James Adams 1861 – 1938

James Adams was born about 1861 in Frederick County, Maryland. His parents were Wesley and Martha (Williams) Adams. In 1870, his father was a farm laborer, and the family, which included two brothers (John H age four, and Samuel, 8 months), lived in Adamstown. This small community was not named for anyone in James’ family, but rather for Adam Kohlenburg, the first railway agent, in 1840.

It is likely that James is the one in the 1880 census in Washington DC in the boys’ correctional facility although that record lists him as born in 1868. The House of Correction was on Bladensburg road at the Fort Lincoln site. In 1876, the name was changed to The Reform School of the District of Columbia. This facility was built to house delinquents, and boys convicted of committing federal crimes. It served both black and white youths, although in segregated living quarters. Charles Manson was a resident there 70 years later.

James enlisted in the army on 6 November, 1883, at Washington, DC. He was listed as age 20 (so born 1863), laborer, black eyes, hair, and complexion, height 5’5 ½”. Although this seems small, of all 50 enlistments on this page, only one was 5’10, two were 5’9”, and the rest were shorter. James was assigned to Co B of the 9th Cavalry, and he discharged at the end of his enlistment on 5 November 1888, at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, as trumpeter, character listed as “good”.

James was out of the army for a little over five years, until he re-enlisted on 5 Jan, 1889, at Fort Omaha, Nebraska. He was assigned to Co G of the 25th Infantry, and arrived at Fort Missoula a week later. He transferred to the Band, and by the time of his discharge in 1894, he held the rank of Corporal, character “excellent.” He immediately enlisted again at Fort Missoula, remaining assigned to the band. While he was a trumpeter in the 9th Cavalry, he may be the snare drummer in the group photo of the band, since that matches his rank in 1894.

As a member of the band, James would have participated in the concerts at Fort Missoula, as well as parades and other holiday functions and celebrations. The band also contracted to play at private events, which allowed the band members to earn money beyond their army pay. The 25th Infantry Band was featured at the 1895 Emancipation Day celebration, at Columbia Gardens in Butte. After their return, the Missoulian reported that the band was quite pleased with the warm reception and hospitality they were shown. Over Christmas in 1897, the band was temporarily posted at Fort Harrison, where they played concerts, for dances, and even a skating party. The band was so popular that people in Helena petitioned to have them permanently assigned there. Besides the usual musical activies, members of the band went on furlough together to go hunting, and James played second base on the band’s baseball team.

The 25th Infantry left Fort Missoula on Easter, in 1898, to participate in the Spanish American War. James discharged in 1899, but re-enlisted. He served in the band at Fort Lawton (now Discovery Park in Seattle). He went with the band to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, and re-enlisted in 1913, as a band corporal.

In 1914, he married Annie Kaiwa in Honolulu. James served in the band during the World War, from Washington state, but did not travel overseas. He was discharged in 1925, age 59, as a corporal. His Veteran’s Administration card reports that he died 28 March 1938 but does not say where.

James’ brother Samuel moved to Boston, worked as a barber, and died there in 1907. Further information about his wife and other family members has not yet been located.

Travis Bridges 1862 – ???

Travis Bridges was born about 1862 at Mount Sterling, Kentucky. He is likely the son of Jefferson and Sarah (Bowen) Bridges. In the 1870 census, he was mistakenly indexed as a son named Mary. In the 1880 census, he was mistakenly indexed as Francis (an error that was repeated when the index was created for one of his enlistment records.) His father was a farm laborer, and Travis had at least 7 sisters and brothers.
Travis first enlisted in the army in 1885 at Cincinatti, assigned to Co G, 9th Cavalry. He discharged 5 years later, at the expiration of service, at Fort Niobrara, Nebraska. His character was listed as “very good”. Travis next enlisted in 1890, at Chicago, joining the 25th Infantry, Co B, musician (which usually means trumpeter), discharging after three years. He spent part of that time at Fort Custer, Montana. Travis enlisted for the third time in 1894 at St. Paul, Minnesota, joining the 25th Infantry, Co F. He transferred to the band in February, but then transferred back to Co F in May of that same year.
Travis was detached from his company and participated in the June 1897 Fort Missoula Bicycle Corps trip to St. Louis, Missouri. The group commander, Lt. Moss, hoped to establish that bicycles could be more effective than horses. The group travelled about 1900 miles, following poor roads and railroad routes, arriving July 24. After the trip, the bicycles were returned to the Spaulding bicycle company, and the Bicycle Corps returned to Fort Missoula by train. The story of the Bicycle Corps is well documented with books, articles, and at least one video documentary that is available on YouTube.
Four months later, on Nov 1, 1897, Travis was discharged at Fort Missoula, from Co F, “without honor.” I have not yet found any records for Travis after he left the army. It appears that his siblings stayed in the Mount Sterling area of Kentucky, but I didn’t find Travis living with them.

Richard Dennie 1865 – 1901

Richard Dennie was born in 1865 in Galva, Illinois, son of George Dennie and Martha Murphy.  The family was counted in the 1870 census in Topeka, where George was a barber, and Martha worked as a hair dresser.  The family moved to Great Bend, Kansas where they farmed. Richard’s family was counted in the 1875 state census, the 1880 federal census, and the 1885 state census in South Bend, Kansas. By 1885, Richard’s occupation was listed as singer and musician, as was his older sister Carrie.  (Carrie Dennie-French became well known as a classical singer.) 

Richard married Nora Ray in 1894 in Chicago.   On 16 Feb 1895 in Chicago, Richard enlisted in the army.  His occupation was listed as musician, and he was described as having brown eyes, black hair, and dark complexion, being 5’6” tall.  He was assigned to the 25th Infantry Band (and Co. G) and arrived as a recruit at Fort Missoula on 26 Feb 1895. He would almost certainly been with the band when it participated in the Emancipation Day celebration in Butte in September 1895. News reports after the band returned commented on well the band members were greeted and treated.  Although he enlisted for three years, he was dishonorably discharged after only 18 months.  I have not determined what band instrument Richard played but his brother Frank was a saxophone player and professional musician as well.  Perhaps the warm Butte reception was why Richard moved to Butte when he got out of the Army.    

On 18 Dec 1898, he filed for divorce there, saying his wife had left and refused to live with him.  The newspaper items named his wife as Viola, but based on the date and location of marriage as listed in these news items, it appears that Viola and Nora are the same person.  The divorce petition was originally dropped because neither party appeared in court.   However, Richard’s attorney re-filed, saying he was in court on the right day, but left briefly not expecting the case to be called so quickly.  Richard did get his divorce.  I found no more information about Mrs. Dennie. 

Richard made the news again in 1899 when he was accused of committing adultery with a married white woman named Emma Dugay.  She accused her husband of assaulting her, and apparently went to stay with Richard.  Emma eventually got a divorce, and the adultery charges were dropped.  Richard and Emma did not stay together.

The 1899 Butte city directory lists Richard as a musician, for R W Bell, saloon owner.   In the 1900 census, Richard worked as a music teacher in Union Township of Virginia City, Montana.  He was listed as widowed – which could mean that his former wife died, or that he just preferred not to be listed as divorced.   

Richard died 13 August 1901 at 222 South Wyoming Street, which was also the address for the Butte Co-operative Laundry association.  A doctor felt that his death was suspicious, and an inquest was held.  He had arrived to tend to Richard, finding him paralyzed on one side and with bulging eyes and face drawn down.  The doctor felt that the symptoms matched both morphine poisoning and apoplexy (what we might now call a cerebral hemorrhage or stroke).  Witnesses who lived with Dennie said he had been ill about a week, and that he was not a habitual user of drugs but had taken cocaine once medicinally.  While suicide was a possibility, the witnesses discounted this, saying Dennie was actually trying to get ready for work when he died.  Dennie at this time was working as a tailor, cleaning and repairing clothes, but the news story also described him as “a clever pianist.”  In the end, the inquest gave a finding of death due to natural causes, specifically heart disease.  He was buried at Mt Moriah. 

Sergeant Sandy Gardner 1868 – 1955

Nathaniel “Sandy” Gardner was born 15 July 1868, probably in New Garden, Virginia, the son of Solomon C Gardner and Lillie Duff Ward.  The 1870 census shows that his father was a cabinet maker, and the household included a younger brother, William.  By 1880, the family lived in Chattanooga, and the family had added three more children.  Solomon was listed as a teamster.  The Gardner family moved to Los Angeles in the 1890’s. 

In 1892, Sandy was a registered voter.  The record describes him as 25, 5’11, colored, black eyes and hair, with a scar on his right hand.  He was a paper hanger, and lived with his family at 112 Francisca Street. 

Sandy also worked as a Santa Fe railroad porter.  In 1895, an acquaintance named Busby asked Sandy how he might also get a job as a porter, and Sandy gave him the name of the man to contact.  Busby was told he would have a position when a vacancy occurred, so he decided to make that happen by poisoning Sandy to create an opening.  He laced a bottle of cherry wine with strychnine and sent it to Sandy.  Busby’s plan went awry, as Sandy’s schedule changed, and two other co-workers found and consumed the bottle of wine before Sandy got to it.  Both men died.  Busby was arrested and charged with murder.  His defense was that he only wanted to make Sandy sick in order to take over his job, and if the two other men hadn’t stolen Sandy’s wine, they wouldn’t have died.  Busby was convicted and sentenced to life. 

In 1896, Sandy enlisted in the Army, at San Diego.  He listed his occupation as carpenter.  He was assigned to the 25th Infantry band.  Fort Missoula, in Montana, was the regimental headquarters for the 25th Infantry.  The band was very popular in Western Montana, playing at public events and parades, with weekly concerts.  They also were hired for private events, allowing the band members to earn extra money.  The band was transferred to Fort Harrison in December 1897, for several weeks of performances there, and was so well received that the Helena community petitioned to have the band moved there permanently.  Sandy was also a baseball player.  When the 25th Infantry was called up for the Spanish-American War, Sandy went with the band to Florida then into battle.  His brother William was also a band member.

Sandy was discharged 1899 at Fort Logan, Colorado, as a band corporal, character rated as “Excellent”.  A sports news item later that year, from the Los Angeles Herald says, “The Trilbys baseball club has reorganized. As the Trilbys have been strengthened by the return of their star pitcher, Sandy Gardner, from Montana, they should prove warm propositions for any club that thinks that they can are still on the toboggan.”   In Los Angeles, Sandy was counted in the 1900 and 1910 census with his parents and siblings.  In the city directories, his occupations were listed as paper hanger, laborer, and porter. 

In 1911, Sandy was among those arrested during a raid on a Chinese gambling establishment.  He resisted arrest, fighting with an under-cover officer and throwing him across the room.  The officer drew his gun and starting firing.  Luckily, no one was seriously injured.  Sandy stopped fighting when a black officer he knew came into the room with the other officers conducting the raid.

Perhaps coincidentally, two months later, Sandy enlisted back into the Army, once again joining the 25th Infantry Band.  The band was assigned to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.  At the end of his three-year enlistment, he signed up again.  Sandy spent his later years of service at Camp Steven D Little Military Post in Nogales, Arizona.  The band participated in the Pacific International Exposition in San Diego in 1935.  A news story about the history of the band, a year, later related that Sandy had been decorated for bravery during the Spanish American war when he captured a Spanish flag and tore it to prevent its recapture.  By then, he was the only Spanish-American war veteran in the regiment. 

Sandy retired in 1938, at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, at the age of 70.  He had completed 30 years of service in the 25th Infantry Band.  He was believed to be the oldest corporal, if not the oldest soldier, in the US Army.  He was promoted to sergeant the year before he retired. 

Sandy moved back to California, and lived with relatives.  The city directories list his occupation as musician, but I have not been able to determine what instrument he played. 

Sandy died 18 Jul 1955 in Los Angeles.  His death certificate says he was widowed but I have not found a record of a marriage.  He was buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. 

Robert W Tellies 1865 – 1930

Robert Tellies was born in 1865 in Williamson County, Tennessee.  I have not been able to find him in the 1870 or 1880 census.  In 1886, he enlisted in the Army at Nashville, TN, and became a musician in the 25th Infantry band.  He discharged at Fort Missoula, MT, and re-enlisted there, continuing in the band for another five years. 

He was credited with heroic efforts after discovering a down-town warehouse on fire, sounding the alarm, and getting a hose on the fire, keeping the fire from spreading until the fire department arrived. 

Besides playing with the post band at public events, Tellies seems to have been known as a popular entertainer in the community, as the paper referred to him as “the great burnt cork comedian.”  (Language of the time.)  Robert led the “R W Tellies Refined Colored Minstrels” with members recruited from the 25th Infantry, who appeared in theaters in Missoula.  They were complimented on the music, and they had an excellent contortionist.  Reserved seats were $1, which is what the public would have paid to see the Sousa band 24 years later.  At a fund-raiser for the fort Athletic Club, Robert sang and danced, along with other soldiers from the fort.  A review in the local paper said that, “With the exception of Billy Kersands [a famous performer of the 19th century] Bobbie Tellies is the next greatest colored comedian on the stage.  At the show last night encore after encore was given him for the artistic manner in which he handled his feet in the latest steps known in the celebrated buck and wing dances.  If you want two hours of solid fun and laughter don’t fail to see the show.”

Most of the band members from Fort Missoula were together, with director Safranek, in the 1900 census, in Iba in the Philippines.  Robert was a sergeant.  He discharged in 1903 at Fort Niobrara, Nebraska.   Later that year, Robert was charged with “shooting with intent to kill.”  It appears that the first trial ended in a hung jury, and he pled guilty before the case was retried, getting a sentence of 18 months of hard labor. 

In 1905, Robert re-enlisted, and was assigned to the 9th Cavalry band in Nebraska.  Once again, Robert got into trouble.  As reported in the newspaper, Robert’s advances to a young woman were rejected.  Robert approached her, two men with her told him to stop.  Robert pulled a gun and fired, killing the woman.  His argument was self-defense because he thought the men were armed and that the woman wasn’t his target.  The jury didn’t accept that, and he was convicted of murder.  News stories reported the expectation he would hang for killing his sweetheart, but instead, he was sentenced to life in prison. He was also dishonorably discharged.

Because the killing happened on federal property, Robert went to the federal prison at Leavenworth.  Prison newspapers show he played cornet and violin in the prison band, was on the prison committee for athletics, and organized a vocal music class.  He learned French, and managed the baseball team. 

In 1918, after 13 years, Robert’s conviction was apparently overturned and he was released.  The following year, Robert married Revester Colston in Kansas City, Missouri.  He worked in later years as a porter for different businesses.  He also was able to claim his pension.  In October, 1929, Robert entered the Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, for chronic gastritis.  He died four months later of stomach cancer.  He is buried at Leavenworth National Cemetery.  Revester moved to Los Angeles, and died there in 1973. 

Robert Tellies was at Fort Missoula during the time that this group photo was taken.  I believe that he is the cornet player seated in the chair closest to the bass drum, because as a private, he would have no stripes on his uniform, and the other as yet unidentified cornet player is very light skinned, while Tellies’ enlistment papers describe him as complexion: black. 

Chief Musician Elbert Williams

Elbert Williams at Tuskegee

Of all the men who were part of the 25th Infantry band between 1888 and 1898 at Fort Missoula, Montana, Elbert Williams was arguably the most successful musician.  I was surprised to see that his headstone only reads, “Pvt 24U.S. Inf.”

Elbert was born about 1865 in New York City, son of musician Charles Williams, and his wife Caroline Roberts.  Other siblings came later.  In 1880, he worked in Brooklyn, as a servant.  Elbert enlisted in the Army in 1884, claiming he was 21 (he was just 19).  First part of Co. C, 9th Cavalry, he was eventually assigned to the band.  After his five-year enlistment, he signed up again, in New York City.  Only a few months later, while on furlough in Philadelphia, he deserted, but surrendered almost a year later. Having served his confinement time, and then enlistment, he re-enlisted.  He transferred as principal musician, from the 9th Cavalry band, to private in the 25th Infantry band, discharging in 1895 at Fort Missoula.  He re-enlisted, but switched to the 24th Infantry band. By the time of his 7th enlistment, he was named Chief Musician of the 10th Cavalry band.  In that role, he travelled to Cuba with the armed forces.  This was a temporary appointment during the time of the Spanish American and then Philippines War. 

Elbert was given a furlough from the military to be the civilian bandmaster at Tuskegee Institute in 1903, and again 1905-1906.  At that time, he established the Elbert Williams Prize of $5 for the senior student of band or orchestra who made the most progress in instrumental music.  Elbert returned to the 10th Cavalry, then the 25th Infantry band.  At a time when all chief musicians, or bandmasters, of black military bands were white, Elbert was formally appointed chief musician of the 25th, becoming the first black appointed bandmaster.  John Norton, also formerly of Fort Missoula’s 25th Infantry Band, was also appointed about this time. 

Elbert and fourth wife Minnie were active in the Guy V Henry Garrison and Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Army and Navy Union, a veterans’ group.  He was a musician at Shiloh Baptist church, and also an instructor at the Columbia Academy and Conservatory of Music, in Washington DC.

Elbert, called Chief Trumpeter of the 10th Cavalry, was placed on the retired list in 1914, but came out of retirement during the World War, to direct the 371st Infantry Band, serving in Europe.  He died in 1929 and is buried at Arlington Cemetery. 

Although he was married several time, it appears he had no descendants and he named his brother Edward as his primary heir.  Edward was to receive almost all of Elbert’s property, including his music and musical instruments, which included his Eb cornet.  The single photo of him is from his time at Tuskegee.  I suspect that in the group photo of the band at Fort Missoula, he’s in the back row, third from the left. 

Because of his successes in moving up the ranks in the Army band system, he is mentioned in more digitized books, and articles on the Internet. 

Green Badgett 1870 – 1901

Green Badgett was born about January 1870 in Maryville, Blount County, Tennessee. I have not found him in the 1870 or 1880 census. The Chattanooga TN city directory list Green, laborer, boarding with his father, Green Badgett Senior, drayman, at 104 Forest Avenue, an address that no longer exists.

On 23 April 1892, Green enlisted in the army at Chattanooga. He was 22 years, 3 months old, occupation laborer, and 5’4” tall. He was in the 25th Infantry, Company H, then in the band, which was headquartered at Fort Missoula, Montana. As a member of the band, Green travelled around Western Montana and Northern Idaho, performing in concerts, parades, and other holiday functions. The band was available for hire, which allowed the bandsmen to earn money beyond their Army pay. Green was also a member of the band’s baseball team.

Upon expiration of his service, in 1897, at Fort Missoula, he held the rank of Private, and his character was noted as “excellent”. Green immediately reenlisted for a three year term, and remained in the 25 Infantry band. The regiment left Fort Missoula in April, 1898, to participate in the Spanish-American War.

He was discharged 22 April, 1900, and Iba, Zambales, (Leyte) Philippines, and his character was noted as “very good.” He again re-enlisted, and the June 4 1900 census shows him with the rest of the band members at Iba.

Green died 17 April, 1901, of chronic interstitial nephritis (kidney disease) on the hospital ship “Relief” which was stationed at Manila. He was buried at the San Francisco National Cemetery. His father claimed Green’s pension.

Green is most likely in the group photo of the 25th Infantry Band, but lacking more details, such as what instrument he played, he could be any one of men in the photo, excepting the Drum Major and two Principal Musicians.

Drum Major Joseph White 1851 – 1942

Joseph White was born 7 November, 1851, in New Orleans. At about age 20, he enlisted in the Army, and served in Buffalo Soldier units in the southwest. In about April, 1886, during hostilities with Geronimo, he was received a commendation for his actions during a battle. He served as trumpeter.

Joseph stood out, literally, from his fellow soldiers. At a time when most were about 5’7”, Joseph’s enlistment records show that he was almost 6’2” tall.

Joseph was a career soldier, and eventually transferred to the 24th Infantry band. In 1893, he was assigned to the 25th Infantry band, and went to Fort Missoula, Montana, where he served as Drum Major. This band provided music at parades and for holidays, and was also available for hire, which allowed the bandsmen to supplement their income beyond their Army pay.

On the 33rd anniversary Fort Missoula band 2of the emancipation proclamation, the 25th Infantry Band provided music at the festivities at Columbia Gardens in Butte. The newspaper reported that Joseph was voted the handsomest man in the band. A few months later, a news item describing the issuing of ill-fitting uniforms refers to Drum Major White as the “long-legged idol of the 25th.”

In March, 1898 Joseph was discharged after his term of service, but immediately re-enlisted, back into Co B of the 24th Infantry. This unit was sent to the Philippines, where Joseph received the Certificate of Merit. The 24th eventually returned to Fort Harrison, Montana, and Sergeant White was absent, having been sent to the Presidio at San Francisco, where he retired on 16 June, 1902.

The book “Downtown Vancouver” by Pat Jollota Joseph White paradeincludes a photo captioned, “Sgt. Maj. Joseph White, a Buffalo Soldier who stood well over six feet tall, leads the Grand Army of the Republic into Esther Short Park on the Fourth of July, 1914.” With his experience as a Drum Major, Joseph would have been well qualified to guide, lead, and help this group keep the beat.

In 1918, Joseph’s 1900 Certificate of Merit was changed to the Army Distinguished Service Medal for actions while serving as a member of Company B, 24th Infantry Regiment, at the Rio Grande River, Cabanatuan, Philippine Islands, on 8 November 1900. The army was trying to establish a ferry across Rio Grande de Pampanga, and Joseph rescued a comrade from drowning.

The United Spanish War Veterans was an organization of veterans from the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American war, and The China Relief Expedition. These groups were divided up by states, and then camps. In 1928, this group instituted the Sergeant Joseph White Camp No. 28 (colored) in Portland, Oregon.

Joseph White died at the Soldiers’ Home in Roseburg and was buried at the Veterans’ Plot of Lincoln Memorial Park in Portland, Oregon.

Charles Barnett 1867 – 1948

Charles Barnett was born 6 April, 1867, in Winchester VA, son of Joshua Barnett and Fannie Coxson. His father was a laborer, and Charlie had several siblings, including James, Joshua Jr, Ella, and Alice, as listed in the 1870 census. I have not located the family in the 1880 census.

Charles enlisted in the army on 2 February 1888 in Baltimore. He was a laborer, described as 5’7 ½”, and went into E Company of the 9th Cavalry, and into the band. He discharged 1 February 1893 upon the expiration of his service, at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, as a private, character excellent.

Charles re-enlisted at Pittsburg on 22 April, 1893 going into the 25th Infantry Band. This band was located at Fort Missoula, Montana. He apparently had good qualifications, as he was listed as Principal Musician by 1895, and was acting band master while other members of the band were away on a hunting trip. A newspaper item says, “Mr. Barnett has been receiving the congratulations of everyone for the excellent music…Mr. Barnett is very modest and receives the many pleasant things said of him composedly.”

Charles served as deputy commander of the Frederick Douglass Garrison of the Regular Army and Navy Union. The news item says this group “enjoys more prosperity than any other secret society here. It contains a membership of twenty…” then names the officers and members. Since meeting news was published regularly, perhaps “veterans’ fraternal society” would have been a better description than secret society.

Charles played right field on the band’s baseball team. The only news coverage says they lost to Co F, 33 to 14 in 8 innings. “The poor showing made by the band is due to the want of practice.” Charles also participated in relay races with other soldiers. Charles occasionally directed smaller music groups performing for private parties – a way for the soldiers to augment their Army pay.

In December, 1897, the 25th Infantry Band went to Fort Harrison near Helena, where they presented concerts, and played for dances and even skaters at the Broadwater Hotel. The band was so popular that it was held over. A concert advertised for January 4, 1898, lists VF Safranek as bandmaster, and Principal Musician Barnet on Cornet. Knowing his rank and instrument allows us to identify Charles in this group photo as being in the middle row, third from the left. Principal Musicians had the equivalent of sergeant stripes for their uFort Missoula band 2niform.

In April, 1898, Charles went with the 25th Infantry to Georgia, and discharged upon expiration of service on April 21st at camp George H Thomas, Georgia, with the rank of Principal Musician. He re-enlisted for the third time the next day, assigned to the 25th Infantry band. He discharged on Feb 24, 1899 at Fort Logan, Colorado, as Principal Musician, Character Excellent.

Charles returned to his home town of Winchester, Virginia. In 1900, he was living with his father and sister, working as a grocer. In 1908, he married Lena Webb. In later years, he was a retail merchant, then laborer. He died August 14th, 1948, age 81, retired. Lena died in 1953, and both are buried at the Winchester National Cemetery.

Chief Musician John N Norton 1858 – 1935

John N Norton wFort Missoula band 2as born Harford County, Maryland. Various records list his birth year from 1856 to 1861, but his earliest enlistment, and VA Master Index put his birthdate at March, 1858. Although I haven’t identified his parents, the 1910 census says both were born in Maryland, while the 1920 census says his father was born in Ireland, his mother in Maryland.
John enlisted in the Army in June 10, 1879 in Baltimore, occupation laborer, and joined Co G of the 25th Infantry. He served first at Fort Concho, Texas, joining the Band in 1881. The regiment moved to Fort Randall, Dakota Territory, in 1882, and he was a member of the band that was absent from the fort, playing at the Central Dakota Ag Fair, in Chamberlain (now South Dakota). He was discharged at Fort Snelling, Minnesota at the end of his 5 years’ service and re-enlisted on June 10, 1884. Two few days later, in Minneapolis, John married Louisa A Richardson.
At Fort Snelling John was captain and manager of the baseball team. He and his wife were active with Sons of Temperance. A news item from 17 Sep 1887, reported that Sergeant John N Norton had been missing since Aug 29. I have not yet found a news story or military record that explains his absence or return. There is a notation on his next discharge record that he “made up lost time” and his enlistment/discharge anniversary changed from June to August.
John went to Fort Missoula when the 25th infantry established headquarters there. The band served as a good-will ambassador in the community, playing for official functions, parades, and holidays. The band was also available for hire to play private events, which allowed the soldiers to supplement their Army pay. Norton completed other military duties outside of his band responsibilities. For example, in March 1890, he travelled to Fort Snelling as a guard to a military convict.
Census records show that John and Louisa had 10 children, but only one, Alice, lived to be an adult. Five infants and children were buried at the Fort Missoula Cemetery between 1890 and 1894.
John was an active member of the Fredrick Douglas garrison of the Regular Army and Navy Union, a veterans’ fraternal organization. In December, 1897, John traveled with the band to Fort Harrison at Helena, where they performed concerts, and at dances and even the skating rink. The band was so popular that community members petitioned to have it permanently assigned there. An advertisement for a concert, featuring Principal Musician J.N. Norton, baritone, allows us to identify him in this photograph as the man in the second row, left side, with sergeant’s stripes, and a baritone horn.
The 25th Infantry left Missoula in April 1898, to participate in the Spanish American War, and a few months later, Norton was reported dead. Happily, that report was in error, although he was ill and hospitalized. The band was counted in the 1900 census at Iba, Philippines. Meanwhile, Louise and daughter Alice lived in Sheridan, Colorado. John served as Drum Major, and went to Fort Niobrara in Nebraska.
When the black regimental bands were formed, the band leaders, with the title Chief Musician, were always white, and the highest rank for a black bandsman was Principal Musician, with other leadership roles being chief trumpeter, and drum major. In 1907, President Taft issued orders that blacks should be appointed to openings for Chief Musicians (band leaders) of black bands. Band masters were expected to be able to play all the instruments, teach beginners, and compose and arrange music.
On March 26, 1907, having been in the 25th Regiment band for a quarter of a century and having served many years as principal musician or drum major, John Norton was appointed Chief Musician, in anticipation of his planned retirement on June 10, 1907. This appointment was probably meant to reward his long service, but he chose not to retire as planned, and went back to the Philippines that fall, serving there until he retired on January 22, 1908. He was the first black Chief Musician for the 25th Infantry band and had served in the Army for 29 years.
John moved to Fort Logan, Colorado. In 1916, he was elected director of Denver’s Queen City Band, which advertised “music furnished for all occasions.” In 1920, he lived in Sheridan, with his wife and daughter, and listed his occupation as “retired soldier. Louisa died in 1920. John died February 19 1935, and both are buried at Fort Logan National Cemetery.

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