Munchausen on the Plains

It’s a sure bet that Samuel Fisher did in fact die somewhere, probably after circumstances forced him to relocate to northwest Arkansas, and probably in 1892.  If a first-rate genealogy home page is to be believed, that’s what happened.  However, in tracking down the gritty details I’ve run across so many seeming contradictions and dangling loose ends that I find it impossible to be completely certain about any details concerning Fisher’s last days.  “Probably” is my best offer.

For one thing, there were several Samuel Fishers roaming America’s Plains in the 1800’s, even more than one with the middle initial “M,” and nearly all of them had arrived from Pennsylvania.  Around the time I discovered that several family trees give 1892 as the year former White Rock resident Samuel M. Fisher died, I found another Samuel Fisher living in Republic, Kansas, a stone’s throw from White Rock, although this one was feeling poorly enough to seek medical care in Kansas City.  There’s an 1896 recommendation from the same Samuel Fisher of Republic for the medical team who cured him of Bright’s Disease, a kidney ailment.  The published endorsement was marred by a typo which turned the year of the miraculous cure into 1986, making it seem just as bogus as the quacks peddling patent medicines along the banks of the Missouri.  

When he finally died in 1908 that Samuel Fisher of Republic was hailed in local papers as one of the area’s true pioneers, a homesteader who had settled along White Rock Creek in 1871.  There was no further effort in the obituary to differentiate the recently-deceased Samuel Fisher from the man I was looking for, Samuel Martin Fisher, who had arrived on the scene at least as early as 1863.

Fisher’s encounter with Indians in 1866  forms one of the more memorable anecdotes in Winsor and Scarbrough’s 1878 “History of Jewell County.”  Fisher was among a party hunting buffalo near White Rock Creek who were approached by a band of Indians on a begging-and-bartering expedition.  Later, one of the braves returned alone to the white men’s camp and demanded a powder horn owned by John Marling, another White Rock settler.  Marling, whose wife had been the victim of Indian violence several weeks earlier, was reluctant to part with the horn until Fisher convinced him to hand it over.  Despite that fact that Fisher was the peacemaker of the group, the voice of reason who urged his companions to hold their fire, he’s the one who ended up getting shot in the shoulder before the Indian wheeled his pony about and galloped away.  Neither Fisher nor Marling ever seemed to catch a break.

However, the bullet wound serves as a marker that sets this Samuel Fisher apart from all the rest.  When an anonymous correspondent to the Republic City News wrote about a local mortgage scheme in 1888, readers were left with no doubt about the identity of the victim, even though he was never named.

Bleeding Kansas is still being bled.  This time it is “sharks.”  An old man, who years ago, could hold his claim and cabin against “Red Skins,” and who to-day carries their lead in his body, is a pauper.  The smooth tongued loan agent has accomplished what the Indian failed to do.  Mr. Editor, we need protection; but it is against “sharks” who loan money at two and three per cent a month.  


For Lyceum debate we would offer: Resolved, That our banks, as conducted in Kansas, are worse than saloons.

The first regional historian to write at any length about Samuel Martin Fisher was probably Ellen Morlan Warren, whose chapter on Fisher in her 1933 “White Rock Historical Sketches” is called “Pioneer Teller of Tall Tales.”  Ms. Warren had also heard the story of Fisher’s fleecing at the hands of loan agents, and includes it in her closing paragraphs.

For several years, S. M. Fisher prospered, and then disaster overtook him.  He was buying some land to add to the homestead, and had to place a mortgage to cover a part of the deal.  Fisher had never bothered to learn to read and write, and the money sharks who dealt with him knew this.  He signed all of the papers they asked him to, and when some one read them to him, he found that all of his property was mortgaged, and that he was unable to meet the notes.


He lost all his holdings, including three hundred  and twenty acres of good creek bottom farm land, and his big herds of stock.  He moved to Arkansas, and died there a poor man.

A richly-detailed page on Genealogy.com, “Descendants of David Fisher” reports that Samuel Fisher sold his farm in 1887 and moved to a farm near Southwest City, Missouri, in 1888, a farm that was actually located across the state line in Benton County, Arkansas.  Dying there in 1892, he left an estate estimated at $700, and was buried in Stone Chapel Cemetery, probably in an unmarked grave.

While looking for validation of Samuel Martin Fisher’s death in small-town papers of that era, I found interesting obituaries for two Samuel Fishers, one of whom seemed a least for a moment to be a viable candidate, being an elderly gentleman who died in southwest Missouri around the right time.  This turned out to be a resident of Belle Plaine, Kansas, who had fallen ill while visiting relatives.  

The second was a prosperous merchant in Oswego, Kansas, whose death in 1890 took on sinister overtones because of what happened to his replacement, a wealthy stockman who lived on the outskirts of town.  A little more than a year after this Samuel Fisher’s sudden death, his widow’s new husband expired in bed lying beside her, with blood and brain oozing out of a bullet hole in his forehead and a pistol lying near his hand.  Suddenly, everyone saw significance in the fact that her previous husband had died suddenly “while no one was present but his wife," a fact which, honestly, does not sound all that suspicous, especially since the deceased had weathered a serious bout of influenza.  The death of the other fellow… yeah, that needed to be looked into.  While there were calls for a coroner’s inquest, I didn’t find one, though by that time the Kansas press had painted the lady as a black widow, and any future husbands were warned to sleep with one eye open.

There is a tradition dating back to Ellen Morlan Warren, that Samuel Martin Fisher’s widow finally received a small sum from her husband’s series of Indian depredation claims growing out of the April 1867 Jewell County Massacre.  It’s mustn’t have helped his case to be known as a “teller of tall tales.”  Special agents investigating the claims struggled to make sense of long lists of stock animals, crops, and personal items lost during an Indian raid, all with widely-varying dollar values attached.  Between 1874 and 1890 Fisher’s twenty acres of ruined wheat shrank by half, while the anticipated crop yield rose, as did the price per imaginary bushel - from 50¢ to $1.00, and finally to $1.25.  Before settling on an amount that was $400 less than what Fisher was asking for (the acting commissioner would whittle it even further), Special Agent Piggott consulted Thomas Lovewell, who explained that some air needed to be let out of anything Samuel Fisher said. 

Thomas Lovewell, whose affidavit I inclose, was one of the first settlers in that part of Kansas, and is a very reliable man.  He says that the claimant and his son, J. F. Fisher, would talk about the Indians until they imagined their losses much greater than they actually were.

That is how Samuel M. Fisher’s claim for $1,240 became $886.50 on its way to a final total of $635.00.

Oh, and Findagrave.com confirms that there is now a shiny new headstone for the Samuel Fisher buried in Stone Chapel Cemetery near Southwest City, Missouri, one which, perhaps owing to a clerical error gives the birth year of the deceased as 1859 instead of somewhere in the range of 1813 to 1815.  Or it could be yet another Samuel Fisher.

 

© Dale Switzer 2016  dale@lovewellhistory.com