Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, the Ozarks region, and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written sixteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Wicked Women of Missouri, Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, and Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Alf Bolin: Just the Facts, Part I

I published a post recently in which I decried the fact that so much misinformation, outright falsehood, and pure speculation about notorious Civil War bushwhacker Alf Bolin has seemingly become accepted as truth. Subsequently, a reader responded that he would like to see a chronicling of what is actually known for sure about Bolin, and I said I would try to provide such a chronicle. So, here goes.
The legend of Alf Bolin says that he grew up in the area of Christian, Taney, and Stone counties. In almost all versions of the legend, he was supposedly reared in a foster family because his parents were either dead or had abandoned him. In most versions of the story, the foster family was the Bilyeu family of Christian County, although one version of the legend that I know about says he was raised by the Cloud family of Stone County.
However, even these basic elements of Alf Bolin's early life cannot be substantiated by firsthand documentation. I have not been able to find Bolin in either the 1850 or the 1860 census, and, as far as I know, no one else has either. About the only thing I've been able to confirm is that Bolin was NOT living with either the Bilyeu family or the Cloud family at the time of the 1860 census. The letter about Bolin I recently referenced, which was published in a Springfield newspaper only a few years after the close of the Civil War, calls into question even the idea that Bolin was an orphan, because it suggests that Bolin's mother was still alive and a presence in his life during the war. The only Alf or Alfred Bolin living in Missouri at the time of the 1860 census who was anywhere near the right age to be the desperate bushwhacker was living in southeast Missouri near the Bolin brothers who became infamous during the war in that part of the state--John F., Nathan, etc. However, the Alfred Bolin of southeast Missouri was still living there in 1870. So, he was obviously not THE Alf Bolin. I do believe, though, that the two may have been related--perhaps even named after a common ancestor. One of the legends about Alf Bolin even suggests that he traveled east from the Taney County area about the time the war broke out to try to find his father before returning to the Forsyth area. There was also a 26-year-old man named "Alford Bowling" living in Stone County not far from the Clouds at the time of the 1860 census, but according to one of the proponents of the "Clouds as foster family" hypothesis, this person also could not have been THE Alf Bolin, although I'm not sure what proof exists that this is not our man. Until I see such proof, I'll keep open the possibility that this could be the Alf Bolin we're looking for. It is, of course, possible that Alf Bolin was simply missed in the 1860 census. The omission of people from early census records is something that did occur with some regularity but not with the frequency that beginning genealogists might think. More often they were listed under a variant spelling of their name or in a household headed by someone with a different name. I'm not saying that is necessarily the case here, but it's a possibility.
The earliest mention of Alf Bolin in contemperaneous records that I know about appears in a letter from Springfield dated July 18, 1862, in which a correspondent to the New York Times stated, "A young man, named Bowling, has devastated a strip of country thirty miles in width, between Arkansas and Missouri. Five or six others are associated with him. Armed with a long rifle...he lurks by the roadside to murder National soldiers and known Union men. You can no more find him by searching for him than you can find some particular deer in the forest. He never acknowledges having killed anyone, but he sometimes says, 'If my gun had not snapped, I would have tumbled a Federal over today.' It is thought that he has killed at least thirty men with his own hands. Union men have fled in fear of their lives, leaving their houses empty and their grain standing ungathered in the field. Secessionists have fled, dreading that vengeance will be taken upon them for his crimes." This letter lends some credence to the idea that Bolin was a terror to the countryside and that he may very well have killed a good number of Federal soldiers and/or Union citizens, but it seems to contradict the notion that he was indiscriminate in his killing.
Another contemporaneous source is a report written by Major John C. Wilbur at Ozark, dated August 10, 1862. Wilbur had just returned from a scout to Forsyth and beyond, and his scouting party had encountered a group of bushwhackers west of Forsyth along the White River. Some of the Federal scouts gave chase south of the river and "into the hills toward Laten's Mills, where I learn Boler has a band of horse-thieves, numbering some 50 men." Although Bolin's name is misspelled, "Boler" is almost certainly a reference to Alf Bolin. I have not seen the original document, but it is quite possible that the "n" in his name was simply mistranscribed as an "r." "Laten's Mills" was a reference to Layton Mill, which was located near the Missouri-Arkansas line about three miles south of the Murder Rocks, where Bolin supposedly killed many of his victims. In his report, Wilbur goes on to say that his advance guard was fired on by a party of five men belonging to Boler's command. When the Federals returned fire, the guerrillas reportedly threw their guns away and scattered into the woods to keep from being captured or killed.
The next contemperaneous reference to Alf Bolin that I know about appears in an October 14, 1862 letter written from Springfield by Colonel Clark Wright of the 6th Missouri Cavalry that can be found in the Union Provost Marshals' Papers. In the letter, Wright says he has received reports of a gang of bushwhackers under Bolin committing depredations west of Bower's Mills. This is surely a reference to Alf Bolin, but it also almost as certain that Wright had been misinformed. Bower's Mills was located on the Lawrence-Jasper county line fifty miles west of Springfield and even farther from Forsyth. It's unlikely Bolin had roamed that far afield.
The next contemperaneous references to Bolin concern his death, and I'll save those for next time.


Blogger Jason Dake said...

I'd love to see some of the documents you referenced, especially the New York Times correspondent's article. Are they on file in a local library?

January 12, 2013 at 7:33 AM  
Blogger Larry Wood said...

The NY Times article is available online. Just Google "A young man, named Bowling" and the link should be about the 4th one down in the list of results.

January 12, 2013 at 4:13 PM  
Blogger Stan Thorne said...

So, is there a Part II, or does the story of Alf end there?

August 7, 2016 at 7:38 PM  
Blogger Larry Wood said...

Stan, yes there's more to the story. If you haven't already found my other entries on Alf Bolin, just Google my name and "Alf Bolin" or "Ozarks history" and "Alf Bolin." I might add that, since I wrote the blog entry above to which you responded, I have been able to confirm that the Alford Bowling listed in the 1860 Stone County census is, indeed, Alf Bolin the notorious bushwhacker. Wayne Glenn, as far as I know, has probably done more research on Alf Bolin than almost anybody else. He has a book on Christian County history containing a very good chapter on Bolin. He also has given numerous presentations about Bolin.

August 8, 2016 at 8:26 AM  

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