Hardly Elementary, My Dear Watson

Five years ago, as I was preparing a little electronic booklet on the life of Thomas Lovewell, the name Robert Watson cropped up three times among tales of dangerous days in north-central Kansas.  

In the fall of 1868 Watson was living at Lake Sibley when he joined Thomas Lovewell and James Read on a buffalo hunt near present-day Formoso, a foolhardy expedition to provide game for drought-plagued settlements in Cloud County.  The frontiersmen spent most of their hunt hiding in ravines and stands of tall prairie grass and returned home empty-handed after a few close calls with marauders.  While plowing a field the following spring, Watson was about to be surrounded by Sioux raiders when Mary Frazier repelled the intruders with a few blasts from her double-barreled shotgun.  Days later he drove to Scandia just in time to hear the lone survivor of a massacre plead for help in burying his slain hunting companions on the east bank of Republican River.

As I gathered evidence for the booklet, I wondered if this Robert Watson could be related to any of the Watsons I knew growing up in the Formoso area.  As I wrote last time, I’m fairly certain that the Sam Bowles and Frank Frazier I met in the 1960’s were nephews and namesakes only one generation removed from storied events along the Kansas frontier.  In fact, I knew a Robert Watson, a young man a few years older than I was.  Could he have been a great-grandson of a venerated pioneer?  It was worth taking a look.

In writing about the event that took place in Mary Frazier’s field in May of 1868, I described Watson as a 24-year-old who sometimes boarded with the Fraziers.  I can’t remember which contemporary account I used to determine his age, but it turns out that I probably could have picked a number out of a hat and found a document to back it up.  No one seemed to know for sure when Robert Watson was born, least of all Watson himself.

According to Ancestry.com, the 1875 census gives Watson’s age as 37 with an estimated birth year of 1838.  There are at least two other estimated years displayed on the Ancestry website which are at odds with the first date and with each other.  One puts the year of his birth at 1853, the other, 1795.  The way these unlikely numbers were determined gives some insight into what can go horribly wrong with documentary evidence.  

The 1883 White Rock Post G.A.R. roster seems to put Watson’s age at an improbably young  30.  However, it also gives Thomas Lovewell’s age as 37, when we’re pretty sure the Kansas pioneer was then in his mid-50’s.  What’s going on?  Well, the roster turns out to be a sort of Fantasy Football League of local soldiers, freezing each man’s age at the moment he was mustered out of the Union Army.  Thus, Robert Watson must have recalled being 30 years old when he became a veteran of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1865, making him 48 years old in 1883, and giving him a probable birth year of 1835.  

The 1885 Kansas census, conducted only two years after the G.A.R. roster was compiled, was subjected to an optical character recognition scan a decade ago to produce a searchable computer database of names and numbers.  The process, which usually gives results which are at least believable, apparently deciphered the number penciled in the age column following Robert Watson’s name as “90,” when it actually may have been intended to read “70.”  Unfortunately, even the latter figure seems decades too old.  Given the circumstances surrounding Watson’s death a year later, we might wonder if, getting no response from the subject of his interview, the census-taker merely decided that the pioneer certainly looked to be at least 70.

Even a Kansas cemetery record, while providing a few specific pieces of information, lends little help in zeroing in on a definite age for Robert Watson.  When he was buried in White Rock Cemetery in 1886, his birth date was recorded as May 8, 1840, and he was noted as having “served 11 years in the US Army.”  How that latter figure could be possible, remains a mystery.

Various other documents give us a few solid facts about Watson:  He was born in New York of English parents (although it seems that his mother may have been Irish instead), and was divorced by the time he arrived in Kansas.  Not only did he definitely serve at least one hitch in the Army early in the Civil War, a Robert Watson who fits our man’s particulars re-enlisted in 1864.  If the enlistment record describes our man, then he stood five feet eight inches tall, and possessed brown hair and a fair complexion in his youth.

Besides the hairbreadth escapes in his past, what makes Robert Watson especially worth writing about is the account we have of his death by natural causes in 1886, printed in the October 1st edition of the Republic City News.

Robert Watson, one of the earliest pioneers of this county, died on Friday last.  

He lived, on his homestead on the White Rock creek, the life of a hermit;  and it is hard to say how long he had been sick, and in a dying condition.  His house is in the woods, about three-fourths of a mile away from the nearest neighbor, and when first seen, he was slowly walking towards the house of Mr. John Barber.  

Mrs. Barber seeing him coming, and in seeming distress, sent a boy to meet him.  He requested the boy to get a bucket full of water for him, and when the boy returned, he drank about four quarts of water.  

He was much averse to doctors, and, as a consequence, had not had the benefit of medical aid.  He reached the home of Mr. Barber about noon, we think, and steadily grew worse during the afternoon.  And as night drew her mantle of darkness o’er the earth, the spirit of an old pioneer, and an old soldier, passed away to that bourne from which no traveler returns.

A separate item the News noted that, "Robert Watson had no relatives in this country, but his remains were decently intered, by kind neighbors and friends, in the White Rock cemetery.”

The short answer is, “no.”  I never met a descendant of Robert Watson.

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com