A Kickapoo Kidnapping—A True Story

I recently reread Little House on the Prairie, looking for unfair denigration (“stereotypical attitudes’”) describing Indians, which the ALSC stated was one of the reasons for stripping the author’s name from their children’s literature award.

It’s true that Ma harbors a negative prejudice towards Indians, but her daughters never actually learn why. Pa sets a positive example, always seeing the Indians’ point of view. And after all, Ma had very good reasons to fear and mistrust Indians. It was a different time.


I was reminded of this bit of family lore:

In 1790, James Gillham lived with his wife, Ann, and his four children in what in a few years would become the state of Kentucky. They had followed the trail that Daniel Boone blazed through the Cumberland Gap in 1775.

Daniel Boone leading Pioneers Through the Cumberland Gap, David Wright

One day when James and his son Isaac were out plowing the corn field, a party of Kickapoo Indians descended upon the cabin, terrifying Ann and the children—Samuel, James, and little Clem, who was then four years old. The Indians ransacked the cabin, tore open the mattresses, dumped out the feathers and filled the ticking with the family’s belongings.

When James and Isaac returned to the cabin for lunch the family was nowhere to be found.  James realized what had happened and spread the alarm among his neighbors.  They grabbed their rifles and set off in pursuit, but eventually they lost the trail.

James was determined to find his family, however, and as soon as he could, he sold everything he owned and set off with Isaac to discover what had happened to them. First they went to Vincennes, Indiana, a trading center, where James hoped someone might have heard rumors of the kidnapping. But he was unsuccessful there.

For the next five years, he chased down leads, finally learning that his wife and children were alive and located in a Kickapoo village near what is now Springfield, Illinois.
Two French interpreters and an Irish trader helped him negotiate with the Indians for their release, and a Frenchman lent him the money for the ransom.

Later when Ann recounted the ordeal, she remembered that the Indians were in such a hurry to get away that they did not stop to find food for several days. She feared that they would kill the children because they were having a hard time keeping up.  She tore her clothes to make rags to wrap around their bruised feet.

When finally they stopped to hunt, they killed a racoon, singed off its hair, threw away its intestines, chopped it up and boiled what was left—meat, bones, and internal organs—into a kind of soup which everyone shared. After several more arduous days on the trail, they arrived at the Indian settlement.

When they were rescued, Clem then nine years old, could not speak a word of English.

And that’s all we know of their captiivity.

Many years later, Congress awarded Ann 160 acres of land as recompense.


The last surviving Indian captive, Bank Babb, died in 1955. She had been captured by the Comanches along with her older brother, Dot, in 1865 just four years before Laura Ingalls’ family settled on the Osage Diminished Reservation in what is now Kansas.  The Indians killed the mother on the spot, shooting an arrow into her side. You can read their story here.


 I’m glad the Kickapoo spared the lives of Ann Gillham and her sons, particularly Samuel, for he was my great, great grandfather.


The story of the capture of Ann Gillham and her children can be found in The History of Madison County, Illinois, W.R. Brink & Co, 1882.






4 thoughts on “A Kickapoo Kidnapping—A True Story

  1. Wow. I know this story but I’m always so amazed by it. I’m so glad they didn’t kill Samuel because, well, he was my great, great, great grandfather and my son Samuel’s great, great, great, great grandfather! I would love to know more of the story but it is amazing we know as much as we do! Thank you for writing it and sharing it. It certainly was a different time.


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