Early Wichita was full of colorful characters, few more so than Malachai R. “Charley” Cordeiro.
A scout for the U.S. Army who opened a saloon in Wichita in 1869, Cordeiro became the defendant in one of the town’s first murder trials. When an intoxicated customer named O. H. Whitman demanded that Cordeiro open up his saloon for more alcohol, Cordeiro refused. Whitman became belligerent and Cordeiro shot and killed him, claiming self-defense.
The Weekly News-Democrat from Emporia mentioned “M.R. Cordeiro, a Mexican, was lodged in jail…on the charge of murder in the first degree.” There was debate over whether Whitman was an actual threat. In the end, the case was dismissed and Cordeiro continued to operate saloons in Wichita.
In 1871, Cordeiro operated the Arbor Restaurant at Fourth and Main. Later, he owned the Texas Hotel/Saloon/Restaurant closer to Douglas and Main. Cordeiro, who was known for dressing in vibrant, Mexican-style outfits, advertised these establishments regularly in the local papers. He seemed to be settling down, marrying Celeste or Celestia Clark in June of 1872. By 1874, however, his former Texas Saloon had been sold in a sheriff’s sale.
In 1875, Cordeiro decided to reinvent himself by leading a party of about 30 people up to the Black Hills searching for gold. A year later, the June 29, 1876 edition of the Wichita Eagle delivered news of his death, reporting that word had “reached this city that John Bragg and Charlie Cordeiro and family were among the large number killed while en route to the Black Hills.”
Cordeiro passed into local lore. Given that so many Mexican drovers came to early Wichita, many people presumed he was a particularly distinctive member of Wichita’s early Mexican heritage. Not long after I came to Wichita, I talked with folks who asked about Charley Cordeiro, wondering if he deserved more recognition as Wichita’s first prominent Mexican American resident.
The more I looked into things, though, something about these stories never seemed quite right. I knew his first name was really Malachi, not “Charley,” a nickname. Some secondary accounts put his last name as Cadaro, Cordero or another related spelling. However, advertising and other documents consistently spelled the name Cordeiro, a Portuguese spelling that would be pronounced something between Cor-DAY-roo and Cor-DAI-roo. A quick Google search for Cordeiro genealogy brought up links to Brazil and the Azores, not Mexico.
Following the trail
A search in the 1870 census revealed that Cordeiro turned out to be — like the salsa in the famous TV commercial — from New York City. There were people from Latin America in mid-nineteenth century New York, but they tended to be Cuban or Brazilian. Possible explanations proved intriguing. Perhaps Cordeiro was an Anglo-American frontiersman who concocted a fake Mexican persona. Maybe he claimed New York to hide his immigrant origins.
Earlier this year, my parents gave me a subscription to Ancestry.com to research our own family history. While trying to make sense of family ties in my background, I decided to see how the system worked for someone entirely unrelated: Charley Cordeiro. Immediately, the story of Wichita’s Mexican saloonkeeper who died in the Black Hills became more … complicated.
For example, a Malachi Cordeiro and family, including wife Celeste and daughter Mary, born in Kansas, showed up on the 1880 U.S. census in the Dakotas. With them was a son, “Nugget.” In this census, Cordeiro is listed as being from New York City, with mother and father from Peru. Remember, though, that M.R. “Charley” Cordeiro of Wichita was supposed to have died some four years earlier. I wondered whether this was Wichita’s Cordeiro or just an odd coincidence.
By 1900, this same Malachi Cordeiro and family had relocated to Lewiston, Montana, and showed up in Montana records. They appeared again in the 1910 census. Malachi was listed, as usual, as being from New York. There were some differences, though. In the 1900 census, Malachi’s father was listed as being from Portugal and his mother from Peru. By 1910 though, his parents were listed as hailing from Brazil. The sources did not agree on his ancestry but they did agree that Mexico wasn’t part of it.
In the early 1900s, M.R. Cordeiro ran advertising in the Lewistown paper offering transportation services in the area. Cordeiro seems to have been a noted tour guide. In 1911, The Custer Weekly Chronicle published an account of a gold-searching party in the 1870s. In one incident, Cordeiro and the leader of the party got into a fight that included Cordeiro taking out his revolver. One of the party remembered Cordeiro being from Wichita, Kansas, noting that “Charley” had no problems using firearms to settle things.
Malachi’s death on March 27, 1915 does not seem to have produced much of an obituary. Montana death records do list his passing but getting those documents, unlike those of his relatives, is difficult, perhaps because of a change in how those events were recorded in the 1910s. Therefore, access to his specific death record will require more effort. That document would list a birthplace. Of course, given the paper trail so far, I am not sure even that document would be definitive.
Back in Wichita
A search in other records takes the story in an even more curious turn. In 1917, Nugget Cordeiro shows up in Wichita in a 1917 city directory living on Pattie Street. More searching uncovered the 2016 obituary of a Bess Cordeiro Kennedy that mentions her being born in Wichita, Kansas, to Nugget and Gertrude Cordeiro (Gertrude Shull) in 1917 and that she grew up in Montana. The obituary states:
“Bess was also very in touch with her family roots and could relate details of her Portuguese grandfather, Malachi Cordeiro who sailed around Cape Horn from New York to Eureka, California. He enlisted in the Union Army as a California Volunteer to fight in the Civil War. He later for many years was a scout for Captain Benteen under General Custer. Malachi then moved his family to the territory of South Dakota where Nugget Cordeiro was born as the first non-native American child in the territory. Nugget was named in honor of the Gold Rush and the Nugget Saloon in Deadwood.”
So, it seems that Malachi R. “Charley” Cordeiro of Wichita’s early days was not Mexican and was not killed in the Black Hills in the 1870s. It is hard to tell whether that account was just a story that got reprinted without fact checking or whether Cordeiro intentionally wanted Wichitans to think he was dead, perhaps to evade unresolved legal issues. In either case, Cordeiro started a new life for himself.
The term “Latino” refers to someone from Latin America, a term that usually includes Brazil. This is one area where the terms Latino and Hispanic differ. While not Mexican and therefore, probably not Hispanic (unless the Peruvian connection turns out to be the case), Cordiero was Latino and at the same time, was a migrant from the East Coast who cultivated or at least did not challenge a Mexican identity. More digging into records is needed. Cordeiro’s story reminds us that local lore may not turn out to be the whole story. Having died more than 100 years ago, Cordeiro still seems to take pleasure in being hard to pin down.
Jay Price is chair of the department of history at Wichita State University, where he also directs the public history program. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.