“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.
While here he was appointed county clerk by Governor Buchanan which was the first clerk of that county. Now comes trouble worse than ever. The Kansas war of 1856 broke out. The issue was Free State or Slave State. Nay was not very well versed in politics but he took the sides with the Free State Party. So he was not molested only in mind. The excitement kept up to a high pitch so he took a notion to sell out. He did so and in the fall of 1857, he moved to Henry County, Missouri. By this time he was able to pay for a snug little home of eighty acres, but by some means, he was not satisfied there, so he sold out and in the spring of 1859 he moved to Lawrence County, Missouri, bought one hundred acres in the Ozark Mountains was doing well when the late war borke out. Troubles came again, worse and worse. A large family by this time, plenty of stock, and food, good comfortable buildings but suffice it to say he had a good home and was doing well, but he was a union man. So in the fall of 1861, a part of Ben McCullough’s men called one morning quite early with a rope and made several inquiries. They found out that Nay did not vote for Lincoln.
Says they, “How do you stand in this war?”
“I stand north,” says Nay.
“Well then,” says the foreman of the party, “You had better go north where you belong.” So saying the party left.
It was not long until the wagons were loaded and Nay was on the road again running for his life with his family and another family that had no team, leaving a large portion of household goods, the yard full of chickens and ducks. Plenty of hogs to make his bacon, and some for the market, wheat crop growing nice, corn crop not gathered, old wheat, oats, hay in the stack. But alas, they had to leave it all and finally lost it all together with the home they had worked so hard for. But the idea was to save life so the first night they, with some Union neighbors camped together making about twenty wagons in all, making their way to Kansas. Nay with one other family traveled on to the neighborhood of Baldwin City, Douglas Count Kansas with three yoke of work oxen, two wagons, four ponies, one dollar and fifty cents in money, and eight in the family.
In the previous section of the story, Ambrose had moved his family to Franklin County, Kansas Territory in 1855. This segment begins with Ambrose’s statement that he was appointed by Governor Buchanan to be the first county clerk of Franklin County. One minor problem with this claim is that Kansas Territory did not have a governor named Buchanan. Maybe Ambrose confused the Governor’s name with James Buchanan, who was elected President of the United States while Ambrose was living in Franklin County.
Through a Google search, I located an entry in the Kansas Territory Executive Minutes from 19 Jul 1856 stating that a commission was issued to Ambrose B. Eperson [sic] as Clerk of the Board of County Commissioners in Franklin County. At that time, the governor was Wilson Shannon. At first I thought this indicated that Ambrose was a clerk for the county, but not actually the County Clerk. Under current Kansas law, County Clerk is an elected position with many responsibilities. I was familiar with some of these duties, but I was surprised to learn that County Clerks are expected to act as Clerk to the Board of County Commissioners. The similarity between this duty and Ambrose’s title made me think that there might actually be a connection between the two positions. When I researched the laws of Kansas Territory in 1856, I found that the Clerk of the Board of County Commissioners also had additional responsibilities, such as acting as probate clerk when necessary and preparing poll-books before an election. As for it being an appointed rather than elected position, I found that other county positions (county treasurer, constable, coroner) were also appointed at that time. So, I believe that the Clerk of the Board of County Commissioners was basically equivalent to the modern County Clerk position and Ambrose’s claim was legitimate even if he was mistaken about the name of the governor who commissioned him.
Not long after Ambrose settled in Kansas Territory, the political climate deteriorated into violence over the issue of slavery. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, under which Kansas Territory was established, gave the settlers themselves the right to choose whether or not to allow slavery within their territory. Although many of the settlers (like Ambrose) were simply looking for affordable land and a place to raise their families, some came specifically because of their strong feelings for or against slavery. Inevitably conflict arose between the two sides. Franklin County, where Ambrose settled, was in one of the most contentious regions. One of the most militant abolitionists, the infamous John Brown, came to Kansas in 1855 and lived with family members near Osawatomie, just east of the Franklin County line. The region was also relatively close to Missouri, making it a target of Border Ruffians -- pro-slavery Missourians who often crossed into Kansas to intimidate free-state settlers. In 1856, several clashes between pro-slavery and free-state groups occurred within about 30 miles of Ambrose’s home. On April 23, the pro-slavery sheriff of Douglas County was shot and wounded while trying to arrest free-state advocates in Lawrence, about 30 miles north of where Ambrose lived. The sheriff returned on May 21 with about 800 pro-slavery settlers who ransacked the town. On the night of May 24, members of John Brown’s group murdered five pro-slavery settlers on Pottawatomie Creek in Franklin County, about 15 miles southeast of where Ambrose lived. Then, on August 30, pro-slavery men from Missouri defeated Brown’s group in a short battle at Osawatomie and then burned the town. Violence continued intermittently over the next several years. With tensions so high, many settlers, including Ambrose, decided to leave the area.
This powerful image by John Steuart Curry, featuring John Brown and entitled "The Tragic Prelude", is based on a mural he painted in the Kansas State Capitol building. From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository
In the fall of 1857, Ambrose left Kansas Territory and moved to Henry County, Missouri, about 100 miles to the east. There he says he bought 80 acres of land. It seemed a little strange to me that Ambrose says he was on the Free State side, but decided to move to Missouri – a slave state. However, the decision made more sense when I realized that Ambrose might have had family in the area. In 1860, John and Emily (Epperson) Burchfield (Ambrose’s sister and his wife’s brother) were living in Henry County, Missouri. However, I have not been able to determine whether they were already living there when Ambrose arrived.
In 1859, Ambrose sold his farm in Henry County and and moved to Lawrence County, Missouri, about 100 miles further south, where here he purchased a 100-acre farm. Even Ambrose doesn’t seem sure of the reasons for this move. The 1860 census supports the timetable of events in the story — Ambrose and his family were enumerated in Mt. Vernon Township, Lawrence County, Missouri. According to Ambrose’s narrative, they were still living there when the Civil War began in April of 1861.
To understand what Ambrose and his family experienced during this time, I began reading about the early days of the Civil War in Missouri. Having lived in neighboring Kansas all my life, I was shocked to realize how little I knew about Missouri history. In the following paragraphs, I have attempted to summarize what I learned about this tumultuous period.
At the outset of the Civil War, Missouri tried to remain neutral. Although it was a slave state, slave owners were a minority and most of the voters preferred to remain part of the Union. Delegates to a state constitutional convention voted almost unanimously against secession. In contrast, the governor of Missouri, Claiborne Fox Jackson, sided with the Confederacy and plotted to force Missouri to secede. When President Lincoln asked Missouri to supply troops for the Union, Jackson refused. After the takeover of a federal arsenal in Liberty by Confederate sympathizers, it was feared that the heavily armed St. Louis arsenal was the next target. Its commander, Captain Nathaniel Lyon, along with pro-Union militia troops arrested pro-southern militia troops camped near St. Louis. This action angered many Missourians. The next day, the State Legislature voted to reorganize the state militia into the Missouri State Guard under the direction of Major General Sterling Price to protect Missouri against “invasion”. Attempts at compromise failed and Lyon’s troops took over Jefferson City, the state capital. On July 27, the pro-Union constitutional convention removed all current state officers from office and appointed replacements. The ousted officials refused to recognize the new government and reconvened at Neosho, in the southwest part of the state. Missouri now had two rival governments, both claiming legitimacy.
“I stand north”
Ambrose again found himself living in a bitterly divided region. His story recounts that “in the fall of 1861, a part of Ben McCullough’s men called one morning quite early with a rope.” Ben McCulloch was a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. A veteran of the Texas War for Independence and the Mexican War, he recruited troops from Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana and led them to Missouri. On August 10, 1861, McCulloch’s men joined with Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guard to defeat Union forces at the Battle of Wilson's Creek, near Springfield, Missouri. The site of that battle is about 30 miles east of Mt. Vernon, Missouri, where Ambrose lived. The Confederates reportedly returned to Arkansas soon after the battle ended, so if it really was McCulloch’s men who threatened Ambrose, it would likely have been in late summer rather than fall. However, Ambrose’s description of his farm at the time he had to abandon it is more consistent with fall. He says that the “wheat crop was growing nice” and the “corn crop not gathered.” I consulted Missouri newspapers from that time period and found that corn was usually harvested in November, while wheat was planted in early October. This would seem to place their departure sometime in mid to late October. In that case, it seems more likely that those who threatened the Eppersons were members of the Missouri State Guard or even vigilantes not affiliated with any military group. Regardless of their identity, it was no doubt a terrifying experience for Ambrose and his family.
One aspect of the exchange between Ambrose and the group puzzled me. If Ambrose “stood north”, why didn’t he vote for Lincoln? Who did he vote for? Or did he just not vote at all? The likely answer again showed how little I really knew about that era. If I had been asked who opposed Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election, I would probably have been able to come up with Stephen Douglas. However, that was far from the whole story. Two other candidates received a significant number of votes: John C. Breckinridge from the Southern Democratic Party and John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party. Both of them won more electoral votes than Douglas, even though Douglas received a much higher percentage of the popular vote. In fact, Missouri was the only state that Douglas won — and that was by a very slim margin over John Bell. Douglas fervently wanted to preserve the Union, but keep slavery as it was. Bell’s party was also pro-union, but chose not to make slavery an issue. These two candidates received over 70% of the vote in Missouri, so it is likely that Ambrose voted for one of them. I have a hunch it was Douglas, since Douglas remained pro-union after the war began (until his untimely death a few months later). Bell, in contrast, supported the Confederacy.
A drawing by Louis Maurer showing the four candidates in the 1860 presidential election. L to R: Bell, Douglas, Breckinridge and Lincoln. From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository
The War Years
After fleeing Missouri, Ambrose says he ended up near Baldwin City, Douglas County, Kansas, about 30 miles northeast of his previous residence in Franklin County. When Ambrose’s son, William N. Epperson, enlisted in the Union Army in 1863, his residence was listed as Peoria City (in Franklin County), about 15 miles south of Baldwin City.
Ambrose also contributed to the Union cause by joining the Kansas State Militia on 10 Jun 1863 at Black Jack (a few miles east of Baldwin City). I discovered this by searching the Kansas Civil War Militia Index provided by the Kansas State Historical Society. The index led me to images of the militia unit rosters (compiled in 1907-1908 from the original muster and pay rolls). The roster for Company L of the 21st Regiment gives only the surname Eperson [sic], but a footnote says that one pay roll listed the name “Eperson, A. B”! Company L, like most of the other Kansas State Militia units, was ordered into active service in October 1864 as Confederate Major General Sterling Price advanced toward the Kansas-Missouri border at what is now Kansas City. On 22 October, the 21st regiment participated in the Battle of Byram's Ford on the Big Blue River – a minor Confederate victory. The next day they took part in the Battle of Westport, where Price was defeated, essentially ending any chance for Confederate control of Missouri.
Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society Vol. 3 Executive Minutes (Google Books)
Laws of the Territory of Kansas (1856) (Google Books)
House Documents, Volume 141; Volume 143; Volume 146, USA House of Representatives
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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