“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.
The spring of 1831 found the brother, J, on the west side of the river on his father-in-law’s place, about three miles above the old boat house where he had built several boats when he lived on the east side of the river. The house was on an elevated piece of ground, and the field was in the bottom on the river between the house and the boat yard. So one beautiful morning, about the last of May, 1831, the brother, J, went to one of the neighbors on business and the little brother went to plowing in the big field about half a mile down the river. The little fellow was doing the best he knew how with one horse and small single shovel plow. He had not plowed more than two or three rows, when he discovered two men approaching the fence from the outside. They got up on the fence to watch for the little fellow to drive up to the fence. One was that old playmate of the Brother, S, whom we will call Bill, the other was not recognised by the little boy.
Bill says, “Well, Nay (that was the little boy’s nickname) Don’t you know this man?”
“No,” says Nay.
“Well, this is your brother, S.”
“It is?” says Nay.
“Yes,” says Bill, “and he wants you to go home with him.”
Nay says, “Bill, I can’t.”
“Why?” says Bill.
“Why, J won’t let me,” says Nay.
“If we can get you started so J won’t see you, will you go?” Says S.
“Oh no, I am afraid,” says Nay.
Then Bill tried to coax the little fellow to go with the brother but to no purpose seemingly. Finally the brother S said, “Well, Nay if you will go home with me, you can see your brothers and sisters and I will learn you a trade, send you to school, and give you five dollars in money.”
Then Nay was troubled in mind, his thoughts flew thick and fast – the thought of leaving his brother J, and his three children to whom he had formed so great attachment. His brother S and friend Bill certainly saw that he was in deep study and were waiting with the greatest impatience for an answer. After a great many encouraging words by both of them, Nay answered, Yes? I will go. Now the question was how to get Nay away without the family knowing it. Bill laid the plan as follows: they were to go to the house and stay there till after dinner and Nay was to keep on plowing till time to turn out and neither party was to intimate that they had seen each other. After dinner the two were to start away, bid all good-by, and come down to a walnut log that was near where they were standing. Nay was to go out after his horses like he was going to plowing again, but in place of getting his horse, he was to keep on around the stable and around a pond that was near-by, thence through a thicket of underbrush, so as to keep out of sight of any of the family, and to overtake them at that big walnut log, where they would be waiting. So it was understood and the two left the little fellow with his plow.
By this time it was about ten o’clock in the morning. The little fellow had not gone more than a few rounds when it began to thunder and lightning and in a few minutes it began to rain. About eleven o’clock the rain began to fall heavy, so the little fellow concluded that he had better go home. When he got to the house, there were his brothers, J and S, and friend Bill. They shook hands as if they had not seen each other for years. It kept raining until about four o’clock in the evening. Then the brother S and friend Bill bid them all good-by and started. Nay had got his clothes dry by this time (shirt and pants). Now came another obstacle in the way: the sun shone out broght and clear, the children were playing out in the yard and the brother J was at work at some;thing about the house. How to get away he knew not but yet he saw that some;thing must be done and that quickly. In a few minutes he saw an opportunity to slip out to the stable unobserved. The he had the stable between him and the house. He kept on around the pond and through the underbrush. While in the brush he heard one of the children call out “Oh, Nay”, but he increased his speed and according to the arrangement sure enough he found his brother S and his friend Bill at the big walnut log. For the first time Nay began to inquire how they were to cross the river, for it was bank full and rising. They then informed him that they had left their horses at friend Bill’s father’s, a distance of three miles from the old boat yard, and come up the river to the bluff just yonder.
“but”, says Bill, We have no time to spare. I will go to Smythe’s and tell one of the boys to go up tonight and tell J that Nay is gone so that he will not think that you are dornded int eh pond.”
So the three met at the corner in due time. Down the river they went as fast as Bill and the paddle could take them. When they landed at the old boat yard there were about ten or twelve old neighbors waiting for them. Among the rest was one, Sam Smyth, who stuttered. He met them at the edge of the water, gathered Nay by the hand and called out, “Come on N-Nay my B-brave l-lad.
Another man said, go on boys, we will take care of the canoe.”
So they went to their friend Bill’s father’s to stay all night. But just about sundown, this Sam Smyth came running up to the house almost out of breath saying, Boys, somebody i-is h-hollowing over the river and c-crippled Jesus has gone to-to set him o-over. (this criplled jesus was a neighbor and the peopled named him Crippled Jesus).
Now what was to be done, for the supposition was that it was the brother J.
(to be continued)
Squire Epperson offered Ambrose several enticements to convince him to return to Kentucky with him. One of these “incentives” was $5 in cash. I thought that sounded like quite a bit of money for the time, so I decided to find out what the equivalent amount would be today. Using an online inflation calculator that is based on historical Consumer Price Index data, I learned that $5 in 1831 was equivalent to $112.16 in 2015. So if you imagine how a modern teenager (with little or no money) would react to being offered a $100 bill, it might help in understanding Ambrose’s temptation by the $5 his brother promised him.
The plot to “steal” Ambrose seems to have been a neighborhood affair. The story recounts that 10-12 of their old neighbors were waiting at the boat yard for them. Only one of these neighbors, Sam Smyth (or Smythe), is identified by his full name. I checked the 1830 census of Jackson County for Smyth or similar surnames. There were several Smiths listed near John Epperson, but none named Sam. Sam may have been the son of one of these Smiths and not yet a “head of household”. Unfortunately, there is not enough information to identify any of the other neighbors. The nickname “Crippled Jesus” is intriguing, but I could not find any additional information about him.
It’s a little surprising that the neighbors were so supportive of Squire’s plan to take Ambrose to Kentucky. In 1831, Ambrose was 13 years old and apparently able to help with farm chores such as plowing. I would think he would have been more of a help to John than a burden. Squire’s friend “Bill” seems to have been the main instigator of the plot. Perhaps there were extenuating circumstances that made him think that John would be better off not having to care for Ambrose.
When the 1830 census was taken, I believe John Epperson was still living on the east side of the river. Several of the people listed near him on the census had patented land near the original Epperson homestead, suggesting that he was still living in that area. By 1831, however, he had moved to the west side of the river. Squire, Ambrose and Bill first travelled three miles down the river by canoe, stopping at the boathouse where John had built his boats. I assume this was near the original Epperson farm, but I can’t be sure. From the boathouse, they went to the home of a neighbor (Bill’s father), where they had left their horses. While there they learned that someone, presumably John, was in pursuit!
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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