A Winkleplex of Witnesses

When the nine-year-old nephew of a mathematician was asked for his opinion about a suitable name for 10 to the 100th power, in other words a 1 followed by 100 zeroes, he suggested “googol.”  Later, another mathematician decided that 1 to the power of a googol might be called a googolplex.  

Two Internet entrepreneurs looking for an available domain name for their new search engine, remembered the math story and the term invented to denote a staggeringly large number (A googol is actually larger than the number of elementary particles in the universe), but misspelled the word.  People have been typing mangled words into Google search windows ever since, sometimes getting a mangled version of history in return.

After googling “Maria Winklepleck” a few days ago to make sure I had the right name for the widow and mother of two victims of what I usually call “the McChesney massacre,” I’ve decided that an historical anecdote with a seemingly endless number of variations offered by a horde of contradictory witnesses, might be called a winkleplex

The story about a party of buffalo hunters from Marshall County who were ambushed at the mouth of White Rock Creek late in May of 1869, certainly got around.  Two of the hunters were visiting from Michigan, most had lived previously in Ohio, and the attack happened in Kansas, where competing versions of the tale can be found embedded in the histories of Marshall, Doniphan, Cloud, Republic, Jewell, and probably a few other counties.

The letter Maria Winklepleck wrote in June to friends and family back in Ohio may have been the first published account  to contain accurate names and other details about the massacre.  Oddly enough, Maria Winklepleck did not know that the survivor’s name was John McChesney, while a number of other sources were familiar with McChesney but not with the Winkleplecks.  Reuben Winklepleck, a Civil War veteran in his early forties, joined the hunt along with his son Alonzo and a nephew named Edward.  Several versions pointed out that three victims had the same last name, even if only a few knew what that name was, or how the men were related.  Maria Winklepleck believed that the hunters had captured six or seven buffalo calves and tied them behind the wagons.  I did find one other source that mentioned a single captured buffalo calf, but in that retelling the calf was turned loose as soon as a small band of Indians began trailing the wagons down White Rock Creek the afternoon before the massacre.

In 1951 a schoolgirl from Marshall County named June Brenner won a prize for her essay about the Indian ambush, based on a published interview with Mrs. J. B. Livers, the daughter of Reuben Winklepleck.  Ms. Brenner was herself interviewed by the Scandia Journal on the 100th anniversary of the massacre in 1969.  She found a strange symmetry in the fact that she had grown up in the little community where some of the doomed buffalo hunters once lived, but had later moved to Scandia, the settlement where a wounded and weary John McChesney enlisted volunteers to come back with him to bury the members of his hunting party.  Probably drawing on McChesney’s explanation to Maria Winklepleck’s brother Zeb, Ms. Brenner’s narrative is heavy on the logistics of the fight, explaining, for instance, why McChesney was separated from the others in the first place:  he had gone ahead to find a good spot to ford the river when a hundred Indians suddenly attacked from the rear.  The reason the wagons were found on the west bank of the Republican while the bodies lay along the eastern shore, was that the men had unhitched their teams and frantically driven them into the swift current, hoping to find safety in the woods on the other side.  McChesney survived by first hiding in a patch of tall prairie grass, then concealing himself in rushes along the edge of the river, and finally submerging in a nearby lake with only his face sticking out of the water, while the Indians patiently searched for him.

In 2010 a Kansas State University history student named Ian Howard wrote a paper called “Cheyenne Dog Soldier Depredations on Settlers in the Northern Kansas Frontier From 1864 to 1869,” a comprehensive but confusing survey of Indian troubles centered in Jewell, Cloud, and Republic counties.  Mr. Howard had no trouble finding sources for his paper.  His chief problem was that he found way too many of them, including some variations that got most of the details wrong.  Thus, Ian Howard unknowingly included the McChesney massacre twice, presenting it once as an attack in Cloud County with seven victims, all from Michigan, including three brothers named Winklepleck.  A few paragraphs later it is listed as a separate attack at the mouth of White Rock Creek in Republic County, one which took the lives of six additional buffalo hunters.

Even the most reliable sources often contain discrepancies concerning the date of the massacre.  According to Emma E. Forter's “History of Marshall County, Kansas,” a few Indians began following the McChesney party on Tuesday May 25th, mounting their full-scale assault as the hunters tried to cross the river Wednesday morning.  A few pages later, the very same book quotes Excelsior colonist Ed Rowland, who said he ran into McChesney at Scandia on the afternoon of Friday the 28th, only a few hours after his friends were killed.  Maria Winklepleck also believed the massacre happened on Friday May 28th, as did June Brenner, author of that prize-winning essay written in 1951.  K-State scholar Ian Howard cited a militia member named A. J. Kelley, who was certain the massacre occurred on May 31st. 

There are even disagreements over how many volunteers showed up with John McChesney to bury members of his hunting party.  A Western historian recently suggested that only four or five men probably accompanied McChesney, even though Ed Rowland estimated that there were fourteen in his own company.  Maria Winklepleck’s brother told her that fifty men had gone to help, a figure which seems quite reasonable, considering how many different groups eventually converged on the scene.  According to Lovewell family history, Thomas Lovewell was among those who pitched in.  This story may very well be true, considering that when Washington County Deputy Sheriff Charles Murdock dropped by Lovewell’s farm at the end of the week he found ten armed men guarding the place, but apparently did not find Mr. Lovewell at home.

One odd detail which no one contradicted is that at least one of the victims had been scalped, only to have the scalp left behind and, in some versions of the tale, carefully placed back atop his head.  Another detail may seem oddly significant only to me.

Last year I wrote a piece about a little godforsaken spot named Irving, Kansas (See: “There’s No Place Like Irving”), in which I suggested that it almost seemed that the death-by-torture of a fifteen-year-old Indian maiden there in the 1850’s had left a curse on the place.  Ravaged by windstorms, grasshopper invasions, droughts, floods and twin tornadoes before being finished off by a government edict that was part of a flood-control project, Irving may have seen its first brush with terrible retribution in the McChesney massacre.

While buffalo hunters Philip Burke and his son James were innocent visitors from Michigan, according to the 1878 “History of Jewell County, Kansas,” home turf for John McChesney, Norman Cole, and the three Winkleplecks was Irving, Kansas.  It was also where young June Brenner attended school, winning a prize in 1951 for her essay on what had happened to some hometown folks.   

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com