The Tragedy of Johnny King: A Ghost Story?

On this day—October 28—in 1855, Johnny King woke up to rare autumn sunshine streaming through the cabin windows and the enticing smells of his mother cooking breakfast. He joined his little sister Olive and baby brother Percival with their mother in the kitchen as he sat down alongside their hired man Enos Cooper. Johnny’s step-father Harvey, unfortunately, lay sick in bed that morning with an attack of pleurisy.

 

By noon that day, all three adults would be dead, and Johnny would watch as his home burned to the ground; the responsibility for the lives of the two younger children would be placed solely in Johnny’s young hands—he was not yet seven years old.

 

war1The trouble began two days before when an elder of the Muckleshoot tribe known as “Nelson” had visited the family homestead. Although Johnny’s family had always known Nelson to be a reasonable man, he had remained sullen and uncommunicative as he sulked about the yard that day, finally taking his leave with a complaint about how the white men would soon have all the land in their area. As Johnny’s step-father’s symptoms worsened the next day, the family forgot all about the old Indian’s petulant behavior the day before and what, if anything, it might bode for their future.

 

That morning as they ate their breakfast Johnny’s mother Eliza became aware of activity in their dooryard. She opened the cabin door and immediately spotted an Indian at the corner of an outbuilding with a rifle trained on her. She jumped back, slamming the door, as a bullet splintered through the doorframe.

 

From that moment, Chaos erupted in the little cabin. Johnny’s step-father Harvey Jones drug himself from his sick bed only to be shot by a bullet that whizzed through the cabin wall; he was killed immediately. The hired man Cooper exited through a back window at Eliza’s urging. She herself did her best to hide her three children under a mattress in the back room before resuming her position at the front of the cabin to return fire on the attackers.

 

But quite suddenly, ominously, quiet descended on the tiny house. Johnny clutched the younger children close under the mattress as they heard footsteps enter the cabin and advance to the back room where they huddled in fear. They were soon discovered and marched into the front yard—their mother was nowhere to be seen.

 

Nelson was there, however. He indicated that the children would not be killed, but that Johnny should take his little brother and sister—and go.

 

Johnny knew that the Brannans’ cabin was about a mile away on the adjoining homestead. He took the hands of the little children and started a slow march toward their neighbors’ home. Little Percival was not quite two years old; Olive not quite four. Their progress was painfully slow. Johnny finally hid two children in some bushes to complete the final leg of this journey on his own.

 

Arriving at the Brannan homestead, Johnny saw that the cabin there had been trashed and looted. The windows were shattered and the door stood open revealing broken furniture and ripped up bedding. If Johnny had found the courage to investigate further, he might have discovered the bodies. The Brannans too had been attacked by the natives. Mr. Brannan’s corpse would later be found in the cabin. The slaughtered bodies of Mrs. Brannan, along with her newborn baby, were eventually found stuffed down their well.

 

Johnny had no choice but to take the children and retrace their steps in order to reach the neighbors on the other side of their homestead. Approaching the now-smoldering remains of their own home, they saw no sign of the Indians; however, about a hundred feet from the cabin, the children found their mother in a crumpled heap on the ground, shot, but still miraculously alive. Johnny didn’t want to leave her, but with great effort she was able to insist that he continue with the smaller children on to the Thomas homestead where they might find safety. It was her dying wish that they leave her for the sake of their own safety. They bid their mother their final, agonizing farewells and continued their journey northward.

 

Unfortunately, there was no sanctuary to be found at the Thomases. After marching the little ones another two miles to that homestead, they found the cabin deserted. Next Johnny walked his exhausted siblings to the Kirkland farm—again, there were no people to be found.

 

By this time, the afternoon was rapidly fading into evening and darkness. In desperation, Johnny put little Percival on his back and instructed Olive to follow him up the narrow trail that embroidered the edge of the Green River. He had no idea where it would lead as it traced past the neighboring homesteads, but at least it would be a route that would put greater distance between them and the horrors to the south—and the cruel men who committed them.

 

war4Almost immediately, however, he spotted a Muckleshoot man walking toward him along the trail. Johnny tried to hide the children in the thick scrub growth at the side of the river, but it was too late—they’d been spotted. As the man approached, Johnny recognized him as the man the Thomas family occasionally hired for odd jobs. Tom Wiletchtid, although a member of the same tribe as Nelson, turned out to be the children’s salvation. Understanding immediately what had happened to their family, Tom brought the children to his own campsite and, with his sisters, fed and cared for them before conveying them safely to military authorities in Seattle. If there is a hero in this sad story, it’s Tom Wiletchtid.

 

Of course the horrors inflicted on the King-Jones children or the Brannans or any of the other white settlers in the valley aren’t any worse than the on-going and casual cruelties inflicted on the native Americans over years by the white people. Certainly there is blood-soaked horror on both sides of the equation, and there is no way to balance or perhaps even measure the many tragedies that each side inflicted on the other. That said, I hold Johnny and his story close in my heart, and remember it especially as the big leaf maples erupt into their fall colors and the wind picks up a chill in the night. Part of the reason is because this is the anniversary of the massacre, and another part is because, as Halloween approaches, I think about ghost stories and the events that might plant the seeds of a haunting. I wonder about such mysteries as I put a crudely carved jack-o-lantern on my front porch and hang the black cat ornaments my sister sent to me years ago.

 

But mostly I contemplate them when I go out to my backyard to gather some of the maple leaves that have fallen there from the trees that grow in the park on the other side of my back fence. I open the gate in the chain link and lean into windblown Brannan Park, dark under a gloomy autumn sky. My fence, you see, marks the boundary between what was once the King-Jones homestead and the Brannan property. Somewhere along this fence line, as near as I can figure, young Johnny King once hid his little brother and sister, pleading with them to stay quiet and not reveal their hiding place as he went on ahead to try to find help—and instead finding horror. On my side of the fence, the Jones family was massacred on this day in 1855; on the other side, the Brannan family met the same fate. If their ghosts are here, they’re lost in amid the carports and soccer fields, the paved streets and neglected landscaping. They would see nothing here that would have been recognizable in their time.

 

But on October nights when the wind kicks up and the coyotes travel down the same path that still embroiders the edge of the river, it might sound very much the same to them: unearthly, desolate, and even now isolated. It might be enough to summon a spirit back—just barely enough.

 

Do they ever return? I don’t know. And I never want to know.

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