A Rumble of Voices

After starting to read “The Bloody Saga of White Rock” several years back, I soon set the book aside and massaged my temples.  As Roy Alleman’s title promised, there was no shortage of of bloodshed.  The period between 1866 and 1869 saw one massacre after another along White Rock Creek in north-central Kansas, until events blurred together in this reader’s mind, just as they must have blurred for many of the stunned survivors.

Cheyenne War

It’s understandable then, as newspapermen James Scarbrough and Mulford Winsor interviewed pioneers for their 1878 “History of Jewell County,” they found fuzzy recollections as to when certain incidents had taken place, sometimes even varying opinions about exactly what had taken place.  In their narrative, the 1867 Jewell County Massacre occurred near the start of April instead of the tail end of the month, which now seems more sensible.  The Jewell County historians put the shooting of Vinson Perry Davis and Arktilles Bump in May of the same year, rather than late July.  The attack on two teams of buffalo hunters from Clifton and Lake Sibley, who perished together in a final desperate fight along Buffalo Creek in May of 1866, was placed in the wrong year entirely - 1868.  

Another key event from 1866 was portrayed in Winsor and Scarbrough’s book as the strong-arm robbery of a band of white hunters led By Samuel M. Fisher, who were overpowered and disarmed by a much-larger party of Indians.  However, in his own memoir, another hunter suggested that the scene looked more like an impromptu flea market being pilfered by a pesky gang of shoplifters.  It’s hard to know exactly what to believe.

I had high hopes that Professor Jeff Broome’s 2014 book “Cheyenne War: Indian Raids on the Roads to Denver 1864-1869,” which covers some of the same territory in minute detail, would set the record straight.  It does clarify some points, while also muddying the waters a bit more around others.  Professor Broome’s specialty is Indian Depredation Claims from the National Archives, which he has mined in previous volumes, but never so extensively as in this one - while also drawing on local histories, such as Winsor and Scarbrough’s pamphlet, Army dispatches, and contemporary newspaper accounts.  Unfortunately, Professor Broome’s wide net sometimes forces him to lay out numerous contradictory details and let the reader pick a winner.

Was young Thomas Voarness shot once through the body while cooking supper at the Dahl cabin in May 1869, or did he really receive a bullet to the head and an arrow in the bowels, as one visitor remembered?  Was he found inside the cabin, or was his body dumped into a hole in the yard?  Was he fully conscious, or able to utter the single word, “squaw,” when questioned?  While not specifically taking sides, Broome points out that the single-bullet theory was maintained by the two uncles who said they found Thomas lying by their fireplace, carried on conversations with him, and lugged the boy several miles to White Rock City on a stretcher made from their cabin door.  Their testimony in the case trumps everyone else’s.  

When the professor seems to favor one version of events over another, he occasionally bets on the wrong horse.  Quoting extensively from Thomas Lovewell’s description of the scene of the 1867 Jewell County Massacre, where he finds Lovewell referring to one victim as Mrs. Setzer, Professor Broome attaches a scholarly “sic" to flag the variation on a name rendered in most of his sources as “Sutzer.”  As I’ve pointed out several times, Thomas Lovewell was right; everyone else was clearly wrong:  the young woman’s married name was indeed Setzer.  Born Hannah Flint, she had married Uriah Setzer in 1856 when she was 17.  The marriage may have been over by the time Uriah enlisted in the 58th Indiana Infantry, for she was already living in Illinois with her grandfather John Flint in 1860.  When the patriarch decided to join a wagon train headed from southern Illinois to Kansas in 1866, Hannah brought her young son along on the fateful trip to Kansas.

Following Jeff Broome’s trail of evidence, we can trace back some of the “alternative facts” that have long clung to the 1867 massacre, to the musings of that noted frontier confabulator, Samuel M. Fisher.  Captain Daingerfield Parker, who arrived in the region in May to conduct an investigation for the Army, found Fisher brimming with opinions, many of them creaky at best.  We have Parker’s conversations with Fisher to thank for the notion that the late Nicholas Ward’s given name was actually “Richard,” while the unfortunate  young veteran who lived and died with Mrs. Setzer and her son, was not Erastus Bartlett, as most of their neighbors believed, but someone named “Bartlett Rice.”  Capt. Parker’s investigation with displaced homesteaders also turned up two possible dates for the massacre itself, April 20 and 27, with Samuel Fisher favoring the latter.

Although it’s clearly better than Winsor and Scarbrough’s confident guess of April 9, the 27th still seems too early.  Thomas Lovewell’s brother-in-law Daniel Davis remembered the attack as having happened on April 30, a Tuesday, which would leave just enough time for the bodies to be discovered the next day, for the settlers to fall back to Clyde, and for a worn-out horse and rider to reach Fort Riley with the alarming news on Friday evening.

While not settling all questions relating to Indian depredations on the Kansas frontier in the 1860’s, Professor Broome does collect substantial evidence for his thesis that during the six years in question, a state of war existed between the Cheyenne Nation and white newcomers trickling into the Plains.  However, when looking at the individual claims made by victims, it’s important to keep in mind that these recollections were often years in the making, set down on paper only after settlers had put their heads together, compared notes, and got their stories straight.  Memories of their own experiences may have been informed by both later and earlier events, which the claimants had not personally witnessed.  

First reports of the killing of six buffalo hunters in 1866 pinned the blame on Otoes and Pawnees, “friendly” tribes whose arrows apparently littered the scene.  A friend of slain frontiersman Lewis Castle, who led the group of hunters from Clifton, saw Castle's death as the culmination of his long-running feud with the Otoes.  The previous winter, Castle had murdered an Otoe brave he caught stealing from his traps, and this was payback, with collateral damage.  The sole survivor of the 1867 Jewell County Massacre originally described the perpetrators as Sioux warriors, possibly trying pass themselves off as Pawnees.  Yet, after relentless incursions by Cheyenne raiders in 1868 and 1869, suddenly all previous attacks were remembered as the work of Cheyennes.

Jeff Broome’s book is a valuable resource for anyone interested in the history of Plains settlement, providing a chorus of voices from the past which most of us have not heard before.  The fact that some of them are singing slightly off-key is only to be expected.

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com