The days of our nation’s westward expansion fill the pages of history with stories of newfound wealth, people acquiring land that they could never have if they had not chosen the difficult and sometimes dangerous path West, and many times, tragedies. This is the story of one such tragedy.
When a young woman from Elmore, Ohio married a man named Richard F. Blinn in 1865, I’m sure she did not expect the fate that awaited her. Born Clara Isabel Harrington, by all accounts, she was a pretty and pleasant young woman, and she felt blessed to give birth to a boy whom they named Willie a year into the marriage.
Her husband, Richard Blinn, had joined the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War, along with his father and older brother. Severely wounded in the arm, he was discharged from the military and suffered almost constant pain for the rest of his life.
Seeking new opportunities, the Blinns joined a wagon train headed west to Colorado in 1868. Unfortunately, the soil in the area where they decided to settle was not conducive to growing crops. After trying to run a trading post that failed, the discouraged couple decided to return to Kansas to be closer to Clara’s family, who had settled there after leaving Ohio.
A small group of eight wagons began the eastward journey in early October of 1868, with Clara and young Willie assigned to ride in the supply wagon. Everybody in the wagon train was warned to keep a sharp eye out for hostile Indians who were resisting white incursion into their lands.
Five days into their journey,the wagon train was attacked near Sand Creek, and the Indians captured the supply wagon with Clara and Willie aboard. The other wagons were set on fire, and the survivors of the raid were trapped under the burned wagon frames for five days, fighting off repeated Indian attacks before a detachment of cavalry from Fort Lyon came to their rescue.
A search party immediately set out, trying to rescue Clara and her son. While they were not able to locate them, they found a note that Claire had left in a bush that read: Dear Dick, Willie and I are prisoners. They are going to keep us. If you live, save us if you can. We are with them. Dick, if you love us, save us. Clara Blinn
Unfortunately, that was not to be. Eventually, the searchers had to give up the attempt to locate the young mother and her child. In spite of the constant pain from his Civil War wound, Richard Blinn refused to abandon the search and went on alone. But he finally had to give up, and could only wait and hope for word of his missing wife and son.
Taking captives was a common practice by Indians in those days. Some were tortured and killed, others were adopted into the tribe, some were made slaves, and some were eventually traded or ransomed. A month after the wagon train was attacked, a young man named Cheyenne Jack, who worked for William Griffinstein, who in turn ran a trading post at Fort Cobb, located Clara and her son in Chief Yellow Bear’s Arapaho camp. She gave him a message begging for help, and Griffinstein vowed that he would do what he could to secure their release. But again, fate would not allow that to happen.
When Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer learned there was a large Indian encampment along the Washita River in present-day Oklahoma, he led his 7th Cavalry in an attack on Chief Black Kettle’s Cheyenne village. In the days before the attack, Black Kettle had gone to Fort Cobb to speak to the military commander there, saying that he wanted peace and that his village had no interest in waging war.
Black Kettle’s pleas fell on deaf ears, and the attack can only be described as an atrocity. Charging into the village early in the morning, the soldiers killed everyone in sight – men, women, and children. But as if that was not horrible enough, many bodies were mutilated. Reports of the day say that some soldiers carried away the ears and scalps of their victims.
Even today, there is still debate about what happened to Clara Blinn and her child. Some people say that they were victims of Custer’s blood lust and perished in the attack on Black Kettle’s village. Others say that they were not there and were being held by the Arapaho or the Kiowa, who also had villages in the area. A sign at the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site says that Clara and Willie were killed by Kiowa Chief Santana.
We will probably never know at whose hand their lives ended, but they were found a few days after Custer’s attack. Clara had a bullet hole in her forehead and had been scalped, and Willie’s body, with head injuries, was found next to hers. General Philip Sheridan removed a portion of the hem of Clara’s dress and a lock of Willie’s hair and later gave them to Richard Blinn.
They were buried at Fort Arbuckle, Indian Territory, and when the Army abandoned Fort Arbuckle two years later, it removed and reinterred the bodies in the cemetery at Fort Gibson, Oklahoma. Headstones at the cemetery do not carry their names, only Unknown Woman and Unknown Child.
For his part, a heartbroken Richard Blinn is said to have gone to the site of his wife and son’s murders, where he picked up three pebbles to symbolize the family he once had. It was not just Richard’s heart that was broken, his health was failing, too. He returned to Perrysburg, Ohio alone. He never talked much and kept to himself. He died of tuberculosis in 1872, at age 30.
Richard Blinn was buried at Fort Meigs in Perrysburg, and his headstone includes the names of his wife and son, even though they remain buried at Fort Gibson. While his body was being prepared for burial, in his pocket was found the same three pebbles he had picked up at the Washita River. He carried them until his death as a reminder of what he had lost, and they were buried with him.
It’s Thursday, so it’s time for a new Free Drawing. This week’s prize is an audiobook of The Driving Lesson by my friend Ben Rehder. While Ben writes some excellent, mysteries, including the wildly popular Blanco County series, this tale of a boy and his grandfather on an unplanned road trip across the country is a coming of age story that will tug at your heart strings. To enter, click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.
Thought For The Day – Never be a prisoner of your past. It was a lesson, not a life sentence.