Finessing the Facts 

In 1927 Thornton Wilder published his second novel, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” an investigation into the chain of events leading five travelers to a Peruvian bridge, just before it gives way in July of 1714, plunging them to their deaths.  The book is a classic, which means we don’t need to have read it to enjoy the amusing reference to it that pops up in the Tom Hanks movie “Cloud Atlas,” with Halle Berry playing an ivestigative reporter named Luisa Rey.  It’s a pulse-pounding moment but at the same time a wryly amusing one when, as Luisa starts to get to the root of some skullduggery, the bad guys force her car off a bridge.

Without really meaning to, I seem to have been conducting an HO Scale model of Thornton Wilder’s inquiry while delving into the Jewell County Massacre.  I've been fairly tenacious about tracing the paths that led Erastus Bartlett, Mariah Setzer, Mariah’s young boy Jacob, Nicholas Ward and his wife Mary to the wilds of Jewell County, where they ran afoul of a vengeful party of Sioux warriors on the last day of April 1867.  Unlike Wilder’s Brother Juniper, I haven’t been looking for signs of a Divine Plan, nor have I been guided by “Cloud Atlas’s” resolve to unravel the cosmic riddle of karma.  It’s just that I’m curious about what happened and why, who these people were and what brought them to such a dangerous land at exactly the wrong moment.

Jewell County history records the fact that Erastus Bartlett was a boarder living at Mrs. Setzer’s cabin south of White Rock Creek when the Indians struck.  He may have been the first victim, slain as he came around the corner of the cabin to wash up for supper after splitting rails that afternoon.  Bartlett was evidently a nephew of one of the Jewell County colony’s leaders, John Rice.  Mariah Setzer’s grandfather, John Flint, then in his mid-70’s was the oldest member of the colony.  Mariah, who was 22 when she was living on her grandfather’s farm in Illinois in 1860, must have been about 29 when she was killed in 1867.  How old was Bartlett?  Oddly enough, it’s harder to make an informed judgment in the case of Erastus Bartlett, Jr., because we have so many sources of information about him, some of them at odds with the others.

His arrival was registered on May 10 of 1845 at Enfield, Massachusetts, in an entry recording his birth to parents Erastus, Sr., and Hannah Bartlett on January 3rd.  The clerk’s rendering of the month actually looks more like “July,” abbreviating the word to a few swift strokes but indicating the scribble as shorthand by writing the “y” higher than the other letters, elevating it into a kind of superscript.  It is the same shortcut he always seemed to take when writing “January.”  No matter how it looks, the month of young Bartlett's birth has to be January, since the word starts with “J,” ends with “y," and the birth was registered in May of the same year.  Yet, in the 1860 census, taken early in June when Erastus, his sister Mary, his mother, and perhaps even his father were living with Daniel and Mary Rice in Dement, Illinois, Erastus Bartlett's age was given as 14, instead of 15.  This was not a slip of the pen.  For some reason, Erastus would not celebrate his 15th birthday for a few more days.

To make matters more confusing, in his eagerness to join the fight to end slavery, Erastus lied about his age in 1861 when he enlisted in Company “K” of the 52nd Illinois Infantry, telling the recruiter he was born in 1843.  Ten months later he was given a medical discharge, and by the age of 17 was a veteran with an invalid pension.  A year after that, when he had to provide personal information in the event further service was required of him, now that there was no longer any need to lie, he told the truth.  He was born June 13, 1845, he proudly admitted.  Despite the fact that June 13 was a full month after his birth was registered at Enfield, it must have been the date he had grown up believing he had been born.

The only reason I can think of for the discrepancy is that Erastus Bartlett and the slightly-older Hannah Rice may have been racing the stork when they sprinted to the altar, probably in the autumn of 1844.  The date of their nuptials would have been emblazoned on their copy of the marriage license.  Sliding their son’s birthday was an easier fix to make everything seem kosher.  

The marriage of Hannah and Erastus, Sr., did not last.  By the time the 1860 census was taken, Hannah's husband already may have answered the siren call of Pikes Peak.  According to Bartlett family history he died in a runaway accident near Denver, or at least he never returned to his wife after going there, so he was dead to her.  The same may have been true of Maria Setzer’s husband Uriah, who vanished from their marriage around 1860.  After Mariah went to Illinois to live with her grandfather, Uriah eventually drifted back to Indiana where he enlisted in the Army, remarrying after his military service was done.

Ironically, the final resting place of neither of young Erastus Bartlett’s parents is known, and there is very little information about his sister, Mary.  Yet, we know exactly where the bones of Erastus, Jr., lie.  He is with the other victims of the 1867 massacre on a knoll overlooking Lovewell Reservoir.  A large white cross sometimes marks the spot.  There is even a roadside memorial pointing the way to the site.

© Dale Switzer 2023