Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sgt. Frederick Wyllyams

Recently, a few visitors to my blog have been looking for information about Frederick Wyllyams, the Eton graduate who had emigrated to this country and earned the rank of sergeant in the American Army before he died outside of Fort Wallace in 1867.

One essay assignment in my second-semester composition course, and one that I have since discontinued, required that the students research someone who had died. The students had the option of researching a family member; another option required that the students choose someone buried at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery and research the person, beginning with the date of death. Occasionally, if students were stumped in their research, and if they could prove how thoroughly they had conducted the research, despite the absence of information, they could show, as a third option, what steps they took in their research and what information they managed to discover.

A few students during the four years that I used this research assignment chose to investigate Frederick Wyllyams. None of their research revealed why Wyllyams’ wasn’t given a commission or why he decided to enlist in the Army. But there are a few detailed sources describing Frederick Wyllyams’ death and mutilation. Captain Albert Barnitz provides a first-person account of the skirmish outside Fort Wallace, which is located on the western edge of present-day Kansas, a bit south of I-70. Barnitz in his letter to his wife laments the loss of several troopers and expresses a particular fondness for Sgt. Wyllyams. Dr. Bell, who was accompanying a railroad survey party and was visiting Fort Wallace during the summer of 1867, attributes Wyllyam’s mutilations to the Cheyenne, the Sioux, and the Arapahoes in his article in Harper’s . (Additional information about the conflict appears here and here .)

One reason I think that Wyllyams continues to attract attention is the historical evidence of his death, including the photographic evidence that Dr. Bell took of Wyllyams’ naked body. A copy of this picture appears in Leo E. Oliva’s Fort Wallace: Sentinel on the Smoky Hill Trail; a much smaller copy of this picture appears at this link .

Many of my students have tried to limit the conflict between the Native Americans and the Euro-Americans to the Battle of the Little Big Horn, perhaps because of the myth that Libby Custer created about her husband and because of the many movies that have glorified that particular historical event. A student versed in history comes to recognize how complex our relations were with the native peoples on the Great Plains and how often our relations were punctuated by violence. There weren’t any heroes; there were only participants in a lengthy clash of cultures.

Someone growing up in Kansas may think that the place is boring. It’s true that the public schools in their sanitized version of the state’s history don’t generate much student interest. In actuality, a trip to Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery and an examination of some of the soldiers buried there can provide insight into the government’s policy toward Native Americans after Kansas was opened up to white settlement and can enhance an appreciation of the region when traveling west across the state on I-70.