History

A California Adventure

We were young. We had worked for a year. It was time for a vacation and we had planned it for months. We were going west to sightsee and scuba dive in the Pacific Ocean. My brother-in-law Russell Spoor had introduced me to diving with the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus the previous fall. We had weekend dived in the clear waters of the southern Missouri lakes Bull Shoals and Table Rock many times and felt we were ready for bigger things.
Tablerock

Me (on the left) and Russell after a scuba dive in Table Rock Lake. Table Rock Dam is in the background.

 

It was 1962, and for several years the popular underwater diving adventure television program, Sea Hunt, starring Lloyd Bridges, had captivated viewers. For you youngsters, he is the father of movie stars Jeff and Beau Bridges.

Russ had taken a scuba training class in Kansas City. He had shown me the basics and I had researched all the current publications I could find and bought some gear. We had talked about diving in the ocean and perhaps exploring the American River in California.  The discovery of a gold nugget in the American River started the gold rush of 1849.  That fact was not lost on us.

Rattlesnake_Bar_1910

Closeup of map from American River & Natomas Water & Mining Company – 1910.
http://insuremekevin.com/1910-map-of-water-canals-in-sacramento-and-placer-counties/#hEc0ESMgwgdloJKw.99
Full map of area here: 1910 American River Canal Map

 

 

We scheduled our vacations to start in mid-July. Joined by our wives, we loaded scuba gear and luggage in Russ’s convertible and headed west. The first stop was Pikes Peak. That red Chevy took us all the way to the top. Royal Gorge, the Painted Desert, and the Grand Canyon were next. We visited Boulder Dam and took time for a swim in Lake Mead. We zoomed right on through Las Vegas. After a drive through the desert we stopped to stay overnight in a quaint little town named Yermo, California. I don’t remember many of the places we stayed at. My wife remembers staying in Yermo because the older lady that checked us in gave us some cookies, but told us we could not eat them in the motel rooms.

The next day we went through Los Angeles and on to Fillmore, California. There, we were guests of our aunt and uncle who lived on the Spalding Ranch. The ranch was a part of the historical Rancho Sespe. The aunt was my mother’s twin sister (see The Battle of Beecher’s Island). Her husband managed the citrus packing plant on the ranch just west of Fillmore.

We had a busy agenda visiting Hollywood, Pacific Ocean Park, Knotts Berry Farm, and of course we spent some time on the beach. We spent a long day at Disney Land.

Finally the time came to go fishing and scuba diving in the ocean. Our uncle and his brother took us out in their boat. Russ owned two wet suits that we had used winter diving in fresh water. We knew because of the extra buoyancy of the wet suits in saltwater we needed weighted belts. We bought weight belts and special abalone prying tools. With my uncle and his brother, we started for the ocean before daylight, stopping for a big breakfast at a truck stop restaurant.

We put the boat in at a boat lift on a pier at Redondo Beach. Then we started for an area where we could dive for abalone. Along the way, we fished for bonito fish.

Left to right, me and Uncle Louie Yett in the driveway of the Spalding house showing some bonito fish caught in the ocean near Redondo Beach, California.

Left to right, me and Uncle Louie Yett in the driveway of the Spalding house showing some bonito fish caught in the ocean near Redondo Beach, California.

 

Pretty soon the sea swells began to work on us landlubbers. Russ and I were sharing a deep sea rod. I sat down waiting my turn. I was munching on soda crackers, having read that was a help in combating seasickness. Russ was making fun of me saying, “Look, look, Walt is getting seasick.” I knew Russ well enough to know that he was striving to cover his own nausea. The boat was riding the swells up and down, up and down. Suddenly, Russ threw the rod at me, rushed to the transom, and started upchucking that truck stop breakfast. Luckily, he had already caught a number of good sized bonito.

Eventually, we arrived at the intended diving area. Russ was still mighty green and wisely decided not to go down. I had my sea legs and was in good shape. I came to dive in the ocean and I intended to do it. I put my gear on and went down alone. Not knowing how much weight was needed, I found I was having trouble descending. Rather than go back for additional belt weights, I followed the anchor line down and carried the boat anchor around. I was at a depth of 75 feet according to my wrist-mounted depth gauge. Examining some boulders, I found no abalone. I was seeing lots of fish. A giant manta ray swam above and a bit to the side of me. From fin tip to fin tip it appeared to be approximately 20 feet wide. I thought perhaps the water was having a magnifying effect. Seeing the huge ray helped me decide that I had achieved my goal to dive in the ocean. I went back up to the boat, and we finished out our day fishing for bonito. I researched rays later and read that some species could reach a width of 18 to 22 feet.

We said our goodbyes to our aunt and uncle and left early that morning to visit our cousin and family at Sacramento before journeying home. Little did we know, the adventure was not over! We arrived at their home about mid-afternoon. They had their boat and trailer hooked up ready to go. They said they thought we would enjoy finishing the day out diving and boating in the American River and Folsom Lake.

A short drive brought us to the beautiful waters of the lake. We put the boat into the river near the beginning of the lake. The water was cold and very clear. We busied ourselves exploring the bottom, turning over stones, and picking up some colored ones for our cousin’s rock garden. There was a small cove across the river and several hundred yards down. Our cousins had fished there before, and they were interested in the depth of the water in that cove. They called the area Rattlesnake Bar. You can see it listed on the map above. Since I had used up some of my air in the ocean, I ran out before Russ did. Russ agreed to check it out. The area was several hundred yards from us. Russ said if we took the boat closer he would swim the rest of the way.

We crossed over and dropped anchor in the cove. I dried off, put on a jacket, and watched Russ’s air bubbles on the surface as he made his way toward us. I remarked to the group that he was almost out of compressed air. With the equipment used at the time you could see the air bubbles and gauge the status. He was steadily pulling harder on the regulator. All of a sudden there was a big rush of air and Russ popped to the surface. “I am out of air, but there is something down here that you must see!”

“Aw man,” I argued. “I don’t want to get wet and cold again.”

“You’ve got to see this! It is a stump or mannequin on the bottom, that looks just like a man! I am not getting out of here until you look at it.”

I put my frogman flippers on, donned a mask, climbed on top of the boat cabin, and dived deep while Russ waited on the surface. Twenty-five feet down, I found what had gotten my brother-in-law so excited. Swimming in one pass beside the object, I determined it was a man. The figure was trapped on the bottom by gravel covering the lower portion of his legs. I could see red hair, a glass eye, and a pendent around the neck. The man’s arms were floating in front of him, palms upwards. Russ knew what he saw. He just could not believe it. I came up and quietly said, “It is a person. Now what do we do?”

We all talked it over and decided to go to the park headquarters. Darkness set in by the time we had the boat out of the water and found the headquarters office. Luckily, there was someone there and he called the sheriff’s office. Russ and I reported the discovery and location and thought we had finished our part, but the ordeal was not over. The park person put us all in a conference room with a map on the wall and instructed us to wait for sheriff’s officers.

After an hour or more wait, two sheriff’s deputies showed up. One was smaller in stature and very polite and professional. The second was a large brawny tough guy with a pock marked face and a personality to match. He did most of the talking. “Let’s hear the story,” he said. After we explained again what we found and where we found it. Tough guy leaned in, gave Russ and me a look up and down, and then asked gruffly, “You guys been drinking?” We assured him we had not. He grilled us some more and finally said, “Okay, meet us at Rattlesnake Bar with your diving equipment in the morning and show us where it is.”

“We need to get started back to Missouri, we are about out of vacation time. Also, our air tanks are empty,” Russ informed him.

“You can get your tanks filled in Sacramento and meet us and the patrol about mid-morning at Rattlesnake Bar,” the big deputy said. “We had better find a body there or you guys are going to spend some more time in California,” he added.

We arrived back at our cousin’s home in Sacramento late in the night and went to bed. I don’t know about Russ, but I did not sleep a wink. The deputy’s threat had gotten to me.

 

By morning I had almost convinced myself that it was not a body. We found the divers supply and had our tanks refilled to the standard 2200 psi. The two deputies and the coroner were already at the gravel bar cove waiting when we arrived.

Still wanting to leave as soon as we could, we timidly asked if they would need us to help retrieve the body. The tough guy deputy told us that we could not leave because the sheriff would have papers for us to sign the next day. I knew he still didn’t believe us. He informed us they were experienced divers and certainly did not need our help. That part suited us fine, but staying another day did not.

The coroner gave us a balloon float attached to a long cord. He told us to attach it to the body. I got my gear on. Russ was having trouble with some tangled webbing. I could not wait. I had to know for sure. I grabbed the cord and went over the side. Russ followed, and we easily found the body. I tied the cord to a rock near the body and we went back to the surface. Russ and I withdrew to some boulders near shore and our cousins took their boat back upstream a ways.

The sheriff deputies worked off the patrol boat and the coroner used a small flat jon boat with a transport basket. As we watched from the bank, both boats positioned over the balloon float, and the two deputies dove in.

The retrieval operation assembling at Rattlesnake Bar.

The retrieval operation assembling at Rattlesnake Bar.

 

Not too far into the task the coroner jumped up, stripped to his undershorts, and dove in after them. He came back up with the big deputy in tow. Seems the tough guy got sick and upchucked into his scuba gear. Even though it was a solemn and serious occasion, Russ and I found just a little bit of satisfaction out of that.

 

The coroner told us he would have the discovery papers we had to sign at the mortuary early the next day. We spent the rest of the day with relatives and said goodbye the next morning. We stopped at Placerville to sign the papers and started a marathon drive back to Missouri.

Clipping from the Sacramento Bee newspaper July 1962.

Clipping from the Sacramento Bee newspaper, July 1962.

 

Newspaper accounts later erroneously reported finding the body of Walter Anton Wood in 15 feet of water.  It was actually 25 feet.

 

 

Each year about this time, I think of the young drowning victim and his family. He journeyed so far to meet with a fatal accident. We journeyed so far to accidentally find him.

 

 

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I’m offering personalized copies of my latest book for Christmas!

 

CLICK HERE TO ORDER

 

For the holidays, I’m offering autographed copies of The Shenandoah Sharpshooter.

A great gift for the history buff or bookworm in your life – or a gift to yourself.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000446_00067]

Read the first chapter of The Shenandoah Sharpshooter HERE.


 

 

 

While the Civil War burns around him, a young man fights a battle of his own.

It is strange how a man’s best-made plans can change. Stephen Purcell’s quiet, happy life changed in an instant of violence. Then he found himself on the run. But before he left the war-torn Shenandoah Valley, Purcell vowed to kill the man who changed it all . . . an evil man named Striker.With the best horse in the valley underneath him, Purcell headed west with only a knife and a sack of potatoes. The buckskin jacket he wore was the only reminder of his loved ones that were so horrifically taken from him. Early in his journey, Purcell’s promise to a dying soldier gave him a weapon, a mission and some battle scars.

To save himself and his horse, Purcell hid in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He did not know how he would do it, but he would kill Striker. Along Purcell’s travels, his will would be tested, his life would be challenged, he would learn to trust again, and even find love. His knowledge of the telegraph became a valuable help to new friends and a crucial turning point for the Union army.

A boy becomes a man on a hard road through Confederate lines. Will Purcell’s path lead to destiny or blood? Discover what becomes of the man who finds himself known across the valley as a hardened shootist – a force to be reckoned with – the man they call The Shenandoah Sharpshooter.

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Sod House Memories

Sod House

My sister Mary and I standing on the east side of our sod-walled house probably in the mid 1940’s. Dad and Mom had re-plastered the outside giving it a mottled look. They had re-roofed the house adding dormers.

 

The above picture is of a sod-walled house formerly located southwest of St. Francis, Kansas, in Benkelman township.  The house and farmstead were located on a rise about a mile or so south of the Republican River.  I have heard the farm referred to as “The Downy Place.”  A longtime friend of my late father thought that the house was constructed by the Downy family in about 1910.

 

The walls were constructed of Buffalo Grass sod.  The wiry roots were quite evident when the sod was exposed.  A conventional four-sided wood-shingled roof rested on top of the sod walls.  The floor was of regular pine flooring, attached on floor joists resting on stringer supports above the ground.  The walls were twenty-four to twenty-six inches thick.  The inside of the sod walls were plastered with old-fashioned hog hair reinforced lime plaster, and then painted.  The inside partition walls and ceiling were standard frame lumber covered with a fiber wallboard.  Our family stretched poultry netting wire over the outside and pegged it down.  A cement mix was then troweled over the outside.  This is called stucco.  Earlier plaster without wire reinforcement failed to stick for long periods.

The freezing and thawing action during the winter months would cause the cement stucco to crack and break.  My mother was constantly patching the stucco and worrying about mice and the snakes that would follow.  Her worries were justified.   During a visit to the area several years ago, Merle Moberly, a family friend and neighbor from the past, told of being present during a noon meal when a young rattler peeked over at the junction of the ceiling and the top of an outer wall.  He said that there wasn’t much fuss.  My parents quickly dispatched it and carried it from the house and went on with the meal as if it was a normal occurrence.

 

Mary and I

Close-up from picture above.

I was not born in the sod house, but it is the first home that I can remember. However, my double cousin was born in this sod house.  My next youngest sister Mary and I were born in a frame house on a nearby farm that my parents were renting at the time.  We moved to the sod house farm when she was a baby and I was probably two and one-half years old.  My youngest sister Joan was born near the time this picture was taken.  She too, lived in this sod house as a baby.  She was the first of us born in a hospital.  I remember the emergency run and my mother telling my father he did not have much time to make it.

My sister Mary and I appear in this picture.  I think the picture was taken about 1945 or 1946.  It was taken during the winter.  There are no leaves on the tree near the well and garden, and the cold frame used to start garden plants in the early spring is clearly in disuse.  My sister wears lace-up shoes and warm thick stockings.  I have on an ear-flap cap and overalls.  I quit wearing overalls when I became a self-conscious teenager.  In recent years, I’ve rediscovered the comfort and practicability of bib overalls.

 

At first glance the old sod house looks like something from a hardscrabble district.  If it was, we did not know it.  There were two other similar sod houses in the area that I know of.  One was about a mile southeast of our farm.  It was owned by the Owens family.  It was in very good repair at the time.  I don’t think it exists anymore.  There were many sod houses in the county in the beginning.  The early ones were very rough.  It was a treeless country and lumber for construction just was not available.  Kansas winters can be severely cold.  A sod house is easy to heat in the winter and cool in the summer.  We heated ours with coal and used corn cobs for fuel in the kitchen range.  The hand-husked and gathered corn ears were ran through a mechanical sheller that stripped the grain from the cob and left the cob whole.  I have eaten many a biscuit that was baked to perfection in the oven of a kitchen range using corn cobs for fuel.

A closer look tells us much about life in rural Western Kansas in 1945. To the far right, one end of a solar dryer, commonly called a clothes line, is visible.  The chicken house was beyond that.  The little house with a path was somewhere back there discretely hidden from easy view.

The ball bat with the taped handle leaning against the house indicated we were probably interrupted at play for the picture.  The erosion around the base of the house was not from water but from the relentless currents of wind.  The vines on the east facing windows kept the sun out and helped keep the house cool in summer.  In winter they lost their leaves and let the warm sun in.

The bushel basket of fruit jars in the cold frame were being collected and stored for reuse.  As many farm families did, we canned and preserved much of our table fare.  The hoop with the slat cross was a screen used by my mother to sift the chaff out of wheat.  She washed, then dried the wheat in the cook-stove oven.  She ground the cleaned and dry wheat with a hand powered grinder to make flour for whole wheat bread and pancakes.  We grew and produced most of our own food.  The fertile soil grew a good garden when irrigated from the windmill.

One or two coal-oil lanterns always hung by the side door.  The pail and string mops have significance.  During a windstorm fine particles of sand and dust would come through the smallest of cracks.  After a big blow there was always the chore of swabbing the place down.

 

Side of the sod house.

Close-up of side of the sod house.

The pipe protruding from the roof was a support for the radio antenna wire.  The battery-powered radio was a source of news and entertainment.  The resonant voice of Lowell Thomas reported the events of the war.  “Fibber McGee and Molly” and “Amos and Andy” gave us mirth and laughter.  “I Love a Mystery,” led us on thrilling adventures limited only by our own imaginations.  On this radio I first heard Gene Autry’s “Back in the Saddle Again” and Eddy Arnold singing Tex Owen’s “The Cattle Call.”

With an old guitar I tried mightily to imitate Gene.  My harried mother finally banished me to the outdoors.  Taking refuge on the seat of the John Deere tractor, I plunked away for hours.  I never succeeded in making a recognizable sound.  After awhile the old guitar mysteriously disappeared.

Only the lower part of the small tower for the Delco wind-driven charger is visible in the picture.  Anchored on top of the dormer, the wind-powered generator charged wet cell storage batteries located in the attic.  They in turn furnished six volt, direct current electricity to the radio and to one lone light bulb on the ceiling of the kitchen.  The batteries had to be serviced periodically. How do I remember the apparatus was six volt?  Because, when the wind stopped and the storage batteries ran down, my father took the battery from the old Model A Ford and ran the radio from that battery.

The fact that the storage batteries in the attic had to be checked regularly led me into one of several close calls during an active childhood.  My father went up the ladder and into the dormer to check the water level in the storage batteries.  An adventuresome family cat followed him up the ladder and hid in the attic.  My father left, closing the dormer door.  A few hours later the cat put up a howl to be rescued.  My mother told me to go open the dormer door and let the cat out.  As I opened the door, a gust of wind caught the door and it knocked me off the roof.  I fell headfirst onto the step below, breaking a board.  When I regained consciousness, I was stretched out on a bed with my anxious parents hovering over me.  They took me to Dr. Peck’s office in St. Francis, and after an examination he pronounced that he could find nothing wrong.  However, I carried one shoulder down for several years, finally growing out of it.

 

It was about that time that my grandfather Cole started calling me “Toughie.”  He was already calling my travel-prone older brother “Bigfoot.”  Not long before the fall from the roof, a horse I was riding fell when an embankment caved off.  I threw myself to the side, but the horse rolled on over me.  The old high back saddle kept the horse’s weight off me (a few inches back or forward and I would not be here telling this story).  The horse got up.  I got up, pulled myself back into the saddle, and went about business as usual.

Getting on a horse was a chore for a kid. I could not reach the stirrup with my foot… My brother buckled a harness strap through the fork of the pommel and left it hanging so I could get ahold of it and pull up.  Once up, I could not reach the stirrups from the top side either.  My father finally bought me a youth saddle. Once I had that saddle, life was better.

 

My brother Wayne “Bigfoot,” was the cowboy among us.  He was an irresponsible, happy-go-lucky teenager.  Wayne started running away from home when he was fifteen.  As he explained, “just to see what was on the other side of the hill.”  Finally the folks just let him come and go as he wanted.  He wanted to be a cowboy, and eventually he did work on several ranches in Nebraska, Colorado, and even in Florida.

The Cowboys

The Cowboys
When my older brother Wayne returned home for a while, the first thing he would do was break any unbroken horses that dad had purchased while he was gone. In a few hours he had the big deep-chested gelding doing anything he asked it to do.
The stupid part-Shetland pony was a different story.
Not many days after this picture was taken, I was riding it along the road and a pheasant flew up out of the road ditch. The pony went crazy and dumped me in the gravel. I had a bad wrist spring as a result.

There was almost a ten year gap between Wayne and me.  The folks had lost an eight-year-old girl ten days after I was born.  She evidently died after a long illness from what we now call polio.  My mother had her hands full with an inquisitive, overactive youngster and a runaway teen.  She often said her worry was that I tried or would try to do every thing my older brother did.  And I did, but I never ran away.  I accepted responsibility early and stayed with it.  Subsequently, my work has let me do many things and taken me to some amazing places.  The adventure stories our Tennessee-born, Texas/New Mexico-homesteader grandfather told us no doubt influenced “Bigfoot” and “Toughie,” but in different ways.

 

A windmill in the corner of the barn lot pumped water to two large stock tanks. It was my job to switch the pipe from a full tank to the empty one.  One full tank had to be held in reserve at all times.  In my mind’s ear I still hear the kee-lunk, kee-lunk of the pumping wind mill.  That sound is a heritage of the Plains born.

Rattlers were commonly found on the farm.  When on foot I usually went protected by a couple of vigilant stock dogs.  One dog was named Teddy, because he resembled a bear.  Teddy was a dedicated snake killer.  He would tease a rattler until it struck at him.  The moment the rattler was stretched out from the strike, Teddy would grab it behind its head.  After a few powerful shakes of Teddy’s head, blood would fly and the snake would start coming apart.  I learned to always keep some distance.  Teddy got bit once in a while, but developed an immunity.  Perhaps, the snakes just did not get through his heavy black fur.  Teddy had a litter-mate we called Timmy.  He was an even-tempered dog, but he was not as smart as Teddy.  Teddy was a natural heeler and made a good stock dog.  Timmy ran at the cow’s head and never learned to round up or drive cattle very well.

Teddy the Dog

Teddy the stock dog stands in front of the wood frame building being moved in near the sod house.
We named him Teddy because he looked like a bear. Don’t you agree?

Badgers were common on the farm.  They were destructive and left dangerous holes for the horses to step in.  One time Teddy and Timmy cornered a badger over in the rough land we used for pasture.  He backed up against a soap weed (yucca plant) and proceeded to fight them off.  Growing tired of the fight, he decided to dig himself in.  Dirt and sand flew every direction.  I watched in amazement as he dug while facing the dogs and holding them off.  He was soon out of sight.  Try as they might they could not dig him out.  If you ever get a chance to look at a badger’s feet up close you will see they look like, well sort of look like miniature shovels with claws.

 

Many of my sod house memories are of the different horses we had.  One mare was very gentle.  She would ride me around until she grew tired of it, then she would lie down.  I could kick and holler to no avail.  When I gave up and stomped off toward the house, she would get up and go to the barn.  Another mare learned that when I rode bareback, she could put her head down, give a slight buck, and slide me off over her head.  It seemed to me that she always picked a patch of sand burrs to do it in.  You haven’t experienced pain until you pull imbedded sand burrs out of your hide.  I put a stop to that nonsense when I got tall enough and strong enough to push my saddle on her and jerk the cinch reasonably tight.  We enjoyed many fun rides along the old irrigation ditch to the west of us.  It was constructed by homesteaders in the 1890’s in a failed attempt to irrigate that dry land.

There was a large depression in a field to the southeast of the sod house.  It was thought to be a former buffalo wallow.  After the field had been worked or after a hard rain, my mother would take us arrowhead hunting.  We often found arrowheads at the wallow site.  A young boy didn’t have to stretch his imagination much to picture Roman Nose or Tall Bull hidden in the grass and weeds, bow and arrow in hand, waiting to ambush the varied types of game that frequented a buffalo wallow.  We found large arrowheads and small “bird” sized arrowheads.  That experience and visits to Beecher’s Island whetted my appetite for frontier history.

During the summer our parents would sometimes let Wayne and I sleep outside.  Because of the rattler problem, we were relegated to making our pallets up on the floor of the hay wagon.  We would go to sleep watching the twinkling stars.  In our minds we were cowboys, camping out on a cattle drive.  In my travels I’ve never found skies equal to Kansas skies, night or day.

In later years, I found that the cattle drovers trail called the Western Trail went through our area.  Perhaps trail cowboys “Teddy Blue” and Tom Wray may have driven Texas cattle across those same buffalo grass and sagebrush hills.  Wray Colorado was named for Tom Wray.  He wintered a Texas herd there and became the first settler in the area.

 

My parents sold the sod house farm in 1947 and moved north into Nebraska.  In 1950 we moved to Missouri.  My brother Wayne was married by that time and stayed out west.  Our mother died an untimely death from cancer in 1956.

 

Dad and House

Our father John Ryan with the sod-walled house in the background. He remembered the touring car as being a Starr brand. He did not own the property at the time but was visiting some one living there.
Dad told me he believed the picture was taken in the 1920’s.

 

I drove my father to Cheyenne County, Kansas for a visit in 1958.  The old sod house was gone.  The sod walls had been torn down and returned to the land they were plowed from fifty-some years before.

Homestead

The old sod house homestead on the horizon viewed from the Highland school site. The sod house was gone by the time this picture was taken in 1958.
For more about Highland School, see the Oct. 24, 2012 post Alma’s Fire Shovel.

 

Other House

Another well-kept sod-walled house in the same community. It was the home of the Rollie Owens family. I remember visiting there as a child. Although it was in good repair, no one was living there when I took this picture in 1958.

When we lived there, my father had moved a frame house from a neighboring farm.  That is the building on the house-mover’s trailer in the above picture with Teddy, our dog. My father had placed it near the sod house and used it for a bunkhouse and storage.  That house had been added to and remodeled into a small home.

 

During a summer vacation in the mid-nineties I stopped in Cheyenne County, rented a plane and pilot, and flew over the farmstead on the way to Beecher’s Island.  Sure enough, the outlines of the old buffalo wallow could be seen from the air.  A Google map fly-over today shows a nice modern farmstead. A sprinkler crop irrigation system is used.  I can still make out the outline of the old buffalo wallow.

Photo From Airplane

Photo taken from the airplane flight over the sod house farm. As you can see here, it is now a modern, well-kept farm.
I was pleased that I could plainly see the outline of the old buffalo wallow where we picked up arrowheads. The outline is visible just below the airplane wing strut. The Republican River is in the tree line in the background.

 

The land of my birth still intrigues me.  In fact, I could say my Sundown Trail started there.

 

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The Desperado’s Hidden Gun

1869 Smith and Wesson

Pond .32 Caliber Revolver

 

Manufactured by Lucius W. Pond – Worcester, Massachusetts.  This is a single action belt or pocket revolver made from 1861 to 1870.  It is a .32 caliber, six shot, rim fire cartridge gun.  Pond infringed on a patent owned by Smith and Wesson and lost a lawsuit over it.  He was forced to stamp on the barrels of the remaining inventory of pistols: “Manufactured for Smith and Wesson pat’s April 5, 1855.”  This gun is so marked.

 

One of the desperadoes in my latest book, The Shenandoah Sharpshooter, carried a hidden gun like this one.  On page 162, the criminal Canter goes for his hidden Pond revolver. In an instant Purcell meets the challenge. To read the exciting action surrounding this incident and others, order your copy today.

Set in the Civil war, this hero’s journey follows young Stephen Purcell as he takes to the Blue Ridge mountains to avoid the men who took away his entire life.  Armed only with a good horse under him and a will to live, Purcell is tried and tested many times as he heads towards the western frontier.  Action, mystery, romance, and surprising turns guide him to his final destination.

 

Available on Kindle and paperback here: The Shenandoah Sharpshooter

Read the first chapter in its entirety here: The First Chapter of the Shenandoah Sharpshooter.

 

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The First Chapter From The Shenandoah Sharpshooter

Front-Cover

 

I am pleased to announce the release of my second book, The Shenandoah Sharpshooter.

This adventure novel takes place during the last year of America’s Civil War.  It begins in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.  The fictitious characters are set against a backdrop of real places and real events.

For the most part, the characters are portrayed with the fears, anger, concerns, and emotions of people living the experience of war.  On both Union and Confederate sides there are the good, the bad, those that love, and those that hate.  Although the book is fiction, it is my intent to frame real life as it was.

This is the first book of an intended trilogy called The Coldiron Series.  The other two books are still in the works.  I have released The Shenandoah Sharpshooter to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the ending of the War of the Rebellion.

Here is the first Chapter of the book.  I hope you enjoy it.  The Shenandoah Sharpshooter is available at Amazon in both print and Kindle form.

Amazon.com – The Shenandoah Sharpshooter

 

 


 

The Shenandoah Sharpshooter

Chapter One

Granville Coldiron stood up and brushed the dirt from the knees of his pants. His eyes searched up and then down the valley below. His gray shaggy head moved slowly on his hunched shoulders. Suddenly, he locked in on something in the distance. He squinted at the valley road for a few seconds, shielding his eyes against the mid-morning sun with his hand. “Don’t stand up,” he said to his younger companion kneeling over the potato row. “There are riders coming up the road. Where’s Colonel Ben?”
“He’s tied in the sprouts below the back stone fence. He still has the harness on,” Stephen Purcell answered. “Who are they?”
Ignoring the question, the old man gazed intently down the valley road. He was uneasy. The younger man could tell.
Finally he answered, “They are some of Mosby’s Loudoun County cutthroats, coming back here again. Somebody has told them they missed some stock. I can see at least a dozen of them. Listen close, boy. They’ll be out of sight for a few minutes. When I give the sign, run to Ben, and take him up the hollow where the stock is hidden. Take the sack with the rest of the seed potatoes with you. Don’t leave any tracks.”
“Should I come back?”
“Stay there. Take the harness off Ben, and get ready to run. If they get too close, ride out. Go up into the mountains, you can lose them there. You can circle around, and come back in after a day or two.
“Now Stephen, they may go on without any problem, but if something happens to Eppie and me, you light out. You go west to get away from them. Don’t come back until this damn war is over. Go on across the Alleghenies. Go into West Virginia, or better yet to Pennsylvania. Follow the same route we used to take the mules to Ohio. As long as you’re on that horse you’re safe. He’ll outrun anything they got. Take care of him, and he’ll take care of you.
“This place is your home. We have done signed it over to you. Bos Hartley and Mose both know about it. The banker has the papers. Now you take good care of Eppie’s spring garden. Her garden has tolerable value. You can come back when all this is over.”
The old man turned and looked at the youngster. “Remember what I’ve told you, boy. All right they’re out of sight, get going.” As an afterthought the old man said, “Don’t go onto Massanutten Mountain unless you must. They could trap you against the river or the pike if they was a mind to.” Then he turned and started down towards the house.
Stephen Purcell ran to the sack, snatching it and his buckskin jacket as he went by. Reaching Colonel Ben, he threw the potato sack and jacket across the big chestnut horse’s withers. Jerking the picket rope loose, he grasped a harness hame and threw himself up behind the potatoes. Picking a path over hard ground, he traveled up the draw just below the crown of the hill and out of sight of the road.
The stock pen was under a large rock overhang. It was well-hidden and almost out of sight. The horse, a cow, and two sows had been kept there since the last raid on the farmstead the previous fall. Water trickled through the pens from a spring. Grain for the hogs was carried to the cave in sacks on Colonel Ben’s back. The cow and Ben had been grazed in secluded fields, well away from the farmstead.
Purcell circled around hurriedly and came in from the far side, still trying to hide his tracks. He jumped down and pulled the harness and collar off the horse. He tied the rope to an oak sapling and raced back down the draw. He feared for the old man. Uncle Granville had said, “If something happens to Eppie and me…” Purcell figured Granville was expecting trouble. He disobeyed the order to stay put, without a second thought. His mouth was dry, his chest tight. He wasn’t even conscious of his feet hitting the ground.
Purcell reached the lower stone fence and hurled himself over it. He paused to catch his breath. He heard shouting, followed by the crack of the squirrel rifle, and the thundering boom of a heavy caliber gun. There was more shouting accompanied by three pistol shots. Someone swore loudly. Then silence. Purcell crept along the fence on his knees. As he reached a vantage point over the yard below, he cautiously peered over. The scene below made him sick.
Eppie lay face down in front of the doorstep, the squirrel rifle still clutched in her hands. Granville lay motionless on the ground. A dead man in a Confederate uniform was sprawled a few feet behind his uncle, back against the wood pile, with his unsheathed saber lying across his legs.
Several feet away some of the raiders were standing over the body of another Confederate cavalryman. The woodpile axe lay nearby.
Purcell knew what had happened. The man with the saber had threatened or stabbed Granville. Eppie had grabbed the squirrel rifle and killed him. The other one had shot Eppie. Granville, in a fit of rage, killed Eppie’s shooter with the axe. The raider mounted on the gray horse had shot Granville. The pistol was still in the raider’s hand. He had deliberately put three balls into the old man.
Purcell dropped to the ground. He felt rage and despair. He was helpless, he could do nothing. He had no weapon except the old Green River butcher knife he had been using to cut the potato seedlings. If he only had a gun…
Purcell knew what he would do. He would wait. Wait for his chance. After the first raid, Granville had hidden his heavy old Hawken plains rifle and Ben’s good plantation saddle with some other things under the floor of the house. Purcell planned to retrieve the rifle and saddle after the Rebs left. He vowed that he would hunt down the man with the pistol.
He looked again. Some of the raiders were looting the house. Others were digging graves in the corner of the yard. He slumped down again, unable to watch them bury Eppie and Granville. He fought back tears of grief, and finally the tears came. He sat there for a long time collecting himself.
Suddenly he heard a crackling sound and the smell of smoke reached his nostrils. The raiders were burning the house! The feeling of utter despair filled his gut again. All Granville and Eppie’s belongings, the Hawken, the saddle, any supplies and utensils would be gone.
After a time, he heard the sound of men mounting up. He looked again to observe which way they were going. The bearded leader on the gray horse was sending them out in different directions. They were not leaving. They were searching for him.
Fear welled up in his throat. He fought the urge to jump up and run. The old man’s words came to him. “When you get in a tight spot, don’t panic, keep your wits about you. Act only as fast, or take as much risk as you have to.” Purcell would crawl back down the fence and save his strength for a last chance sprint to the horse.
He crawled fifty yards, and looked through a hole between stones in the fence. Two riders were making their way toward him. One stopped at the stone spring house. One rider poked the door open with the barrel of his carbine. The other rider kept on coming up the fence.
That rider stopped a few feet down the fence to wait. Purcell slipped the knife from the sheath, gathered his right leg under him, and flattened against the fence. His mind raced. No, that would not work. He put his knife back. His only chance was to wait them out.
They came nearer and stopped on the other side. The one with the gravely voice eased his horse over against the fence. He was directly across the fence from Purcell. Purcell could see a patch of horse hair through the hole between the stones. If the rider looked over the fence he would see him.
The other raider said, “They got a cow hid somewhere, there was butter and a crock of fresh milk in the spring house.”
“Yeah,” Gravel Voice answered. “Striker said he’d been told they had some stock hid out as well as a hell of a good horse. The horse is a big Kentucky Saddler. He wants the horse. Striker is still a huntin’ money, too. He says there is a boy here in his late teens. He wants to make the kid tell him if there is any money around. He says after we git the information, we need to kill the kid ‘cause he knows we killed the old folks.”
“I’ll tell you what I think of that. Striker can do his own killing. I’ve had enough of shooting helpless old ladies and old men. I ain’t for hurting no youngster.”
“Yeah, me too,” Gravel Voice responded. “That old man wasn’t exactly helpless, though. One on one, I would have bet on the old man. Against any of us. Did you see the way he threw that axe? He just sort of scooped it up and brought it over his shoulder. It just sort of slipped out of his hands, right through the air. Bennington never knew what hit him.”
“They say the old man was was a mountain man from the west,” the other rider explained. “Bennington shouldn’t have shot the old lady. She’d done all the damage she could do.”
Gravel Voice gestured toward the disturbed earth farther up the hill. “They were using that horse to scratch up this potato patch. See that double shovel. The dirt on it ain’t all dry, yet. The kid’s hidin’ out. I wish him luck. I hope him and his horse git away. A Kentucky Saddler is too damn good of a horse for the likes of Striker to be ridin’, anyhow. We better be movin’ on, or he’ll be hollering at us.”
Purcell waited until they were well away from him. Then he worked on down the rock fence. At the end, he snaked over the wall and crawled into the underbrush, retracing his earlier route.
When Purcell reached the overhang he went to the pig pen. He opened the panel gate. The hogs would survive if the raiders didn’t find them. He let the cow loose. Grass was coming on and the cow was heavy with calf. The milk flow was about ready to dry up, anyhow.
Looking at the small sack of seed potatoes, he realized that he had some scant provisions after all. He tied the open end of the gunny sack securely with twine, then he distributed the potatoes evenly in both ends of the sack. Picking it up in the middle he placed the sack over the horse’s shoulders. He pulled his jacket on to cover his easily-seen red shirt.
He picked up the harness bridle and despaired again at his lack of equipment. With the knife he cut the blinders off the bridle. Before this was over Ben would need to see on all sides.
He cautiously worked his way up the ridge. He turned the horse toward the top, knowing that he would probably be seen when he went over. There were four or five hours of daylight left. Once into the Blue Ridge he could lose them. When night came he would slip back, swim the river if needed, cross the Pike below Harrisonburg, and go into the Alleghenies. In his mind it was as simple as that. He would get supplies and equipment along the way, somehow.
There was a shout, followed by more shouts from below. They had found him. Purcell started over the crest, then he turned the horse around to face the riders below. He cupped his hands around his mouth to make his voice carry. “Come on, you women-shooting sons-of-Satan! I’ll give you a run for your money!” His challenge was met with curses and a volley of gunfire. Over the crest he let the big horse pick his way down the timbered hill.
Reaching the open valley floor at the bottom of the slope, he gave Colonel Ben his head and hung on. They entered the timber on the other side long before the raiders came over the ridge. The horse wasn’t even breathing hard.
The ground was higher. The timber thicker. The sun was getting low. Purcell was sure he had lost them. He found a grass-covered opening ringed by brush. He slipped off the horse’s back and opened the potato sack.
The horse eagerly began to graze. Squatting, Purcell held the picket rope and munched on a potato. It was crisp and tasted good. He would find something else tomorrow. He knew he would soon tire of raw potato.
The buckskin jacket felt good against the evening’s damp chill. Eppie had made it for him two years ago. He and Gran had scraped and tanned the deer hide themselves. She had made it much too large. Her explanation was that it would last a long time, and he would grow into it. Although it was still a little too large, he realized he was beginning to fill it out.
The jacket, the red flannel shirt he wore, and the jackknife in his pocket was all he had to remember Eppie by. In the hours since the killings he had reconciled to the fact that Granville and Eppie were gone. He was alone again.
The incident of the jackknife amused him. Like most youngsters he heard and saw a lot more than the adults realized. He recalled that he was sitting on the stairs leading to the loft, when the conversation drifted around the corner…

It was his first Christmas with them. Eppie asked, “Granville, what are you going to give Stephen for Christmas?”
His uncle had grumbled, “Nothing. I’m giving him a home, and teaching him a man’s ways. He’s a good boy, that’s all he will need.”
“Now Granville, the boy follows you around like a hound pup. He hangs on to every word you say. There should be something from you Christmas morning.”
“If you say so,” he said. “What should I fix up?”
“Nothing, I took care of it. I bought a jackknife at the hardware store. The boy should be carrying something like that instead of a butcher knife in his belt, like a half-wild savage. Now, when he gets the knife, you just act like you knew all about it.”
The old man did too, saying proudly, “That’s a good one. It’s a Barlow.”
Granville and Eppie had treated Purcell well. He knew he had became the child they never had. Granville Coldiron was a great-uncle, the older brother of Purcell’s mother’s father.
Purcell’s mother died shortly after his birth in New York. His father was a sea captain, and left the baby with his maiden sister. When Purcell was ten years old, she succumbed to the ague. His father placed him in a private boarding school to prepare him for application to a military school.
Young Stephen Purcell was a bright student, full of energy that sometimes brought him trouble. Tall with dark hair, Stephen looked older than he was. The headmaster decided he needed something in addition to his studies to keep him busy. He was hired out to a telegraph office as an office boy.
In a few weeks time, Purcell had learned to use the telegraph. He worked as a part time operator. He became familiar with the sending and receiving equipment. He studied the maintenance of the batteries and wires. Purcell was all eyes and ears when the line construction and maintenance crews were in the office. He occasionally went to the construction site with them.
It was shortly after Purcell’s fifteenth birthday when the headmaster called him to the office and gravely informed him of his father’s death. His father’s ship was believed to have gone down in a storm off the coast of South America near Cape Horn.
Knowing that the money for schooling would soon run out, the headmaster quizzed the boy about relatives. He found that Stephen Purcell had few known relatives, the closest being an older brother to Purcell’s mother. The uncle was, or had been, a politician that had resigned his office and went west with the forty-niners seeking his fortune in California. He had not been heard from for many years.
The other relative was an older brother to Stephen’s mother’s deceased father. That uncle was living in the Shenandoah Valley near Cross Keys, and Port Republic. The headmaster wrote to Granville and Eppie Coldiron, inquiring what he should do with the orphaned boy. The response came back with a bank draft, along with instructions on how to send the boy by railroad. Granville and Eppie met him at the railroad station at Mt. Jackson.
They traveled to the farm in a carriage behind a team of horses. Staying overnight in New Market, they arrived at Granville and Eppie’s home late the next day.
When Stephen Purcell awoke the next morning, he realized he was in a strange and entirely different world than he had known before.
The farm was located among rolling hills, close to the mountainous area on the East side of the Shenandoah Valley. It consisted of rail-fenced fields, pasture, and timber. A large barn housed the horses and mules. Breeding pens and sheds were located on another run, a little farther from the main buildings. Other stables with smaller sheds and buildings for cattle and swine were located in an opposite direction. The Coldirons were traditionally a family of blacksmiths, so there was a blacksmith shop and a carpenter’s shop. A rock-walled flower garden, and a large vegetable garden completed the farmstead.
The first floor walls of the house were made of logs. There was an opening in the center with a flagstone floor, commonly called a dogtrot. The second floor, constructed of board and batten, contained the sleeping rooms.
Three log-and-board cabins located to the side of the yard made living quarters for the stock handlers and field hands. It looked nothing like the New York City streets Purcell was familiar with. He knew he would hate the farm, and had decided to leave as soon as he could.
It didn’t happen that way. He had liked the valley, the mountains, the farm, and the work that came with it all. He helped train and care for the horses and mules. The colt they called Colonel Ben became his constant companion.

Colonel Ben snorted, interrupting Purcell’s thoughts. Darkness had closed in around him. The Reb raiders would be around their cooking fires now. It was time to move.

 


To follow Purcell on the rest of his journey, order your copy of The Shenandoah Sharpshooter today.

Amazon.com – The Shenandoah Sharpshooter

Categories: American History, Book, Civil War, History, Military | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Historic Gun Display

Here is the information from the historic gun display I had at the Missouri State Fair this week. Many thanks to those of you who stopped by my booth and said hello.

Missouri State Fair

 

For those of you at the fair, if you found my book Tales from Clear Creek interesting, here are some blogs I’ve posted in the past about similar adventures.

Pre-Clear Creek Days: The Rusty Lantern, Alma’s Fire Shovel,

Post-Clear Creek Days: Lymon and the Broken WindshieldHarvest 1961

 

 

The Ealer Pennsylvania Long Rifle

longrifle

This gun is marked on the top land of the barrel near the breech; Ealer gun factory Phila. PA. The top land of the barrel is lightly engraved with an elliptic design. It is a full stock fifty caliber cap and ball with a 39 inch barrel. The right side of the buttstock has a brass oval cap box. The Buck horn type rear sight and a very fine German silver front sight are original. I purchased this gun at a rural auction several years ago. The auctioneer said it was from a Westphalia Missouri, area estate. The stock was in extremely poor condition with pieces missing. All the iron was there with the exception of the lock screw and tang screw. Nails had been substituted for these screws. The gun was probably made in the late 1840’s to the mid 1850’s. Note: Percussion caps were sold by St. Louis merchants as early as the 1830’s.

I dismantled the gun and cleaned it of dirt and scale rust. I inlaid pieces of maple to replace missing wood on the toe, both sides of the breech and along the fore stock. Screws similar to the original lock and tang screws were installed. Ordinarily it is best to leave old guns as found. This one was in very poor shape and I felt that it was a splendid piece of history that should be saved. As I researched its maker I found history indeed!

Lewis W. Ealer was born in 1791 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He received his gunsmith training in Maryland. He was first in the Fells Point area of Baltimore in business as a master locksmith and gunsmith. He later moved to Oldtown, Maryland. He had fought in the War of 1812, serving as a private in Hamilton’s rifle regiment, Pennsylvania militia. Ealer would have been 21 years old.

He returned to Philadelphia in 1837 and continued to follow the gunsmith trade. The 1839 Philadelphia Business Directory shows his occupation as gunsmith. The Federal Census lists him in 1840 and1850 as a gunsmith. The 1850 census shows that Lewis and Susanna had four daughters and one son. Their son being the youngest child at l8 years of age. The son Franklin A. Ealer is listed in later Federal and local censuses only once as a gunsmith, all others as a retailer. Apparently Lewis and Franklin were in business or working in Lancaster County in 1857 because they are shown in the county business and occupation records.

Although Lewis W. Ealer was in his Autumn years at age 71 he enlisted in the 68th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, August 23, 1862. His gun making experience was no doubt valuable to the military. Some records show him as a Lieutenant and others list him as a Sergeant Major. He was listed as a 1st Lieutenant when he was wounded on July 2, 1863 at the Peach Orchard during the battle of Gettysburg. He died of his wounds on October 6, 1863.

 

Bibliography

Kentucky Rifle Association
United States Census, 1820, 1840, 1850, 1860
War of 1812 Service Records
U. S. Civil War Soldiers – Ancestry.com
1890 Veterans Schedules, Provo Utah
Philadelphia Directory, 1839
Lancaster County, PA Business and Occupation Records 1857
Kauffman, Henry J., The Pennsylvania – Kentucky Rifle pp. 216
The Lancaster Co. Historical Society – The Muster Rolls of the First Regiment Second
Brigade, Pennsylvania by Brigadier General John Adams
Bates, Samuel P., History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers 1861-65

Categories: American History, antique guns, Civil War, guns, History, times gone by | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Sundown Trail salutes our fallen veterans on this Memorial Day

The Mystery of the Lone Civil War Grave

 

In April of 1973, I was driving down a dirt road near Grassy, Missouri, headed back to Highway 34 in Bollinger County.  Black River Electric Cooperative, my employer, had a branch office in nearby Marble Hill.  The day was coming to an end and I was anxious to check in with that office and head back home.  I can’t remember exactly what I was doing there.  I am sure it was in response to a cooperative member’s request for help with an electrical problem or a billing complaint.

A few hundred yards short of the highway, I glanced over at a scrub timber area to my left.  A lone white stone marker among the trees caught my attention.  It was strange and almost spooky. I stopped, grabbed my ever-present camera and walked out into the woods.  The inscription was brief and to the point with no dates.  It read: “W. Wood Union Soldier Died for his Country.”

Wood Gravestone Original

Photo taken in 1973.

 

Later as I worked in the area I quizzed locals about the grave.  No one seemed to know much about it.  The story that I eventually heard was that a group of soldiers escorting a wagon with a wounded soldier laying on a bed of straw approached a nearby farm and requested some fresh milk for the wounded man.  The farmer caught up a milk cow and extracted some milk for the soldier.  He raised up to a sitting position to drink the milk and died a short time later.  They buried his body just off the road.  For decades only a large rock marked his grave.

The grave was still unmarked as a nearby farm family left on a trip to town.  As they passed by when they returned that evening they noticed a new white marker was there.  Who placed it there?  That remains a mystery to this day.

Wood Gravestone 2

Photo taken at later time shows someone had decorated grave.


 

W. Wood was one of nearly six hundred thousand young men that lost their lives in a war with ourselves.  Let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of both Union and Confederate forces this Memorial Day.

Wood gravestone
 
 

Sundown Trail extends our thanks to Jeanie Layton of the Bollinger County Library at Marble Hill, for additional information.

 

 

 

Interesting facts about the area:

  1. The dirt road near the grave marker is part of the old Military Road that extended from Jackson, Missouri to Greenville, Missouri.  The original Greenville is now covered by the upper reaches of Wappapello Lake.  Greenville was relocated to just east of 67 highway near the lake.
  2. Originally the towns of Marble Hill and Lutesville were separated by a small creek, named Crooked Creek.  Marble Hill was the county seat.  The two towns existed side by side for over a century.  Finally in 1985 they were incorporated together under one name, Marble Hill.
  3. The timber industry has always been important to the area.  In modern times Lutesville and neighboring Glen Allen were the beginning of a burgeoning shipping pallet industry.
  4. The Civil War was particularly savage in Southeast Missouri.  Probably it was longer and even more ruthless for both sides than the much publicized Western Border area of Missouri.

 
 

Categories: American History, Civil War, History, Military, Missouri, soldiers | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

The Kidder Massacre

Much of it was a vast, level prairie broken up only occasionally by rolling hills and the breaks of small creeks and the Republican, Arickaree, and Platte rivers. Roughly, Custer’s patrol area covered the modern day expanse reaching from Sharon Springs, Kansas; north to Julesburg, Colorado; east to North Platte, Nebraska and south to Hays, Kansas. It was a beautiful land, a harsh land, and without a doubt a tough ride on horseback… I know, I have traveled it on a harvest combine and behind the steering wheel of a grain truck. And yes, just a little bit of it on a horse’s back.

 I found this old picture in my fathers things. My grandfather John M. Ryan owned some wheat land between Goodland and Brewster,Kansas. It was in the general vicinity of the turnoff north to the Kuhrt farm and the Kidder massacre site. My father pointed the land out to me many years ago. There was a dairy on it then. I think this picture may have been taken on that land.

I found this old picture in my fathers things. My grandfather John M. Ryan owned some wheat land between Goodland and Brewster,Kansas. It was in the general vicinity of the turnoff north to the Kuhrt farm and the Kidder massacre site. My father pointed the land out to me many years ago. There was a dairy on it then. I think this picture may have been taken on that land.

 

Lt. Colonel, George Custer (formally a General) left Ft. Hays, Kansas on June 1, 1867. He led a 1,100 man contingent of the 5th Cavalry. His mission was to put a stop to the Indian raids and punish the Indians severely. He traveled north to Fort McPherson near the location of modern day North Platte, Nebraska. From Fort McPherson he took his cavalry back southwest to a point where the Arickaree joins the Republican River. It was near the location of present day Benkleman, Nebraska. He set up a camp there for a few days.

At some point Custer sent a 50 man wagon train south to Fort Wallace, Kansas to get supplies. On the return trip the supply train was attacked at, or near the crossing of Beaver Creek by a group of Sioux under the leadership of Chief Pawnee Killer.

Chief Pawnee Killer

Chief Pawnee Killer

 

The attack was repulsed with the help of a relief force sent from Fort Wallace and the wagon train returned to Custer’s camp with supplies. Custer continued to scout the forks of the Republican River. He sent a ten man detail under the command of a Major Elliott to Fort Sedgwick on the Platte to obtain new orders. Elliott returned with no new orders or information.

On June 29, 1867, the day after Elliott left Fort Sedgwick, new orders and a dispatch from General Sherman was received. The commanding officer of the fort organized a new ten man detail to be led by 2nd. Lieut. Lyman S. Kidder and guided by a friendly Sioux named Red Bead. Kidder and his detail left that morning for Custer’s camp.

Kidder

 

Near the abandoned campsite they struck the recent trail of the supply train and apparently thought that Custer had traveled south towards Fort Wallace. One logical reason Kidder made the mistake was that his detail probably reached the trail after dark.

As a result, Pawnee Killer’s braves and Cheyenne Dog Soldiers caught them on the open prairie. It was later determined that hey made a running fight for about two miles until they came to a small ravine near the Beaver. They made their stand there and were wiped out by the overwhelming force of Sioux and Cheyenne.

Custer continued to scout the area northwest of the Republican River forks. He arrived at Riverside Station forty miles west of Fort Sedgwick on July 5. Using the newly constructed telegraph, Custer immediately telegraphed Sherman at Fort Sedgwick for new orders. He learned of Kidder and that Kidder may have ran into a large Indian force. Kidder’s order was to find Custer. Now, Custer was to look for Kidder.

On July 10, Custer’s advance scouts found two dead army horses on the trail. Further on they observed buzzards circling above the Beaver Creek crossing. Custer immediately sent out a search party. One of his Delaware Indian guides came upon the bodies and gave the signal. The bodies of the 11 soldiers and the Indian Scout were found piled together. It was estimated they had died 9 or 10 days previously.

The bodies were mutilated and desecrated by the Indians.

Custer could not identify any of them at the time. His troops buried them in a mass grave on a level area above the creek. The bodies were exhumed in late February 1868 and reburied at Fort Wallace. Lt. Kidder was identified by his father and taken home for a funeral and burial in the family burial plot at St. Paul, Minnesota.

 

I first visited the Kidder Massacre site as a child and revisited it about twenty years ago. It is on private farm land. If you visit remember that, and treat it with respect. Pull off I-70 and visit the town of Goodland while you are there be sure and visit the Sherman County museum. The town is aptly named. On down the railroad tracks, take a look at the huge concrete grain storage bins. For years if not decades the United States’ top export was grain and agricultural products. Western Kansas and its neighboring states have contributed their share. It is one of our favorite places to visit along the Sundown Trail.

Brochure

 

 

Some interesting facts about the Kidder tragedy:

1. Kidder’s dispatch from Sherman to Custer was a warning, “Beware of hostiles.”

2. Lt. Kidder was just a month short of his 25th birthday. In spite of his youth, he was a seasoned soldier. He had joined the Union army and served as an under age enlisted man during the Civil War.

3. Kidder later joined the Minnesota Volunteers with the rank of Lieutenant and fought the Northern Sioux in several battles in Minnesota and the Dakota Territory.

4. Most of the ten men were in their late teens or early twenties. All had been in the Army and on the Plains for at least a year.

5. Kidder’s father identified his son’s body by his shirt collar. The Indians had left it on the body, cutting the remainder of the shirt off. His mother had made the shirt for him.

6. Lt. Frederick Beecher led the reburial detail in February 1868. Kidder’s father accompanied the group. Beecher was destined to die later that year in a fight with the Indians on up the Arickaree River (now labeled a creek).

 

Suggested reading:

Find Custer! The Kidder Tragedy
By Randy Johnson
and Nancy P. Allan

Categories: American History, Civil War, History, Military | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

Bravery Personified: The Life of John Colter

Colters Hell

Steam rises from the pools of hot water at Colter’s Hell during a winter visit to Yellowstone Park a few years ago. As I snapped the pictures, two brave souls walked the catwalk above the bubbling hot water.

Today, I’d like to welcome a guest blogger, Mary Lou Schulte, Editor of the Osage County Historical Society newsletter.  She has graciously given me permission to print this article she had published some time back about John Colter.

I worked for several years in Osage County, Missouri, with Eric Thompson, triple great grandson of John Colter.  Like his ancestor, Eric has exhibited considerable athletic prowess.  When I mentioned that to him, Eric laughed and said, “He ran from the Indians, and I raced against opponents.”

Here in Missouri, where the real west started, history is all around us, all we have to do is look for it.

– Walt Ryan, Sundown Trail

 
 
 

Bravery Personified:  The Life of John Colter

by Mary Lou Schulte
 

The saying goes that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Sometimes truth is much more incredible than fiction. The life of John Colter is a testament to that concept. His adventures were so unbelievably daring in scope, thrilling in discovery, and terrifying in life-threatening ordeals that we modern folk can hardly take them in. He deserves a place in history beside that of Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett Zebulon Pike, etc. Yet many do not know his name.

John Colter was born about 1775, the fourth generation of his family in America, the first being his great grandfather, Micajah Coalter, a pioneer of Scottish ancestry, who came to Virginia from Northern Ireland around 1700. It is written that John Colter was of sturdy frame, five feet ten inches in height, and a pleasing countenance of the Daniel Boone type. (His last name has also been spelled “Coulter,” but Colter is the accepted version.)

John Colter

Colter joined the Corps of Discovery, also known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, on October 15, 1803 at Maysville, KY, the fourth man to join the company. As a private, he was entitled to $5.00 per month pay, but Congress voted to raise the pay to $10.00, and to grant each man 320 acres of land west of the Mississippi River. Meriwether Lewis informed Clark that he had made “a judicious selection,” and although Colter was taken on trial, Lewis believed he would answer “tolerably well.” This opinion turned out to be quite an understatement.Colter was experienced in woodcraft and the use of firearms, and was strong, active and intelligent. At first he was somewhat unruly, but after being forbidden to leave camp for ten days, he settled down and became one of the most dependable members of the company. The party needed fresh meat in their diet, and Colter was an expert hunter. In the late summer of 1804, after a few days’ hunting, it was recorded that Colter brought back “1 buffalo, 1 elk, 3 deer, 1 wolf, 5 turkeys, 1 goose and a beaver.”

In the fall of 1804, they arrived at the Mandan village, and here they built Fort Mandan, which was their winter home. In April, 1805, they again set forth–a total of 33 souls, including Toussaint Charbonneau, his wife Sacagawea (the young Shoshone woman who was to render inestimable service to the expedition), and their infant son, Jean Baptiste. After incredible toils and hardships, they reached the mouth of the Columbia in the first week of November. Near the Pacific Ocean they built a post named Fort Clatsop, where they spent the second winter.

 
On the way back to St. Louis, Colter met up with two trappers, Joseph Dickson and Forrest Hancock, near the mouth of the Yellowstone. They asked Colter to join them, and he, eager for more adventure, asked for his discharge. Captain Clark wrote, “As we were disposed to be of service to anyone of our party who had performed their duty as well as Colter had done, we agreed to allow him the privilege.” The rest of the company traveled on downstream toward St. Louis. Author Stephen Ambrose writes, “Colter turned back upstream, back to the wilderness, back to the mountains, on his way into the history books as America’s first mountain man and the discoverer of Yellowstone National Park.”

After parting company with Dickson and Hancock in the spring of 1807, Colter came across another fur trading expedition, that of Manuel Lisa. Some of his former companions were in the group, so he was easily persuaded to join them. During his travels, he encountered hostile Blackfeet Indians and was severely wounded in one fight. However, he was determined to trap in the Three Forks region. A one-time companion, Thomas James, once wrote, “Dangers seemed to have for him a kind of fascination.” The next time he confronted the Blackfeet, the result would become a legend known as “Colter’s Run.”

Colter had gone with a companion named Potts to the Jefferson River to look for beaver. Suddenly a war party of several hundred Blackfeet approached and ordered them to come ashore. Colter obeyed, thinking he might escape with losing furs only, but Potts stayed in his canoe, seeing Colter stripped naked by the Indians. Potts foolishly shot one of the Indians, and was then shot, dragged to shore, and cut to pieces with hatchets and knives. Colter had no idea what horrible fate awaited him. After holding a council, the chief waved him away. As he walked toward freedom, he saw some of the braves throwing off all encumbrances, as if for a race. He realized he would have to run for his life. He ran like the wind toward the Madison branch, five miles away. His nose began to bleed profusely. Finally, in looking back, he saw that he had outstripped all his pursuers, save one. He turned, accosted his enemy, seized his spear, and stabbed him to the ground. He reached the stream ahead of his attackers, plunged in, and took refuge inside a pile of driftwood or beaver dam. He remained there until the next morning, when it was evident that the Blackfeet had gone. He headed for Manuel’s Fort, and after about a week, arrived there exhausted by hunger and fatigue. He was emaciated and his feet were swollen and pierced by many thorns, but he was alive. He not only recovered, but went back on his own voyage of discovery.

In the winter of 1807-08, Colter was sent by Manuel Lisa from ‘Fort Manuel, also known as Fort Raymond, at the mouth of the Big Horn River, to invite Indians to bring furs to the fort. He started late in November, alone and on foot, carrying a thirty-pound pack on his back, besides his gun and ammunition. It was during this time that he made the discovery of what is now called Yellowstone National Park. It wasn’t recorded at the time, and many doubted his veracity, but trees and rocks were found there with dates and names on them to verify his claim. Colter is believed to be the first white man to see the stunning hot springs and geysers, one of which is now called “Colter’s Hell.” He must have returned in the spring of 1808, since he made several trips from Fort Raymond that year. When he crossed the rough country to the North Fork of the Shoshone, he noticed the odor of sulphur, and gave that stream the name “Stinking Water River.”

One more time Colter ventured into the Three Forks area and was again attacked, but managed to escape. Finally, he made a vow to God that he would never repeat such a foolhardy venture. However, in late September, 1809, he met up with an expedition headed by Manuel Lisa and Pierre Chouteau. They asked him to be their guide, and forgetting his vow, he agreed. A fort was constructed near the Jefferson River, but only a few days later the Blackfeet attacked. Five members of the expedition were killed, and they lost most of their traps, horses and beaver pelts. This crushing blow caused the enterprise to be abandoned. Colter finally returned to St. Louis, where his stories of discovery and adventure were met with skepticism by some and with awe by others. His claims have been verified over the years, however, and a stone with the inscription “JOHN COLTER -1808” carved on it is now on display in Yellowstone National Park.

 

John Colter took a tract of bounty land on the south bank of the Missouri River in Franklin County and turned to farming. He married Sarah “Sally” Loucy, and had at least two children: a son, Hiram and a daughter, Evalina, both of whom grew to adulthood.

Never one to shirk his duty, Colter served in the War of 1812 under Nathan Boone, son of Daniel, beginning his service on March 3, 1812 and being discharged three months later on May 6. He must have been ill when he enlisted, as he died of jaundice on May 7, 1812. Nathan Boone held Colter in very high regard, naming his son, born May 13,1816, “John Colter Boone.”

Ruth Colter-Frick, author of Courageous Colter and Companions, believed that John Colter was buried in Franklin County on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River near New Haven. This is the cemetery where his son, Hiram, is buried. An old headstone with the initials “J.C.” carved into it was uncovered close to Hiram’s grave. Other writers have speculated that he was originally laid to rest on Tunnel Hill, a bluff overlooking the Missouri near Dundee, where he lived. When the Missouri Pacific Railroad tunneled through that area in the 1850’s, a number of bones were found, indicating a burial ground. But where he is buried is not as important as the legacy he left. His name will forever be synonymous with adventure, discovery, devotion to duty, and bravery in the face of death.

 

The story of John Colter is of more than passing interest. Many of his descendants inhabit the mid-Missouri area; some are natives of Osage County, including the children of Frank and Clara Colter Knoerr: John, Wilbur, Marie Thompson and Helen Reed, who descend from Hiram’s eldest son, John B. Colter. Hiram’s daughter, Mary Ann, married Charles C. Davis, from whom the Leonard and Perry Davis families of Linn were descended. In 1994, Blackfeet Indians joined whites at Three Forks in a celebration to honor the memory of “Courageous Colter.”
 
 

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Where I was 50 years ago today

It was November 22, 1963. I was driving down Highway 32 south of El Dorado Springs, Missouri. I listened to the truck radio on my way to make a fuel delivery in the Hazel Dell community. Just as I passed the farm of the late Mahlon Coale, the newscaster broke into the program to announce that President John F. Kennedy had just been shot in Dallas, Texas. I was just old enough to vote in the 1959 election. I was devastated.
 
 
 
 
 
 
The grave of John F. Kennedy with the Eternal Flame
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