William Clarke Quantrill was born July 3, 1837, in Canal Dover, Ohio, (now Dover, Ohio), the son of the superintendent of the Canal Dover Union School. As a teenager, William became a serious delinquent. He was once said to have been jailed, accused of murder, and was released in 1855. Leaving Ohio, he decided to teach school and moved about looking for work. At one point he was accused of crimes and on another occasion he was booted out of Lawrence, Kan. A supporter of slavery, he joined the Confederate Army when the Civil War erupted.
Not one for the discipline of the military, Quantrill organized a band of guerilla fighters whose members included names such as Jesse James, Frank James, Cole Younger and James Younger. He won accolades among his supporters as a superb leader and tactician. At one point in 1863, during a raid burning and looting the town of Lawrence, Kan., the gang murdered 150 townspeople. Quantrill was finally stopped when he was ambushed by U.S. troops, causing his death June 6, 1865.
Step back nine years earlier to a time before the Civil War, and after Quantrill’s father had suffered an untimely death. It was 1859, and as a young man William left home to find work. An interesting letter survives reprinted in a book by William Elsey Connelley, “Quantrill and the Border Wars” (1956) signed, “Your son William Quantrill.”
The letter describes the weather of Feb. 21, 1856, as snow being 30 inches deep in the woods and destined to get deeper. The temperature gauge didn’t climb above zero for days.
Farmers were losing sheep, pigs and calves in the freezing weather. People had to deal with frozen extremities, many had the ague and many died of typhoid fever. William described the place as unhealthy, with virtually everybody living in log houses, and he suggested that no one should buy a farm in the entire state of Indiana.
On a more favorable note, Quantrill noted that his stay from where he wrote had “done me more good and I have learned more than I would in three years steady schooling. What I have learned will be of more benefit to me that any thing I now know of.” He thought that it might be a good idea to stick around for another year, he had good clothes to wear and had not missed a meal and he regretted leaving his widowed mother home alone to fend for herself.
Finding friends nearby seemed to be a consolation to William, and knowing his old friend George Scott lived a mere 20 miles or so from him, Quantrill wrote, “He is a different boy from what he was in Dover.” George was making money and had a place to board all winter “…and that he never done at home and never would in Dover if he had lived there ever so long.”
Otherwise sounding like that of a typical son-to-his-mother letter, it is in the first paragraph that makes the story so interesting. “My Dear Mothe — I suppose you thought I was dead but not so … I hope you will forgive me then for not writing. I am now in Indiana near Fort Wayne teaching a school, and a very good one. I have from 35 to 40 scholars every day. I have got a good neighborhood, and they say I am the best teacher they ever had. I get 20 dollars a month and boarded. I took up school for three months and my time is half out now.”
How promising the February 1856 letter sounded for a young man who may have engrossed himself in a noble career, learned tolerance but was strayed away by unfortunate circumstances.
Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi, a retired Essex vice president, hosts "On the Heritage Trail," which is broadcast at 6:35 a.m. and 8:35 a.m. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM, and "Historia Nostra" heard on WLYV-1450 AM.