The Grave of Susan Haile
One of the most enduring legends of Adams County is the story of the Lone Grave near Kenesaw. The resting place of Susan Haile (sometimes spelled "Hail" or "Hale") has captivated generations of area residents, and no less than three historical markers have been erected at or near the site. An early record of the legend was written by George F. Work, an Adams County pioneer and former probate judge, in Nebraska Pioneer Reminiscences, published by the Nebraska Society of the D.A.R. in 1916 (available on the Internet at www.rootsweb.com/~neresour/OLLibrary/pioneer.0003.html). Quoting an old Oregon Trail freighter named Gordon H. Edgerton, Work reported the story as follows: "It was on this trail a few miles west of what is now the site of Kenesaw, that a lone grave was discovered by the first settlers in the country, and a story is told of how it came to be there. About midway from where the trail leaves the Little Blue to the military post at Fort Kearny on the Platte river a man with a vision of many dollars to be made from the people going west to the gold-fields over this trail, dug a well about one hundred feet deep for the purpose of selling water to the travelers and freighters. Some time later he was killed by the Indians and the well was poisoned by them. A man by the name of Haile camped here a few days later and he and his wife used the water for cooking and drinking. Both were taken sick and the wife died, but he recovered. He took the boards of his wagon box and made her a coffin and buried her near the trail. Some time afterwards he returned and erected a headstone over her grave which was a few years since still standing and perhaps is to this day, the monument of a true man to his love for his wife and to her memory." But how much truth is there in the story? Finally someone has researched the tale and documented what can be proven today. Our thanks to the author for undertaking this project and placing an Oregon - California Trails Association (OCTA) marker at the grave site in July, 2002.
It has been called "The Lone Grave," and it lies on a sandy knoll about four miles northwest of Kenesaw, Nebraska. Most assuredly, however, when Susan C. Haile died in 1852 hers was not a lone grave. This was in the midst of the "cholera corridor," the segment of Oregon-California Trail between the jumping-off towns on the Missouri River and central Nebraska where thousands of emigrants lie buried, victims of the scourge of overland travel, Asiatic cholera. During the trail era, the grave's location was at the northwestern edge of the dry run over the divide between the valley of the Little Blue and the Platte river. There are probably a hundred other lost graves of emigrants not far from that of Susan Haile, but hers is the only one in the Ft. Kearny area to survive with its identity intact. 1852 was a particularly bad year for cholera, a bacterial disease which struck the digestive system so quickly that one could be "healthy in the morning and dead by nightfall." The sheer number of deaths, especially from contaminated water, helps account for the graves that survive elsewhere from that year's emigration. Wyoming has several: Henry Hill, Mary Homsley, Elva Ingram, Mily Irwin, Quintina Snodderly, William H. Bedford, and Nancy Hill, all originally marked by stone grave markers. Nebraska has the grave of Rachel Winters near Scottsbluff. But the Haile grave is conspicuous by being the only grave of 1852 that can still be identified in the cholera corridor of Nebraska. That is part of the Haile story.
Susan C. (Seawell) Haile was born December 20, 1817 at Cape Girardeau in southeast Missouri, not far from where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers converge. She was the seventh and youngest child of Joseph and Prudence Seawell. Both parents were members of pioneering families of Eastern and Middle Tennessee. Joseph Seawell's father was Colonel Benjamin Seawell, Jr., scion of the family of Seawells who had been in Gloucester County, Virginia, as early as the 1630s.
Benjamin Seawell migrated to Bute County, North Carolina, with his brothers and their families in the early 1770s. He became one of the state's most prominent citizens during the Revolutionary War. Seawell was a member of the Committee of Safety in Halifax, North Carolina and later became colonel of the North Carolina Regiment of Militia composed of men from Franklin and Halifax counties. In that capacity he saw action at the Battle of Camden, August 10, 1780. Following the war, Seawell, his family and most of their relations moved west, taking up lands granted to North Carolina's war veterans. Col. Seawell settled in what later became Wilson County, Tennessee.
Joseph Seawell, the father of Susan Haile, was born to Benjamin and Mary (Booker) Seawell January 31, 1776. He was their third son. In the early 1790s he probably first traveled to Middle Tennessee with his older brothers, who were surveyors. Joseph eventually settled in Sumner County. He was described as a "handsome young captain of a military company" and likely served in the War of 1812. By that time Joseph had a wife and four children, as he married Prudence Bledsoe on April 4, 1805 in Sumner County.
Like Joseph Seawell, Prudence Bledsoe was a member of a family of pioneers who were prominent in the early history of Tennessee. Her parents were Anthony and Mary (Ramsey) Bledsoe. Soon after their marriage, the Bledsoes moved to southwestern Virginia, then still a wilderness, and located on the Holston River. Anthony Bledsoe was a surveyor and helped establish the western extension of the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina across the mountains which later separated Kentucky and Tennessee. Bledsoe was a also captain in the Virginia militia and took part in the relief of Fort Watauga, in present Carter County, Tennessee, which was besieged by Cherokee Indians soon after the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. He too rose to the rank of colonel.
Following the rout of American forces in the disastrous Battle of Camden in 1780, an appeal was sent to Col. Anthony Bledsoe and Col. John Sevier, commanders of the "Overmountain Men," to send help from the settlements west of the Appalachian mountains. Col. Bledsoe remained behind to protect the frontier from Indian attacks and sent a subordinate with Sevier to the reorganizing Patriot forces. They participated in the battle of King's Mountain, where British Major Patrick Ferguson and his Tory militia were defeated and Ferguson killed. This was part of the chain of events that led to the British surrender at Yorktown. Because he missed the Battle of King's Mountain, some say Col. Anthony Bledsoe has not received the historic recognition he deserves.
For his services during the war, however, Col. Bledsoe was granted over 6,000 acres of land on the Cumberland River in what would eventually become Sumner County, Tennessee. He established a fort called Greenfield Station two and a half miles north of his brother Isaac's settlement at Bledsoe's Lick. Isaac Bledsoe himself was an early explorer of this region of Middle Tennessee and one of the legendary "Long Hunters" of the frontier. In 1771 he discovered a spring and salt lick during his travels and later convinced the family to settle there. After Sumner County was organized in 1785, it was still a part of North Carolina. Anthony Bledsoe was elected representative to the North Carolina legislature and served until his death.
Still not reconciled to loss of their Cumberland territories, the Cherokee and Creek tribes renewed their warfare on the Tennessee frontier in 1787. On July 20, 1788, Bledsoe's Station was raided by Indians who stampeded the settlers' stock. Anthony Bledsoe and another man incautiously stepped into an opening in the stockade, and both were wounded fatally while standing in the bright moonlight. Bledsoe lived long enough to dictate his will and made provisions for his daughters to receive part of his property. Otherwise, under the North Carolina law of that time, only his sons would have shared in the inheritance.
Just nine months later, on April 23, 1789, the eleventh child of Anthony and Mary Bledsoe was born. The baby girl, named Prudence, would become the mother of Susan Haile. Mary Ransey Bledsoe, "a woman of remarkable energy and ... noted for her independence of thought and action," was aged fifty-four when Prudence was born, twenty-six years after the birth of her first child. Three years after Col. Bledsoe's death Mrs. Bledsoe married an elderly widower named Nathaniel Parker. Mary Bledsoe Parker lived until 1808.
For little Prudence Bledsoe the cost of living on the Tennessee frontier was high. Her father, three uncles, two brothers, and at least one cousin were casualties of the Indian wars of the 1780s and '90s. It may have been some consolation that in 1807 Col. Bledsoe was honored by the State of Tennessee when it named a newly organized county for him. Bledsoe County in southeast Tennessee still exists today. While not immediately pertinent to the story of Susan Haile's life and death, her family's roots clearly lay deep in American history. Yet many Oregon and California emigrants had similar ancestral backgrounds, descending from Indian fighters and heroes of the American Revolution and always part of the great westward migration of early America. Over and over again, the same pattern emerges: families moved from colonial Virginia or Pennsylvania to the Carolinas, then over the mountains into Tennessee and Kentucky. Later generations kept moving west into Illinois and Missouri and then finally over the plains to the West Coast. Most of these people had great numbers of children, and their migration was motivated as much by a quest for land for the ever increasing population as it was by the urge to "Go West," as boosters like Horace Greeley exhorted.
Following the War of 1812 Joseph and Prudence Seawell became part of this historical pattern. They crossed the Mississippi River into Missouri and settled in Cape Girardeau County. Records show that other members of the Seawell and Bledsoe clans were also in Cape Girardeau at that time, continuing another phenomenon that had been long established. Pioneer families tended to move together with groups of brothers, sisters, and cousins all settling in neighboring areas as they moved west. By this time Joseph and Prudence were the parents of five children, all born in Sumner County: Martha, born in 1806; Rachel, in 1807; Margaret, in 1809; William Neely, in 1811; and Mary, in 1813. The two youngest Seawell children were born in Missouri, John Henry in 1815, and Susan C. on December 20, 1817.
It is not known what Susan's middle initial "C." stands for. But it may be for "Caroline." One of Susan's cousins, the daughter of her Aunt Rachel (Bledsoe) and Uncle William Neely, was named Caroline, and her older brother and sister, William Neely Seawell and Rachel Seawell were named for these relatives. The two families apparently were close, and the Neelys may have made the move to Cape Girardeau about the same time as Joseph and Prudence Seawell. Joseph Seawell died on October 27, 1819, when Susan was not yet two years old.
Prudence decided to return to Sumner County, Tennessee, where the Bledsoe clan could help care for her young children. But it is not known exactly where the family went. Perhaps Prudence Bledsoe still owned land inherited from her father, but at this time she disappears from the records. She may later have married a "Mr. Wilson," but this marriage record cannot be found in court documents. Sumner County does, however, record the marriages of several of Prudence's children, including Susan C. Seawell. This is where we again pick up her story.
On November 15, 1836 the clerk of Sumner County issued a marriage license for twenty-year old R.C. Haile and Susan C. Sewell, the misspelling perhaps being a reflection on how she pronounced her last name. The young couple were married two days later. Susan was a month shy of her nineteenth birthday. Richard C. Haile was a native of Smith County, Tennessee, where he was born July 13, 1816. He received his early education in nearby Nashville, after which he settled in Sumner County and engaged in the "mercantile" business. Richard and Susan's first child was born on August 16, 1837. The baby boy was named Joseph Seawell Haile (after his Grandfather Seawell). Less than two years later, on March 27, 1839, their first girl was born, Martha Antoinette. The family called her "Nettie." A second son named Leeman was born November 25, 1840.
About this time the Hailes left Tennessee and moved to Lafayette County, Missouri, to the east of Kansas City. No reason is given for the move, but records show that this county in western Missouri was already -- or was soon to be -- well populated with members of Susan's extended family, both Seawells and Bledsoes. Undoubtedly it was another clan movement as had been traditional in her family for generations. In Lafayette County Richard Haile was respectively employed in "school-teaching, book-keeping, and clerking." Every few years another child was added to the Haile household: Sarah Jane ("Sallie") on September 16, 1843; John William on August 23, 1846; and finally the baby of the family, Susan Henrietta ("Retta") on December 3, 1848.
In 1849 Richard Haile joined the California Gold Rush. Details are lacking, but he may well have been accompanied on the overland trek by John Henry Seawell, Susan's older brother. John was married to Mary S. Lauderdale, whose sister was married to Susan's cousin, George Washington Bledsoe, and all were residents of Lafayette County. Richard Haile arrived in Sacramento on October 7, 1849 but soon went out to Nevada City, where he engaged in mining for about a year. In the fall of 1850, Richard and John Seawell resolved to settle in California permanently. Sometime in 1851 they returned to Missouri, going the long way around by Cape Horn and New York City.
On May 1, 1852, it was recorded that Richard and Susan Haile sold forty acres of land to Susan's brother, William Neely Seawell, for two hundred dollars. The parcel was located about ten miles south of Lexington, Lafayette County, Missouri. There is no record of the Haile's acquisition of the land or whether the Haile's lived and farmed on the property. In fact, the Seawell land sale the is the only legal record of their stay in Missouri of over ten years, and they do not appear in the 1850 census.
The Haile property was likely sold just before they left for California. But this latest westward movement was another extended family affair for Susan. Besides her brother John and his household, at least one other of her siblings left Missouri with them, Martha Seawell, Susan's unmarried older sister. There were probably several wagons in the company and perhaps some hired hands as well, since the Hailes were bringing with them over one hundred head of cattle. Martha must have been a help to Susan. The six Haile children then ranged in age from fourteen-year old Joseph to little Retta, who was just three.
Unfortunately there is no contemporary account of the journey. The Hailes, however, probably left the Missouri River in the Kansas City area, or they could well have gone northwest from Lafayette to St. Joseph, one of the major outfitting towns of the time. They had at least two experienced trail hands with them, Richard Haile himself, and brother-in-law John Seawell, the former Forty-Niners. All that is known is that when they reached the Platte River in south central Nebraska, Susan C. Haile died. In 1879, a California author familiar with Richard's story wrote of the event: "When at Platte river, Mrs. Haile was seized with cholera, from the effects of which she succumbed on June 2, 1852. Here far away from friends, on the lonely waste of an unknown border, was this fair pioneer buried, near Fort Kearny, on that river, leaving naught but a mound, heaped by loving hands; the last tender offering to a devoted wife and mother, by her sorrowing husband and children."
Legend says that Richard Haile identified the grave with a temporary marker and turned back east to get a proper marble headstone so that the grave of his wife would be forever marked. According to this story Richard left the wagon train, placed his children under the care of their Aunt Martha Seawell and returned to St. Joseph or Omaha with his horses. Once there he sold the horses and used the proceeds to pay for an engraved marble headstone. Not having enough money to buy another outfit, he "procured a wheelbarrow and with this vehicle set out on foot, pushing his wife's headstone before him." After marking Susan's grave, he joined another wagon train as a hired hand and proceeded to California. There is no confirmation of the story in Richard Haile's brief biography in a Solano, California history book, but it may well be true and would account for the grave's survival, though the wheelbarrow aspect is probably a embellishment added in later years by local people. Indeed, the wheelbarrow story is also told about two other known graves in Nebraska, those of Amanda Lamme (sometimes recorded as "Lamin") near Bridgeport and Sarepta Fly near Lexington.
Still, the existence of a marble grave marker in this area during the trail era is confirmed by William Woodhams, who arrived here May 10, 1854: "[We] passed many graves. One had a nice marble headstone with a woman's name on it. It stood on the top of a little sandhill, and strange enough was that sad evidence of civilization here in the wilderness, the more so as it bore a woman's name. Bad enough for man to be buried in this wild region, but a woman's place seems peculiarly in the comforts of home and friends."
The grave was noted at least once during 1852 season by John H. Hays. Hays kept a list of graves he had seen while crossing the plains and had it published in a Sacramento newspaper. There is no indication of the date on which Hays saw Susan's grave. The inscription, however, was noted by him: "S.C. Haile of Missouri, died June 2, 1852." Did Hays see the first, temporary marker Richard left at the grave or the marble gravestone he put there later? There is no way of knowing. The original marker has been replaced at least two times. The original and its successor were chipped away by souvenir hunters, a common nineteenth century practice.
None of the contemporary accounts mention the entrepreneur with the hand-dug well (although soldiers had dug a well two miles east of Kenesaw about this time), the Indian attack or the poisoned water at the site, probably because these things never happened. But within a few years, the romantic Lone Grave legend was well known, and it persists today.
Richard Haile was reunited with his children, either in California or possibly somewhere in Nevada, burdened as their slow-moving wagon train was with a drove of cattle. They settled in the Napa Valley, where Richard farmed in partnership with John Henry Seawell (now known as "Major Seawell") and one L.C. Burroughs. The farming operation was combined with commercial lumbering. In 1857 the partnership was dissolved, but Haile continued to farm and added merchandising to his business. In 1858 the Haile family moved to the Suisun river valley in Solano County, California, about midway between Sacramento and San Francisco, where Richard bought a farm of 510 acres near the town of Fairfield. By this time Richard Haile had remarried the widowed Susan D. (Clayton) Sears, a mother of four children. They had four more children together, and it has come down that in the family the children were referred to as "your children," "my children" and "our children" as a way of keeping track of the respective parentages. Mr. Haile served several terms in the California legislature, representing in turn Napa and Solano counties. The Seawell genealogy describes him as "a highly honored and influential citizen in the history of the development of California."
Richard C. Haile died on January 23, 1890 at his home in California. His name is long forgotten in the story of Adams County. But his fame lives on as the husband of Susan Haile, the occupant of the Lone Grave on the Oregon - California Trail, and the man who trekked across the prairie with a headstone in a wheelbarrow (in legend, at least) to honor his wife's final repose.
About the Author
This article was written in 2002 by Randy Brown, who at that time taught in a country school near Douglas, Wyoming. In 2002 he was chairman of the Graves and Sites Committee of the Oregon-California Trails Association and has published several stories in OCTA's publication, The Overland Journal.