A Tangled Trail of Footnotes

In early summer of 1867 Col. George A. Custer was in hot pursuit of Pawnee Killer, chasing the Oglala Sioux chief and his followers through northern Kansas and into southern Nebraska.  

Pawnee Killer’s warriors had been part of the vast Indian camp that fled from Pawnee Fork in mid-April, spoiling Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s plans for peace negotiations, which he hoped to conduct while his mighty army marched in the background and displayed the fine artillery pieces his men had lugged across the Kansas prairie.  Now, Hancock’s scheme was coming dangerously unravelled.  Thousands of warriors swarmed along the Smoky Hill Trail, work on the Kansas Pacific Railroad was stalled, a few stagecoach stations had been attacked, and stage lines were no longer running.  

It would be a disappointing introduction to Indian warfare for Custer, whose column of 7th Cavalry troopers was weakened by 21 desertions and the suicide of one alcoholic officer who blew his brains out during a fit of delirium tremens.  Lt. Lyman Kidder, along with ten enlisted men and one scout, on their way to deliver dispatches to Custer, were surrounded on the prairie and butchered.  After finding their bodies, Custer would catch up to Pawnee Killer, only to have his command attacked during a relatively bloodless encounter which author Jeff Broome has dubbed “Custer’s First Stand."

Jeff Broome Book

The full story of Custer’s unhappy summer campaign is told in Broome’s excellent 2009 book, “Custer Into the West,” featuring Lt. Henry Jackson's journal of the expedition and hand-drawn maps of the terrain the party encountered.  I followed Jackson's account breathlessly, as the column seemed to be headed toward the Lovewell/Davis cabin at the mouth of White Rock Creek in the latter part of June.

Roy V. Alleman’s “The Bloody Saga of White Rock” describes a visit Custer pays to the settlers’ cabin to enjoy a home-cooked meal and a smoke in front of the fireplace, while the men of the house discuss Indian policy with their guest.  It’s a fine, amusing scene, but I had always supposed that Alleman used creative license to arrange a meeting between the hero of his story and the most famous Indian fighter on the Plains.  Suddenly I wasn’t quite so sure, and my pulse raced as I flipped through the pages.  My uncertainty lasted only for a few minutes.  It quickly became clear that Lt. Jackson was describing some other White Rock Creek, or a tributary that was briefly given that name, one that emptied into the Republican River somewhere in Nebraska many miles northwest of Big Bend.  My heart sank just a bit.

Fortunately, Dr. Broome’s book offers many compensations, such as the story of Private John Kile, a.k.a. John Kyle, a serial deserter who liked to pocket signing bonuses, but stayed with one outfit just long enough to win the Congressional Medal of Honor before being shot dead on the streets of Hays by Wild Bill Hickok.  Best of all, Broome carefully cites Thomas Lovewell’s testimony in the John Marling Indian depredation case.  Having the case number sitting in front of me allowed me to fax an order to the National Archives almost immediately.

When a bulky folder arrived a few days later, it turned out to be a gold mine of information, not only about the Marling case, but the earlier White Rock Massacre, and Thomas Lovewell’s own career as a frontier scout.  It also showed how Broome, or more likely one of his researchers, was misled on a key point.  Broome’s book states that Elizabeth Marling was brutally assaulted by nine Indians during the White Rock Massacre.  As I read the transcript in the Marling case, it was easy to see how the mistake came about.

The massacre at the Ward and Setzer cabins happened on, or a day or two before, April 30, 1867.  The attack on Elizabeth Marling had occurred the previous July.  Not only had Mrs. Marling’s ordeal happened nine months earlier, it was even worse than Broome makes it sound.  Nine was the number of Indian raiders who killed settlers, plundered cabins and stole horses and mules along White Rock Creek in April 1867.  Mrs. Marling may have been assaulted by as many as fifty Cheyenne Dog Soldiers in July 1866.  Marling and his wife spent the winter between the two raids in a tenant house on Samuel Fisher’s farm, but traveled to Missouri in March to seek medical treatment for a case of frostbite that John Marling suffered on a hunting trip.  While the Marlings were absent during the April massacre, Marling’s two horses, which were being boarded at the Fisher farm, turned up missing, presumably taken by the same band of Indians who descended on the Ward and Setzer cabins.  John Marling asked to be reimbursed for items taken or destroyed in both raids.  

It’s one of those cases in which it helps to have a certain grasp of the timeline beforehand in order to follow the testimony.  An attorney for the government was clearly at a loss, and we can almost see him shaking his head in confusion as he keeps trying to lump the two attacks together.  It probably wasn’t Thomas Lovewell’s deposition so much as a government attorney’s line of questioning that threw Jeff Broome a curveball.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t the first time Thomas Lovewell appeared in a historian’s footnotes, nor the first time his meaning was misunderstood.  Kansas historian Marvin Garfield’s “Defense of the Kansas Frontier 1866-67,” written for the Kansas Historical Quarterly in 1932, paraphrased Lovewell’s December 23, 1867 letter to Kansas Governor Samuel Crawford.  According to Garfield, “At the very close of the year (1867) reports reached Topeka of Indian depredations on White Rock creek in Republic county.  These proved to be the work of a party of Omahas and Otoes.”

After seeing the historian’s citation several years ago, I made two trips to the Center for Historical Research at Topeka, sifting through boxes of correspondence for hours, but coming up empty both times.  Then, about two years ago, I found the letter posted online among the Adjutant General’s correspondence on kansasmemory.org.  Thomas Lovewell did indeed name the Omahas and Otoes as being up to no good, but according to his letter, they were merely skulking about in large numbers and  firing aimless potshots at settlers from a distance.

Lovewell and some of his neighbors waded into a group of nearly a hundred of them and gave them thunder, the way disgruntled elders might address a throng of juvenile miscreants.  The depredation that prompted him to write the Governor was undoubtedly the Jewell County Massacre, which had happened months earlier, but which he does not mention, perhaps thinking that it was already so well known.  It may have been, at one time, but Marvin Garfield seems never to have heard of it, and did not associate Lovewell with a beleaguered settlement where six persons had been killed, wounded, or carried off the same year the founder of White Rock picked up a pencil to petition the State of Kansas for arms.

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com