A Southern Belle on the Prairie
In Savannah, Georgia, in late 1868 and through the summer of 1869, Ena Palmer's life seemed charmed. She was the favorite child of her doting parents, the only sister of loving brothers, and was engaged to a handsome young doctor who was part of Savannah's elite social circle. A poet, Ms. Palmer had recently seen several of her poems printed in national publications, and she was immensely proud to see her work in print. The trajectory of her life seemed pointed ever upwards.
And then things fell apart.
Doctor Hilliard H. Harley, the man Ena had been engaged to marry, was murdered, struck down by an assassin's bullet while he wrote at his desk at home on the 24th of August, 1869. The Governor of Georgia offered a $1,000 reward for the capture of the man or men who had perpetrated the murder.
Savannah society was shocked by the murder of a promising young doctor—a member of the social elite, respected Confederate veteran, and local businessman. A Savannah newspaper ran this article:
ASSASSINATION OF DR. H.H. HARLEY—Our community was shocked on Wednesday morning, upon the circulation of the fact of the cruel and dastardly assassination of the gentleman whose name heads this article.
From the findings of the empanelled jury we glean these particulars: Dr. H. was in charge of the business of Mr. Babcock, cutting and hauling cross ties for the Brunswick and Albany Railroad, with headquarters at College plantation, about two miles from Bethel. On Tuesday night, about ten o’clock while Dr. H was sitting in his cabin, an open log house, writing at his desk, with one or two others present, a gun was passed through the logs and discharged, the murderous fire terribly mutilating his head, his brains staining the walls of the house. He survived the fatal wound but a few brief moments.
As there are dozens of rumors as regards the probable cause of this assassination, and as it is probable that the affair will be thoroughly sifted, and, if possible, the guilty party or parties brought to punishment, we refrain from publishing any of the unpleasant rumors.
Dr. H. was a young man, lately a resident of Camden county, in this State, but a native of South Carolina, where he has a father, brothers, and sisters now residing. He served during the late war in the C.S.A. as assistant Surgeon, with Maxwell’s Battery. Since the war he has been connected with the timber business in this vicinity.
His remains were brought to our city Thursday and interred with Masonic honors, by Ocean Lodge, of which he was a member.
The article says that there were "dozens of rumors as regards the probable cause of this assassination." Several of Harley's friends knew that he had recently, and rather suddenly, broken off his engagement with Ena Palmer, offering disparaging words about her both in public and before her oldest brother, William Herbert Palmer. William and the doctor had publicly argued about the things that were now being said about Ena, and the arguments had lead to threats. William was questioned and then arrested for the murder of his sister's ex-fiance. At trial, it became obvious that William had indeed murdered Harley for slandering his sister. Palmer was convicted, as was another man listed as an accomplice, but his lawyers appealed the ruling and William Palmer was released on an $8,000 bond.
The appeal was dropped when some of William's clothing was discovered washed up on the shore of the Savannah River. He knew he would lose his appeal, locals said, and took his own life by jumping from a local bridge rather than face his accusers a second time. His family was devastated, both by the loss of their son and the very public trial. The accusations, sideways glances, and shame meant Ena would never find a husband in Georgia and the family considered a move to another part of the country where they could start their lives over.
William Herbert Palmer's body was never found, but weeks later a man named William Herbert Miles arrived at North Platte, Nebraska. Matching descriptions of Mr. Palmer, Mr. Miles' southern accent stood out amongst the prairie settlers. William found work where he could, assisting cattle ranchers and working odd jobs. He met local men like Texas Jack Omohundro and Buffalo Bill Cody, and they became friends. In the summer of 1872, the Palmer family relocated from Savannah, Georgia, to the Nebraska prairie. When Ena stepped off the train, she was greeted by William Miles and his new friend Texas Jack.
Ena’s diary entry dated June 7, 1872, makes plain the impact the dashing cowboy had on the refined Southern belle: “I have been introduced to ‘Texas Jack,’ one of our ‘Western Heroes,’ and a fine picture of handsome, dashing, manly manhood he is,” she confided in her journal. “Certainly one of my beau-ideals of a hunter or a ‘Scout.’ Hope I shall see more of him and that I like his character as well as his face. But enough of this hero for the present, only that he now heads a party out on about as wild an adventure as even my wild brain could devise—viz.: lassoing buffalo, full-grown ones for the purpose of shipping them, alive on the train. Some say it is dangerous work; some prophecy not only broken arms and legs and crippled horses, but dead men as well as dead horses!”
Ena and her family tried their best to leave her brother's murder of her fiance Dr. Harley behind them as they made a home for themselves on the Nebraska prairie. She got to know the locals and spent as much time as she could with the handsome cowboy turned scout Texas Jack, meticulously journaling each time she spent time with the dashing Mr. Omohundro.
They had met again after the buffalo lassoing adventure at her brother’s home, where Jack teasingly challenged her to a shooting contest. Texas Jack was well known in the area for being a crack shot, and while he may have been joking with Ena, she was quick to take him up on any offer that would allow them to spend more time together. When he arrived at the family home to escort her to where they would shoot, Ena wrote in her diary that:
"He made a very graceful presentation in the way of a handsome toy-bag of China-work — its original purpose I do not know; but he used it for cartridges, and so shall I — i.e. if I keep it; for it is but the souvenir of a challenge to shoot; and after having the bravado to take up the gauntlet thus thrown down, if he does beat me (and I expect it will be ‘even so!’), I shall not have the courage to retain such a memento of my defeat, but give it back, with my pistol to boot!"
Under the watchful tutelage of Texas Jack, Ena would eventually achieve recognition in the area as a formidable marksman in her own right. Jack also taught her the finer points of prairie-style horsemanship, far removed from the sidesaddle strolls she had taken in her native Savannah. With Buffalo Bill Cody out of town on a scouting mission, Jack was staying at the Cody home, ensuring the safety of Bill's wife Louisa and his small children. Suffering with fever, Ena worried that she might have spoken in her sleep and said something less than ladylike that might have been overheard by the handsome cowboy:
"I am still wretchedly unwell, but I have not given up. Went to ride with Texas Jack this afternoon and had a good ride of it, only my Injun pony, Falcon, got de mal en pis, and I don’t know if I can ride him again, tho’ I have made an engagement to ride tomorrow afternoon. I’ve spent one night with Mrs. Cody. She took me in out of charity because I have to get up so early over here, with the promise that I might sleep just so late as I pleased. But I did not sleep late — I was delirious all night — talked or rather raved in my usual crazy style. Hope I said nothing mal a propos, as Mr. Omohundro slept in the adjoining room."
A few days later, Jack entertained Ena by showing her how he would have lassoed her pony down in Texas:
"At noon I was over to Mrs. Cody’s and I saw a windstorm for the first time. Such clouds of dust whirring and rushing like mad everywhere! After it, we had a rain, which, while it rendered everything very muddy, still did away with the dust and made riding possible. Mr. ‘Texas’ had quite a time lassoing my little rascal of a pony! We found it pleasant after getting out on the prairie and my (I mean our!) Western Hero made himself just as pleasant as possible, delicate, yet kind and manly in his attentions. I must not ride Falcon again; Mr. Omohundro says it is dangerous and I should not attempt it."
The two continued to spend time together, but Ena attracted the attention of other men in the prairie town of North Platte as well, some more affluent and socially mobile than the manly "Western Hero" Texas Jack. One of these men was Doctor William Frank Carver, a dentist from Homer, Illinois, who had also recently made the prairie his home. She took a job as Carver's dental assistant, and began to spend more and more time with him, all the while continuing to confide her feelings for Texas Jack in her diary. One entry describes a moment when she was walking with Doctor Carver through town and spied Texas Jack. Without a word to the Doctor, she rushed to speak with Jack—a breach of etiquette towards her companion. She wrote that she hoped she hadn't embarrassed herself in the moment.
She quickly set up another ride with Texas Jack, but was disappointed the following day when Jack showed up not to accompany her on horseback across the prairie, but to say goodbye. He would be accompanying the Pawnee tribe on its long summer buffalo hunt, and expected to be gone from the settlement for several months.
Then, in the middle of the hunt, Ena was surprised to see Texas Jack and his Pawnee friends arrive at her doorstep:
"I, very unexpectedly, received a call from Texas Jack, evening before last, I believe it was. He remained in but a short time; had a few Pawnees with him. I do not think them as fine looking, not so erect as the Sioux; but they say they are better ‘braves’ than the latter. When asking one of the Pawnees if he was not afraid to venture so far on the hunting ground of the Sioux, it was fine to see the expression of unutterable scorn that lighted up for a moment, the stolidity of his face; then instantly relapsing into the grim Stoic, he quietly crossed his throat, giving the sign of the Sioux, and said they were ‘heap squaws’. Mr. Omohundro said that the Indians were in fine spirits; plenty of buffalo, and the papooses all fat."
After the hunt, Ena mentions in her journals that Jack and his friend Buffalo Bill are thinking about going east to join a dramatic company, a venture she presumed was destined to fail. She continued to hedge her bets by accepting Doctor Carver's company and courtship, as Carver built a home in Medicine Creek to be closer to Ena and her family. She wrote in her journal that the eastern papers were full of the sayings and doings of her own "Western Hero." With Jack on tour, she spent more and more time with Doctor Carver, but as she approached the one year anniversary of arriving in North Platte and meeting the handsome cowboy, her journals show where her thoughts were.
"Every day now is an anniversary to my weary life. This stormy warmth of July is so fraught with many memories. And do I alone remember? Whom do I ask? The winds? Their sympathy gives so much unto my lonely life as aught else, now! One year ago I fancied that I had found that which would make me count the hours of life jealously. Perhaps I had, but it has slipped from my grasp or has been thrown away in madness. God only knows which."
The following day, one year removed from her musings on what she had referred to as her Western Hero’s delicate, yet kind and manly attentions as they rode across the Nebraska prairie, she wondered:
"Who, besides myself, thinks of this day with strange memories tugging at their heartstrings. When just one year ago today comes back with visions of tearful sunshine, dewy plains, and shadowed hillsides? And yet the doubt that I feel is my work I fear!"
Ena’s journals go silent for a period of several months, an uncharacteristic ceasing of her recorded thoughts. She received no further letters from Omohundro, and inside her journal, after the previous entry was a clipping from a newspaper reading:
"Texas Jack was married last Thursday, at Rochester, NY, to Mlle. Morlacchi, a lady actress, reported to be very wealthy and beautiful. Such is greatness."
Ena’s journal set silent but for one entry to explain her weariness with writing for the better part of the next two years.
s she read about Texas Jack's marriage to the beautiful, and by all accounts incredibly sophisticated, Italian ballerina Giuseppina Morlacchi, Ena Palmer consoled herself by teaching Doctor Carver how to shoot. After months of Texas Jack's tutelage, she was able to hold her own against even the finest male marksmen on the frontier. She took the lessons she learned from Jack and his friend Buffalo Bill Cody and passed them on to her dentist friend, who lived with her on Medicine Creek while working to build his own home. She recorded in her journal that Carver nearly killed her when his pistol accidentally discharged in the home, finishing the entry by saying simply that "I trust it will be a lesson for him; he is too careless with firearms." Over time, the Doctor continued to pursue his proficiency with firearms with far more fervor than his relationship with Ena. Perhaps the relationship had been doomed from the start—though she was every bit as capable a sharpshooter as he would become, he wanted fame and she wanted a life of quiet domesticity. He wanted medals and recognition, while she wanted a home filled with the laughter of children. When he went to California to compete in a series of shooting exhibitions he begged her to come with him. She refused. He begged her to follow. She would not. Soon, she met a man named David Coulter Ballantine. Ballantine was an established and successful businessman who could hold his own with the titans of ranching and industry, but who melted before the beautiful southern belle. He was too shy to court her, so she arranged to be camping in a tent overlooking the river just where he would pass by and see her. They sat on the bluff, looking down into the valley, and talked long into the night. When Mr. Ballantine rode away the next morning their futures were assured. They were married in early October 1875.
When Doctor Carver received the news that Ena Palmer was now Mrs. David Ballantine, he was certain he was being lied to. He bought an expensive locket with a jewel to match her eyes and boarded a train back to Nebraska. When he arrived at Medicine Creek, it is said that "one look into Ena's eyes told him that this Coulter Ballantine had satisfied the 'great want and asking of her heart.'" He placed the locket on her desk, next to a pistol that had been a gift from Texas Jack, and left. Ena's husband was soon elected state senator, and the fortunes of David and Ena Ballantine seemed set. Ena was saddened in the summer of 1880 to learn of the death of Texas Jack. D. Jean Smith writes that "Ena reflected on the man she had once loved as she drew out of her trunk the picture that Jack had sent her in his stage costume. She had long ago put to rest the broken dreams of a life with the dashing scout, but she would never forget the buoyancy of his spirit, his quick, easy laugh and flashing dark eyes. And, yes, she could still shut her eyes and remember the easy touch of strong hands on her waist as he lifted her off her fiery little pony, Falcon." In her chest, she kept a clipping from the Leadville Daily Chronicle noting the cowboy's death which said that: "He was noted as a cool, intrepid Indian fighter, government scout and ranchman, but was never a desperado or even a quarrelsome man, and it is believed had no white man's blood upon his hands, unless drawn in legitimate warfare. In fact, his most intimate acquaintances refer to his kindly disposition and his exceptional muscular strength." Ena and her husband welcomed a pair of children into their lives before tragedy struck. Her husband, returning from his duties as state senator, attempted to board a moving train and was thrown beneath the cars. He died of his injuries on October the 2nd, 1882, at the age of 39. Ena was 33, with a six-year-old son and a daughter not yet two years old. Even in the face of her loss and her grief, Ena remained convinced that she had made the right decision in marrying Mr. Ballantine. When Doctor Carver and Buffalo Bill joined forces to launch the Wild West show in 1883, she wrote "Carver is in America now and has joined Buffalo Bill in his 'play.' How thankful that I am as I am. The quiet dignity of my home life is worth a world of such as that."
Ena turned the operation of the ranch that had been her husband's over to a local rancher named Washington McClary, unaware that Mr. McClary had been secretly in love with the beautiful southern belle for years. The two grew close, and the two were married in early July of 1884, with Ena expecting their child. The two set off on a honeymoon, but on the return trip their wagon hit a rut in the road and overturned, breaking Ena's neck and killing her unborn child. Ena died days later and was buried next to her parents.
Ena's life, like Texas Jack's, was tragically cut short. Jack was 33 when he died in Leadville. Ena was 35. Despite the brevity of her often tragic life, the words she recorded in her journals have lived on, allowing historians and researchers an intimate glimpse at life on the Nebraska frontier after the Civil War. Ena's journals and the mementos she collected are a part of History Nebraska's Ballantine Family Collection. She was born Annie Palmer. She sometimes called herself Ena Raymonde. When she was riding with Texas Jack, Ena was dubbed Pa-he-minny-minnsh, or "Little Curly Hair," by a Pawnee friend of the scout. When she was married the first time she was Mrs. David Coulter Ballantine, and for just under two weeks before her death she was Mrs. McClary. But history remembers her not for the names she was given, but for the one she earned—Ena of the Plains.