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 (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
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
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.
Colonel 38th Infantry, Brevet Major General.
THE INDIAN CAPTIVITY OF CLARA BLINN
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."
"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:
of the Washita: The Sheridan-Custer Indian Campaign of 1867-69 by Stan Hoig
Son of the Morning Star by Evan S. Connell (1984).
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.