Great Names In the Great Plains

I must have been about ten years old when my father waved me over join him on a fractured sidewalk that was slowly being reclaimed by the turf in Formoso, Kansas, where he introduced me to a slender, elderly gentlleman named Sam Bowles.  I shook Mr. Bowles' hand that day without learning why I might want to remember having shaken it.  

Almost a quarter of a century passed before I met up with the name again while editing my mother’s book about the history of her hometown.  She had included several passages detailing the career of one S. C. Bowles in the hardware business on Formoso’s Main Street.  But there was one anecdote from much earlier, nearly two decades before the town was founded, about a man named Sam Bowles who traded shots with some Indian raiders while they were making off with his team of horses.

It’s a minor though amusing incident which everybody in the area seemed to know soon after it happened, even before it was immortalized in Winsor and Scarbrough’s 1878 “History of Jewell County.”  In fact, one of the editors teased its inclusion in the soon-to-be-released booklet while writing about a visit to Jewell Centre, a town which would soon be rechristened “Mankato.” 

Sam Bowles the jolly landlord of the Centre House, don’t look any older than he did in 1870, when he talked a little profane to an old Indian chief over on White Rock, who wanted to “swap” lead for horses with him.  Sam will figure in Our Pamphlet History.

The core of the story is this:  Sam had taken a break from plowing to chat with two neighbors walking up the road, and was just getting back to his chores when he discovered the theft in progress and fired off a few shots, which the Indians half-heartedly answered.  I’ve speculated that Bowles’ tenure behind the desk of that hotel in Mankato gave the tale a chance to inflate to its later rich and rather far-fetched limits.  

For instance, we are asked to believe that Bowles had the presence of mind to count the exact number gunshots exchanged, in addition to the stray arrows he may have collected from his yard, for he vividly recalled firing at the thieves a total of thirteen times, while his adversaries launched six bullets and seven feathered missiles at him.  One of their misses is said to have occured at point-blank range after the settler temporarily ran out of ammunition, when an old chief stepped up, pointed his revolver at Sam and pulled the trigger, raising a cloud of dust some distance behind his target.  Bowles then snarled, “You damned old scoundrel, give me that pistol.  I’d make a better shot than that,” before retreating toward his cabin.  Along the way he ran into his wife, who was toting a fresh supply of firearms and cartridges, allowing Sam to continue peppering the landscape with ineffectual volleys, until the raiders vanished over a distant hill with his horses.

Decades after editing my mother’s transcriptions, I read Winsor and Scarbrough’s original volume of county history, which contained a few more tales attached to names that struck me as oddly familiar.  One of the most exciting episodes recounted in their booklet was the wild ride of Frank and William Frazier in May of 1869.  The brothers had been hired to haul the Ackerlys, newlyweds from Brooklyn, back to the train depot in Washington County to escape the wave of violence sweeping across frontier settlements west of the Republican River that spring.  

A few days earlier the Ackerlys had journeyed west to join the Excelsior Colony, a farming commune composed of fellow emigrants from New York.  The group of mechanics and craftsmen were aware of their new home’s bloody history, but had been assured the danger had passed.  Unnerved by the news of fresh massacres that greeted the couple's arrival, Ernest Ackerly arranged for the Fraziers to evacuate them and one of their friends from the colony’s improvised fort in the heart of Jewell County.  

Setting out after a few days of heavy rain, Frank and William had an uneventful trip from their farm at the eastern edge of the county.  However, laden with three additional passengers and all of the Ackerlys’ possessions, the wagon became bogged down while crossing a slough south of White Rock Creek.  The boys pulled off their boots and got down into the mud to free a stuck wheel just as a horde of Cheyenne Dog Warriors came whooping down on them from the chalk hills.  Frank and William hurriedly unhitched the team, told their passengers to remain hidden in the wagon while they drew the attackers away, then climbed on their horses and rode off to warn the remaining  colonists to prepare for an imminent attack.

Meanwhile, a neighbor named Robert Watson was doing some plowing for the boys’ widowed mother, Mary Frazier, while her sons were on their errand to remove the Ackerlys to safety.  A small band of Sioux, a tribe affiliated with the Cheyennes who were about to descend on the Excelsior Colony, stealthily maneuvered between Watson and the Frazier cabin, cutting off any avenue of escape as they crept closer to the plowman and his horses.  Watson only noticed the intruders when Mrs. Frazier suddenly burst into her yard lugging a shotgun and began blasting away, sending the raiders scattering for cover.

These tales involving the Frazier family, Robert Watson, and Sam Bowles, encapsulating events from the closing days of hostilities along White Rock Creek in Jewell County, arrive in the history books like a rainbow after a storm.  Following a virtual catalog of horrors that occurred between 1866 and 1869, we get a sprinkling of anecdotes which are sometimes suspenseful, but ultimately amusing, sometimes hilarious.  The whole story of the Ackerlys and the attack on "Fort Walker” sounds like something out of the comic western, “The Hallelujah Trail.”  Few gunshots took effect, no one was seriously harmed, and Settlers would survive to raise offspring who would keep the family stories alive.

Obviously, the Sam Bowles I met as a boy could not be the one who had a run-in with horse thieves in 1870, although the hero of that well-known historical anecdote probably is the same S. C. Bowles who sold tinware on Formoso’s Main Street in the early 1900’s.  That man had a nephew who was als0 named Sam, Samuel Levi Bowles, who is almost certainly the Sam Bowles whose hand I shook.  Around the time I met Mr. Bowles, a man named Frank Frazier was serving as Formoso’s mayor.  Although I’ve found no evidence to settle the issue, the mayor could have been a nephew of the better-known Frank Frazier who accompanied his brother William on a simple errand that turned into a hair-raising frontier adventure in 1869.

There were also Watsons in Formoso during my youth, but I’m fairly sure they were not related to the Robert Watson whose life was saved by a widow wielding a scattergun.  The reason for my certainty will have to wait for another time.     

© Dale Switzer 2023