Accounts of the Ramsey Massacre
by Bob Brail

     “What really happened?” is often a question that is very hard to answer. For instance, it is not unusual for a parent to have to deal with two young siblings who both are crying and pointing fingers of blame at one another. To find out what really happened in that case might be an impossible task! On a more serious note, historians are also faced with the task of answering the question, “What really happened?” One historical event of particular interest to those living in Boone-Duden country is what is now known as the Ramsey Massacre. On May 20, 1815, Robert Ramsey and his family, who lived a few miles from present-day Marthasville, near Tuque Creek, were attacked by Native Americans. Four members of the Ramsey family were killed. One man who hurried to the Ramsey farm in the aftermath of the murders was Daniel Boone, so many biographies of Boone include mention of this event, including some written in the past two decades. These biographers sometimes just use older biographies of Boone for their source of information about the Ramsey Massacre. So where would a person look if he wanted to find original accounts of this event?

     The earliest accounts of the Ramsey Massacre were published in the Missouri Gazette and Illinois Advertiser on May 27 only a week after the killings. Surprisingly, this was not first page news; two articles appeared on the newspaper's second page, both by unknown authors:
     An eye witness, who arrived upon the scene about two o'clock, describes it as most heart-rending. The children were lying upon the floor, two of them in the agonies of death, and every time they struggled for breath the blood and brains oozed out of the wounds made by the murderous tomahawks. Mrs. Ramsey was in an adjoining room, but her groans of agony could be plainly heard. Her husband was lying upon a bed in the front room, and Boone was engaged in extracting the bullet, which had passed through the groin and lodged near the surface on the back of the hip. The old pioneer was quiet and unexcited, as usual, both lips were compressed and a fire gleamed from his eyes that indicated danger to any savage that might have come within his reach at that time. Strong, men, looking upon those murdered children, wept and silently vowed vengeance against the inhumane foe. Major Nathan Boone, arrived in town on Sunday evening last, brings the melancholy news, that on Saturday morning last, about fifteen Indians approached the dwelling house of Mr. Robert Ramsay, of Saint Charles county---killed three of his children, and dangerously wounded him and his wife. Of the recovery of Mrs. Ramsay there is no hope. The children were scalped and horridly butchered. Mr. Ramsay lived about two miles from the old Charette village, in the heart of an important settlement; and not more than sixty miles hence. One of the little children of the family made his escape and sounded the alarm. The neighbors, as soon as they could, gave pursuit, but as yet nothing has been heard from them. The Indians who have committed the above atrocious murder, are no doubt a part of those hellish bands who rendezvous at Rock River; to whom a pipe has been sent, and to whom a messenger is now bound, to invite them to a consummation of the Ghent treaty. It cannot for a moment be believed that a treaty will bind these inhuman butchers; nothing but exemplary chastisement will teach them to respect our borders.

This second article followed:
     Copy of a letter from a gentleman in St. Charles County, to the editor: You have no doubt heard of the butchery of Robert Ramsey and his family, by the savages. It was attended with these traits of horrible acts of cruelty which mark the progress of the allies of England. Mrs. Ramsey was tending the milking of her cows, and her pretty little children were amusing themselves, feeding the poultry, and assisting their mother. Mr. Ramsey, who you know has but one leg, was near his wife at the moment the first shot was fired. He saw his wife fall and succeeded to lead her into the house, but as he reached the door he received a wound which prevented him to go to the relief of his children who were caught by the Indians and cut to pieces in the yard. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey are dead, both were shot through the abdomen. Mrs. R. was far advanced in pregnancy.

     These early reports, written only a few days after the event, disagree about key elements of the tragedy. The first article states that three Ramseys were killed and holds out little hope for Mrs. Ramsey's survival. The second article, on the other hand, suggests all the Ramseys were killed. The articles also disagree about where the deaths occurred, in the yard or in the house. The first article, the lengthier of the two, specifies the involvement of Daniel Boone and his son Nathan; the second, shorter article makes no mention of the men. One other interesting difference is that only the second article mentions the fact that Robert Ramsey had but one leg, but he does not explain the significance of this. So the initial reports agreed on many of the facts of the incident, but there were important disagreements.

     About ten years later, Gottfried Duden would begin his short-lived residence in the environs of Charrette Village, near what eventually became Marthasville. Duden would become famous for his book Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America, which would be instrumental in convincing many Germans to emigrate to Warren and St. Charles Counties. While he was in Missouri from 1824 – 1827, Duden interviewed local people and kept the notes that would eventually become his book, which was published in 1829, two years after his return to Germany. One of those people interviewed was a Mr. Ramsay; in his book, Duden recorded the following incident:

     The father-in-law of my nearest neighbor, by the name of Ramsay, related again a short time ago how he had found his house after an absence of several hours. Whites and Negroes lay on the ground, murdered and scalped. Only a five-year-old boy (a grandson of Ramsay's) was still breathing. At the sight of his grandfather, he tried to sit up and then said: 'Granddaddy, the Indians did scalp me.' He died soon afterward.

     This account is confusing for several reasons. First, who is Ramsey, the neighbor or the father-in-law? Second, this account states multiple African Americans were killed, something neither of the 1815 newspaper articles mentioned. Third, the source of this account is clearly the grandfather of one of the murdered Ramsey children. What should a person make of all this? Did Duden incorrectly recall the details as they were told him? Were his notes inaccurate? How could an apparent eyewitness incorrectly recall something as important as multiple deaths of African Americans?
It is possible that Duden simply wrote “father-in-law” when he meant “father.” This would mean that the source of Duden's information was indeed William Ramsey, the father of Robert Ramsey. William Ramsey had moved to Boone County by 1830, but he could have still been living in Warren County during Duden's stay there. It is very likely that the Robert Ramsey family lived on or near the Tuque Creek property William Ramsey owned. So Duden's account of the massacre could be the perspective of William Ramsey who, upon returning to his home, had the horrible experience of finding his dead and dying grandchildren. If this is the case, one wonders why he apparently did not mention his dead daughter-in-law or his severely wounded son. At any rate, Duden's brief reference to the incident offers no new information, other than the poignant description of the grandson's last words.

     A third source of information about the Ramsey Massacre was created in 1851. Lyman Draper, a New York born historian, spent several years gathering information about the early settlers of the southeastern United States. In order to gather their stories before they died, Draper corresponded with or personally interviewed many early settlers and those who knew them. In 1851 Draper traveled to Ash Grove, Missouri, to interview seventy year old Nathan Boone about his famous father. When Draper left the Boone home three weeks later, he took with him 300 pages of notes. One of the many incidents Nathan Boone recounted was the following brief description of the Ramsey Massacre:

     Mrs. Ramsey was killed perhaps in the spring of 1814. She lived about a mile from Charrette. The Indians rushed the house and shot her and Mr. Ramsey in the yard, but he recovered. There were two or three children there besides the Ramsey family. He managed to get into the house and hold them off.

     This, of course, is the same Nathan Boone who had carried the news to St. Louis thirty-six years before. Perhaps Boone was exhausted from several days of interviews by the time he told this story, for the account is remarkable for its lack of detail, especially when one remembers that Boone was an eyewitness to the aftermath of the massacre. Not surprisingly, Boone incorrectly remembered the year of the event.  

     It was not until 1876, more than sixty years after the Ramsey Massacre, that a fairly thorough recounting of the tragedy was written. In that year, A History of the Pioneer Families of Missouri by William Smith Bryan and Robert Rose was published in St. Louis. In their chapter entitled “Indian War,” Smith and Bryan printed a section called “Murder of the Ramsey Family”:

     Robert Ramsey lived about two miles northwest of the present town of Marthasville, in Warren County. His family consisted of himself, his wife, five children, and a little half-breed Indian boy whom they had adopted. Mr. Ramsey was a one-legged man, having received a hurt in a fall from a horse, which necessitated the amputation of one of his limbs, and he wore a wooden peg-leg. The location was considered dangerous, and they had been repeatedly warned by the rangers to move to a less exposed locality; but, like most of the people of those days, they regarded the Indians with contempt, and had a very poor opinion of their bravery and fighting qualities. Ramsey, with his one leg, felt competent to whip a score of the red skins, and therefore he paid no attention to the repeated warnings of the men who knew better than he the dangers to which he and his family were exposed. (Two paragraphs of Bryan and Rose's account are omitted here due to space limitations. They deal with an incident at the farm of Aleck McKinney the day before the incident at the Ramsey farm.)

     The attack was made about sunrise in the morning. Mrs. Ramsey was in the lot milking the cows, her husband and four of the children were in the yard near her, and the other two children—one of whom was the little half-breed Indian—had gone to the spring, which was some distance from the house, for water. The first intimation of the presence of the Indians was given by the cows. They snuffed the air, shook their horns, bellowed, and attempted to jump over the lot fence—for the cattle knew and dreaded the common enemy. At that instant, with whoops and yells, the Indians dashed out of the woods and rushed forward with uplifted tomahawks, intending to brain and tomahawk the whites without resorting to the use of their guns. Mrs. Ramsey started to run to the house, but was fired upon and mortally wounded; and just as she reached the bars that separated the lot from the yard, an Indian, who had run close up to her, aimed his tomahawk at her head. She threw herself forward, fell through the open bars, escaped the blow that was intended for her, and succeeded in reaching the house. Mr. Ramsey, who had not yet put on his wooden leg, and could therefore make but slow progress, started toward the house upon the first alarm, but was shot and severely wounded just as he reached the door. As he fell he reached his hand above the door and got a long tin trumpet which was kept there, and commenced blowing it. This was understood by the Indians as a signal of alarm to the rangers, and they turned and fled as suddenly as if they had been fired upon by a body of troops. Every family kept a trumpet in those dangerous times, to be used when in danger or distress, and its sound never failed to bring the rangers if they were in hearing. The Indians knew this, and never delayed after the trumpet was sounded.

     In the meantime, three of the children had been tomahawked in the yard, and one of them a little girl thirteen years of age, was scalped. She lived four days in great agony, when death kindly came to her relief. The fourth child, a little thing just able to walk, squatted, like a frightened rabbit, in some weeds in the corner of the fence, and escaped unhurt. The two children who had gone to the spring heard the firing, and knowing what it meant, fled to the house of a neighbor, several miles distant, and were saved. The half-breed Indian boy, whose name was Paul, lived to be past middle age, and is still remembered by citizens of St. Charles, where he resided many years.

     A lad named Abner Bryan, a son of Jonathan Bryan, was boarding at the house of Jesse Caton (who lived near the present site of Marthasville), attending school, and had been sent to Ramsey's that morning on some errand. He left only a short time before the attack, and no doubt narrowly escaped death. Jesse Caton, Jr., a son of the gentleman just mentioned, was hunting some of his father's horses in the woods, and while crossing a ravine near Ramsey's house, discovered the tracks of the Indians, and immediately afterward the yelling and firing commenced at the house. He ran home as quickly as possibly,and gave the alarm, and several members of the family started at once to warn their neighbors. By eight o'clock the news had spread all over the settlements, and a large party of armed men were in pursuit of the Indians, while others remained to take care of the wounded. Colonel Boone, who was in Callaway's Fort at Charette, was sent for to dress their wounds, his long experience in such matters having rendered him very efficient. The news of the massacre had preceded the messenger, and when he arrived at the fort Boone was pacing up and down in front of an open space in the stockades, which had not been completed, with his gun on his shoulder, and whistling in his usual undisturbed manner.

     Mrs. Ramsey gave premature birth to a child, and died shortly afterward, but her husband recovered from his wound and lived several years. Two of the children who had been tomahawked died during the day, but the other lived until the fourth day.

     Why does this thorough account appear more than sixty years after the massacre? Is it a reliable version of the massacre? William Smith Bryan, one of the authors of A History of the Pioneer Families of Missouri, was born near Augusta in 1846. As a young man, he became involved in the newspaper business after the Civil War. In 1866 he helped found the St. Charles News, which would eventually become the St. Charles Banner-News. In the mid-1870's he published a newspaper in Montgomery City. It was at this time that he also became part owner of Bryan, Brand and Company, a St. Louis publisher, the company that printed A History of the Pioneer Families of Missouri.
The idea for the book came from Robert Rose, who had a strong interest in local history. In a 1935 interview, Bryan stated that Rose had been “a good-natured fellow with a roving disposition. He had a habit of riding about the counryside on horseback, with a pair of saddlebags as his only impedimenta, and subsisting mainly on the generous hospitality of the people. During these perambulations he took great delight in quizzing as many persons as possible, particularly the 'old timers' about their early days in Missouri.” Rose met Bryan in 1874, and the two agreed to author a book about the early history of St. Charles, Warren, Montgomery, Callaway, and Audrain Counties. Two years later, 500 copies were printed, but only 200 were bound, and many of these were given away, the rest selling for $2.50 each. Rose died only four years later, but William S. Bryan would live to be 94, dying in 1940.

     The key to understanding the reliability and thoroughness of the 1876 account of the Ramsey Massacre lies in the phrase that begins its last long paragraph, “A lad named Abner Bryan.” Abner Bryan was William Smith Bryan's uncle. The logical conclusion is that William Bryan's source for his account of the massacre was someone who was there the day it happened, his uncle Abner. Abner Bryan, the son of Jonathan and Mary Bryan, was born in 1802, so when the Ramsey incident occurred, Abner would have been old enough to remember details of the event. The same could be said of William S. Bryan's father, Elijah, who was three years older than his brother Abner. A third Bryan boy James, born in 1806, could also have recalled the grim day in 1815. It is certainly probable that, through the years, the family sometimes talked of the memorable incident which they had experienced. All three brothers were still living in 1875, when Bryan and Rose compiled their history. It is also worth noting that all three of these Bryan brothers would have memories of Daniel Boone, who died in 1820. In fact, William Bryan said that his father knew Boone well. Jesse Caton, Jr., also would have been a reliable witness since he was sixteen years old at the time of the attack.
In a 1935 interview, Bryan recalled that “many 'old-timers,' both men and women, . . . , fourscore and ten and more of age, with vivid recollections” were interviewed for the book. For examples, for their account of the death of Captain James Callaway in March, 1815, the authors state they interviewed Callaway's sister and two members of his unit, who were all still living in 1875. In the preface to their book, Bryan and Rose state that at least one member of each family whose history is given had been interviewed by Rose. Without a doubt, William Bryan talked again with his elderly father and uncles about their memories of the 1815 massacre. However, unlike the other events recounted in his book, William Bryan already knew the story of the Ramsay Massacre, since it was part of his family's past.

     One final account of the Ramsey Massacre, which probably relies on eyewitness accounts, appeared a year later in the Historical Atlas of Warren County, Missouri, 1877:

     In May, 1818, the saddest and most shocking incident ever known in this part of the State [occurred]. Among the settlers around Callaway's Fort were the families of three brothers by the name of Ramsey, one of whom, Robert, had erected his domicile on the outskirts of the settlement, and on that bright morning in the month of flowers, his family while attending to their morning's work were surprised by a party of Indians and before they could find shelter in the house three of his children were killed and scalped, his wife mortally and himself seriously wounded. Two boys, members of his family, escaped to the house of his brother William on the premises now belonging to our present Sheriff and Collector, John A. Howard, and explained to the inmates the terrible cause of the firing which had been plainly heard by them.

     While this author, L. J. Dryden, incorrectly states the year, the other facts are corroborated in William Bryan's longer account, except for the scalping of all three children and the identification of the William Ramsey house as the place to where the two Ramsey children escaped. It is not unlikely that Dryden was given this piece of information by John A. Howard, who had lived in the area at last as far back as 1850.

     William Bryan would recount the story of the Ramsey Massacre one last time in 1909 when he wrote a three-part biography of Daniel Boone for the Missouri Historical Review. In that article he showed an obvious familiarity with the location of the attack:

     On the morning of May 20, 1815, a band of six Fox Indians attacked the family of Robert Ramsey, whose cabin was situated about two miles northwest of the present site of Marthasville, in Warren County. That was then the extreme limit of the Boone settlements, and the place was regarded as so dangerous that the rangers had advised Ramsey to move his family back to a safer location. He disregarded the injunction, and in due time became the victim of his own rashness. Ramsey and his wife were both wounded at the first fire, but the former, as he fell, grasped the trumpet which hung over the cabin door and blew a blast that frightened the savages from their murderous work. They did not depart, however, until they had tomahawked three children who crouched affrighted in the yard, and one of them was scalped. The scene of this tragedy is still pointed out, the corner of the yard remaining the same as it was then, the spot where the little one fell being marked by the stump of a locust tree that stood there at the time. Mrs. Ramsey died the following day, but the husband recovered.
The sound of the firing and the trumpet blast were heard by a young man who was hunting in the vicinity, and the rangers were at once notified. So rapidly was the news carried by scouts and runners, and from house to house, that by midday the entire country was warned, and armed men hurried to the scene of the massacre. Daniel Boone was among the number, and as his experience in border warfare had given him some knowledge of surgery, he dressed the wounds of Ramsey and his wife.

     Without a doubt, the Bryan and Rose account of the Ramsey Massacre is the most reliable and, fortunately, the most thorough. While the other accounts add interesting aspects to the killings, like Duden's recording of the child's last words, they do not provide the best answer to the question of what happened on that spring day in 1815. Because William S. Bryan grew up in a family that had participated in the events of that day, his is the far more valuable rendition.

Sources: “By Way of Introduction” (W. W. Elwang) in A History of the Pioneer Families of Missouri;; Federal Censuses:; “History of Warren County, Missouri” (L. J. Dryden in Historical Atlas of Warren County, Missouri, 1877; A History of the Pioneer Families of Missouri (Wm. S. Bryan and Robert Rose); Missouri Historical Review (; My Father, Daniel Boone: The Draper Interviews with Nathan Boone (Ed. Neal Hammon); “Nathan Boone Homestead State Historic Site” (; Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America (Gottfried Duden).“William Ramsey and Family, Warren County Pioneers, and the 1815 Massacre Near Charrette Village” by Tarney Smith (