Did you know… Larry Lapsley (3/7/1840-12/13/1897)?

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Black History day

Map of Larry's journey from north Texas through the Indian nations
Map of Larry’s journey on foot

Larry Lapsley was a humble, unassuming man, and lived the life of a Kansas farmer. Few who knew him thought him unusual – but they didn’t know his story.

Larry was born in Danville, Kentucky on the farm of Samuel Lapsley. His mother was a slave, and as the status of the children was determined by the mother, Larry was born into slavery. He remembers a fine summer day when he was about two years old – his mother set him down to attend to her farm work, and while she was busy, he crawled away. Finding the edge of a well, he looked over and saw his reflection. Just as he was about to crawl forward, and fall into the well, his mother came running and grabbed him. He was so frightened by her sudden grab, he set up a wail. We almost lost his story.

Larry was originally owned by Samuel’s mother, a widow with eight slaves. She treated him kindly, and on her deathbed called to him, giving him to her son Samuel when he was eight. Larry’s sister was given to Samuel’s sister – she split her slaves between them without regard to the slave families. Larry’s sister was put to field labor, and used up, dying at eighteen. Samuel was not a wise young man – he loved high living, gambling, and had no business sense. Within a few years, old widow Lapsley’s estate was squandered, except for Larry and his mother.

Samuel lost the farm and moved Larry with his mother and cousins to Independence, Missouri. Being a Mason, Samuel found a fellow Mason to take them in, and within two years was able to buy eighty acres. This farming venture proved no more profitable than the first, as Samuel was not inclined toward hard work. Samuel then operated a livery stable – or rather, he owned it and profited from Larry’s labor running it. Finding himself in debt, he sold Larry to his half-brother, Bunor.

Larry went back to the fields, growing corn and beans until the Union army threatened Missouri in 1861. Fearing the loss of his property, the master moved Larry and the other slaves to Texas. Larry and his cousins cried upon leaving their home and venturing off into the unknown. It took several months of travel in freezing weather with snow and sleet to reach Texas. The owners forced them to be quiet whenever Union troops came near, fearing capture.

They arrived in Bonham, Texas (about seventy miles northeast of Dallas) in February. Being winter, and needing for Larry to generate him some income, Bunor hired him out to a whiskey distillery to learn the trade. Bunor enlisted in the Confederate army and was killed at the Battle of Pea Ridge.

Larry stayed on, working for the owner of the distillery, his status murky, but getting wages. Most of the whites in the area moved further south with their slaves, as Union troops came closer. Larry was ordered south, to work for a man named Jones – but he grew tired of being shuffled about like a steer no one wanted. He took counsel with his cousin Tom.

When he was given a horse to go south, he rode until out of sight into an arroyo, then turned north, meeting up with Tom at the Red River. They lay low during the night in the underbrush, then crossed the next morning into Indian territory. The Union army was using the Indians at the time to guard against Confederate incursions, and promising them $100 a head for any man, white or black, caught trying to go through their territory

Larry and Tom tried traveling the next day, but the wind blew like a freight train, and the sky grew dark with swirling clouds and cracking lightning. A downpour started, and they huddled together under scrub pine. When the storm cleared, they discovered they were near a Choctaw Indian village. They hid and tried to travel again the next night, but again a storm blew in, and they took shelter. This pattern repeated so that after three days they had hardly made five miles from the river. Tom had enough – he resolved to travel in the daylight.

The next day, they walked a short distance, keeping the sun on their left in the morning. Before they had gone two miles, a large Indian wearing a blue army coat stepped out in front of them, with two huge Newfoundland dogs. He had a rifle leveled. They were prisoners. After being searched and giving up their guns, money, and food, they were herded to the Indian camp and put in chains.

Choctaw Village

Larry was in some despair for a few days. During the day, he wore leg irons and was closely supervised. At night, he was chained to Tom, and then to a log. The Indians worked him, and he’d come no closer to freedom. He was surly with his captors. After a few weeks, he noticed that Tom was given more freedom, because he laughed and talked with his captors, seeming to be content. Larry adopted this method and found that it worked. He was allowed to go more than a hundred yards from the camp without supervision, though still chained.

One night the village was having a celebration. The Indian men were dancing, and someone had found whiskey. A storm blew in that rattled the lodges, pouring rain and occasionally pelting with hail. Larry had managed to secrete an ax in the hollow of an oak, some distance from camp. He obtained permission to go out. With no one following him, he ran as best he could to the oak, got the ax, and chopped the ring on the chain until it burst, setting him free.

One of the other prisoners had told him of a forest to the northwest, so he tried to steer in that direction, but in the dark, he was really lost. He ran as fast as he could after weeks of short rations, until he stumbled into a creek, falling flat. He was going to rise, but a flash of lightning showed him a man on a horse. The two Newfoundlands were at his side. His captor! Only about a hundred yards away. The creek bed made a hiding place, but Larry assumed he would be caught. Surely the dogs would catch his scent. The thunder rolled, and another flash of light showed the dogs running downstream, away from him. “Larry!” called his captor. “Come out!” Larry scrunched in closer to the riverbank. After a time, the Indian rode away.

For the next three days, Larry played tag with his pursuers from the Indian village. Once he stood in the stream, looking right at them, but wasn’t seen. He was weak, starved, and drenched, feeling distinctly miserable.

Finally, coming over a hill, he saw a small village. At first, this threw him into a panic, but then he saw it was deserted. He decided to risk it – at least he’d have relief from the storms that seemed to roll in every night. He took shelter in one of the lodges and slept dry for the first time in a week. He woke in the middle of the night, to the sound of animals moving about the village. Peeking out, he saw large wolves. He froze against the side of the wikiup and waited for them to leave, all the while glancing around for any kind of weapon. By morning, the wolves had gone, leaving him undisturbed. Several wild pigs came in, looking for protection, he supposed, from the wolves. After watching a while, he was able to run up and slam the door to one of the buildings, trapping the pig inside. He rummaged through the camp and found an old ax as well as half of a clasp knife. He also found papers showing that this had been an army camp. There were a couple of old cannonballs. Straining, he picked one up and threw it at the pig, after cracking the door open, hoping to crack its skull. It just made the pig mad. Realizing he had to risk going in with the pig, or starve, he grabbed the old ax and entered. The pig retreated under a board bed. Plucking up his courage, Larry pried back a board, and cracked the pig’s skull with the ax.

He rummaged about the camp again and found three matches. He skinned, quartered, and roasted the pig. The meat settled in his stomach like a rock, it was so tough, but it was the first substantive meal in a week. After all his effort, he was exhausted. Larry lay down, woke the next day, ate, and slept some more. Gradually, he gained strength. He made friends with a large mangy greyhound that came to the village, but after two weeks, when he felt well enough to leave, the dog would not come with him. He concluded that the Choctaw had dropped pursuit. Keeping the sun on the left, traveling in the day, he walked north on the wagon track, ever watchful.
He carried some of the pork with him, having smoked it to keep it edible.

After a few days of walking, he came to the Arkansas River. He could see swarms of Indians along the banks, and a young woman poling a dugout boat across. His supply of pork was almost gone. He had little in the way of weapons. He decided to risk it. As she got out of the boat, he ran and hopped aboard. She saw him and got back in the boat. He tried talking, but it was clear she didn’t understand.

Creek Indian

Falling back on hand motions, he made her understand that he meant no harm, just wanted to cross. She poled the boat across, right into the middle of a group of armed warriors. Larry found one that spoke a little English. He learned they were Creek, and Union sympathizers. He’d made it! He was behind Union lines.

A black man was a curiosity to the Indians. The old woman he talked to was sure that the Union commander would want to talk to him. After rest and food, the whole village followed him on the walk to Fort Gibson.

Fort Gibson, Oklahoma Picture from 1932

At the fort, after speaking to the commander, a young soldier named Luke Parsons accosted Larry, and offered him a home and a job, caring for his livestock. He bought clothes for Larry. When Luke mustered out a few weeks later, Larry followed him to north of Salina, KS, and continued to work for him for three years. By the end of that time, he’d saved enough to buy his own claim, where he spent the rest of his days.

Sources:(oral history from Larry, and Kansas Historical Quarterly)

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