Clara Harrington Blinn Murdered at Washita River Masacre 1868

Clara Harrington Blinn

Hope Cemetery, Ottawa, Franklin County, Kansas

Harrington, Clara died 11-27-1868, age 21y

Harrington, E. Harriet born 8-11-1825, died 5-7-1907

Harrington, Infant died (Possibly Clara's child.)

Harrington, William T. 2-3-1888, age 68y

Clara Harrington Blinn

Clara Harrington Blinn (1847-1868)

-- condensed from a booklet, by John Lambertson. Franklin County Historical Society, Ottawa, Kansas.

Clara Isabelle Harrington was born in 1847 in Ohio. She was the daughter of William Theodore, or W. T., Harrington and his wife, Harriet Elizabeth Bosley Harrington.

Clara was the third of seven children in that family and was raised in the Toledo/Perrysburg, Ohio area. There, she was married to Richard Blinn, about 1865, and the following year they had a son, William. She is described as being petite with dark, chestnut hair and a dimple in her chin; and has been described as really quite pretty. She was also noted, in the area, for her clear soprano voice. She apparently was quite bright and well educated, from the letter she wrote out of captivity. She apparently had some sense of humor. Her husband's diary, when they were first going out West to what is now Southeastern Colorado, reports some April Fool prank that she was pulling on some of the other members of the team.

Clara's husband, Richard Blinn, was born in 1842, in Perrysburg, Ohio. He served in the 31st Ohio infantry in the Civil War, on the Union side. He was wounded, a wound that he never fully recovered from, and he married Clara after his discharge. Now, as a newlywed couple with a small child, they were looking for new opportunities for themselves. In the spring of 1868 they and some of the other members of the Blinn family decided to go to what is now Southeastern Colorado and try their fortunes out there. I am not certain as to who else in the Blinn family went. Apparently, Richard's brother, Hubble Blinn went, also his sister, Charlotte, and her husband Steve.

They left Perrysburg on Sunday, March 15,1868, by train, by locomotive, and went to Kansas City by that route. In Kansas City, they were able to obtain wagons for their caravan and mules . They experienced some of the usual hazards of the trails -- a broken axle, for example -- on the way out, etc. The route in going out to their new venture in the West was through Shawnee Mission. Again, these are mentioned in Dick Blinn's diary. He did mention going into the town of Burlingame, also Junction City, Abilene, Salina, and Solomon City. This, again, is in the spring of 1868, and these places were in their infancy. The train tracks were just being laid out in that direction. Basically, they followed the Smokey Hill Trail out West. He mentions Fort Parker, Ellsworth; he spent some time in Hays City, and had some blacksmithing done there. Then they moved on down south to Dodge. They mentioned several other minor forts and stations along the way.

They reached their destination on Sand Creek on April 20, 1868. This was near Fort Lyons in Southeastern Colorado. Dick Blinn, in his diary, says on that day, "I liked the place first rate." I don't know how long that "like" lasted. Apparently, they tried their hand a little bit at doing some ranching, which apparently was not successful. But what was more promising was that they were able to operate a stage station on the southern overland mail route, and took care of the passengers and the teams that came through. Clara would have cooked for the passengers.

Unfortunately, that fizzled after a few months also. Apparently the coach was removed from that particular route. So they were sort of left out there, without any other kinds of means of support by the early fall of 1868. So they decided to give up and head back East. Well, his family was still in Ohio, but hers, by this time, had moved here to Franklin County. So, as many people did when things didn't work out for them in the West, they "gave up and went back to the wife's people." And that's basically what they were going to do. Clara, apparently, relayed a message to her Aunt Myra in Lawrence, who she was very close to, that they were going to come back and settle in Franklin County. But she wanted it to be a surprise and not to tell her parents that they were coming. Therefore, the Blinns' decision was unknown to the Harringtons in Franklin County.

The caravan was attacked about 10 miles east of the mouth of Sand Creek on the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail. It was near the present day town of Bristol, Colorado, and getting fairly close to what is now the Kansas line. The caravan, according to Hubble Blinn, Richard Blinn's brother who was there and among the party, consisted of Richard and Clara and little Willie, two years old, seven other white men, and a Negro. There is also the suggestion that maybe the sister, Charlotte, and her husband were along again, it is somewhat confusing on this particular point. Anyway, they were vastly out numbered, whether there were 75 Indians or whether there were 200 Indians. The Indians gave up and these men were left out there on foot. They returned to the fort to spread the alarm, to tell of what had happened, and to tell that this young 21-year-old woman and her two-year-old son had been taken captive.

We also don't know for sure what all transpired in the following six weeks for Clara. What we do know is that she and Willie were taken and traveled for several hundred miles down further into Indian Territory. Where they ended up was in Western Oklahoma on the Washita River, and they were there by early November 1868. It was at that particular point that an incident occurred that has helped seal this event in the footnotes of the history of American warfare with the Indians. Clara was able to get smuggled out of the Indian camp a letter, sort of a distress letter, begging for assistance to get her released. This is whatClara wrote, the last communication from her: "Saturday, November 7", now again, she has almost been a month in captivity by this point, 1868.

[Saturday November 7 1868]
"Kind friend[s], whoever you may be, I thank you for your kindness to me and my child. You want me to let you know my wishes. If you could only buy us from the Indians with ponies or anything and let me come stay with you until I can get word to my friends, they would pay you. And I would work and do all I could for you. If it is not too far to their camp, and you are not a fraid to come, I pray you will try. They tell me, as near as 1 can understand, they expect traders to come and they will sell us to them. [Can you find out by this man and let me know if it is white men?] If it is Mexicans, I am afraid they will sell us into slavery in Mexico.

If you can do nothing for me, write to W. T. Harrington, Ottawa, Franklin County, Kansas, my father. Tell him we are with the Cheyennes and they say when the white men make peace, we can go home. Tell him to write the governor of Kansas about it and for them to make peace. Send this to him. We were taken on October 9 on the Arkansas, below Fort Lyon. I cannot tell whether they killed my husband or not. My name is Mrs. Clara Blinn, my little boy, Willie Blinn, is two years old. Do all you can for me. Write to the peace commissioners to make peace this fall. For our sake[s], do all you can and God will bless you. If you can let me hear from you again, please let me know what you think about it. Write [to] my father; send this to him.

Mrs. R. F. Blinn."

She adds a little footnote. "I am as well as can be expected, but my baby is very sick."

Coordinator's note: The US Government's transcript of Clara's letter, differs slightly from other transcripts. Words and passages omitted by others, have been included above.

The Military's response to Clara's letter:

Headquarters Southern Indian District,
Fort Cobb, Indian Territory, November 25, 1868.

Respectfully forwarded to Lieutenant General W.T. Sherman, United States army, for his information.

The letter tells its own story. I have given a Mr. Griffensten, who first communicated with the writer, full care of this case, with permission to trade with the friendly Indians nearest the Cheyennes, with direction to spare no trouble nor expense in his efforts to reclaim these parties.

W.B. Hazen
Colonel 38th Infantry, Brevet Major General.


Who was to blame for her death?

by Danita Ross

In early October 1868 Clara Blinn and her two year old son, Willie, were taken captive by Indians along the Santa Fe Trail near the mouth of Sand Creek, not far from present day Lamar, Colorado. Clara and her husband Richard, had decided to leave Colorado Territory where they found it hard to make a living and had joined an eastbound caravan of wagons to return to Clara's family in Franklin County, Kansas.

When the raiders, believed to be mostly Cheyennes, attacked the wagon train, Clara and little Willie hid under a feather mattress in a supply wagon. After a siege of several days, the Indians left, taking the supply wagon with Clara and her young son as part of their booty. The captives were held at the winter camp of the Cheyenne chief Black Kettle on the Washita River in southern Indian Territory (in present Oklahoma). When U.S. Army forces, led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, attacked the Cheyenne encampment on November 27, both Clara and Willie died. The death of Clara and her infant son became part of the controversy surrounding the Battle of the Washita and the reputation of Colonel Custer.

Mary Forrester Moorehead of Santa Fe, NewMexico, is a grandniece of Clara Harrington Blinn. The life and death of her grandmother's older sister has haunted her since childhood. In those days, all traces of Clara's story were tucked away in a bundle in an old trunk and carefully ignored by the family. "As a child in Kansas, " Moorehead remembers, " I used to sneak up alone to my grandmother's attic and take out of the large wooden trunk a mysterious parcel. It contained the mementos of my Grandaunt Clara's last days. I would remove the items one at a time and wonder about them and about Clara." The momentos included: an old clipping from an Ottawa, Kansas, newspaper; a hurriedly penciled letter from Clara in scratchy handwriting dated November 7. 1868; a piece from the hem of a calico dress; a fringed, beaded Arapaho bag; a yellowed letter from Gen. Philip Sheridan; a lock of hair; and two tiny stones.

From the newsclippings and the letters, Moorehead knew that her grandaunt had been a captive in Chief Black Kettle's camp, but she was baffled by her family's silence regarding her grandaunt. "I simply could not understand my family's reluctance to speak of Aunt Clara. My mother had great pride in our family history. Yet she would never, never speak of Aunt Clara when I was young. Neither would my grandmother." Ironically, in those days, the only information Moorehead was able to get came from the family's Cherokee maid Ada. She knew something of Plains history and had read old news articles about Clara Blinn. Ada also instilled in Moorehead a curiosity about the Indian side of the story. "Only when I reached adulthood did my mother finally relent and tell Clara's story as the family knew it," Moorehead explains. The old momentos, which Moorehead now owns, trace the narrative. She shows the original handwritten letter, now preserved under glass, that Clara wrote from Black Kettle's camp. The plaintive plea for help from the twenty-one-year-old captive entreats:

"Kind Friend....if you could only buy us of the Indians with ponies or anything and let me come and stay with you until I could get word to my friends, they would pay you..."

Moorehead notes of the letter: "Family legend claims that a trader smuggled a pencil and paper into Clara in a pan of flour. But no one knows for certain." (The letter was delivered to the military and then released to the press. It appeared in many newspapers.) During the autumn of 1868 the U.S. Army had embarked upon a resolute campaign against hostile Indians. The plan was to chastise them through swift, surprise attacks on their winter camps. On November 27, 1868, in a bitterly cold dawn assault, Custer surrounded Black Kettle's settlement on the Washita River, carrying out General Sheridan's orders to destroy the village, kill the Indian warriors and their horses, and take prisoner the women and children.

The Cheyenne camp bore the main force of Custer's attack, but the Arapahos and Kiowas were also encamped nearby. Moorehead points out that the various battle accounts show discrepancies as to just where Clara and Willie were found. In whichever camp Clara spent her final hours - whether Cheyenne or Kiowa - we know that she was found shot in the head, and that Willie's skull was crushed. (Reports differ as to whether they had been scalped.) Bread was stuffed into the front of Clara's dress.

The surmise was that in the melee, Clara had grabbed food and Willie and was trying to escape when she was accidentally shot by the troopers as she ran toward them. Some critics of the Battle of the Washita contend that the proper term to describe the encounter is "massacre." They censure Custer and Sheridan for carrying out a massacre of Indians who had agreed to peace and who had been promised rations and security by the army. Critics have also suggested that Custer should have attempted to secure the safety of any captives in Black Kettle's camp, as the military knew that Clara and her little son were being held there.

Ms. Moorehead displays the Arapaho bag that carried General Sheridan's condolence letter to the family. Sheridan also sent the hem piece cut from Clara's mulberry-colored calicodress. He did this, Moorehead explains, to show the family that Clara had not been made to work too terribly hard, as the hem was still tight and unfrayed after Clara had been in captivity for more than a month and a half. The lock of Willie's hair that Sheridan ordered clipped before burial of the bodies at Fort Arbuckle came back to the family through Richard Blinn. He had survived the attack in Colorado Territory, but his lone search for his wife and child had taken three months.

He arrived at Fort Arbuckle in January of 1869, where at last he learned their sad fate. Blinn built a sturdy fence around the gravesites of Clara and Willie and took a small stone from each grave to carry with him - the two small stones Moorehead keeps today. Moorehead's search to understand not only Clara's story but how it fit into the context of the times has taken years of investigation. At Stanford University library she pored over records of Indian allotments of food and supplies set by treaties with the U.S. government. She was particularly interested in discovering the disbursements of allotments for Black Kettle's Cheyennes. She was not surprised to find that the actual allotments fell short of the agreed-upon provisions. "I have come to realize," she says, "that even the most respected Indians, like Black Kettle, who had signed for peace and tried to live up to it, might hold a white captive to secure more supplies in the wake of inadequate allotments and brutal winters." Moorehead had also retraced her grandaunt's journey from capture in Colorado, south to Oklahoma, to stand at the battle site on the Washita River in November. "I wanted to feel, as much as I could, what it might have been like for Clara," she says. Somewhat sadly, she has come to understand her family's early reluctance to talk of her grandmother's older sister. "Reflecting the mentality of the day, Clara was considered a loser in the family. If she had escaped and tried to re-enter the Anglo culture of 1868, she would have been considered sullied, an outcast." For it was naturally assumed that she had met "the fate worse than death," as one cavalry lieutenant remarked on the presumed sexual abuse by the Indians.

General Sheridan, himself, exemplified this same attitude, evidently discouraged efforts to ransom Clara Blinn. In his best-selling Son of the Morning Star (1984), Evan Connell reports a purported conversation between Sheridan and Gen. W B. Hazen, obviously before Sheridan knew of Richard Blinn's survival. Connell quotes Sheridan: "After having her husband & friends murdered, and her own person subjected to the fearful bestiality of perhaps the whole tribe, it is mock humanity to secure what is left of her [Clara Blinn] for the consideration of 5 ponies." (page 181)

"While many women broke from the strain of just trying to exist on the Plains," points out Ms. Moorehead, "Clara's remarkable fortitude kept her struggling for freedom to the very end of her ordeal. To me, Clara was a heroine. She was a young, bright, brave woman. And as much a source of pride as the English colonists in our family. It is a shame to have kept her in an attic so long."

Bibliographic note. Some of the material in this piece comes from remembrances of the family of Clara Blinn. However, the main events in her captivity were described in many newspapers of the time. Various authors have mentioned the Blinn tragedy in works relating to the Battle of the Washita or the career of George Armstrong Custer. For examples, consult the indexes of the following books for information about Clara and little Willie:

The Battle of the Washita: The Sheridan-Custer Indian Campaign of 1867-69 by Stan Hoig (1976).

Son of the Morning Star by Evan S. Connell (1984).

Warpath and Council Fire: The Plains' Indians' Struggle for survival in War and in Diplomacy 1851-1891 by Stanley Vestal (1948).

This material was provided to me by Father John McMullen.

Contributor: LTC James Shepherd, USMC (Ret.); California.

Read More About Clara and the Battle at Washita River.

Click on VIEW DOCUMENTS to see online images of the 1869 Congressional Documents.
Image 41 and 42 includes a transcript of Clara's letter. Image 30 enumerates items confiscated during the raid.