Flashes of Lightning

Would we remember that there was ever a 19th century play called “Our American Cousin,” or that it was performed on April 14, 1865, if it were not for the other event that happened that night?  Would anyone recognize the line, “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal - you sockdologizing old man-trap,” if it had not been the laugh-line that John Wilkes Booth was counting on to drown out the sound of a gunshot?

Bursts of violence sometimes light up the past for us, catching unexpected subjects in its glare, preserving snapshots of history in crystalline detail.  Thanks to thirty seconds of gunplay, we know almost exactly where over a dozen citizens of Arizona were standing at precisely three o’clock on October 26, 1881 - not just the participants who were about to be involved in a gunfight, but the witnesses.  We know how they came to be there that afternoon, and what they were about to see.  We know that a dressmaker named Addie Bourland was just glancing out of her second-story window to catch what was happening in the street below.  Martha King was buying a cut of meat from the butcher at the Union Market when she stepped to the door, just in time to see the Earp brothers pass by on their way to confront a group of cowboys who had been threatening their lives.

Events which occurred not far from the O.K. Corral in Tombstone did not immediately make the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday famous.  The first mention of the shootings to appear in the Belleville Telescope used less than thirty words to tell the story:  "A fight ensued at Tombstone, Arizona, between the city marshal and four cowboys, in which three of the ruffians were killed and the other wounded in the shoulder.”  It was only after the shooting of two Earp brothers from ambush and Wyatt Earp’s ride of vengeance that the ears of the American press perked up, and started noting every detail.  The story of the riddling of Frank Stillwell’s body with bullets and buckshot at a Tuscon train station in revenge for the murder of Morgan Earp, commanded several column-inches of the Scandia Journal, which gave a full account of each of Stillwell’s wounds.

Tombstone was different from, say, the Alamo, Gettysburg, and Little Big Horn, where the events had bigger implications and some of the participants were already widely-recognized figures.  It was a relatively unimportant though blood-spattered vendetta that made Wyatt Earp a folk hero, the subject of popular books, highly-rated TV series, and a few dozen movies, among them, several Western classics.  Mythologizing usually got in the way of accuracy.  An Earp cousin, also named Wyatt, who appeared as an extra in the 1993 film Tombstone, remarked that this was the first time in the long history of movies depicting the famous street fight, that after the smoke cleared, all the right people were dead.

Without our appetite for stories about mayhem, much that we now know about the past would still be a mystery to us.  I wonder if a history of Jewell County would have been published at all in 1878, if there had not been enough incidents to fulfill the promise of the pamphlet's subtitle, “With a Full Account of Its Early Settlements, and the Indian Atrocities Committed Within its Borders.”  The tallest typeface used on the title page was reserved for the two words: "Indian Atrocities.”  The publishers knew their audience.  Many incidents of frontier life have been preserved solely because they involved danger, and thus made for an exciting read.

After a crop failure during the searing summer heat of 1868, Thomas Lovewell led militiamen from Republic County and Lake Sibley on hunting trips into eastern and central Jewell County to scare up game to feed starving neighbors.  The county history, written ten years after the fact, may be the only surviving source of information about these expeditions, and the story appears there only because the hunters were dogged by Indians at every turn.  There were no atrocities, per se, but a series of close calls.

Even Orel Jane Lovewell seemed to know that listeners wanted a tale that provided a bit of a tingle.  She told one about several terrifying hours she spent alone on the prairie, after she and her husband were stranded on their way home from Manhattan, Kansas, bringing a wagonload of supplies.  One morning they discovered that one of their mules had broken its hobble and wandered off in the night, and Thomas had to ride away on the other one in pursuit.  Orel Jane spent a whole day and night and much of the next day, fretting and convincing herself that the worst had happened, until Thomas turned up riding one mule and leading the other one, explaining that the beast had nearly made its way back to Clifton.  Like all of Mrs. Lovewell’s stories, it is brief, hardly more than what I’ve paraphrased here, yet it allows us to deduce a few facts about the trip.

The mule surely headed to Clifton because it was part of the family's traditional route.  It must have taken the Lovewells at least another two days to get to Manhattan, after spending the first one traveling from their home at White Rock to Vinson and Julana Davis’s farm, where they would spend the first night of the journey sleeping in a real bed.  Since the mule escaped at night, the travelers obviously made camp at least once along the way, sleeping in the wagon or under it, depending on the weather.  Any children were wisely left behind at White Rock or Clifton, or they would have figured into Orel Jane’s story of terror on the Plains.  It may be a short memoir about being left alone and helpless in the middle of nowhere, but it’s also a nutshell containing some hints about what a pioneer road trip must have been like.  And without some mule trouble on the trail that gave Mrs. Lovewell a scare, we wouldn’t have this one.

Oh, and we also know what the King family had for dinner the night of October 26, 1881.


© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com