“A fate worse than death” was a common frontier phrase for what was thought to be the destiny of any woman unfortunate enough to be taken by the Indians. White settlers were captured by Indians for about 300 years, from when the first colonists of the 1580s disappeared in what was to become North Carolina, leaving only the mysterious word “Croatoan” carved into a tree, until the Census Bureau declared the frontier closed in 1890. From the beginning, the threat of capture was a real danger for generations of Americans on the frontier. Thousands of women and children were forced to judge for themselves the accuracy of the phrase. Clara Blinn and her young son, Willie, had precious little time to ponder their fate; for them, Indian captivity was death.
Clara Isabel Harrington was born in Elmore, Ohio, on October 21, 1847, to William T. and Harriet Bosley Harrington. She married Civil War veteran Richard F. Blinn on August 12, 1865, and they settled in Perrysburg, Ohio. One year later they had a son, William. Clara sang in the Perrysburg Methodist Episcopal church choir. She was small, had a dimple in her chin and freckles on her nose. She was described as a practical joker, beautiful, exuberant and vibrant. Clara’s parents moved from their Perrysburg home in 1868 to take up a new life in Ottawa, Franklin County, Kan. The Blinns also pulled up stakes and moved west, but Richard thought they would go beyond Kansas. They left Ohio on March 15, 1868, bound for, as Richard wrote in his diary, “Sand Creek Colorado Territory.” They took a train to Kansas City, where they got mules and wagons and traveled west with two couples—Richard Blinn’s brothers-in-law and sisters (Sarah and Charlotte). In late March, beyond Olathe, Kan., they were stalled three days trying to fix a broken wagon axle and witnessed a prairie fire. Richard, seeing the prairie for the first time, wrote, “It looks splendid.”
They got lost and took down a farmer’s fence to get through, and one day they tried to shoot some prairie chickens but could not because, said Richard, “the wind blows too hard.” On March 26, Richard recorded that three Indians rode by them carrying their bows, “one dressed in red, the other two in blue.” The Indians did not approach. The emigrants traveled through Junction City, Abilene, Fort Harker and Hays City. The area around Fort Harker, Richard wrote, was “the worst country we have had yet. The land is not good for any thing.” Beyond Hays they traveled with a train of Mexicans and saw Indians about four miles in the distance. They went south to Fort Dodge, arriving there on April 11. Continuing up the Arkansas River along the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail, they reached Sand Creek on April 20. “Here we are at last,” Blinn recorded. “Everything looks nice. I like the place first rate.”
Richard ran a rest station near the mouth of the Big Sandy (Sand Creek) and the Arkansas River. On April 23, he wrote: “Commenced boarding the drivers for the Southern Overland Mail Co. at $84 per week and renting them the stable at 50 dollars per quarter.” Below that entry he wrote: “Embrer & Johnson, Family Grocery, Adolph Shader, Ft. Gibson, and D. A. Brewster, Delphos, Ottawa Co., Kans.” Apparently, one of Blinn’s first customers was Daniel Brewster, a remarkable coincidence, because Brewster’s sister, Anna Brewster Morgan, would be captured by the Indians only five days after Blinn’s wife.
Richard Blinn’s job did not go well. Work was hard, and Richard’s arm, wounded in the Civil War, never fully healed. Clara was homesick and reportedly fearful of roving Indians—Utes, Apaches and Cheyennes were raiding along the Purgatoire River in the late summer of 1868—and the couple decided they would go back to Kansas and build a cabin near her parents. Richard formed a partnership with his brother-in-law Jack Buttles of Fort Lyon to furnish supplies to government posts as they headed east. They organized an eight-wagon train, with 100 head of cattle and eight men, and left Boggsville, Colorado Territory, on October 5. Clara carried all of the outfit’s money, belonging to Richard, his brother Hubbell and Jack Buttles, nearly $800 in greenbacks and gold coins.
By October 9, they had traveled about 50 miles along the Santa Fe Trail and stopped “this side of Sand Creek at three mile point” for an early dinner. After eating, they decided to put on a few more miles before nightfall. The largest wagon, with Clara and Willie aboard, pulled out ahead of the others. At that moment, a band of about 75 Cheyennes, who had been watching the train’s progress, attacked, split the train and ran off the lead wagon across the Arkansas River. The warriors cut off the men in the rear wagons, circled around them and shot flaming arrows, setting several wagons on fire. Richard Blinn and the rest of the party dug a breastwork around the wagons and were trapped there for five days, with the number of attacking Indians growing to nearly 200. Hubbell Blinn said no one was killed, but two suffered wounds, one in the nose and another in the knee. Finally, one or more of the men broke out and got back to Fort Lyon, reaching there at 3 a.m. on October 14. At daybreak Lieutenant Henry H. Abell, 7th Cavalry, and 10 soldiers rode to the rescue, but it was too late. They found the burned remains of the supply wagon, but Clara and Willie, who had been hiding under a feather bed, were long gone.
After being captured, Clara had the presence of mind to scribble a note on a card and drop it on a bush about four miles downstream from the attack site. It 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. Clara Blinn.” The other side read, “Dick, if you love us, save us.” The card was found and given to the distraught Richard Blinn.
The attacking Cheyennes were from bands that had been recently raiding in Kansas. That state had been suffering raids during the past few years, and the Blinns’ capture was part of a long chain of events that would lead to the Battle of the Washita and to their deaths. The Arapahos, Cheyennes, Comanches and Kiowas had promised many times that they would stop depredating and taking white hostages. The Treaty of Little Arkansas that they signed in Kansas on October 14, 1865, had such provisions. Nevertheless, by the next year the Cheyennes had killed and scalped a party of white hunters near Jamestown, Kan., and the Comanches and Kiowas had gone into Texas to depredate, killing a number of settlers and capturing about one dozen women and children. But the attack that caused the most anger was led by Kiowa leader Satanta on the Box Family in Montague County, Texas, in August 1866. After killing the father, the Kiowas raped the mother and oldest daughter, and carried away Mary, Margaret, Josephine Ida and Laura Box. They killed infant Laura on the trail, and sold the survivors to authorities at Fort Dodge. The settlers and soldiers were outraged when they heard the details of the women and children’s tortures. The attack was a major incident that introduced Lt. Col. George A. Custer and his wife Elizabeth to the potential terrors of Indian captivity, and caused Custer to issue orders that his wife was to be killed if there was any danger of her falling into Indian hands. The raiding also brought Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock to the Kansas plains, resulting in the abortive summer campaign of 1867.
Two Octobers after the Little Arkansas agreement, the same tribes were back, this time at Medicine Lodge, Kan. Once again, many of the same stipulations were put down on paper, and the Indians agreed they would not kill or capture whites—an agreement that was not worth the cost of the paper.
One month after signing, the Kiowas and Comanches were back raiding in Texas, and in early January 1868, they killed seven whites and took 10 captives, six of whom were soon killed. In early February, Comanches raided into Llano County, Texas, attacking the Friend and Johnson cabins, raping or killing five women and children and capturing two children. In June and August of 1868, similar attacks, murders and captures were made on the McElroy and Russell homes in north Texas.
The Cheyennes and Arapahos also signed the Medicine Lodge Treaty and promised not to attack white settlers or travelers. By the spring of 1868, however, Cheyennes attacked wagon trains along the Smoky Hill River, and many white families in northcentral Kansas. More than 200 Cheyennes, Arapahos and Lakotas participated in the raids. Among those involved were bands under Red Nose, Tall Wolf, Porcupine Bear, Bear-That-Goes-Alone, Little Rock, Medicine Arrow, Bull Bear, Man-Who-Breaks-the-Marrow-Bones and Black Kettle. The fact that warriors from Black Kettle’s band participated in the atrocities should be no surprise. They had been raping and killing for years, and in 1864 they used Nancy Morton, Lucinda Eubank and Laura Roper, along with four children, as hostage pawns in an attempt to buy peace—a move that backfired on them and resulted in the Battle of Sand Creek in November 1864. Black Kettle never could, or never bothered, to make his village off limits to marauders. Man-Who-Breaks-the-Marrow-Bones, a leader of the raid, was a member of Black Kettle’s band.
The raiders found easy targets. On August 10, a few Indians first hit the home of David G. Bacon near what is now Ash Grove in Lincoln County, Kan. Warriors caught Jane Bacon, clubbed her senseless and raped her. Man-Who-Breaks-the-Marrow-Bones and Red Nose left her unconscious on the prairie and continued their raid. Later in the day, the two returned and found Jane Bacon where they left her. This time they picked her up and carried her to their camp. When the initial raids were over by late August, about 40 Kansas settlers were dead, several women were raped, and several women and children were captured. The Indians had stirred up a hornet’s nest. On August 21, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan responded to Kansas Governor Samuel J. Crawford that he would immediately remove all Cheyennes, Arapahos and Kiowas “out of your State and into their reservations, and will compel them to go by force.” Even George Bent, a mixed-blood, white-Cheyenne who had raided with the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, admitted that the affair was a “bad mistake,” and believed the Indians were at fault.
Many of the Indians did not wait around for Sheridan to force them out of Kansas. They knew there would be hell to pay. When some of the raiders began filtering back to the camps of Black Kettle and Little Rock in Colorado Territory, the chiefs started to strike the lodges. Little Rock, meanwhile, at Indian Agent Edward W. Wynkoop’s request, had been trying to learn the details of the raids. He met Wynkoop at Fort Larned and told him the main troublemakers were Red Nose and Man-Who-Breaks-the-Marrow-Bones. Wynkoop didn’t believe that two minor chiefs could sway 200 Indians into committing all the depredations, and he asked for more names. Little Rock also named Tall Wolf, Porcupine Bear and Bear That Goes Around. Wynkoop asked if Little Rock could persuade the Indians to turn in all the guilty warriors. Little Rock answered that he believed only the two main troublemakers should be delivered. Wynkoop wanted the rest, and he told Little Rock that if he could arrange for all of them to be surrendered, then the whites would consider him their friend and he would be protected. Little Rock considered Wynkoop’s proposition and agreed to return to the village and try to round up all the guilty warriors. When Little Rock returned, he saw that Black Kettle intended to make a run for the Comanche country far south of the Arkansas River. Little Rock fled with him.
On their way south, bands of raiders broke off from the main villages to depredate. One of those parties attacked the Blinn-Buttles wagon train and captured Clara and Willie Blinn. Black Kettle, who apparently did not learn from the past, or was powerless to control his wild warriors, again admitted the raiders and their captives to his camp.
The Indians believed they had good bargaining chips with which to deal for peace, much as they had believed in the late summer of 1864. That idea had backfired on them, as would this one. In late October 1868, a trader operating out of Fort Cobb, William Griffenstein, who was married to an Indian woman known as Cheyenne Jennie, sent an Indian boy to Black Kettle’s camp to inform Jennie’s mother that her daughter had died. The boy delivered the message, but returned to Griffenstein with the news that there was a white woman and child in the camp. Griffenstein, known as “Dutch Bill,” sent a mixed-blood boy known as Cheyenne Jack to Black Kettle’s camp, with pencil and paper and directions to the woman to identify herself and make her wishes known. Clara wrote a letter, dated November 7, in which she pleaded for someone to buy her and her child. She said she would work for her rescuer and “do all that I could for you.” She did not want to be sold to Mexicans, for fear that they would sell her into slavery in Mexico. Assuming her husband was killed, she asked to please inform her father of her situation, and said that the Cheyennes claimed that “when white men make peace we can go home.” She also asked that the governor of Kansas and the peace commissioners be informed that if they made peace, she would be freed. “For our sakes,” she penned, “do all you can and god will bless you.”
The Cheyennes had raped and abused other white captives in 1864, but Clara Blinn was not treated as badly, al- though Willie was apparently beaten and was starving. The Cheyennes probably realized that if they were to use Blinn as a hostage for their demands, she must not be returned as “damaged goods.” Her letter reached Griffenstein, who showed it to Colonel William B. Hazen. The 38th Infantry colonel had arrived at Fort Cobb, Indian Territory, on the same day that Clara had written her letter, to take over as the military agent for the Kiowas and Comanches when their agency had been moved from Fort Larned. Hazen forwarded the letter to General Sherman on November 25, along with his own letter stating that he had charged Griffenstein with negotiating for the Blinns’ release, authorizing him to deal with friendly Indians nearest to the Cheyennes and “to spare no expense in his effort to reclaim these parties.” The letter did not reach Sherman in St. Louis until December 18.
Also, on November 20, Black Kettle, Big Mouth and a number of chiefs representing the Cheyennes and Arapahos, came to Fort Cobb to discuss peace and talk about the ransoming of white captives. Since these tribes were currently at war with the United States, Hazen knew he could not make a separate peace with them or even offer them shelter. Although Black Kettle was ostensibly at Fort Cobb to discuss peace, he did say, as Hazen recorded it, “that many of his men were then on the war path, and that their people did not want peace with the people above the Arkansas.” Hazen directed them to go back to their villages and deal directly with General Sheridan. Clara and Willie Blinn were caught in the middle.
On the same day Hazen forwarded Blinn’s letter to Sherman, George A. Custer and the 7th Cavalry were already in Indian Territory hunting the Cheyennes on a campaign that was designed to bring an end to the strife that had been boiling over the past few years. Combating the icy cold, winds and snow of western Indian Territory, Custer followed a fresh trail that led directly to Black Kettle’s camp on the Washita River. Custer did not know about the white captives in Black Kettle’s village, nor did he know whose village it was when his cavalry struck on the frigid dawn of November 27, 1868. As the troopers splashed across the Washita, chaos erupted and gunfire reverberated in the frosty air. Some Indians fought, but most of them scattered. Black Kettle and Little Rock were killed. Custer captured the camp, burned the tepees and shot 875 Indian ponies. He reported killing 103 Indians and capturing 53. The battle was not one-sided; 21 soldiers were killed and 16 were wounded. Among the casualties were Clara and Willie Blinn.
A number of scenarios are given for their deaths, but eyewitness accounts of the discovery of their bodies point to the conclusion that Indians killed them during the chaotic escape. Custer pulled his troops out that evening, went back to Camp Supply, Indian Territory, got provisions and reinforcements, including the 19th Kansas Cavalry, and returned to the scene of the fight on December 10. The Blinn bodies were discovered just east of the village site, in the direction most of the Indians fled. The doctor of the 19th Kansas, named Bailey, described a small white woman and an undernourished child with a bruised cheek. Assistant surgeon Henry Lippincott said Clara had one bullet hole above the left eyebrow, her head was scalped and the skull extensively fractured. Willie’s body showed evidence of violence about the head and face. There was a report that one or both of Clara’s breasts were hacked off, and that Willie was killed by holding his feet and swinging his head against a tree. On Clara’s stomach was a piece of cornbread, leading Bailey to speculate that she was trying to hide some food for an escape attempt. Nearby was a wrapped package of paper money and gold coins.
Men of the 19th Kansas filed past the bodies until someone finally recognized them. There were some reports that it was Satanta who held the Blinns, but it is not likely. Satanta and the Kiowas talked with Hazen at Fort Cobb on November 20, and they were camped nearby to receive rations at the time of the attack. In her own letter, Blinn said she was with the Cheyennes. Agents Jesse Leavenworth and Albert Boone, who were not there, claimed that Custer’s troops shot the Blinns. One writer has made the ludicrous contention that Custer’s men not only killed the Blinns but also may have scalped them. For proof, he states that the village was under attack and that the Cheyennes were too surprised to have killed them. Similar attacks on Indian villages on other occasions did not prevent the Indians from killing their captives. For example, Tall Bull’s Cheyenne village was under surprise attack at Summit Springs the next summer, and it did not stop the Indians from attempting to kill both their captives, Maria Weichel and Susanna Alderdice.
Clara and Willie’s bodies, along with that of Major Joel Elliott, who was killed in the battle, were wrapped in blankets and taken by ambulance for burial at Fort Arbuckle, Indian Territory. They were buried with military honors on Christmas Day, 1868. General Sheridan snipped off the hem of Clara’s dress and a lock of Willie’s hair to send to her family in Kansas.
Richard Blinn still did not know of their fate. He spent the next few weeks after the wagon train attack at Fort Lyon until he received more news. Blinn left the post on November 11 to head for Indian Territory. With little money or means, Richard’s progress was slow. On the day Clara and Willie were buried, he was stalled at the Arkansas River by high water. He wrote: “Waiting to get across the river. On my way to Ft. Arbuckle looking for Clara and Willie. I would give my last dollar to go on.” It took three days to ford the river. On December 29, Blinn wrote: “Traveled all day in the rain and walked all the time. It looks dark and gloomy and I feel the same. I would give my life for my little family but I am afraid I have got to go through this world alone. If I only knew where they are I would feel better but to live and think what they have to go through is worse than death.”
Blinn struggled through bad weather and high water on the trek through Indian Territory. His diary echoes his despondency in numerous entries: “January 1 , Friday. Start this morning and no hopes of it clearing up. It seems as though everything goes against me….I could not care for myself for I can suffer anything that will do them any good even to laying down my life for them. But I must know what has become of them if it takes all my life.” Richard was stalled for a week at the Deep Fork Canadian River at Okmulgee. For some reason, he thought Willie might be alive. “I think that I will find Willie in a government train that is coming,” he wrote on January 3. “But I do not expect to see poor Clara again. This life looks dark and dreary to me. I wish I was with my wife, dead or alive….It seems but yesterday that I kissed her and called her wife for the first time….I would not want a better partner to travel through this world with than my darling Clara, but now she is no more. I hope she is in a better world than this.”
On January 8, 1869, Blinn met a man named Campbell who said he had seen the bodies of Clara and Willie at the Washita battlefield. He told Blinn they had been taken to Fort Arbuckle for burial. “I shall try to take them home,” Blinn wrote. Campbell offered him a horse and said he was going to Fort Cobb, so Blinn joined him. They finally crossed Deep Fork and rode hard. On the 12th, Richard wrote that they camped in some woods and ate sardines and peaches. “I would rather be dead than to live without Clara and Willie,” he recorded, “but the Lord knows best and suppose he will take me when my time comes.”
On January 15 they camped near “Dutch Bill” Griffenstein’s ranch, and the next day Blinn went to see Colonel Hazen and learned that General Sheridan had left. Blinn was given the piece of Clara’s dress and Willie’s hair, plus Clara’s shoes. Blinn learned that the army had marched to the Wichita Mountains, where they were in the process of building a new post that was to become Fort Sill. He headed there and met agent Albert Boone, who said he would try to help the suffering Blinn and hired him “as watchman.” They thought he might be able to recover something more from the Indians. “All I want is enough to get toom stones for my family,” wrote Blinn. While the 7th Cavalry built Fort Sill, Blinn, on January 23, met “a young man that was looking for his sister.” Blinn had again run into Daniel A. Brewster, who was one of his first customers at the stage station the previous April. He had since accompanied the army as a teamster for the special purpose of finding his sister, Anna Brewster Morgan, who had been captured by Indians in Kansas only five days after Blinn’s wife was taken.
Blinn did not get to Fort Arbuckle until late February, where he finally reached the graves of Clara and Willie. Due to lack of money and means of transportation, he gave up on the idea of taking their remains back to Kansas. He built a fence of blackjack logs around the plots and sadly bid them a last farewell. Richard moved back to Perrysburg, Ohio, where he lived with his father. He filed an Indian depredation claim in 1871, asking for $2,400 in lost stock, wagons, supplies and money. Apparently the amount of money did not match another claim filed by his brother-in-law, and the discrepancy may have been enough to detour the claim into a pigeonhole where it remained for nearly 20 years. Richard Blinn spent much of his remaining days lamenting the loss of his family. He kept two small stones from the Arbuckle Cemetery in his pocket until the day he died of tuberculosis on September 18, 1873.
Almost two decades after Richard’s death, the family hired a lawyer to reopen the file. The attorney was partially successful, for in 1892 he received a check for $1,200—half the amount claimed. Now, almost all the Blinn relatives wanted a portion of the money, and the lawyer decided that the best way to resolve the issue was to erect a tombstone in the Perrysburg Cemetery with the three Blinn names on it. The $917 left over was divided among seven relatives.
Some time after Fort Arbuckle was abandoned in June 1870, the bodies in the cemetery were reinterred at Fort Gibson, Indian Territory. By then, the identification of Clara and Willie Blinn’s remains had been lost. They rest today at the Fort Gibson Cemetery simply as “Unknown Woman” and “Unknown.”
Frequent contributor Gregory F. Michno has teamed up with his wife, Susan Michno, to write the 2007 book A Fate Worse Than Death, about white captives in the West 1830-1875. Also recommended for further reading: Washita: The U.S. Army and the Southern Cheyennes, 1867-1869, by Jerome A. Greene; and The Battle of the Washita, by Stan Hoig.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.