Before he died at the age of 27, my grandfather, Harry Cornelius Knapp, told his little boy about his grandfather, Cornelius, who had been a colonel with the Second Colorado volunteers. In spite of evidence that Cornelius was not an officer, Herb continued to believe his grandfather was a colonel in the Union Army. It was a point of pride with him for his entire life.

Harry Knapp
My grandfather, Harry Knapp.

Chapter Three: “Colonel” Cornelius

It is not entirely true that our lives begin when we are born—or even when we are conceived. Long before that, our grandparents and great-grandparents have done things that will, in devious and crooked ways, help shape our lives.

Sometime in the 1970s, a stranger came to see my father. She said her name was June Beck and that her grandmother Hattie had been his aunt. He said he’d never heard of Hattie. June explained that Hattie had died before he was born but said she was surprised his parents had never mentioned her.

She didn’t know my family. We were experts at not mentioning things.

June Beck also told my father his ancestors were English and that he was probably a descendant of one of the Knapp brothers who arrived in Massachusetts in 1630. He didn’t want to hear this. All his life he’d believed that his ancestors were Swiss-Germans who had settled on the Pennsylvania frontier.

Then June took out some papers showing that Cornelius Millis Knapp, my father’s grandfather, had been a quartermaster sergeant in the Union army. This was too much for Dad. He had always believed his grandfather had been a colonel, and he intended to go on believing it. Too young for the First World War and too old for the Second, he didn’t know anything about the military. He would concede only that his grandfather had been a sergeant at the time he was discharged, leaving open the possibility that he had been a colonel at some other time.

The whole business “riled him.” His belief that his grandfather Cornelius had been a colonel had sustained him during his climb from poverty to affluence—had given him a sense that he belonged with the colonels and commanders rather than with the failed storekeepers like his father and stepfather.

In 1832, Cornelius Knapp was born in Lyons, New York, which is between Rochester and Syracuse on the banks of the Erie Canal. He grew up watching mules haul barges carrying grain, hardware, and sometimes passengers to points west. His mother died before his first birthday; his father didn’t remarry. He “shifted” the boy from one neighbor to another. The neighbors provided for him and sent him to school, but he never belonged to a family. As soon as he felt he could “do for himself,” he “lit out for the territory.” I suspect he “caught on” with the crew of a canal barge.

When the Civil War broke out, he was in Denver, where he enlisted in the Second Colorado Volunteer Infantry. The Second Colorado’s Descriptive Book says he was five feet six and one-half inches tall, of light complexion, with blue eyes and light hair. In the blank beside “Occupation,” his examiner wrote, “Merchant.” Four months later, Colonel J. H. Leavenworth appointed him a quartermaster sergeant.

After the war, Cornelius married Charlotte Kimmears. They met in Independence, Missouri. She had been married before and had two children, but she was not a widow; she was a divorcée. I don’t know the circumstances of the divorce, but in the 1860s, irreconcilable differences wouldn’t suffice. The most common reason for a divorce was abandonment, followed by adultery and physical and verbal abuse. In any case, Charlotte came west with her children, mother, father, and sister to put her past behind her.

As soon as she and Cornelius were married, they started having children. They also started wandering. I don’t know what Cornelius was looking for, but he didn’t find it in Independence. After their first child was born, he put his wife and the children and household goods in a wagon and relocated to Peru, Kansas. After another child was born, he relocated once again, this time to Sedan, Kansas, in the southeast corner of the state. That was it. Whatever he was looking for, he found it. He and Charlotte stopped moving, but continued to have children.

Cornelius opened a store in Sedan and became a fairly prosperous, popular figure in the community, serving two terms as county clerk and one term as county treasurer. He died in 1898. My father told me his father told him that everybody called Cornelius “Colonel Knapp.” Maybe this was an affectionate joke. Maybe the way he wrote his name made “Cornelius” look like “Colonel.” But his obituary plainly says that he had been a quartermaster sergeant, so nobody was being fooled.

Cornelius’s son, Harry, my grandfather, was born in Sedan in 1882. He grew to be a tall, skinny boy. In 1900, when he was 18, he married Edna Siebel Hicks and took her off to the Oklahoma Territory. They settled in Newkirk, population 1,754, and Harry, with capital inherited from his father, opened a general store. Newkirk’s business district was one block long, and almost all the businesses were saloons. The sidewalk was made of wooden planks. When it rained, the streets turned to mud that was plowed and re-plowed by the wheels of wagons and buggies. A year after Harry and Edna arrived in Newkirk, my father was born.

Harry’s store prospered for a few years. Then there was a drought. The crops failed. The farmers couldn’t pay their bills, and Harry’s store “went under.” He loaded his wife, two children, and what was left of his inventory onto a wagon and headed back to his widowed mother’s house in Sedan. Crossing the Arkansas river, one of the horses got stuck in quicksand. Sitting in the wagon beside his mother, little Herb watched his father strip the harness from the animal and shoot it. They drove on. The boy would remember everything that happened on that trip.

Approaching Sedan late in the afternoon, Harry turned off the road and made camp. Nobody explained, but Herb, though only five or six years old, knew why his father was waiting for darkness before driving into town.

“We were ashamed of being so shabby and poor.”

Harry’s mother, Charlotte, was sick and getting sicker. In December, Harry and his sisters, Lottie and Lucy, sent for their half-brother, James, who was living in Denver. Of Charlotte’s ten children, those four were the only ones who survived her.

They also sent to Independence for Charlotte’s sister and her 80-year-old mother. Sedan’s newspaper, The Weekly Times Star, reported that they were all present when Charlotte died and that “at the time of her death,” she “was 59 and 12 days of age.”

(In 1905 the average life expectancy for women in the United States was 50.2 years; for men, 47.3.)

Harry got a job operating a flour mill on the Caney River, and when he delivered a wagon-load of flour to Caney or Chetopa, he took my father along. Herb loved sitting beside his father behind the big horses. Harry took his shotgun along and shot whatever game presented itself.

Still too young to go to school, Herb fished from the dam above the millpond while his father worked inside the mill. One day two water snakes wiggled past his bobber. He leaned out to watch them, leaned too far, and fell into the mill pond. He didn’t know how to swim but was less afraid of drowning than he was of those snakes. Two men also fishing from the bank laughed as they watched him flail about. He managed to propel himself to a small island where he climbed out and began to holler. Finally, Harry heard his son’s cries over the noise of the mill and came outside. Seeing the boy’s situation, Harry rescued him, stripped him, wrung out his clothes, and consoled him. “Well, you learned to swim.”

Later one of the loafers who had laughed as Herb struggled to reach dry land told him, jovially, “Son, you swam every-which-way from Sunday.” And Herb, as the memory of his terror faded, grew proud of himself for having learned to swim.

That wasn’t the only “near thing” in young Herb’s life. Back in Newkirk he’d nearly lost an eye. When he was four years old his father started taking him along on a three-block trip to buy milk. Soon Herb was allowed to go for the milk by himself, but when he started wandering off whenever he pleased, his mother issued a stern warning. He ignored the warning; Edna “took a stick” to him; the stick broke, and a splinter lodged alarmingly near one of his eyes.

A doctor removed the splinter and assured Edna that Herb would be fine. Relieved, she consoled him—and herself—with ice cream (a rare treat in 1905).

Another time, while visiting his grandmother in Sedan, he was told to entertain his baby sister, Marguerite, so he showed her a bug he’d found. They played with it until their parents, wondering why the children were so quiet, came to investigate. Alarmed, they pulled their children away from the bug and squashed it. Herb never found out why, but his parent’s excitement “scared the dickens” out of him.

Herb’s most serious misadventure, however, took place when he crawled under the porch of their new house at Caney and drank whatever was in the bottle he found there.

He crawled back out, staggered into the yard, and fell down. His mother came running. The neighbors, too. Someone fetched a doctor. He asked what had been in the bottle. Nobody knew. Herb turned blue. His mother started praying. An elderly black man among the bystanders suggested forcing watermelon down the boy’s throat. Maybe it worked. Something did. He survived.

Harry had a hard time providing for his family. This was not something my father could take questions about, but he often told the story of the time a neighbor, standing on the other side of a fence, “made offensive remarks about our family.” Herb, “Little Mr. Big Ears,” who was six or seven years old at the time, was startled and delighted when his father scissored over the fence and knocked the man flat.

Harry still wanted to go into business for himself, so he borrowed some money and he and his friend, David Shoe, bought a grit and flour mill, the Red Mill, in Lawrence County, Missouri. My father remembered the stream beside the mill as being so clear that he could see the fish “as they went about their business. Turtles were so numerous they sometimes clogged the mill wheel.” He thought it was a beautiful place to live, but his family didn’t stay there long.

Many of the mill’s customers were Catholics. Harry and David were Presbyterians.

David thought it would be a good idea to attend a service at the Catholic church to demonstrate their lack of prejudice. His wife was reluctant but agreed to go. She carried her recently born infant in her arms. The story I was told is that the priest flicked holy water on the baby, causing Mrs. Shoe to have words with him. Whatever actually happened, trade at the mill fell off. Harry and David sold out and moved on.

Harry worked hard, but nothing that he did worked out. His next job was that of a stationary engineer with the Kansas Natural Gas Company in Mound Valley. As a stationary engineer, he was in charge of a steam boiler. Harry moved his family to Mound Valley, rented a house, and began attending the Methodist church.

One day Herb noticed his little sister, Marguerite, and one of her girlfriends playing with their dolls in the barn. He climbed into the hayloft and started dragging a long pole through their play space. They grabbed his pole and tried to wrestle it away from him. He lost control of his end, and it smacked him in the mouth, breaking off one of his teeth. His family couldn’t afford to have it fixed, so the dentist filed it down smooth. Herb tried not to smile. He didn’t want people to see the stump and pity him; he was ashamed of being too poor to have it fixed.

Then, according to Herb, his father sprained his back while helping to install some heavy machinery. But there may have been more to it than that. Harry was only 27, but while he was laid up, he wrote a memoir, as if anticipating his death. Edna put up a hammock for him in the yard, and when the weather was nice, he slept there. Often Herb climbed in beside him, and as they listened to the grackles settling down in the trees, Harry told Herb about his grandfather, Cornelius, who had been a Colonel with the Second Colorado Volunteers.

Before Harry recovered from his injury, he caught typhoid, and on September 12, 1909, just before he died, he raised his head from his pillow, looked around, and said, “Everybody be good.”

The women wept—Edna, his aunt Lottie, the neighbor lady, and his little sister, Marguerite. He comforted them. That was what a man did, and he was now “the man of the house.” He was seven years old.

A black hearse drawn by six black horses arrived from Sedan to carry Harry’s remains back home. Edna and the children followed in a buggy. As they left Mound City, clouds massed and darkened. The light dimmed and it began to rain. Soon the road turned to mud. The hearse kept getting stuck, and though Sedan was only 50 miles away, it took them several days to get there.