Dark Tide Rising

If I hadn’t sworn off teasing casual visitors with lurid titles, this entry would have been called “Dark and Bloody Tales II.”  The original blog, written late last September, is far and away the most-viewed page on this site.  By the way, the playfully-titled followup “Amply-Endowed Data” is number two with a bullet.  Further bolstering my theory that the titles of these entries may be much more attractive than the content, “Colonial Lolita” is the third most popular.  I did not know it at the time, but the latter title is a category of chaste and elegant ball gowns created for a popular form of performance art known as “cosplay.”  The original posting of “Dark and Bloody Tales” was not given a tongue-in-cheek title, but a suitably descriptive one.  It was written in an honest attempt to suggest a possible source of a ubiquitous family tale sometimes known as “Rawhide.” In its most-common form, it is the story of a wagon train and one emigrant who decides to kill an Indian squaw on a whim. He must then be handed over to her vengeful tribe to be flayed alive, in order to avert a wholesale massacre.

I doubt if I ever would have investigated “Rawhide" at all, if it were not one of the tales Thomas Lovewell shared with his family, one he must have picked up on the trail during his scouting days in the mid-1860’s.  A year ago I learned that another version of the story trickled into the oral history of Daniel Davis, Thomas Lovewell’s brother-in-law.  In the variation preserved within the Davis family, the killing of the squaw by Daniel Davis’s hunting partner is accidental, the result of taking target practice at what seems to be a tree stump, although the outcome is the same as in the standard recitation of “Rawhide” - the hunter is skinned alive for killing the squaw.

Lately I’ve come across a third rendition of the tale from a White Rock pioneer.  The story percolates among descendants of Josiah Daniel Kephart, who arrived in Republic County, Kansas, as the twenty-year-old husband of a fifteen-year-old bride named Sarah, just in time to witness the grasshopper plague of 1874.  The couple shared a dugout in the beginning, soon moved up to a frame house, and Josiah was elected a constable in Washington Township, immediately east of Big Bend.

When one member of a later generation of Kepharts read Roy V. Alleman’s 1995 “Bloody Saga of White Rock,” the story of the flaying of the young man who has murdered a squaw seemed to resurrect a dormant memory.  The Kephart family's tale of Indian vengeance concerns four members of a hunting party, including one who decides to even the score for recent Indian outrages in the Republican River valley by shooting a squaw as she scrubs her family's laundry against a submerged stone at the edge of White Rock Creek.  A detail which sets this narrative apart from other versions, is that his fellow hunters urge the murderer in their midst to hurry away down the trail before a group of Pawnee braves show up to investigate the disappearance of the chief’s daughter.  Only later do the three surviving hunters learn their young friend's sorry fate.  If Josiah Kephart’s story were a film, the blood-curdling climax would occur off-screen.

The old chestnut frequently known as “Rawhide” might be impossible to disprove, but there is precious little evidence to substantiate any one of the multitude of versions of it.  An old-timer who had once bunked with Jim Bridger, insisted that the essential facts of the story were true, but that it had happened around 1815 among a band of French trappers from Canada.  A determined Colorado researcher in the 1950’s finally found a 19th century newspaper in Illinois which had printed the story as a news item, even naming the unfortunate young man as a son of "Mr. Green, of Green’s Woolen Factory, Fox River.”  However, no one who had supposedly witnessed the deed was quoted.  It seems to be a story that had simply drifted down the rumor mill to Galena, Illinois.  Another historical paper turned up, naming the victim as a Mr. Wasson from Bureau County, Illinois.

A determined sleuth attempting to get to the bottom of the story, claimed to have written letters all over the United States in the early 1930’s, until finally tracking down one of Wasson’s uncles in Pasadena, California.  Asked if the incident had really happened, the man replied, “I have not seen my nephew for about 20 years, but when I last saw him he did not appear to have ever been skinned alive.” 

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com