Shawnee Dispatch

1862 raid gave woman a passion for the Union

Onetime Shawnee woman was a Union spy

October 19, 2005

Jack Brown had always heard family stories of a distant ancestor who, during the Civil War, had spied on the moves of the Confederates for the Union Army.

"I had heard my dad and his brothers talking about their great-aunt, that she had known President Lincoln, Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickock," Brown said. "I assumed the stories were true, but I'd never really thought much about them. It was a big surprise when I found them in a history book."

Brown, of Drumright, Okla., discovered his ancestor's past as he was researching his genealogy on his father's side of the family. It was then that he discovered the story of his great-grandfather's sister, Elizabeth W. Stiles, and how an important event in Shawnee's history led to her life of espionage.

Diving into history

Brown has slowly collected information on his ancestor and her work with the Union Army throughout the last 20 years.

It was while he was looking through an 1897 book entitled "Memorial to the Pioneer Women of the Western Reserve" at the Ashtabula County Genealogical Society in Ohio that he first found evidence that the family stories about Stiles were true.

There, listed by her maiden name, the book said "Few can boast of as varied experiences in the mutations of a lifetime as Elizabeth Brown..." and went on to describe her experiences in Shawnee and as a spy.

"I started to gather every bit of information on her I could get after that," Brown said.

According to information the genealogical society gathered, Elizabeth Brown was born in 1816 in Ashtabula County, Ohio. There her father taught her to shoot a gun by the age of 5 and her mother served as a nurse and taught her daughter about nursing.

She moved to Chicago at 21, supporting herself as a seamstress and teacher for nine years, and in 1846 she married Jacob Stiles. When her sister, Emiline Dolph, died in Kansas City in 1858, Elizabeth and her husband came to the area to take in the Dolph children, Clara and George, and also adopted a third child, Sara.

They moved to Shawneetown in 1859, where Elizabeth served as a schoolteacher. Then, on Oct. 17, 1862, William Quantrill's gang of 130 men came to Shawnee, corralling citizens into the city square, burning about 14 buildings and stealing goods.

The raiders approached two men, Jacob Stiles and a Mr. Becker or Baker, outside the Stiles home. According Elizabeth's reports to newspapers, they asked the men their politics. When they replied "Union," they were both shot.

Becoming a spy

Most of Brown's findings indicate that Stiles was already very knowledgeable about the actions of the Confederate sympathizers.

A story in the Oct. 25, 1862, issue of the Olathe Mirror confirms the Stiles were living in Shawnee during the raid and that Jacob was one of the men killed, though it misspells their last name.

"Mrs. Styles assures us that Quantrell was at Shawnee and the leader of the murdering gang," the article says. "She says her husband was shot by George Todd of Kansas City, and that he afterwards told her that her life should be spared if she would go to Kansas City and tell them that he had killed two of their citizens within a week."

Stiles also alleged that after Todd shot her husband, an old resident of Shawnee and neighbor of hers named Palmer placed the muzzle of his gun to her husband's mouth and shot him again.

Family stories passed down from Stiles' niece and adopted daughter, Clara, say Quantrill cornered Stiles in her house. He knew Stiles had helped Union soldiers but said "Let her go, boys. She's too pretty to shoot."

Stiles took her adopted children to Ft. Leavenworth almost immediately. There, she received a letter from General James H. Lane, Kansas senator and a friend of President Abraham Lincoln, saying the president had important work for her to do.

She accepted, putting two of her children in school in Washington, D.C., and taking Clara, 13, with her as she became a spy.

A letter from Lincoln that certified Stiles as a spy still exists, found by Clara's granddaughter in the family's attic. Stiles used to carry the letter with her everywhere she went, hidden in the folds of her skirts. It reads:

"Sec. of War, please refer the bearer, Mrs. Stiles, to the proper place, if there is any, to present her claim for property destroyed by the rebels. Also, her application for employment. A. Lincoln, August 19, 1863."

The old southern woman

Brown has found several articles and letters concerning his ancestor's life as a spy.

One letter, from Capt. George H. Hoyt of the Kansas Volunteer Calvary, dated June 23, 1863, is a sort of letter of recommendation for Stiles.

"I have known the Bearer Mrs. E.W. Stiles, since the breaking out of this rebellion, when she commenced the service of the Government, as a Spy & Secret Agent on this Border," Hoyt writes. "... I cheerfully recommend her to all Commanding officers as one who only needs to be tried once to be permanently employed."

The National Archives and Records Administration also sent Brown copies of letters concerning Stiles' missions, and one in Oct. 1864, when they realized Stiles and Clara had never been formerly sworn in.

The Archives also sent a copy of Stiles' written oath of allegiance to the United States, reading "I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever and observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers under whom I may be employed ..."

Stiles posed as an old, pipe-smoking, southern woman and nurse as she moved throughout the South. Clara played her granddaughter, and they pretended they were looking for Clara's "father," a Confederate soldier. There is even a picture of Stiles in her costume from her photo album, now owned by the genealogical society in Ashtabula County, where she returned after her spying days.

Family stories were passed down of how Stiles was almost caught by the rebels. The story was retold in her obituary in the Sept. 4, 1898 edition of The Commercial Tribune. She was arrested in Jefferson City, Mo., and sent to General Sterling Price for examination on suspicion of being a spy.

"With great adroitness she succeeded in convincing the General that she was a Confederate spy instead," the article says. "She was equipped with a finer horse and better firearms, was bidden godspeed and sent on her way."

She and Clara "retired" in Nov. 1864, when a letter from the office of the provost marshal in St. Louis, Mo., suggests they be relieved from duty, "they having become known to the rebel sympathizers of the city as Government employees."

Part of Shawnee history

Though Quantrill's raid on Shawnee brought death and destruction, Brown thinks his ancestor's story shows some good came of it. After years of researching Stiles' past, he thinks things would have turned out a lot differently if Quantrill had not made his visit to Shawnee.

"I don't think she'd have ever been as big a part in the war," Brown said. "I think they kind of made her angry; she was pretty revengeful, evidently."

Now, as Monday was the 143rd anniversary of Quantrill's raid on Shawnee, Brown hopes that the people of Shawnee can appreciate his ancestor's story and how her life was changed in Shawnee.

"It's part of their history," he said, "and I felt like it was something where the average person up there never knew she even existed."

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