to the “big store of Wallace D. Coburn, successor to McLean Bros. & Coburn.”

An article in the Fort Benton River Press newspaper on April 2, 1902, refers to an inquest into a murder on the Coburn ranch on Big Warm Springs Creek, where Wm. J. Allen had been killed the previous Sunday afternoon by Chas. Perry, and from the evidence at the inquest it appears that the latter shot Allen to save his own life, “and that the affray was provoked by the dead man.”

Allen’s troubles arose out of the fact that he and his father-in-law and another man named “Nosey” Clark were “tarred and feathered some eight or ten years ago by unknown parties while living on Big Warm Springs Creek, on the reservation, five miles above the Coburn ranch.” They always suspected that the Coburn boys (Wallace and his brother Will) had some role in that, Allen proposed to Perry “that he should exercise his great influence with the Indians to get up a party in revenge, raid the Coburn ranches, massacre their owners and employees, and burn the buildings.”

This Perry declined to be part of, and he informed Wallace and Will Coburn of Allen’s vengeful proposition. During and before the inquest, “about 150 Indians camped near the Coburn ranch, and it was found out later that they were there to protect Perry, who, they feared, would be killed by certain squaw men and their half-breed sons, who were incensed at the death of Allen.”

Coburn maintained a fine friendship with an equally romantic character, artist Charles Marion Russell. Russell and Coburn co-wrote the 1903 book “Rhymes from a Round-up Camp,” a cheery, lively, nostalgic collection of jingles and odes of the “Wild West” that sold by thousands. In addition to his co-authorship, Russell illustrated the collection.

An issue of Western American magazine published in the 1940s featured a photo of the pair, and it quoted Charles Russell as saying: “Wallace D. Coburn is a blue-eyed, stalwart, laughter-loving lad with a face like a Galway Blazer and a smile that is worth going miles to see. Horseman of the plains, mighty hunter, ranchman, cowpuncher, scholar, wit and poet, he rounds out his career as a Westerner by being the only White Chief of the Assiniboine-Sioux, his tribal name being Peta-kooa-honga, which means Cowboy Chief.”


Courtesy of John W. Heap

This photo of Coburn, also undated, was thought to have been taken at the Coburn family ranch in Malta.

Coburn is said to have gone into the movie business for two reasons: because, similar to roping horses, it was exciting, and because he wanted to perpetuate and preserve the proceedings and clothing and deportment of the West for generations to come.

In the mid-1910s, Wallace opened the Bison Motion Picture Show at Malta. Co-owned with his wife, Ann Reifenrath Coburn, its walls were covered with many Indian relics and trophies, for Coburn from time to time was the grateful recipient of many rare and costly artifacts as an appreciation of “his kindness and sympathetic judgment toward the different tribes.” (It was reported that Wallace was familiarly known to various tribes as “Heymus,” or Iron Tooth, on account of a gold crown tooth in his mouth.)

In 1916, The Anaconda Standard described the Malta theater as “unique in that it is the only motion picture house in the United States whose walls, entrances and lobbies are adorned with Indian replicas and trophies of the hunt of such antiquity and rarity.”

According to the June 24, 1916, issue of the same paper, Coburn amassed one of the country’s largest collection of Indian artifacts, including war bonnets, war whistles, war clubs, war shields, tomahawks and lances “used by Indian chiefs just spoiling for a fight,” as well as “a buffalo skin pouch carried by an Indian in the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805.” Sacajawea, the noted scout, “may have fashioned it with her own hands.”

When Wallace Coburn’s son, Robert, was born in 1902, the Indians remained in council three days debating upon a name that should be good enough for the son of their friend. They decided upon Taton-ga-nosh, which interpreted is Standing Buffalo Bull.

In the mid-1910s, Coburn formed the Great West Film Company at Zortman, as well as a studio in St. Paul, Minn. “Primarily, the object of this company is to depict western life from real live scenes in a genuine western atmosphere,” reads one contemporary film publication of Coburn’s endeavor.

At the present time many of the film companies throw western pictures on the screen containing ‘mail-order cowboys’ and scenes lacking in local color and vividness and if the film company accomplishes what it has planned, it will, to an appreciable extent, revolutionize existing opinion in the minds of people who heretofore have been unable to obtain information about the West and westerners, first hand.”

Wallace was reputedly a crack shot and marksman, holding “the Montana state record for grizzlies,” having killed four at one time in the Larb hills, 50 miles from Malta.

Equally skillful with his pen, he wrote the scenario and took the leading role in the Great West Film Company’s first production, “Yellowstone Pete’s Daughter.” Filmed at the Walter Coburn Ranch (Walter, Wallace’s half-brother, lived from 1889-1971 and  had a successful career as a Western writer) near the Little Rockies in 1916, the film made use of 22 artists and 45 workmen.

The camp was outfitted with horses and packstrings and the movie party stayed at the Great Northern Hotel in Malta. While most of the film was shot at the Coburn Ranch, a few of the scenes were shot in Malta. The name “Malta” was taken off the railroad station and replaced with “Butte.” John Shady’s livery barn was the background for the departing stagecoach. One episode showed a thousand head of steers stampeded.

After filming the name of the picture was changed to “The Golden Goddess” and it was shown at the Bison Theatre. The Great West Film Company produced films for at least a couple of more years.

Somewhere along the line, Wallace permanently transitioned to California, where he appeared in a number of the early-day silent movies, including “The Bull’s Eye,” released in 1917, and “The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin” (1918).

The Minneapolis Star review of “The Sunset Princess” heralded Coburn for his realism as the leading man in the 1918 Great West Film Company production, “a thrilling drama of the old west.”

“Knowing that the day of the cowboy was done but wishing that it might live on forever in the eyes of centuries, Coburn has thrown his whole soul and ability into an accurate and interesting reproduction of the real life as he knew it and in this laudable effort he has been eminently successful.”

For several years, Coburn returned to the Circle C Ranch and other parts of Montana each summer; a Montana reporter from The Fallonite once provided this enjoyable dispatch straight from the terrain that Wallace knew intimately:

“When Coburn is on his ranch in Montana, he can’t make his feet or hands behave. Either he must be climbing up into the middle of a sun- fishin’ pinto to place his life and limbs in the hands of fate or else his index finger is itching on the trigger of his .30-30 up in the wilds on the trail of a grizzly. It is this indomitable defiance of conventionality that has won him a high niche in the movie game, and thrills and diversities of which have partially taken the place of the daring day of old before barbed wire from Chicago and dry-land farmers from Iowa and elsewhere chased the cowman after the red men — into the discard.”

The Circle C Ranch was eventually sold off and became part of the Matador holdings that stretched from Texas to Saskatchewan. (The Nature Conservancy struck a “complicated” deal to preserve the 60,000-acre Matador Ranch in 2000.)

Wallace lived out the remainder of his life in California, at one point operating a western museum in Hollywood. Some of the stories from his most enduring work, “Rhymes from a Round-up Camp,” were dramatized for the screen. He died on March 15, 1954 in Los Angeles.

Perhaps this quote about Wallace from an entertainment pamphlet in 1918 would be a fitting, respectful epitaph:  “He is one of the few men who actually know the life and can depict it properly in verse and on the screen.”

His daughter, Dorothy Coburn, also became a noted film actress, appearing in a chain of Hal Roach-directed shorts and early Laurel and Hardy silent films. Dorothy died May 15, 1978, in Los Angeles.

Freelance writer and author Brian D’Ambrosio may be reached at

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