Misremembered Massacre

The Jewell County Massacre is front page news again, courtesy of recent efforts to shore up the prominent white cross which marks the gravesite of a handful of Kansas pioneers slain on a spring evening 150 years ago.  The story appearing in the Superior Express of 19 October 2017, recounts the bureaucratic and physical struggles involved in relocating the cross to higher ground, away from the face of a cliff which is slowly being undermined by the pounding waves of Lovewell Lake.  Unfortunately, the text explaining the reason for the memorial, was drawn from contemporary newspaper reports about a dedication ceremony performed at the burial site in 1957, and provides a perfect object lesson in how historical facts can become eroded over time, much like the beach on the south side of Lovewell Lake.   

Even when the massacre was fairly recent news, its first chroniclers, newspaper editors Mulford Winsor and James J. Scarbrough, authors of the 1878 History of Jewell County, got a few details wrong.  Mariah Setzer, the only woman slain outright, was identified as Mrs. Sutzer, the date of the raid was remembered as April 9, although the attack actually happened three weeks later, and the deed was pinned on Cheyennes, a Plains tribe which the sole survivor never mentioned.  By 1957 the name “Sutzer” somehow had become further corrupted as “Sultzer,” and along with other errors, this one had literally bcome engraved in bronze and embedded in stone (concrete, anyway).

For the record, here’s what we now know about the events memorialized by a cross on the south shore of Lovewell Lake:  Mariah Setzer, her son Jacob, their cabinmate Erastus Bartlett, along with a neighbor named Nicholas Ward, all perished arround suppertime on April 30, 1867.  When a party of nine Indians arrived and begged a meal, Mariah dispatched her boy to the north side of the creek to warn their neighbors at the Ward cabin to expect company within the hour.  Bartlett was slain with a hatchet as he came around the corner of Mariah Setzer's cabin after an afternoon spent splitting rails in a nearby field.  Mrs. Setzer may have witnessed the attack on Bartlett and tried to flee.  Her body was found lying some distance away, her skull flattened by a large rock.  

Crossing White Rock Creek, the same marauders shot Nicholas Ward after first devouring the family’s supper and lighting their pipes for a smoke.  Young Jacob Setzer and a 13-year-old boy living with the Wards were both shot when they bolted out the door and across the yard.  Jacob got as far as a dry creek bed when a bullet to the heart brought him down.  John Ward, who may have been Nicholas’s orphaned nephew, received a superficial wound to the neck which knocked him to the ground.  Stunned for a moment by the impact, the boy sprang to his feet moments later and escaped while his attackers were busy breaking into the Ward cabin, where a quick-thinking Mary Ward had latched the door.  

The culprits were first identified as a band of Sioux warriors, a faction today generally known as Southern Lakota, who two weeks earlier may have been part of a massive gathering of Plains Indians preparing to take part in peace negotiations near Fort Larned in southern Kansas.  General Winfield Scott Hancock had marched the nucleus of an Army out of Fort Leavenworth on the last day of March, a month before the massacre, picking up more men and supplies at every fort he passed along the way to a rendezvous with tribes camped on the Pawnee Fork of the Arkansas River.  

If Hancock wanted a show of force that would bring reluctant tribes to the bargaining table, he may have overplayed his hand.  Completely unnerved by the infantry, cavalry, artillery and engineers they saw massed near their villages, the whole population of Sioux and Cheyennes abandoned their wigwams in the dead of night and scattered northward, with Custer’s 7th Cavalry in hot pursuit.  Custer was only supposed to turn the fleeing Cheyennes and Sioux, steering them back toward Pawnee Fork, but ended up driving most of them all the way to Nebraska.  After being chased for a hundred miles, many of the Indian ponies were exhausted or had fallen lame and had to be left along the trail.  

When a hungry band of refugees arrived on foot at the settlement along White Rock Creek on the 30th of April, they explained that they were looking for ponies.  Having seen an ominous wall of smoke rising behind them as they fled north ahead of the cavalry, the Sioux also might have been looking for revenge.   With Hancock's plan for peaceful subjugation of the Plains tribes crumbling around him, the general had ordered the hundreds of deserted Sioux and Cheyenne wigwams looted and burned.  Custer, who had previously considered Hancock vainglorious but inept, now thought his boss had become completely unhinged, and mocked him in an article written for a sports magazine.  How would the Plains tribes react to the losses they suffered after Hancock’s march?  Settlers along the frontier soon found out.  

The nine Sioux warriors who wandered into White Rock discovered no horses there, and were forced to settle their score with the Army by killing four settlers and making off with Mary Ward and the Ward family’s two mules.  Scouting parties who arrived at the scene a few days later trailed the raiders and their captive, but were forced to call off the search after reaching the banks of the Solomon River about forty miles away.  Mary Ward probably died of exposure before the end of summer, but not before being spotted by a company of soldiers from Fort Riley who reported seeing a tall, haggard woman fitting her description, who ran away “in a crazy manner” at their approach.

When bulldozers carving out the basin of Lovewell Lake in the 1950’s uncovered the graves of four slain pioneers, the site was marked with a white cross large enough to be clearly visible from the opposite shore.  It’s a nice memorial, the kind that makes history palpable and can give visitors to the popular vacation spot a little shiver when they catch sight of it unexpectedly.  While it does point out the graves of innocent victims, it’s also a monument to wrongheaded ideas, unintended consequences, and colossal policy failures.  Perhaps it’s completely fitting that half of the massacre victims at the crest of a mound overlooking Lovewell Lake are buried under the wrong name.


Thanks to Tom Robinson for pointing out the front-page story in the October 19 Superior Express

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com