Chief Compton: The Forgotten Father of Archery

If you are a bowhunter, you may appreciate the story of Chief Compton, a forgotten figure of the sport.

Arrow quiver.

Image via Pixabay.

When you start talking the founders of modern archery, there are a few names that invariably come up. Names like Fred Bear, Howard Hill, and Ben Pearson generally enter the conversation. As you move a bit further back the classic names are of course Saxton Pope, Arthur Young, and the Thompson brothers. All of these individuals have rightly earned a place in archery lore as torchbearers through the dark years, a time when archery neared the edge of the abyss in America. Fortunately these folks not only picked up the sport and excelled at it, they promoted it in a way that made it appealing to many others. It’s wild to think that a relatively small group of people can be attributed with passing the torch of a sport that is so popular today.

There is another interesting aspect of a conversation about the roots of archery as well. It is about all of the folks who never made their way into the mainstream conversation. One gent I think of specifically is the hermit fellow who is supposed to have taught the Thompson bros. their elementary archery lessons. Who is this mysterious character who gave wings to the dream of two of the most famous bowhunters? Perhaps we’ll never know.

Another individual who has received recognition from the archery community, but is still largely under-recognized by the majority of archers, is Will Compton. Compton’s life is interwoven with some of our most famous archers and their stories are impossible to separate. When you discuss the early legends, his influence is everywhere. If you are not familiar with the story of Will Compton, you may find his story an extremely interesting one.

Will Compton, or “Chief” as he later would become known, was born in Michigan in September of 1863. Early on in his life the family moved to Nebraska where Chief’s life long love affair with archery began. In those days, The West was still wild and Nebraska was the frontier. To put it into perspective, when Compton moved to Nebraska, Custer was still riding the range, the first cattle drives had occurred only 5 years prior, Oklahoma was still Indian Territory, and the Homestead Act was in its infancy. Suffice to say Compton was born into the true Old West.

While in his childhood, the legend goes that he was brought under the tutelage of some Sioux near his hometown of Norfolk. From them he leaned about Indian lore, the ways of nature, and how to build Sioux style archery equipment. From the Sioux he learned not only to make plains short bows, but also craft his own arrows. Not being content with simply making gear, Chief started hunting at an early age. The story of his first deer at age 14 is a classic. It reads:

“When I peeked over I saw the tips of a deer’s ears about ten yards in front of me, and about twenty feet down. I know he was lying on a sort of shelf up from the bottom two or three feet and close in to the bank to get out of the wind. I nocked my arrow, got into position, and stood up suddenly in full view of Mr. Deer. He jumped to his feet and stood looking at me almost broadside. I remember that I drew steadily and loosed sharply. The arrow caught him just a little quartering and pierced his heart almost exactly in the center. He stood for a second or two as if paralyzed, and then gave two or three short spasmodic jumps and fell over backwards, as dead as Julius Caesar. I fell off the edge of that blowout–didn’t take time to climb down or walk around the opening to get my deer. I believe that nothing could have surprised me as much as that deer did when he fell down and did not try to get up again. When I got beside him I found he was a little spike buck. I never looked any further, and the only spots I touched between that butte and camp were the high ones. I knew father and Ames would be in camp curing jerky, and was more than anxious to get near something human to help share my joy, for it was far too generous in its proportions for me to handle alone. When I hove in sight, going at a speed no stop watch could catch, and the wind blowing straight through me–I had on no clothes worth mentioning–they both jumped for their old needle guns as they thought that about twenty young Sioux were on their trail. Old Dave said afterwards that no ‘Injun’ pony on the plains could have caught me. After they had disbelieved me for a while, we all went back to the butte, and when we walked into the blowout my deer was still there.”

As you can tell, Compton was a hunter at heart. Before he would reach his 20th birthday he harvested numerous deer, antelope, elk, and even is said to have arrowed a bison. Throughout the rest of his life Compton would chase many other animals, and pass on his knowledge of the sport to anyone who was interested.

Chief bounced around the west during his 20’s and 30’s, doing his best to make a living. He worked in many of the Rocky Mountain states and continued to hunt with his Indian bow. He eventually settled on the west coast to become a bowyer. First he lived in Oregon, then in 1900 he moved to California. While in California he met Saxton Pope, Ishi, and Art Young. In fact, the story goes that Compton is the person who introduced Pope to Young.  When looking back, we tend to think about Pope and Young.  During their lives however, it was much more Pope, Young, and Compton. Saxton Pope even wrote that Chief was, “the better shot of the three of us.” They hunted together, shot together, and fueled each other’s archery passion. Friendship among the trio was apparently an undying commodity.

How is it that few of us have ever heard the name of Chief Compton? He was certainly as integral in the promotion of early archery as Pope and Young, yet his name rarely comes up. This fact wasn’t even lost on his peers who called Compton the “root” of their archery community. In fact, when you consider that Art Young inspired Fred Bear to bow hunt, and Compton inspired Art Young to do the same, you begin to understand his role in the history of modern bowhunting.

Archery is a sport with some of the deepest roots in the world. You could rightly say it may actually be the oldest sport in the world. In America though, we tend to look to the period of the early 1900’s as the early years of modern archery. It was a time when bowhunting was as close to falling off the map as ever. There were a few notable figures who helped eek it through and reintroduce it into American society. We know all the big names save one; Chief Compton. Once you know his story, it is hard to separate the story of Chief Compton from the other great legends.


Thanks for taking the time to read this brief biography of bowhunter Chief Compton. If you like the content, I’d encourage you to follow the blog by clicking the Follow button near the bottom of this page. You may also enjoy this article I wrote about building a primitive arrow quiver.

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4 thoughts on “Chief Compton: The Forgotten Father of Archery

  1. Pingback: Historical Hunts: Watch the Art Young Hunting Film that Inspired Fred Bear | Soft Tracks Outdoors

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