Two Deaths in 1849 on the Santa Fe Trail Remain Unsolved
By Diane Euston
The mysterious death of two travelers on the Santa Fe Trail has created more questions than answers for just shy of 170 years.
In 1849, two men named Alexander and Isaac Patton (also said to be a man named Perry), most likely cousins, left Kentucky for the possibility of getting rich in the California Gold Rush. After a stop in Independence for supplies, the men loaded up and headed southwest.
Years later, Bryce B. Smith (1878-1962), mayor of Kansas City in the height of the Pendergast Machine, moved to a sprawling farm at Blue River Road and Red Bridge Road around 1920.
A quarter of a mile north of the Red Bridge in a pasture owned by Mayor Smith was the original ford used for crossing before the bridge was built in 1859. According to the Kansas City Star, he told friends, “There are a couple of men from Independence who have been buried in that pasture since the trail days.”
Curiosity got the best of Mayor Smith when a flood washed a small marble headstone into view on his farm. It read: In memory of Isaac Paxton who was born October 22, 1814; died May 7, 1849. So when he learned from his neighbor that there were two men who died enroute to California, the story began to come to life.
Urial Holmes grew up on a neighboring farm just east of the Bryce Smith farm. When he learned that the headstone of one of the Paxton boys had been rediscovered in the 1920s, he was elated. The other headstone, Holmes explained in a 1934 vital records book, “was broken many years ago, and so doubtless it has been destroyed.”
Holmes said that people in the area first thought the two young men died of cholera, but later it was discovered they had been murdered.
Here’s how the story goes. When the boys reached the Big Blue River, they were forced to camp because the area was flooded. As they waited for it to subside, Holmes claimed he had become acquainted with the two men. He recalled that a tramp approached the Paxton men and begged to come along with them. He offered to do all the chores.
After the water along the Blue River subsided, it was assumed the Paxton men were able to ford the river and move along to the west to make their millions in gold.
But some time later, Holmes claimed to get a letter from California from the tramp who left with the Paxton boys. The letter stated he was on his deathbed and wanted to admit he killed the two men and buried them under a tree. He took all their money and their wagon before heading to California.
Holmes, shocked from this confusing letter, set out to find the graves of the two Paxton boys and claimed to find them buried under a tree. When the Paxton family eventually came calling, seeking the whereabouts of their family members in the area, they were unable to trace them past Independence. Holmes met with the family and showed them the tree where the men were buried by the tramp. He also claimed to have given these family members the letter written by the tramp, but later “forgot the name of the murderer.” The family then erected two small headstones under the tree to commemorate their lost relatives.
Alas, the story must have been one that the pioneers in the community told to those who later moved to the area. There are some holes in it. The two men died in 1849 near the Blue River crossing, while Holmes, the source of much of this information, didn’t move to the area until four years later in 1853! Also, he was only two years old when these men embarked on a journey to seek their fortune in the gold fields of California.
But stories in these days were passed by word of mouth, and facts have to be taken with a grain of salt.
In an article in the Kansas City Star in 1948, years after Holmes’ death, a Kansas City lumberman named Frank Paxton claimed to have written relatives in Kentucky and “learned that family records showed that Alexander Paxton and his cousin, Isaac Paxton. . . were murdered near Independence and suspicion fell on a young companion.”
Regardless of the truth behind the story, a small headstone of an Isaac Paxton was discovered on the 200-acre farm of Bryce B. Smith. He held onto his farm until his death in 1962; it then passed to his descendants and was sold the following year.
In October 1971, bulldozers moving dirt around on the Bryce B. Smith farm halted their duties when two skeletons were found on the land. Nails with square shafts were also discovered near the two bodies.
Betty Smith Northcutt, daughter of Bryce B. Smith, said in the Kansas City Star that her family for many years had the tombstone of Isaac Paxton. She recalled, “He was buried there, and I don’t think the body was ever found.”
To add intrigue to the story, it is unknown what happened to the skeletons recovered on the former Bryce B. Smith farm off Blue River Road. Today, the only thing remaining from his farm is the pond on the current site of Children International.
Even though there are some facts missing and details are fuzzy, the death of the two Paxton men seems to have some truth to it. Many travelers on the trails lost their lives on their way to their future, but the mystery behind the story of the two men in 1849 is left to the imagination.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.
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2 thoughts on “Two Deaths in 1849 on the Santa Fe Trail Remain Unsolved”
Young Frankie Paxton lived up the street from me on 61st Terrace. Played with him as a child in the late 1950’s and 60’s
Some parts of this story may be shaky, but on May 8, 1852, George W. King was headed overland to California and made a relevant observation in his travel diary. He wrote “Forged [Forded] the Big Blue River at 3 o’clock. Camped on the line of the Indian territory after dark. Saw two graves today. The names were Isac [sic] and Alexander Paxton, died May 6th and 7th, 1847. I did not learn their history but suppose they were Cal. Emigrants…” Because King hypothesized the Paxtons were traveling to California and the emigration to that place did not reach full flood until 1849, it seems likely the year 1847 is a transcription error. This suspicion is supported by the reported date of May 7, 1849 on Isaac’s headstone. Whether King saw original grave markers (if they ever existed) or the marble ones eventually erected by the family is unknown.
Dept. of Geography
Western Illinois Univ.