An Underground Railroad Ambush in Jefferson County, Part VII. A Glorious Return: Captain Jesse Newell and His Rifle Company

A sentence in James B. Abbott’s “how we did it” John Doy  rescue story offers another insight into our Oskaloosa freestater Jesse Newell.

We pick up our story at Rev. Josiah B. McAfee’s place at Grasshopper Falls (now Valley Falls), where John Doy and his rescuers and John Doy had been fed and had a rest. Worried that his crew was being tailed by enemies, Abbott called for Jesse Newell’s aid in the final 20-mile leg of the journey from the St. Joseph jail to Lawrence.[1]

“…word was sent to Captain Jesse Newell, of Oskaloosa, to furnish an escort; and when we arrived at his place we found the Captain on hand with the following-named officers of his rifle company, to wit: Jerome Hazen, First Lieutenant; J. I. Forbes, Second Lieutenant; John Newell, Gil. Towner, Robert Newell, James Monroe, Resolve Fuller, M. R. Dutton – privates; and eight or ten others. And without delay we passed on, most of the escort going to within a few miles of Lawrence, and the captain and a few of his men going the whole distance, where we arrived about six o’clock in the evening, and where we also found the streets lined with people…,” Abbott wrote of the glorious Lawrence arrival in July 1859.[2]

Learning that Jesse Newell had assisted out his fellow abolitionists this way was helpful to my research on Newell. But that first sentence was alluring, the part that called Jesse Newell “Captain” and that he had a “rifle company.” What was he doing with something called a rifle company in 1859 and what did it mean that he was captain of it? I don’t have an oath-worthy answer for that but believe the reference points to a free-state militia type group for defense against proslavers and working to ensure Kansas would become a free state, or it could be the beginnings of a Jayhawker group.

No tidy, primary source that I’ve ever seen says that Jesse Newell was a Jayhawker, and I mean “Jayhawker”[3] in the sense of settlers who took action for the free-state and subsequent Civil War Union cause. Characters like Jesse Newell challenge us to divine answers from a lot of wobbly sources.  But these anecdotes and aged after-the-fact tales are what we’ve got. I’ve pulled up a few today to help you get to know something of Jesse Newell, who lived from 1812-1881. You’ll see more of these anecdotes in future posts.

Story No. 1: Jayhawkers and Uncle Jesse Newell

Jeremiah H. Bennet, who settled near Grasshopper Falls in 1857, wrote a series of articles, Early Recollections of Kansas, for The Oskaloosa Independent in 1878. Bennet was a lawyer, a county schools official, and a knowledgeable and entertaining writer.  His May 11, 1878, Recollection reveals Oskaloosa and  Jefferson County  Jayhawker activity during the Civil War, the “rebellion,” as Bennet calls it. Warning: Bennet’s first paragraph set-up speeds through about a dozen things that are separate tales in themselves, but we will zero in on the Jayhawkers.

“It was in the dark portion of the rebellion. Close to the time when the southern army held possession of the Hannibal & St. Joe Railroad; when a Rebel paper at the city of Atchison rejoiced at the Union defeat at the battle of Wilson’s Creek; when the Jayhawkers held high carnival at Oskaloosa; when herds of rebel cattle pastured on the borders of Cedar Creek [west of Grasshopper Falls]; when horse flesh as well as white man was ‘mighty unsartin.’” And…

“… It was after the time that Jefferson County militia took possession of Atchison one bright sunny morning. Those were wild times for our boys, and those boys were wild. Uncle Jesse Newell commanded the Oskaloosa company.  Sim Hull the Crooked Creekers. Ed. Hutchins the Grasshoppers. Did Hiram Webb have a company?  S.S. Cooper was Major of the Jefferson Rangers. Ed. Lynde was commander of the Post at Atchison.”

Bennet was describing a story in which a Missouri Confederate militia officer, Gideon Thompson, owed a debt. He owned pastureland[4] on the Kansas side, west of Grasshopper Falls and, according to Bennet’s story, Thompson’s livestock was to be sold off to satisfy a judgement. Word got out that the Oskaloosa Jayhawkers were going to snatch up the livestock first, before it would be sold.  The Oskaloosa crew, Bennet wrote, had a reputation for “sudden and swift thoroughness.”

Jesse and Rosannah Newell
This photograph of Jesse Newell and his wife Rosannah was published in a centennial booklet, The First Hundred Years of Jefferson County Kansas, in 1955.

The standard bio for Jesse Newell, found in the local 19th century newspapers and abbreviated county histories, is that he and his brother-in-law Joseph Fitzsimmons co-founded Oskaloosa, arriving from Iowa in 1856. We know that Newell, who set up a steam-operated saw mill, was in the thick of Jefferson County’s proslavery vs. free-state conflicts in September 1856. He is listed in censuses as a physician. He was a Methodist, and came to Kansas Territory from Iowa with Methodist Episcopalian minister’s credentials. He was viewed as a radical freestater.[5] But these synopses say nothing of his Jayhawker or off-the-books Civil War service.

Story No. 2:  Noble-hearted

The Civil War Battle of Wilson’s Creek (read about it here), fought near Springfield, Missouri, was significant for Kansas, which had just become a state on Jan. 29, 1861. It was the first major battle fought west of the Mississippi, and it was one the Union lost to the Confederates. Kansas had quickly raised the 1st Kansas Infantry and 2nd Kansas Infantry regiments, and sent them into the battle Aug. 10, 1861. Jesse Newell had two sons in the 2nd Kansas, Robert and Abram. Robert was killed that day and Abram injured.

Kansas U.S. Sen.  Samuel Clarke Pomeroy spoke of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek that December on the U.S. Senate floor, recounting the work of Kansas soldiers in the young war and lamenting the death of Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, a Kansas freestater favorite who died in the battle. A portion of his address, published in The Weekly Atchison Champion on Jan. 4, 1862, mentioned Lieut. Robert Newell, and his father, Jesse Newell (who was closer to 50 years old, instead of 60 as recalled by Pomeroy).

“But this day’s work was not ended until from the sixteen hundred who went into that battle from Kansas, five hundred and forty men, the pride and hope of our young State, not yet a year old, lay among the dead or the wounded.”  And, continuing…

“Lieutenant Newell, I am sorry to say, was killed. I remember him and his noble-hearted father (though sixty years of age) marching, camping and fighting with us through the long and wasting years of 1855 and 1856, never to be forgotten in our early history.”

Story No. 3:  Too much fight in the material of his constitution

James B. Shaw was a Methodist Episcopalian preacher who came to Kansas Territory in 1857 and was a leader in establishing the church in the new circuit. He knew the developing towns of Kansas Territory and helped install Methodist churches and travelling ministers for the local worshippers. As a result, he knew Oskaloosa and Jesse Newell, and had this to say:[6]

“The town was commenced by members of the church from Iowa. The leading man was a local preacher, and under his leadership they prospered for a time; but there was too much fight in the material of his constitution for these troublous times; so he quit preaching, engaged in the struggle, and was carried away in the excitement; got out of the church and became intemperate. He has once of twice been reclaimed, and the last I heard of him, he was preaching for the United Brethren. May he have strength to triumph over all sin and stand entire at last.”

No, Rev. Shaw does not offer a name for the person above. I’ve narrowed it down to Jesse Newell and Jacob Boucher, another Iowa settler who came to Oskaloosa, Jefferson County, as they were the only two people Shaw could have meant.  I haven’t found much information about Boucher during Bleeding Kansas days or about his leaving the Methodist church.

But Jesse Newell in 1857 formally and voluntarily gave up his Methodist preaching credentials during the “Kansas troubles.”[7] He requested and received  their reinstatement in 1868. The Rev. Shaw also had this to say of Jesse Newell:

 “Jesse Newell was one of the town proprietors. He came here a local preacher; he was ardent and positive in his temperament, and when he went right, he went with railroad speed; but when he stopped, he would not go at all; and when he took the wrong shoot, he went with accelerated motion. I believe on the whole, he wanted to be good, and do good. He had some ups and downs. We hope, through grace, he will get to heaven at last.”

Maybe Newell was associated with more than one Underground Railroad venture, as a guard or escort, and that’s why he had a rifle company. The  passage of enslaved people seeking safety and freedom, after all, was still illegal in 1859 when we meet Newell’s rifle company. Escorts would connect with the network of countryside safe harbor points that extended all the way into Canada.

Recall, too, that Newell and other Jefferson County freestaters had been under assault in earlier years by proslavers from within and without Kansas Territory. Maybe this rifle company remained as a defensive troop for the occasional flare up. It was 1859 and while Kansas Territory appeared to be in the clear to enter the Union as a free state (no slavery), statehood was still a year and a half away and tussles were not unheard of. It wasn’t time yet for a rifle company to serve in a state-ordained militia or in a home guard to ward off Rebels in the Civil War.

A few dark, nameless, conspiratorial stories pop up here and there hinting that Oskaloosa was a headquarters for Jayhawkers during the Civil War. Those accounts cast Jayhawkers as wholly criminal, never noting that the Kansas armed forces officially put Jayhawkers to work saving Kansas from being overtaken by Missouri confederates during the Civil War or taking supplies from Rebels to feed and outfit Union troops. Some of those accounts were written by people associated with spreading slavery to Kansas.

Story No. 4: Physician

This final anecdote, for now, is about Jesse Newell’s status as a pioneer doctor. Censuses listed him as a physician and I have found just one anecdote to back that up. I present the clip from the Oskaloosa newspaper with a warning to the squeamish.[8]

“Tumor Extracted. – Dr. Newell has shown us a small encysted tumor which he extracted from the head of Mr. J. Downing, of this place.  In shape, it somewhat resembled an eye-tooth, and under the glass exhibited the porous characteristics of the skin in a diseased condition.  It was a tough, gristly or cartilaginous substance, and when first removed contained living animalcule of the largest size.  It was extracted by medicine without the aid of surgeon’s instruments.”

[1] You can read about John Doy’s 1859 failed attempt to help 13 freedom-seekers via the Underground Railroad and Doy’s subsequent rescue from a Missouri jail in Abbott’s account here and here.  The unrealized role of  Jesse Newell and other Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, men for the January 1859 Underground Railroad trip is explained here in Part IV

[2] Maj. James B. Abbott  read his story of “The Immortal Ten” rescue of John Doy on Jan. 15, 1889, at the annual meeting of the Kansas State Historical Society, 30 years after the 10 Lawrence area men sprang John Doy from the St. Joseph, Missouri, jail. Future posts will tell a little about those other members of Captain Newell’s rifle company.

[3] The word “Jayhawker” has a lot of connotations. A short explanation can be found here, although  countless books and articles have debated whether Jayhawkers were good soldiers for the cause and defenders of freedom  or merely ruffian thieves.

[4] Jefferson County property tax records, patents filed with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s General Land office records and Thompson’s Missouri probate records (ancestry.com) all confirm his land holdings in Jefferson County, Kansas.

[5] Radical freestaters, or Radical Republicans,.opposed slavery in the United States. In Kansas, they also believed African-Americans should be allowed to live free in Kansas, and have rights equal to white men’s. Radical freestaters differed from another sort  of freestaters, those who didn’t want slavery in Kansas but who wanted to bar free African-Americans from Kansas. Jesse Newell was called a radical freestater  by John Day, a fellow Bleeding Kansas-era freestater  in Jefferson County Kansas Territory, in Topeka’s The Daily Commonwealth newspaper, March 15, 1881.

[6] Both quotations are from James B. Shaw’s book, Early Reminiscences of Pioneer Life in Kansas, Haskell printing Co., 1886.

[7] Jesse Newell’s original “parchment” certificate is dated 1853 and is from Oskaloosa, Iowa.  The document  named Newell a deacon qualified to administer baptisms, marriages and burials in certain conditions and to preach the gospel. It is held in the Kansas United Methodist Archives at Baker University in Baldwin, Kansas. The archives also document Newell surrendering his credentials in April 1857  and having them restored in March 1868.

[8] The article, “Tumor Extracted,” was published in The Oskaloosa Independent on July 11, 1863.A

Kansas Day

January 29, 1861

Forget for the moment Bleeding Kansas, fraudulent elections, Border Ruffians and murderous abolitionists. Kansas Territory, having fought off slavery from 1854 into 1859, was about to slip into the Union as the 34th state.

“HAIL! YE SOVEREIGNS!,” crowed The Oskaloosa Independent in its January 30, 1861, edition. “LATEST. – We learn from a private source that a telegraph was received in Leavenworth at three o’clock yesterday (Tuesday) announcing that Kansas is admitted into the Union as a sovereign State.”

Cause for joy, all right, but on that same page we have this: “Beyond all question, we are on the brink of a terrible chasm; it may be [our] destruction as a nation. No one can look the danger fairly in the face, and not feel a cold tremor run through the frame.  War! Bloody, relentless, fratricidal war stares us in the face!”

Not so celebratory, and here’s a refresher about why that was.

Kansas Territory voters finally sent a free-state constitution to Congress and the president on October 4, 1859. Kansans had wrangled through three other  proposed constitutions with opposing positions on slavery before settling on the Wyandotte Constitution, which barred slavery. Note that date.

In the spring of 1860, enough U.S. House of Representatives members stamped the legislation OK by them and sent Kansas statehood to the U.S. Senate.  Despite effort from northern senators, the legislation went nowhere. Southern slave states didn’t like slavery-free states and they had the votes to paralyze the legislation. The Kansas question was shoved down to a committee.  Congress adjourned.

Abraham Lincoln, the Republican, was elected president November 6, 1860. Within five days, South Carolina’s two senators dismissed themselves from the U.S. Senate, their state about to secede from the Union.

Mississippi’s two senators, then Alabama’s, then Florida’s all quit the Senate January 21, 1861,  their states having quit the Union.

With the southern senators’ departing footprints fresh on the ground, Kansas backers saw their chance and quickly brought up the Kansas bill, which finally passed the Senate. Having a pack of  “no” votes disappear with secession gave Kansas the passage numbers it needed.

The Kansas legislation make a quick flight back to the House to check a minor amendment, approved Jan. 28, 1861. The next day, the outgoing slavery-supporting president, James Buchanan, signed the bill.

Editor John Wesley Roberts and his associate John W. Day had it right in their Oskaloosa newspaper that day. Happy that Kansas was a state, they saw what the seceding southern states would bring in a Civil War. Still, Kansas had became a free state and that was cause for elation.

“The President has signed the bill, and we are now citizens of the United States,” read The Emporia News on February 2, 1861. “The joyful news was received here on Thursday afternoon, and soon was communicated to all within hearing by the booming of the ‘big gun.’ A national salute of thirty-four guns was fired – one for each State and a ‘tiger’ for Kansas.”

The Kansas National Democrat, the proslavery newspaper based in Kansas Territory’s slavery-backing HQ, Lecompton, agreed to be glad Kansas was a state in its February 7, 1861, edition. “No one can fail to notice that the admission of Kansas as a State is producing much interest among the people of the country. Our brethren of the Republican school – including editors of Kansas journals – are all at the height of glorification.”

And, finally, there was outrage from a Kansas supporter relieved at the new free state’s admission, The Evansville Daily Journal (Indiana) of February 1, 1861: “The states which endeavored to thrust a blighting institution on her, failing in their work, are now madly rushing to destruction on account of the same institution that they tried to force on her.” And, “We confidently believe that the day will come when the whole secession scheme with all of its attendant horrors will be stigmatized as the work of the maniacs of South Carolina.”

 

(Sources for this article include the U.S. Senate’s website at https://www.senate.gov/ and the Kansas State Historical Society’s Kansapedia article, Kansas Constitutions, at https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/kansas-constitutions/16532 )