Many a 19th Century boy, fetching the dime novel hidden in the corn crib, thrilled to the adventures of “White Beaver” as in story after story the hero overcame all odds to best his evil enemies. In real life White Beaver, aka Dr. Frank Powell, found one adversary too strong: The federal food and drug agency that condemned as fraudulent the patent medicines he had invented and given his Indian name.
Born in a Kentucky log cabin in 1845, David Frank Powell was the son of a physician of Scottish descent and a mother who was half Seneca Indian. When his father died at an early age, his mother took him and his brothers to live in New York State during the Civil War. During the postwar period, the Powells moved to Chicago where Frank went to work as a drug clerk and then on to Nebraska. In 1868 he entered medical school at Louisville University in Kentucky graduating at the head of his class.
While in Nebraska, Powell had met Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, and other figures of the old West. After graduation he went back to the state and was named to a government post as surgeon in the Department of the Platte and later made Medicine Chief of the Winnebago Indians. According to legend, Frank got his name, “White Beaver” from riding into the camp of a hostile group of Indians, several of whom he earlier had killed in hand-to-hand combat, in order to inoculate the residents against small pox. Others say he got it by rescuing a Sioux princess. Regardless, he embraced the title, let his hair grow long, and began to polish his legend.
During this period he also had become reacquainted with Buffalo Bill. An excellent marksman, Powell from time to time provided Cody’s touring show not only with a doctor but a sharpshooter. Shown here is a photo of the two (Frank right) as they looked during their touring days. Above is Powell's rifle. It was a Winchester Model 1873, 38-40 caliber, with a 22 inch octagon barrel, full magazine, and a shotgun butt.
With his Indian nickname, his time in the West, and his association with Buffalo Bill Cody, Frank Powell was a natural for dime novel fiction, a boom business in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The stories were about his “daring do” against a string of adversaries. White Beaver is shown here on the cover of Beadle’s Dime Library, in a white hat on the trail of evil-doers. Among titles were “White Beaver, the Indian Medicine Chief: the Romantic and Adventurous Life of Dr. Frank Powell,” “The Wizard Brothers, or, White Beaver’s Red Trail,” which also featured Powell’s brothers, “Buffalo Bill’s Sharpshooters, or, the Surgeon Scout to the Rescue”; “Buffalo Bill’s Swoop, a Buffalo Bill and Surgeon Frank Powell Adventure.” Although some stories were attributed to him as author it is doubtful that he wrote any.
In fact, much of the time Powell was working as a small town doctor in placid LaCrosse, Wisconsin. By now divorced and remarried, he also was putting his energies into mixing up and marketing a series of patent medicines. This was an era when Indian remedies were very popular with the American public and Powell was quick to jump on the bandwagon. Buffalo Bill Cody helped him by investing in manufacturing the nostrums. A photo shows Cody, left, sitting with Powell while two of White Beavers' brothers stand behind.
Best known of these concoctions was “White Beaver Cough Cream,” as advertised on the trade card that introduced this vignette and on one below. The cough cream was described as: “A soothing compound of lung healing root and herb juices, an unrivaled remedy for the cure of coughs, colds, croup, pleurisy, bronchitis, and all other diseases of lungs or bronchial tubes.” Fifty cents would buy a generous helping of the cream in an apothecary type glass jar with a removable top. Smaller amounts came in clear embossed flask-shaped containers.
In his advertising Powell often used testimonials. W. G. Smith of Mahias, Michigan, opined on the cough cream: “I consider it the Best Cough Medicine in the Country.” N. F. Wetmore, a M.D. from North Freedom, Wisconsin, hailed it for “excellent satisfaction.” Another potion was “White Beaver’s Wonder Worker” said to “instantly relieve either internal or external pain.” A third product Powell dubbed “Yosemite Yarrow.”
Cody and Powell also were associated in other business ventures. They founded a cereal company that produced a coffee substitute from roasted bran called “Panmilt”. The primary target market were Mormons who did not drink caffeine. The Latter Day Saints apparently did not like the taste of roasted bran and the venture failed.
Apparently White Beaver had no end of schemes, including one to colonize a couple million acres of land in Mexico said to be “free for the taking.” With money from investors, including Cody, he tried to sign up European colonists. Another investor summed up the result: “Doc Powell couldn’t find nobody in Europe or anyplace else that wanted to colonize that acreage of Mexican desert. I had nobody to blame but myself, and Cody lost a lot more than I did. But he had a whole lot else.”
Although for a time the remedies sold well, with Frank regularly visiting Milwaukee and other larger cities in Wisconsin and neighboring states to push his merchandise. With the passage of the Food and Drugs Act in 1906, however, Federal authorities were on White Beaver’s trail. In 1915, the United States Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin filed suit in federal court alleging that both White Beaver’s Cough Cream and Wonder Worker were in violation of the pure foods statute. Analysis by the Bureau of Chemistry showed that the cough cream contained morphine, chloroform, creosote, ammonium chloride, and methyl slicylate. It was misbranded by claiming that it was “a remedy for croup, pleurisy and all other diseases of the lungs and air passages and effective as a lung healer in consumption when, in truth and in fact, it was not.”
White Beaver’s Wonder Worker came in for similar harsh treatment. In liquid form, it proved to be just under 75 percent alcohol, that is, 150 proof — putting it among the strongest alcoholic liquors on the market today. In addition, it contained 1.70 grams of chloroform, and .09 gram of morphine and traces of camphor, capsicum, oil of turpentines and free ammonia. This concoction was not a cure for the many ailments claimed in its advertising, including cholera infantum, fever and ague, and “summer complaints of children.” The company admitted guilt, paid a $300 fine, and White Beaver’s products disappeared.
Meanwhile Powell had complemented his doctoring with politics, winning two elections for mayor of LaCrosse and unsuccessfully running for governor of Wisconsin. His campaigning involved handing out a card with his portrait, one without the long hair and leather garments. It did,however, contain a reminder that the candidate was White Beaver. Eventually Powells entrepreneur sights shifted Westward, taking him into lumber, mining and other ventures, likely with Buffalo Bill in tow. He was on such a business trip to California in May 1906 when he died on a train near El Paso, Texas, at the age of 61.
Even White Beaver’s going was the stuff of legends. Powell reportedly had asked that he be cremated and his ashes be spread at Red Butte, Wyoming, shown here. According to a biographer, the friends transporting his remains got drunk and failed to notice that his ashes were leaking out of a pack on their mule. By the time the funeral cortege got to Red Butte, Powell's ashes were spread across a wide swath of the West.