Johnny Fry

Johnny Fry Born: 1840, Bourbon County, Kentucky

Died: October 6, 1863, Baxter Springs, Kansas

The first rider out of St. Joseph on April 3, 1860, was Johnny Fry -- a well known rider in local horse races. Though small in stature, weighing less than 120 pounds, he was every inch a man. Fry's division ran from St. Joseph to Seneca, Kansas, a distance of eighty miles, which he covered at an average speed of twelve and a half miles per hour, including all stops.

The story is told that young women would watch for him to make his Pony Express run past their homes and would hand him cakes and cookies, thus donuts were invented.

An equally charming one concerns the making of a "Log Cabin" quilt. Frye wore a red necktie which the young lady seamstress wished very much to sew into the article. Frye, however, liked the tie himself and would not give it up. Consequently she resorted to a bit of strategy. Next time he was due to come along, she mounted a horse and rode down the trail to meet him. When he came by she fell in beside him and again asked for the tie.

Johnny Fry Loses His Shirt Tail In a spirit of mischief Frye put spurs to his horse and dashed ahead. Not to be outdone she applied the quirt to her horse and soon overtook him. She made a grab for the tie, missed it, and got hold of his shirt tail. A piece of it tore off. With great glee she carried it home and sewed it into the quilt where she had planned to put the tie.

Fry was little more than a boy when he entered the pony service. Born in Kentucky, his family moved to Missouri in 1849.His father John Fry and his mother Mary Fry. He had three brothers: Richard, Reason, and Joseph , and a sister Sarah Eliza. By 1856 John Fry must have died since Mary Fry was married to Benjamin Wells. The family then lived near Rushville, Missouri.

When the war started, Fry enlisted in the Union army under General Blunt. His military career was cut short in 1863 when he fell in a hand-to-hand fight with Confederate guerrillas at Baxter Springs, Kansas. In this his last fight, Fry is said to have killed five of his assailants before being struck down.

The following account of Fry's death is recounted by John R. Cook:

The fates were at work. The very day this horrible massacre [October 6, 1863] occurred the Neosho river was nearly out of its banks on account of unusually heavy rains to the west. Johnny Fry, a messenger rider, on his way from Fort Gibson to Fort Scott with an important message, was being pursued by Cy Gordon and five Creek Indians. He was some 300 yards in advance of them when he came to the river, and as his horse was taking him ashore on the north side of the stream Gordon and his Creeks had dismounted and were shooting at him from the south bank. He came on into Baxter unharmed, related th incident to my brother and several others, and said in closing that he had gotten his pistols wet when he swam the river, and wanted to shoot them empty, clean and reload them, before going on to Fort Scott. My bother said: “All right, Johnny; after dinner we will go outside the lines and fire them off. We will shoot at a mark; I’ll take my own along, for I want to clean them up too.

They took a Third Wisconsin man along to tally. Blunt was not expected for several days, according to the information this little garrison had received.

The Third Wisconsin man stuck the five-spot of diamonds on a black oak tree just outside the lines and nearly in sight of the water at the Spring river ford. The ground was paced off and the firing at target had proceeded until my brother had one shot left and Johnny two, when like a clap of thunder from a clear sky the guerrillas rode up out of the Spring river ford carrying our flag and dressed in our uniforms, stripped from the bodies of Union soldiers they had killed along the border. By this time they were sixty paces from the three men and moving on in column of fours. The tally man, standing where he had a view of the whole line, noticed that only about half of them were dressed in our uniform, and Johnny Frey’s suspiciouns being aroused he said “Run, boys, for your lives; they are guerrillas!” “No,” said my brother, “that’s the militia from Carthage.”

But the Third Wisconsin man took his pistol from its scabbard and threw it on the ground in front of him and begged for his life, and they spared it. He told us afterward that they seemed to ignore his presence; but halted, fired a left-oblique volley of about twenty shots at Johnny and my brother. The shots brought both men to the ground. Johnny rose on his knees with both hands gripped to his pistol, and fired. As he did so he fell back, dead. My brother, getting to his feet, fired his last shot, when he too fell forward on his face.

About fifty of these devils incarnate clustered around their bodies. Turning my brother over face upwards one of them called to another that was farther back in the line, saying, “Come here, Storey! Here is your man, by God! We’ve got him.” This fellow came up, dismounted, and drawing a heavy bowie-knife whacked my brother a blow over the front part of the skull, cutting a gash about five inches long.

The Third Wisconsin man had been herded inside this group around these quivering bodies. He saw them rifle Johnny’s pockets and take my brother’s uniform, he he was ordered to go to the rear and mount one of the extra horses. . .

. . . As I sat by the camp-fire listening to the story of the finding of the body of that brave, generous, kind-hearted and loyal boy, it was then that my pent-up grief came home to me. Those in the garrison were not willing to take chances, that first evening after the attack, to look on the timbered side for dead or wounded friends. So the next morning a storng party went out; they found Johnny’s body where it fell, and it was rigid. And, remarkable to say, my brother’s body was not yet rigid. He was found in a clump of hazel brush sixty yards from where he had fallen. And the mute evidence of the trails he had made through the blood-stained grass, to where he was found and both hands with boken hazel brush gripped in them seemed to indicate to those who found the body that life had not been extinct until near morning. Johnny Fry had six wounds, all mortal. But when the soldiers washed my brother’s body after bringing him to the garrison, preparatory to dressing him for burial, they found, besides tha knife wound, twenty-seven bullet wounds.

Reader, would you call that war? No; it was murder, pure and simple.

Johnny Fry's name is on the monument in the Baxter Springs Cemetery dedicated to the Union soldiers and scouts who were killed there in August 1863.

Source: Waddell F. Smith. The Story of the Pony Express. Pony Express History and Art Gallery, San Rafael, California, 1964.

* Although some references including Settle and Settle's Saddles and Spurs and Waddle Smith's The Story of the Pony Express spell Johnny's last name as Frye, Jackie Lewin, Curator for the St. Joseph Museum, writes:

"Our research shows that it is spelled Fry. A couple of years ago, we had a meeting at our museum of some Fry descendents (descended from his brother and sister since Johnny had no children) at the museum. Some of his descendants also live in St. Joseph. Anyway, they say Fry and so do contemporaries that knew him."

... And Gordon Frye writes,
"My grandfather's (the grandson of Johnny Frye's brother) records show that the family spelled the name variously as Fry, Frey, and Frye. Presently the family spells the name Frye."

In a recent in reprint of a 1907 book - The Border and the Buffalo by John R. Cook - a description of Fry's death is recounted. Cook was a private in company E, Twelfth Kansas Infantry. His brother was in temporary command of Baxter Springs at the time of the massacre. Cook's unit was ordered to hurry to Baxter Springs where Quantrill and 400 bushwhackers had attacked the garrison and killed 65 soldiers and 7 commissioned officers. Cook's brother was one of the killed. It seems that Quantrill wanted to capture Baxter Springs the day before Union General Blunt was scheduled to go through on his was from Fort Scott, Kansas, to Fort Smith, Arkansas. Cook's brother heard of this plan and sent messengers for help. (From files of St. Joseph Museum)

An interesting fact is provided by the St. Joseph Museum:

Pony Express Bridge One interesting thing is that here in St. Joseph, the Missouri River bridge between Missouri and Kansas is the Pony Express Bridge on the Pony Express Highway (U.S.36). Over the years, the Missouri River has shifted to the east. In 1849, some of the land which is now on the west side of the river, was then on the east side (in other words the river channel has moved to the east). The land that the Fry family owned is where the Pony Express Bridge ends on the Kansas side. And, of course, in 1849, it was on the east bank of the the Missouri River. It was right under the Pony Express Highway.