Friday, January 19, 2018

Thirty-seven dead in Chariton: A disaster most fowl

Lucas County Fair, July 2014
January of 1887 in the south of Iowa was living up to its classic Iowa winter reputation --- cold and snowy; good sleighing weather. 

Just after dawn on one of those icy mornings, up in north Chariton, occurred a great disaster that claimed 37 lives. Here's the report from The Democrat of Jan. 13, penned by editor Samuel S. King.


A lady in the north end has, or did have, a fine lot of fine chickens. One unfortunate was a little slow with its moulting business. It put the matter off until after several of the chicken shows passed upon its many excellencies and scored it away up in the nineties. Then it dropped its feathers and went into the stern realities of a business winter with nothing to protect it from the chilling blast.

The tender heart of the gentle lady was touched. She made a blanket for it, and securely covered its body herewith. She used a bright red flannel.

After all the rest of the poultry household had sung their vesper hymns and retired for the night, she put this blanketed hen on the perch with the rest. 

All went well until the dawn revealed to the other chickens this red-flannel-blanketed hen, and they proceeded to betake themselves from the hen house instantly and in the utmost fright.

Two hours later the lady arose and found the one hen crowing herself hoarse on her lonely perch while thirty-seven able bodied chickens had perished in the snow drifts where they had flown in their fright.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Lucas County's mining Industry is launched (1876-77)

Whitebreast Coal & Mining Co. Mine No. 1, 1880

Back in January, 1877 --- 140 years ago --- a reporter for The Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye climbed aboard a westbound train at what then was the queen city of southeast Iowa to explore the latest industrial phenomenon in the region --- the Whitebreast Coal & Mining Company's brand new mine at Cleveland, the mining town that was being developed nearby to serve it, both in the Whitebreast Creek Valley some seven miles west of Chariton.

Prior to January, 1876, when coal was discovered along the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad tracks, this hadn't been an especially lively part of the county. The village of Lucas had been established just to the west in 1868, platted by railroad interests as the new line was being built west to the Missouri river, but not much was happening there even though the central post office serving the region had been moved to Lucas from Tallahoma a year or two later.

The discovery of coal at Cleveland and subsequent development of the Whitebreast mines, however, would spur other coal exploration and development and and the rapid grown of Lucas, which would soon outpace Cleveland in size and survive long after Cleveland, within 20 years, for the most part vanished.

The photo here, from the Lucas County Historical Society collection, is of that first Whitebreast mine, known as No. 1, and dated 1880. These are not the buildings described in the article, however. Most of those buildings burned during 1878 and were replaced by what you see here.

En route to and from Cleveland, the reporter stopped at Dave Wormley's Depot Hotel (and restaurant) in Chariton and gave it glowing reviews. It seems likely that Mr. Wormley slipped the reporter a little cash in return.

In any case, here's the long article from The Hawk-Eye of Jan. 9, 1877, headlined, "Cleveland: The Whitebreast Coal Mines. A Lively Young Town and Its Coal Mines an Offshoot of  Burlington Enterprise --- The Fuel of Coming Years, and How It Is Obtained."


It is a curious fact that many of the first settlers of the west, coming from the woodlands of the east, regarded our prairie lands as undesirable on account of the absence of timber. They selected lands near water courses where the scattering groves afforded fuel and timber for farm improvements. Here they built their log cabins and congratulated themselves that they were among the lucky number who located in the timber, while the later and less fortunate immigrants would be compelled to take up with prairie lands. But dimly did they comprehend the destiny of the great west. Its mysterious reservoirs had not then been unlocked. The shallow soils and the troublesome root and stump of our woodlands are now less prized, while the rich prairies are the first choice of the agricolist. The building of railway lines has entirely changed the condition of things in the west. Our own sparse forests and groves no longer feed the saw mills. Our lumber comes from the pineries of the north. But what are we to do for fuel? So queried our first settlers. Presto, change! We find it beneath the soil from which we derive our wealth. The


are practically inexhaustible. Our prairies may be populated in coming ages by prosperous millions, but they will not suffer for want of fuel. The consumption of coal is rapidly increasing, especially within the last ten years. Our railroads and manufactures consume immense quantities, while for household and heating purposes it is rapidly being substituted for wood as by far the cheapest fuel. Burlington imports large quantities of Iowa and Illinois coals, and we have several companies composed chiefly of our own citizens who are engaged in mining coals. It is our purpose in this article to notice one mine which we recently visited, known as


located on the B. & M. R. railroad, seven and a half miles west of Chariton, Lucas county, in the valley of Whitebreast creek. The Whitebreast Coal and Mining company is an offshoot of Burlington enterprise. Mr. J.C. Osgood, late cashier of the First National bank, is a large stockholder, and the secretary and treasurer of the company. the mines are under the personal supervision of Mr. Wm. Haven, formerly superintendent of the Ottumwa coal mines, and who has been a pioneer in the discovery and development of the rich coal deposits now being successfully worked by the Whitebreast Coal and Mining company. Both gentlemen are giving their personal attention to the work, which is a sufficient guarantee that it will be, in fact is, a triumphant success.


A prospecting company was organized in May, 1875, by parties who were familiar with the coal formations of Iowa and who believed that a superior vein of coal could be found in Lucas county. The coal bed of southern Iowa crops out in Wapello county, dipping down westward until it is 150 feet below the surface in Monroe county and 250 to 300 feet in Lucas. The prospectors selected the present site for the operations of the new company because it is the lowest ground and would consequently require less shaft excavation. They sank several shafts in close proximity to the Burlington & Missouri River track in the low lands of whitebreast valley, but encountered quick sands and other obstacles and did not meet with success until the present shaft was sunk on the south side of the track at the foot of a hill. Relays of men were worked night and day and on the 16th of January, 1876, they struck a rich vein of coal. The next day a permanent company was organized and the work pushed forward as rapidly as possible. The


is of the very highest classification of western coal; in fact no better coal is mined in Iowa, and so remarkably free from sulphur, rock, and other impurities that the proprietors have given it the special appellation of


It is a bituminous coal, is britle, breaks easily, burns freely, makes comparatively little ash, and few cinders. It burns well under a heavy blast, and for making steam and general domestic uses it has no superior in the state. For this reason it is not classed simply as "Iowa coal," and is far superior in quality to much of the Iowa coal that is mined. The vein is five or six feet thick and its area has not yet been discovered, but is known to be extensive.

The company exercises great care in preparing the coal for market, as it desires to build up a reputation for a very superior article. The coal is carefully cleaned and assorted. The miners are obliged to use rakes or riddles down in the mines before it is loaded in the tramways, and in loading it on the cars it passes over double screens, thoroughly separating the slack, the nut and the larger pieces of coal.


is worked from the principal shaft, which is 7x14 feet, very strongly walled with timbers and protected from surface water inflow. It is ventilated by the aid of another shaft, the two forming an up-current of air through the principal shaft. The mine is remarkably dry and free from either moisture or foul air. We tramped through the myriad galleries as if over a dusty road, and no sign of moisture presented itself; in fact, the visitor comes out as dry externally as when he entered upon his subterranean explorations. As to his internal "dryness," that depends upon the commissariat and affects the visitor and the miner rather than the coal. The underground work is in charge of Thomas A. Francis, a skilled and experienced miner, by whom also, the prospecting was done under the supervision of Mr. Haven, the general superintendent. Mr. Francis is "pit boss" and takes an especial pride in the "underground city" which he is rapidly constructing. The


is something creditable to Iowa enterprise. Not only was the present site successfully located at the first inception of the enterprise but every successive step was marked with good management and gratifying success. The mistakes were few and the progress steady and rapid. During the past year the company has completed its shaft, which is heavily timbered and pronounced by miners the best in the state. One thousand yards of main and side entries have been driven and a large amount of preliminary work done, which now puts the company in position to turn out fifty car loads of coal per day, or more by working day and night. The equipments have cost altogether about $35,000, and are so complete and efficient as capital and modern invention can make them.


consist of engine and boiler house, tower and coal schutes, blacksmith and carpenter shops, etc. The coal passages are all equipped with iron tramways along whose smooth tracks mild mannered mules drag a ton of coal at a time to the hoisting shaft where it is raised to the surface and hauled on a car in the


of twelve tons in ten minutes as timed by the watch. Twelve tons make a car load, and at this rate the mine would turn out sixty cars a day, or one hundred cars working double time. The coal is weighed on a sixty thousand pound Fairbanks' track scale, thirty-two feet long and double beam. It is in charge of Thomas Watson, weighmaster, who handles the monster scales with all the ease and accuracy with which a postmaster weighs a letter.


consists of two alternate platforms, each about seven feet square, suspended by a one and a half inch steel rope made by the Hazard manufacturing company of Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania. The cages or platforms are guarded against accidents by a safety-lock designed by Mr. Haven, which prevents their descent in case the cable or machinery gives way. The tops of the shafts also have guards and doors to prevent any one from taking a long plunge to the bottom and eternity. The company manifests a commendable desire to protect life and limb, and in many ways displays an honorable solicitude for the welfare of its employees. The machinery is worked by a


in charge of Matt Wright and John Angus, both of whom are experienced and careful engineers. The engine is of thirty-horse power and was made at the Des Moines Valley Iron works at Ottumwa. The steam is generated in two tubular boilers made by P. Hirchhauer, of Ottumwa. The repairs and general


is in charge of E.O. Thompson, who has a reputation as one of the best workmen on miner's tools in the state of Iowa.

All the mechanical equipment is thorough and complete, and we can see no reason why the Whitebreast mines should not develop into one of the largest and most productive coal interests in the state. The company has a


of $60,000, paid up, and in addition to the improvements mentioned, owns and has leased 640 acres of land. It is the aim of the company to build up a permanent settlement on its lands, and to that end it has laid out the


and already has an embryo city springing up as by magic. Some twenty-five or more buildings have been erected where a few months ago there were only  open fields. The town is located on a hillside, and is laid off in sixty feet streets, and lots 60x120 feet parallel and at right angles with the railroad track. Good water for domestic use is found by digging, and excellent surface drainage is obtained into the Whitebreast creek. The site is healthful and pleasant, and when a station house is built, with post, express and telegraph offices opened, as will be done the present year, there will be no good reason why the little town of Cleveland will not spring into rapid prosperity and wax and grow fat. A


with a switch at each end connects the mines with the main track of the B. & M. R. railroad. The siding is 3,200 feet long and has capacity for eighty cars at a time.


A country road crosses the railroad track at Cleveland, and the county surveyor is now engaged in laying out another road that will greatly increase the facilities of the surrounding country to communicate with the new town. One of the principal features of the place is


of Osgood & Co., presided over by the genial Ed. Jaqua, a Burlington boy, who sighs for the attractions and pleasures of the metropolis, but who, have taken Horace Greeley's advice and gone west, is determined to "grow up with the town," no matter how fast it grows. He is ably assisted in his duties by Mr. George S. Robinson. The "store" is "all that the term implies" in a country town; you can buy anything you want. the store supplies not only the families of the miners, but also does a large and profitable business with the surrounding country. Farmers come from a distance of fifteen and twenty miles to buy coal, and find it convenient to lay in a stock of domestic supplies at the same time, especially as they find a market for all they choose to take there to sell.

Some days as high as fifty to sixty wagons are loaded with coal. The retail coal trade is in charge of Peter Thompson, who also has charge of the supply store room, and in the performance of his compound duties is one of the busiest men about the place.


would pay well at this point and would add largely to the business done, as farmers could then load their wagons on both trips, and would this have a double motive in going to Cleveland to trade. There will be various


as the town grows. A doctor, a shoemaker, a tailor, a baker, and a great many other mechanics and professionals; in fact, all that goes to make up the complete town, are wanted at Cleveland. These doubtless will all rapidly come in, but the company is making no special effort in that direction, preferring to await a natural growth and acquire a population from only the better classes. In consonance with the wise and commendable policy the company employs only


men who desire to acquire homes and a competence for their families, and who are in sympathy with law and order, education and general culture and progress. There are now about 150 men employed by the company and the good character of the men can well be judged by the fact that they have already begun agitating the question of establishing a


It is also contemplated building a school house at an early day and establishing other institutions of both a public and private character that are considered indispensable in every American village, among which is


which is particularly desirable in a town like Cleveland where so many laboring men are employed on wage. Mr. Osgood's banking experience especially qualifies him to inaugurate this important feature of the business of the town, and which, when the time is ripe for its introduction, will be a decided convenience not only to the villagers, but also to the farmers for a wide range of country. Next, but last in the natural course of events, will be the publication of a newspaper, but for the present the Clevelanders content themselves with


which is within a few hours ride, and is the principal reliance of the new community for the news of the day.


of extensive proportions answers the purpose of a hotel, and accommodates not only employees of the company, but farmers and visitors, and is so well managed that when occasion requires can feed a multitude, and set a table that would do credit to a more pretentious establishment.


And speaking of hotels and good entertainment reminds us that in visiting the Whitebreast coal mines we had occasion both going and returning to stop off at Chariton, where we fared sumptuously and reposed in a palace, the depot hotel, kept by that prince of landlords, "Dave" Wormley, as his friends love to call him.

"Breathes there a man with soul so dead
Who ne'er to himself hath said,
I will stop at Wormley's?"

or words to that effect. The building is a magnificent structure, built by the railroad company. It was so imposing a bulding that it stood idle for some time, no Boniface having the hardihood to undertake such a wholesale venture as hotel keeping in a town of but three thousand inhabitants. Mr. Wormley, formerly of Cedar Rapids, a most successful landlord of wide reputation was at last prevailed upon to try it. If he hasn't grown rich at Chariton he has at least convinced the world that he knows how to keep a hotel --- and so the great traveling world makes it a point to breakfast, dine or sup at the depot hotel when passing through Chariton --- or, if they tarry in that enterprising town, they straightway go to Wormley and ask him to be as a father to them. And he takes them in, entreats them kindly and makes them loath to lelave. And the reason he does not get rich faster is that his bills are always modest and surprisingly moderate. Until Cleveland gets its station house built, Wormley is the key to the new town; the strategic point, from which, fortified by a good dinner, you advance on the new settlement and obtain a more roseate view of the situation, and encompass it about more satisfactorily than would be possible upon an empty stomach. If any of our citizens desire


we advise them to take a trip to Cleveland, visit the coal mines, and take the patronizing enjoyment which only a true Burlingtonian can do when contemplating Burlington's latest pet child.

Depot House Hotel, Chariton

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Behind the "White Chief's" mask --- sort of (Part 2)

George Belden as portrayed in the 1870, 1872 and 1881 editions of "White Chief."

I've said, perhaps too often, that a cemetery is like a book waiting to be read in which tombstones serve as chapter headers. Case in point, the modest government-issue stone (left) at Keokuk National Cemetery that marks the grave of "No. 793, G.G. Belden, Civilian."

"G.G. Belden" actually is G.P. Belden --- George Pfoutz Belden --- whose murder on Sept. 1 or 2, 1871, not far from the west bank of the Missouri River near modern day Mobridge is among the oldest of South Dakota's cold cases. Buried first in the Grand River Agency post graveyard, George's remains were evacuated to the post cemetery at Fort Yates, North Dakota, during 1875. In 1908, his bones and those of 73 others were brought from Fort Yates by riverboat and rail to southeast Iowa for reburial.

I wrote yesterday in a post entitled "The White Chief's travels, in life and death" about the harsh circumstances of this young man's death at age 29. But who in the world was George Pfoutz Belden --- a popular literature phenomenon at the time of his death whose unfortunate demise burnished his image and boosted sales for at least two further editions of "Belden, The White Chief; Or Twelve Years Among the Wild Indians of the Plains, from the Diaries and Manuscripts of George P. Belden, the Adventurous White Chief, Soldier, Hunter, Trapper and Guide"?

Well for one thing, George was a gifted story-teller and careful observer with many talents who was blessed with an equally gifted editor, Gen. James Shanks Brisbin, a prolific author in his own right. By most accounts George also was something of an artist and an aspiring poet.

But all was not quite as it may have seemed to the thousands who eagerly read "The White Chief" before and after his death.

There were, of course, doubters at the time. And historians since have looked upon his work as more fiction than fact.

He most certainly was not a "white chief" among the indigenous peoples of the Plains, nor was he gifted as a teen-ager with a high-born native bride named Washtella. These flourishes were the marks of a work designed to appeal to a broad audience of white folks increasingly willing to romanticize native America without actually engaging or attempting to understand it.

Still, it remains quite difficult in many instances to sort fiction from fact in the life of this interesting, talented --- and slightly bent --- young man.


George was born in New Philadelphia, Ohio, in 1844, the eldest child of Seymour Belden, a lawyer and sometimes newspaperman, and his wife, Rebecca, nee Pfoutz.

It seems likely that George had a fairly conventional upbringing in Ohio, but in the opening pages of "White Chief" he begins to create a narrative for himself that begins, "at the age of thirteen (I) ran away from my parents to seek my fortune in the then almost unknown West.... How I got from Ohio to Nebraska is my own affair. Suffice it to say, that I was not yet fourteen years of age when I arrived at Brownville (Nebraska), then a small hamlet of log houses ... on the banks of the murky Missouri.... I made haste to write to my father, describing the valley, and urging him to move out. That he thought well of what I said, and relied somewhat on my judgement, is evinced by the fact that he came with his family and settled in Nebraska, where now stands the city of Brownville."

The elder Belden, George reports, started a newspaper and he acknowledges working on it, but then claims that two years later, ca. 1858, seeking adventure, he ran away from home, headed west and began his adventure-filled "12 years among the wild Indians of the Plains."

There's no doubt that the Belden family arrived in the Nemaha Valley during 1856 and that his father launched a newspaper called the Nemaha Valley Journal in November of 1857 at Nemaha City, then moved it two years later, during 1859, to Brownville. But there's no indication that the teen-aged George had served as pioneer scout for his family.

During early October of 1871, just after George's death had been reported in great detail in newspapers across the country and the autobiography he had created for himself in "White Chief" was being uncritically summarized and cited, an anonymous soul who signed himself "Brownville" wrote a letter to the Brownville Advertiser to set the record straight. Whoever this was knew George and a good deal about his family. It begins:

"The Omaha papers announce the murder of George P. Belden, by an Indian, near Grand river in Dakotah Territory, and give what they call a brief sketch of his adventurous life, "Twelve years among the Indians," &tc.

"The truth is, the Belden family came here to Brownville in 1856, and George lived here, and at Nemaha City, until 1861 ...."

When the 1860 census of Brownville was taken, George, age 16, was enumerated as living there with his parents and four younger siblings. His occupation was "journeyman printer."

A year later, when the fictional George was roaming the Plains and consorting with his native bride , Washtella, the actual George enlisted on June 15, 1861, at Brownville, as a drummer in Company C, 1st Nebraska Volunteer Infantry for service during the Civil War. There's no mention of this in "White Chief."

Pvt. Belden served honorably in Missouri and elsewhere until late 1862 when he became critically ill with what appears to have been tuberculosis. After four months of incapacitation, he was medically discharged on March 21, 1863, at Ironton, Missouri, and returned home to Brownville to die or recover. Once home, fortunately, he recovered. But by this time, his father, Seymour was dead. Aug. 21, 1862, at Brownville, is usually cited as the date and place.

There are no known photographs of George, but we know something of what he looked like because he enlisted in a number of military units as the years passed and each time a physical description was given. When enlisting for the first time, in 1861, his height was given as 5-feet, 4-inches. That increased to 5-feet, 6-inches as the years passed. He was dark complected, slight, with hazel eyes and brown hair.


"Brownville," writing in The Advertiser after George's death, outlined the remainder of George's  military career very accurately, as follows, while attempting to set his record straight:

After George regained his health after his spring, 1863, discharge, he "enlisted in the 2d Nebraska, and was with that regiment at the battle of White Stone Hills (Sept. 3-5, 1863, in Dakota Territory). The 2d was a nine-months regiment, and when it was disbanded, Belden helped to organize what was called the Nebraska Battalion, in which he received a commission as lieutenant. In July 1865, the 1st Nebraska Volunteers and the Battalion were consolidated, and George remained in the service until July 1st, 1866, when the regiment was disbanded, and Belden returned to private life, but was shortly afterwards given a commission in one of the cavalry regiments of the regular army. This position he held about two years, when he again left the army."

That cavalry regiment was the 2nd, commanded by Gen. James S. Brisbin, and it seems to have been during this post-Civil War period that author and editor first met.

The National Archives and Records Administration is custodian of George's military records --- among millions of other documents --- and many of these are available digitally online. They record George's assignment and or detachment to a variety of military installations from September of 1864 until October of 1869, including Cottonwood Post (Fort McPherson), Fort Kearny and Omaha Barracks in Nebraska and Forts Fetterman, Phil Kearny and David A. Russell in Wyoming.

There also are indications that George, as he served as first a 2nd lieutenant, then a 1st, was not at all times a model soldier. On at least two occasions during those years, he was in custody at a post guardhouse and escaped court martial once for thievery on another occasion by reimbursing a fellow officer.

And truth be told, George and the military did not part friends. He was court martialed during the fall of 1869 at Fort McPherson and cashiered there on Nov. 4, 1869. I do not know the details because obtaining his court martial file from the National Archives, while possible, would be time consuming and a bit beyond the scope of this modest undertaking. So I have no idea what his offenses were.

However, the fact that he left the U.S. Army under less than favorable conditions never is mentioned in publications attributed to him nor in articles written about him at the time of his death two years later.


Following his less-than-honorable discharge, George returned to Omaha and was living there when the 1870 census was taken, working as a "clerk on the Omaha Republican" newspaper. From Omaha, he headed upriver to Sioux City and worked there for The Journal and perhaps other newspapers  before heading west into the Dakotas, where the end would come during September of 1871.

It also was during this period, 1869-70, that George and Gen. Brisbin began to collaborate. Brisbin began by marketing stories of adventure on the Plains authored by Belden and edited by himself to eastern newspapers, including The Chicago and New York Tribunes.

Prospectus for the 1871 edition.

Brisbin and Belden also began to compile the first edition of the massive 500-plus-page "White Chief" that would be published in the fall of 1870 by C.F. Vent,, Cincinnati and New York.

Although Brisbin insisted when introducing this best-seller that he had remained true to Belden's words he freely admitted to rewriting George's work when necessary and providing the bridges that tied the whole thing together in a relatively coherent narrative.

"White Chief" still can be purchased as a reprint and read for free at various places online, including Google Book, so you're welcome to judge its veracity yourself.


Following George's sensational death in September of 1871, a new edition was rushed into print by C.F. Vent and issued during 1872. It was a best-seller, too.

Ten years later, Vent and Brisbin issued another edition of what by now was considered a classic adventure story of the old West. This time, however, the title had been considerably changed.

It reads, "Brisbin's Stories of The Plains or, Among the Wild Indians, Chiefly from the Diaries and Manuscripts of George P. Belden, the Adventurous White Chief, Soldier, Hunter, Trapper and Guide." Our friend George now has second billing.


As for George himself, as recounted previously, his bones now rest permanently in Iowa's Keokuk National Cemetery. How much of his life was fact, and how much fiction? Who knows? But the little guy deserves some respect, so if you're in the Keokuk neighborhood, stop by the cemetery and say "hello."

"Brownville," writing for The Brownville Advertiser after his death, summed our friend up this way: "All the old residents of Brownville recollect George as a reckless, daring boy, previous to the war. Belden was a talented man, and had it not been for his roving, unsettled character, would have made a first class engineer and draughtsman. Many of the sketches of Western events that appeared in the pictorial papers during and in the (Indian) war, were the productions of his pencil, 'sketched,' as the papers said, 'by our own artist on the ground.' Poor George! The worst enemy he had was himself."

"The Death of Belden," commissioned for the 1881 edition of "White Chief."

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The "White Chief's" travels, in life & death (Part 1)

Find A Grave photo
"Belden, The White Chief; or Twelve Years among the Wild Indians of the Plains" was a literary sensation back in 1870. Authored by a young man named George P. Belden who characterized himself as "Adventurous White Chief, Soldier, Hunter, and Guide," the volume was a best-seller, too --- and remains on the market today.

Tragically, George's image was burnished and sales skyrocketed after he was murdered in what became South Dakota, somewhere in the neighborhood of modern Mobridge, on the 1st or 2nd day of September, 1871. Now, due to the oddities of life (and death), George reposes in Iowa's Keokuk National Cemetery, his remains transferred there during November of 1908 from the post cemetery at Fort Yates, North Dakota.

The name on his tombstone, "G.G. Belden," is a mistake. It should have been "G.P. Belden" and the fact it isn't may account for the fact he's been sort of misplaced.

Keokuk National Cemetery was George's third postmortem stop. Buried initially at the Grand River Agency Post, near Wakpala, South Dakota, at the intersection of the Missouri and Grand rivers, his remains were first evacuated to Fort Yates when periodic flooding resulted in the closure of that post during 1875.

It's kind of appropriate, I suppose, that someone so restless in life should face similar challenges in death.


Here's an account of George's terminal adventure as published in The Junction City (Kansas) Weekly Union of Sept. 30, 1871. Similar reports, although not all this detailed, were published across the United States. This report most likely was picked up from an Omaha newspaper, although initial reports of the dashing young adventurer's death probably were published in the Sioux City Journal.

"On or about the 2nd of September, George P. Belden was murdered --- it is supposed by an Unkpapa Indian --- near Grand River. A dispatch dated Grand River Agency, Dakota Territory, September 5th, to the Sioux City Journal, gives the following particulars of his death:

" 'Georbe P. Belden left Grand River Agency, D.T., September 1, 1871, to go to Grass Camp (Blackfeet Sioux), about thirty-five miles below this agency, on the west bank of the Missouri river. He had about $50 worth of goods that he had purchased at Durfee & Peck's trading store. A Saus-Arc Sioux Indian left the agency for Grass Camp about an hour after Belden, and arrived at the camp at 5 o'clock, but he said he had not seen Belden on the road. George Corry, from Grass Camp, arrived at this agency about 5:30 o'clock on the 2d instant, and he inquired about the time Belden had left the agency. He was told as above stated. He said that, on his way up, he went to drink at a pool of water, about fifteen yards off the road, and saw Belden lying dead in the water. He did not examine the body, but came to the agency as soon as possible. He was on foot.

" 'Agent O'Connor immediately started on horseback, accompanied by an escort of ten soldiers in a wagon, together with six citizens, and six Indians on horseback, to bring in Belden's remains. Three of the citizens and two of the Indians arrived at the point indicated about dusk, and found Belden's remains at a pool of water, surrounded by tall grass, and located on the right-hand side of the road, about thirteen miles from the agency. He was lying on his back in the water, his legs straightened out stiff, and his arms across his body. He was taken out and laid on the bank by Bruguler and Keller, who lit matches and examined the body. They found a large bullet hole, the ball having broken the bridge of his nose and come out the back of his head. His brains were oozing out of the hole. He was not scalped, but his skull was broken.'

"Apart from the interest attached to the circumstances of his melancholy and untimely end --- he was only 29 years of age at the time of his death --- Mr. Belden was a man of sufficient mark to warrant the appointment of space wherein to tell briefly the story of his life. George P. Belden was born in the State of Ohio. His father was a printer, and together they started a weekly newspaper, called the Newark Valley Journal. Twice he ran away from home, and until the day of his death led a strange, adventurous life, now among the Indians and now among the printers and literary men of his native state. He resided for a time in Omaha city, working at first as a compositor in the Herald office, and afterward acting as local editor of the Republican.

"But for the restlessness of his disposition and his perpetual craving for adventure he might possibly have won for himself a high place in literature. As it was, with all his drawbacks, he was a fluent writer, and some of his productions exhibit considerable grace. Many of his letters to the New York Tribune and to the Chicago Tribune, to both of which papers he was a contributor, have been greatly admired, and some ambitious works have achieved popularity. Notable among these latter may be mentioned his book entitled "Belden, the White Chief; or, Twelve Years Among the Wild Indians of the Plains," which is very widely known.

"He was intimately acquainted with the habits of the Indians and could speak several Indian languages fluently. During the war he held a commission as lieutenant in the army, but disliking the restraint of a soldier's life he left it and returned to his former erratic mode of life. He was married, but the restraints of wedded life was as little congenial to him as were all other restraints, and he had been separated from his wife for some years before his death. Yet he was of a genial nature, and during his wanderings made many friends who now mourn his loss."


Much of what was reported about Belden nationwide after his death was based upon the biography outlined in "The White Chief," a mighty volume of more than 300 pages. How much of it was accurate --- well, that's another matter. I'll try to unpick the life and times of George P. Belden a little another time.

--- To be continued

Monday, January 15, 2018

Sitting Bull, Keokuk National Cemetery - a near miss

The mortal remains of Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull (ca. 1831-1890) rest now near Mobridge, South Dakota, considered by many to have been his birthplace. But had circumstance played out differently, his might well have become bones of contention at Iowa's Keokuk National Cemetery.

To understand how that could have happened it's necessary to back up to December of 1890, when the famed leader was killed.

Sitting Bull's vision and leadership were instrumental in the stunning defeat of U.S. Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his men of the 7th Cavalry on July 26, 1876, at Little Big Horn. Forced eventually to flee to Canada, Sitting Bull returned to the United States in 1881 with most of his people and surrendered. He then joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and spent some years as a performer before settling down on the Standing Rock Reservation, headquartered at Fort Yates, North Dakota.

During December of 1890, however, fearing that Sitting Bull was about to leave the reservation and join the Ghost Dance movement, James McLaughlin, U.S. agent at Fort Yates, ordered his arrest. Sitting Bull was shot to death on Dec. 15 during a confrontation at his home between non-Hunkpapa tribal police attempting the arrest and some of the men of his village, resisting it.

Looking most likely upon possession of his remains as a control issue, Sitting Bull's body was transported to Fort Yates and buried in the post cemetery, where it remained for nearly 18 years before a major controversy erupted.


This U.S. outpost along the Missouri River originated during 1863 as the Standing Rock Cantonment and became Fort Yates --- named after Capt. George Yates, killed at Little Big Horn --- during 1878. The fort was headquarters for the U.S. Standing Rock Agency and a village grew up around it. Standing Rock remains headquarters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

In 1903, the fort and post were decommissioned and abandoned. Five years later, it was decided to empty the post cemetery and remove the remains of all buried there --- including those of Sitting Bull and other native people --- to Keokuk National Cemetery, a considerable distance away in southeast Iowa. The other option was what now is known as Custer National Cemetery at Little Big Horn.

The proposal to move Sitting Bull's remains resulted in considerable discontent among the Lakota people --- and a good deal of dithering by U.S. officials. Plus a few examples of cultural insensitivity --- the Smithsonian Institution and historical societies in both North Dakota and South Dakota suggested that the old chief's remains should be disinterred and passed on to them for display, according to newspaper reports of the time.

Eventually, common sense prevailed and it was decided to leave Sitting Bull's remains undisturbed at the post cemetery site. The remains of other natives buried there apparently were removed to nearby civilian cemeteries.

A St. Paul, Minn., undertaker was commissioned by federal authorities to disinter and rebox remains from the Fort Yates Post Cemetery. The remains, as well as the crated stones that had marked a majority of the graves, were transported upriver to Bismark and transferred there to a boxcar for the long rail journey to southeast Iowa. 

The boxcar arrived in Keokuk on Nov. 11, 1908, as reported in The Keokuk Daily Gate of Thursday, Nov. 12:


The Bodies of Seventy-Four Soldiers and Citizens Arrived in the City Last Evening

No Indians Among Them

Seventy-three of the Bodies Will be Placed in the National Cemetery and One Sent to St. Louis

The bones of seventy-four soldiers and citizens of the United States arrived in this city last evening from Fort Yates, North Dakota, an abandoned military post, and seventy-three will be buried in the National Cemetery and one forwarded to St. Louis to be buried in the National Cemetery at Jefferson Barracks. This last is the body of Major Gaddord (Maj. Charles E. Goddard), whose death occurred in 1886. The shipment arrived via the Burlington and after the arrival in this city was taken in charge by Undertaker E.E. Hawkes, who will have charge of the burial. The Grand Army of the Republic, Belknap Post, will have charge of the services which will probably be held at the National Cemetery tomorrow afternoon.

No Indians

It was thought that the bones of fourteen Indians together with Sitting Bull would be brought for burial, but fear of a general uprising on the part of the Indians of North Dakota reservations, if the Indian bodies and that of the once famous Sioux chief were moved, changed the plans and only soldiers and civilians were removed. Among the boxes contained in the car are those having the bones of several children.

Separate Grave for Each

Each box will be placed in a separate grave, necessitating in all seventy-three graves. The graves are being dug in the new part of the National Cemetery and are in the west corner taking up a great deal of space.

The graves are in three rows, the first row containing twenty-eight graves, the second row twenty-eight graves, and the third row seventeen graves. Each grave is one foot wide, three feet long and three feet deep and are placed four feet apart. Several of the boxes, however, are five feet long and they will be placed in graves made of different dimensions than those above mentioned.

The Shipment

The entire seventy-four boxes containing the bones of the soldiers and citizens, and the fifty-six tombstones were all contained in one box car, and completely filled the bottom of it. The tombstones were enclosed in a wooden crate and upon the tombstone was an inscription containing the name of the deceased, the date of his death and his age, also, if he was a soldier to what post or fort he belonged.

The work of hauling the tombstones to the National Cemetery was begun this afternoon but it is thought that the burial services cannot be held before tomorrow afternoon at the earliest. The work of digging so many gave is quite a task and work could not be commenced before it was known what sizes the boxes would be.

The services at the graves will be conducted by the Belknap Post G.A.R. and if possible arrangements will be made to hold services tomorrow afternoon.

Proclamation by the Mayor

Tomorrow, November 12, 1908, the remains of eighty (sic) soldiers will be interred in the National cemetery at this place, being removed from North Dakota, where they were interred at time of death. I deem it proper that the good people pay a mark of respect to the memory of these hero dead during the hour of the funeral, which will be announced during the afternoon by the tolling of the fire bells. I would ask that all business houses be closed during the passage of the funeral cortege and that the flags of the city be placed at half mast. (signed) W.E. Strimback, Mayor


Last rites for the 73 refugees from Fort Yates were indeed held in Keokuk late on the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 13, as reported on Saturday morning, Nov. 14, as follows:

Yesterday evening there gathered at Eighth and Main street one of the largest funeral processions ever seen in the city --- that preceding the burial of seventy-three old soldiers and citizens removed from Fort Yates, North Dakota, to be interred in the national cemetery.

The memers of Belknap and Torrence posts, Grand Army of the Republic, the Fiftieth Iowa band, and many private citizens took part in the procession, together with the wagons containing the rmains of the seventy-three dead soldiers and citizens.

Slowly the funeral procession proceeded to the cemetery and at 4 o'clock the services began. Miss Mary Collins made the address of the afternoon. For several years she was a missionary to the Indians of Fort Yates and for this reason was selected to make this address. A prayer by the chaplain, Rev. Connoran, concluded the services and the bones of the departed were placed in the individual graves which are side by side in three rows.

Many business houses and public buildings had flags at half staff in respect to the deceased soldiers of the country.


The remains of Sitting Bull remained undisturbed in the old post cemetery at Fort Yates until 1953 when organizers of a plan to move his bones to a new resting place near Mobridge, South Dakota, obtained permission from his descendants to do so.

Today, Sitting Bull is honored by monuments both near Mobridge and at the site of his original grave at Fort Yates.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Lord of Sea and Sky ....

It's been another of those disquieting weeks. A U.S. president disparaged people of color; the people of paradise (Hawaii) found themselves --- mistakenly --- on the receiving end of a nuclear attack warning.

So here's something uplifting for Sunday morning --- one of the most popular contemporary hymns performed back in 2012 by the National Youth Choir of Scotland at Dunblane Cathedral (Church of Scotland).

The piece dates from 1981 and was composed by Wisconsin-born Dan Schutte, cited most often for his contributions to Catholic liturgical music and hymnody.

Purists, theological and otherwise, can be fairly grumpy about his work --- including this one. I like it

Saturday, January 13, 2018

More about Keokuk National Cemetery

Arlington usually comes to mind first when U.S. national cemeteries are mentioned, but the fact of the matter is --- Iowa's Keokuk National Cemetery is older, among the 14 originals designated during 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln after he had been authorized by Congress on July 17 of that year to establish these now-iconic places to hold the remains of the Union dead. 

The Arlington site was not designated a national cemetery until June of 1864.

I wrote earlier in the week about the relocation in 1948 to Keokuk of a majority of those buried originally in the Fort Des Moines post cemetery. And I have another story to tell, but got involved in checking out the history of this beautiful place way down in the southeast corner of the state, too. I took the photos on a visit years ago, so they lack high digital resolution. But at least they're mine.

Keokuk was Iowa's first major Civil War staging site, home to Camp Ellsworth, then Camps Rankin, Halleck and Lincoln. As the war progressed, five U.S. Army hospitals were established in the city in part because the pioneer Keokuk Medical College was located here and in part because of its convenient location along the Mississippi River. Thousands of wounded and/or ill U.S. troops were brought upriver by riverboat for treatment here as the war ground on; some 600 of them died.

The first burial occurred during late September of 1861 in an area of the city cemetery, Oakland, that came to be known as the Soldiers' Lot. As the number of burials increased, the city transferred ownership of that area  to the federal government and it was expanded.

During late May of 1883, Maj. Gen. William Worth Belknap (1829-1890) was invited to deliver the Memorial Day address at Keokuk National Cemetery. He had been a Keokuk attorney when the war broke out and rose to national prominence as a commander of Iowa troops. Following the war, he was appointed in 1869 as U.S. Secretary of War in the Grant Administration and served until 1876, when he was impeached (later acquitted) by the Senate for corruption.

By 1883, he was back in Keokuk --- at least for a time --- and still honored. Here's a little of what he said about the cemetery's history during a very long and florid address, reported upon in the upriver Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye of June 7. Although Belknap may well have been responsible for ordering, as Secretary of War, improvements to the cemetery, it had been designated, despite his claims, a national cemetery early in the war.

"There are about eighty national cemeteries. In them three hundred thousand men lie buried. The first interment in the Keokuk National cemetery was of a soldier of the Third Iowa Cavalry on September 23, 1861. I may be pardoned for saying that immediately after the close of the war I took some personal interest in having this ground declared a national cemetery. It had been proposed to transfer the remains of these gallant men to another locality, possible outside the state. Against this I earnestly remonstrated, but had great fear of the result, when it happened that fortune gave me the opportunity to order that it be made a national cemetery. Mr. Clayton Hart, a brave soldier of the Seventh Iowa, was appointed superintendent; additional land was purchased; the improvements which are around us followed in rapid succession, until my comrades, an inviting spot has been made a beautiful resting place for our beloved dead. Here lie six hundred and four known and thirty-three unknown Union soldiers. There are, too, the remains of eight Confederates. They were the champions of a mistaken cause, bravely battled for, and lost. Those of us who were in action know how well they fought, but their banner is laid away, and all over the states of a reunited and unbroken union now floats, we trust forever, the flag of the free."

Find A Grave photo
A soldier identified as Thomas Lurch, attributed to Co. C, Third Iowa Volunteer Cavalry, apparently was that first unfortunate soldier to be buried here. You'll note that his tombstone identifies him only as a "U.S. Soldier," however. When the time came to order tombstones for those buried here, no trace of anyone named "Thomas Lurch" could be found on Third Cavalry rosters.

This suggests that he was somehow misidentified, although records do state that the man buried here did indeed die and was buried on Sept. 23, 1861.

As of 2018, approximately 4,700 military personnel and their dependents are buried at Keokuk National Cemetery and it remains open to future burials although administered from the upriver offices of the much larger Rock Island National Cemetery.

Friday, January 12, 2018

To the brave and beautiful people of Haiti ...

Here's to the beautiful and brave people of Haiti on this bitterly cold Iowa morning. How lucky we are to share a planet with them.

And I'm thinking, too, of a transgender acquaintance of mine who has invested an incredible amount of time, energy and money there, helping out --- from the goodness of her heart --- since the devastating earthquake of 2010. Thanks, Kathleen R.!

The group is Harmonik, Haitian but based in Miami. The beautiful lady is Suzanna Sampeur, Miss World Haiti of 2016. The video was shot in Cap-Haitien.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The vanishing Fort Des Moines Post Cemetery

One hundred and seventy-eight tombstones were deployed with military precision at the Fort Des Moines Post Cemetery, intersection of Army Post Road and Southeast 5th Street, in late May 1945 when WAC Cpl. Ethel McIntosh played "Taps" as a Memorial Day tribute.

The cutline for this photo, published in The Des Moines Tribune of May 30, reads: "WAC Cpl. Ethel McIntosh of Beloit, Kans., blows taps for veterans of four wars who are laid to rest in the small, neat Fort Des Moines cemetery. Few people know of this graveyard beside the highway east of Fort Des Moines where 178 headstones mark the burial place of colored, Indian and white men who died for America in the civil war, Spanish American war, World War I, and World War II. As in most military cemeteries, the headstones bear only names without dates or inscriptions to interest the curious."

The final burial in the small cemetery was made two years later, during late April or early May of 1947 when the unclaimed remains of Utley Erickson, age 47, were interred here.

Little more than a year later, as spring turned to summer, the cemetery vanished. Remains were disinterred, empty graves filled and the surface smoothed, grass planted and signage removed. Today, the cemetery site forms part of the grounds of the Des Moines Police Academy. A majority of those once buried here --- 156 souls --- rest beneath the manicured sod of Iowa's Keokuk National Cemetery.


Fort Des Moines, the last of three to bear that name in Iowa, was established during 1901 and built up commencing in 1903 on what then was farmland south of the Iowa capital's city limits. It was intended --- and used --- as a mounted cavalry base.

In 1917, it became the site of the United States' first officer training candidate school for black Americans, including Chariton's own Maceo Richmond. After that, the fort was used for various purposes until 1942, when it was taken over by the Women's Army Corps as a training center.

Following World War II, as the need for military installations diminished, so did it's usefulness. By the 1960s and 1970s, ownership of significant chunks of the old fort had been transferred to private and public owners, but it remained a processing center for draftees, most of us bound for Vietnam. My parents delivered me there early one morning back in 1969 to be inducted and processed, then shipped off late in the day to beautiful Fort Polk, Louisiana.

The post cemetery was developed and opened during 1906. The Des Moines Register of Nov. 5, 1905, reported that, "Uncle Sam's Eleventh cavalry soldiers who die in times of peace will be buried by the side of their comrades in a special burying ground which the government is now providing at Fort Des Moines. And those who die in times of war will be brought back to their own cemetery if it is possible.

"Within a few years, another city of the dead will be added to the burying places about Des Moines and another soldiers' resting place will receive its decorations on the nation's memorial day."


U.S. Army Pvt. William B. Case, age 22 and native to Brooklyn, New York, was the first to be buried in the new cemetery --- in March of 1906 --- and the novelty of a full-scale cavalry funeral caught a reporter's attention. The following report was published in several Iowa newspapers, this version in The Waterloo Courier:

"Des Moines, Iowa, March 6 --- Private Case of Troop K was buried with military honors in the Ft. Des Moines cemetery yesterday. Case came to the fort a recruit from New York City not long ago and two weeks ago was stricken with rheumatism and placed in the hospital. Day before yesterday he died. Word was sent to his people in New York, but no answer was received.

"Case was said to be one of the handsomest privates at the fort and popular with his comrades. An air of gloom hung over the post yesterday. This was one of the first cavalry funerals held at the post. The mounted cavalry band played slow dirges on the way to the little graveyard, about half a mile east of the post. Behind the hospital ambulance in which the body was carried came the riderless horse of the dead man draped in black with the late rider's sabre hanging reversed from the saddle. Behind were mounted troop K and a number of other soldiers.

"After an impressive service at the grave by the chaplain, the stirring call of "taps" was sounded, several of the dead soldier's comrades threw in a few handfuls of earth and left the rest for the little knot of prisoners to do. Then the cavalcade whirled about and swept back over the hill. The band played a lively air and the riderless horse draped in black pranced gaily in time to the music, ready for the man who will take his master's place in a few days."

Enlistment records show that Case was born and raised in Brooklyn and enlisted there on Oct. 4, 1905. There are no surviving photos to let us decide if he was indeed as handsome as his comrades thought, only a physical description: Blue eyes, dark brown hair, fair complexion, 5-feet 8-inches in height. His death was attributed to acute endocarditis. Now, 112 years later, he rests beneath a new government-issue stone in the Keokuk National Cemetery, placed after he was re-interred there during June of 1948. The death date inscribed on his tombstone, however, is incorrect.


The vision of the post cemetery as a final home for veterans of the 11th Cavalry failed to materialize, but the graveyard continued in use for military personnel stationed at the fort when they died, some of their dependents and active-duty soldiers and veterans who simply had no other place to be buried.

Many years later, The Des Moines Register --- attempting to put finally to rest false rumors of a mass grave at Camp Dodge --- proved that at least 33 of those buried in the post cemetery had died at Camp Dodge during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 and, their remains unclaimed, had been buried at Fort Des Moines.

Not long after Cpl. McIntosh honored those buried here with "Taps" on Memorial Day 1945, proposals began to circulate in Des Moines, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere that the post cemetery become the nucleus for a new national cemetery that would occupy a portion --- or all --- of the old fort grounds. Iowa already had one of the nation's oldest national cemeteries, at Keokuk, but space there was at a premium and its location in the extreme southeast corner of the state seemed too remote for many Iowans and others from adjoining states.

Nothing came of those dreams of a Des Moines national cemetery, but it would seem that no one in Des Moines anticipated closure of the Fort Des Moines Post Cemetery when the final burial occurred there during late April or early May of 1947. PFC Utley Erickson, age 47 and recently discharged from the U.S. Army was another of those strangers who died among us whose remains remained unclaimed by loved ones.

The circumstances of his death were reported as follows in The Des Moines Tribune of April 23, 1947, under the headline, "Identify G.I. Killed Here."

"A soldier who was killed here shortly after midnight Tuesday when run over by a train was identified Wednesday as Utley Erickson of Los Angeles, Cal. Identification was made from army discharge papers found in his pockets.

"Police said the papers indicated he was "more than 35 years old" and that he had been discharged at Camp Kilmer, N.J., last Friday.

"Police said the soldier apparently fell beneath a freight train which he tried to board.

"His Los Angeles address was given as 541 E. Fifth St., and police Wednesday were attempting to locate relatives there. The body is at Dahlstrom's funeral home.

"The accident occurred on the Rock Island track between Third and Fourth streets."

Erickson, who gave his status upon enlistment as single with no dependents, was a native of Weymouth, Massachusetts, who had moved to California during the 1920s. He apparently had worked in a defense-related industry there prior to enlistment on Dec. 13, 1945. He probably was riding the rails home to California when his death occurred. As with William Case's tombstone, the date of death inscribed upon Erickson's stone is inaccurate.


We don't know exactly when the decision was made to close and evacuate the Fort Des Moines Post Cemetery and although it seems a little odd today, it was standard operating procedure for the government at the time if a military post were to be abandoned. The motivation was honorable --- the government had committed itself to caring for the remains of those entrusted to its burial places; what better place than a national cemetery to do that.

About twenty of those buried at Fort Des Moines apparently were reburied, probably at the behest of family members, elsewhere. But by early June, 1948, the remains of the rest had arrived at Keokuk National Cemetery, where they were reinterred, all during the first 10 days of that month.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Corydon, Promise City, bushwhackers & a bloody end

President Lincoln had been assassinated just two weeks earlier; his mortal remains still were aboard that long black train processing slowly across the United States toward Springfield --- retracing the route he had followed as president-elect to his first inauguration in 1861. The coffin would not reach his Illinois home until Wednesday, May 3.

Although Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia 20 days earlier, on April 9, the war continued --- and would not end finally until May was over. Columbus, Georgia, had just fallen to Union forces on the 16th. Confederate President Jefferson Davis remained at large.

Down in Wayne and Appanoose Counties, feelings were running high. Although the end of the long war was in sight, times were tense. The sometimes real and sometimes imagined threat of Confederate-sympathizing guerrilla activity in northern Missouri, spilling over the line into Iowa, had been a factor on the homefront throughout the war. Hundreds of men, some returned soldiers and others "graybeards" who had been too old or unable for other reasons to serve, remained armed and ready to defend the border country that stretched from the Mississippi to the Missouri.

The six men who caused a regional sensation --- largely forgotten now --- by robbing both east- and west-bound Western Stage Co. coaches between Promise City and Centerville that spring-like Saturday afternoon --- April 29, 1865 --- would have been hard pressed to find a more volatile and dangerous time to execute what seems to have been a carefully laid plan. If newspaper reports are to be believed, their folly would cost them their lives.


The most comprehensive report that I've found of events on April 29 along the general route State Highway No. 2 still follows between Corydon and Centerville appeared in The Ottumwa Courier  under the headline, "The Guerrillas in Iowa!" A similar report was published or republished in full or in part in newspapers across the state --- across the Union states in fact --- updated as developments occurred. Here's the text of The Courier report:


Two of the Western Stage Co.'s Coaches,
Mails and Passengers Robbed,
Nine Miles West of Centerville, Appanoose
County on Saturday, April 29th, 1865

"OTTUMWA, May 1 --- We are indebted to Mr. F.J. Leach, a driver in the employment of the Western Stage Company, for an account of one of the most daring and successful robberies we ever heard of. Mr. Leach was driving from Corydon to Centerville. At Corydon, five passengers --- one of them a citizen, four of them strangers, got aboard the coach, paying their fare, two of them to Promise City, the first station out, and two to Centerville. At Promise City, two more strangers got aboard, and the two who had paid to that place continued on, making six passengers, one riding on the outside and the others inside. The citizen left at Promise City.

"Just as the coach or hack was winding on to the bridge at Walnut Creek, nine miles west of Centerville, the passenger on the box suddenly presented a revolver to the left breast of the driver, exclaiming, 'Hold on! Turn out here, G-d d--n you! You have gone far enough. You are in the hands of the rebels now! I will put a hole right through you if you don't stop!' Looking around, the driver saw the inside passengers looking out of the window, each one holding a revolver in his hand.

"Of course, there was no alternative but to submit, and he accordingly turned his team out to the side of the road. The six passengers instantly jumped off and out of the coach, and ordering the driver to keep his seat, proceeded to unhitch the horses and tie them to the stage and the trees nearby. They took out the mail sacks, ripped them open with knives and deliberately examined the contents, putting most of the packages containing more that one letter in their pockets, tearing the single letters open and appropriating the money found, so far as the driver could judge. He saw them take some money from the letters.

Abraham Sager
Prairie Trails Museum
"While thus employed, a wagon was heard approaching from the direction of Centerville. Four of the robbers started over the bridge, met the team, which proved to belong to Mr. A. Sayger (Abraham Sager, 1813-1884), of Promise City, who with his son, a young man of about 20 years, was returning from Centerville with a two-horse wagon. The robbers met them, fetched them over the bridge, unhitched their horses, unharnessed them, and then demanded of Mr. S. and his son their money. The old gentleman had no money --- the young man had thirty dollars --- they took twenty-five dollars, and handed him back five dollars.

"After this they waited about twenty minutes for the western bound stage to come up. When they heard it coming, four of the party went out and met it, took possession, and piloted it over the bridge to the place where the other coach was, and went through the process of unharnessing the horses and robbing the mails, as they had done with the other coach; occupying in doing so, about half an hour. When this was all done, they selected six of the best horses, three out of each team, mounted them and rode off towards Promise City, exclaiming as they left, 'Good evening, gentlemen.'

"It was now after sunset. The two drivers made up a team of the two horses, and drove into Centerville; the other passengers went on west with Mr. Sayger. The next morning a party from Centerville went out and gathered up the broken letters, express matter, &c. They heard of the robbers some distance from the scene of the robbery, on the road to Promise City. They robbed two houses, taking a saddle from each. This is the last that had been heard from them up to the time the driver left Centerville for Ottumwa.

"The agent of the Western Stage Company, George Pratt, offered a reward of $25 for each horse and $50 for the arrest of each of the robbers.

"The following is a description of the robbers, as given by the driver: One tall man without whiskers, hair dark and shingled short, dark clothes, gaiter shoes and a cloth or cassimere cape. Another, medium sized man, rather heavy built, with a very red face; had a very light goatee, hair light colored, had on a broad brimmed white hat, and overcoat of heavy corded goods, made in the style of soldiers' overcoats, with large black buttons, and gaiter shoes. Another tall and rather heavy built man with dark complexion and dark whiskers and moustache, had on citizens' dress, a black overcoat and a black hat; when he had his hat off his hair stands up bushy in front. Another, medium sized man has no whiskers, hair dark but not black, had on green and black barred pants and a black hat. Another rather small man with blue eyes and light hair, curly and rather bushy --- had on a light colored hat. The other man cannot be described.

"The horses were described as follows: Two roan horses, one about 10 or 12, and the other about 7 or 8 years old; the latter had the hair rubbed off his hips by the breeching; one horse about 11 years old; one light grey about 8 years old; two bays,, one with a star on the forehead and a light hind foot, and the other has sore or weak eyes and his near hind foot at the gambrel joint is swollen.

"Later advices state that the three counties, Appanoose, Wayne and Decatur, are in arms and are in pursuit of the robbers. The mail sacks that were robbed are here. J.W.N."


As the week after the robbery passed, briefer updates were published in many newspapers, some of the reports noting, too, that the robbers, as they fled, had "committed another robbery, taking from a sheep drover they met on the road $200."

On Saturday, May 6, The Davenport Morning Democrat reported that pursuing Iowans had caught up with the robbers somewhere in northern Missouri on Wednesday, May 3, and that "the pursuing party having surrounded them they abandoned their horses and took to the brush. The horses were recovered and the thieves, six in number, shot dead and left in the brush.

"If all guerrillas and bushwhackers were served in like manner the country would soon be rid of them," The Democrat opined.


The most comprehensive report I've found of the end to this Iowa history footnote was published on May 10, 1865, in The Iowa State Weekly Register, Des Moines. The report was lifted from an exchange copy of The Corydon Monitor --- an issue that so far as we know is no longer extant. Here's the text of The Register report:


"The six desperadoes who robbed the mail down in Appanoose County declared at one of the houses at which they stopped for a few minutes that they were creating an excitement in Iowa equal to that which was produced by the murder of the President.

"The Corydon Monitor says that four of these villains had been in that place several days, two of them stopping at the Phillips Hotel, and the other two at the Kentucky House. They said they were desirous of settling in Corydon and looked at several pieces of property with the assumed design of purchasing. One the morning of the day of the robbery, they took passage on the stage, and were joined at Promise City by the remaining two confederates.

"The stages were robbed about two hours before sunset at Walnut Creek, some nine miles west of Centerville, Appanoose County.

"On the following morning the whole country was roused and a vigorous pursuit was commenced. The robbers fled down into Missouri, and so hot was the pursuit that on Monday they were compelled to abandon the stolen horses about 20 miles south of Unionville, Missouri. At the same place the pursuing party rescued two men who had been impressed as guides into the service of the robbers.

"The scoundrels took to the timber and made frantic efforts to escape. Three hundred armed men stimulated with hate of rebels and untiring as blood hounds, closed around them, and on Wednesday morning, being pressed at all points, they threw aside their overcoats and everything else which impeded their flight --- but they were doomed.

"Before sunset of Wednesday, they were laying stark and dead in the timber of Northern Missouri. Whether they were shot down in their tracks or were captured and subsequently hanged, we do not know. The fact that they are dead is placed beyond question; and whether shot or hanged, their fate was richly deserved."