My Journey of Family Discovery
Prologue: I moved to Kansas at the age of nine years from Greenwood, Mississippi. Not knowing anything about Kansas, my learning about the state and its history was from a distinctly Kansas point of view. That history included the early struggles of Kansas territory and eventual statehood. The struggle between the factions of free state and pro-slavery. While learning of the "Bleeding Kansas" period up through the civil war and the violence committed on both sides of the divide, the education tilted towards the Kansas free state as the good and the Missouri pro-slavery as bad and, therefore, the listing of atrocities was one-sided.
It was during genealogy research being carried out by my sister that the first hints of my ancestors being swept into the Kansas – Missouri troubles. The first hints were that my third great grandfather Benjamin Franklin Simpson had been bushwhacked. Slowly the details as much as we could find were unveiled. Benjamin was a farmer and a horse trader by profession. As the story has developed, he was intercepted in Bates county, Missouri, on January 1, 1862, not far from his home with a number of his horses by what is known as Jayhawkers from Kansas. Although there is no eyewitness account of what took place during that confrontation, the consensus has been he refused to hand over his horses and was subsequently taken captive. He was not listed as a member of any pro-slavery groups, or militia's in the area, which goes along with the reputation of this group of Jayhawkers as being nothing more than a roving gang of ruffians who plundered and murdered. On January 2, 1862, he and a Mr. Grosshart, along with a possible third gentleman, were led into an open field approximately one mile north of the town of Dayton and executed by firing squad. This details the brutal ending for Benjamin and the beginning of great hardship for my third great grandmother Mildred (Millie) Simpson and children.
Two years later, Millie and family were forced from their home due to a pro-Union decree known as General Order Number 11. This decree forced the residents of Bates and surrounding counties to leave their homes. As part of the decree, the residents of the area were made to declare where their allegiance lies, with the Union or the Confederacy. I can imagine after the murder of her husband two years earlier by pro-Union forces, she replied to hell with you. Millie and family packed their wagon and returned to the old homestead in Kentucky. In 1871 Millie and a portion of her children returned to the homestead in Bates County. They returned to a farmhouse and buildings completely destroyed by the Union soldiers. Millie proceeded to have the farm rebuilt and even expanded. She was a much-respected member of the community and was mourned by many upon her death in 1901.
Events as they Happened:
My journey of family discovery begins 200 miles away from the location of the events of 1862 in central Kansas. Haunted by the direction my family history was heading, my desire to see the sites where my family had experienced so much pain had taken place was ever-growing. I began to read all of the documents I had at hand, looking for every available detail. These documents, along with online maps, helped me pinpoint the field in which Benjamin's life so brutally ended. The location of Benjamin's grave was already known to me as my sister had visited his grave and Millie's grave a year before. I still did not know the location of the family homestead, but I was confident looking through the records located at the museum in Bates County. I would be able to find its location.
My wife and I left for my journey of family discovery on a sunny Friday morning as fate would have it my wife's extended family live in and around Harrisonville a simple twenty-minute drive from Dayton and as it turned out the family homestead. The journey to my wife's aunt's house in Harrisonville was uneventful, but a feeling was creeping over me. A feeling best described as a sense of foreboding. I did my best to shake the feeling, but it followed me for the rest of the day even as we arrived at our weekend destination.
Saturday morning, getting ready for the day, the sense of foreboding had dissipated. After breakfast, we climbed into the car for the short drive to the Bates County Museum. The countryside and miles to the museum passed quickly through the windshield. A sense of sadness fell over me like a blanket. Arriving at the museum, we made a donation and were greeted by a museum volunteer. The volunteer assisted us in viewing the various Bates County books and documents dating from the period that Millie had returned from Kentucky and rebuilt the homestead. We compared the layout from the old maps with modern maps of the area and were able to determine the exact location of the old family farm. This realization brought another wave of sadness coursing through me.
As we drove the last mile down the gravel road towards our goal of the old family homestead, anticipation was building at what we might find. Would the old rebuilt house still be standing, maybe an original barn? We came to a stop on the road in front of what I had so long wanted to see, the old Simpson homestead. I stared across the plowed field, and much to my disappointment in the one hundred and forty-five year history of the rebuilt farm, the original house and farm buildings had been replaced. As I stared in disappointment, a fog began to appear across the landscape. Through the fog, I could just see a two-story plain white farmhouse. Outside of the farmhouse, I could start to make out the shapes of people moving about. A woman holding a toddler was standing just outside the front door. Several children appeared to be carrying clothing and furnishings from the house to a farm wagon. To the left of the family, activity appeared to be mounted soldiers dressed in blue watching and not offering to assist the family as they struggled to load the household furnishings. I strained my eyes to see faces, but the fog obscured the detail I so dearly wanted to see. I could feel the anger, the fear, the frustration of having yet one more indignity forced upon a family who only two short years before had lost a loving father to the bullets of a rogue firing squad. The image of the family forced to load their worldly possessions slowly faded away and was replaced by the smoldering ruins of the house and outbuildings. I could smell the unmistakable odor of burning wood and grass. My wife must have touched my arm as I became aware of the shining sun and a farm consisting of a modern house and buildings. After a few moments, we started towards the next destination in my family history quest, my mind trying to process the images that had appeared before me.
The gates of Crescent Hill Cemetery, our third stop on my journey of family discovery, appeared on our right. We pulled inside the gates and stopped for a moment, not realizing just how large the cemetery was going to be. We had an idea of where the grave we were in search of would be located. My sister had explained that the grave was located to the left of the entrance in an older part of the cemetery. Her information helped put us in the general location of the grave. It had taken ten or fifteen minutes of searching before my wife called to me, letting me know she had found it. I hurried over to the headstone she was pointing at and was barely able to make out the name as it was covered with lichen, and a hundred and twenty years of weather had softened its features. ThisStanding there was as close to Mildred (Millie) Covington Simpson as I had ever been. I knelt to photograph the headstone when I began to feel a warm glow surrounding me. The glow turned into a feeling that yes, this was the woman who had endured so much—yet returned to her Missouri homestead, becoming a much respected and admired member of the community. I settled in to focus on getting my picture of the headstone when behind the tombstone, a figure began to appear. It was a woman in Victorian dress forming before my eyes. I struggled to see a face once again, but the image dissipated before her features were distinguishable. Shaking my head as I refocused on the headstone, I muttered to myself, boy. You are going crazy.
On the highway, we were fast approaching stop number four on my journey. Stop four being the field where Benjamin's last minutes on earth were spent. After such an intense discovery journey to that point, I was a bit apprehensive visiting the field. We turned left onto a small lane that marked the southern boundary of shall I say killing field. As we approached the end of the lane, we discovered at its end was a farmhouse and buildings. Feeling a bit sheepish, I turned the car around so as not to alarm the current owners of the farm. Pulling even with the farmhouse, the familiar fog from earlier in the day began to settle. This time I was startled to see I was not viewing the field from inside the car but appeared to be viewing the field from behind the house. It occurred to me that I was standing in the spot where young Henry Ferrell is described to have witnessed the murder of three men. I began to be aware of the movement of soldiers or perhaps vigilantes in blue uniforms, moving around myself and in the field. A shiver ran up my spine. I watched as three men my third great grandfather included were led onto the field. Desperately I strained to see his face but once again was denied. A group in blue uniforms formed a line and raised their rifles. Just as I heard the roar of the guns, I was back in the car, my heart pounding. Deciding it was time to remove myself from such an unpleasant situation, I drove us to the entrance of the lane.
It was only a mile from the killing field to the last stop on my family journey
of discovery. It felt a little strange pulling into the Dayton Cemetery entrance as it is directly beside someone's residence. Fortunately, it had a rather long lane to the cemetery proper, giving some separation from the back of the house. Once again, my sister had given us the approximate location of the grave. I parked the car and began the search for the final resting place of my third great grandfather Benjamin Simpson. Not knowing what the headstone looked like, the search lasted a few minutes. We found his headstone next Mr. Grosshart, who had perished with him that fateful day. Fresh from my experience at the killing field, things felt relatively normal. We had a hard time reading the inscription at the bottom of the headstone, so we made a tracing. It was when I stepped back to photograph the tombstone that the now-familiar sensation of things are not normal began. I focused on the headstone, and once again, an apparition began to form behind the headstone. This time it was in the form of what appeared to be a middle-aged man. His clothing was distinctly mid eighteen hundred. I looked at his face, but it was being kept from me as if on purpose. I almost screamed aloud. Let me see your face. The apparition raised his arm and pointed a finger at me. I heard a soft voice, practically a whisper in my head. The voice said, grandson, you must tell the story of what happened here. The family needs to know their history. I blinked, and he was gone. Shaken, I completed photographing the headstone. Being thoroughly exhausted from the day's journey, I headed for the car.