Not the Way I Heard It

In case you couldn’t tell from the title, the recent installment, “Less Dark, But Deep Vermillion," was meant to connect back to “Dark and Bloody Tales,” the blog’s first foray into Marshall County history almost three years ago, meaning that I have now dwelt on that patch of ground in northeastern Kansas nearly as long as the Lovewells did.

I conceived the earlier title as a play on “Black Vermillion,” the name of the river valley which was the seat of an abolitionist challenge to the proslavery settlement at Marysville, and the scene of a famous incursion by Kaw raiders, apparently in the spring of 1856, in which a French trapper’s sister-in-law was abducted and killed.  The story of the raid and its young victim’s ordeal gets retold every now and then, and it seems to grow with the telling, currently encompassing a full three pages of 2015’s “Bigelow in the Distance,” or about two and seven-eights more pages than would be needed to contain the solid facts.

As I tried to show in the previous installment, word of the bloody tale probably made the rounds just as the Lovewells and Davises rolled into Marshall County in June 1856.  While the Davises soon left Kansas Territory after digging graves for Daniel and Duranda Davis’s two small children, Thomas Lovewell seemed to stay long enough to fulfill his one-year contract, dated April 24, 1858, to haul mail between Vermillion City and Nottingham.  It was not until the spring or summer of 1859 that he installed his wife and daughter near the Davises in southern Iowa, before setting out for the Pikes Peak gold fields and beyond.

When Thomas Lovewell and Daniel Davis returned to Kansas in 1866, almost exactly one decade after their arrival along the Black Vermillion, each man’s family situation was on the rebound.  Daniel and Duranda arrived with a fresh crop of four children in tow, and instead of Daniel’s aunt Nancy, it was his younger sister Orel Jane who arrived arm-in-arm with Thomas Lovewell.  However, the couples’ timing had not improved.  Indian troubles that had simmered in the 1850’s, boiled over in the next decade.  Making their first exploratory venture into Jewell County in May, the two families were camped within earshot as a desperate chase began, one which ended in the massacre of two parties of hunters along Buffalo Creek.  The new Mrs. Lovewell may have caught sight of one of the unfortunate wagons before it disappeared over the crest of a hill.  It must have seemed as if the Plains tribes had been waiting to welcome the Lovewell and Davis families back to Kansas.  

The killing of four hunters from Clifton and two from Lake Sibley probably would be better remembered today if not for all the violence along the Republican River valley that would erupt over the next three years.  Yet, in its day, this was a story that made national news.  Versions of it are also enshrined in early histories of both Jewell County and Cloud County, or as the latter was known at the time, Shirley County.  Although the abduction and murder of a Sioux maiden along the Black Vermillion back in 1856 may have made little more than a ripple of local gossip at the time, the two stories have something in common, besides marking the arrival of the Lovewells and Davises in Kansas: both were recorded in regional histories with blow-by-blow precision, despite an apparent lack of eyewitness testimony.

As we’ve seen, the version of the Marshall County story that’s closest to the bone may be James McClosky’s report to the Secretary of the Kansas Historical Society, circa 1870.  According to McClosky, evidence at the scene of the girl’s murder along the Big Blue indicated that Changreau’s sister-in-law had been killed by her captors in a division of spoils gone wrong.  Unable to agree on which one of them would own her, the group seemed to conclude that no one should.  All the bloodthirsty whooping and hollering around bonfires and the heartbreaking particulars of the girl’s stoic death by slow torture may have spiced up the history of Marshall County, but they are probably no more than conjecture at best, lurid gossip at worst.

At least the evidence provided by the girl’s body, whatever it may have been, was fresh.  Searchers scouring three counties for the buffalo hunters from Clifton and Lake Sibley who went missing in 1866, did not set out to look for them until their return was ten days overdue.  After an appeal for an armed escort and two trips into the sea of tall prairie grass, neighbors finally picked up their absent friends' trail, and eventually their remains.

When William Cutler prepared his 1883 volume of Kansas history, he left the telling of the incident to Cloud County newspaperman and historian J. M. Hagaman, who admitted that, “we are compelled to draw largely upon imagination.”  This handicap did not prevent him from launching into a 675-word description of the whole affair, including how the hunters were equipped, how the trouble started and at what point the Collins brothers became involved.  Hagaman assured his readers that near the end “it was, without doubt, a hand-to-hand conflict, but the little band of heroes proved more than a match for their brutal and cowardly assailants, and drove them away again for the eighth or tenth time.”  As the evidence of one bloody shirt, several sets of intermingled pony and wagon tracks, and the location of grisly remains that had lain on the open prairie for over two weeks, made clear to Hagaman (who may or may not have seen any of them), “thus perished six as good and brave men as this or any other country could boast of, fighting as long as life lasted; dying as only the brave die.”  

We might find his tale more convincing if Hagaman (or a modern transcriptionist) had gotten the year of the massacre right.  Online readers of Cutler’s history of Cloud County will learn the surprising news that the signal event of 1866 actually occurred in May 1865.  On the other hand, anyone leafing through Winsor and Scarbrough’s 1878 “History of Jewell County,” could be equally startled to discover that it didn’t happen until 1868, making all of the press coverage in 1866 decidedly premature.

Winsor and Scarbrough, like Cutler, whose histories of Kansas and Nebraska are highly regarded, depended on local sources who sometimes let them down.  Cutler’s luck in Jewell County was particularly bad.  According to his history of the county, Mrs. Frazier and  her family, who actually may have settled there as early as 1863, were members of the Excelsior Colony, who didn’t arrive until 1869.  He puts the shooting of Vinson Perry Davis and Ark Bump in May 1866 instead of July 1867 where it belongs.  It’s no mere typographical error.  Cutler concluded that Ark Bump managed to escape the 1867 Jewell County Massacre by cleverly dying one year earlier.   

It’s important to remember that history is not a work chiseled in stone and handed down from on high.  It’s bits and pieces scraped together from debris left on the floor, and 150 years later we’re still sorting out the crumbs.

© Dale Switzer 2023