Editor’s note: This column about the life of Elbert “Al” Nunn is based on an interview by Anna Florence Robison on March 28, 1934. Part 2 of the article will appear in the May 3 issue of The Journal.I (Al Nunn) was born in Memphis, Tennessee, April 25, 1845. My parents were Tom and Elizabeth Nunn, and I had one sister, Elizabeth, who died when she was 14 years of age.
My father was what was called a “drover.” He lived in southwest Missouri on Osage Creek and drove stock to Illinois. He never returned home from his last trip, and it was supposed he was murdered and his body thrown into the river. That was 85 years ago when I was 4 years old. My mother died when I was 7 years old. After that, I stayed at George Owen’s place and then with Ambrose Pault. I was a very naughty small boy and hard to handle. Finally my mother’s brother took me to Isam and Sarah Cunningham, who reared me. They had much land and also a cabinet shop at Marshfield, Missouri.
I stayed with the Cunningham family until I was 18 and went to school. Then I enlisted for the Civil War. That was in 1863. Bob Harper came along and met me on my way to school and said “Al, aren’t you going to join our company?”
“Ask Uncle Isam, “ I replied. We did, and Uncle Isam said for me to wait until I had finished that term of school. But I didn’t want to do it. So I told Bob to wait until I could get my shoes, and I’d go with him. I was barefooted at the time. I rode behind Bob and got my shoes. We went to Sand Springs, a stage station to enlist. When Mrs. Cunningham heard what I had done, she got on a big sorrel horse and rode to Sand Springs hoping that she might request the officials to refuse my enlistment because I was under age. I told them I would run away and enlist in the Southern army if they refused to have me. So they took me after all. I became a member of F Troup, Missouri 16th Cavalry, under Capt. Thomas M. Allsep.
As I was under age, they did not put me on regular duty with older men. It was my duty to escort the stage from Sand Springs to Springfield, Missouri, as volunteer escort until the close of the war. If I hadn’t been under age, I should probably have been shot as a deserter, for I used to go back home – 6 miles – to get a good meal at Cunningham’s, and I would often fail to get back next morning in time for roll call. Instead of shooting me, they made me dig a stump out of the parade ground every time I was late like that. I was never in any fighting, and I was honorably discharged on July 4, 1865. Then I went home to Cunningham’s at Marshfield.
Mr. Cunningham asked me what I wanted to do now that the war was over. I told him I wanted to run a saloon. So he set me up as a saloon keeper. But so many of my customers had – or said they had – no money to pay for their drinks just then. In 30 days, I found myself out of stock and out of business as a saloon keeper.
In 1867, I went to Fort Sill, which had just been established by Philip Sheridan. We were fitted out by Sheridan at Fort Harker for Custer’s Campaign. The Indians had stolen a white woman, a little boy and two white girls. Sheridan was ordered to make a treaty with the Indians for the white people. Sheridan turned everything over to Custer who thought that he could capture the Indians. Custer slipped in on the head of the Washita before daybreak with a brass band and started to play thinking the Indians would come out to him. The white woman and the little boy came running to him, and she was killed as she approached. The white girls were in winter quarters 20 miles down the Washita River. Their names were White.
Sheridan and the army fell back to Camp Supply south of the Arkansas River from Fort Dodge at a place called Cherry Creek. They captured Big Tree and old Sutanda and 30 Indians and took them to Camp Supply. They told the Indians that if the white girls were not at Camp Supply by the next sunrise, they would hang the two chiefs. The Indians returned the girls on time. The men under Custer kept a large number of Indians in a stockade. Those two chiefs were wanted in Texas for depredations, and they were sent down under escort of a Negro cavalry. The Negroes were afraid to go into Texas, so they killed the two chiefs and came back.
After the campaign was over, Jim Russell, Tom Hutchins and I went to Lawrence, Kansas. This was in the spring of 1869. I had been Kansas before in 1866.
Wild Bill was in Custer’s campaign and did the buying for the outfit. He was afterwards a United States marshal. He had a woman called Calamity Jane, who was supposed to be his wife, and she and Bill were very good to poor people. They had money and fed those who needed it.
I knew the Benders of Cherry Vale, Kansas, slightly. They ran a sort of tavern. When they knew for certain that a customer had enough money or valuables to make it worth their while, they would seat him at a table with a curtain behind his chair. Kate Bender would hit him on the head expertly so that he would fall through a trap door into the cellar and the curtain would conceal her while she did it. John Bender would be in the cellar to cut his throat and take his money and valuables. Then an old and supposedly deaf and dumb gardener who was always digging around would bury him at night. A Doctor York and a little girl with him were killed by the Benders. When they did not come home, a search was instituted, which led to the discovery that the Benders had killed them plus 18 or 20 others.
At Cherry Vale, I had three racehorses. I was with old Doc Arnet, and his nephew Doug was the jockey. I met a man named Bean on the Rio Grande. Bean Canyon up the Dolores is named for him. Before that, I was at Fort Sill helping to put up government hay.
After leaving Fort Sill, I worked for a man by the name of Ingram. He was feeding beef cattle on corn. I was to chop the corn and shovel it out into troughs for the Texas cattle, which were not used to corn. Some learned to eat it, and some didn’t and had to be turned loose to graze to keep them from dying. Cleaning out the troughs and feeding the cattle kept me busy. Then Ingram caught me trotting the old team I used, and he fired me for it. I went to work for Russ Bean. He said he wanted a man who would trot a team.
The governor of the Territory ordered Russ Bean out of the country because of a fight with Sam Paull, who was part Irish and part Indian. Bean had land leased from Paull, who used to put sixteen hundred acres in corn every year to sell to the government. Sam Paull wanted to come see Emma Bean and Bean objected because he was part Indian. They fell out over it and shot each other. Paull shot a finger off of Bean, and Bean shot Paull in the wrist. Governor Overton ordered Bean to leave the Territory over it. Bean had to hide out until he left because the authorities would be after him. There was no collection law in the Territory, and a good many people owed Bean. He told me who owed him and how much each owed. He asked me what I would do to get this money.
“I’d get it with a shotgun,” I told him. That was the only way under the circumstances. “By God you’re the very man I want,” he told me.
June Head, Historian for the Montezuma County Historical Society can be contacted at 565-3880 for comments or corrections.