Primordial Spring, Jefferson County, Kansas, by Stephen Smith
Primordial Spring, Jefferson County, Kansas, by Stephen Smith.

I was trying to find something out – anything, really – about Jesse Newell, an Ohio-born free-stater who came to Kansas Territory in May 1856.  He and his brother-in-law, Joseph Fitzsimmons, a Pennsylvanian, had settled on the Jefferson County hilltop the two would develop into Oskaloosa.

They landed in Bleeding Kansas, a long couple of years when the territory agitated over whether it would become a state allowing or barring slavery (the latter, 1861). Newell and Fitzsimmons, moving to KT from the free state of Iowa, positioned their town-to-be right next to an already mapped proslavery town site called Jacksonville, which in the end became a farm and not a town.

Sectional Map of the Territory of Kansas. Published by John Halsall in 1857.
Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, as published in 1857. Sectional Map of the Territory of Kansas, published by John Halsall.

From that point in spring 1856, according to our aged town and county history writings, Fitzsimmons set up a store. Newell set up a steam sawmill. There was something about Newell being nearly hung by proslavery Border Ruffians that year, and about Newell telling free-state[1] troops where to find a bevy of armed South Carolinians who had come to Kansas Territory to make it a slave state. There’s one  mention of Newell being a “radical” free-stater. What else did we know?  Not much.

“We are just one generation away from not knowing our own story.”

That is a warning that had every appearance of having come true, in the case of Newell, and maybe for bits of Jefferson County’s early story. Deanell Tacha,[2] founding chair of Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, made that statement in the early years of Freedom’s Frontier, which has helped communities and organizations tell and connect their stories of freedom in Missouri and Kansas border counties, Jefferson County, Kansas, among them. (Jefferson County, one of the original 36 Kansas Territory counties, is one county over, about 15 miles from the Missouri border.)

Of Jesse Newell, we found little else in the usual historical collections. Finding that odd, one of Newell’s descendants and I cast farther afield for information. The search had sprung from the “discovery” that a deteriorating Oskaloosa property had been Jesse Newell’s homestead site.  What??  News to us. But we confirmed it with help from marvels of history-saving precision, the heroes in the appraiser’s and register of deeds offices in the Oskaloosa courthouse, and with some court records.  We did later find a local scrap of the homestead fact in the local newspaper:  a 1913 edition of the newspaper.

Zipping across the Internet turned up our first new hints that Jesse Newell was indeed aligned with the free-state movement.  He materialized in a 2003 essay,[3] The Fight for Kansas, the Letters of Cecilia and John Sherman, arguing in May 1856 with one of the territorial governors at Lecompton. He demanded to know why Border Ruffians were on the roads preventing him from going to Lawrence, given that he thought he lived in a free country.  (He got a pass and got through).  Three years later, we find him as captain of an Oskaloosa rifle company — “Captain”?? “Rifle company”?? — that helped as an escort for an Underground Railroad-related rescue[4].

Not a whiff of this sort of thing was in the aged pages of The Oskaloosa Independent, launched in 1860. Why didn’t we know more about these events, or whether there were more such instances to know about?  We had noticed Oskaloosa listed –only the town’s name–in references to the Underground Railroad in Kansas.  And we had read vague but peevish assertions that Oskaloosa was a sort of rendezvous point or outpost for Jayhawkers.  But these sorts of things weren’t incorporated into histories of Oskaloosa or Jefferson County that we had reviewed.

As it turns out, we are finding some “new,” possibly nearly lost history of  Newell, Oskaloosa and Jefferson County from 1855-1865.  Research is much easier now than it was even 25 years ago.  The additional information brings a little more focus to how Jefferson County connected to what was happening in the region.  And regional histories just might be more complete with the incorporation of events happening across the county line.

[1] Free-state or free-soil partisans wanted Kansas Territory to enter the Union as a state free of slavery. However, some free-staters wanted no Negroes, free or not, to be allowed in Kansas.

[2] Deanell Reece Tacha is a retired judge of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit and is dean of the School of Law at Pepperdine University.

[3] Willis, Mary-Sherman.  Living with guns, The Fight for Kansas, the Letters of Cecilia and John Sherman. www.archipelago.org  Vol. 6 No. 3.   The letter itself is held among unpublished correspondence in the (John) Sherman Room Collection, Mansfield/Richland County Public Library, Mansfield, Ohio. An image of the item is available on Ohio Memory Collection, file name Om95_573016_004. Ohio Memory images of the letter.

[4] Newell and some of his rifle company are named in the work, “The Rescue of Dr. John W. Doy” which was a paper read by its author, Maj. James B. Abbott, to the Kansas State Historical Society Jan. 15, 1889. The account is contained in Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society embracing the Fifth and Sixth Biennial Reports, 1886-1888. Vol. IV. Page 312.

Elizabeth Leech


2 thoughts on “About”

    1. Hello, it’s at 609 Walnut on U.S. Highway 59, about a block north of the historical society’s Old Jefferson Town. The old Stevens/Baker/Hundley place. Newell descendants bought it and are about to start the rehab.

Leave a Reply