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