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Real Florida

The ghost of Ransom Clark

Frank Laumer has spent his life researching the 1835 Dade Massacre of more than 100 troops by Seminoles. But it is the ordeal of one survivor that haunts him.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published December 23, 2005


photo
[Times photo: Stephen J. Coddington]
Amateur historian Frank Laumer, 78, who wrote the definitive Dade’s Last Command, stands on the Dade Battlefield in Sumter County. Behind fallen trees, U.S. troops tried in vain to repel the Seminoles.

 

BUSHNELL - Frank Laumer felt giddy the day he dug up the remains of Ransom Clark.

On the way to the graveyard, he stopped at a hardware store and bought a shovel and a pick and a trowel. Then he sped to Oak View Cemetery in upstate New York.

First he attacked the frozen ground with the pick. Then he employed the shovel. Five feet down, he hit something.

"A bone!" he announced.

With the trowel, he gently moved aside earth until he exposed the entire skeleton.

He dumped bones into buckets and toted them across the street, where a nice lady volunteered use of her garage. He laid a plywood sheet across two sawhorses to create a temporary autopsy table.

Laumer and a pathologist reassembled the skeleton. Yes! Yes, there it was: evidence of trauma. A cracked clavicle. A shattered pelvis. Something terrible had happened to this man.

Held by Ransom

Laumer, 78, is haunted by thoughts of Ransom Clark, who died when he was 23. Laumer forgets about him for a while, but then he reads something, or talks to a historian, or ambles out of his fine stone house in the woods in Dade City, or drives to the battlefield for another look. Suddenly, like a ghost in a dark hallway, Clark pops up again.

On Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, starting at 2 p.m., hundreds of history buffs will gather at Dade Battlefield Historic State Park in Sumter County for their 25th annual re-enactment of the skirmish between Seminole warriors and federal troops on Dec. 28, 1835. The battle was an opening salvo in what historians call the Second Seminole War, the longest and most expensive Indian war in U.S. history.

Laumer will have a starring role in the re-enactment. He could portray with authority any of the leading characters. He could be Maj. Francis Langhorne Dade and ride a horse at the front of the column. He could be Seminole leader Halpatter Tustenuggee. But he always chooses Ransom Clark, one of the two white survivors who lived long enough to tell the tale.

"I remember the morning I came here ..." is how Laumer, as Clark, will begin his narration at the re-enactment. Hours later, he will crawl into the pines.

Nearly 200 Seminole warriors, fighting to hold on to their land in Florida and to protect the escaped black slaves who lived with them, lay hidden in the palmettos that morning. Along came Dade and 106 unhappy and anxious soldiers. They were unhappy because they resented missing Christmas. They were nervous because they expected to be attacked.

Not Dade. He was feeling better about their situation by the moment. He told his men that within days they would be celebrating the holiday at Fort King in Ocala.

A half-mile later, a Seminole hidden in the palmettos shot him off his horse.

The other warriors opened fire. Nearly 50 soldiers were slain in the first volley. Survivors ran for the trees. Behind them, other soldiers fired cannons. Others chopped pines and began returning musket fire from behind the logs. The Seminoles kept coming, kept shooting, and soon all the soldiers lay still.

Pvt. Clark must have been terrified. He had been shot once in the head and once in the groin. A third bullet had broken his right arm above the elbow. A fourth fractured his upper right arm and destroyed the shoulder joint. As he listened to the moans of the dying and the ferocious war whoops coming closer, bullet No. 5 pierced his right lung.

The young man pretended to be dead. As Seminoles waded into the carnage, looking for valuables, someone grabbed him by the legs, manhandling him while removing his clothing. Even with a shattered hip, he refused to cry out.

For hours, he lay unmoving among the gore. Finally it was dark. Naked and hurting, he crawled 50 miles, crossing four rivers, in three days, to Tampa's Fort Brooke to report what had happened.

"I don't think they make men like Ransom Clark anymore," Laumer says.

Amateur authority

Historians these days go to college, earn advanced degrees and follow a teaching path. Laumer, a college dropout, made soap and worked as a carpenter before moving to the woods near Dade City to manage his dad's properties.

Yet professional historians consider him the absolute authority on the Dade Massacre. "He's part detective, part historian," says Gary Mormino, a professor of history at the University of South Florida. Few Floridians have fallen in love with their subject like he has."

Laumer's passion was ignited by his curiosity about the history of his father's acreage on the Withlacoochee River. He heard that a fort, named after Dade, had once existed on its banks. But nothing was left of it. Examining old papers, he turned up nothing important.

"I have an obsessive personality," Laumer says. "I couldn't let it go."

So he went to the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress in Washington and found something worthwhile. Armed with a compass and old maps, he pinpointed the site of the fort.

A few years later - it was 1962 - he visited the site of the battlefield where Dade had been slain. At the park he was disappointed with available information. "Skimpy," he says. He studied historical journals for clues. He hunted down diaries and family photos relating to the battle, and dug through newspaper morgues. He even found out the size of Maj. Dade's hat, 73/4-77/8. The major's melon must have presented a nice target for Seminole muskets.

He found out the exact route of the old Fort King Road that passed through the battlefield. Then he walked it, every inch.

"When it comes to research, I am like a squirrel chewing through a hickory nut," Laumer tells people. "Gnaw long enough, and you'll break through."

"I couldn't stop researching'

Laumer is a slender, white-haired man with clear blue eyes and a formal, polite way of talking. He lives in a spectacularly large stone house he built himself out of bricks that other people threw away. There are fireplaces in almost every room, even the kitchen. He likes having a fire, even during summer, turning the air conditioning down an extra notch. Many rooms contain wall-length shelves lined with books, mostly histories. When he works upstairs, he looks out the window at the Withlacoochee.

"It's a nice place to write," he says. He published his first book about the battle, Massacre, in 1968. "But I couldn't stop researching," he says. Soon he was sure that his new book was already out of date.

He kept finding out more interesting stuff about Ransom Clark.

Discharged, Clark returned home to New York. He married, and he and his wife had a child, but his war injuries prevented manual labor. He supplemented his $7-a-month military pension by giving speeches about his war experiences. He charged 12 cents admission.

To an enthralled audience, he described the battle and his wounds and how another soldier who had played dead finally panicked and tried to run and immediately was slain. He described those three excruciating days of limping and crawling. "After dark I was a good deal annoyed by the wolves who had scented my blood," Clark reported.

Clark died five years after the battle, in 1840. He was 28.

Laumer became obsessed with Clark. "Here was a man who epitomized the American folk hero: self-reliant, imbued with the intelligent stubbornness that is commonly referred to as courage, and utterly incapable of giving up," Laumer once wrote.

The idea of exhuming Clark's body appealed to him.

What if the remains showed no evidence of injury? It would suggest that Clark lied or exaggerated his wounds. If he lied about his wounds, maybe his other stories about the battle were questionable.

But he didn't know where Clark was buried.

Studying miles of military microfilm, he discovered that Ransom Clark had been born in Greigsville, a small town in New York near Syracuse. Could he have been buried in Greigsville? A historian wrote him, "Yes, we have a Ransom Clark in our cemetery." Laumer arranged to have a photo taken of the gravestone.

Ransom Clark died Nov. 18, 1840. Aged 28 and 3 months.

Laumer wanted to fly immediately to New York and dig up the grave. Alas, laws prevent grave robbing. Instead, he hired an attorney to look into it. Two years passed before the attorney persuaded a judge that the public would be served by knowing more about an important historic figure.

Laumer beams when he remembers digging up Clark on Dec. 6, 1977. It was 22 degrees. Snow was falling. The shovel made a clicking sound when it hit bone.

"He had very good teeth at a time when people lost their teeth early. We couldn't find the wound in his head; we think the bullet must have just winged him. But the other wounds were terrible, and just as he described them. The wound in his shoulder - jagged, broken bone - looked like it had never healed. My pathologist wondered if he had died from an infection."

Laumer grasped the skull and examined the sockets that once had held blue eyes that watched as the enraged Seminoles who wanted to kill him drew closer.

The bones, fascinating as they were, didn't answer all his questions.

What was the source of that courage?

What did Ransom Clark dream?

The incomplete history

In 1995, Laumer published his opus, Dade's Last Command. Hailed by historians, the book helped him win the prestigious D.B. McKay Award from the University of Tampa. Laumer may be an amateur, but he tried to dot every "i." His book contains nearly 100 pages of footnotes. At the same time, the book is gracefully written and tells a good story.

But now, standing in his office, looking out the window, he is sure that his history book, no matter how good, might somehow be incomplete.

"I am sure that Ransom Clark has a great-great-great-great-granddaughter somewhere who has a truckload of his mementos," Laumer says. "I am bound to find them if I don't give up. You have to wonder what I'd find out about him if I had his mementos."

Facts, of course, don't always reveal the whole truth.

Laumer recently typed the words "The End" on the last page of a novel. "I used the bones of fact but fleshed out the story with fiction," he says.

The name of the novel is Nobody's Hero. It is about Ransom Clark.

Laumer is looking for a publisher.

- Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com

On the Internet: Dade Battlefield Historic State Park, www.floridastateparks.org/

dadebattlefield/default.cfm.

[Last modified December 22, 2005, 09:27:09]


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