The Story of Cole Younger – 1 Boyhood Days

Nanny Harris & Charity Kerr picture

Nanny Harris & Charity Kerr

Political hatreds are always bitter, but none were ever more bitter than those which existed along the border line of Missouri and Kansas during my boyhood in Jackson county in the former state from 1856 to ’60. These hatreds were soon to make trouble for me of which I had never dreamed.

Mine was a happy childhood. I was the seventh of fourteen children, but my father had prospered and we were given the best education the limited facilities of that part of the West then afforded.

My people had always been prominent, politically. It was born in the blood. My great grandmother on my father’s side was a daughter of “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, whose proud memory we all cherish. The Youngers came from Strasburg, and helped to rule there when it was a free city. Henry Washington Younger, my father, represented Jackson county three times in the legislature, and was also judge of the county court. My mother, who was Bursheba Fristoe of Independence, was the daughter of Richard Fristoe who fought under General Andrew Jackson at New Orleans, Jackson county having been so named at my grandfather Fristoe’s insistence. Mother was descended from the Sullivans, Ladens and Percivals of South Carolina, the Taylors of Virginia and the Fristoes of Tennessee, and my grandfather Fristoe was a grand nephew of Chief Justice John Marshall of Virginia.

Naturally we were Southerners in sympathy and in fact. My father owned slaves and his children were reared in ease, though the border did not then abound in what would now be called luxury. The railroads had not reached Jackson county, and wild game was plentiful on my father’s farm on Big Creek near Lee’s Summit. I cannot remember when I did not know how to shoot. I hunted wild geese when I could not have dragged a pair of them home unaided. But this garden spot was destined to be a bloody battle ground when the nation divided.

There had been scrimmages back and forth over the Kansas line since 1855. I was only a boy, born January 15, 1844. My brother James was born January 15, 1848, John in 1851, and Robert in December, 1853. My eldest brother, Richard, died in 1860. This was before the conflicts and troubles centered on our home that planted a bitterness in my young heart which cried out for revenge and this feeling was only accentuated by the cruelties of war which followed. I refer in particular to the shameful and cowardly murder of my father for money which he was known to have in his possession, and the cruel treatment of my mother at the hands of the Missouri Militia. My father was in the employ of the United States government and had the mail contract for five hundred miles. While in Washington attending to some business regarding this matter, a raid was made by the Kansas Jayhawkers upon the livery stable and stage line for several miles out into the country, the robbers also looting his store and destroying his property generally. When my father returned from Washington and learned of these outrages he went to Kansas City, Mo., headquarters of the State Militia, to see if anything could be done. He had started back to Harrisonville in a buggy, but was waylaid one mile south of Westport, a suburb of Kansas City, and brutally murdered; falling out of his buggy into the road with three mortal bullet wounds. His horse was tied to a tree and his body left lying where it fell. Mrs. Washington Wells and her son, Samuel, on the road home from Kansas City to Lee’s Summit, recognized the body as that of my father. Mrs. Wells stayed to guard the remains while her son carried the news of the murder to Col. Peabody of the Federal command, who was then in camp at Kansas City. An incident in connection with the murder of my father was the meeting of two of my cousins, on my mother’s side, Charity Kerr and Nannie Harris (afterwards Mrs. McCorkle) with first my father and then a short distance on with Capt. Walley and his gang of the Missouri Militia, whose hands are stained with the blood of my father.

Nannie Harris and Charity Kerr

Walley afterwards caused the arrest of my cousins fearing that they had recognized him and his men. These young women were thrown into an old rickety, two-story house, located between 14th and 15th streets on Grand avenue, Kansas City, Mo. Twenty-five other women were also prisoners there at that time, including three of my own sisters. The down-stairs was used as a grocery store. After six months of living death in this trap, the house was secretly undermined and fell with the prisoners, only five of whom escaped injury or death. It was noted that the groceryman had moved his stock of groceries from the building in time to save it from ruin, showing that the wrecking of the house was planned in cold blood, with the murder of my sisters and cousins and the other unfortunate women in mind. All of my relatives, however, were saved from death except Charity Kerr, who was helpless in bed with the fever and she went down with the wreck and her body, frightfully mangled, was afterwards taken from the ruins. Mrs. McCorkle jumped from the window of the house and escaped. This cousin was the daughter of Reuben N. Harris, who was revenue collector for many years. A Virginian by birth, and a school teacher for many years in various parts of Missouri, he was well known throughout the state as an active sympathizer with the South. His home was friendly to every Confederate soldier and scout in the West. Information, newspapers, and the like, left there, were certain to be kept for the right hands.

In September 1863, soldiers ransacked the Harris home, stole everything they considered valuable, and burned the house. A daughter, Kate, who was asleep upstairs, was rescued from the flames by her sister. As the raiders left, one of them shouted:

“Now, old lady, call on your protectors. Why don’t you call on Cole Younger now?”

Among the women who lost their lives was Miss Josephine Anderson, whose cruel death simply blighted her brother’s life and so filled him with determination to revenge that he afterward became the most desperate of desperate men. “Quantrell sometimes spares, but Anderson never,” became a tradition of the Kansas line. Before he died in a skirmish with Northern troops in 1864, he had tied fifty-three knots in a silken cord which he carried in his buckskin pouch.

Every knot represented a human life.

Anderson was then ripe for the raid on Lawrence.

All this was cruelty, indeed, and enough to harden and embitter the softest of hearts, but it was mild compared with the continuous suffering and torture imposed upon my mother during the years from 1862 to 1870.

After the murder of my father she was so annoyed at her home in Harrisonville that she sought peace at her country residence eight and a half miles north of town. But she failed to find the comfort she sought, for annoyances continued in a more aggravated form. She had with her only the youngest children and was obliged to rely wholly for protection upon “Suse,” the only remaining servant left to the family, who proved her worth many times over and in every emergency was loyalty and devotion itself. Nothing could have proved her faithfulness more effectually than an incident connected with one of my stolen visits home. I went home one night to get medicine for the boys wounded in the battle of Lone Jack whom I was nursing in the woods some miles away. As I sat talking with my mother two of my brothers watched at the windows. There was soon the dreaded cry, “the militia are surrounding the house,” and in the excitement which followed, “Suse” dashed open the door to find a score of bayonets in her face. She threw up her hands and pushed aside the guns. Her frantic screams, when they demanded that she deliver me up to them, caused a momentary confusion which enabled me to gain her side and together we made for the gate, where I took for the woods amid a shower of lead, none of the bullets even so much as skinning me, although from the house to the gate I was in the full glare of the light.

Two months after this incident the same persecutors again entered our home in the dead of the night, and, at the point of a pistol, tried to force my mother to set fire to her own home. She begged to be allowed to wait until morning, so that she and her children and“Suse” would not be turned out in the snow, then some two or three feet deep, in the darkness, with the nearest neighbor many miles away. This they agreed to do on condition that she put the torch to her house at daybreak. They were there bright and early to see that she carried out her agreement, so, leaving her burning walls behind her, she and the four youngest children and “Suse” began their eight mile trudge through the snow to Harrisonville.

I have always felt that the exposure to which she was subjected on this cruel journey, too hard even for a man to take, was the direct cause of her death. From Harrisonville she went to Waverly, where she was hounded continually. One of the conditions upon which her life was spared was that she would report at Lexington weekly. It was during one of her absences there that our enemies went to the house where she had left her family and demanded that they turn over the $2,200 which had been overlooked when my father was murdered. She had taken the precaution to conceal it upon the person of “Suse,” and although they actually hung this faithful servant to a tree in the yard in their determination to force her to divulge the hiding place of the money, she never even hinted that the money at that very moment was secreted in her garments. She was left for dead, and except for the timely arrival of a friend, who cut her down and restored her to her senses, she would in a few moments have been as dead as her would-be-murderers hoped.

One of the numerous books purporting to be a history of my life states with the utmost soberness that, as a boy, I was cruel to dumb animals and to my schoolmates, and, as for my teachers, to them I was a continual trouble and annoyance. A hundred of my friends and schoolmates will bear me out in the statement that, far from being cruel to either dumb animals or human beings, I was always regarded as kind and considerate to both.

One of my old school-teachers, whom I have never seen since the spring or summer of 1862, is Stephen B. Elkins, senator from West Virginia.

July 4, 1898, Senator Elkins wrote: “I knew Cole Younger when we were boys and also his parents. They were good people and among the pioneers on the western border of Missouri. The Younger brothers maintained a good reputation in the community where they lived and were well esteemed, as were their parents, for their good conduct and character. In the spring or summer of 1862 I was taken prisoner by Quantrell’s men and brought into his camp by the pickets who had me in charge. On reaching the camp the first person I saw whom I knew was Cole Younger. When I was taken prisoner, I expected to be shot without ceremony. As soon as I saw Cole Younger I felt a sense of relief because I had known him and his parents long and favorably, and as soon as I got a chance I told him frankly what I feared and that I hoped he would manage to take care of me and save me from being killed. He assured me he would do all he could to protect me. Cole Younger told Quantrell that my father and brother were in the rebel army and were good fighters, and that I had stayed at home to take care of my mother; that I was a good fellow and a non-combatant. This occurred just before I entered the Union army, and it was generally known, and I am sure Cole knew, that I was strongly for the Union and about to enter the army. Cole Younger told me what to do to make good my escape and I feel that I owe my life to his kindness.”

Another old school-teacher is Capt. Steve Ragan, who still lives in Kansas City, Mo., and will bear testimony to the fact that I was neither cruel nor unmanageable.

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