Plains Folk

Anna Brewster Morgan


The town of Delphos, Kansas, is best known as the home of “Lincoln’s little girl,” Grace Bedell Billings, who wrote to presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln advising him to grow a beard. Its cemetery, just east of town, also is the resting place of Anna Brewster Morgan, a famous captive of Indians.

During a recent drive down Highway 81 we diverted to the neatly kept Delphos cemetery, the older section of which is shaded by pines and cedars. We easily located, alongside a cluster of peonies, the gravestone we sought: “Sacred to the memory of Mrs. Anna B. Morgan / Died July 11, 1902. / Aged 57 Y. 7 M. 1 D.”

Alongside it was a smaller, paler marker, carved with a rose: “Ira Arthur / Son of A.S. & A.B. Morgan / Died Apr. 30, 1871 / Aged 1 Yr 4 M 27 Ds.”

That stirred curiosity, and it seemed fated we were to investigate the matter of Mrs. Morgan, for the next day, browsing the gift shop at old Fort Larned, we found a book prominently displayed: A Fate Worse Than Death: Indian Captivities in the West, 1830-1885, by Gregory and Susan Michno.

Her story already was somewhat familiar to me by virtue of My Life on the Plains, the memoir by George A. Custer. Custer was a political man who wrote the book to rehabilitate his image. In it he recounts his youthful mistakes of life and command, but depicts himself as having grown into mature good judgment.

The key development in Custer’s literary rehabilitation is his negotiation in 1869 of the release of Mrs. Morgan and another female captive of the Cheyenne, Sarah White. Instead of rushing to attack, which likely would have meant the killing of the captives, Custer obtains their release through a mixture of diplomacy and treachery (taking hostages), thus portraying himself as deliberate and canny.

Mrs. Morgan had come west to the Delphos area to keep house for her homesteading brother, Dan Brewster, and then married a neighbor and Civil War veteran, James S. Morgan, in September 1868. Only a few weeks after the marriage, James was shot and wounded by Lakota men who surprised him in the field. He escaped them, but his wife, who rode out packing a revolver to rescue him, was not so fortunate. She was pulled from her horse and taken, and subsequently traded to the Cheyenne who carried her into the Indian Territory.

The baby buried alongside Mrs. Morgan is the mixed-blood child of her captivity. She had three more children, but after her captivity, her marriage was not happy. She left her husband to live first with her brother, and after that in a little house in Delphos. Eventually she was committed to the state mental hospital in Topeka, where she died in 1902. Accounts of her life, based on Mrs. Morgan’s statements, say that her husband was unable to deal with the facts of her captivity, which led to her tragic subsequent life.

Atop Mrs. Morgan’s grave is inscribed an ornate “M,” which I feel sure stands not for “Morgan” but for “Mother.” I also sense that there is more to tell about the story, or stories, of Anna Brewster Morgan’s captivity.

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