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The Lone Tree Massacre

After the old Lone Tree washed out of the bank of Crooked Creek, E.W. McNaghten of the Crooked L Ranch, commissioned renowned western artist, Byron Wolfe, to paint the Lone Tree Massacre of 1874.
This photograph of the painting was provided to the Museum when it was founded in 1974.

courtesy of Meade County Historical Society©

The Tragedy on Crooked Creek

Reprinted with permission from Home Town History, Hometown magazine,
Spring 1993, copyright Ohnick Enterprises

 by Nancy Ohnick

The year was 1874. Meade County at that time was inhabited only by the buffalo and other wild creatures that roamed the Great Plains. The Indians had been driven from their land by this time and placed on reservations in the Oklahoma Territory.

Buffalo hunters were encouraged by the United States government to hunt the plains with the conviction that if the major food source of the Indian was gone, he would stay on the reservation and under control. During this time period until the early 1880's what was left of the great buffalo herds were killed, their hides shipped back east where they could provide sturdy belts for the giant machines that fueled America's industrial revolution.

The summer of 1874, saw major bloodshed between renegade war parties of Indians escaping the confinement of the reservations and buffalo hunters, freighters and soldiers. Conditions were so intense, buffalo hunting was supposedly suspended for the season of 1874. The job of surveying and laying out the land, however, was continued.

July 8, 1874, C.W. Babcock of Lawrence, Kansas, Surveyor General of Kansas, awarded contract No. 381 to Captain Luther A. Thrasher, Mr. Steel, W.C. Jones, and Harmon Scott, all of Iola, Kansas. Their compensation was $9117.35 for 920 miles of section lines. Under Captain Thrasher were S.W. Howe of Florence, Kansas, Mr. Crist, Charles Brooker, and Mr. Woolens.  Others in the party unknown.

U.S. Contract No. 382 was signed by Captain Oliver Francis Short and Abram Cutler for the sum of $9677.92 and called for 1055 miles of section lines. Their parties consisted of Harold Short, age 16; Truman Short, age 14; James Shaw, age 51; his son, J. Allen Shaw, age 15; J.H. Keuchler, age 18; Harry C. Jones (about 22); Fleming Duncan; William and Richard Douglas; and Frank Blackledge, all of Lawrence, Kansas.

All, except the contractors and James Shaw, a farmer, were students at Kansas University. One of the four men assigned for camp duty was Prather, one Mulatto, and names of others are unknown. Short, who had served in the Civil War as a Captain, was one of the first professional surveyors in Kansas. One of his early contracts was No. 303, dated 1864. He served on all frontiers of Kansas, having worked from the Dakota line into the Indian Territory. He was obviously a man of considerable experience, both in his profession and in the hardships of dealing with the harsh landscape of the Kansas prairie. Captain Short was well aware of the dangers the Indians imposed. On a visit with his sister, Mary, the year before his last survey trip he told her, “The Indians are angry and not unjustly so, but I am sure I shall have no trouble with them if I take the surveying contract, for I have worked among them for eighteen years and have treated them kindly, they know me as a friend and will not harm me.”

With this attitude and the firm belief that the army would provide an escort in the event of danger with Indians, Captain Short commenced work on August 10, working with three crews which included his own sons, Harold and Truman. Captain Short usually left the general camp several days at a time running the township lines while Captain Thresher and Mr. Cutler would run the section lines and spend the night in the main camp.

It was a typical Kansas August. The wind was hot and the countryside was dry, making water a precious commodity. The crews had a drive pump that they could drive several feet into the bottom of a creek or pond and pump good clean water. Their pump may very well have been used at their main camp on Crooked Creek while laying out Township 33, Range 28, in Meade County. They picked a spot by a lone cottonwood tree in the northeast quarter of section 4.

Captain Short sent the following letter to his family describing his last few days there: “Crooked Creek, August 16, 1874. This very pleasant Sunday morning, you are all wondering where Pa and Harold and Truman are and what are our surroundings. We have commenced work and made a few very hard days on account of water which is very scarce. The creek's all dry and the pool's nearly all dry. Last night we found a marsh and have excellent spring water for our Sunday camp. To make matters worse the prairie has all been burned off and last night when we came into camp, the cook, Mr. Shaw, and his son and all the teamsters had all been fighting fire to save grass for the cattle and no supper was got that night and this morning, Harold, Captain Thrasher, and I went out and finished it.

“We have started three compasses to work. The ground is so hard we can scarcely dig, so we will be at great disadvantage to haul stone. If we could get a soaking rain it would be a great saving to us. A great many soldiers have gone below so we have no apprehensions of Indians, still we shall keep a careful watching.

“We may have a chance to send this up (to Ft. Dodge) with hunters, if not will continue next Sunday.

“Harry Keuchler flags and yesterday suffered greatly for water, wished himself any other place, but after it was in the past was satisfied.

“(No opportunity was found to mail this letter and it continues) Saturday Evening, August 22. You are all doubtless thinking and talking of us as the sun is just setting behind the prairie horizon. Our boys, Harry and two others and myself have been about all week, excepting Tuesday night, on exterior work and have found plenty of water and grass, many fine springs and abundance of stone. So if Thrasher's work proves as well as mine we shall have a good time. No sign of Indians. Have seen no buffalo but heard them this morning. Hunters are camped near us and will proceed to Ft. Dodge tomorrow and will carry up this letter. I have no idea when we shall get mail but as soon as we get exterior work done will send or go up which will be three or four weeks. The men sent up mail this week while we were out.

“Our boys work well and get along very well. Harold's shoes have run over and are nearly worn out. I have been quite unwell for a few days but feel well tonight.

“Our pump is great help, since we came in, have driven it down and got good cool water.

“You need not think my nights lying out in an Indian country with ears alert are as if with you but it will not last long I hope.  Now it is getting dark, so good night.

“Morning Sunday 23rd. A very good rain last night - All well. Hunters starting so good-by. O.F.S. P.S. Truman has written but it is mislaid.”

Following the departure of the hunters with his letter, Captain Short and his men took their Sunday rest in the camp at the lone tree. Being an earnest Christian he insisted that the camp observe the Sabbath. Harold Short later recalled of this Sunday's activities, “...and Father, I remember well, took his washing down to the creek as well as his boys clothes and gave them a good cleaning, then after dinner, read his Bible and sang a few songs.”

That Sunday, it seems that some of the boys could not get along with the cook, and in an effort to resolve the dispute, Captain Short agreed to leave his son, Harold, to work at the camp when he and his crew set out the next day. It would be the first time the two Short brothers were separated since the start of the contract.

Early Monday morning, August 24, the crews set out to work. Captain Short's crew consisted of himself, son Truman, Mr. Shaw and his son, J. Allan, Harry Keuchler and Harry C. Jones.  It was

agreed that this crew would take a horse, a wagon and two oxen and do some township work and would be gone for a week, while the other two compassmen would do the subdividing work.  The main camp was to remain as located until Captain Short returned. It was a clear bright day with a strong wind from the north.

The Short crew worked its way three miles east then south six miles where they stopped for dinner. At the same time Captian Thrasher's crew worked two miles east and then six miles south then stopped for dinner also. The two parties worked west together on the south line until they reached the next section line which took Captain Thrasher's crew back north. They parted at about 2:00 p.m., Captain Short continuing west on the township line for what was expected to be a good week's work. Of that week's work only about two hours worth was completed.

The rest of what happened to Captain Short and his crew on that Monday afternoon can only be recreated through a few field notes and the evidence on the ground found by the other surveyors two days later. Evidently the six men proceeded unmolested to the southwest corner of this township to the head of a little stream, later known as Short's Creek, where their last stone was set. One-half mile to the north, where they were to set another stone, blood was found and traces in the ashes of the prairie fire showed that the Indians had made the attack from ambush in the ravine and that Truman, who was flagging still to the north, had left the flag and ridden back to help his father; had he ridden to the lone tree camp his life might have been saved.

Harold Short later wrote: “It seems that the Indians (about 25) were expecting the party to continue in their western course and were lain in the deep ravine just beyond the west of the corner but when my father and brother turned to run the line north, they followed along the ravine to where the north line crossed then waited until my brother had crossed over and set his flag and continued north. When my father and men came north to the ravine they were surprised and attacked. It is the impression that my father was shot dead through the body the first man, leaving the others in an excited state...”

The battle was fought by the surveyors from the shelter of their wagon driving the oxen, loading their guns, laying their dead and wounded in the wagon and heading as fast as they could toward the lone tree camp and their comrades. At the end of four miles, as dusk fell, the Indians surrounded them. The oxen were killed and at the wagon tracks of only one white man were found, those of Mr. Shaw, recognized by the marks of iron from his boot heels. The men were all well armed with riffles and the trail was well marked with shells as well as dishes and utensils from the wagon.

It was agreed among the surveyors that should any crew be attacked the signal would be to set the prairie on fire, but this was not possible since it had been burned off only a few days before. The strong north wind carried the report of the riffles away to the south and the men back at the lone tree camp had no idea of what had happened to their comrades who now lay dead just three miles south of their camp. At dusk on Monday, they saw a party to the southwest appear over a hill and then disappear, but thought nothing of it--perhaps that it was hunters. Little did they know it was Captain Short's crew with only one or two still alive.

In the cover of darkness the Indians recovered their dead and left the survey crew by their wagon on the banks of Crooked Creek.

The next day as Captain Thrasher worked the section lines he went six miles south from the camp to the township line, then back to the north six miles. He passed very near to the bodies as he worked the section line east of Crooked Creek but the bodies and the wagon of the slain crew were hidden from view by the bluffs. About noon on Wednesday, as he worked south, setting the northwest cornerstone on section 20, they looked east and caught view of the scene where the last man had fallen.

When they went to investigate they found the dead laid out side by side. Their small dog was also dead and laying beside them. The oxen had been killed, yoked to the wagons and their hind quarters gone. The wagon and water barrel were shot full of holes.

Captain Thrasher and his men loaded the bodies into the wagon and headed back to the main camp. Harold Short later described the scene: “The bodies were found by Capt. Thrasher's party about 2 o'clock Wednesday the 26th and late in the afternoon I noticed the men coming in from the southwest with a wagon railing behind their cart. The compassmen generally had a cart with them, it being more easily gotten over a new and broken country, hauled by a team of oxen. The men in camp wondered what had happened, I said my father and party I am sure have been murdered, they laughed saying no such thing could have happened, but as they came nearer, Capt. Thrasher a little ways ahead came up to me and said, 'Little man you must be a brave boy for the Indians have killed your father and brother and all his party, we found them dead lying side by side near their wagon.. put them all in the wagon and hitched to our cart and have trailed it into camp.' They were all taken out and buried in graves just a little south and east of the lone cottonwood tree.”

The survey work was then abandoned and the surveyors returned to Fort Dodge with the awful story. During the following winter, through aid of the Surveyor General and General Pope, Commandant at Leavenworth, men left Lawrence with metallic coffins and after reaching Fort Dodge were accompanied by soldiers to the graves and the remains of Captain Short and his crew were taken up and returned to their homes.

A family by the name of Germaine had been attacked by the same Indians a short time before the surveyors met their death. The parents had been killed and the daughters taken captive by the Indians. These girls were later rescued by the Army and through their testimony we know that the Indians responsible for the death of Captain Short and his men were Cheyenne, led by Chief Medicine Water. The girls can remember the warriors coming back to camp with the black shod horse (the horse that Truman rode) and the brass trinkets from the surveying equipment. The report that many warriors were missing from the war party proved that the surveyors had not died without a struggle.

Some twenty miles to the west a short time after the massacre, hunters saw a party of twenty-five Indians leaving camp. On examining the camp, parts of a chain, compass and some papers belonging to Captain Short were found. Among the things abandoned at this camp was a postal card on which an Indian artist had crudely drawn six bodies in various positions with dots marking the wounds of the men in Short's party.

These events in history all took place ten years before Meade was settled and involved men who never lived here but who gave their lives for the progress of our county. Often referred to as the Lone Tree Massacre, it was among the last of the skirmishes with Indians in Southwest Kansas.

The old Lone Tree that marked the graves of the fallen surveyors stood for decades on the Kansas prairie, a testimony to the many sacrifices made by man to tame this land. It met its demise during a summer storm in 1938.

Here we have provided two maps,

The one to the right shows where the plat referenced is located within Meade County and one below shows the location of the lone tree camp and the battle ground within the plat.

The lone tree camp in section 2 was located about a mile and a quarter west of Highway 23 on the road that goes by Southwest Gas Storage (S road.) If you stand on the bridge over Crooked Creek on Highway 23, east of Meade State Lake, and look to the south and a little east (below the bluffs and what is now the sand pit) you will be looking at the location where the wagon and Captain Short's slain party was found.

The Lone Tree camp site in the distance. This photo was taken at the turn of the century, before there was a road passing just to the north of the tree.



This photo and the tree photo above courtesy of Nancy Ohnick

The Lone Tree in the 1920s.


This photo courtesy of Larry and LaDonna Meyers

References: Pioneer Stories of Meade County, Kansas 1950; Meade Globe News, November 1907; letter from Harold Short to Mary Short Browne, Nov. 6,1906 (Meade County Historical Museum); Trails South by C. Robert Haywood.




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