The Disappearing Bowens: Two Frontier Mysteries
by Betty Lou Gaeng
Twentieth-century Irish novelist Kathleen Coyle wrote: It is absurd to think that life begins for us at birth. The pattern is set far back; we merely step into the process. For a young Frank BOWEN, that pattern was set in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley where his ancestors had settled almost 130 years before his birth. It stayed with him through family moves to Missouri, Nebraska and Montana. These are the stories of Frank and his mother Rebecca Sperry RUFFNER, her family, the family’s journeys, and, by the time the story ends, two unsolved disappearances.
Peter A. RUFFNER was born in 1812 in Page County, Virginia in the RUFFNER family’s ancestral home beside Hawksbill Creek in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. Peter was one of the ten surviving children of Jonas RUFFNER and Anna MAUCK, and great-grandson of the pioneers, Peter RUFFNER and Mary STEINMAN.
In 1828, Peter’s mother Anna died. One year following her untimely death, his father Jonas married Elizabeth (PRICE) SPERRY, a widow, with two young daughters of her own. The families had been friends for many years. The eldest of Elizabeth’s daughters was 15-year old Eliza Jane SPERRY. As teenagers sharing the same household, it was not surprising that step- brother and sister, Peter and Eliza, eventually fell in love and married.
Following their 1835 marriage, Peter and Eliza established a home one mile west of the RUFFNER ancestral homeplace. On his portion of the fertile valley land, following in the footsteps of his ancestors, Peter became a farmer. His farm was on land that for many years had been part of the RUFFNER holdings. This particular land was very unusual—beneath it the earth was honeycombed with passageways. The family was aware of the caves, but for safety reasons any entrance was sealed and no explorations were made by the family.
It was on this farmland and in the house located on the property that Peter and Eliza Jane RUFFNER’s seven children were born. Five of their children survived—Emma Jane, Martha Caroline Marye, Rebecca Sperry, William Joseph and Peter Edwin. Very likely Peter and Eliza had expectations of living their lives on their farm, raising their children on this land, and growing old together in the Shenandoah Valley. This is where their roots were, where they were born—where their families had lived for a hundred years. However, this was not what the future held for Peter and Eliza Jane RUFFNER.
In 1839, Peter’s father Jonas died unexpectedly. Surviving Jonas were his widow Elizabeth, the ten children from his first marriage to Anna, and a young boy and girl born during his second marriage. It was surprising and unusual that no will was found. Jonas’ widow Elizabeth was appointed to administer the vast estate along with Jonas’ second son. In the settlement of the estate, the pioneer home was sold and other decisions were made that would alter the lives of Jonas’ first family. From the beginning, the second marriage had not been well received by Jonas’ offspring, and they were never close to their stepmother. Following their father’s death and then the final settlement of his estate, the family drifted apart.
By the mid-1850s, except for one, all the children from Jonas’ first marriage had left the family’s ancestral lands. Some went to the western section of Virginia which later became the state of West Virginia. Others went to Missouri, and one to California. Peter and Eliza’s farm was sold, and in 1849 they moved from Page County, and settled in Rappahannock County, Virginia.
The unusual land that Peter and Eliza left behind in Page County saw many changes over the years, and was even occupied by troops during the Civil War. Over three decades after the sale of the land by the RUFFNERS, the caves were explored and opened to the public by enterprising businessmen. They were named the Luray Caverns, and have long been considered the most beautiful and popular of the many caverns that are tourist attractions in the valley.
In our time, even though the RUFFNERs had sold this land over 160 years before, there is still a reminder of their connection to the cavern property. On the hillside above the public entrance to the Luray Caverns, there is an old entrance, now sealed by a heavy steel plate. The ancient entrance to this section of the caverns is known to this day as RUFFNER’s Cave. This area is considered too dangerous to be open to the public. Family lore relates that in the 1760s, a young son of the pioneer RUFFNER family decided to do some exploring. He entered the cave at this spot and became lost in the maze of passageways. One week later, exhausted and near starvation, he found his way to safety.
Now, back to the travels of Peter and Eliza and their family. In 1855, following a temporary stay in Rappahannock County, Peter and Eliza along with their children moved to the town of Oregon, Holt County, Missouri. Living nearby was a family named BOWEN. The RUFFNERS and BOWENS soon became friends. Their son, James W. BOWEN, was one year older than Rebecca, the youngest RUFFNER daughter. Rebecca and James were classmates and friends.
Mother Eliza Jane died in 1861 while the family was still living in Missouri. Then the Civil War broke out, and, since Missouri as a border state was suffering with the upheaval, the family decided, two years following Eliza’s death, to move to Plattsmouth, Cass County, Nebraska. It was much noted in the family that Peter always longed to be back in Virginia—his heart was still there. This was never to be. Peter A. RUFFNER died of consumption in 1870 and he is buried in Plattsmouth.
The three sisters in the RUFFNER family then, in a perhaps unusual move, took the lead in the move westward. Emma, Martha and Rebecca went west to the frontier of Montana Territory. The two boys, William Joseph and Peter Edwin, remained in Nebraska, established themselves in business, married and raised their families there.
Eldest daughter Emma was the first to leave home. By 1863, Emma had married an older man, a widower, Robert G. EMERSON. Robert had become sheriff in the Missouri Valley, a very rough part of Montana Territory. The settlement was Diamond City, Meagher County, a place where gold had recently been discovered. Emma moved with her husband to this frontier. Emma and Robert never had children of their own, but Robert had three sons from his first marriage: James C., William H. and Robert EMERSON.
Martha, the second eldest daughter, married Andrew TUTT, in 1863. In 1884 along with their three children, Lee Emerson, Maude Elizabeth, and James Ewing, they headed to Helena, Montana. Martha’s husband Andrew died in Helena the following year.
However, the remainder of the story is mainly about the youngest sister Rebecca Sperry RUFFNER: her marriages, her family, and the tragedies she would face.
Rebecca’s relationship with her neighbor and friend James BOWEN became a romantic one. However, with the beginning of the Civil War, James, whose family had roots in Kentucky, joined the Confederacy and served with the Kentucky Cavalry. Following the war, James worked and earned enough so that he could travel to Nebraska from his family’s home in Missouri. He and Rebecca were married in September of 1867 in Plattsmouth. The BOWENS then moved to St. Louis, Missouri. During a short marriage, three children were born to Rebecca and James—in 1868, Frank BOWEN was born; Tina in 1869, and Burkett J. (called Buck, and sometimes Bert) was born in 1871. Only the two boys survived; Tina died young.
In St. Louis, James BOWEN was a merchant, just as his father had been. Tragedy came into the lives of the young family with the disappearance of James BOWEN in 1877. No trace of him was ever found, and eventually Rebecca filed for divorce, dissolving the marriage. Rebecca and the two boys then lived with her in-laws for a short time, but by 1882, she and her two sons had moved back to Nebraska to join her sister Martha. Rebecca continued as a schoolteacher just as she had been. Then in 1884 when sister Martha and her husband and family moved to Helena, Rebecca and her sons joined them.
In Montana, Rebecca married again. As her eldest sister Emma had done, she married a lawman. In fact, she married her sister Emma’s stepson, James C. EMERSON, a deputy sheriff in Cascade County. Rebecca, James and the two boys settled in Great Falls, but were often further north at the family’s ranch on the Teton River.
Rebecca’s son Frank BOWEN was an enterprising young man and by the young age of 16, he had his own business, a small freight hauling operation. His usual routing took him to Salt Lake City, Utah—the round trip taking about four months. In the fall of 1886, Frank decided to make another freight haul. However, it was too late in the year to make the regular Salt Lake City run, so his mother persuaded Frank to make a shorter one from their home in Great Falls to a mining camp in the Teton River area—about 60 miles north. Frank loaded his wagon and after saying a good-bye to his mother, he set out for the camp. Four horses were pulling the freight wagon and trailing behind, tied to the wagon, was Frank’s saddle horse. This was the last time Rebecca ever saw her eldest son. Frank BOWEN did not make it to the mining camp and no trace of him was to be found.
In the spring following Frank’s disappearance, Lee Emerson TUTT, Frank’s older cousin, who sometimes worked on the EMERSON’s ranch, was sent to Chicago on ranch business. At the stockyards in Chicago, Lee saw a horse that looked familiar. In checking, he recognized the brand and realized it was his cousin Frank BOWEN’s riding horse, the one that had been tied to the wagon. Lee immediately sent a telegram to Frank’s stepfather, Deputy Sheriff James EMERSON. Deputy EMERSON headed for Chicago himself. In questioning the people at the stockyards, he found very little information. All he learned was that the horse was brought to the stockyards with a herd of range horses from Montana. Frank’s stepfather did what he could to locate the source, but he was never able to solve the mystery. No trace of the wagon and the four other horses was ever found. They had completely disappeared, along with young Frank BOWEN.
For the rest of her life, Frank’s mother never gave up hope that her son would return one day. However, just as it had happened with his father, Frank was gone forever. Rebecca’s remaining son never married, continuing instead to live with his mother and stepfather. He too preceded his mother in death, dying in 1909 at the age of 38. Burkett BOWEN’s grave is located at Forestvale Cemetery in Helena, Montana, next to the graves of his mother Rebecca and his stepfather James EMERSON. Rebecca died in 1917 and James in 1919.
Several years ago, I visited Rebecca’s grave in Helena. Standing there and recalling the sadness in the life of Rebecca RUFFNER BOWEN EMERSON, I thought that it must have been very difficult for her. Most of us have lost loved ones, but to lose both a husband and a son under circumstances that remained unsolved mysteries must have been extremely hard to bear.
Neither Rebecca nor her sister Emma had offspring surviving them. Of the three sisters who ventured west, only Martha had descendants.
As a widow Martha eventually continued a westward trek, finally making Yakima, Washington her home, as did her son Lee. She died there at the age of 86, and is buried in Yakima’s Tahoma Cemetery. Her son Lee is buried there as well. Daughter Maude Elizabeth died in 1946 and is buried in Edmonds Pioneer Cemetery, Edmonds, Washington. Youngest son James died on the East Coast.
Frank BOWEN’s cousin, Lee Emerson TUTT, was my maternal grandfather. I will always owe a debt of gratitude to Grandfather Lee’s younger sister, Maude Elizabeth, my great aunt. In her twilight years, she came to live with our family. Aunt Maude, as we called her, was a prolific storyteller and writer. Remembrances of her stories and the vast amount of paperwork she left behind gave me invaluable help in learning my family’s history. Aunt Maude’s collection of family memorabilia and writings was a priceless gift—the fulfillment of every genealogist’s dream.
© Betty Lou Gaeng
Historian for the Ruffner Family Association
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