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 is under consideration for the national register.  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.

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”

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”