Less Dark, But Deep Vermillion

My thanks to Keith Jones for handling the bulk of the writing chores for yesterday’s installment.  Keith has also researched James McClosky, an associate of both Louis Tremblé and the man known to Marshall County history as Julian Changreau (a named also spelled Shangreau, Shangrow, Jangreau, Ghangraw, Gingras, and as we’ll see in a moment, Changré), promises to get around to tackling Changreau himself someday.  Julian Changreau is at the heart of one of the most storied incidents in Marshall County’s Territorial past, the abduction of his 15-year-old Sioux sister-in-law by a Kaw raiding party, who took her back to their village to be scourged to death for the entertainment of the tribe.  For a full account of the incident, see my posting, “Dark and Bloody Tales,” or, for a sensational version likely to give the delicate reader a case of the vapors, follow the link that Keith Jones gave me for a key snippet from “Bigelow in the Distance. 

Besides being packed with what Keith frankly terms “outrageous embellishments,” Mary Gerstner’s ghoulish rhapsody on the story in “Bigelow" puts the scene of the crime along the Neosho River near Council Grove.  This is actually the place named in some early published accounts of the incident, including William Cutler’s “History of Kansas” from 1883, and the Marysville True Republican’s “Illustrated Edition of Marshall County,” printed in 1890.  Local historian Emma Forter was aware that she was swimming against the tide in her 1907 book of Marshall County history, which places the climax of the story along the Big Blue near the future townsite of Irving.  Ms. Forter claimed, however, that some of Changreau’s old neighbors still lived in the Black Vermillion valley when she was researching the matter, and they insisted that Changreau had trailed the Kaw raiders only as far as Irving.

Emma Forter was probably justified in standing her ground.  An even earlier version of the notorious raid was published in the September 17, 1880 edition of the Atchison Daily Champion, under the heading “Primitive Northern Kansas.”  What he paper printed was the entire text of “An Address by F. G. Adams, Secretary of the Kansas Historical Society, Before the Marshall County Old Settlers’ Pioneer Association,” a speech that had been delivered a scant week earlier.  

A band of Kaws, from Council Grove, came sweeping down upon them when the men were in the fields; pillaged their cabins, and entering that of Changre, one of the number, seized a bright-eyed Sioux girl, placed her, and bound her upon a pony, and carried (her away).  The few settlers rallied, white men and Indian Frenchmen, and rushed in pursuit.  Far away over the hills, in a valley nook near the Blue, the abandoned temporary camp of the fugitive robbers was reached; and there the mangled body of the fair girl was found - the murderers beyond reach.  They had quarreled over the spoil, and to end the principal cause of contention had taken the life of the innocent cause of it.  This in brief is the story as told me by McClosky, ten years ago.  Whether it is true or not, there are witnesses here today who can testify.

A few key elements from later and better-known variations of the tale are present in Adams’s address, but appear in what may have been their raw, unvarnished form.  Council Grove is mentioned, but only as the site of the Kaw reservation, which was where the perpetrators were from and where they probably intended to return with their captive.  Despite their jittery behavior in some stories, Changreau’s neighbors do not turn around and head home in the Adams version, fearing the prospect of ambush, and leaving Changreau to carry on alone.  Instead, Adams allows us to assume that the whole posse ended their pursuit when it became pointless to continue.  Is that how it happened, or does Adams purposely leave some wiggle room?  He does not directly say that the whole group found the girl, only that “the fair girl was found,” perhaps to avoid embarrassing any aged members of the search party who might be in the audience listening to his address.  As Adams said, some in the crowd that day knew the truth.  

There could have been a roaring bonfire and a brutal, ritual flaying of the innocent victim, but these details did not crop up in print until long after James McClosky gave his straightforward outline to the Secretary of the Kansas Historical Society.  It can be instructive to read the stark excerpt from F. G. Adams’s address, and then skip over to the lurid potboiler version in “Bigelow in the Distance,” to see what effect generations of retelling can have on a simple tale about would-be rescuers who discover a young girl’s lifeless body.

No version of the story that I’m aware of attempts to put a date to it, content merely to file away the attack as an event that occurred sometime in the misty dawn of Territorial Kansas.  There seems to be a very narrow window of opportunity when it could have happened.  Not all of the key players were in place until December 1855, when Changreau arrived along the Black Vermillion.  Furthermore, according to the 1857 census, Changreau’s household that year consisted of him, his wife, and their two children.  If she had been there before, Changreau’s young sister-in-law was no longer part of the family.

Stories about the abduction usually describe it as taking place on a spring day.  When Thomas and Nancy Lovewell arrived in Marshall County with the extended Davis family in June 1856, the killing of Mrs. Changreau’s sister must have been the talk of the county. 

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com