It was on one of my hectic trips to the Center for Historical Research in Topeka that I discovered the writings of Harry E. Ross and Ellen Morlan Warren.  

Their serialized contributions to the Burr Oak Herald and the Belleville Telescope, respectively, (duplicated in Ms. Warren’s case in the Superior Express, a publication I had no access to at the time) were full of engrossing details about the early years of settlement along White Rock Creek in northern Kansas.  Returning home to discover that articles from both writers had been collected in attractive paperback volumes which were still available from Superior Publishing, I ordered one of each, and found both quite valuable, but for different reasons.  

What Price White Rock, published in 1937, specializes in historical facts: Indian attacks, famous crimes, crop yields, acres under cultivation, dates of founding and election tallies, most of the information somewhat weighted towards northwestern Jewell County, Ross’s home turf.  

Ellen Morlan Warren’s 1933 White Rock Historical Sketches focuses on the eastern end of the valley of the White Rock, and covers the era of pioneer settlement with a series of engrossing family stories.  A few of the stories might be suspect, but so are a few of Mr. Ross’s facts.

Harry Ross, longtime editor and manager of the Burr Oak Herald, saw his booklet as an updating of Winsor & Scarbrough’s 1878 History of Jewell County.  After providing a geological overview of the region as well as a primer on the Plains tribes which awaited white newcomers, Ross paraphrases extensively from the 1878 history.  

Unfortunately, the ensuing catalog of bloodshed and horror covering the years 1866 to 1870, corrects neither of the glaring errors made by Ross’s predecessors.  On the other hand, the text is more clearly written, with less blood-and-thunder sensationalism than we find in Winsor and Scarbrough.

Nonetheless, the massacre of two parties of buffalo hunters from Clifton and Lake Sibley is once more transposed from 1866 to 1868, while the teenager who was killed at the Dahl cabin in 1869 continues to languish in his unmarked grave as “Johnny Dahl."

What Price Glasses

Both What Price White Rock and White Rock Historical Sketches are available as free PDF downloads from

Ellen Morlan Warren tries to set the record straight on the unfortunate settler’s name in the first chapter of her 1933 booklet, though her take on the matter is somewhat at odds with a pair of modern scholarly works.  It surprises me to realize that I may end up siding with Ms. Warren on this one.  Like many of her conclusions, her version is probably true … in a way.  As Stephen Colbert might say, it has an essential truthiness.

As the title implies, White Rock Historical Sketches is at heart a collection of memories.  The author sets the stage with the arrival of two bothers, Paul and Martin Dahl, who emigrated from Norway in 1867.  They had taken claims along White Rock Creek by the spring of 1869, just before a coalition of Cheyenne and Sioux warriors arrived, bent on plundering the new settlements.

A sixteen-year-old nephew who had been raised in the Dahl family was actually named Thomas Warness, according to Ms. Warren, who evidently interviewed Martin Dahl’s widow, Alma. 

Recent books on the Plains conflict refer to the nephew as Thomas Voarness, evidently a Norwegian surname that may have been pronounced warness, leading to its use in Historical Sketches.  I have tended to accept the scholarly spelling for years now, even though unable to find a single human being bearing the surname Voarness - other than the young man who was mortally wounded in the Dahl cabin and then carried six miles on a makeshift stretcher to Allen Woodruff’s farm on a fruitless quest for medical attention.

On the other hand, I have come across another Warness, and he too is buried in Jewell County.

A second Dahl nephew from Norway named Edward Warness lived in Martin and Alma Dahl’s home with their eleven children as late as the 1920’s.  Besides working as a field hand on the Dahl farm, there is no evidence that Edward found outside employment, except when he served in a company of engineers during the Spanish American War.  After the death of Martin Dahl in 1929, Edward moved to a rooming house in Superior, Nebraska, where he presumably resided until his death in 1953 at the age of 91.

His lifespan was not unusual among the immigrant family.  In spite of the threat of frontier violence, an uncertain food supply, rounds of communicable diseases, and the perils of childbirth, Ellen Warren notes that by the time Martin and Alma celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1924, the Dahl household had not experienced a single death.  A majority of the children born to Martin and Alma would live past the age of 80.  Their firstborn, Anna Magdalena Dahl, died in 1974 at the age of 99.

At the other end of the valley, Harry Ross writes that after Limestone Township was organized in 1870, “the first white child was born to Mrs. Anna Burgess in 1871.  The first death was that of the same child, occurring shortly after its birth, followed a few days later by the death of the mother.”  

The average health and hardiness of pioneers lay somewhere in between, probably a bit closer to the Burgess model than that of the Dahls.

After laying out the story of the Dahl family, Ellen Morlan Warren tackles the town of White Rock itself, from its inception as a sparse cluster of neighboring cabins to its zenith as the largest trading area in Republic County.  She also covers the battle over railroad bonds which she believed to be the ultimate cause of the pioneer town’s downfall.

Most sketches center on a family, sometimes a group of families migrating together, or a person of singular interest.  Mother Nature herself takes center stage in a chapter on prairie fires and another on the great grasshopper plague of 1874.  

Ms. Warren’s account of the experience of the William R. Charles family also lets her recount one of the most dramatic episodes of White Rock bloodshed, the spearing of Gordon Winbigler outside a stockade where housewives frantically molded bullets.  Her chapter on Samuel Fisher is appropriately titled “Pioneer Teller of Tall Tales.”  A biographical sketch of educator E. D. Haney is distilled from his own memoir “Experiences of a Homesteader.” 

Her mini-bio of Thomas Lovewell demonstrates the futility of summarizing a life of adventure with a few interesting anecdotes.  “Tom Lovewell Was Soldier and Scout” seems to present a fairly honest portrait of the man, even when composed of half-truths, a few outright fibs, and wild guesses.  Consider the briefest sample:

In 1865, he married his boyhood sweetheart, Orel Jane Davis, who was teaching school at Clifton.

Where to begin?

Thomas may have married his boyhood sweetheart, but it was not Orel Jane, who was his second wife and 22 years his junior.  When they met as adults her surname was no longer Davis, but Moore.  Orel Jane probably did teach school for a time in Clifton, where Thomas installed her in 1867 while he scouted for the Tenth Cavalry after the White Rock Massacre.  

It hardly matters that while the couple did start out for Kansas together in 1865, they did not consider themselves husband and wife until April 1, 1866.

The accuracy of one tale in particular is difficult to dissect, because it appears in print for the very first time in a few paragraphs concerning Jim Jones, known as “Crazy Jim.”

The Lovewells had been settled in their new home but a short while, when a man who said that his name was Jim Jones, came to live with them. He was a white man, but he had apparently been living with the Indians, for he was dressed in a breech clout Indian fashion.  His mind was affected but they felt that they could not turn him out in the wilderness, contrary to the hospitality which they always maintained. 

“Crazy Jim” went with the men on a buffalo hunt. They had located a herd, and were preparing to shoot as many as possible. The herd began to run. “Crazy Jim” was out trying to catch a buffalo calf, and had stampeded the herd. They did not get to shoot a single buffalo; “Crazy Jim” was’ sent back to Clifton, with the next bunch of hunters who came by, and they never saw him again. 

Like this yarn about “Crazy Jim,” the remainder of the chapter on Thomas Lovewell in Ellen Morlan Warren’s book aligns nearly word for word with the account found in Sherman Lee Pompey’s 1962 Wolf and the Little Wolf, for which Pompey credits both Ellen Morlan Warren and Mrs. Orel Elizabeth (Lovewell) Poole.  Ms. Warren may have spruced up a first draft provided by Orel Poole, or the two young ladies may have simply put their heads together to produce the chapter.  

I’m not sure how much of White Rock Historical Sketches rests on a foundation of solid evidence, but I’m convinced that the book strives to shed an honest light on the realities of pioneer life.  

When Ms. Warren records how long it took to drive a carriage from White Rock to Jewell City, how commerce was conducted in an isolated community with a shortage of cash, what kind of effort and ingenuity went into breaking sod on the prairie, or what means a family from Norway depended on to sweeten a pan of cornbread and almost everything else on the table - she’s probably on firm ground.

How long did it take to get from White Rock to Jewell City?  Samuel Morlan boasted that he could make it there in three hours with that pair of black driving horses he was very proud of.  Leaving home at 6:00 a.m. he could hear the school bell ringing as he drove into town.  Distance traveled, almost thirty miles.  It beat walking.

© Dale Switzer 2023