Constitution Writing: The Zombie Lecompton Constitution; A Young Abolitionist Watches the Proslavers at Work

I’m stepping back from the constitution-writing convention in Wyandotte, Kansas Territory — the one that made Kansas a free state — to take a look at the Lecompton Constitution. That was the one that would have allowed human enslavement in Kansas.

The Lecompton Constitution wore a lot of unflattering tags during its difficult and unnaturally prolonged life: The Lecompton Swindle, the Bogus Baby, the Lecompton Humbug, the Felon Constitution. Begun in early 1857, it was voted up and voted down. It was sustained by conspiracy, micro-targeted voters, procedural twistiness, by extraordinary congressional measures and then crash-carted with a fake incentive for the acceptance of slavery.[1]

Here is what the Lecompton Constitution specified. “The right of property is before and higher than any constitutional sanction, and the right of the owner of a slave to such slave and its increase is the same and as inviolable as the right of the owner of any property whatever.”  That, the key clause of the Lecompton Constitution, ordained that people could own other people and those people’s children, same as they could own a horse or a saddle.

Its year-and-a-half trudge from Kansas Territory to Washington and back to Kansas Territory ended when voters (white males only) finally administered the guillotine to the Lecompton Constitution in August 1858.

One of the voters dispatching the constitution was Thomas Gay, a young Wisconsin slavery opponent who had moved himself down to Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, in 1856 to make Kansas a free state.

Because he has told his story so well, Thomas Gay (1837-1908) will fill you in on the Lecompton Constitution. Gay had an interesting perspective on the slavery constitution because he, a young and idealistic abolitionist, attended a bit of the constitution-writing convention as a guest. Gay was a guest of one of Jefferson County’s three slavery-supporting delegates (William H. Swift) at this convention, the climactic proslavery gala ball to make Kansas a slave state like its neighbor Missouri.

Swift smiled faintly when I told him I should think it would be easy enough for Missourians to make a constitution for Kansas, especially when it was not intended to consult the people of Kansas as to whether they approved it or not. Oh! He said, “What was good enough for Missouri was good enough for Kansas, and the Kansas constitution was to be the Missouri instrument made to fit the more modern idea of how things should be done.” – Thomas Gay

Lecompton Constitutional Convention stories like Thomas Gay’s are rare, as far as I can tell. His is all the more rare because Gay was a Jefferson County narrator, and the county’s recorded territorial narrative is skimpy. Gay wrote a dozen droll articles about his short time in Kansas Territory for the Chariton (Iowa) Herald newspaper in the 1890s.

Gay’s stories, published in the 1890s, don’t appear to have seen a lot of light. They turned up as cut-out newspaper columns from the Chariton Herald pasted onto paper and put in scrapbooks archived at the Kansas State Historical Society and the Lucas County, Iowa, Genealogical Society. About seven years ago I read part of column written by Thomas Gay in an old Jefferson County booklet. Gay offered a fantastically dramatic description of a political speech given at Osawkee from when he lived there, and it looked like he had written about other Kansas Territory experiences.

I set out to find his newspaper articles (Gay’s Iowa hometown was incorrect in the version I read, which slowed me down.) and was rewarded with copies of a dozen of his clipped and pasted Kansas Territory stories, thanks again to archivists in Iowa and Kansas.

A newspaper clip from the “Daily Free Democrat” of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, March 20, 1856, page 2. You may see the clip here. Image from newspapers.com.

The 18-year-old Thomas Gay, who worked for a gunsmith in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, read sensational newspaper accounts about Missouri border ruffian proslavers and their outrages against Kansas freestaters (anti-slavery) in 1856. The newspapers he had access to probably didn’t apply much ink to report any misdeeds committed by freestaters and abolitionists. Free-state partisans held rallies and meetings across the north, often offering aid to those who would settle in Kansas, rich in agricultural – and cheap – land. Gay told his parents he wanted to go.

Gay’s first Kansas article said that he “…burned with a desire to leave my quiet home in Wisconsin and follow Jim Lane in what I believed to be his cyclonic march through the hordes of border-ruffianism.”[2]  Then, he determined, when he was old enough, he would cast a vote for freedom in Kansas.

A newspaper clip from the “Daily Free Democrat” of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, March 20, 1856, page 2. You may see the clip here. Image from newspapers.com.

Nothing was as divisive in Kansas Territory as just about anything related to elections related to making Kansas a slavery or free state. An agitated nation watched this defining crisis for its own future, too. Stories of Bleeding Kansas election strife, civil disobedience and violence headlined in northern and southern newspapers, particularly in 1856.

In May of that year, Gay landed in Kansas Territory armed with a double-barreled rifle he had crafted in Wisconsin. He attached an engraved brass plate to it that read: “Anti-slavery rifle. Always loaded for border ruffians. – T.G.”

Immediately upon Gay’s arrival at Osawkee (renamed Ozawkie), Jefferson County’s county seat and proslavery beehive, his new host spotted the inscription on Gay’s rifle. This man was a New Englander, a family friend with whom Gay would live the new few years. He insisted Gay remove the inflammatory plate from his rifle. The two freestaters needed to keep a low profile at Osawkee.

Gay did survive a scrape or two before freestaters increased their numbers enough in 1857 to begin steering Kansas off of its proslavery course. But somehow, Gay and his family’s New England friend managed to stay friendly with some of the Osawkee proslavery leaders.

One of them, William H. Swift — although he apparently was not actually an Osawkee or Jefferson County resident — was one of three Jefferson County proslavery delegates elected to write the Lecompton Constitution. As Gay tells it, Swift invited him to come along for an educational visit to Constitution Hall in Lecompton[3] to watch the constitution writing.

Gay tells the story in his April 10, 1894, Chariton (Iowa) Herald article, transcribed here. The memoir, Part 11 of his Kansas series, was published nearly 40 years after the convention, a length of time that will furrow historians’ brows. It does give one pause. Gay may have taken some of his material from letters he wrote home while he was in Kansas Territory, or maybe he kept a journal, and he probably consulted the history books for some of the more exacting political details and sequences. I have altered some punctuation and paragraph blocks to make his story easier to read, and have rearranged some of his material. Endnotes and copy in brackets are mine. Thomas Gay’s words are italicized.

Personal Recollections of Life in Territorial Kansas in Border Ruffian Days, By Thomas Gay

Part XI.  March 10, 1857, Robert J. Walker of Mississippi,[4] was appointed governor of Kansas. Before his appointment, which he only accepted at the earnest solicitation of President [James] Buchanan, he stipulated as a condition of his acceptance that the constitution then provided for, and which was passed in the fall of the same year should be submitted to the people for their endorsement or rejection.  President Buchanan is on record as having expressly promised his power for such submission, and with this promise, Walker accepted the undesirable position and arrived in Lecompton May 27, 1857.[5]

Early in 1857 I made the acquaintance of a man by the name of Swift. For some reason quite a strong friendship had grown up between us, although he was Simon pure pro-slavery, and I was equally untainted “visa-versa.”

He was elected one of the delegates from Jefferson County to the Lecompton constitutional convention, notwithstanding he was not a bona fide resident of the territory. The well-known fact that he had his residence in Missouri did not operate as a practical bar to shut him off from assisting to make a constitution for Kansas.

[Jefferson County sent three proslavery delegates to the convention: Alexander Bayne, a 46-year-old Virginian who lived in Jefferson County’s southern border slavery stronghold; Thomas D. Chiles, a  43-year-old Kentuckian living in the north part of the county, a proslavery-leaning district;[6] and William H. Swift, address unknown.[7]]

He was frequently in Osawkee looking after his fences, and as often as he came he would drop in on Abner[8] and I, and we would get an intellectual treat from him.

When his duties commenced at Lecompton, he would generally come up Saturday and stop with us and visit the Dyers[9] till Monday. One Saturday he proposed to me that I go down to Lecompton with him the following Monday and witness the process of constitution-making and study the characters of the builders.

So I went with him, with the understanding that he was to protect me and explain to the solons that I was on a voyage of discovery as to what kind of a document they would be likely to turn out with such a dreadful lot of raw material to build with.

Swift smiled faintly when I told him I should think it would be easy enough for Missourians to make a constitution for Kansas, especially when it was not intended to consult the people of Kansas as to whether they approved it or not. Oh! He said, “What was good enough for Missouri was good enough for Kansas, and the Kansas constitution was to be the Missouri instrument made to fit the more modern idea of how things should be done.”

Swift was honest enough to say to me “that Kansas must be made a slave state, and that the convention received its instructions from Washington as to the best methods of procedure to secure that result.”

The central idea of the delegates from Missouri was that with free Iowa on the north and free Illinois on the east and a free state to the west [Kansas], her peculiar institution would be subject to such adverse influences as to render slave property insecure, and as a consequence materially reduce the value of her slaves.

So this convention, entirely pro-slavery and largely interested in slave property in Missouri, backed up and advised by the pro-slavery administration [President Buchanan and the slavery strong U.S. Senate], built this instrument to perpetuate their financial and political interests.  What a majority of the residents of the territory desired had no influence in this body or in the White House.

[By the time the Lecompton  convention delegates were writing their slavery enabling constitution (Oct. 19 – Nov. 8, 1857), Kansas Territory had had another election for the new territorial legislature (Oct. 5, 1857). This time, freestaters won the majority of seats for the new  legislature and, importantly, showed that Kansas Territory’s majority was free-state and against slavery in Kansas. The Lecompton Constitution was still alive, however, and not ready to die.]

 John Calhoun,[10] afterwards known as “Candle Box John,” presided over their deliberations, and as they were mostly of one mind in regard to the central idea, there was not sufficient antagonism developed among the delegates to spice up the proceedings beyond a kind of monotonous perfunctory state.

Before the call to order, Swift introduced me to Calhoun and others, as a hot-blooded young abolitionist from Wisconsin – a protégé of his – who had come down to study the modus operandi of things in the capital; and he, with mock solemnity, suggested that it would be wise to behave themselves, as I had carried arms successfully at Hickory Point,[11] and also treat me respectfully.

With that, Tom Childs [Chiles], another delegate from our county, reached to his rear and pulled out a flask from his coat tail pocket, and a half dozen others followed suit, till I was in danger of being swamped by the excess of their well-meant hospitality.

Swift then told them that I was studying for the ministry and he had heard it reported that abolition preachers didn’t indulge in anything stronger than aqua pura.

Then Calhoun blurted out, “Bub, take a little for your stomach’s sake anyhow. See what a good round one Sam Kookagee[12] has, and he built it up on old rye and pure bourbon. Come, young man, it will make a bishop of you.

“And say, Swift, get your friend to act as chaplain, for I’m sure there is a lot of these unregenerate that need praying for.”

 So they joked and badgered the innocent boy till the gavel fell, when they went on lazily building, building the famous organic structure on a foundation of sand, destined to soon come tumbling down upon them, burying them fathoms deep in infamy and disgrace.

Let me here, as briefly as is possible for a proper understanding of the objections to the notorious instrument, recite the conditions under which it was formed, and the means used to fasten it on the territory.

  • First. The legislature providing for the convention to formulate the [Lecompton proslavery] constitution was a “bogus legislature,” [unfairly elected, earlier] to which three-fourths of the adult residents gave only a forced allegiance.
  • Second. The census by which the delegates were elected was taken in only fifteen counties. In nineteen counties strongly free state there was no census and could be no vote for delegates.

[Most of the Lecompton Constitution Convention delegates were from southern slave states. Of 59 delegates on the roster in this newspaper clip, 18 had reported coming to Kansas Territory from Missouri. William H. Swift was listed as having come to Kansas Territory from Alabama.]

  • Third. The registry of voters was exclusively in pro slavery hands.
  • Fourth. A constitution was formed exclusively by delegates from a proslavery constituency, the free state party abstaining from voting. [Explained below.]
  • Fifth. The convention only provided its submission in this form: “Constitution with slavery; or, constitution without slavery.”  In either event, slavery already existing, could not be interfered with.

[This was the worst of the Lecompton Constitution’s proslavery handling. Under popular sovereignty, Kansas Territory voters were supposed to vote on a complete constitution setting out not only the question of slavery, but all sorts of ruling principles like who gets to vote, how the militia will work, what kind of banking laws to enact. But instead, the Lecompton slavery leadership dismembered the document and offered a couple of slavery questions to voters. Both choices allowed slavery. There was no option through which voters could reject slavery there was no intact constitution document to vote on.]

What was called an election on these two propositions was held December 21, 1857, and resulted in 6226 votes for constitution with slavery, and 569 votes for constitution without slavery. [“Without slavery” somehow meant enslaved people already in Kansas, and their future children, would remain slaves.]

Of this larger vote, 3000 were rejected as fraudulent.

On the 2nd day of February, 1858, President Buchanan, false to all his solemn pledges to Governor Walker, sent this constitution to the Senate of the United States, with a message asking its acceptance.  He had also previous to this endorsed it in his annual message to Congress.

Stephen A. Douglas took issue with the president, on the ground that a failure to submit the constitution to the people of Kansas was in direct conflict with the doctrine of squatter sovereignty, the leading feature of the Kansas-Nebraska bill.[13]  The ruptures in the democratic party by this action of Douglas was not healed.  The breach constantly widened till a complete separation took place by which, in 1860, two candidates for president, representing the extreme and moderate view, in regard to slavery, went before the country, and by that action, Lincoln was elected to the presidency.

April 30, 1858, the “English compromise bill” was proposed by congress. By this bill the “Lecompton swindle” was sent back to the people for submission, with a promise that if they would accept it the government would be very liberal to them in the way of public lands, etc.[14]

On the 2nd day of August I cast my first vote, and it was one out of 11,300 “nays” recorded against the constitution, while the lonely number of 1,786 said “yea” to the proposition.[15]  That vote settled the slavery question in Kansas, and there was hallelujahs among the “Sunflowers.”

Thomas Gay is voter No. 37 on this poll list from his very first election. The voting was conducted at Judge Joseph L. Speer’s office in Osawkee, Jefferson County, Kansas Territory. Image from the Kansas State Historical Society’s archives, territorial executive records, Topeka. Copy and reuse restrictions apply.

[Reflecting on life’s journeys – from Wisconsin to Osawkee, or from Lecompton to Lincoln – Gay ended his account with this parting thought:]

When the conscience of a people is thoroughly awakened, how easily are the laborious and systematic efforts of villains brought to naught.

[A follow-up post will examine the tangled course of the Lecompton Constitution and the shifting political winds that brought it down.]


[1] I’ve relied heavily on several excellent articles, papers and books for my brief outline of the Lecompton Constitution’s history. I urge you to read some of them. One that summarizes state and national effects of the Lecompton Constitution may be found on Historic Lecompton’s website

An excellent history explaining the Lecompton Constitution’s profound effect on national questions of democracy, politics, constitutional rights and moral issues like slavery. “The Great Principle of Self-Government: Popular Sovereignty and Bleeding Kansas” by Nicole Etcheson. It ran in Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 27 (Spring–Summer 2004): 14–29.

Another is a 1957 article by Robert W. Johannsen, “The Lecompton Constitutional Convention: An Analysis of Its Membership.”  The Kansas Historical Quarterly, Volume XXIII, Autumn 1957, No. 3: 225-243.

The Kansas State Historical Society’s Kansapedia entry on Kansas Constitutions explains fully the four constitutions pitched during Kansas Territory’s struggle to decide the slavery issue. The 1859 Wyandotte Constitution is the one that made Kansas a free state in 1861.

Kenneth M. Stampp, America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink (New York, Oxford University Press, 1990).

[2] Thomas Gay wrote 12 newspaper recollections about his years as a Kansas Territory freestater. They appeared in his hometown newspaper, the Chariton (Iowa) Herald in 1894. This quotation is from his first article, which appeared Feb. 8, 1894. Gay refers to free-state leader James H. Lane, a former U.S. congressman from Indiana and later a Kansas U.S. senator and Civil War general, who had been in northern states rallying and recruiting new free-state partisans for Kansas Territory.

[3] Constitution Hall is a Kansas State Historic Site and is listed as a National Historic Landmark. It is a museum of Kansas history. https://www.kshs.org/p/constitution-hall/19562

[4] Territorial governors were appointed by the president of the United States. Kansas Territory had already gone through three governors appointed by U.S. President Franklin Pierce starting in 1855 and before President James Buchanan appointed Robert J. Walker to the job in March 1857 and he arrived for work May 27, 1857; unpopular with proslavery partisans, Walker resigned Dec. 15, 1857. Walker drew proslavery ire for urging freestaters to participate in elections. Kansas Territory governors had a difficult position, and none of the six total territorial governors kept the job for long. Those six governors don’t include the nearly 20 “acting” territorial gubernatorial  appointments who filled in between other governors who were fired or resigned and fled Kansas Territory.

[5] What’s important about the agreement between Robert J. Walker and President Buchanan was that Kansas Territory voters were to vote on a constitution in a free and fair election and to send that constitution, backed by the vote of the people,  to Washington for approval by Congress and the president.

[6] Thomas D. Chiles came to Kansas Territory in 1856 and lived in Atchison and Leavenworth counties after he left Jefferson County in 1860. The Kansas State Census for 1859 shows one “colored person” living in his household in Jefferson County. A U.S. slave schedule (census) for 1850 for a Thomas D. Chiles in Estill County, Kentucky, lists a 14-year-old enslaved girl. In Kansas, he was a merchant and operated a hotel or boarding house.

[7] I have not found census data indicating William H. Swift lived in Kansas Territory. However, Swift does appear in voter polling lists for the Dec. 21, 1857 and Jan. 4, 1858 elections related to the Lecompton Constitution. Swift also served as an election official for those elections. The New York Tribune article offering details about each Lecompton Constitution delegate (linked in Thomas Gay’s narrative above) says Swift was from Pennsylvania and came to Kansas Territory from Alabama.

[8] Throughout his 12 memoirs, Thomas Gay refers to the man he lived with (the Wisconsin family friend) as “Abner Lowell.” Gay described him as a Massachusetts man connected to the fiercest free-state partisans but who had been injured in an earlier skirmish between the antislavery- and proslavery factions. I believe Gay assigned a pseudonym to this man, as I have been unable so far to find “Abner Lowell” on voter rolls, census rolls, territorial militia listings, other reminiscences or emigrant rosters.

[9] Brothers William and George Dyer ran a store in Osawkee (Ozawkie), were town leaders and were among Jefferson County’s slavery advocates.

[10] John Calhoun, surveyor general for Kansas and Nebraska territories and proslavery leader, was twice accused of tampering with election results. The second time involved the hiding of ballots in a box that had been used to ship candles. The box contained fraudulent voter returns from Johnson County, a long list of fake voter names, hundreds for the proslavery cause. Election officials had submitted the election tally numbers, but hidden the physical ballot returns themselves.

[11] Gay was in the Battle of Hickory Point Sept. 13-14, 1856, in Jefferson County, a skirmish between proslavery partisans and freestaters led by James H. Lane and J.A. Harvey. An abbreviated account of Hickory Point and related events may be found here: https://jeffersonjayhawkers.com/2016/10/10/north-of-the-kansas-river/

[12] Samuel J. Kookagey, a Leavenworth County delegate. Click on the link in the copy above in the sentence containing this endnote reference to find a compelling story of written by Antonio Rafael de la Cova: Samuel J. Kookogey in Bleeding Kansas: A “Fearless vindicator of the rights of the South.” It was published in Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 35 (Autumn 2012): 146–63.

[13] The Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 handed the decision of whether to allow slavery in Kansas Territory (and Nebraska Territory) to voters. The principle was “popular sovereignty,” which was to allow voters to decide their own governance. Before the act, the 1820 Missouri Compromise had determined that new states south of the Mason-Dixon line would be slave states and those north of it free states. Kansas was north of the old dividing point. Stephen A. Douglas is considered the father of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its principle of popular sovereignty.

[14] When territories became states, the federal government provided designated lands to be used for the public benefit, like land for schools or railroads. The English Bill offer made it appear Kansas would get more than the usual amount of free land. But as it turned out, the offer was for only the usual amount of land a state would get.

[15] Kansas State Historical Society information indicates slightly different returns — 11,812 to 1,926 – but still a decisive defeat.

A Free White State

(Please know that this post contains racist and inflammatory language, and unfounded ideas voiced at a point in territorial Kansas history when citizens were preparing to draw up a constitution to bring Kansas into the Union as a new state.  Slavery was the  question for Kansas statehood , but by 1859 it was understood that Kansas would prohibit slavery.  This is the grand act that we remember now:  Kansas damned slavery by stamping it out for Kansas.  But at the same time, stark racial bigotry had attached itself to other potential decrees to be written into the state’s constitution. It was repugnant, and the next few posts in this blog will look back at some of these defining questions.)

Five years after Kansas Territory opened for settlement, slavery opponents had taken the helm for the final advance to Kansas statehood.  The proslavers who had swooped into Kansas Territory with the Kansas-Nebraska Act[i] in 1854 had run into a snag that eventually would keep slavery on the Missouri side of the river and out of Kansas.

Two adversaries  — those who favored  the ownership of humans and those who opposed it — had battled with ballots and firearms and laws. But bit by bit, by 1858, the slavery supporters knew it was over as they watched freestaters expanding their majority for a “no slavery” Kansas.  It had always seemed such a clean question: You were either for or against slavery, right?

Not right. In 1859 there was a third force, probably less ideological and a little less predictable than the other two.  It was, frankly, a bit of an ogre and it had been hanging around biding its time at least since 1855.  Now, this brute  rode along in the important elections leading to the Wyandotte Constitutional  Convention, the meeting  that produced the constitution bringing Kansas to  statehood as a state free of slavery in 1861.

The settlers in this quieter third force wanted Kansas to be a free white state. That meant they aligned with other freestaters and opposed the spread of slavery into Kansas, yes.  But they shoved their beliefs in a different direction and proposed banning not only enslaved people of African descent – slavery —  in Kansas, but also prohibiting  free black people  (including those of mixed black and white ancestry)[ii] from living in Kansas.

Free white state Weekly_Leavenworth_Herald_Fri__Mar_9__1855_
This newspaper clipping shows the 1855 Free White State Party platform as published in The Kansas Weekly Herald, March 9, 1855, in Leavenworth, Kansas Territory. The image above is from newspapers.com at https://www.newspapers.com/clip/29785340/free_white_state_party_platform/

 

In other words, the free white state supporters would prohibit all people of African ancestry from living in Kansas.  Some of these white staters[iii]  put a bitter cherry on top of their soulless scheme for society by suggesting that if they lost their free white state bid, slavery was the only way they could back allowing people of African ancestry in Kansas. There was precedent for this sort of thing, most famously in Oregon.[iv] Arkansas, too, had just decided to banish free black people from the state.

Economic self-interest, not benevolence for people of a different race,  was a prime reason  white-staters  opposed slavery.  They didn’t  want to have to break sod, build fences, businesses  and homes in competition with the slaveholders who could use the labor of enslaved people.  Slavery cheapened the labor of workers, small start-up farmers like those in Kansas Territory and poor whites trying to earn wages or a living from their farms.

Racism was another reason for the white-staters’ desire to keep people of African descent out of Kansas.  These settlers claimed that black people were ignorant and inferior  to whites.

Before we take up the blurred lines of  Kansas Territory political factions and their imprint on the first  Kansas Constitution,  let me explain why I am writing about this  lesser-known other political player in Kansas Territory.

When the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention convened in July 1859, these free white-staters no longer had their own political party, if they’d really ever had one at all.  They still had their “no negroes” agenda , and they had opted to keep house with the Democrats.   And, as predicted, once the convention was under way slavery was barely discussed before its banishment was written into the constitution.

The white-staters (with the proslavery Democrats) spent much more effort at the convention trying to block free black people from living in Kansas.  They snorted and harangued, but were defeated time and again by the Republican majority that controlled the convention.  Still, they refused to give up everything and managed to put their mark on the constitution in other ways that would preserve something of their white supremacist beliefs. (We’ll look at those debates in the next post.)

We Kansas Territory history writers focus a lot on the terrible strife that brought Kansas to statehood in 1861. The glorious prize at the end of that struggle, which had been  watched closely by the entire nation, was another nail in slavery’s coffin and the magnificent free-state status of Kansas.

We imply by omission that when Kansas Territory joined the Union, liberty and maybe even equal rights for all races had won the day.  Kansas would be a progressive state with further rights following soon  for women and people of color. That’s the myth.  But  some of the racist provisions from those 1850s white men stuck around for decades.

JeffCo Democrats Kansas_National_Democrat_Thu__Mar_24__1859_
These two resolutions are from the Jefferson County, Kansas, Democratic party meeting in March of 1859. At the time this appeared in the Kansas National Democrat newspaper in Lecompton, proslavery partisans had been angry about recent Underground Railroad efforts to help enslaved people move through Kansas Territory to freedom in the north.  That could explain the language of the first resolutions. The image is from newspapers.com and may be seen at https://www.newspapers.com/clip/11423032/jefferson_county_democrats_oppose/

The early Free White State Party platform (the  1855 newspaper clip from The Kansas Weekly Herald) stated its official goals point by point. But, as an official political party in Kansas Territory,  the Free White State Party never really took off.  Its racist proposals, however, stayed alive.

The white staters were less visible than the noisy, more extreme members of the proslavery and free-state blocs.  That was particularly so during the Bleeding Kansas years (1856 and into 1857) when the bigger question of slavery drowned out white staters.  Bleeding Kansas was the era when pro- and anti-slavers formed factional militia groups, shot and stole from each other, burned homes and businesses, tore down fences and destroyed crops all along the Missouri-Kansas border.  Voting frauds were so blatant in Kansas Territory that Congress sent a committee to find out what was going on. [v]

Andrew J. Francis, an Ohio man who lived in Jefferson County’s proslavery territorial county seat, Osawkee (now Ozawkie), attended the committee’s proceedings  in 1856. [vi]  At that time, A.J. Francis[vii] was a white stater, and he was asked to talk about the partisan strife he had witnessed, and to enlighten the committee about secret societies, both freestate and proslavery, that were said to be operating in Missouri and Kansas.

Mr. Francis explained to the committee that his political position had evolved in the  months he had lived in the territory.  When he had first arrived in Kansas Territory he was neither a free-state nor proslavery supporter, he said..

But within a few months he found himself helping to organize a free white state political party.

This party would promote the idea of “slavery before free negroes” A.J. Francis said.

“I took the position that slavery was just and legal, but, as a matter of expediency, I would prefer to have Kansas a free State, provided there were no negroes allowed to live in the territory.”

Salmon Brown, son of abolition extremist John Brown, was unhappy about the white staters.[viii]  In a letter to his mother in August 1855,[ix] the young Brown explained that Kansas free-state party was dividing to bad effect. Some were adamantly opposed to slavery, but others, to Salmon Brown’s disgust, wanted Kansas to be a free white state, he wrote from his new home in  Osawatomie, Kansas Territory.  He found that the white staters wanted either a rigid “black law” to keep black people out of Kansas, or, failing that, they would support slavery.

“This is just what the south wants and just what they have been crowding,” Salmon Brown wrote.  “It will answer there [sic] purpose just as well as a slave State.”

Oddly, another man  irked by the  white staters was a proslavery man, Lucien Eastin.  Eastin was editor of The Kansas Weekly Herald in Leavenworth and his newspaper had published the Free White State Party Platform , shown in the newspaper clipping, on March 9, 1855. Eastin accused the party of trying to trap voters’ support by sugar-coating and white washing their principles.

They were uniting with the ultra abolitionists [abolish all slavery, offer rights to black people] on their common desire for a free state, but ignoring their obvious differences about free blacks in Kansas, Eastin wrote

“For disguise it as they may, it is an abolition movement, to secure the cooperation of all who might favor a Free State, under certain circumstances, and with certain restrictions,” Eastin wrote.

“Thus it can be seen the abolitionists at Lawrence, and the Free White State men of Leavenworth, are making a ‘union of effect’ to make Kansas a Free State. “

Eastin chided the white staters for failing to consider where free black people would go, if states like Kansas were to prohibit them.

“Certainly not to the Slave States, for they won’t receive them. But they are for driving them out, regardless of humanity or right, caring not what becomes of them.  A Free State we should suppose is the very place for free n—–s.  And if this is made a free State despite [the free white state platform endorsers], it will be the harbor of free negroes, and runaway slaves,” Eastin wrote.

The white staters hopped between  the Free State political party (because both would prohibit slavery) and Democrats, the dominant proslavery party.  But in 1859, the Free State Party, after some bitter divisions, had become the Republican Party, a more progressive party that tilted toward liberty for all. Understanding the free white staters’ disinterest for  black peoples’ rights, the  Democrats tugged at the white-stater vote as the territory approached its fourth effort at writing a constitution.[x]   And thus, the prejudices of the white staters  accompanied delegates into the town of Wyandotte  for the 1859 constitutional convention, set to begin July 5.[xi]

As the convention neared, the state Democratic Party and county-level Democrat organizations through the territory called for Kansas to be a free white state. And in an almost annoyed tone, the state Democrtic Party released slavery from their Kansas agenda “… and whereas, the Slavery question is practically settled in favor of a Free State beyond the possibility of further controversy…”

The Democrats’ platform, adopted in May 1859, also accused Republicans of backing the impossibly radical idea of “Negro Equality.”  It was an argument they employed during the campaigns to elect constitutional convention delegates [xii] to draw more voters like the white staters to the Democrat side.

But the party’s main point was this:  “Resolved, That we assert the original and essential inferiority of the negro race, and hereby call upon the Constitutional Convention to prohibit negro and mulatto suffrage, and exclude all free negroes from the future state of Kansas,”[xiii] read the state Democratic Party platform.

The Republican state party platform opened by slamming the Democrat administration in Washington and its appointed government overseers in Kansas Territory. Those forces had oppressed freestaters and disregarding rights, allowing violence and fostering corruption. (Click here to see both party platforms.)

The Republicans resolved “…That freedom is national and slavery sectional, and that we are inflexibly opposed to the extension of slavery to soil now free.”

An abolitionist’s fiery condemnation of  white staters came from The Geary City Era in Doniphan County in Kansas Territory’s most northeast corner. His column was reprinted by The Anti-Slavery Bugle in Lisbon, Ohio, (Click here to read the full article) 

“For is it not practically denying the humanity of the Negro, yes, placing him below the level of the brute creation, to forbid him coming within the limits of the new State of Kansas, on which thousands of dollars, and thousands of human lives have been spent and sacrificed for the now empty word Freedom,” wrote the Kansas newspaper’s junior editor, Earl Marble. He continued, decrying the hypocrisy of the white staters.

“Is this Freedom?  If it is, then the world has as yet but seen the sunny side of slavery!  Was it for this that the once glorious Free State party was organized?”

“Yes! All their [white state] efforts have ended in  — Freedom for the white man, but Slavery for him whom nature has seen fit to clothe in darker skin!”

Jefferson County was allowed only one delegate to the upcoming Wyandotte Constitutional Convention and he voted with the white staters every time one of their issues came up. On June 17,1859,  Jefferson County voters  elected the  Independent  Democrat, Clark Beveridge McClellan[xiv]  to represent them at the convention. C.B. McClellan had defeated (on a vote of 278 to 249) Republican Dr. Henry B. Buckmaster.

Another Jefferson County man ably explains the sentiments of white staters. Among Jefferson County’s very earliest settlers was a group of Missourians who set up a hard-working and long-lived farming community in the east central part of the county, Plum Grove.  William John Meredith,[xv] the grandson of one of those 1854 pioneers, wrote a story about the community’s people, crops, marriages and work, including bits about the politics of the day.  Meredith didn’t offer what political party his grandfather and other settlers preferred in 1850s Kansas Territory, but if I had to guess, I would say they supported a free white state.  In painting a picture of those settlers, Mr. Meredith wrote:

“They were Southern folk, small-farmer type, from Virginia, east Tennessee and Kentucky,  who, to escape the ruinous competition of the plantation system, had journeyed by way of the Wabash valley ‘as far west as any man could then get an acre from the public domain.”  They had moved to Clay County, Missouri, in the 1830s and to Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, in 1854.

“No, they didn’t expect any trouble out there with the Emigrant Aid Yankees [for the abolition of slavery] and such. And they didn’t intend to have anything more to do with the blatherskite Proslavery politicians than they’d ever had at home [in Missouri].”

But then came the conflict between the freestaters and the Lecompton gang[xvi] of proslavery politicians, Meredith wrote.   “All around them there was fighting; night raids, personal feuds magnified into ‘border outrages,’ house-burnings, plundering, horse thieving, mobs and lynchings, each side damning the other for aggression and retaliation.”

William John Meredith’s people didn’t care to be involved in the fighting, he wrote.  His estimate was that nine out of every ten newcomers were free labor men, seeking homes.  “Just everyday common folks, easy to get along with if they weren’t stirred up by the good-for-nothing politicians.”

“Anybody with his eyes open could see that next time an election was held there’d be a landslide “that’d bury the `Lecompton gang’ so deep a coal miner couldn’t find’m”-unless the Free Staters kept up their childish policy of ‘opposing and thwarting and fomenting trouble.”

The Merediths and their Kansas Territory neighbors had friends and family back in [proslavery] Missouri.  When the Civil War opened, Meredith wrote, they didn’t join their neighbors who volunteered  to fight for the Union.  Instead they enlisted in the local militias ordered to defend their homes and counties.

“They certainly had no lust for shedding the blood of their confederate kin. But with a clear conscience they could serve the nation and the state in repelling invasion. That naturally wouldn’t be understood by their newcomer neighbors from the states so far North that all Southerners were like foreigners to them.”

(To be continued)

[i] The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed voters in territories to determine whether a state would allow slavery or not.  The act replaced the Missouri Compromise, which had set out that northern states, like Kansas, would not allow slavery and states south could allow slavery. More information is in this Kansas State Historical Society Kansapedia article: https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/kansas-nebraska-act/15159

[ii] “Mulatto” was a race category term, back then, used for people of mixed black and white ancestry. After Kansas became a state, early censuses documented whether people were white, black or mulatto.

[iii] Sometimes the term “free soilers” comes up in Kansas Territory readings. It is possible it meant the same thing as free white staters, but making a distinction between them and freestaters.  Nationally, there were free soilers, as well as Independent Democrats, linked to the same belief.

[iv]  Read about Oregon’s free white statehood here on the Oregon Encyclopedia website.  Arkansas, in 1859, banished free people of African ancestry. See the link the Arkansas Encyclopedia of History and Culture, next. https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/exclusion_laws/#.XIItROhKiUk   http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=4430

[v] Congress sent three members to Kansas to gather facts about voter fraud (large numbers of Missouri non-residents were voting in Kansas elections to swing the vote for slavery) and violence in Kansas.  The congressmen produced a massive report,   Report of the Special Committee Appointed to Investigate the Troubles in Kansas : with the views of the minority of said committee. The report documented, precinct by precinct, numbers of people eligible to vote in several elections and then the resulting numbers of people who voted in the elections, numbers that never failed to disagree.

[vi] Andrew J. Francis’s testimony is contained in U.S. House of Representatives Report of The Special Committee Appointed to Investigate the Troubles in Kansas; with The Views of the Minority of Said Committee, Cornelius Wendell, printer, Washington, 1856, p 910-921.  The report is filled with examples of voting frauds, crime and violence in the proslavery versus free-state struggles.

[vii]  I wasn’t able to find out as much about Andrew J. Francis as I had hoped. Tracking his whereabouts 10 years after he testified proved fruitless.  After his 1856 committee testimony, he showed up in various Kansas Territory newspapers as a Democrat.  In 1861, during the Civil War, a bizarre story about his communicating with a secessionist in Missouri surfaced  in a newspaper. And in 1865 he had announced his candidacy for city attorney in Atchison.

[viii] “White staters” is not a political label I saw anywhere in the newspapers, periodicals, books or election returns I reviewed for this blog post.  I applied the name to distinguish between people who wanted Kansas to prohibit free people of African descent from living in the state, and the Democrats and Republicans.

[ix] The letter is held by the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History. Salmon Brown to his mother, Mary Ann Brown and Family, August 20, 1855; Boyd B. Stutler Collection, Ms78-; His Soul Goes Marching On, the Life and Legacy of John Brown,a West Virginia Archives and History Online Exhibit. You can read the letter here: http://www.wvculture.org/history/jbexhibit/bbsms05-0028.html

[x] Of the three earlier proposed constitutions, the Lecompton Constitution was the most notorious because it would have enshrined slavery in Kansas (until the Civil War and the end of slavery). The first proposed constitution, the Topeka Constitution, would have prohibited slavery but also included the free white state provision of banning free people of African descent.  The Kansas State Historical Society’s Kansapedia details the four constitutions here:   https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/kansas-constitutions/16532

[xi]  Once Kansans voted (again) to create a constitution for the state, delegates were elected by the voters, based upon county populations.  The delegates, presumably, would take their constituents’ desires to the constitutional convention where the document would be written, line by line, with debate over what would be in the document.  The proposed constitution would be submitted to voters again.  If they approved the constitution, it would go to Congress where the U.S. House and U.S. Senate would act on it.  If it emerged, it would go to the president for final approval.

[xii] The June 17, 1859, elections of delegates to the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention was the first time Republicans (a new political party) faced Democrats in Kansas Territory.  The old Free State Party had been broken up and replaced by the Republican Party.

[xiii] Maybe it’s just me, but it seems odd that the party first wants to block people of African descent from voting, and then it wants to bar them from the state.  Did they think the free black people would adopt the early Missouri border ruffian strategy of popping into Kansas to cast a vote and then go back home in some other state?

[xiv] C. B. McClellan, a popular Oskaloosa merchant from Ohio, had moved to Kansas Territory in November 1857. His obituary said McClellan was an “Independent Democrat” who voted with Republicans and was the first freestater elected as county treasurer in Jefferson County. In the next post, this blog will detail C.B. McClellan’s votes and actions at the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention, where he opposed slavery in Kansas but voted with Democrats in favor of a free white state.

[xv] William John Meredith was the grandson of original Plum Grove, Jefferson County, settlers. Before moving to Missouri in the 1830s, the families had hailed from Virginia and Tennesse.  The excerpts of Meredith’s writings came from The Old Plum Grove Colony In Jefferson County, 1854-1855 by William John Meredith, Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, November 1938 (Vol. 7, No. 4), pages 339 to 375. The entire piece is here:

https://www.kshs.org/p/the-old-plum-grove-colony-in-jefferson-county/12769

[xvi] Lecompton was the capital of Kansas Territory.  Its governors were appointed by the administration in Washington, which was proslavery.  The territorial officials carried out the administration’s policies, which were illegal and unjust in the eyes of many abolitionist and freestate settlers, as well as in the eyes of  more non-partisan settlers like Mr. Meredith.

 

 

An Underground Railroad Ambush In Jefferson County, Part VII. A Glorious Return: Supper and Rest with Rev. Josiah B. McAfee

 Our previous post introduced a few Jefferson County settlers, some of whom were ready and willing Underground Railroad volunteers,  who were called upon in July 1859 to help James B. Abbott’s “Immortal Ten” rescuers with the last leg of a deftly performed  rescue.  Abbott and nine Lawrence-area freestaters had just freed Underground Railroad operator John Doy from a St. Joseph, Missouri, jail before he would be shipped off to the state’s penitentiary. Doy had been incarcerated for his part in helping enslaved and free black people make their way to safer states and places. With Doy along, Abbott’s crew worked their way south through Kansas Territory from an area probably in Doniphan County, reaching Jefferson County. You can read the entire account of Abbott’s supremely operated mission here.

“… About ten o’clock that night we found our way to a farm-house situated a little off from the road, near what was then known as Grasshopper Falls, owned and occupied by Rev. J.B. McAfee, now known as Hon. J.B. McAfee, present member of the Legislature from Shawnee county, at which place we were well fed and made very comfortable. Thinking that it was more than likely that the horseman who followed us would endeavor to get reinforced at Lecompton and try to recapture Dr. Doy, …” Abbott wrote for a speech given 30 years later. The group got back on the road and continued toward Lawrence

Guest poster Wendi Bevitt has been researching the minister from Grasshopper Falls. Wendi is a historical and genealogical researcher specializing in Kansas history and she kindly shares a little of her research on Josiah B. McAfee. 

By Wendi Bevitt

Josiah B.  McAfee, born in 1830 in Juniata County, Pennsylvania, came to Kansas Territory in 1855. He and his pregnant wife, Anna, and their toddler, Celeste, traveled by railroad and steamer, finding immediate and constant conflict in the pro-slavery dominated town of Leavenworth.  This did not keep the fiery young pastor from speaking against slavery when provoked, and he often faced threats on his life.

Within a month of his arrival, Josiah McAfee opened a small subscription school called Leavenworth Collegiate Institute. His own schooling included Pennsylvania College at Gettysburg, followed by Lutheran seminary in Maryland. McAfee’s Leavenworth school was the first school in Kansas Territory aside from mission or military schools.

Josiah engaged himself with ensuring Kansas entered  the Union as a free state, and  in 1856 along with other free-state men he traveled east to Ohio to visit Gov. Salmon P. Chase and on to Washington D. C.  to meet President Franklin Pierce and Speaker of the House Nathaniel Banks. He made 27 speeches encouraging the election of the Republican John C. Fremont and William L. Dayton in the fall of 1856[1].  When McAfee returned to Kansas Territory, he found that his home had been taken over, the school closed, his church used as a store, and his fellow preachers chased out of Leavenworth by local proslavery forces who also gave him notice to leave.

Josiah B. McAfee Kansas Memory item 216367
Pictured is Caplain J.B. McAfee, a Pennsylvania-born early Kansas settler. The image is from the Kansas State Historical Society’s Kansas Memory website, Item 216367 and may be seen here.

His family found refuge nearby in Jefferson County at the free-state community of Grasshopper Falls. There he was welcomed by Lorenzo Northrup, who gave him land and invited him to start a school and to preach.  He built the first Lutheran church west of the Missouri, primarily by himself, and started classes immediately, lodging the teacher in his house. He preached every other week  at Grasshopper Falls and at three other area churches on the off Sunday. He refused payment for his ministry, which placed him in financial straits because of earlier losses caused by the border ruffians.

In the Civil War, McAfee served in and recruited for the 11th Regiment of the Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, Company I, which included soldiers from Burlingame and Grasshopper Falls.  Like many from Co. I, he transferred out of that company to serve in a U.S. Colored troops regiment.  As chaplain of 2nd Kansas Colored (which eventually became the 83rd US Colored Troops), when his unit was stationed at Fort Smith, Arkansas he was assigned the  care of the more than 4,000 refugees in the area.  He personally accompanied some of the 2,600 refugees who came to Kansas[2].

Prior to the end of the war, he followed his former commander and soon to be Kansas governor, Samuel J. Crawford to Topeka to serve as Crawford’s personal secretary.  Still retaining some ties to Grasshopper Falls, he for a time owned a newspaper named The Jeffersonian along with George T. Isbell from 1865-66[3], which served as a voice for Gov. Crawford’s politics.  Josiah then put down deeper roots in Topeka by establishing a Lutheran church there and becoming adjutant general for the state of Kansas.

His Topeka home consisted of a sizable stock farm north of present day Gage Park. On his farm he employed former U.S. Colored Troops soldiers.

From 1870-1871 Josiah served as mayor of Topeka.  He would give half of his salary to the police force, encouraging them to enforce the laws, and the other half to the temperance cause and charity.  During McAfee’s tenure as mayor no liquor licenses were issued and gambling paraphernalia was publicly burned. His actions resulted in his being “unmercifully reversed” in the next election.

 

He was a three-time member of the Kansas House of Representatives starting in 1883.  He maintained a staunch opposition to liquor and promoted fierce prohibition laws, conceding to less stringent ones only to allow for their passage.  His leadership within the prohibition movement prompted him to be among the individuals to post bail for Carry A. Nation when she was arrested for smashing a liquor establishment with some of her followers[4].

Josiah died in Topeka in 1908 at the age of 77.

 

*Most of the general history obout McAfee was taken from  A History of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Kansas by Rev. H. A. Ott, D.D. F. M. Steves & Sons, Topeka, KS , 1907.

[1] The Weekly Commonwealth (newspaper) “Kansas Legislature: Brief Sketches of the Representatives”, December 16, 1886.

[2] Vicki Betts. Fort Smith New Era, October 1863-December 1864.  University of Texas at Tyler, 2016.

[3] Valley Falls New Era July 1, 1876.

[4] Marshall County News (newspaper), “Mrs. Nation is out on Bond”, March 1, 1901.

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 )

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.