By Thomas Best
Today, I will conclude my account of exploring the fascinating collection of materials which are part of the myriad of research files belonging to Ralph Eckley, once of the most prolific newspaper writers of Monmouth history. This collection concerned Eckley’s research regarding the western scout and hunter from Warren and Knox Counties, “Lonesome Charley” Reynolds. Best known for being George Custer’s chief civilian scout who died in 1876 during the ill-fated expedition to round up the Plains’ Indians in central Montana.
One of the yellowing newspaper articles in his collection was an article Eckley had saved from his frequent column regarding his work with Dr. John Gray, a physician and amateur historian. Eckley offered an excerpt from Elizabeth Custer’s writing regarding how much George and she admired dear Charley, a shy man who kept his past largely hidden. With a large face, dark blue eyes, and a stoic look, Elizabeth fondly remembered Charley as not clothed in the picturesque style of often scraggly, long-haired, and heavily armed civilian scouts, but as a revered gentleman. Elizabeth also recalled Charley’s unprecedented bravery, valor, and loyalty to her husband’s soldiers under deadly fire.
Other finds were letters from genealogists to Ralph Eckley in the 1950s seeking further details about the Reynolds family. The tone of the letters illustrated the respect people had for Eckley as he assisted them in their research. I particularly enjoyed reading scraps of paper—one of which was a check from the now long gone Second National Bank—on which Eckley had scribbled some notes about the likely death dates of some of Charley’s relatives. He had also saved some now faded type-written drafts of articles Dr. Gray had sent him—complete with Gray’s own hand written side notes which he must have believed Eckley would desire to help make sense of Gray’s avenues of thought and the myriad of sources he utilized in developing Reynold’s sage. Finally, I was particularly thankful to be able to read letters between Eckley and Dr. Gray in 1957—now 67 years ago. Then chairman of the Physiology Department in the medical school at Northwestern University, Dr. Gray’s carefully-typed findings and beautifully signed letters are a glimpse into this amateur historians’ highly-motivated research and Eckley’s thoughtful assistance. This help would include, on one trip, trapesing around Warren County’s still existing prairie lands where together they searched for scattered and nearly forgotten family cemeteries.
Finally, it should be noted that Gray clarified other falsehoods, including the hoax that Charley had ever married a girl in New Mexico. Gray, more accurately emphasized vivid tales of Charley’s adventures, including how accompanied army parties into what became Yellowstone National Park and the Black Hills in 1874 where gold had been discovered.
We will end this serendipitous account and start with a new topic next week.
Thank you for listening.