A Gunfight: In Five Versions

From the "New York Daily Tribune" 30 Jul 1849: "Peter Kessler returns from a projected trip to California. Kessler had been shot through the lungs by a John Starkey who with a William Patton tried to deprive him of his property. Kessler succeeded in wounding Starkey and the two culprits were expelled from the overland company. Kessler returned to civilization in a Mormon wagon. He was going to California as member of Eickenberry's Company which left Fort Laramie on May 26, 1849."

   A tragic tale, but a happy ending. Mr. Kessler was okay, and the bad guys were thrown off the wagon train. Well, maybe not. Here's the way John Starkey told it in 1851 to John A. Johnson, as Starkey was once again on a wagon train headed West.
   "Mr. Starkey tells us of a tragedy that occurred here last year (sic -1849): As he was on his way to California, a whiskey seller here and a man with him was a very quarrelsome and dangerous man when drunk. He got drunk and made an attack on Starkey who shot him. He was thought to be fatally wounded. They met several mule teams on the way to Ft. Kearney. They took the wounded man back with them, he soon recovered and took the steamer for San Francisco. He went into a gambling saloon, found a table loaded with gold, which he raked off with his hat, and with gun in hand made his escape to the steamer and returned home. "

   So, it was Kessler who was the bad guy, and Starkey was...    Forty years later, another member of the 1849 party, Amasa Smead, told it a little differently in some 1889 reminiscences:
   "We crossed the Missouri river at St. Joe, went up the South Platte opposite Ash hollow; then crossed to the North Platte and went past Scott's bluffs, where old man Starkey, Kessler and Paton had a shooting scrape. Starkey was shot in the groin and Kessler through the body. They both recovered. We passed Fort Laramie, where we left Kessler."

   So, maybe it was just a misunderstanding, a little horseplay that got out of hand? David McCully, at the age of 92 and shortly before his death in 1906, told a newspaper reporter his remembrances of the incident.
   "Among the crowd were three men who owned a team of oxen and wagon together. When at Fort Laramie one of the partners went to the town and commenced gambling, and after losing all the money he had, $800, was so crazed by the loss that he went back to his partners, who were in the wagon, jumped off his horse, got a rifle out of the wagon, and started to turn the team around to start back. After a few hostile words with his partners one of them pulled a revolver and shot him through the chest, and then this man shot the partner who was on the wagon, and all that saved him was the bullet striking the butcher knife which he had in a scabbard around his waist. This caused a great deal of trouble among the crowd in one way, and another, but it was amicably settled. The wounded man was started back to Fort Laramie, where he was taken by a crowd of people gong back to the States and taken to his home. He got over his wound, and lived for many years. His part of the team was taken care of by Mr. Ikenberg, who was captain of the train."

   So, not just horseplay, but a real incident. David McCully doesn't name names, but comparing this with the other versions, it sounds like Peter Kessler was the one who got drunk, and that he shot Starkey. But who shot Kessler? It sounds like "the partner who was on the wagon" (Starkey) was different than the partner who shot Kessler (so, Will Patton?).


   What really happened? One might think that the 1849 account - just two months after the incident - would be closest to accurate. But, of course, it was a newspaper story, and the information obviously came from Kessler, who might have purposely painted himself as the victim - particularly if it was his drunkenness that had precipitated the fight. If Starkey was the real bad guy, his telling of the tale could easily be slanted in his favor, possibly making Kessler appear worse than he was. Amasa Smead was noncommittal about who might have been to blame, and apparently didn't remember the incident as a "big deal." David McCully's remembrance seems straightforward and, while he doesn't exonerate any of the three participants, he seems to put the onus on Kessler for creating the circumstances that led to the gun battle. Still, David was 92 years old, almost 60 years after the fact -- and, by the way, John Starkey was his brother-in-law.


   So, let's ask again: what really happened? Two things we can be sure didn't happen: Starkey and Patton were not expelled from the wagon train, and Kessler didn't go to San Francisco and rob a saloon. But we know something more because on 26 May 1849, within hours of the shooting, Asa McCully was writing a letter to his brother Samuel in Iowa. It seems pretty clear.
   "Today about one o'clock there was a sad affair in our camp. Peter Kesler had stopped with some traders in the evening & got some liquer. As soon as he came up to his wagen he jumped off his horse with a revolver in his hand went in to his waggen & got his rifle came out with it cocked - run up to the cattle & drove them out of the road - ordered his partners to leave. His partners were John Starkey and William Patton. There were five shots before you could say Jack Robison  Patton was not hurt Starkey was shot in the thigh by Keslers rifle but not dangerous Kesler was shot in the breast & in the back - thought to be mortal I think he can't live 24 hours if he don't die tonight we will start with him in the morning and leave him at Ft Laramie The company thinks that Starkey & Patton was justifiable"

As they said on the old TV show, it happened that way, movin' West.


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