Historical Snooping

An aunt of mine may have been the most curious creature who ever lived.  That’s stating the matter too lightly.  There were certain things she simply had to know, and she did whatever it took to learn them.  She eyed any sliver of concealed information the same way The Andy Griffith Show's Otis Campbell eyed a jar of moonshine.  There was no question whether the lid was coming off, just a matter of how soon.  

One day, a local man grew so infuriated by something in the letter he was reading as he stepped out of the post office, he ripped it into tiny shreds and tossed them in the wind, letting the bits fly all over Main Street.  My aunt spent a whole day hunting down the scraps of paper and taping them to the cardboard backing of a Big Chief writing tablet.  By nightfall she had the entire letter pieced back together except for two little vacant spots, which unfortunately seemed to hold key words.  Armed with a good idea of what the missing bits must look like, she grabbed a flashlight and headed back uptown.  Around 9:30 p.m. she found the elusive flecks of paper concealed in the weeds of a vacant lot.  Was there a glaring domestic secret at the root of the man’s anger?  No, just some ancient and still-simmering family tiff, but that wasn’t the point.  He had tried to keep information hidden by scattering it in a public place.  Letting whatever was concealed in those scraps of paper go undiscovered, was not an option for my aunt.

I’m beginning to understand the impulse that drove her to extremes, having spent hours hunched over various microfilm readers just to learn the exact date when Arktiles Bump and Vinson Davis were ambushed in 1867 - or for that matter, to track down the fact that Bump’s first name was Arktiles.  None of it makes any earth-shattering historical difference.  I was about to admit that none of my efforts caused the deceased to leap from their graves and live again, but in fact they did, just a little bit, as far as I was concerned.  Knowing something about what possessed Arktiles Bump, Erastus Bartlett, Jr., and Mariah Setzer to hit the trail for Jewell County in 1866, gives them a little room to breathe.  They are not simply future victims, lining up to take their places in some grisly historical pageant.  We get to learn about the big terrible things they had done, the big wonderful things they would do ... their hopes, their regrets, their loves, their hates, all very large, as Elwood P. Dowd would wisely point out, because nobody was lugging small baggage to Kansas in a covered wagon.  

As for the timeline of events in the year of the 1867 massacre, thanks to the Kansas Historical Society for making more of its holdings available through searchable online partnerships, the gaps continue to fill in, bit by bit, like that Big Chief tablet my aunt kept taping bits of paper to.  Yes, there are a couple of new ones.

April:   We can be fairly certain that the famous massacre happened on April 30, probably in response to General Hancock’s burning of Sioux and Cheyenne villages on Pawnee Fork near Fort Larned eleven days earlier.  

May:  After the surviving settlers took flight to Lake Sibley, Clyde and Clifton, Samuel Fisher came back to salvage a few belongings on May 11th.  Samuel was away on a trip to buy supplies when the butchery occurred at the Ward and Setzer cabins.  Fisher’s family had hastily piled into a wagon owned by Lapier and Vanepps, the claim-hunters who discovered the carnage, managing to carry away little more than what they were wearing.  Samuel Fisher tiptoed back too soon.  He lost another team of horses during a battle with six hostile Indians who were roaming the abandoned settlement.  By the middle of the month four companies of cavalry arrived at Lake Sibley to investigate the White Rock massacre, and to safeguard any settlers who remained in the area.

July:  Early in the month Thomas Lovewell guided about 80 troops from Fort Riley and Fort Harker on a two-day March to White Rock Creek, where they established Camp Hoffman and began to reconnoiter.  On July 25th, perhaps encouraged by the presence of soldiers, Vinson Davis and Arktiles Bump ventured into Jewell County to harvest part of Bump’s crop, but found the grain unripened.  On their return trip they were waylaid at Upton Creek and shot by jealous peddlers who mistook them for competitors.  Bump died immediately, while Orel Jane Lovewell’s father suffered from recurring lung ailments for a few more years before succumbing to the shotgun pellets in his chest.  

September:   Thomas Lovewell’s final stint as an Army scout came to an end.  

October:  Soldiers of the 3rd Infantry and 10th Cavalry marched back to Lake Sibley, lingering there a few weeks before returning to their home bases.  Thomas returned to Clifton to pick up his family for their return to White Rock.  While at Clifton he must have given that community's leader John Griffin Haynes an earful about his experiences with the Army.  Haynes fired off a letter to the Kansas Governor blasting the military's rules of engagement.  

December:  Indians visited the Davis and Lovewell cabin near the mouth of the creek.  While the men of the house were encountering a large band of Omahas and Utahs further up the creek, the appearance of unexpected guests in their own kitchen, one of whom tried to make off with the Lovewells’ toddler, must have left Orel Jane Lovewell and Duranda Davis severely shaken.  The families withdrew once more to Clifton, where they would spend part of the winter.  On December 23, Thomas wrote a letter to Governor Samuel Crawford, detailing a few recent alarming events and asking for arms and provisions for thirty rangers he intended to lead on patrols along the creek.

It is becoming more convenient for us to eavesdrop on what happened in Kansas during August.  An item from the Junction City Union, reprinted in the August 13 Daily Kansas Tribune suggests that much of the White Rock settlement may have been emboldened by the Army’s presence, even if the soldiers themselves still seemed fairly ineffectual.

About one week ago the settlers on White Rock were alarmed by the appearance of large bodies of Indians on the hills about them.  In about three hours sixty settlers concentrated at one place, and were in lively anticipation of an interesting time.  The Indians proved to be a party of Otoes, who were on a hunt.  A flag of truce, and a talk, developed the fact that the Indians were in a very distressed condition, being on the point of starvation.  The squaws had the hillsides all torn up, hunting for roots, and while the settlers were present, the Indians shot an antelope, which was instantly devoured regardless of the general culinary preliminaries.

One day last week a party of Indians stampeded forty mules from a company of soldiers stationed on White Rock.  One of the mules was famous for mulishness, and in answer to their urgent solicitations to move on, it laid down.  Being unable to get it to move, the Indians shot several arrows into it.  After a while it got up and returned to camp, the arrows telling the whole tale.

Sixty White Rock settlers were congregating in one place for defense against starving Otoes at the start of August 1867?  Never heard that one before.  Clearly, more historical snooping is in order.

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com