Drowning of Illinoisans in Platte River - Most Thrilling Details __________
The following extracts from a private letter, published in the Petersburg (Ills.) Axis, dated Fort Laramie, May 29th. Furnishes sad details of the drowning of a portion and the perilous escape of the remainder of a California party, composed mainly of citizens from Greene and Menard counties, in this state. The letter is written by one of the party, Mr. C.B. Laning, of Petersburg, conveying the intelligence to the bereaved friends in Menard county.
“With a heavy heart do I seat myself to write you a letter - a letter that will bring sorrow upon two homes, bitter and irremediable. Yesterday afternoon, Harry Masters and John Rutledge were drowned while attempting to cross the Platte river. The particulars are few.
“We arrived opposite Fort Laramie yesterday about 1 o’clock, P.M., and after eating dinner Mr. Roodhouse asked who would go to the Fort. Thirteen out of sixteen expressed the desire to go, Harry and John among the rest. The ferry was about a mile below our camp, and we walked down. The ferryman offered to take us all over for five dollars. He had two boats about the size of wagon beds and similar in appearance. He observed that he could take four persons in each boat besides himself. I looked at the frail barques and thought he could not do it. I said to Harry, “I don’t believe I shall go.” He asked why and I told him that it would not pay to go over to see a few houses which we could view from this side. He said he did not believe it would, and just then Mr. Robinson proposed to me to go back to camp. “Very well” said I, and we started back. On the way he remarked “it is foolish for the boys to go over, when one person could bring the letters and do our business.” I replied that they were not all going, and that some of them had backed out. Thinking that Harry had concluded not to go, we trudged on up to camp, -- I saw that all was right, and walked to the edge of the water to pick up stones.
In a few minutes, an officer stationed at the Fort, hallowed from the opposite side that our boys were all drowning, -- We dropped everything and ran down to the ferry. The scene was appalling, -- On our side of the river two had just got out -- one almost lifeless. On the other side, three had got out and were rolling the fourth man to bring him to his senses. In the middle of the stream and clinging to the ferryman’s rope, was John Rutledge, battling for life with the waves which were dashing over him, and hallowing for those on shore to bring the flatboat to his assistance. But the boat had no poles to guide with -- the wind was blowing down stream quite hard -- and the current nothing could stem.
One of the wagon shell boats was hauled to shore; two men sprang in this and attempted to work out to him by the aid of the rope. The current was so strong that self-preservation caused them to return.
We did not know what to do. We could see that his strength was fast failing him and that he was getting chilled through. He was about 15 yards from the south shore, and some one proposed that we should cut the rope and let the men on that side haul him in. John begged for us not to do it, but it was the only hope for his rescue; some one cut the rope and the brave, whole-souled boy clung to it but for a moment, sank twice and rose again -- sank the third time, and we saw him no more, He was a favorite in our camp, and loved by all.
It seems that, after I had left, two more of our boys backed out, and that Harry, Fonzo, ---- and Russell embarked in one boat, and Rutledge, Roodhouse, two Griswolds and Gregory in the other. They started some distance above the rope, but the current was so strong that they were soon carried down to it. The ferryman told them to raise the rope and pass under, which they all did except Harry, who said, just as they were at the rope, “can I dodge it?” then threw up both hands and caught it. The boat passed on and left him swinging to the rope.
“The boys in the other boat, seeing his danger, told the ferryman to steer to his assistance. He said he would do so if they would not hold on to the rope when they went under it, which they promised. They told the man in the prow of the boat to catch Harry as they went by, but he missed him; some of the rest of the boys caught the rope, were jerked out, and the boat was turned over. The ferryman and two others clung to the boat and Rutledge held to the rope. Fred. Griswold was drowned. Peter Roodhouse made the opposite shore only through the assistance of Fonzo. And Harry, generous, kind-hearted and noble Harry, was seen no more.
The first boat could not make the shore, but the three persons that were left in it jumped out where the water was shallow, waded in and pushed the boat ahead of them. One of these would not have succeeded had it not been for Fonzo who went to his assistance. The first boat then went out again, picked up the three men who were clinging to the up-turned boat, and succeeded in landing them some distance below the scene of the disaster, on the north side of the river.
The ferryman made every exertion to save Griswold, but failed. For the rest, it was a narrow escape. It had been raining hard all day, and the boys were wrapped up in their blankets and rubbers.”
The Carrollton Gazette, Carrollton, Greene County, Illinois, Saturday, June 28, 1862, Page 1 Col. 4 & 5
NOTE: On page 3 Col. 1 of the same edition the Gazette also said:
We call attention to the mournfully __ating particulars of the drowning of Frederick Griswold, and the narrow escape of Peter Roodhouse and Albert Gregory of this county, and also of the drowning of Harry Masters and John Rutledge, Menard county - all young men composing an expedition from the two counties to California. Having had personal acquaintance with the unfortunate young men of Menard, and having esteemed them ___ in friendly intercourse, the news of the disaster is especially appalling to us.
Transcribed by Gary L. Griswold on May 3, 2008