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Iowa Families:

The Myths and Legends


George Washington Kerns

 By Patricia J. Maher

        George Kerns was the most interesting man to come from the beautiful area known as the Loess Hill of Iowa.  His parents, Jonathan and Cynthia Lee Karns had come to Buchanan County, Missouri with Jonathan’s parents, Michael (Jr.) and Mary Bales Karns in 1837 from Lee Co. Virginia via Kentucky.  George Washington Kerns was born October 6, 1842, in Crawford Township, Buchanan County near St. Joseph, Mo.  He migrated with his parents and five older siblings to live near the Waubonsie Indian encampment in Rawles Township, Mills County, Iowa in 1845. This was approximately seven miles south of what is now Glenwood Iowa. In 1851, his mother at the age of 44 years, died after giving birth to her ninth child. His father remarried within a year and moved across the Missouri river to Cass Co., Nebraska taking the three youngest children.  George stayed in Mills Co. He was 10 years old.  He learned the ways of the Indians and the Omaha and Waubonsie language.


 As a sixteen year old boy, George Washington Kerns was hired as an Indian Scout and interpreter for the 21 men stationed at the Chouteau Fort at Buckingham Lake.  The fort had hardly been settled when George kidnapped an Indian girl and brought her to the fort and held her captive over night.  With the coming of daylight twenty Pawnee Indians, armed with bows and arrows approached to the one hundred yard limit from the fort and demanded the return of the squaw.  Kerns, with a knife at her throat, defied the Indians. He told them in their own language, ”Come and get her with her cut throat” It was said that Kerns wanted to see how many Indians he could kill, should they attach. But the Indians were afraid of the brass cannons at the fort, and after a long parley, left and went back into the Waubonsie hills. Kerns was rebuked by the commander and, about noon, he released the squaw.  The commander said they were there to trade, not to pick a fight.  Kerns made no reply and sulked by going out and walking around outside the fort.  He was warned not to go out of sight for a few days or until the affair was forgotten.

Two days later, Kerns with his Kentucky rifle, strolled out into the great Missouri Valley bottom, about two miles from camp, hoping to get a shot at a buffalo.  As he sneaked through the tall grass, he heard the zing of an arrow and felt it hit his leg.  Thinking the arrow might be poisoned, he made a small incision with is hunting knife and withdrew the arrow.  He then bound the wound with a huge chew of tobacco.  In great pain, he sat quietly and waited. Presently an Indian came, slowly parting the tall sough grass, hoping the arrow had hit a vital spot.  He was the lover of the outraged squaw and had come for revenge.  Alas, he was doomed. At fifty yards Kerns put a bullet squarely between the eyes and the Indian fell dead.


In 1861, George Washington Kerns enlisted as a private in the 15th Regiment Iowa Infantry and was destined to fight in some of the severest battles of the Civil War. He was in the bloody battle of Shiloh, fought with General Grant at Vicksburg, and followed Sherman to the sea.  All of this from a man whose family was divided  between the North and South.  His many cousins from Missouri were with the South.  His mothers family in Virginia were the Lees, her father being Andrew Lee, a cousin to Light Horse Harry, the father of Robert E. Lee. 


From the “The Nebraska Herald”, Plattsmouth, Nebraska, dated Wednesday, January 30, 1887.   Fatal shooting affray  “Between four and five o’clock on Saturday evening last, the usual quiet of our town was disturbed by the shooting of a man know by the name of Scott Kysinger, by George W.  Karnes who resides near Rock Bluff, in this county. The matter is undergoing  legal investigation and we refrain from giving  publicity to the many reports which are in circulation.  The facts in the case, so far as they appear to the present writing, are as follows:  The deceased, Scott Kysinger, and several of his associates, George Karnes, Johathan Karnes, Jr., Nicholas S. Ryan, and a number of others were in the O.K. Saloon. Several of them started out the door, among them the deceased.  As he passed out at the door, George Karnes was seen to strike him over the head with a revolver.  Whether they had any previous difficulty does not yet appear. Kysinger turned upon Karnes and struck his with a knife which glanced off without doing any serious injury. Karnes then fired his revolver, the ball entering Kysinger’s right arm from the back part, and immediately below the shoulders, ranging forward and a little up, it came out above the right breast, in its course, fracturing one rib and cutting off two arteries.  Death ensued in about forty minutes.

George Washington Kerns was held for trial which occurred July 10, 1887.  It was considered to be the most important one ever held in Cass County, Nebraska and the court house was packed to overflowing, even though the heat was unbearable. The Verdict:  “NOT GUILTY” The transcript of the trial is not included here, but quoting from the account published in the Plattsmouth, Nebraska newspaper; “nothing was left unturned to bring to light all facts, in order that justice might be done the people and the accused.”  Kerns had five attorneys on the defense and we can safely say “that no better defense was ever made in Nebraska, if one ever was so good. The testimony was reviewed by Attorneys Clarke, Pottenger and Marguett in their speeches and we never heard points brought out more forcibly than they were by each of them. Marquett made the closing speech for the defense, and it was the most powerful plea we have heard for many a year as to stagger the most stoic believer in the guilt of the prisoner.  Kerns was a soldier in the Union army, was starved at Andersonville, and at one time was captured and hung up three times with a view of extorting matters from him which he refused to reveal.  He was engaged in several hard fought battles, and was notorious for his hatred of rebels, even since the close of the war.  The man Kysinger was a soldier in the rebel army, and had a deep hatred of all Union men. He had a difficulty with Mike Kerns, George’s brother, which naturally led to a feeling between him and George, although they never met until the day of the sad occurrence. It was in evidence that he had said, on several occasions, that he would kill George on sight, and the only reason he ever assigned was because he was a d—d Union man. They met in this city on the 26th day of January last, and the evidence showed conclusively that he attempted to put his threats into execution by stabbing Kerns with a knife.  We have heard it said that Kerns desired the affray.  As to this we cannot tell.  It was not shown in the evidence; yet it is fair to presume that, under all the circumstances, he would not be very likely to avoid any man who threatened him, because he was notorious as a Union man, and had served with effect in the Union army. While these hatreds of a political nature should not, and we are satisfied did not, influence the minds of the jurymen, yet they are of some importance to the people in determining the case in their own minds, now that the trial is over and the accused is once more to mingle with them.  Kerns is a young man of strong feelings, and one who has seen much of the rough side of life.  From what we have seen of him, we do not believe he has a depraved nature, and we trust the experience of the last six months will cause him to forsake the associations and influences which lead him among bad men.”

“The Omaha Herald  says it has been furnished by W. F. Crawford with the evidence in the Kerns trial, and then says ”political influences were brought to bear heavily in favor of Kerns in the late trial, which resulted in his acquittal against the clearest evidence” We would ask the Herald if it gains this information from the evidence with which it has been furnished.  We care nothing for its opinion or assertions, only so far as they affect good men in this community, and we feel justified in saying that the assertions of the Herald with  reference to this case are a slander upon the jury and the  intelligence of the people.” It again says: “Politics decided for Kerns that he was “not guilty” either of murder or manslaughter in killing Kissinger”. And again, “Several jurors stood out long against an acquittal, but finally yielded under the pressure of outside opinion.” This is a direct charge of perjury against the jury and against the Sheriff in charge, and a slander upon the court.  We call upon the Herald to substantiate these assertions, or stand convicted as a wanton defamer of good character.”

George Washington  Kerns, married Julia Ann Kinnamon and they decided to take up land in Monona County, Iowa  where they  raised four children.  George suffered from failing eyesight due to the effects of powder burns in and around his eyes  from the war years.  He died August 17, 1914,   and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery at Walthill, Nebraska.

The information in this article is true and has been gathered by the descendents  of  Jonathan and Cynthia Lee Kerns.  I have taken the story of the Indian encounter from research by Timothy McCord. There are several published stories about George Washington Kearns’ escapades.  


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