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The Tale is in the Tellings

By Daniel Hubbard | July 22, 2012

“…as daylight began to dawn…a bloodcurdling yell of a large band…on ponies and firing at everyone that showed his head…”

Poring over newspapers sometimes turns up something exciting. In this case, the news was not exactly fresh. It was not news. It was a recollection of something that had happened over thirty years before. It was related by a man who wasn’t even there. He had arrived in the area a year after the events occurred. Yet as things go, he was probably not a bad person to pass on the information. A buffalo hunt had ended in a massacre. There was only one survivor. Only one witness could tell the original tale. Every retelling had to be based on his word alone. My storyteller heard it from the horse’s mouth. He also had his own reasons to learn the story.

His father had reached the area by the time the hunt took place. Had the storyteller’s father not fallen ill, he would have packed up his rifle and been among the dead. A son, one would think, remembers that kind of story, heard as an adult and told when it was still fresh. I’ve read other things by this storyteller and he did not sugarcoat his stories. He seems have had no problem recording human folly, even when it was his own. As I tried to pull out the individual facts from the story—perhaps a better word would be “assertions”—I started to think I’d seen this before.

Looking through my files, I discovered that I had seen it. Quite awhile ago, it became one of those pieces of historical background that gets saved “just in case” as one works on a genealogy. Now I had a reason to look more closely at it. The county history that preserved the story said nothing of the connection to the family I am researching. There is no reason that it should. After all, the connection is a man who did not go. Nevertheless, it told the same story of the hunt gone wrong.

Yet, it wasn’t the same story. That is a quite interesting thing. One man survived. One man saw what happened and “lived to tell the tale.” Aside from certain externally verifiable details, like the date the group left, the date they were attacked and the details of the bodies found, all that was known had to come from that one man. Yet two similar but different stories sit on my desk. A guarantee of one and only one original source and two printed results ought to make for an interesting comparison. They might just be able to tell us something about how information like this is preserved.

Looking Back in Time

I’ve found two brief mentions of this story elsewhere in earlier histories. They are similar on some points. Unfortunately, the similarity in these histories can’t be taken as evidence that they are correct. Once published, they are likely to have influenced what came later. One certainly did because the author was one of the sources cited by the county history that I had copied. None of them identify their source for the main events. None of them says that he or she talked to the survivor or the survivor’s relatives, for example. There are other things that make me wonder. Some points seem altered to fit the authors needs.

I’ve made myself a spreadsheet to compare the tellings point by point. I’ve tried to think about what each said about the different things that happened, how consistent they are internally and with the other tellings and how the person doing the telling might have known about what they were describing.

The general outline of the story that all four tellings agree upon is that a group of hunters went after buffalo. The hunt was a success and on the first day of their return trip they encountered one or more Indians, thought little of it and camped for the night near the mouth of White Rock Creek in Kansas. The next morning all but one of them was killed.

Version 1A

One of the brief versions was published in 1883. It tells of “thoughtless” shooting at a group of Indians who were well out of range. It has the survivor scolding the rest of the party for risking riling the Indians. The rest of the party thought that he was overreacting. So, those that died were chastised for their thoughtlessness by the one man who would survive. The one man who was lucky enough to live is the only one who came out of the previous days foolishness looking good. Really? The wise man survives while the foolish meet a gory end?

In this telling the men scattered when the attack came and were cut down as they fled. The survivor was saved when his pursuer was distracted by another fleeing man. He crawled along the river and hid under an overhang. This was a story with a moral. Foolish people are punished. Not surprisingly, there was no mention of the source of the information.

Version 1B

By 1901 the shooting by the hunters seems to have been legitimate self-defense, at least the reader is left to assume that it was. The next morning they mounted a previously unmentioned “desperate resistance” with no mention of any fleeing. That might have seemed cowardly. Where did that heroism originate? In this version the survivor simply hid in the brush. No mention of how he got there or that he was near a river. The moral has been replaced by heroism. Again, no mention of the source of the information.

Version 1C

By the time that the last history was written the hunters were “overtaken” by Indians the day before the attack but they drove them away with gunfire. Nothing was written about being hopelessly out of range. There was no detail of the attack at all except that the survivor hid at the river bank. No moral or heroism survived in this telling and only a hint of foolishness remained. Surprisingly, two sources were mentioned, one was the author of the 1901 history. These versions are not independent but this one does seem like an attempt at real history.

There is no mention of the source of the information about the hunt. The author had been a ten-year-old in Ohio or Missouri at the time and her book was published years after the survivor died. There was a long passage quoting a man who had gone to the camp afterward to bury the dead. He said that the bodies were all crowded together. That would tend to weigh against having been killed only after fleeing a good distance.

Version 2

The storytellers version was very different. There was no shooting the day before the attack. Instead they saw lone horsemen in the distance. They never saw more than one at a time and wondered if it might be an Indian or Indians. Some thought it would be wise to press on for the settlement of Scandia, only a few miles distant, but most thought that they were safe. After all, they were well armed and they might have seen just a single horseman several times. Their horses were tired and it would be good to let them rest. They did not even bother taking turns sitting watch overnight, that wouldn’t be necessary.

The next morning, at the first hint of dawn, the survivor awoke and felt thirsty. He ambled over to a nearby spring to get a drink while his companions slept. Once he was well away from the camp, he heard the thunder of hooves and shouts and screams and gunfire as the attackers shot the hunters dead. The survivor dove into the brush near the spring and went unnoticed even when an Indian came to the spring to drink, though he claimed he could have reached out from his hiding place and touched him.

One Witness, Two Versions, Four Sets of Details

What do we make of this? I see a few things to think about.

Often in family history we are lucky to find just one telling of a story. Here we have four tellings that display two distinct versions. Even the three tellings that are roughly the similar are very different on many points. The forth is clearly about the same occurrences and yet it is very, very different. What does that tell us about trusting that the only version of a story we can find is “true”?

Frequently, different versions of a story can be attributed to different participants and witnesses all seeing different things. They could be fragments of reality that just need proper assembly. In this case, there was only one man who could be the source. Why are the different tellings, especially the storyteller’s, so different. Did the survivor tell one “official” version and another just-between-you-and-me version? Did the authors simply change the story to suit themselves? Did they embellish some details, invent some and drop others?

When people record stories they can have different angles. County histories especially can try to teach lessons or show the county’s residents, past and present, not just in the best light but in unreal light. None of the authors mentioned that there were different versions of what had happened or that there was some disagreement on the facts of the matter. Did “county history etiquette” change the story?

I find it interesting that the version that differed the most from the others, was the only version that referred back to having gotten the information from that one survivor. It was told by a man who twice lived in the same place as that survivor and whose father certainly knew the survivor, so it is quite believable that he really did hear it from the horse’s mouth. So what did “the horse” really say? That is what family history tries to figure out.

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