Once every century or so, Lawrencians look to Pelathe for rescue.
It first happened Aug. 21, 1863, when the Shawnee Indian tried and failed to warn the city of an impending raid by a band of pro-Confederate forces led by William Quantrill.
And it happened again in 1997 when the Lawrence Indian Center's very existence was threatened by an embezzlement scandal. The center's directors decided a name change was in order: It became the Pelathe Community Resource Center.
"He was the only one who was willing to ride," then-director Dave Cade said of Pelathe, the Shawnee. "We thought for a community-type of service organization, the name was kind of fitting."
Now, new director Sherry Gill would like to emphasize that heritage as the center expands its offerings to the entire community while staying connected to its American Indian roots. She is writing a grant request for Kansas Arts Commission to fund a mural at the center, based on Pelathe's story.
"Those are our roots," she said. "A lot of people don't know the story of Pelathe the Shawnee and how he tried to save Lawrence from Quantrill's raid. It's a wonderful story."
A hero steps forward
Finding out about Pelathe can be tough, however, even for seasoned historians.
"The resources are pretty scarce," said Judy Sweets, collections manager at Watkins Community Museum of History.
A search of the museum's collection found three mentions of Pelathe in state and Lawrence history books. The accounts are similar in that they tell nothing of Pelathe's background and emphasize the action of his doomed ride.
"They're almost James Fenimore Cooper-ish," said Steve Jansen, historian at Watkins Museum. "They're more mythic than historical. But the basic facts are not contested."
Quantrill and his followers crossed the Kansas-Missouri border near Kansas City and were sighted by an outpost of Union soldiers, who were outnumbered and did not attack. They did, however, send word to a bigger post at Shawnee mission.
There, a soldier named Theodore Bartles Bartlesville, Okla. was named after him deduced that Quantrill was headed for Lawrence. Bartles wanted to warn the city, but was troubled. To avoid the guerillas, the messenger would have to ride along the north side of the Kansas River. It was a tricky route that made it unlikely the city could be warned in time.
That's when Pelathe stepped forward.
"When he determined not to go, the Shawnee expressed a desire to try it," William Connelley wrote in "Quantrill and the Border Wars."
"Bartles had known him a few months, and knew him to be a good horseman, a daring and hardy man thoroughly familiar with the country through which he would ride."
A desperate ride
Bartles, known as a great horseman, lent a thoroughbred sorrel racing mare to Pelathe to make the 40-mile journey.
"With each hoofbeat it seemed to the Indian brave that he could hear answering ones on the other side of the river," an unidentified author wrote in "Frontier of Freedom: A Story of Lawrence," an elementary school textbook published for the city's 1954 centennial.
"He knew he had the better horse and that alone he could travel much faster than Quantrill, who had to keep his body of men together. He thought he had a chance to beat the bandits."
Pelathe rode for several hours before stopping near DeSoto to let the horse rest and drink some water. He resumed the trip, but the horse tired out near Tonganoxie.
"The Shawnee was a man of resource," Connelley wrote. "He was racing with death. No sacrifice was too great if it would but give him the goal."
The sacrifice was this: Pelathe cut open the horse's shoulder and poured gunpowder from his pistols into the wound. The resulting sting spurred the mare to race a few miles more before dropping dead.
Pelathe ran from that site to a village of Delaware Indians, near modern-day North Lawrence. He found another horse to ride to the ferry across the Kansas River, but discovered he was too late. Quantrill's raiders had entered Lawrence and were sacking the town. They would kill nearly 200 people.
Despite his inability to get to Lawrence ahead of Quantrill, however, Pelathe was regarded as a hero.
"He obviously expended a tremendous amount of effort and energy," Jansen said, "so I think it's legitimate that the story be told."