Published November 10th, 2020 at 6:00 AM8 minute read
She was taken prisoner in 1780, three years before the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War.
She lived several years among the Shawnee.
She died at 97, one month after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House.
She lived long enough to see the nation she helped establish split apart and then be restored.
And just last year, she received her due as a “Patriot,” when the Delaware Crossing Chapter of the Kansas Society of the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) placed a “Patriot” marker at her gravesite in Fairway.
Among the close to 20 Revolutionary War “Patriots” buried across the Kansas City area, local Kansas SAR members believe Sarah Ruddell Davis may be the only one interred in Kansas.
“That surprises people,” said John Forbes, state historian with the Kansas Society of the SAR. “I tell people that ‘We have a patriot buried here, and her name is Sarah.’ ”
Every day is Veterans Day for the Sons of the American Revolution.
Members of the male lineage organization trace their ancestry back to “Patriots,” the term used for those whose service in the Continental Army or support for the cause of freedom from King George III has been documented.
The Veterans Day observances normally conducted by area SAR members, such as color guard presentations, largely have been canceled due to COVID-19. Some members will participate this year in virtual ceremonies.
Members continue, however, to research family genealogy and promote education projects, such as essay contests for area students.
They’ve been encouraged by the galvanizing appeal of the hip-hop musical “Hamilton.” A traveling production of the show played Kansas City’s Music Hall last year, and a film of the original Broadway show started streaming on Disney+ on July 3.
It’s unclear whether “Hamilton” has prompted any uptick in national membership numbers, said Don Shaw, executive director of the National Society, Sons of American Revolution, based in Louisville, Kentucky.
But what is certain, Shaw said, is how the show has generated new interest in colonial American history from a demographic which sometimes has found tedious anything involving tri-corner hats.
“What (playwright) Lin-Manuel Miranda did was bring the Revolutionary War alive in a new format that reached a young audience that is not always interested in this topic,” Shaw said.
“Everyone agrees on that.”
Shaw, who taught history to middle school students for 11 years, sometimes would wear his Continental Army apparel into the classroom to prompt response, a strategy also used by Michael Robertson, a retired Southwest Airlines pilot who – before COVID-19 – frequented Kansas City area classrooms in his period garb.
“We do whatever we can to encourage younger people to take an interest,” said Robertson, who attended the “Hamilton” production at the Music Hall last year.
“Because of the format and lyrics, the musical does draw the interest of younger people,’ added Forbes, who spent 34 years at Shawnee Mission South High School, most of that time teaching American history.
The success of “Hamilton” is significant in another, specific way, said Bryan Wampler, president of the Monticello Chapter of the Kansas Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.
The musical, Wampler said, has helped “educate many who would not have ever taken the opportunity to get to know the effect Hamilton had on the birth of our nation – not to mention the important contributions immigrants have had.”
Those captivated by the musical, he said, may be prompted to research further the title character, born in the Caribbean in the mid-1750s, the son of a Scottish immigrant father and a British West Indian mother.
After the war, some of the Revolutionary War veterans looked west.
“Many patriots were immigrants and continued west to find better opportunities,” said Wampler.
So did veterans who, he added, had moved outside their home states during the war and then felt empowered to move further west following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
Approximately 217,000 individual service members served in the American Revolutionary War between 1775 and 1783, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. That number represents a median; the actual number could have ranged from 184,000 to 250,000.
While the SAR doesn’t restrict membership on basis of race or color, potential members seek to document themselves to be direct ancestral line descendants of a “Patriot” ancestor.
Genealogy, then, plays a crucial role for SAR members.
Wampler can trace one side of his family to Wythe County, Virginia. One ancestor, Elias Wampler, left Virginia shortly after his 1829 marriage to Phidelia Neikirk
“My family left Virginia since they were extremely religious and anti-slavery,” said Wampler.
They moved on to Kentucky, which they later also would leave for their anti-slavery views.
Wampler’s ancestors chose to migrate to Indiana. Their numbers by then included patriot John Edwards, a native of Wales whose granddaughter married into the Wampler family.
Edwards had enlisted in the Continental Army in his mid-teens. He served in the 8th and 10th Pennsylvania regiments through 1783.
Edwards died in Indiana in 1836.
Other members of Wampler’s family in about 1870 moved to Crawford County in southeast Kansas, about nine years after it entered the union as a free state.
Today Wampler – principal and co-founder of Egerer Wampler LLC, an area service delivery firm – can claim six generations of ancestors with gravesites in the Walnut Cemetery, in Crawford County, including Martha Patsy Edwards Hainey, a daughter of John Edwards.
As for Edwards, Wampler knows that his ancestor was born in Wales in 1762 before his family left for America.
His father died during the Atlantic Ocean crossing and his mother died when he was about 7 years old. Wampler – a retired U.S. Army brigadier general and an executive committee member of the Greater Kansas City Chapter of the Association of the United States Army – knows his ancestor served the revolution as a drummer.
Just how he filled that specific role is unclear, Wampler said. But, he added, “as a family deeply entrenched in the arts and the military, we are proud of his contributions.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has frustrated local SAR members.
“We are anxious to get back to our normal activities, back to the parades, the color guards and working with young people,” said John K. Stewart, president of the SAR’s Harry S. Truman Chapter in Independence.
“It’s a shock to us, because the greatest thing is teaching kids,” he said.
As part of that mission, the Truman chapter maintains a website that includes a database featuring biographies of 25 “Patriots” buried across northwest Missouri.
The biographies list the addresses and GPS coordinates for the gravesites.
They also sometimes include individual pension application numbers. Those numbers, typed into a search engine, often retrieve vivid testimony detailing just what the task of revolution had required of the patriots.
In 1833, William Moore of Jackson County, at the age of 76, swore to a local judge that he had enlisted on Feb. 14, 1776 in Virginia.
He had spent the subsequent winter sweating out a smallpox inoculation.
Once recovered, he joined a Continental Army force marching north through New Jersey, ultimately traveling up the Hudson River by boat to join another force near Albany.
That fall Moore and his fellow soldiers encountered British troops under the command of Gen. John Burgoyne, whose hope had been to secure the Hudson River Valley.
A rifleman, Moore took part in the autumn 1777 clashes at Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights, considered part of the Battles of Saratoga. By mid-October Moore was among the approximately 20,000 soldiers surrounding Burgoyne’s forces.
On Oct. 17, 1777, Burgoyne surrendered his approximately 5,800 soldiers. It proved a significant victory that helped prompt France to enter the war as an ally of the colonials.
For his contribution to this effort, after his 1833 testimony, Moore began receiving a government pension of $80 a month.
Moore’s testimony doesn’t detail how and when he arrived in Jackson County. But several Kansas City area veterans appear to have moved to western Missouri to be with their grown children, who had followed their own paths west.
Their colleagues included women and persons of color, and in recent years SAR leadership has concentrated on recognizing a more diverse universe of patriots.
In that same manner the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a similar organization, has organized a “Forgotten Patriots Project” to identify Black and Native American individuals, as well as those of mixed heritage, who supported the cause of independence.
In 2010, Michael Nolden Henderson, a retired U.S. Navy officer, was inducted into an SAR chapter in Georgia for his efforts tracing his Louisiana Creole ancestry to a Revolutionary War patriot.
In 2018, a chapter representing the Nansemond Indian Nation, one of about 30 Algonquian tribes which lived near Chesapeake Bay, received its SAR charter.
Such research is continuing, said Robertson.
“One challenge is documentation,” he said. “Either records weren’t kept or they were lost in fires. There were a lot of women at Valley Forge but they are not on any list.
“To me they are among the unsung heroes of the Revolution.”
As of 2019, the service of Sarah Ruddell Davis is no longer unsung.
That May local SAR members installed a permanent “Patriot” marker adjacent to her gravestone.
To consider her epic story, much of which can be found online, is to experience full immersion in a distant, primitive America.
In about 1780 she and several hundred residents of the Shenandoah district of Virginia decided to move west to a settlement named Ruddell Station, established in what is now northeastern Kentucky.
“There was the feeling that this area would be a relatively secure place to be,” said John Forbes. A military unit was embedded within the larger group, he said.
“But everybody in that environment knew how to handle a flintlock.”
In June, 1780, a force of British soldiers, accompanied by members of several American Indian tribes, attacked the settlement, killing approximately 20 colonials, according to some accounts.
A decisive moment occurred when the British displayed a “6-pound” cannon.
“No one thought a larger cannon would be taken that far inland,” Forbes said.
The colonials surrendered. Their captors forced hundreds of prisoners to march some 600 miles north to Detroit.
For years Sarah lived among the Shawnee but at some point gained her release.
She soon married Thomas Davis, who had been taken prisoner with Sarah back at Ruddell Station. He died in 1837 in Pike County, Missouri.
Afterward Sarah apparently lived with some of her many children. By the early 1860s Sarah was in eastern Kansas, living with or near her daughter Sarah T. Johnson, the wife of the Rev. Thomas Johnson, operator of the Shawnee Indian Mission, and the namesake of Johnson County.
“Here she would find some of the Shawnee who had known her from the days when she was a captive,” said Forbes.
“Sarah knew their language, and the Shawnee were pleased to have her with them.”
She died in May 1865. Documenting her epic life and confirming her stature as a patriot represented a 32-year project for Forbes.
His research began in 1986. In that pre-digital era, his task took him to libraries in Kentucky. In some years, “life intervened,” said Forbes, prompting him to push his research to a corner of his desk.
But he finally completed the project in 2018 when, while attending a National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution meeting in Louisville, he presented his documentation to the chairman of the organization’s patriot research committee.
A separate organization, the Sons of the Revolution, recognizes lineal descendants of ancestors who participated in the war in a military capacity. The SAR, meanwhile, does that, but also recognizes those who rendered other services during the war, or were taken prisoner during it.
It didn’t take long, Forbes said, to convince the SAR chairman that Sarah qualified as a “Patriot.”
Local SAR members conducted their ceremony the following year, placing a “Patriot” marker adjacent to Sarah’s weathered gravestone, which today stands juxtaposed with the din and bustle of contemporary suburban life.
Her grave is located in the Shawnee Mission Methodist Cemetery – a discreet, fenced burial ground adjacent to the four-lane Shawnee Mission Parkway, and a short walk from two banks, a bookstore, and a restaurant that recently was advertising its kale special.
Her grave also is not far from the Shawnee Indian Mission, the National Historic Landmark where Sarah is thought to have spent her last days visiting with her elderly Shawnee peers.
“Despite all the experiences she’d had, Sarah was still capable of sitting down with the elderly Shawnee and talking to them in their own language, and having a positive relationship with them,” said Forbes, who today serves as a volunteer at the mission’s library.
“It speaks to how you can perhaps accept things that happen in war but then – later – still live in peace.”
Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer.