Beginning in 1852, Kentucky law required deaths to be recorded with each county clerk. Basic details were gathered including name, age of deceased, birthplace, place of death, date and cause of death. In June of 1852, the death records of two men, 39-year-old Matthews Beall and 30-year-old Leonidas Balsly were entered, though neither died in Boone County. In both cases, the place of death was listed as “California” and the cause of death for each was recorded as “shot”. As it turns out, their place of death was slightly off but the cause hit the bullseye.
The California Gold Rush, which began in 1848, had reached its peak by 1852 when settlers from Boone County loaded their wagons and pointed them westward. They were led by Matthews Beall, so named for his adoptive grandfather, Rev. Chichester Matthews, the first pastor of Sand Run Church. Leonidas Balsly, who had grown up in Beall’s North Bend neighborhood was also among the group. Balsly was nine years younger than Beall, but from a more privileged background and may have resented being outranked among his fellow travelers.
As the settlers reached the head of the Oregon Trail they had already covered over 600 miles. They still faced months of potential danger, deprivation and discomfort and were anxious to start their lives in California. The wagon train moved along, but trouble brewed. Along the trail near what is now Lincoln County, Wyoming, Leonidas was becoming impatient and demanded they move faster. Beall disagreed and an angry Balsly sped ahead alone in his wagon.
The following day, Beall and the others came upon Balsly, stranded with a broken wheel on his wagon. He insisted the others wait for him but Beall wanted to press ahead. An argument between the men turned physical, then fatal. Balsly pulled his gun and shot Matthews Beall, ending his life. The men of the wagon train detained Balsly and held an ad-hoc trial. Balsly was found guilty of murder and was to be shot at dawn. On the eve of his execution, Balsly revealed his thoughts in a letter to his mother. In it, he admitted his crime, but appeared unwilling to take full responsibility, claiming, “If I had not been imposed upon to an extent beyond endurance, this affair would never occurred.”
Later that fall, journal entries of Oregon Trail traveler Lucia Shoemaker were published in an Ohio newspaper. In her notes dated June 24, 1852, she described passing the grave of “the Kentuckian shot by a companion on the 12th” which was high on a summit, near present-day Granger, Wyoming. The following day, Shoemaker’s group passed the grave of the “murderer of the Kentuckian” several miles further west on the Oregon Trail.
By Hillary Delaney, Local History Public Service Associate