Saturday, March 31, 2012

Tornadoes in the Wild West: Hunkerin' Down for the Big Winds

I have always been fascinated by weather, particularly tornadoes. On May 22, 2008, I spent three hours in a basement closet with my infant granddaughter as the Larimer County, Colorado emergency services issued one tornado warning after another. Eventually, a mile wide tornado with golf ball size hail and winds of 150 mph touched down on the east side of the highway causing horrendous damage to the city of Windsor. One person died, 14 were injured, and the total damage to homes and vehicles came to $193.5 million.

Radar image of the May 2008 supercell over Windsor, Colorado. 

While researching stories for my weather website, Wild West Weather, I read about a similar mile-wide tornado in a book by Rod Beemer called The Deadliest Woman in the West: Mother Nature on the Prairies and Plains. Beemer tells the story of a young man, Ely Moore, Jr., who traveled into the Kansas Territory during the summer of 1854.

Multi-vortex tornado in Dallas, Texas on April 2, 1957.

Ely Moore, Jr. was 21 years old that year. His father, Ely Moore, Sr., was a special agent for the confederated Indian tribes, which included the Miamis, Weas, Peorias, Kaskaskias, and Piankeshaws. Moore was asked to deliver a packet of letters from Washington to deliver to his father. The first stop on his journey was at the Miami Mission, 65 miles south of what is now Kansas City, and he arrived just before the annual buffalo hunt, which the tribes used to stock up on meat and robes for the winter months. Moore was invited to join the tribes on their hunt and he eagerly accepted.

Peoria Indian. Painting by George Catlin.

The Miami and four other tribes joined together in a group of 400 men and 50 women. They had 100 wagons with two oxen each and 200 pack ponies in addition to their hunting horses. They were headed for southwest Kansas, a place called "Blind River," where they expected to find vast herds of buffalo. The group was well-armed to protect themselves from any hostiles during their journey. I suspect they did not consider that hostile forces might come from the skies!

Buffalo in Wellington, Colorado. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

Nevertheless, three weeks into the hunt the weather turned unbearably hot. Even the buffalo seemed reluctant to move. Humans and animals alike slowed their movements to a crawl as they struggled with the slightest activity, including breathing. The description sounds very similar to what cowboys in the Old West referred to as a Blue Norther, a sudden rise in temperature followed by a quick drop in temperature and a severe storm.
Severe storm in the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

The Indian chief called for the hunters to return to camp and Moore joined them. The chief pointed to a swarm of grasshoppers. Rather than stopping to devour everything in their path as grasshoppers will do when they transform into locust, this swarm seemed to be fleeing. The chief told the group he suspected a "Devil Wind" was coming and instructed everyone to prepare.
Grasshopper photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

This is the part that fascinates me. Clearly, these men and women had experienced this type of weather before. They knew exactly what to do to prepare for the coming storm and it took them nearly five hours to complete the process.

First, they moved the wagons into a circle formation and dug narrow trenches so each wagon wheel could be lowered to its axle into the trench. They used strips of buffalo hide to secure the wagons and wagon covers. The hunting horses were led into the center and the braves stood beside their horses through the storm. According to Moore's report, the value of these horses surpassed their usefulness in hunting. They were also considered to be "a desirable companion in the crossing-over journey." The women and children took shelter by lying down in the wagons. The cattle were rounded up and watched with double guard. This seems logical to me. The last thing you would want to have during a storm would be a cattle stampede inside a circle of wagons!
Wagon train, 1800s. Photographer unknown. 

The prairie land was silent. Not a sound from the birds and bugs--they had all moved on. The sky turned an eerie black, purple and green color, and anyone who has experienced a storm with tornadoes knows that color of green. It is something you never forget. The cloud moved forward and a faint rumbling sound could be heard. Moore looked around the camp at his companions who stood silent, confident and brave, prepared for the worst.

The first tornado captured by the NSSL doppler radar and NSSL chase personnel. The tornado is here in its early stage of formation. Union City, Oklahoma. May 24, 1973.

As the cloud grew closer, Moore explained, a strange electrical current whipped through the circle. According to Moore, "As electric sparks snapped from the tips of our horses' ears, the moaning, shivering creatures pressed close to their masters. The wheels of our wagons were circled by the electric fluid, and many bolts were drawn from our wagon-beds. Then came the wind, and with it hail of irregular shape and great size." The hail caused great harm and pain to the cattle and ponies, and undoubtedly to the men who were trying to protect them, as well. The hail also shredded many of the wagon covers.

Hail in Loveland, Colorado on July 13, 2011. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

When Moore looked up at the main tornado cloud moving toward them he estimated it to be a mile wide. At first, it appeared as if it would miss the wagons, then Moore noticed a second tornado, which he referred to as a "feeder of the parent dragon." The second tornado was set to hit the wagons head-on when it was suddenly sucked back up into the clouds and instead dropped sand, earth, grass and trees from the sky in large enough quantities to break a few of the wagon beds.

Union City, Oklahoma. May 24, 1973. 

Moore does not report any human fatalities, though a few of the cattle and ponies where injured severely enough that they were put down. The men and women repaired what they could and left the camp to continue their journey in the morning. They found the path from the tornado was more than a mile wide. They also found a few buffalo that had apparently been picked up by the tornado and crushed when thrown back to the ground.

Buffalo in Wellington, Colorado. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

The experience did not discourage Ely Moore, Jr. In fact, it inspired him. He fell in love with the great power of nature as displayed in the Kansas prairies and made his home there. He lived in Lawrence, Kansas until 1918 and died at the age of 84.

Dimmett, Texas, June 2, 1995.


  • Beemer, Rod. The Deadliest Woman in the West. Caxton Press. Caldwell, Idaho: 2006.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The First School for the Higher Education of Women West of the Mississippi was Founded by the Cherokee

It was not the early settlers who founded the first school for the higher education of women west of the Mississippi, it was the Cherokee who recognized education for women as the road to equality. What is now known as Northeastern State University in Oklahoma was originally the Cherokee National Female Seminary, located in Park Hill, Oklahoma, established in 1851 in a classic, two-story brick building.

The seminary's first students varied in age, starting as young as 14. According to Joan Swallow Reiter's Old West: The Women, many of these young women were descended from intermarriages, though Reiter does not cite her source for this information. The women were expected to dress like white women. They were offered classes in Bible studies, mental arithmetic, philosophy, Latin, chemistry, and culture, in addition to at least an hour of housework daily.

The teachers for the seminary came from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts. Two Cherokee leaders traveled to Massachusetts to interview the teachers when they were told that Mount Holyoke had a reputation for "rigorous academic training."

This is not as surprising as it might seem. In spite of the fact that the Cherokee were forced from their land and homes onto reservations and endured the same atrocities inflicted on other Indians by the federal government, the Cherokee tribe sought to acclimate itself to these changes, adopting the best qualities of white society, including education. In addition to the female seminary, they also established a male seminary nearby. They printed books and newspapers in their own language and offered tuition-free education.

The Cherokee alphabet is a fascinating story, as well. It was created by a Cherokee named Sequoyah, who was born around 1777 to a Cherokee mother and white father. He was lame, illiterate, and brilliant, according to Kenneth C. Davis, author of American History. During Sequoyah's time, Cherokee could not read or write in their own language, but he was exposed to the English language and writing through his father and fascinated by the printed word. He decided to create a system of writing for the Cherokee, a task he described as similar to "catching a wild animal and taming it." He eventually devised a script of 86 symbols representing the 86 syllables spoken by the Cherokee. It is so simple, so logical, that most people learn the system in two weeks or less.

It is also the "only system of writing invented independently by a single person and used by a nation," according to Davis. The first newspaper of the Cherokee nation, the Cherokee Phoenix, was written using Sequoyah's system of symbols. Davis also explains that the Cherokee tried to form a state named Sequoyah to honor the man who invented their system of writing. Instead, this state was named Oklahoma.

The Cherokee National Female Seminary in Oklahoma did not fare well, either. Five years after the school opened, it was forced to temporarily close due to financial troubles. It reopened after the American Civil War, then was destroyed by fire in 1887. The school was rebuilt at Tahlequah, Oklahoma Territory, which is the Cherokee tribal capital and did well until 1907 when Oklahoma became a state and absorbed the Cherokee education and political system into its own. The Cherokee National Female Seminary then became Oklahoma's Northeastern State University.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Comanche Raid in Hamilton County, Texas: The Heroic Death and Sacrifice of Schoolteacher Ann Whitney and the Daring Ride of Miss Amanda Howard

In continuing with the theme of Women's History Month, the story of the heroic acts of Miss Ann Whitney and Miss Amanda Howard. As with many stories of traumatic incidents, the accounts of what happened often differ greatly. In piecing together this story I have attempted to consult, and credit, as many credible sources as possible. The story of these heroic women was originally told by Eulalia Nabers Wells in her memoir titled Blazing the Way, but I first heard of the heroic sacrifice of Miss Ann Whitney through the Comanche County Historical Museum in Comanche, Texas.

Schoolteachers played a unique role in the Wild West. In addition to educating children in small towns, schoolteachers were also representations of culture and civilization. This was a challenging role considering many of the small towns were far from civilized, or so far away from what could be considered civilization that the job could be downright dangerous. Such was the case for schoolteacher Ann Whitney who agreed to teach the children in Hamilton County, Texas.

There are few details on the early years of Ann Whitney except that she was a highly respected schoolteacher. She was 32 years old in 1867 and an exceptionally large woman who commanded respect, but also showed tremendous compassion and kindness to her students.

The book Old West: The Women, by Joan Swallow Reiter, has a picture of a schoolhouse in 1887 Live Oak County, Texas showing a bunch of tree limbs covered in dried vines with the children seated inside on wooden chairs. This haphazard construction kept the school area cool for the children--school was held only during summer months so students could help with the harvest and planting in the fall and spring.

The schoolhouse where Ann Whitney taught her students in Hamilton County was just a tad more carefully constructed with logs and boards, but the boards were spaced apart for ventilation, so far apart that a man could stick his entire head inside, which will be an important detail later in the story. The boards on the floor could also be lifted easily by a child. There was a door in the front facing the valley and one window in the back facing the river. The schoolhouse was located in a valley that was 3/4 mile long 1 1/2 miles wide with a completed unobstructed front view of the building, and anyone who might be approaching the building.

On July 9, 1867 Ann Whitney arrived early, as always, on her saddle horse, her favorite pet, Mary. The school room filled slowly with children who obediently took their seats and the morning was relatively uneventful. One of the young girls, 12-year-old Olivia Barbee, was expecting a visit from her father, a stockman who was often working on the prairies, gathering longhorn cattle for his herd. Around 2 p.m., another young girl, Gabriela Powers, the daughter of local resident Alexander Powers, paused as she walked past the doorway and noticed a group of riders approaching the school. She told Miss Whitney that riders were coming. Miss Whitney reminded the child that Olivia Barbee was expecting her father and told the girl to take her seat.

The child shook her head. Suddenly, the girl screamed. "Indians," and she ran across the room to her younger brother, Alex Powers. She grabbed his hand and dragged him to the single window in the back of the school room then pushed her brother through, following close behind him. They ran into the reeds on the banks of a nearby river.

Miss Whitney rushed to the door, her heart pounding as she realized that the school was under attack from a raiding party of Comanche. She could see that the men were stealing her beloved horse, Mary. She slammed the door shut and shouted at the children to climb through the window at the back of the schoolhouse where they would not be seen by the approaching Comanche warriors.

A few children managed to climb through the window before the raiding party arrived, but one young girl, Mary Jane Manning, was very sick when she arrived at school and clung desperately to Miss Whitney's skirt. Olivia Barbee suggested to the rest of the children that they hide beneath the floorboards of the schoolhouse. John Kuykendall was one of the children who joined her, but his sister hid behind a piece of furniture in the room.

The Comanche warriors came to the front door and pounded their fists on the wood, then stuck their painted faces through the slats in the walls. According to the children, one of the men appeared to be Caucasian or Mexican and had red hair. One of the Comanche shouted to Miss Whitney in English. Miss Whitney turned to him and begged for the lives of her children. The man nodded and held up three fingers, but the reason for this is action is unknown.

The Comanche warriors started firing arrows through the walls into the tiny school room. Miss Whitney was hit numerous times. Her blood flowed freely down the front of her dress and onto the young girl still clinging to her skirts, through the floorboards, and onto the children beneath the floor. Miss Whitney continued to pace the floor, begging for the lives of the children. With 12 arrows in her body, she still managed to stumble to the window to help Miss Kuykendall climb through. According to many accounts, including a detailed explanation on Texas United, Miss Kuykendall was shot in the back with an arrow as she climbed through the window, but she survived.

Miss Whitney was bleeding profusely and Mary Jane Manning was covered in her beloved teacher's blood. Mary Jane finally stripped out of her blood-stained dress, climbed through the window with the assistance of her dying teacher, and ran to the river. Her brother, Louis Manning, watched his sister leave. He climbed out from beneath the floor boards and followed his sister through the window. He ran to the river and straight into the arms of his sister, who was hiding in the reeds by the river. Mary Jane held her brother in her arms until they were rescued.

The Comanche warriors broke down the door. Miss Whitney fell to the floor, dying, with 18 arrows in her body. One of the Comanche noticed the floor board and pulled Olivia Barbee up into the school room. He was trying to push the struggling child onto the back of his horse when the leader of the group called him back into the schoolroom. Remarkably, he left the girl, and Olivia ran to the river. She was so terrified that she refused to leave to seek help. She was discovered in the morning by one of the townsmen who had to chase her down and convince her that she was safe.

Inside the building, another Comanche found the two young boys. The Indians asked the boys if they would like to join their tribe. The boys, staring down at their dying teacher, did not know what to say. One boy, John Kuykendall, said yes, and he was lifted up onto the back of one of the horses. The other boy said no, and just as one of the Indians prepared to kill him he heard their leader shouting in front of the house and the man ran outside instead, mounted his horse, and they rode away.

The Comanche leader had gathered his warriors to leave because he spotted two women riding through the valley. Miss Amanda Howard, who was only 17 years old, was already an experienced equestrian and had asked her sister-in-law, Sarah Howard, to ride with her through the valley. When they first saw the men at the schoolhouse they, too, thought they were the cattlemen the teacher was expecting. Amanda Howard quickly realized the men were Comanche and shouted to her sister-in-law as she kicked her horse into a fierce run. The two women turned toward the house of a neighbor, Mr. Baggett, because his house was closer than their own home. The Comanche warriors followed furiously behind. Amanda Howard aimed her horse toward the fence and horse and rider cleared the fence gracefully. Sarah Howard's horse shied from the fence and she was thrown. She jumped to her feet and ran for the house, but arrived safely.

About the same time, Mr. Stanaland and his family entered the valley and their wagon passed the Howard House. (There are numerous names used for Stanaland in reports of this incident, but an email from the Stanaland family to Forttours provides the most accurate identity, in my opinion.) Amanda Howard could see them from the window of the Baggett home. The Comanche killed Mr. Stanaland and wounded his wife and children. Amanda Howard knew the rest of the townspeople were in desperate trouble. She knew she must act, and fast. She ran back to her horse and started to ride for the road leading south toward the rest of the homes. In order to do this, though, she had to ride straight toward the Comanche warriors, outrun them, and turn quickly onto the road. Her bravery was unexpected. She managed to surprise the Comanche with her wild ride facing them, and change direction before they realized her plan. She then turned east toward the nearest settlement. The Comanche, realizing she would succeed in alerting the rest of the townspeople, turned to ride out of the valley.

Amanda Howard alerted as many townspeople as she could on her heroic ride and the terrified parents who still did not know the fate of their children grabbed their guns and raced toward the schoolhouse. Abe Hendrix, a Mr. Pierson, the two brothers of Amanda Howard and seven more men formed a search party for John Kuykendall. They used dogs they had trained specifically for tracking Comanche horses. They tracked the horses for 100 miles far into the mountains, but the Comanche warriors had divided up into many smaller groups and the dogs lost their trail. Young John Kuykendall later said that he was close enough to see the rescue party, but could not shout out for help in fear of being killed by his captors. Six months later, he was recovered and returned to his family.

There is a marker on the Hamilton County Courthouse lawn commemorating the sacrifices of Miss Ann Whitney. It says, "In Memory of Ann Whitney, born in Massachusetts around 1835, murdered by Comanche Indians on July 9, 1867 while protecting her students."

The Official State Historical marker at her gravesite reads: "Ann Whitney, 1835-1867, described as a stout lady with an engaging personality, Elizabeth Ann Whitney confirmed that she could be strong, brave and resourceful on one fateful July day in 1867. Ann was a teacher at a nearby frontier school. Suddenly, during the course of a typical school day, a party of Comanche Indians attacked. Reportedly pierced by 18 arrows during the ordeal, Ann Whitney nevertheless helped all but one young boy escape."

Her tombstone reads: "In Memory of Ann Whitney, frontier school teacher born in Massachusetts about 1835, killed by the Comanche Indians July 9, 1867. Erected by the school children of Hamilton County, Texas."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Women in the Old West--Women's History Month

"Go West, young man!" Horace Greeley proclaimed, and many young men followed his advice. Those who traveled to the western prairies brought their wives and children, but it was not an easy life for women in the American West. Harder for some, perhaps, than others.

Homesteader Sarah Sim found life on the prairies a painful challenge. Sarah was 32 in 1856 when she and her husband, Francis, bought 160 acres in Nebraska and moved near Bennett's Ferry with their three children. They built a 10 foot by 10 foot cabin for the family. Imagine how small that would be!

Sarah and Francis bought three cows, two oxen, a horse, pigs and chickens. Francis hunted rabbits and prairie chickens to supplement their food supply while Sarah and the children gathered wild strawberries and plums. There were few trees on the prairie, so Sarah and the children also collected buffalo chips or twists of hay or cornhusks, called "cats," to burn in their stove.

It was a lonely existence for Sarah and her husband who had little contact with outsiders. Homesteaders on the Nebraska prairies were occasionally visited by traveling salesmen peddling stoves, scissor grinders, and clock repair services. Irish and Jewish clothes peddlers would stop by, and the homesteaders depended on these visits for their news of the outside world. There was no school, so the children were taught at home, and although a preacher visited the nearby towns once in awhile, there was no church.

In The Story of the Great American West, Peter M. Chaitin describes the desperate feelings of Sarah Sim as she struggled in her tiny sod home. Sarah wrote frequent letters to her parents and told them of the dry weather, the hard water, and winds so strong she thought "they would blow our little house away!"

When winter came, their situation grew desperate. The winter of 1856/1857 is considered one of the most severe winters in the American West. This was the winter of the Mormon Handcart disasters when 213 Mormon Saints died on their way to Utah. Huge herds of cattle were walled in by snow drifts and froze to death. According to "History and Stories of Nebraska," many Nebraska homesteaders were only able to survive because they found animals frozen in the snow.

Sarah's middle child developed whooping cough and died. Sarah cut her finger and developed an infection. Her finger was amputated. Her husband, Francis, became sick and was briefly bedridden. Sarah felt trapped in her home, frightened, and in spite of the presence of her two remaining children and husband, very much alone. She became severely depressed.

For eight long months as the winds screamed around their house during one of the longest, coldest, most severe winters in Nebraska history, Sarah slowly lost her mind. She tore at her clothes, screamed at her family, tried to bite herself and her children and became so violent that her husband was forced to tie her to their bed. She eventually wrote to her parents about her fears and depression, saying "I would do anything to get better!"

Remarkably, Sarah recovered. Somehow, she found the strength to survive the winter of 1856, the lack of food, the bitter cold, and her lonely prairie existence. As the snow began to melt, the winds died down, and the grass began to grow. Slowly, Sarah's sanity returned. Sarah planted flowers. Francis planted potatoes and corn. They built an addition on their home. More settlers moved into the area. The families worked together to build a church and school.

Life was never easy for families on the western prairies. Sarah and her husband had nine children through the years and Sarah was forced to face the death of four more children to diphtheria and mumps, but Sarah never lost her sanity again, providing a model of strength and perseverance for her family.

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...