The Sad and Strange Story of Elmore’s Clara Harrington Blinn
During the long journey of my news career, I traveled a portion of life’s road in the colorful American West, working as a reporter covering much of the region. It was a great experience and I found myself easily seduced by the legends, the lore and the history of this much romanticized landscape. It’s big country, with big stories and big characters, and it became quickly apparent to me that most of those early iconic personalities of the West, were not of the West, but instead hailed from east of the Mississippi River. Many were MID-westerners. Our kinfolk, be they gunslingers, gamblers, soldiers, ranchers, farmers, doctors, merchants, and fortune seeks, they shared a common heart and braved the crucible of the broad plains to discover new and promising lives, or some cases, tragic and cruel deaths. Such was the case of an Elmore, Ohio native. A woman by the name of Clara Blinn. Born as Clara Harrington in Ottawa County, she later moved with her family to Perrysburg where her father ran a hotel in the building that our generation would know as Mills Hardware. By the time the petite and pretty Clara was 19 years of age, she married Richard Blinn of Perrysburg who had just returned from his service in the Civil War. Soon after, the young couple struck out on their own with their infant son and headed West to forge a new future in a new land. Instead, they found themselves caught in the middle of one of the most infamous clashes involving the U.S. Cavalry and the Native Americans on the Western Plains.
Clara and Richard Blinn and other family members set out from their Perrysburg home in early 1868 to seek a new life and a better climate for Richard’s health, in the American West. While some of the family opted to make their new home in Ottawa, Kansas, Clara and Richard continued on to the rugged eastern plains of the Colorado territory, to run a stage stop about 30 miles from the Kansas border. Within months they found they were barely able to scratch out an existence on the sparsely populated high desert plains. By the late summer of 1868, Clara and Richard decided to join an Eastward wagon train to return to the gentler life in Ottawa, Kansas where Clara also had other family members. Clara was eager to return, but near the Kansas border, on October 7th, along the Santa Fe Trail, their wagon party was set upon by a band of about 200 Cheyenne. The Indians circled the small wagon train and shot flaming arrows into the covered wagons. The wagons burned and they were all pinned down for days. Some of the 10 men in the wagon train were wounded. Richard Blinn also managed to escape the violence, but watched in horror as his wife Clara and son Willie were captured by some of the Cheyenne who headed south taking Richard’s family with them.
Clara and her son Willie soon found themselves in the sprawling camp of Chief Black Kettle along the banks of the Washita River in the Indian Territory of what is now Western Oklahoma. It was assumed that Clara, like most white women held captive by Indians at that time, would suffer the so called “fate worse than death”, likely becoming the probable victim of repeated sexual assaults and degradations. Women were commonly expected to kill themselves rather than face the torment of their “savage” captors. Those women who did not commit suicide, but who escaped or were set free by the Indians, frequently became outcasts in their own families. Ostracized and shunned by their “white” communities upon return. It was a different time and different moral code. For the feisty Clara Blinn, survival is what she chose and shortly after being taken hostage, she manged to smuggle a letter out of the Indian camp pleading that she and her son be saved. It said in part,
Whoever you may be, I thank you for your kindness to me and m child….If only you could buy us from the Indians with ponies or anything and let me come and stay with you until I could get word to my friends, they would pay you and I would work and do all that I could for you. If it is not too far from the camp and you are not afraid to come, I pray that you will try….If you can do nothing, write to W.T. Harrington, my father, in Ottawa, Franklin County, Kansas. Tell him we are with the Cheyenne and they say when white men make peace, we can go home. Tell him to to write to the governor of Kansas about it and for them to make peace. ..My name is Mrs. Clara Blinn, my little boy Willie Blinn, he is two years old. Do all you can for me”
The letter was taken to military authorities at nearby Ft. Cobb, and orders were approved that a trader could barter with Black Kettle for their release. But there was little time, for others within the U.S. Military had other ambitions. Namely, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry who had been on a mission to quell the bloody Indians raids against the settlers on the plains throughout 1868 and to remove the Indians from those lands. (Custer is must be noted also has connections to out area, for his adopted hometown was nearby Monroe, Michigan, and his brothers, Tom and Boston Custer, who fought with him in the Indian Campaigns, hailed from the Wood County hamlet of Tontogany-both later died at Little Bighorn with brother George.)
On the frigid and snowy morning of November 27th, Custer and troops found the winter camp of Black Kettle along the Washita River. It was the opportunity Custer had been waiting for. Within minutes, as the day’s first light crept over the sleeping encampment of Cheyenne, Custer’s band of musicians struck up his favorite rendition of the Irish drinking song Garry Owen. The horses charged and the firing commenced. The music provided an eerie backdrop to the screams of the Indians, running from their tipis, as the rifles barked in the hands of the soldiers on horseback. In 15 minutes, it was mostly over.
Scattered about the camp, the bodies of Indian men, women and children lay bleeding to death in the crimson-etched snow. Chief Black Kettle and his wife, among them. Soon after, Custer ordered his troops to burn the village and to shoot the 800 Indian ponies of the Cheyenne so they could not be used by other Indians. There is no evidence that Custer knew about, or that he ever tried to find the Perrysburg woman and her young son. In Custer’s hasty retreat he left behind his second-in-command, Major Joe Elliot and a detachment of 18 troops who had pursued some fleeing Indians. Custer was strongly criticized for that action and many of his troops never forgave him. It would be two weeks later that Custer would finally return to the Washita battlefield site, or what some critics contend is a “massacre site” to find Major Elliott. (It should be noted here that Elliot also had NW Ohio connections, as he had been the Toledo, Ohio Superintendent of Schools after the Civil War).
On December 7th, Elliot and his men were found. They were dead and badly mutilated in a camp just a few miles away from the Washita. It was here that soldiers also found the frozen bodies of the young Clara Blinn and her son Willie. Clara had been shot twice in the head. Her chest mutilated. There are conflicting reports as to whether she had been scalped. Willie had injuries to his head. Some accounts say he had been thrown against a tree. As Perrysburg historian Judith Justus notes from her research, “There have been various scenarios written about their demise. It is a mystery”. There is no definitive or firm consensus among historians as to how they died or who killed them. Some accounts blame the Cheyenne. Others contend it was the Arapahoe. Still, others offer that it was Kiowa leader Santanta himself who killed Clara and Willie. And there are even theories, and some reports, that it was Custer’s soldiers who killed Clara, mistaken for an Indian during the fog of the battle.
We may never know the truth. But the sad demise of this young woman from Wood County and her son, continues to occupy the center of one of the most controversial episodes of the American Indian Campaign and the exploits of George Custer.
As for Clara’s Husband, Richard Blinn. This too is a sad chapter, for he did not know until months later what had actually happened to his wife and child. Following their capture in October of 1868, Blinn roamed the plains areas of Colorado and the Indian territories searching for his family in painful torment. In his personal diary dated, January 3rd ,1869.
“Life looks dark and dreary to me. I wish I was with my wife, dead or alive. The tears will fall in spite of me when I think of the happy days that are gone to return no more. A true wife and a kind mother. I would not want a better partner to travel through this world than my darling Clara. But now she is no more, I hope she is in a better world than this.”
A few days after this diary entry, Richard Blinn would learn for certain that his darling Clara and Willie were found dead at Washita River. He promised to bring them home for burial, but never did. Never could. Their bodies now lie in a numbered grave at Fort Gibson, Oklahoma after being transferred from an original gravesite at Ft. Arbuckle. It was from those first graves, that Dick Blinn in 1869, took two small pebbles and carried them with him for the rest of his life. He would be happy to know that Clara and son Willie are not forgotten. Her story and her courage are now remembered and honored by recent generations.
There is a new memorial to her erected at the Washita River Battlesite in Oklahoma, while a tombstone stands at Hope Cemetery in Ottawa, Kansas near her parents’ graves. And here in Northwest Ohio, at Ft. Meigs Cemetery in Perrysburg, a memorial grave marker was placed in Clara’s honor next to the grave of Richard Blinn. Her loving husband who died a few years later, in 1873, with the pain still in his heart and two small stones still in his pocket.
My special appreciation to historian Judith Justus of Perrysburg who has researched and written extensively on the Blinn story and who brings to its telling, a unique Perrysburg perspective. Also my gratitude to the Historical Records Archive of Franklin County Kansas where many of the records of the story are kept and were made available to me.