“The Stolen Boy” is a fascinating story that has been handed down through my family. The main character’s name is never revealed, but there are several details in the story that prove it describes the life of my 3X great-grandfather, Ambrose Bowen Epperson. I am almost certain that Ambrose is also the author of the story, although the evidence for that conclusion is a bit more circumstantial. I will be devoting a series of blog posts to a historical and genealogical analysis of the story. The text of the story will be shared exactly as I received it, including all misspellings and grammatical errors, although I have corrected a few errors that were obviously introduced when the story was typed.
When spring opened, they went to work on a rented farm, commencing anew again, renting from place to place ukntil the spring of 1865 when he moved to Jackson County Missouri, still dissatisfied. So in the spring of 1868, he took a notion to move to one of the southern states. He only found it worse in respect to agriculture and was very much dissatisfied. So in February , 1872, he made his way to Kansas again and on the 16th day of March, 1872, he laid his claim in Sumner County on the land that he now lives on and thinks it is good enough for the Stolen boy to live on the balance of his days.
February 18, 1881
After being forced to abandon their Missouri farm in the early days of the Civil War, Ambrose and family traveled to the Baldwin City, Kansas area. With no money to buy more land, they had to rent a succession of farms. The family also suffered a sad loss during this time. Although the story doesn’t mention it, Ambrose and Nancy’s oldest daughter Phoebe reportedly died about 1863 at the age of 17 (1). I have searched transcriptions of cemeteries from Baldwin City and the surrounding area, but have not been able to locate her grave.
The Civil War ended in April 1865. That spring, Ambrose packed up his family once again and moved to Jackson County, Missouri. Consistent with this, I could not find any of the Eppersons in the 1865 Kansas State Census. Enumeration of the township that includes Baldwin City didn’t start until Jun 22 (2). Presumably the Eppersons had already moved to Missouri by that time.
Jackson County, Missouri is the site of Kansas City and Westport. The story does not give a reason why Ambrose chose to relocate there. My guess is that he wanted to be near his sister, Permelia (Epperson) Laws. (Her husband had been killed during the war under rather mysterious circumstances — but that’s a story for another time.) I have not found any documentation of the family’s time in Jackson County.
“One of the southern states”
In the spring of 1868, Ambrose moved again — this time to “one of the southern states”. The 1870 census shows the family living in Round Prairie Township, Benton County, Arkansas (P.O. Double Springs). (3) Benton County is the northwestern-most county in Arkansas, with Missouri to the north and Oklahoma to the west. However, at the time Ambrose lived there, the region to the west was still Indian Territory. Double Springs, later renamed Bloomfield, was located very close to the western border of the county.
In the census, Ambrose’s occupation is listed as “Grocer Ret”. I think “Ret” must be short for retail. His real estate was valued at $250 and his personal estate at $200. I was a little surprised by Ambrose’s occupation, because the story mentions his dissatisfaction with agriculture there. Ambrose’s oldest son, my great-great-grandfather William Epperson, is listed as a farmer in the same township though. So, at least part of the family was involved in agriculture.
As I was searching for information on Benton County, I came across an online index to early Benton County deeds provided by the Northwest Arkansas Genealogical Society. I found a deed with “Epperson, Amb.” as the grantee, filed on 19 Nov 1870. Another deed with “Epperson, Ambros B.” as the grantor was filed on 18 Dec 1871. I will need to get copies of the deeds to learn what property Ambrose was buying and selling.
On 15 Jun 1871, Ambrose was appointed postmaster (4) of the newly established post office in Cherokee City, just a short distance northwest of Double Springs (Bloomfield). He didn’t remain in that position long, however. A new postmaster was appointed on 10 Jan 1872. This fits with the timeline in the story, which says that Ambrose moved back to Kansas in February of 1872.
Back to Kansas
Ambrose says that he “laid his claim in Sumner County” on 16 March 1872. I found a land patent dated 15 February 1875 for 159 and 90/100 acres in Section 5 of Township 31 South, Range 2 East (5). I had always assumed that Ambrose made his claim under the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed settlers to receive 160 acres of land if they lived on it for five years and paid a small filing fee. Looking at the document more closely, however, I noticed that Ambrose received his patent only three years after he said he laid his claim. I read the land patent more closely and realized that it was made under the provisions of the Act of Congress of 24 April 1820 AND the act of 15 July 1870. In addition, “Osage Trust Lands” was written in the upper left corner, above the certificate number. By further research I learned that the land Ambrose claimed had been part of the Diminished Osage Reserve, a 30-mile wide strip of land spanning most of the southern border of Kansas. When the Osage ceded this land to the U.S. government in 1870 and moved to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), the land was excluded from the Homestead Act, but was made available to settlers for $1.25 per acre (with the proceeds to be paid yearly, with five percent interest, to the Osage tribe.) (6) Ambrose would have paid about $200 for his tract of land.
The 1875 Kansas State Census shows A. B. Epperson living in Palestine Township, Sumner County, Kansas with real estate worth $260 (7). Perhaps the value of land had increased since he purchased his claim. The census also confirms that the family moved to Kansas from Arkansas.
The nearest town to Ambrose’s farm was Belle Plaine, Kansas. Fortunately, issues of the Belle Plaine News from 1879-1926 have been digitized and are available at Newspapers.com. Small town newspapers are full of newsy items that help shed light on the lives and personalities of area residents. For example, I have found that Ambrose must have been something of an entrepreneur. At various times through the years, he was selling a patent churn, the Banner washing machine (8), and several different books (9,10). At the age of 69, he started a business painting carriages, wagons and houses (11). These stories remind me of the business ventures my father and grandfather started. Although neither of them ever met Ambrose, I can’t help but think that they inherited some of his personality traits.
The final clue to the identity of the story’s author is the signature “Old Abe”. There are several reasons I believe that this was a nickname for Ambrose. First, if you look at Ambrose’s full name – Ambrose Bowen Epperson – his initials would be ABE. Also, in the 1880 census, Ambrose’s name was incorrectly listed as Abraham Epperson (12). Maybe he was known by the name Abe and the census taker assumed it stood for Abraham. Finally, I found several items in the Belle Plaine News that were submitted by Old Abe (13,14,15). Most of these were news about Palestine Township (where Ambrose lived), and they often contained references to “old man Epperson”. Since I am convinced that Ambrose was Old Abe, I had to chuckle when I found a “letter to the editor” from A. B. Epperson correcting a mistake in Old Abe’s Palestine Historical Notes. “Old Abe will excuse me for the above correction,” he wrote (firmly tongue-in-cheek, I’m sure) (16). For several years, Old Abe seemed to be on hiatus. Then in the late 1880s he made a return appearance, writing a couple of letters to the newspaper from Optima in No Man’s Land (17,18). I’m sure it is no coincidence that Ambrose and some of his family members had recently moved to Optima (19) (see below).
In the last line of the story, Ambrose states that he expects to remain on his Sumner County farm for the rest of his life. That didn’t happen, although he stayed there longer than he ever had anywhere else. In 1884, he traded his farm for a “threshing outfit and corn sheller” and moved into Belle Plaine (20). I believe he acquired this equipment for his son Alfred, since later news stories mention Alfred running his threshing machine.
In 1888, Ambrose followed his sons to “No Man’s Land” in what is now the Oklahoma panhandle. The area, also known as the Neutral Strip, was not part of any state or territory at the time. In 1890, No Man’s Land became Beaver County as part of Oklahoma Territory.
Map of No Man's Land (Oklahoma) - circa 1885 from Wikimedia Commons
Thanks to the Belle Plaine News, we know that Ambrose and his wife Nancy travelled back to Belle Plaine in March of 1890 (21). Shortly after that, the newspaper reported that Ambrose had two cancers removed from his face (22). This stay in Belle Plaine might explain why I have not found Ambrose and Nancy in the 1890 Oklahoma Territorial Census, even though I found their son William and his family in newly established Beaver County (23). In January 1891, a newspaper item mentioned that Ambrose and Nancy left for Kingfisher (Oklahoma Territory) with their son Alfred (24). It’s not clear if they had been in Belle Plaine the entire time since their arrival the previous March or not. One of their sons, John B. Epperson, had been living in Kingfisher County since at least 1890 (25), so perhaps they were joining him. William Epperson also moved to Kingfisher County in the early 1890s, although I do not know the exact date (26).
Edna Epperson Brinkman’s book on the Epperson family says Ambrose passed away on 18 Sep 1891 in Kansas (27), but I have not been able to confirm this information. There is no record of his burial in the Belle Plaine Cemetery. Unfortunately, the Belle Plaine News issues from September 1891, which might have contained news of Ambrose’s death, are missing from the online archive. I had a brief flicker of hope when I realized that the newspaper printed a “Thirty Years Ago” column and the 1921 papers were online. The columns were not printed every week though, and I found no mention of Ambrose’s death. I did find a brief notice reporting the death of Nancy Epperson at her home in Columbia, Kingfisher, Oklahoma Territory on 15 January 1893 (28). This conflicts with the information in Brinkman’s book, which said Nancy died 16 Jan 1892 in Kansas (29). This discrepancy also makes me question the accuracy of the information about Ambrose’s death. One of my long-standing genealogy goals is to locate Ambrose and Nancy’s burial places, so I will keep searching.
Blogging about “The Stolen Boy” has been a great experience for me. My efforts to corroborate and expand on the events mentioned in the story motivated me to analyze evidence and research historical events much more thoroughly than I might have otherwise. As a result, I acquired a much better understanding of Ambrose’s life and made a few new discoveries along the way. I hope you have enjoyed the journey too!
(1) Burchfield Family Tree
(2) Ancestry.com Kansas State Historical Society; Topeka, Kansas; 1865 Kansas Territory Census; Roll: ks1865_3; Line: 1; Palmyra Township
(3) Ancestry.com Year: 1870; Census Place: Round Prairie, Benton, Arkansas; Roll: M593_47; Page: 349A; Image: 301938; Family History Library Film: 545546
(4) Ancestry.com. U.S., Appointments of U. S. Postmasters, 1832-1971 [database on- line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. (5)https://www.glorecords.blm.gov/details/patent/default.aspx?accession=KS3690__.039 &docClass=STA&sid=xd2mh5ro.aef
(7) Kansas State Historical Society; Topeka, Kansas; 1875 Kansas Territory Census; Roll: ks1875_19; Line: 6
(8) Belle Plaine News 27 Mar 1880, p. 5 (Newspapers.com)
(9) Belle Plaine News 23 May 1885, p. 4 (Newspapers.com)
(10) Belle Plaine News 28 Aug 1886, p. 3 (Newspapers.com)
(11) Belle Plaine News 4 Jun 1887, p. 3 (Newspapers.com)
(12) Ancestry.com Year: 1880; Census Place: Palestine, Sumner, Kansas; Roll: 398; Family History Film: 1254398; Page: 127D; Enumeration District: 196; Image: 0260
(13) Belle Plaine News 3 Jan 1880, p. 15 (Newspapers.com)
(14) Belle Plaine News 21 Feb 1880, p. 12 (Newspapers.com)
(15) Belle Plaine News 13 Mar 1880, p. 15 (Newspapers.com)
(16) Belle Plaine News 28 Feb 1880, p. 11 (Newspapers.com)
(17) Belle Plaine News 28 Jul 1888, p. 2 (Newspapers.com)
(18) Belle Plaine News 12 Jan 1889 p. 2 (Newspapers.com)
(19) Belle Plaine News 18 Feb 1888, p. 3 (Newspapers.com)
(20) Belle Plaine News 26 Jan 1884, p. 4 (Newspapers.com)
(21) Belle Plaine News 22 Mar 1890, p. 3 (Newspapers.com)
(22) Belle Plaine News 10 May 1890 p. 3 (Newspapers.com)
(24) Belle Plaine News 9 Jan 1891 p. 1 (Newspapers.com)
(25) Ancestry.com. Oklahoma, Territorial Census, 1890 and 1907 [database on-line]; Kingfisher County, image 78
(26) William N. Epperson, Civil War Pension Application
(27) Ancestry.com. The story of David Epperson & his family of Albemarle County, Virginia : with supplementary notes on the Epperson family [database on-line] image 199
(28) Belle Plaine News 19 Jan 1891 p. 1 (Newspapers.com)
(29) Ancestry.com. The story of David Epperson & his family of Albemarle County, Virginia : with supplementary notes on the Epperson family [database on-line] image 208
Teresa is the the owner of KinSeeker Genealogy Services. She has a Ph.D. in Biology and a lifelong fascination with genealogy. She been researching her own family history for over 20 years and loves helping others "find their stories."
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