Till Death Do Us Part

In Nebraska Territory late in the summer of 1862 pioneer homesteader Joe Roper received some unsettling news.  His daughter Laura, who had just celebrated her 14th birthday in June, was pregnant by his business partner, Marshall Kelley.

The expecting parents were not pushed into a hasty marriage, nor did Joe Roper dissolve his partnership with Kelley and boot the young man out of the house.  After what must have been some heated words, the family settled on a civilized resolution.  After little Clarence Marshall Kelley was born, the Ropers would raise him until his mother matured into a young woman and his father earned enough of a nest egg to support the new family.  Until then, Laura Roper and Marshall Kelley might have thought of their relationship as a probationary betrothal, one conducted at a safe distance.  The Roper family and Kelley took over the abandoned Ewing Ranch at the narrows of the Little Blue River, while the precocious Laura took a housekeeping job and looked after a brood of youngsters at Liberty Farm several miles up the valley.  Meanwhile, Kelley would help Joe and Paulina Roper and the three Roper girls still living at home, turn their cabin into a thriving road ranch serving hungry travelers who followed the wagon tracks of the old Oregon Trail to the Platte.

Their situation should have amounted to no more than a whiff of frontier gossip or a scandalous tidbit of family history to be passed down in hushed tones for a generation or two before being forgotten.  Like the probable illegitimacy of Major John Taplin, the man who married Nehemiah Lovewell’s daughter Catherine, it might have sat waiting to be rediscovered by some diligent genealogical sleuth, to form a racy footnote in the family trees of the Ropers and Kelleys.

Unfortunately, Laura Roper and Marshall Kelley were about to make much more historic news.  On August 7, 1864, Marshall Kelley fell dead when an Indian arrow suddenly ripped completely through his chest, while Laura Roper was being carried away into captivity by Cheyenne raiders.  There had been little waves of skirmishes leading up to it, but the concerted sweep through white settlements along the Little Blue which began on August 7, the subject of Ron Becher’s excellent “Massacre Along the Medicine Road," is often considered the opening salvo of the Plains Indian War.

Headline-grabbing spasms of violence along the frontier, whether Indian raids or street fights or ambushes, sometimes captured little slices of family drama along with the bloodshed and preserved them all together like insects trapped in amber.  If she had not been captured and later ransomed from the Cheyenne, we would never have heard of Laura Roper and a dalliance with her father’s business partner that made her an unwed mother at fourteen.  

Three years after the raid along the Little Blue it was White Rock's turn in the limelight.  Besides killing four settlers outright and leaving a young woman to perish of exposure on the prairie, the Sioux attack on the Ward and Setzer cabins on April 30, 1867, probably ended a budding romance and allowed newly-remarried Uriah Setzer to breathe a little easier.  If there had been no White Rock Massacre, history might record Erastus and Mariah Bartlett as a pair of stalwart Jewell County pioneers who had arrived together from Illinois in 1866.  Instead, Mariah Setzer and Erastus Bartlett were merely sharing a cabin when hostile Indians showed up at the door.  

Although her surviving neighbors, Thomas Lovewell among them, remembered Mariah Setzer as “the widow Setzer,” it appears that she had only been widowed by the Pikes Peak Gold Rush.  Her husband Uriah evidently deposited her and their two boys on her grandfather’s doorstep in 1859 on his journey West to find his fortune.  Uriah wandered back to his home turf of Indiana to marry another girl in 1865, a year before his estranged wife and their surviving son came to Kansas with Mariah's grandfather, John Flint, accompanied by the Rice family and a nephew of the Rices, Erastus Bartlett.  A relationship that might have evolved into common-law marriage had proceeded no further than that of landlady and boarder when Sioux marauders mashed Mariah’s skull with a rock and tomahawked Erastus Bartlett as he returned to the cabin for supper after splitting rails that afternoon.

If an Indian attack in 1867 interrupted a burgeoning relationship in Jewell County, an attack a year earlier probably strained an established marriage to the breaking point.  Nancy Elizabeth Marling was assaulted by Cheyenne Dog Soldiers while her husband rounded up his mare and colt one July morning in 1866.  Thomas Lovewell, Daniel Davis, and a few of their neighbors joined in the search for Mrs. Marling, who was found wandering the prairie the next day with their little boy.  While Winsor and Scarbrough’s 1878 “History of Jewell County” tried to put a hopeful spin on this reunion, the Marlings’ life together after 1866 was a trail of sorrow.   The boy who survived the attack, like an earlier Marling son, died young.  By the time the Jewell County history pamphlet was published, Mrs. Marling had given birth to three more children, none of which, according to John Marling’s suit for divorce, were his.  A case of mumps contracted during his service with the 22nd Iowa had left him sterile.  Her serial infidelity was one of his complaints, but John Marling did not file for divorce until after she deserted him.  

I ran across a blog from another history buff who hopes to dispel the notion that our ancestors were far tinier than we are and died much younger.  The average man in the 1800’s was shorter than today’s model, the writer argues, but only by about 3/4 of an inch.  Death during infancy was rampant, but if a child ran the gauntlet and made it to the age of twenty, he or she could reasonably expect to last another forty years.  “Historical Ken" points out that some of our most famous ancestors, the nation's founding fathers, died in their eighties.

If I have my own pet cause, it’s showing that, in almost every way, our pioneer forebears were very much like us, except without the Dockers and logoed sweatshirts.  They were not braver or more polite, more charitable or steadfast.  They were not plaster saints.  They felt grief and passion just as keenly as we do, and sometimes succumbed to both.  Like us, they promised to cleave to each other for better or worse until parted by death.  Yet, in a surprising number of cases, for better or worse, they just parted.

Thanks to Marling descendant Jeffrey Burden for sharing his information on findagrave.com

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com