Late in 1860, two U.S. surveyors and a crew carting signal flags, measuring chains, an ax and a compass began their prescribed survey of a six-mile square piece of land in southern Jefferson County, Kansas Territory.
They inched along, lining up points north and south and east and west within the square — Township 11 South, which was in Range 19 East of the 6th Principal Meridian. They measured divisions, whittling down the township into smaller, government-defined parcels of land in the Delaware (Indian) Reserve . The reserve was soon to be sold and the boundaries had to be set in advance.
As the surveyors moved between Sections 15 and 16 in Township 11 South they noted a ravine coursing to the southeast. A couple of days later the crew was near the same place and lead surveyor Germain F Simpson wrote in his field notes that the Lawrence to Oskaloosa Road passed southeast to northwest at a point 65 chains (4,290 feet) east of a section marker.
Mr. Simpson’s survey and field notes document would become the basis for Kansas Territory’s survey plats, mapping the territory. And with his observation of a particular ravine and a particular road, Mr. Simpson in the end handed us a defining point that would help find the place where Dr. John Doy, two assistants and 13 Underground Railroad passengers seeking safety and freedom were ambushed by slave hunters January 25, 1859.
It was 2014, and I was researching Jefferson County people who appeared to have been helpers in the Underground Railroad, at least in connection with the John Doy episode. As I dug deeper into my search it became apparent that no one had determined the location of the winter ambush 155 years before, at least as far as I could find.
There were some pretty good clues already and it was obvious that the ambush occurred in Jefferson County. I figured we should be able to find the place where Doy’s Underground Railroad train met its doom. But at this point, I knew nothing of Mr. Simpson’s survey or field notes.
- We had John Doy’s book description of what happened the night of the ambush. Doy wrote that the group was 12 miles from Lawrence and eight from Oskaloosa. In his description, Doy’s group was at the bottom of a hill with a bluff on the right side of the road. As Doy’s wagons turned, 20 or more armed men emerged from behind the bluff.
- Ephraim Nute, a Lawrence minister involved in the Underground Railroad, wrote in a February 1859 letter that when Doy’s train launched that January night, the 13 freedom-seekers were placed about four miles west of Lawrence, on the Kansas River. Doy and his crew, with two wagons, took the ferry across to the north side of the Kaw about where the bridge into current downtown Lawrence is. They traveled west along the riverside to pick up the waiting passengers and took the road toward Oskaloosa. After about an hour they entered a sort of “defile” between the bluffs and the timber, and were surrounded by the hiding ambushers.
- John Doy, again, gives us another route hint from notes he took when he did a dry run of his trip. He recorded his movements from Lawrence north and west to Holton, in Jackson County, an important transit point for the UGRR in Kansas Territory. Doy wrote in his memo book of his dry run: “…ferried over Kaw river at Lawrence; took the road west up the river, crossing Buck creek, keeping the left-hand road till the creek is crossed, then the right-hand; arrived at Oscaloosa [Oskaloosa] that night…”
So, now we had helpful details about Buck Creek, bluffs and draws – but those are all-to-common features in the landscape between Lawrence and Oskaloosa.
The thing we had to find was that road.
I decided the best course would be to find people to help me solve the mystery. Three people who, independently from the others, would get all the information I had to work with, and maybe find some clues of their own. I put myself in the search party of three, and on a trip back to Kansas put my husband at the wheel of a rental car.
We headed north from Lawrence on Buck Creek Road in Jefferson County, tracking mileage on a GPS device. Maybe Buck Creek Road, a twisting, gravel beauty that snakes around the hills, was the old Lawrence to Oskaloosa Road. Then, about 12 miles up from Lawrence, our Buck Creek Road curved sharply around a bluff. That bluff — looming over the path I figured Doy would have taken — had obvious posse-hiding potential. But the bluff was on the left, not the right, as described by Dr. Doy. Wrong road.
An 1850s or 1860s “road” was not made of pavement, asphalt or even gravel. It was more of a trail, just dirt where traveling animals, humans or wagon wheels wore away the grass and made ruts. Could we find visible remnants of the old road, or had all traces been obliterated? Had the road continued its use and been upgraded into one of the county’s gravel roads? Roads over time are abandoned for easier and better routes. Or they get re-routed for farmers wanting uninterrupted fields, or because they are drowned in perennial flooding.
This was as close to the Doy ambush site as I would get on my own. Time to call in someone else.
Jennifer Binkley, a Flint Hills author and horse trainer, was researching old abandoned roads and trails in the Buck Creek area for a book. Jennifer grew up riding those old roads across hilltops and down through prairie, and all along Buck Creek south of Oskaloosa. Her historical fiction book, “The Forgotten Road,” would even include Jake Hurd, the vile slave hunter and kidnapper who was with John Doy’s ambushers that day.
I handed over the Doy and Nute story descriptions, links to old maps and topography, and Jennifer got to work. She knew the terrain, having ridden horses through the area so many times and noticing old road remnants when she was a kid. She reached farther by looking at county records in Oskaloosa showing road abandonments and route changes. She studied historic maps at the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka and climbed around the Buck Creek area hills in January to find some old ruts she remembered.
Jennifer turned up an 1868 county road document and map that outlined a proposed change to the old Lawrence to Oskaloosa Road not far from my Buck Creek Road experience. Her focus was near where I ended my quest but was closer to the actual ambush spot. Jennifer had her eye, at one point, on an old road remnant in the same string of bluffs as the actual site, about half a mile east from the ambush site.
Encouraged, I tapped Bill Noll, Jefferson County’s public works director, a licensed surveyor in Kansas and a certified floodplain manager. I thought he might know the old roads (roads and bridges are in his department) and whether a remnant of the Lawrence and Oskaloosa Road remained anywhere near our ambush spot. I gave him the narrative descriptions of the Underground Railroad ambush, a terrain map and some older map copies showing the Lawrence/Oskaloosa road.
Bill promptly returned a satellite image of the middle of Township 11 South overlaid with notations explaining his “guess” about the ambush location. He had zeroed in on a 270-yard area near today’s Phillips Road, about .8 mile west of my Buck Creek Road attempt. He had overlaid the same 270-yard target area to a copy of the 1862 land survey plat that was drawn from the 1860 field notes of our surveyor Mr. Simpson.
For his finding, Bill had drawn two radiuses, one 12 miles north from Lawrence and the other 8 miles south from Oskaloosa. He applied his “guess” to the U.S. Government Land Office Survey Map to find Township 11 South section lines that intersected in the target area.
The county’s public works director noted that the old Lawrence to Oskaloosa trail was similar in shape and location to the current Phillips Road. He next used an aerial map to show topographic features that would match the Doy narratives. The southerly draw in a topographical map of this area most closely matched the Doy description because it was deep and could have provided cover. It had a sharp southwesterly bend near the end of it that would allow a group of ambushers to hide around a corner from a group of people making their way through the draw.
“In my opinion this was the only area near where the trail was at the distances from each town that had the characteristics that were described,” Bill concluded in his first shot at finding the ambush site. “My best guess is that it was near the location of the pond that has now been built in that draw.”
U.S. government and commercial hand-drawn maps from the 1850s and 1860s do show a road running to Oskaloosa from Lawrence. The road doesn’t appear in exactly the same place among the several maps of the era, as mapping roads wasn’t as precise as today and those who drew or painted the maps couldn’t possibly know every curve. The old hand-drawn survey maps do show bluffs and prairies, waterways and creeks.
U.S. Geological Survey maps today provide a clear look at the hills and bluffs, draws and defiles in topographic contour maps. And up-to-date Jefferson County GIS maps show parcels of land in vivid satellite photograph images, overlaid with sections, townships, ranges and meridians boundaries. Bill circled his Doy ambush estimate over the county’s copy of the 1862 map produced from surveyor Simpson’s 1860 field notes for Township 11 South in Range 19 East of the 6th Principal Meridian. The map picks up Doy’s route from the place Buck Creek runs into the Kansas River, west of Lawrence.
And there, within Bill Noll’s 270-yard estimate circled in red, was our ambush site, labeled “capture location.”
Impressed and grateful, I emailed a copy of the 1855 field notes from a different township , thinking Director Noll might find them interesting. I didn’t know that his county office holds hand-written copies of ALL the old field notes for every township in Jefferson County.
I like reading the field notes for the glimpse they offer of Jefferson County’s landscape just before Kansas Territory was a state: “land, rolling prairie,” “1st rate soil,” “a wagon trail bears northwest and southeast,” “Mr.Meredith’s field bears E & W,” “timber, oak and hickory,” “black oak 24-in diameter,” or land is “poor, hilly, stony.”
The next thing I knew I was looking at a NEW conclusion from Bill that updated his finding on the Doy ambush location. Bill had looked up the field notes for our Doy quest, Township 11 South. He had stopped calling his conclusion a “guess.”
The field notes taken by surveyor Germain F. Simpson nearly 150 years ago — when measurement was taken with (physical) chains and limestone rocks were dropped in place to mark sectional quarters — mentioned the Lawrence to Oskaloosa Road passing through our target area.
The road cut across the land in this little segment going from the southeast to the northwest, in a spot 65 chains east of a specific section line corner. It was inside the 270-yard area Bill had targeted earlier. And, finally, X marked our spot.
The ambush site as we have pinpointed it sits on private land whose owners were fascinated to learn of the 1859 events that happened there. They do want to maintain privacy, however, and the spot is off limits to visitors.
Driving the area will give you a feel for the lay of the land, and the Doy ambush site is located just off one of the western borders of the Buck Creek Wildlife Area between 27th and 35th streets.
As Bill Noll noted, a pond has gone in at one end of a low draw (Ephraim Nute’s “defile”?) John Doy reached in 1859. The bluff that concealed the armed ambushers still casts a shadow, and maintains the memory of a time when Kansas settlers, enslaved people fighting for freedom and profiteers bent on their capture struggled over their beliefs.
 Information from the Kansas State Historical Society Archives and Jefferson County GIS and roads departments. The United States uses a specific system to divide land into identifiable and uniform portions. Sections, townships, ranges and meridians are the key components, explained here on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s website.
 A “chain” for the surveyor was a specialized chain 66 feet long and containing 100 7.92-inch links. Each Township contained 36 Sections. Mr. Simpson was moving east between Sections 9 and 16 in Township 11 South when he observed the road. The east-west border between those two sections was 80 chains, and the road was recorded at 65 chains from the west beginning point. More information about how surveys were conducted is contained in this handbook, which, published in 1855, was the one in use for the early Kansas Territory surveys. https://www.ntc.blm.gov/krc/uploads/538/1855_Instructions_to_the_S_G.pdf
 The Kansas State Historical Society has included some plats made from the early land surveys on its website, Kansas Memory. The plats include parts of Douglas, Jefferson, Johnson, Shawnee and Wyandotte counties and may be seen here: http://www.kansasmemory.org/item/223914
 Doy, John, The Kansas Narrative, A Plain, Unvarnished Tale, (Thomas Holman, book and job printer, New York, 1860), 24.
 Nute, Ephraim, Letter, [E. Nute] to [Unidentified recipient], February 14, 1859; Kansas State Historical Society Item No. 102720, John Brown Collection, #299, Box 2, Folder 1.
 The Kaw is another name for the Kansas River.
 St. Joseph Weekly West (newspaper); 26 June, 1859, 2. Microfilm, State Historical Society of Missouri. An upcoming post will look at these notes, taken from Doy and used against him in his trial in Missouri.
 St. Joseph Weekly West (newspaper); 26 June, 1859, 2. Microfilm, State Historical Society of Missouri.
 In the end, my first-shot spot on Buck Creek Road was nearly a mile east of where we later determined was the actual ambush site.
 The 836 acres of land in the Buck Creek Wildlife Area is held by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. It was preserved by the Kansas Land Trust, which promotes the park as including restored prairies, riparian woodlands, oak-hickory forest, hay meadows, and abundant wildlife.