By PATRICIA SANDERS
Left: Buffalo Bill on Boys’ Life cover, July 1911, 1917. Right: William DeVeny.
Left Source: Wikimedia Commons. Right Source: The Centennial History of Oregon, 1811-1912, Vol. 3, 1912.
In 1893, William DeVeny (1852 – 1918) showed up in the four-year-old community of Montavilla. I’m sure a lot of heads turned. He was a dead ringer for Buffalo Bill Cody (1846 – 1917). They had the same long hair, goatee and mustache, and liked to wear broad-brimmed hats.
Who knew back then he would become Montavilla’s foremost advocate.
The two Bills certainly knew each other. Perhaps they met in Nebraska when they both lived there. They definitely had contact in Portland.
Oregonian of March 21, 1915 commented on DeVeny’s similar appearance to and acquaintance with Buffalo Bill.
According to the Oregon Journal of April 27, 1910, William Cody dubbed DeVeny the Buffalo Bill of Portland on a previous visit to the city; perhaps when Buffalo Bill was here with his Wild West show in 1902 or 1908.
Indisputably, they were together in 1914. At that time DeVeny, set up his camera and photographed himself and Cody seated side-by-side in a horse-drawn carriage. The resemblance is striking.
Over the years, DeVeny became “the irrepressible booster for Montavilla,” according to the Oregonian of March 16, 1909. Scores of newspaper articles attest to his efforts to improve life in Montavilla; from the first in 1895, until the last just months before his death in 1918.
During those years DeVeny gained a reputation for assertiveness, persistence, and getting things done.
Becoming Buffalo Bill DeVeny
Cody may have named DeVeny the Buffalo Bill of Portland, but this nickname goes back to the 1880s.
Unlike Cody, DeVeny was no buffalo hunter. He was a farmer, a chiropodist (podiatrist), and a photographer. But both were noted for their shooting skills: Cody with a rifle, DeVeny with a pistol. Both lived for a time on the Great Plains.
DeVeny migrated to the “wild and wooly West” from rural Illinois at age 19. He relates his subsequent adventurous experiences in Nebraska, Arkansas, and Kansas in his autobiography, “The Establishment of Law and Order on the Western Plains,” which he self-published in 1915.
In his book, he describes how he became Buffalo Bill DeVeny while living in southwest Kansas (1886 – 1889). At one point, word got around that this “long-haired chap” was “the best shot in Kansas.” When he put on his “Buffalo Bill” suit and a wide-brimmed hat, he only reinforced the Cody comparison.
When certain nearby towns learned about his shooting skills, they proposed hiring him to help keep law and order in their communities. But he knew that could involve killing and he wanted no part in that. “I never had shed an ounce of human blood,” he wrote— except for when he bloodied a boy’s nose in a schoolyard fight.
This news item backs up DeVeny’s story about his nickname. It references his move from Ulysses to Cincinnati, Kansas
Source: Grant County Register (Ulysses, Kansas), November 26, 1887
About that long hair
Now, you might think that most men wore their hair long back then. However, old photographs don’t bear that out. DeVeny would have stood out and his long hair would have been associated with plainsmen scouts, such as Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok.
Left: Photograph of William DeVeny (upper right) and his brothers Dave, Charley, and John in Nebraska, 1889. Right: Photo of Wild Bill Hickok (left), Buffalo Bill (right), and Texas Jack (center) taken when they were performing in the 1873 play Scouts of the Prairie.
Left Photo courtesy of Jane Branum. Right Source: Wikimedia.
Besides taking on the hero / scout appearance of Bill Cody and others, DeVeny named his Mount Hood log cabin retreat built in 1909 The Scout’s Rest, borrowing what Cody named his 1886 ranch house in North Platte, Nebraska.
DeVeny apparently needed to defend his long hair when he was attempting to run for the Portland City Council in 1907. Wearing your hair long, he said, didn’t mean a man was a “crank” (Oregon Journal, April 20, 1907).
DeVeny and the County Seat Wars
DeVeny became a community activist in the 1870s and 1880s during the county seat wars in Nebraska and Kansas. Towns were vying to become the county seat, a key to greater prosperity in the new states. These civic battles are the main topic of DeVeny’s book.
In Nebraska in the 1870s and early 1880s, he was involved in the Adams and Clay Counties fights, since he and his wife Martha Rosetta Ellis (1853 – 1927) each owned 160-acre parcels there.
It’s well known that such properties had been confiscated from Indigenous peoples by the United States government. That land was made available for free with the Homestead Act of 1862.
The DeVeny and Ellis families were among the throngs who migrated to the western plains for land. William claimed land in the Little Blue Township, formerly occupied by the Pawnee.
In southwestern Kansas between 1886 and 1889, DeVeny experienced numerous incidents of trickery and violence.
Illustration in DeVeny’s autobiography showing one of the violent incidents he says he witnessed in Kansas.
Drawing by newspaper artist, Rollin Caughey (1851 – 1925).
Photography saves the day
While DeVeny played a role in county war fights, in his day-to-day life he practiced peaceful trades.
He apparently taught himself to be a foot doctor, and his wife Martha taught him photography. Together they operated photography studios in Nebraska, Arkansas, and Kansas.
When the couple wanted to relocate their business, DeVeny literally dragged the photo studio from Ulysses to Cincinnati, Kansas with a team of horses. The January 12, 1888 ad in the Cincinnati Commercial refers to the relocation.
Now DeVeny said, despite his reputation as a marksman, that he tried to avoid violence. On one occasion, he used his photographic skills— and quick thinking— to avert a shoot up.
One day a gang of drunken rowdies from nearby Sunrise were ready to do mischief in Cincinnati, where DeVeny lived. He rode out to meet them and said he’d like to take their picture. They agreed. So he lined them up, took the photo, and then invited them to his gallery to wait for prints.
Troublemakers from Surprise township lined up to have their picture taken by DeVeny.
Source: William DeVeny, The Establishment of Law and Order on the Western Plains, 1915.
After these delaying tactics, the men calmed down and violence was averted. At least, that’s the story DeVeny tells in his book.
Finally, in 1889, DeVeny was so fed up with the thugs and gamblers, the 24-hour saloons, and the shoot-ups in Kansas, that he headed back to Nebraska. Four years later, he would be in Portland.
Is it DeVeny or Deveny?
You’ve probably noticed different ways the DeVeny name is written.
Was it DeVeny or Deveny? In reality, it was both. In early documents, William wrote it like this: Deveny. Later he wrote it like this: DeVeny. I’ve used the latter form throughout this article for consistency.
The cover of William DeVeny’s autobiography shows two slightly different forms of his surname.
Other variations of the name— Deveney, Deviney, Devine, etc.— appear in newspaper articles that mention William. They are variants of a common Irish name.
Why did William change the surname form? Was it sensitivity to anti-Irish biases and a desire to make it look French? It’s hard to know, but the French connection he claimed in his book does not stand up.
In his autobiography, he claims that his paternal great-grandfather, Pierre DeVeney, served in Napoleon’s army during the retreat from Moscow in 1812.
The problem with this claim is that William’s grandfather— also a William DeVeny— was born in Pennsylvania about 1798, according to the 1850 U. S. Census. Likely the DeVeny family was part of the great Scots Irish immigration of the 18th Century.
Perhaps before he discovered Pierre DeVeney, William wanted to honor his Irish heritage by naming his second son, born in 1895, Dewane, yet another version DeVeny.
Buffalo Bill DeVeny comes to Montavilla
In 1892, William was thinking of leaving Nebraska. His property in Little Blue township was close to the old Oregon Trail, so perhaps that prompted him to head west. After visiting several West Coast cities, he chose Portland.
For many years the DeVenys lived in the 1891-built house at 542 NE 80th Avenue (formerly 150 E. 80th Street N.) close to the streetcar line on NE Glisan Street. The Montavilla line, opened in 1892, was a convenient way for DeVeny to get to his downtown chiropody business.
Ad in the 1898 Polk’s City Directory. Quimby House was a hotel. Later his offices were in downtown office buildings.
Ad for The DeVenys’s chiropody business.
Source: 1917 yearbook for the Immaculata Academy, Portland.
When his three daughters and three sons were old enough, William trained them in chiropody. William did business with one or more of his children as The DeVeneys, perhaps freeing up time for his many community endeavors.
William arrived in Montavilla too late to be involved in the intense citizen effort to establish the Montavilla School, but, by summer 1895, he was in the thick of school matters. (For more on the establishment of Montavilla’s first school, read our story here.)
At an August 20 taxpayers’ meeting, he said he had “positive proof” that the school board had wrongly awarded a contract to the higher bidder.
“The Villa Stirred Up,” Oregonian, August 21, 1895. DeVeny’s name is misspelled as “De Vine,” an alternative spelling of his surname. As reporters came to know him as a Montavilla mover-and-shaker, they usually got it right.
In 1900, DeVeny was a founding member of Montavilla’s Sub-Board of Trade (later the Montavilla Board of Trade). This was a push (or booster) club established to improve the neighborhood. DeVeny was elected secretary.
William DeVeny elected secretary of the Sub-Board of Trade of Portland. His name is misspelled–as Deveney–yet another alternative spelling.
Source: Oregonian, December 4, 1900
As secretary of the board, he was often the point person who corresponded with or met with owners of prospective Montavilla businesses and with city officials.
DeVeny’s reported on the board’s accomplishments in 1902. The summary below shows how quickly the group moved into action. DeVeny was praised for his zeal in these efforts by the board president.
In those early years, DeVeny campaigned for the annexation of Montavilla to the city of Portland. It took several years because a faction wanted Montavilla to incorporate as its own city.
DeVeny argued that annexation could bring benefits, such as a sufficient water supply, fire protection, and a high school. Montavilla citizens voted for annexation in 1906. The mentioned benefits— and more— did materialize, except for the high school.
For more on Montavilla’s water supply issue see our story here. On the Montavilla fire station, see this Village Portland story here.
Montavilla Board of Trade accomplishments in 1902. Section Road is now Division. Base Line Road is now Stark. Barr Road is now Halsey.
Source: Oregonian, January 8, 1903
Vote for Montavilla annexation passes thanks largely to William DeVeny.
Source: Oregonian, June 7, 1906
DeVeny also advocated for attracting new businesses and jobs, improving Montavilla streets, getting more street lighting, and installing a new sewer system, to name just a few proposals.
Unfortunately, candidacy petitions circulated by two men DeVeny had hired contained duplicate signatures. The City Attorney rejected these forgeries, leaving DeVeny insufficient signers to qualify.
In 1907, DeVeny made a run for an at-large position on the Portland City Council. He described himself as a Republican in favor of a progressive administration “on economical lines.”
Ad for William DeVeny, candidate for Councilman-at-Large in the April 20, 1907 edition of The New Age, a Black-owned Portland newspaper.
The Montavilla Cowboy Band
Montavilla got involved in the Festival in 1909, when it entered a float in the Rose Parade. When the float won a prize, Montavillans voted to form a permanent Montavilla Rose Association.
For the 1910 Festival, DeVeny proposed a cowboy band. This would be a first for the Festival and the officials approved it for both the horse and carriage parade and the Golden West parade. Fans of western novels, shows, and movies were sure to be enthusiasts.
DeVeny was probably inspired by the Cowboy Band that featured in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West shows.
One of DeVeny’s most flamboyant endeavors was the creation of the Montavilla Cowboy Band for the 1910 Rose Festival.
William DeVeny headed the Cowboy Band and the “rough rider” division at the Rose Festival.
Source: Oregon Journal, May 29, 1910
Other than having musicians on horseback, little is known about the Montavilla Cowboy Band. If DeVeny followed Cody’s model, they would have worn western outfits, played brass and woodwind instruments, and featured a variety of music such as marches, patriotic songs, ragtime, and opera.
DeVeny’s 1915 promotional tour
In May 1915, DeVeny set out on a road trip with his wife and two of his adult children, Estelle (1884 – 1925) and Dewane (1895 – 1939). William planned to ship his car to Nebraska, then drive to Chicago and on to New York.
Along the way— perhaps travelling the new Lincoln Highway— William would give slide lectures about Oregon and his life on the frontier. He would sell copies of his autobiography to defray expenses.
Dewane, Estelle, Martha, and William DeVeny stand next to their outfitted automobile. Their 542 NE 80th Avenue home is in the background.
Source: Oregonian, March 21, 1915
William chose a sturdy car for the trip: an E. R. Thomas Flyer. This automobile was famous for winning the Great Race of 1907, a 13,300-mile challenge from New York west to Paris. Such a durable car would be perfect for the many unpaved roads they would encounter.
To save on hotel expenses, DeVeny designed a cabin to fit atop the car, which had space for cooking, eating, sleeping, and lounging.
The DeVeny auto-cabin set up for sleeping.
Source: Oregonian, March 21, 1915
Unfortunately, plans changed. Soon after the DeVenys arrived in Nebraska, heavy storms hit. Roads were flooded. Rivers ran abnormally high.
William cancelled the tour and instead visited with his Nebraska relatives, took some photos, and practiced a little chiropody. By September, the DeVenys were back in Portland.
DeVeny’s last stand
Soon after returning, William was back in the saddle with a new Montavilla issue. The new sewer system in Montavilla was completed by the end of 1915, but in the spring allegations of faulty pipes arose.
Dissatisfied with the City inspections, DeVeny demanded, and eventually got, an independent investigation for Montavilla. The new inspection won DeVeny’s approval.
On a quieter note, in January, 1917, DeVeny spoke at a meeting of an association advocating the purchase of land for a national rose test garden. This was not a new proposal for DeVeny. In 1907, he supported an initiative for more Portland parks. Beauty as well as utility was important to him.
A couple of months later, things heated up again.
DeVeny and one other member opposed the resolution and it was tabled (Oregonian, March 7, 1917). Other Portland organizations vehemently condemned Lane.
Europe was at war. American merchant ships were being attacked in the Atlantic Ocean by German submarines. DeVeny was at a meeting of the East Side Business Men’s Club, when someone proposed a resolution condemning Oregon’s senator, Harry Lane, for participating in a filibuster to stop a House bill to arm merchant ships. This was seen as a step towards American involvement in the European war.
A few weeks later, DeVeny told the Oregon Journal about the anti-war sentiment in Morrow and Sherman counties, perhaps implying that he agreed. People there, he said, were “profoundly opposed to war” (Oregon Journal, March 30, 1917).
Is this a shift in DeVeny’s thinking. Back in 1907, he advocated military training for boys when they had completed grammar school (Oregonian, January 13, 1907). Did having sons of draftable age, should war be declared, play into his apparent anti-war stance?
On April 6, 1917, Congress approved a declaration of war. On May 18, 1917, the Selective Service Act became law; this required all men between 21 and 30 to register for the draft.
Two of DeVeny’s sons joined the some 7% of who complied with the new law within its first six weeks. His first son, William Hastings DeVeny (1892 – 1947), registered on June 5, 1917. His second son, Dewane Portland DeVeny (1895 – 1939), signed on June 2, 1917. His youngest son, Florello Delevan DeVeny (1897 – 1938), registered after his father’s death.
After championing Montavilla causes for more than 20 years, William DeVeny died in his Montavilla home on March 9, 1918. He was 65.
The Oregonian memorialized him for his friendships with famous frontiersmen and his keen civic advocacy.
William DeVeny obituary in the Oregonian of March 10, 1918.
A few sources:
William DeVeny, “The Establishment of Law and Order on the Western Plains,” 1915, published by the author. Multnomah County Library has a copy for in-library use (Central branch). Hardcover and paperback books are for sale online. For a free download go here.
Marguerite House, “Will the Real Buffalo Bill Please Stand UP?,” Buffalo Bill Center of the West website, December 28, 2015.
This article includes DeVeny’s 1914 photograph of himself and William Cody sitting side by side in a carriage, showing their strong resemblance. DeVeny copyrighted this photo as “Two Bills: William F. Cody and William Deveny [sic].”
T. K. Treadwell & William C. Darrah, “Photographers of the United States of America,” updated 2003.
I found little information about the photography of William and Martha DeVeny. This book lists photos attributed to William on p. 214, which were taken when he and Martha DeVeny had studios in Judsonian, Arkansas and Ulysses, Kansas. [Link active on 11/1/2022] This source does not include the many photographs he took in Oregon, which are mentioned in Portland newspapers.
William De Veny, “The Centennial History of Oregon,” 1811-1912, vol. 3, S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., Chicago, 1912, pp. 806 and 809. Biography of DeVeny.
There are many books about the life of William F. Cody, including his own autobiography. For a brief overview, see Britannica.com. [Link active on 11/1/2022]
Michael L. Masterson, “Buffalo Bill’s Famous Cowboy Band.” [Link active on 11/1/2022]
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