Ongoing Mysteries, Part 2

We now know quite a bit more about the White Rock Massacre than we used to, but still not everything.  A roadside memorial to the victims, installed in 1958, contains a number of solid facts, but also enshrines some of the erroneous information contained in Winsor and Scarbrough’s 1878 history of Jewell County:

In the spring of 1867 a party of nine Pawnee and Oto Indians visited two homesteads several miles north and northwest from here.  These Indians killed Mr. Nicholas Ward, Erastus Bartlett, Mrs. Sutzer and her ten year old son.  All were buried on the hill one-half mile east of this point.

The fifth grave is that of John Dahl, also a settler of White Rock Creek, whom the Indians killed in May 1869.

In memory of Nicholas Ward, Erastus Bartlett, Mrs. Sutzer and son, killed by Indians April 9, 1867

The mother of the slain boy was Mariah Setzer, and he was probably a nine-year-old named Jacob.  The 1867 massacre did not occur on April 9, but, as Daniel Davis recalled, on April 30, eleven days after General Winfield Scott Hancock ordered Sioux and Cheyenne villages to be burned near Fort Larned.  Rather than Pawnees and Otoes, as the marker states, or Cheyennes, as Winsor and Scarbrough believed, the Indians were probably Sioux, driven north from Larned ahead of Custer’s 7th Cavalry, who were guided by “Wild Bill” Hickok and several Delaware scouts.  The Sioux warriors were returning to the vicinity where their village had stood the previous winter.  They had abandoned their exhausted mounts while fleeing from the cavalry, and came to the little settlement along White Rock Creek looking for fresh ponies.  After committing their mayhem, they settled for the two mules owned by Nicholas Ward, and took Ward’s young wife Mary away with them as their captive.

“John Dahl” was really Thomas Voarness, a young man living with Paul and Martin Dahl, who was shot by Cheyenne Dog Soldiers while the Dahl brothers were away from their cabin.

The White Rock Massacre involved members of a colony from Illinois who had come to Jewell County in 1866.  We know that Erastus Bartlett was a young war veteran with an invalid pension, and that he was living in a cabin shared with Mrs. Setzer and her boy.  Bartlett was either a cousin or a nephew of John Rice, one of the colony’s leaders, and Mrs. Setzer was the granddaughter of John Flint, the oldest member of the colony.  While Mrs. Setzer was sometimes known as “the widow Setzer,” her husband Uriah may have deserted her and their two boys during the Pikes Peak craze of 1859.

A recently-discovered record from Cloud County reports that Nicholas Ward was from southern Illinois, probably a native of Saline County who would have been twenty-nine years old in 1867.  The Nicholas Ward from Saline County had two brothers who died in the Civil War, leaving a number of fatherless children.  John Ward, a thirteen-year-old who lived with Nicholas and Mary Ward, may have been a nephew.  John, the only victim to survive the attack, was the source of most of what we know about the sequence of events that occurred the evening of April 30, 1867.

So, where’s the mystery?

In July of 1867, several Kansas newspapers reported the story of a young visitor making his way through eastern Kansas on foot.  By mid-July he had arrived at Junction City, where he caught the attention of a reporter from the Junction City Union.

We understand that a boy fifteen or sixteen years of age, named Johnson, was in town this week, in quite a destitute condition, who represented himself as coming from White Rock river, in Republic County, some 100 miles northwest of here, where, as he states, on Monday the first day of July, his father and mother were murdered by the Indians, and a sister and brother disposed of, in what way as to two latter, he was not aware, not being able to find a trace of their wereabouts or remains.

Nothing more was published about him.  There was not a word printed about where the boy was headed, or who his parents had been.  It is quite possible that the young man was a runaway, using news of the recent White Rock Massacre as a sob story to cadge a meal.  It is also possible that the boy’s family did arrive at White Rock after the April 30 massacre and picked out a prime piece of farm land near a settlement that seemed to be deserted.  Samuel Fisher made the mistake of returning to White Rock on May 11 and had to fight his way back to Elk Creek, losing a team of horses to marauding Indians along the way.  The Army would begin sending out patrols along the creek that summer, but the soldiers did not even reconnoiter at Lake Sibley until after the first of July.  From Sibley, it was still a two-day march to White Rock.

It says something about the remoteness of the wild land beyond Lake Sibley, and the isolation of its scattered settlements, that the boy’s story, completely devoid of supporting evidence, struck people as at least plausible.  It still does today.    


© Dale Switzer 2023