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The Plum Creek Massacre and the Plum Creek Cemetery

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On Aug. 8, 1864, more than 100 Indians attacked a wagon train carrying freight from Sidney, Iowa, to Denver. Eleven people were killed in the attack, including Thomas Morton, the owner of the freight wagons, and his brother-in-law, William Fletcher and his wife’s cousin, John Fletcher.

The men were all scalped, killed and partially burned, their bodies thrown into a ditch as a sort of mass grave.

Nancy Jane (Fletcher) Morton, Thomas’ wife, escaped the killing, but was kidnapped along with a boy, age 7 or 8, named Danny Marble, the son of one of the hired drivers.

Lt. Joseph Bone witnessed the attack from nearby, but was powerless to intervene on his own. He did the next best thing; he sent a telegram to the Commander of the Ft. Kearny post.

“Send company of men here as quick as God can send them. One hundred Indians in sight firing on ox train.”*

News of the killing and the taking of the two hostages swept through the Platte Valley quickly, courtesy of Pacific Telegraph Company. 

A little more than a month later, Major E.W. Wynkoop of the First Colorado Cavalry rescued  Marble, and three others who had been held captive. Marble was adopted by a family in Denver, but never regained his health following the month of captivity. He died shortly after his rescue.

Nancy Jane, however, had been traded to another group of Cheyenne and it would be several more months before her release. A man named Joe Bisonette traveled to Fort Laramie, Wyo., to bargain with the Indians and take back the captive woman.

Giving the Cheyenne a few trinkets, blankets and horses, Bisonette was able to give Nancy Jane her freedom.

Nancy Jane, with the heads of two Indian arrows lodged beneath her skin from her August capture, returned to her home in Iowa, living a long life and marrying a man named George Stephens.

Nancy Jane died in 1912, but not before writing an accounting of her months as a captive of the Cheyenne. Her memoirs were published in a book by the Dawson County Historical Society called “Captive of the Cheyenne” and is available for sale in the Dawson County Museum’s gift shop.

In 1930, a group of citizens from Phelps County dedicated a memorial on the site of the massacre.

In the Nov. 13, 1930 edition of the Dawson County Pioneer, it was reported that 2,500 gathered to attend a dedication to those who lost their lives during the Plum Creek Massacre.

“A large granite marker designates the spot where on Aug. 7, 1864, a caravan of pioneers was massacred by a band of hostile Indians,” reported the newspaper.

Or so they thought.

The Plum Creek Massacre Cemetery is not the actual site of the Indian attack.

The massacre had actually taken place a mile and a half east of the spot where the 1930 marker had been placed.

Through the efforts of longtime rural Lexington resident, the late Clyde Wallace, the marker was moved to the correct massacre location in the early part of 1992.

Wallace, who was about 25 at the time of the 1930 cemetery dedication, recalled his parents attending the original dedication and remarking that it was too bad they had the wrong location of the attack.

Interestingly enough, the date that was inscribed on the memorial, Aug. 7, 1864, was incorrect as well. The massacre had occurred on Aug. 8, 1864.

Through talking with area settlers, Wallace learned of the patch of land where farmers had trouble plowing because under the ground’s surface there was a layer of scrap iron, broken glass and pieces of wooden wagons.

Charles Clayton of Bertrand was one of these people. Clayton had noticed a depression in farmland one and a half miles east of what had been, seven years earlier, named the Plum Creek Cemetery. With permission from the State, he dug into the depression and unearthed a leg bone and a sole of a shoe. There were other graves there as well, although Clayton did not dig further.

Another person whom Wallace consulted extensively about the massacre was Lulu (Lawton) Purinton, the granddaughter of Nancy Jane.

Through Purinton, Wallace had unfettered access to personal papers, photographs and Nancy Jane’s diary, and was able to reconstruct the events that not only led up to the massacre itself, but what happened to Nancy Jane during her period of captivity and her life after she was freed.

The story of Nancy Jane’s capture and captivity was only shared with relatives and close friends until 1940, when it was published in 11 installments in the Bertrand Herald. Later, the original manuscripts of her story were given to Wallace, who wrote the foreword to the book, Captive of the Cheyenne.

To this day, historians recognize the Plum Creek Massacre as one of the best-documented incidents to have taken place during the Indian War of 1864.

*The telegram is part of the permanent collection of the Fort Kearny State Historical Park.

Cemetery NoteAccording to records at the Dawson County Historical Museum, there are two graves in the cemetery that are said to have been moved to the Plum Creek Massacre Cemetery from other locations.

The grave of Sarepta Fly, wife of William Fly, reads, “Here where the silent marble weeps, a friend, a wife, a mother sleeps.”

Sarepta died in 1865 during a trip back to Missouri while on the Oregon Trail.

In August 1963, the grave of a one-year-old child was moved to the cemetery from a pasture on a farm four miles southwest of Loomis.

The body was not identified, although it was known the child died in 1885 or 1886. The reinterment was supervised by the county sheriff, county attorney and a local mortician.

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