Saturday, December 18, 2010

IN SEARCH OF: May 26, 2010 - Charlie Brenscom & The Great Indian Scare of 1878

THE SCENE:  For over a year I had been crisscrossing Osborne County, taking photographs of every tombstone known standing in the county. Now I was down to trying to locate those solitary stones rumored to be scattered here and there across farmers’ fields and ranchers’ pastures. Today’s hunt would be for the gravestone of Charlie Brenscom.

THE BACKGROUND:  Charlie Brenscom was an invalid living in Mount Ayr Township of western Osborne County when one of the more notorious incidents in Osborne County history occurred. What afterwards became known as the two days of “The Great Indian Scare of 1878” had its origins in late September of that year, when a band of Cheyenne Indians left their reservation in Indian Territory (today’s Oklahoma) to seek their old homelands in the Dakotas. They headed north through Kansas between Forts Wallace and Hays, throwing the western half of the state into a panic as one can imagine. The commandant of Fort Hays was unsure of the Indians’ intentions and as a precaution sent riders galloping east down the Saline and Smoky Hill river valleys to warn everyone of the potential danger.

Word reached Osborne County on October 7th via freight wagon drivers from Russell, Kansas, who by the time they arrived in the southern half of the county managed to change the message from “potential danger” to “they are coming!”

Now all of Osborne County was thrown into a panic. Stories abound both comic and tragic of the settler’s reactions over the next two days.  Former Civil War soldiers now homesteading the region took up their guns, organized under old officers, and took to roving the countryside searching for incoming war bands of Indians.  The dust rising from these roving soldier bands in the Paradise Creek region of southwestern Osborne County  was mistaken by other roving bands as being “the Indians – they are here!” and soon hundreds of people were tossing their belongings onto horses and into wagons and fleeing to the north and east. At Covert, halfway across the county, a funeral was being held when the news came. The mourners immediately fled northeast to the county seat of Osborne, leaving the unfortunate Mrs. Morris in her coffin still resting on two sawhorses, the pages of the Bible atop the coffin flapping in the breeze.

The domino effect continued. At Vincent in southern Osborne County a little girl mistook just cut stalks in a cornfield for Indian teepees and raced to town to warn everyone. Most of the community formed a small wagon train and fled northeast through the Blue Hills to the next small community of Potterville. Several men volunteered to stay behind and so give their loved ones a chance to get away. They raided the local general store for guns and gathered in Ira Pitzer’s stone house to make a last stand against the oncoming Indians. Only then did they realize that they had neglected to bring any ammunition along.

When the Vincent refugees reached Potterville that community was promptly abandoned at the news, the all-important post office was packed in a trunk, and still more wagons and people joined the growing train that now made its way fifteen miles northeast through the hills to the comparative safety of the town of Tipton in Mitchell County.

The Scare was in full swing by the time the news reached Osborne in the north central part of the county.  Five hundred settlers overturned wagons, barrels, and anything else they could find to build a barrier, quickly dubbed “Fort Osborne,” behind which they settled all that day and through the next night, waiting in vain for Indian warriors that never came.

The next day, October 8th, the word reaching far eastern Osborne County from fleeing refugees warned that “the entire Indian nation in the West was uprising” and that “three million Indians” were bearing down on the poor settlers, causing still more panic. But by October 9th things began to die down as people started realizing that no real Indians had actually ever appeared.  Sheepishly they began to return to their homes.  But not all.  The estimate is that approximately ten thousand people fled from Osborne County alone over those two days, and of that number nearly four thousand never came back. They had had enough of the "Wild" West.

In his 1882 “Osborne County Annals of the Year 1878” Osborne lawyer Zachary T. Walrond had this to say about the Scare: “October 8th: There is a great scare in the western part of Osborne County, the alarm originating from a rumor that the wild Indians are raiding down Paradise and Eagle Creeks; five hundred settlers go to the defense of Osborne. Chas. Branscomb [sic], an invalid, dies while his friends are removing him to a place of safety.”

Which brings us back to Charlie Brenscom.

THE SEARCH:  What I had to go on to find Charlie Brenscom's gravestone came from two sources.  The first was Mrs. Auldin Conrad, who lives across the road from the Fairwest School, District #38, a long-abandoned frame one-room rural schoolhouse still standing in the northeast quarter of Section 25 in southeastern Mount Ayr Township.  Now well into her 80s, Mrs. Conrad had just a few years ago had told me that the stone was still to be found "just behind the schoolhouse" and then told me the wonderfully absurd story passed down in the area that periodically Indians used to stop by Charlie's stone, and after they left the local people would come and poke around the grave, thinking that the Indians might have buried treasure there.  My second source was the above photo, taken in 1977 of the headstone by the Osborne County Genealogical & Historical Society, showing the Fairwest schoohouse in the left background.  The closeness of the stone to the school in the photograph made seem that this stone would be easy enough to find.

So 23 years after that last photograph I and my recruited help, Merlyn Brown, owner of Osborne’s Merlyn Entertainment Group graphic arts company and an avid photographer by trade, found us driving the gravel roads of Mount Ayr Township toward the Fairwest School, seen here in center background.


The night before I had tried to contact Randy Conrad, the local landowner, to let him know that we might be out and about on his land around the schoolhouse, but had no luck in reaching him.  In our confidence on knowing local customs and figuring that if we ran into Randy we could let him then know what we were doing, we proceeded with no guns or bags, only cameras, in trespassing on his land - you kids reading this at home should NEVER do this.  We were wrong and I apologize here to Mr. Conrad and to all rural landowers for our arrogance.   And yes, we paid for it.

Mrs. Conrad had said that the stone was "just behind the schoolhouse."  Well, it wasn't.  We searched and searched, getting into some pretty rough overgrowth that stood taller than what the gravestone probably was.  In the photo above the Fairwest School can just be seen to the left of the trees in the far background.

We continued to search in this overgrowth for nearly an hour in vain.  If the stone was here it might be knocked over by now, and if that happened in this growth then there was no way to find it - unless one literally stumbled over it. 

Over an hour later we were well to the south of the schoolhouse.  No gravestone.  Nothing else of worth to even photograph.  Nothing but sweat, bites, welts, and a couple of small cuts to show for our efforts. 

Taking a look at that 1977 photograph again, this time it registered that the stone might not behind the schoolhouse, but more to the south of the school.  As in the next field?  Merlyn went ahead of me, and sure enough, there was the grave.  Hey, Merlyn, look behind you!

Charlie Brenscomb's grave lies at least a quarter mile south and just a smidgen west of the schoolhouse in the middle of a corn field.  Just to the right of Merlyn's camera you can see the Fairwest School.

Considering its age (129 years), Charlie's native limestone, handcarved headstone is in remarkable shape and still quite readable.

We take one last photograph of Charlie's grave, secure in the knowledge that it was still to be found in the year 2010. 

Flush with success, we head south to Natoma in southwestern Osborne County and stop at the cemetery there.  Why?  Why, so Merlyn can take photos of horses, of course!

Actually, there was one more tombstone that I needed a good photograph of in the Natoma Cemetery.  For this region the stone on Ken and Leah Griffin's grave is a bit unusual!

We then turn east from Natoma down Kansas State Highway 18 under a beautiful sky.  We are approaching the town of Paradise, Kansas.

In approaching Paradise one cannot help to see the iconic 1888 Post Rock Limestone city watertower.

Now, if one kept going on down Kansas State Highway 18 one will eventually come to the Garden of Eden, in Lucas, Kansas.  Russell County, Kansas - one of only two places I know in the world where one can find in close proximity Paradise and the Garden of Eden!

Needing to get back to Osborne, we take the opportunity to drive down a few Kansas backroads so that I can take Merlyn to the Cedar Bluff Cemetery in central Osborne County, as he had never been there before.

And he was immediately captivated.  What is he taking a photo of??

Ah.  I see.

Cedar Bluff Cemetery is noted for the large cedar trees that tower over the cemetery.

Here in late May older strains of the iris flower abound around 120-year old graves.

Even the summer lilac can be found here!

This is the road into the cemetery.  Some people, upon seeing it, might just be a little bit hesitant . . . . 

 . . . . especially when they see the old 1920s era bridge they have to cross!

The bridge spans Covert Creek, which is flowing nicely due to recent rains in the area.

And here the summer lilacs can really be found in full bloom!

Reluctantly the day was ending, and we would have to wait until another day to once again explore the backroads of Osborne County!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi, been to Ceder Bluff many times, as my Great Grandfather, Woodbury Dickinson is buried there. He is close to the front on the right side if you are facing the gate. My grandmother put a new headstone there many years ago, and it is in front of his old original one. He was born in 1837 and died in 1913, when he was either killed or thrown off a train on his way to visit a daughter in Oregon. It was at Salt Wells Wyoming where they found him lying by the tracks. It is a beautiful and quite cemetary, and as my family history has it, Grandfather Dickinson was one of the founders of the Cemetery, as he has several other family members buried there (children).

Sincerely, Cindy Jamison
cynthia.jamison@eaglecom.net

Devin Tait said...

Wow! I am so happy I found your blog. I grew up in Paradise, KS, but now live so far away and I miss it often. Some of my grandma's relatives are buried at Cedar Bluff and we would visit occasionally so I really enjoyed seeing the photos of the cemetery. Also, Randy Conrad is the father of one of my best friends. By the way, if you haven't already, you should check out the blog paradiseeducated.blogspot.com.