An Underground Railroad Ambush in Jefferson County, Part III ,Location

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.[1] 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.

Two-pole chain, Virtual Museum of Surveying
Pictured is a two-pole chain from the Virtual Museum of Surveying. Chains like this one were used by U.S. land surveyors to measure off Kansas Territory lands. http://www.surveyhistory.org/

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.[2]

Mr. Simpson’s survey and field notes document would become the basis for Kansas Territory’s survey plats, mapping the territory.[3]  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.[4]  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.[5] Doy and his crew, with two wagons, took the ferry across to the north side of the Kaw[6] 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.

    Kirk Webb, JeffCo GIS, John Doy Route Map zoomed
    John Doy route from Lawrence on his way to Oskaloosa. Cropped version of map created by Kirk Webb of the Jefferson County Geographic Information Systems Department 7/29/2015 Copyright 2015
  • John Doy, again, gives us another route hint from notes he took[7] 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…”[8]

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.

Buck Creek Road Doy curve
Buck Creek Road going north, curving west at the red arrow. Wrong road.

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.[9] 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.

Jennifer for Doy
Jennifer Binkley on horseback in April 2015, facing south from 35th Street in Jefferson County. She knew an old road deep in the timber about a third of a mile south of  her vantage point but a little under half a mile east of the ambush point.

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.

JeffCo Doy 2-foot contours
This map shows the dramatic landscape near at the John Doy ambush site. The map, created by the Jefferson County, Kansas, Geographic Information Systems, is a 2-foot contour map.  The blue lines represent every two feet of elevation on the land.  The lines show the land height above sea level, and the land shape. Lines closer together mean steeper slopes.

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.”

Doy Noll 1862 overlay snip
Bill Noll’s first attempt at locating the Doy ambush site. He overlaid Jefferson County’s 1862 copy of the U.S. land survey plat for Township 11 South, Range 19 East with his findings.

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.”

1958 years after Doy ambush (3)
An aerial photo from 1958 shows the hilly terrain in the ambush area.  The pond has gone in the earlier existing draw. Photograph used with permission of the land owner. (The octagon blot on the left side of the picture is a flaw in the copy.)

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.

New Doy Jeffco GIS map with sections
The red “X” on the map marks the 65-chains point at which the U.S. surveyor in 1860 noted the Lawrence and Oskaloosa Road going southeast/northwest (blue line). The black line borders divide sections in Township 11 South. The base map is from the Jefferson County, Kansas,  Geographic Information Systems website. The road location overlays were placed by the author, but were based on a much better map created by Bill Noll, Jefferson County dirrector of public works.  You can view Jefferson County’s GIS maps at the county website.

 

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[10] 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.

[1] 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.

https://glorecords.blm.gov/reference/default.aspx#id=05_Appendices|03_Rectangular_Survey_System

[2] 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

[3] 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

[4] Doy, John, The Kansas Narrative, A Plain, Unvarnished Tale, (Thomas Holman, book and job printer, New York, 1860),  24.

[5] 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.

[6] The Kaw is another name for the Kansas River.

[7] 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.

[8] St. Joseph Weekly West (newspaper); 26 June, 1859, 2.  Microfilm, State Historical Society of Missouri.

[9] 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.

[10] 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.

Jesse Newell’s 1856 Travel Pass “I expect, sir, to carry that pass to the judgment day”

I interrupt John Doy’s badly ending Underground Railroad trip to introduce you to Jesse Newell, whose Oskaloosa homestead Dr. Doy had failed to reach. I will introduce you to Mr. Newell the same way I met him about five years ago.

We had just figured out that a badly declining property in Oskaloosa, Kansas, had once been Jesse Newell’s homestead plot and we wanted to find out more about him. Local and state compiled histories revealed practically nothing.

Stephen Smith, Newell stone cabin, west side door,keith 2 10 2013
This limestone cabin sits behind a house on what was once the homestead plot of Jesse Newell in Oskaloosa, Kansas. The site was named to the Register of Historic Kansas Places on May 13 and on July 10, 2017, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Photo by Stephen Smith.

A simple web search captured a glimpse of Mr. Newell and showed him to be a Kansas character beyond what our aged historical portraits had told us: co-founded Oskaloosa, had a saw mill, moved to Kansas from Iowa.

My first illuminating encounter with Jesse Newell, then, sprang from an essay written by Mary-Sherman Willis in the literary journal archipelago, http://www.archipelago.org/vol6-3/willis.htm.  Her essay, “The Fight for Kansas: The Letters of Cecilia and John Sherman,” reveals a critical moment in the warfare that led to Kansas statehood, told in letters written by her ancestors Cecilia Stewart Sherman and Ohio Congressman John Sherman.[1]

Mrs. Sherman’s letter shows us Jesse Newell travelling from Topeka to Lawrence with a son, John Newell, his brother-in-law Joseph Fitzsimmons and Dr. Robert Gamble. It was May 17, 1856, and Newell had just arrived in Kansas Territory from Iowa. He was annoyed.

Over and again, Newell and his company were stopped, harassed, interrogated, all OK’d by proslavery authority at Lecompton to stop people from getting to Lawrence, home of eastern slavery opponents.  The proslavery partisans were cutting off Lawrence to suppress a “rebellion” by antislavery settlers there who resisted the proslavery government’s outrageous and illegally enacted laws.[2]

Exasperated, Newell rode for Lecompton, roughly half way between Topeka and Lawrence on his 25-mile trip. Lecompton was the proslavery crowned capital of the territory. A native of Ohio, Newell found fellow Ohioan Wilson Shannon, the current governor of Kansas Territory. Cecilia Stewart Sherman’s letter, written to a sister on May 19, details what Newell[3] said of his visit with Gov. Shannon. Mrs. Sherman wrote:

“… Mr. Jesse Newell, formerly from near Olivesburg [Ohio] & immediately from Iowa with his two sons & a son-in-law, is looking through the country for a location. He arrived [in Leavenworth] today and gave us an account of his adventures for the last two or three days. He was stopped several times before he got through. He was going from Topeka to Lawrence on Saturday but after having been stopped once or twice he turned around and went to Lecompton, the headquarters of the enemy, to see Gov. Shannon whom he knew. He spied him in a crowd upon the street and accosted him thus:  ‘I would like to know what these bands of armed men who are going round the country mean stopping peaceable citizens on the high way—&c &c. I am a free man & thought I was in a free country till I came here,’ he said.

“Shannon got angry & told him there was no use in his getting mad—&c—that the whole Territory was under military law. He then turned to go into his office.  Mr. Newell called to him, ‘Shannon it’s me[,] and you are not going to treat me thus. I’ll know what these things mean.’ Shannon then told him to follow him in. He did so & he gave him a permit to pass unmolested through the territory. He then started again for Lawrence but was stopped twice by one party of ten—-& another of fifteen armed with rifles & fixed bayonets; they questioned as to where he was from, when he came, what town he had been, where he was going.

“He told them, and they said he had been travelling in d—d abolition towns all the time. They supposed he was going now to Lawrence to help fight the Border Ruffians, and he couldn’t go. He told them he had started for Lawrence, there he intended to go. They told him they would take his mules for the use of the army. Says he, ‘These mules cost eleven dollars & before you get them you’ll take my scalp.’ He showed them his permit then & they let him go, but Shannon & they too told him there was no use to go, that he wouldn’t get into the town, it was guarded & in arms. But he said he went on & when he came near the town he saw men planting corn & women in the garden. He went on down town & there were little girls jumping the rope, stores were open, the men at their usual work & all was quiet. He didn’t know what to make of it after the stories Shannon had told him about the citizens of Lawrence all being in arms &c. No doubt Shannon thinks they are. The pro-slavery tell him so in order to bend him to their measures & he never goes out of Lecompton so he can find out himself.”

Included in the national news about the Kansas struggle for freedom were stories about the severing of simple freedoms by the proslavery powers at Lecompton, and they included stories about Jesse Newell and his pass.

Jesse Newell's Pass, The Buffalo Daily Republic
From the Buffalo Daily Republic (Buffalo, New York), Thursday, May 29, 1856, page 1.  Image from newspapers.com.

Well, maybe not yet were they identified with the “troubles” of the territory; that came a few months later when Newell was fully invested in the free-state cause.  Newell and Joseph Fitzsimmons, the brother-in-law with him for the pass, went on to start the town of Oskaloosa, naming it for Oskaloosa, Iowa.  Dr. Gamble, born in Pennsylvania and later an Ohio man, likewise had come to Kansas Territory from Iowa. After serving in leadership positions around the town, Gamble had moved on to California in the later 1860s.

Eleven years later the Oskaloosa Independent newspaper published a long-running series of reminiscences by Jefferson Countians about the Civil War and the territorial strife that preceded Kansas statehood in 1861. John W. Day, who arrived in Kansas Territory in May 1856, was present for various territorial skirmishes and political clashes and in June 1867 wrote about events of 1856.

He noted Newell’s pass, setting up his story  by detailing how settlers had to carry written passes from the government to ensure their safety on public thoroughfares.[4]  Mr. Day, who edited the Oskaloosa Independent for a time, wrote:

“I think it was in June or July of 1856 that at the store of Nelson McCracken, in Leavenworth, Jesse Newell, who had been traveling through the Territory looking for a location to settle and build a mill, exhibited to myself and several other persons, a pass furnished him by Wilson Shannon, then governor of the Territory of Kansas.  This pass was obtained from the Governor on the ground of old acquaintanceship in Ohio when both were Democrats[5] in the Buckeye State.

“I solicited the document to file away as a memento, but Mr. Newell replied:  ‘No, sir; I cannot part with it.  I expect, sir, to carry that pass to the judgment day’.”

Newell cabin stone north window
A photo of one of the stones that makes up the limestone cabin on Jesse Newell’s homestead property in Oskaloosa, Kansas.

[1] The Shermans were in Kansas Territory because John Sherman was on a three-person congressional committee assigned to investigate the 1855 and 1856 “troubles” in Kansas, including voting frauds by out-of-state proslavers and violence through the territory.  The committee produced the Report of the Special Committee Appointed to Investigate the Troubles in Kansas; With the Views of the Minority of Said Committee. Report No. 200, 34th Congress, 1st Session, 1856.  Mrs. Sherman’s letter is held by the Mansfield/Richland County Public Library in Mansfield, Ohio, in the (John) Sherman Room Collection.

[2] The first sacking  sacking of Lawrence occurred a few days later, on May 21, when proslavery militia, supported by men from southern states, marched on Lawrence and destroyed the Free State Hotel, ruined the printing presses of two newspapers, the Herald of Freedom and the Kansas Free State, and burned the home of Charles Robinson, future Kansas governor. Before the burning began, a red flag bearing the words “Southern Rights” on one side and “South Carolina” flew briefly over Lawrence.

[3] Mrs. Sherman’s letter was illuminating because it told a story that, as far as I have figured out, was unknown in Kansas.  It was the first “new” bit of information we had found about Jesse Newell.  And for a moment in May 1856 Jesse Newell’s experience in Kansas Territory had made national news.

[4] Oskaloosa Independent, June 22, 1867, page one, series “Heroes of the Border and the War for Liberty and Union”

[5] Jesse Newell a Democrat, the party associated with slavery? That, to me,  was a new label for Jesse Newell.  Later descriptions of Newell, including one by Mr. Day, called him a Radical Republican, meaning someone who was not only an opponent of slavery in Kansas, but of slavery all together and was a proponent of rights for  black people. Others who came to Kansas Territory and fought against slavery, including Kansas’ U.S. Sen. James H. Lane, the orator and top free-state recruiter, came to the state as Democrats.

An Underground Railroad Ambush in Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, Part II

 

January 25, 1859

Somewhere on the Delaware Reserve, Jefferson County, Kansas Territory

We left John Doy and his Underground Railroad train deep in trouble on the Missouri side of the river. But since my task is unearthing Jefferson County history, let’s head back to the place where Dr. Doy and friends were ambushed, wherever that was.

Doy, a Lawrence abolitionist, two helpers  and 13 African-American passengers[1]  had been snared by armed slave catchers as they travelled from Lawrence north toward Holton,[2]  a rough wagon ride of about 50 miles.  By Doy’s description, the calamity happened about 12 miles north of Lawrence in Douglas County and  8 miles south of Oskaloosa in Jefferson County on the Delaware (Indian) Reserve.

ks memory map cropped zoomed doy twp 11 r 19 (3)
This is a zoomed-in image of a Kansas Land Survey Plat of the township in Jefferson County where the Doy ambush took place. The U.S. surveyor general of Kansas and Nebraska oversaw the surveying of lands in Kansas Territory from 1855-1861. This image is from Kansas Memory from the Kansas State Historical Society. See image at the bottom of this post for more information on the map.

Two wagons carried the passengers.  Doy rode a horse, his son Charles drove Doy’s wagon and young Wilbur Clough drove a second wagon. Well on their way to Oskaloosa, the travelers advanced down a long decline. At the bottom of the hill, on the right, sat a bluff.  As Doy’s party turned at the bluff about 20 armed, mounted men emerged and captured the group.[3]

A second description, with only the tiniest bit more information, comes from the Rev. Ephraim Nute, a Lawrence minister strong for abolishing slavery. Nute wrote a letter detailing the ambush and lamenting the high cost of the failed effort, both in the tragedy of the 13 freedom-seekers and in the money it took to put the effort on, and now the money it would take to pay for the imprisoned Doy’s legal bills. It’s possible that Nute obtained the information from a jail visit or from Clough, whom the Missourians didn’t imprison.

“… they took the road toward Oscaloosa [sic] & about an hour after entering a sort of defile between the bluffs & ‘the timber’ found themselves surrounded by a party of armed & mounted men,” Rev. Nute wrote.[4]

Mitchell map Kansas Memory Item 305777
A zoomed screen shot of  Mitchell’s Sectional Map of Kansas, Middleton Storbridge & Co., 1859. Lawrence is on the lower right and Oskaloosa is in the top central part of the image. From the  Kansas State Historical Society at http://www.kansasmemory.org/item/305777

 

Rev. Nute did refer to a road in his letter. Because roads and passable trails were few in the county a road might show up on an old map .  But it wasn’t enough to find the spot.

Hilly, timbered landscapes are not a rarity in southern Jefferson County, and if  we wanted to find the location of this disaster — and I had never known of the place being identified — we would need more information.

Stunningly, our best location clues ended up being clues that never should have been revealed at all, and they came from John Doy.

Riding in the Underground Railroad was secretive and dangerous work for all involved.  Brave enslaved people and free African Americans had everything to lose if they were caught fleeing slavery or its threat.  Escaped slaves could be pursued and caught in other states and returned to slavery;  free black people were not safe from  kidnappers who would ignore their free status and sell them into slavery. Those who assisted in UGRR efforts faced jail and fines. Missouri was a state that allowed slavery and a good share of Missourians wanted to extend slavery to Kansas when it would become a state.

Names of Underground Railroad conductors and agents, and their “stations” for hiding freedom-seekers along the route, naturally, were strictly secret.  But Dr. Doy had made a dry run of his planned UGRR route from Lawrence to Holton. He had jotted down the names and places he had arranged to hide his passengers and obtain escorts for each leg of the slow trip north.

Doy apparently carried a journal containing those names and places with him when he was ambushed Jan. 25, 1859.  Worse, an excerpt was published in a Missouri newspaper, the St. Joseph Weekly West in its June 26, 1859 edition.  Here’s how the transcript opened:

“Bought bread and cheese, 20 cents, before starting. Paid 25 cents Monday ferried over Kaw river [Kansas 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, opened my subject to Mr. Newall [Newell], who laid out town.[5] He accepts at dark; went to Mr. Barnes, from Ohio; also accepts the appointment of conductor; will feed and assist them.…”[6]

And on he went to name three people who would help at Grasshopper Falls (now Valley Falls, Jefferson County)  and another half dozen people in or near Holton in Calhoun County (now Jackson County).

Colossal mistake aside, Doy did probably take that same route on January 25.  For his dry run, he crossed the Kansas River at downtown Lawrence and followed the river to the north and west.  He turned off to go north around the point where Buck Creek meets the Kaw.  If he followed a trail or road like the Lawrence-to-Oskaloosa road, it wasn’t long until he was  about 12 miles north of Lawrence and about 8 miles south of Oskaloosa.

Still not enough information, however, to find the spot, so we will continue our quest in the next post.

To view this plat map and several others, follow this link.

 

ks memory map doy twp cropped 11 r 19 (2)

Plat map by the U.S. Surveyor General of Kansas and Nebraska for Township 11 south, Range 19 east of the Sixth Principal Meridian, in southern Jefferson County.  Buck Creek and the road to Oskaloosa are visible on this map, with survey dates, from Kansas Memory, the Kansas State Historical Society.  Item No. 223914, page 7.

[1] Doy, John, The Kansas Narrative, A Plain, Unvarnished Tale, (Thomas Holman, book and job printer, New York, 1860),  24. Doy reported eight men, three women and two children as his cargo. Two men were free persons of color, coming from Ohio and Pennsylvania,  and the rest had shown Doy’s son, Charles, their free papers before the trip, according to Doy’s book. Other accounts dispute the free status of the 11, contending they were runaway enslaved persons.

[2] Holton, in Jackson County, was an Underground Railroad hub. From Holton, the UGRR travelers would go north into Iowa and often on to Canada..

[3] Doy, John, The Kansas Narrative, 25.

[4] 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.

[5] Jesse Newell and Joseph Fitzsimmons were co-founders of Oskaloosa, arriving there in May 1856 and later naming the town for Oskaloosa, Iowa.

[6] St. Joseph Weekly West (newspaper); 26 June, 1859, 2.  Microfilm, State Historical Society of Missouri. Knowledge of the existence of this extraordinary newspaper clipping — vital to tracking Jefferson County history — was generously shared with me by a Lawrence author and researcher of the Underground Railroad in Kansas, Judy Sweets.

An Underground Railroad Ambush in Jefferson County, Part I

The gravel roads in southern Jefferson County, Kansas, are silent about where an Underground Railroad catastrophe played out 158 years ago. No roadside signs mark the hill where Dr. John Doy’s attempt to help 13 African-Americans elude slavery rolled to a tragic stop eight miles south of Oskaloosa.

Not that it’s the sort of historic fact a Kansas county would want to celebrate. But the ambush, and the sensational events that followed, attach Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, to the relay of secret links helping brave freedom-seekers move north to free states and Canada.

Doy, a New Yorker, moved to Kansas Territory in 1854 with the Kansas-Nebraska Act and worked to ensure Kansas joined the Union deeming slavery illegal within its borders. Almost five years on, Kansas Territory had emerged from the violent Bleeding Kansas slavery clashes between Missouri border ruffians and their southern friends, and those opposed to slavery in Kansas.

Finally, the slavery opponents, free-staters, pulled ahead with majority sentiment.  More work remained, however, and free-staters did what they could to break slavery’s back.

The dark morning hours of January 25, 1859, found Doy on horseback negotiating a primitive road that connected Doy’s hometown Lawrence to Oskaloosa and points north.

Accompanying Doy in two covered wagons were eight men, three women and two children who hoped to leave behind the threat of enslavement, which was still legal in many states including Missouri.  Doy’s son Charles, and a young wagon driver, Wilbur Clough, completed Doy’s party.  What Doy did not have was outriders or escort guards to watch for slave hunters and other enemies along the way.

The little group was 12 miles into the 20  it needed to cover to reach its first stop, Oskaloosa, and most likely the home of Jesse Newell, a radical free-stater who had come from Iowa and was willing to fight to block slavery in Kansas.  There, Doy would pick up his escort to help continue the trip northwest to Holton, a major taking-off point in Kansas Underground ventures.  Doy had dry-run his proposed route about a week earlier, taking notes on “conductors” who would help along the way.  He listed Jesse Newell’s wooded place on the south edge of Oskaloosa as  the first stop in what he planned would be a five-day journey.[1]

The night of the trip, Doy had departed Lawrence heading north, crossed the Kansas River into Jefferson County and followed Buck Creek up through the Delaware Reserve. [2]

“When about 12 miles from Lawrence, and eight from Oscaloosa [sic], having ascertained, as I supposed, that the road was clear, I requested the men to get into the wagons, as we had quite a long descent before us, and would go down it at a brisk pace.[3]  They did so, and then, excepting myself, all the party were in wagons, which were covered and thus effectually prevented them from seeing what occurred immediately afterwards, and from defending themselves.

“At the bottom of the hill, on the right of the road, is a bluff; from behind this, as we turned it, came out a body of some twenty, or more, armed and mounted men. Eleven of them approached with leveled rifles and ordered us to halt; they keeping, however, at a safe distance from our revolvers.”

doy-from-1862-le-tour-du-monde001
This remarkable image depicting the ambush of Dr. John Doy and his Underground Railroad “train” was published in the French magazine Le Tour du Monde in 1862. The illustration and several others accompanied Doy’s story about ruffian slave hunters who captured Doy and his little party of 15 south of Oskaloosa, Kansas Territory, on Jan. 25, 1859. The illustrations were drawn by the French artist Janet-Lange.

 

 

 

Doy saw that he was overpowered and quickly persuaded his son not to shoot at the assailants. Recognizing several of the men, including “notorious ruffian and kidnapper” Jake Hurd from around proslavery Lecompton,[4] Doy began his arguments.

He knew what could happen to the 13 African-Americans in the wagons if taken by Hurd and his posse. Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 slave owners could pursue runaway slaves to other states and return them to slavery. Slave hunters for hire prowled Kansas Territory, close to free states like Iowa to the north, to capture slaves who had bolted from Missouri and elsewhere.

Worse, some of them kidnapped free black people and sold them into slavery, despicably profiting from human misery. People who engaged in the dangerous work of helping fugitive slaves escape such fates faced fines and  prison (officially) and bodily harm.

Doy asserted that all the African-American adults in his group except two had free papers proving they were not slaves. The other black two men were known to be free men who had been working as cooks at the Eldridge hotel in Lawrence.

To no productive effect, Doy demanded that Hurd and the other attackers show proof that the 13 African-Americans were slaves sought by slave owners and to state whether those owners were in the armed crowd. His questions were met with curses, violent threats and drawn weapons. Doy’s claim that his passengers were free people were ignored.[5]

Somewhere, about eight miles south of Oskaloosa not far from Buck Creek, Doy, his two conductors and 13 African-Americans freedom-seekers were seized, taken to the Missouri River’s edge, put on a ferry to Weston, Mo., the next night, and locked up in Missouri. Jesse Newell and nine others prepared to assist Doy’s planned Underground Railroad venture welcomed no freedom train in late January 1859.

“The sufferings, both physical and mental, of the poor trembling creatures around us, no words can describe,” Doy wrote in his book.  “The chill wintry blast penetrated their thin clothing, and there seemed to be nothing between them and a life-long slavery.  All hope must have been dead in their souls.

“Even now I can hear the sobbing ejaculations of the poor mother, as she tried to hush the wails of her half-clad babes.  In spite of the commands of the ruffians not to stir, I jumped up, tore off the wagon-cover, and gave it to her to wrap around her children.

“The memory of that night will never be effaced from my mind.”[6]

[1] Portions of Doy’s journal, or memorandum book, described the route in some detail.  Transcriptions from the journal were published in the St. Joseph Weekly West (newspaper) on June 26, 1859, page 2, column 6. Microfilm copy held by the State Historical Society of Missouri. The journal was used against Doy in the Missouri court case against him on the charge of helping slaves escape their masters.

[2] “The Kansas Narrative, ‘A Plain, Unvarnished Tale’,” written by John Doy and  published 1860 by Thomas Holman, book and job printer, New  York, p 25.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 26.

[5] Ibid, 26, 27.

[6] Ibid, 30.

kirk-webb-doy-route-002
Map showing the Underground Railroad route John Doy planned to take from Lawrence to Oskaloosa in January 1859. Stars marking sites north and west of Oskaloosa depict planned stops on the rest of Doy’s route to move 13 African Americans north to Holton, had his trip not been ambushed by slave hunters (marked as “John Doy Ambush Site”). The map was created by Kirk Webb, Jefferson County Geographic Information Systems Department, using notes John Doy had taken to designate safe stops and escort help for the dangerous trip. 

To be continued.

Upcoming posts will examine where that ambush took place, based on a couple of descriptions from 1859, and look into the people Doy had lined up to help him once he would reach Oskaloosa and continue the journey.

Kansas Territory Elections 1855: Let ’em vote or they’ll tear the house down

Even if there hadn’t been local point men pushing slavery or county captains dashing it, Jefferson County could not have dodged the turmoil of Bleeding Kansas. Its location in Kansas Territory guaranteed it would grapple with the question dividing the nation.

Eastern Kansas Territory was pocked by clashes between free-staters (“no” to slavery in Kansas) and pro-slavers (expand slavery to more states, Kansas in particular). The contestants had been campaigning since late 1854, the year the Kansas-Nebraska Act
handed the slavery decision to settlers in the soon-to-be states.

Partisans on opposing sides of slavery moved in on Kansas Territory, along with settlers  less interested in slavery, and went about staking claims to land they hoped to buy at low government prices. Settlers would do the voting that would decide the slavery question for Kansas.

If you want to know what fraudulent elections look like, consider Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, on March 30, 1855. Continue reading “Kansas Territory Elections 1855: Let ’em vote or they’ll tear the house down”

North of the Kansas River

Battle of Hickory Point, Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, 1856

As battles go, this one wasn’t all that big. “Skirmish” comes to mind as a description for the two-day pre-Civil War fight that found early Jefferson County settlers armed and facing off at a little trading post on the prairie.  The heart of the issue was slavery, although participants might have seen a more immediate cause of self-defense or retaliation for the “outrages and depredations” going on in this part of Bleeding Kansas.  And, in all truth, a lot of the combatants in the Sept. 13-14 fight were not from Jefferson County, or even from Kansas Territory. More on that, and all the rest, later in this blog. Continue reading “North of the Kansas River”

About This Blog

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.) Continue reading “About This Blog”