For Whom the Bell Tolls?

     In 1863 Lean Bear, a Southern Cheyenne chief, accompanied a number of Southern Plains representatives to Washington D. C. There they met with President Abraham Lincoln who presented each chief with a bronze medal and a letter attesting to his peaceful intentions. On May 16 of the following year, Lean Bear, wearing the medal and carrying the letter on his person, was killed by members of the First Colorado Cavalry in an unprovoked attack fifty miles northwest of Fort Larned.

     In retaliation, on May 17, 1864, Cheyenne raided three trading ranches in the present Barton County, Kansas, area. At the Walnut Creek Ranche some two miles east of present Great Bend, the warriors drove off livestock belonging to Charles Rath, the ranche proprietor. Postmaster John F. Dodds, and the Kansas Stage Company. East of Walnut Creek, five and one-half miles at the big bend of the Arkansas River near present Ellinwood, the Cheyennes plundered the ranche operated by Dick Curtis and Frank Cole. To the north ten miles, they attacked the Cow Creek stage station on the Fort Riley-Fort Larned Road, killing a Kansas Stage Company employee, Suel Walker. Also employed at the station were J. J. and C. L. Prater both of whom immediately fled the scene following the attack, not even pausing to bury Walker's remains.

     The Prater brothers raced to Salina, Kansas, and an unidentified courier carried the news of Walker's death to the Page-Lehman Ranche at the Smoky Hill crossing near present Kanopolis. Runners were dispatched to two other ranches in the area, one operated by Smoky Hill Thompson at Thompson Creek five miles southeast of the crossing and the other five miles northeast operated by the Farris brothers. That night, men from the ranches met at the Lehman store to discuss their situation. At dawn, they packed their possessions and departed to Salina.

     On May 20, Deputy U. S. Marshal H. T. Jones, Lieutenent, Van Antwerp and 15 Fort Riley soldiers, along with a group of Saline County citizens rode down the Fort Riley-Fort Larned Road to find all the stage stations and trading ranches between Salina and Walnut Creek sacked and deserted. At Cow Creek they buried Walker.

     The death of Lean Bear and the subsequent killing of Walker ignited the Indian War of 1864-1865 which resulted in attacks against the whites along the Santa Fe Trail eastward as far as present McPherson County and westward beyond present La Junta, Colorado. There were also raids along other trails. Climaxing the war was the November 29, 1864, attack of the Third Colorado Cavalry under Colonel John Chivington on the Cheyenne/Arapaho village on Sand Creek near present Chivington, Colorado, and the retaliatory raids along the Platte River in the winter of 1865 by a combined force of Cheyennes, Arapahos, and Sioux.

     The story of Walker's death may well have ended at that point were it not for the presence of a red granite tombstone in the Claflin, Kansas, cemetery sixteen miles north of Great Bend. The inscription reads:

S. O. Walker
Killed by Indians May 1864
ON N E-6 16-11
January 14, 1923

     An account of the re-interment was published in The Ellsworth Reporter, January 11, 1923. Following is the article as originally published.

Recover Body Of Early Days
     Claflin---The remains of a victim of an Idian attack that occurred near here 60 years ago this month in January 1863, have been unearthed.

     The bones are those of a man named Walker who was in charge of a stage relay station here when a stage line was run from Larned to Junction City. The unearthing of the remains of Walker is the result of an investigation launched by a Mr. Faris of Kanopolis, a man 84 years old. Mr. Faris came to Claflin about three months ago and inquired as to whether or not any of the residents of that community knew the location of the old relay station and the search for this place has continued since that time.

     John Bortz and Fred Galloway, of Claflin, remembered that their fathers had told them of the time Claflin was a relay station for Junction City-Larned stage line, and with their aid the place was located. Walker's remains were unearthed Sunday from a knoll near Cow Creek on the old Galloway place; two and one-half miles west of Claflin. It was evidenced that Walker had been given a suitable burial. His coffin was made a Salina from cottonwood lumber.

     The story goes, according to Faris, that Walker and the Praether boys were attacked by the Indians while in the relay station. Walker was killed in the fight but the Praether boys escaped. This fight accurred in January, 1863, sixty years ago. Walker was formerly employed by Mr. Faris.

     True, Walker was killed by Indians. True also, the Praether (Prater) brothers escaped. However, other details of the newspaper account are more dubious. (1) Walker was not killed in January, 1863 but on May 17, 1864 as documented by army records and other sources including the tombstone inscription. (2) Walker was not killed at a relay station two and a half miles west of Claflin. Larned was founded in 1873, Claflin in 1887. No such stage line or relay station existed at the time of Walker's death. Rather, Walker was killed at the Cow Creek station of the Kansas Stage Company ten miles northeast of the Walnut Creek ranche on the Fort Riley-Fort Larned Road. (3) It would be rather doubtful that the party dispatched from Salina would have taken a coffin to bury Walker. If such a coffin were used, the cottonwood would have long since disintegrated by 1923.

     Why then the inconsistencies? Perhaps Mr. Faris, then eighty-four years of age, misremembered some facts of the incident. Perhaps also, Bartz and Galloway experienced some difficulty with their recall. Regardless, the question remains, if not Suel Walker, who then is buried in the Claflin cemetery?

     Louise Barry, "The Ranche at Walnut Creek," Kansas Historical Quarterly, 54 (Summer 1971): 143.

     David K. Clapsaddle, "Conflict and Commerce on the Santa Fe Trail-The Fort Riley-Fort Larned Road, 1860-1867," Kansas History, 16 (Summer 1993): 129-130.
     Used With Permission of the Author
     David Clapsaddle

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