A First: Women Govern Oskaloosa, Kansas, 1888-89

“Some sour fellows are ridiculing the Oskaloosa city government. It makes them mad to see a woman do anything but fry beefsteak.” The Topeka Journal

By Jane Hoskinson*

In 1887, Kansas women gained the right to vote in municipal elections. On April 4, the first city election that year, Susanna Madora Kinsey Salter[1] was elected mayor of Argonia, Kansas, in a failed attempt to defeat Prohibition Party candidates.  Also on April 4, Syracuse, Kansas, elected five women to its city council, to serve with a male mayor.

Drawing of Mayor Mary D. Lowman from the Chicago Tribune, March 25, 1889. Image from newspapers.com. See image here.

One year later, on April 2, 1888, Oskaloosa, Kansas, elected Mary D. McGaughey Lowman mayor, with city council members Hanna Pym King Morse, Sarah E. “Sadie” Bonifield Balsley, Nancy “Emma” Kirkpatrick Hamilton, Carrie Lura “Caddie” Critchfield Johnson, and Mittie Josephine Ervul Golden.

A headline’s play on “Oskaloosa”

The first all-woman municipal government, a female mayor and city council, vaulted Oskaloosa – soon to be nicknamed “Oskalucy” – into the nation’s consciousness.

Many newspapers treated the small-town election as a joke, the writers amusing themselves with suggestions that the women governors would spend their time in office perfecting jelly recipes, mandating control of men’s leisure activities and passing ordinances to discern the best sewing methods.

But the women’s Oskaloosa accomplishments were pure gold for any town: they made significant sidewalk and street improvements, added lights on the courthouse square, spiffed up the place. They also sanitized some aspects of the town of about 800 people for the sake of its youth. The women’s performance was good enough to get them elected to a second term in office, with a small change of personnel.

How it Began

Drawing of Councilwoman Sadie E. Balsley from the Chicago Tribune, March 25, 1889. Image from newspapers.com. See image here.

Party politics were secondary to local concerns in choosing Oskaloosa’s women’s ticket. Many of the town’s businessmen felt that the incumbent (male) council had failed to carry out civic improvements and campaign promises. Oskaloosa was the county seat of Jefferson County and drew visitors and business.

Dr. John Balsley (husband of Sadie Balsley) proposed an all-female city government and, after some joking, received support for the idea from the townsmen. The list of candidates was finalized only a day before the election. One of the original nominees declined to run and was replaced on the ballot on election morning.

From the Oskaloosa Independent, Mar. 31, 1888

Drawing of Councilwoman Mittie Golden from the Chicago Tribune, March 25, 1889. Image from newspapers.com

“There is considerable talk of electing a city ticket composed mostly of ladies, and a selection has been made of ladies who are entirely competent, we think, to manage our municipal affairs. We believe if the ladies had control, a better system of sidewalk and street improvement would be inaugurated at once. The present walks are a disgrace to the town.”

Many citizens considered the women’s ticket something of a joke. On election day, a few young men proposed an alternative slate of candidates with the slogan, “YOUNG WOMEN FOR OFFICE; New ideas, new issues and new notions.” They got as far as presenting their candidates to the printer, but the women, all single, and their families objected

The women’s ticket swept the polls.[2]

The Election and Media Frenzy: From the Oskaloosa Independent, Apr. 7, 1888

“OUR NEW DEPARTURE: Oskaloosa to be Governed by Women Officials.

“As is well known by the world at large now, Oskaloosa elected Mary D. Lowman mayor, and Mrs. Morse, Mrs. Balsley, Mrs. Hamilton, Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Golden, members of the council, at the election last Monday. The action was taken in good faith, in the belief that needed public improvements would be pushed through better by the ladies.—Notoriety was not sought or expected, and a very brief associated press dispatch announced the result.—Then, suddenly, our lady officials found themselves famous, and the name of our little city is on everybody’s lips. The like had never before been done in the wide world, and telegrams, letters and special reporters have deluged us, while interviews and photographs are in great demand.

(Pictured above are drawings of Councilwomen Hanna Morse, Nancy “Emma” Hamilton and Carrie Critchfield Johnson from the Chicago Tribune, March 25, 1889. Image from newspapers.com. See the article here. )

“Our good-looking and intelligent but retiring and modest city officials have been sorely amazed and perplexed at the turn of affairs, but finally concluded to good-naturedly bear the honors thrust upon them and make the best of the novel situation. Accordingly, they took the oath of office yesterday, and will bravely assume the responsibilities made doubly great by the fact that the eyes of the whole country are upon them.

“The ladies have no light task before them, and they should have the utmost encouragement and assistance from all good citizens. We believe that they will demonstrate that they can wisely govern the city, and that we will have something to show for their work at the end of the year.”

Newspapers from all over the country printed their reactions to the results. The extent of interest in the “new departure” became apparent as the month went on and journalists poured into town from as far away as Chicago. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, a national literary and news magazine published in New York, ran portraits of the mayor and council, along with a panoramic sketch of 1888 Oskaloosa.

An Avalanche of Bad Jokes:

The jokes began immediately. Wilson & Conant’s Drug and Bookstore in Oskaloosa ran an advertisement in the form of a mock council ordinance requiring women to shop in their establishment. Wits predicted that the council’s husbands would have to stay home to mind the children, that women would arrest men for drunkenness, and that the council would discuss recipes for angel food cake in preference to civic affairs.

A fictional gentleman proposed to release live mice at council meetings. A newspaper suggested the “petticoatocracy” was quarreling over whether the city flag should be shirred, cut bias or trimmed with lace. Another said the women would curtail the number of clubs and lodges men could join as well as how many meetings they could attend.

The Topeka Journal retaliated: “Some sour fellows are ridiculing the Oskaloosa city government. It makes them mad to see a woman do anything but fry beefsteak.”

By April 21, the nationwide reaction had reached such a pitch that the Independent devoted its front page to other newspapers’ coverage of the “petticoat government.”

The reporters and correspondents considered it pertinent to mention that the women were not noted for suffragist opinions, that they were not, in the words of the Wyandotte Gazette, “the ‘short-haired,’ speech-making, office-seeking sort, but good wives and mothers, who will bring to bear in their new responsibilities the same good sense used in keeping their houses and homes.” (Despite this attitude, Kansas, eight years ahead of the nation, in 1912 gave women the right to vote in national elections.)

The town band came out in support of the winning candidates and paraded through the city serenading the mayor and council-elect.

The Right Stuff:

Mary Abarr reported for the Topeka Capital in April 1888:

“The ladies now have an ample field. The city needs a system of street lighting, new walks, better street grades and macadamizing, especially around the court-house, and a system of waterworks would not be amiss. The taxes have been very light in the past and doubtless there will be some growling if an improvement tax is levied. The city is hoping for an appropriation from the county for the purpose of beautifying the court house park by way of ornamental and drinking fountains.

“Truly are the mayor and members of Oskaloosa council representative women. They are bright, cheery, intelligent, womanly women with a large share of common sense. They are representative mothers and housekeepers too, for, although the house cleaning season is on and some were washing, all busy with or directing their house work, not one was found untidy, not one whose hair was not neatly done, not one but whose house was in perfect order.

“If they can direct their individual households so well can they not direct and guide the municipal affairs of their city?

“They have every appearance in their favor. They may differ politically, but they are all staunch prohibitionists. They are for principle more than party. Long may the ‘city mothers’ of Oskaloosa rule.”

In a traditionally Republican town, it was a surprise, especially to many of the men, to learn that the new council was composed of four Democrats and two Republicans.

The tally of religious affiliations was of equal interest: four Methodist, one Episcopal, one Presbyterian. It became immediately apparent that the women were all independent thinkers, not to be unduly influenced by their families.

By Mr. Ellis, special reporter for the Kansas City Times:

“It was not known until a couple of days after that the council had a democratic majority, for Oskaloosa is strongly republican. Among those who were surprised, none were more so than Dr. Balsley who prepared the ticket. He is a staunch republican, but found after the election that Mrs. Balsley had placed herself on the democratic side. . . . Mrs. Balsley said that she couldn’t go back on the democratic party just because her husband was a republican.

“Since coming into official positions the opinions of these ladies on certain political matters have been plainly expressed.  Some of these expressions go to show that the women of Oskaloosa intend to think differently from their husbands just as much as they please, and hold up their end of the family opinion in the council just as well. . . . All of the ladies are decidedly in favor of prohibition and, strangely enough, . . . only one pronounces herself a thorough woman’s suffragist.”

A Granddaughter and GOP Politico Tells the Story:

More than 100 years later, in an address to the Jefferson County Historical Society, Ailee Decker Henry, granddaughter of Mayor Mary Lowman, outlined the accomplishments of the mayor and council.

“Many obstacles confronted this new council. The town was in debt and had only 85 cents in the treasury when they came into office. The City Marshal would not enforce the ordinances so Mayor Lowman promptly removed him and appointed a man upon whom she could rely. Then began a crusade as never before had been known.

“For years the town had been annoyed with bad boys or the young toughs of the place loafing around the streets at night, molesting and moving signs and belongings of others. The Mayor and Council issued a proclamation commanding all boys under 18 years of age to be off the streets at eight o’clock in the evening under penalty of arrest.

“The ladies were concerned about the subject of tobacco-chewing and looked carefully through the statutes for an ordinance that could be used to stop men from squirting tobacco juice on the sidewalks. There was none so they made a personal request asking every tobacco-chewer in town not to expectorate on the sidewalks. This had just as much effect as an ordinance, for the men were so respectful of the wishes of female guardians that they unhesitatingly complied with the request and now a lady may fearlessly sweep her skirts over the side walks without danger of getting them all stained up with nicotine.

“All seemed to be going along very well with the ladies until they passed an ordinance prohibiting stallions from being kept within the city limits. On one corner of the public square there was a big, red barn owned by the proprietor of the Jefferson Hotel. He owned the finest breeding stallion in the county and kept him at this barn on the public square. It was on the way to and from school for a lot of children, and young boys had a tendency to loiter around the place. This situation had worried many parents and citizens, and it took a women’s council to do something about it.

‘The ordinance was passed, and the owner was in a rage. He procured an attorney and filed a bill for an injunction and at the same time presented a petition signed by many of the businessmen to rescind their action.

“The night the petition was brought in, the Council Chamber was filled to overflowing and Mr. [A.J.] Buck’s attorney made an oral argument against the enforcement of the ordinance. Mrs. Hamilton and Mrs. Balsley answered him, and the logical and determined manner in which they overwhelmed every point of the lawyer’s argument won for them a wide degree of admiration. Finding the women obdurate, the lawyer went before the District Court and was again defeated, the judge deciding the case in favor of the women.

“The ladies also met with poor cooperation on the matter of making necessary sidewalk improvements, but they went to work with a will and in the course of their administration there is scarcely a bad walk in town. They had trouble with the richest man in town, who owned an entire block in the heart of town and refused the request of the council that he put a sidewalk in front of it. The plucky women warned him that they would have the walk constructed and compel him to pay for it.

“The women were not stubborn but they would not be daunted. The walk was laid in spite of its causing them another law suit. In contrast to this we find the women taking up a subscription to pay for the part of the sidewalk in front of a poor widow’s property so that she would not be taxed for it. This sidewalk was necessary as it led to the school house. It had been ten years since anything had been done about sidewalks, and there was none to the school. This the women also accomplished.

A Second Term:

“At the end of their first year, this first ‘Petticoat Government’ had made enemies as well as friends, but there was yet work to be done. They were asked to run again, and all but Mrs. Hamilton, who for domestic reasons could not, and Mrs. Johnson, who had never been active through this first year and was not interested, said they would serve again if elected.”

The “domestic” reasons influencing Emma Hamilton’s decision not to run for the city council again may have been connected to the birth of her sixth child, Albert Wallace, in September 1889. Carrie Johnson also had personal reasons to retire from the council. In September 1888, her son Terry was born; he died just a month later, according to the Independent. Her daughter and only surviving child, Roxlena, was born in October 1890.

Clipping from The Oskaloosa Independent, Jan. 19, 1889, page 3. Image from newspapers.com

As the 1889 election neared, opposition to and support for the council grew. The McLouth Times wrote, “The ‘woman’s government’ took hold of Oskaloosa with a depleted treasury and lots of poor streets and dilapidated sidewalks, but during the year they have made many needed improvements and have over $100 in the treasury. It would only be justice to give them another term at the helm.”

The Oskaloosa Independent reported on the election and its results, April 5, 1889:

“The city election last Monday was the most hotly contested one in our history. The opposition to the woman’s government developed surprising strength and left no stone unturned to gain their point. At a caucus on Saturday night, T.H. Noble was selected for mayor; Deibert, Geo. Wise, Hofmann, Lohman and Monroe for council, and V.M. Stevens for police judge. The ladies’ ticket was the same as last year excepting that Mrs. W.H. Huddleston and Mrs. D.H. Kline were put in place of Mrs. Hamilton and Mrs. Johnson.

“All day long hacks and carriages were run, and many were those who obtained the unwonted luxury of a ride in state. We were glad to see some of our democratic friends made converts, not only to negro suffrage but to woman suffrage, also. We congratulate them on their progression.—The result was the election of the entire woman’s ticket, Mayor Lowman receiving 68 majority, Mrs. Morse 33, Mrs. Balsley 36, Mrs. Golden 47, Mrs. Kline 41, Mrs. Huddleston 36 and Police Judge Hamilton 72.”

Three other Kansas towns, Baldwin City, Rossville and Cottonwood Falls, elected women as city officials in 1889. In Valley Falls a woman’s ticket was nominated but defeated by an average margin of 45 votes. Perry reported that only two women voted in its city election.

The new Oskaloosa council members, Maria Snyder Emert Huddleston and Irena D. Cole Kline, received much less attention from the press than the original six women. They took their duties just as seriously, however, serving on committees for claims, streets and alleys, and ordinances.

Ailee Decker Henry – a former Kansas Republican Party vice chairman and a Kansas delegate to the 1960 Republican National Convention —  continued her account of the women’s work:

“To further the improvement of their streets they deemed it wise to purchase a road grader. To make it more economical they suggested they buy it in conjunction with the township for road maintenance. That idea was rejected by the township officials and so the women ordered the purchase of a road grader independently. They then constructed a shed to shelter the grader and other tools. This allowed the streets to be much improved, widened, straightened and made more uniform. Several new streets and alleys were opened up.

“New improved street lamps were installed. They were gasoline instead of coal oil and so constructed that they were supposed to burn out about midnight. [The lamps, installed on a trial basis, were eventually rejected as “no good.”]

“It seems the city had been careless with the fire department equipment. City Marshal Golden was instructed to gather together the ladders and buckets, hooks and chains in various places and new ladders were also made.

“A city pound was established in which to keep stray livestock that wandered the streets. Citizens were urged to keep their cows, pigs and chickens shut up.

“The railroads that furnished transportation in and out of Oskaloosa, especially the Leavenworth, Topeka and Southwestern, were a source of concern to the Mayor and Council and they repeatedly appealed to the Railroad Commission for better service and better schedules.

“Their second term in office drew to a close and a job well done. They had executed the work equally as well and somewhat better perhaps than any group before them. It is interesting to note, there was still a difference because of their womanly instincts. There were a number of bills allowed for meals for tramps. The local paper made mention of the fact that tramps were more numerous of late and suspicioned that they knew about our women Mayor and Council and no doubt expected aid and comfort from that source. This small benevolence was not missed—there was still a balance in the treasury of $165 and better than that, a lot of public spirit and good will in the community in which they served. But they did not choose to run again.”

An Initial Introduction: Hair Styles, Home-keeping and Political Parties:

Mary Abarr described each woman in detail for the Topeka Capital in April 1888:

“It is with extreme pleasure the worthy ladies of this wonderful council is introduced to the readers of the Capital this morning. Call on them separately and without warning and you will see six earnest mothers engaged in home duties, but still broad enough to be deeply interested in their sons, daughters and husbands even beyond the threshold of home, out in the busy field of life.

“The mayor, Mrs. Mary D. Lowman, you will see in the office of register of deeds, where she has been for nearly five years, under the different administrators. She is 49 years of age and has led a busy life. When not at present employed she taught school. She looks at you out of pleasant eyes and gives you the impression of exactness, firmness, kindness and a woman of great force of character. Her dark brown hair streaked here and there with a silvery thread is becomingly done in a French twist. She is attired in a suit of brown and receives her guests cordially. She is a native of Pennsylvania and has lived in Kansas twenty years, eighteen of which have been spent in Oskaloosa. She is the mother of two children, a son and a daughter, both grown. Mrs. Lowman is republican in politics and a Presbyterian in religious faith. That she will fill the mayor’s chair acceptably is universally conceded. She is fitted for it in every way, in business training and executive ability. Her husband was for some years the register of deeds of Jefferson county.

Mrs. Hanna P. Morse you will find in her cozy home on the hilltop, gay with the songs of her feathered pets, a canary and a mockingbird. She is of medium height with plump, round form, very dark brown hair and eyes, hair worn in a coil at her neck, with a cluster of ringlets in each temple. She is neatly attired and meets you with a smile of welcome. Mrs. Morse is 45 years old and was born in England. She has lived twenty-two years in Oskaloosa. She is the mother of one child. Her political faith is democratic and her religious belief Methodist. Her husband is a genial, jolly attorney who by his good grace always wins his cases.

Mrs. Emma Kirkpatrick Hamilton, a near neighbor of Mrs. Morse, is 39 years of age and is a native of Indiana. She has lived in Oskaloosa for fifteen years. Mrs. Hamilton was educated in Oxford, O., and received her musical education in Findley of the same state. She is the mother of three children, and though one of the chief officers of the city, neglects none of her household duties, but is a patient, faithful mother, whose influence will be felt for good in the council chamber. She is a staunch republican and is also a member of the Methodist church. In appearance Mrs. Hamilton is a little above the medium height with dark blue eyes and dark hair that persists in assuming pretty wavy lines over her head. Her husband is a member of the real estate firm of Insley & Hamilton.

Mrs. Sadie Balsley was born in Ohio 35 years ago. The past fifteen years she has lived in Oskaloosa. Mrs. Balsley is politically a democrat, religiously a Methodist. She kindly came in to receive her callers in a cozy sitting room flooded with sunshine, fragrant with flowers and cheery with the song of birds. Her height is slightly above the medium, with dark hair and eyes and rosy cheeks. Her wavy hair was coiled neatly on her crown. Her appearance is such that you would be willing to trust to her judgment even in weightier matters than helping to rule a city. She is the better half of Dr. Balsley, a skilled physician whose healing powers are phenomenal.

Mrs. Mittie Josephine Golden spent twenty-two years of her life in Topeka and the past eight in Oskaloosa. She was born 31 years ago at Independence, Mo. Politically she is a democrat, religiously a Methodist. She has a slender, girlish figure of medium height. Her eyes are of the deepest blue, hair light and was prettily coiled high. Notwithstanding, she was initiating a new laundry woman and caring for a sick child, she was neatly attired and her cozy home was in perfect order. She is the fond mother of two little girls. Her husband is a mechanic of great skill.

“The youngest member of the council-elect is Mrs. Carrie Johnson. She is only 23 years old and was born and brought up in Oskaloosa. She is the eldest daughter of Terry Critchfield. She was for a time a student at Bethany college, Topeka. Her political views are democratic, religious Episcopal.—The reporter was shown into a pleasant parlor, fragrant with the scent of roses and bright with pretty things wrought with her own dainty hands. There were books and magazines in profusion and music too. The hostess received her guest in a pretty “at home” of some dark surah. Her blue eyes were shaded by fluffy blonde hair which was loosely coiled. Her husband is the cashier in the Oskaloosa bank.”


The new council members elected for 1889-90, Maria Snyder Emert Huddleston and Irena D. Cole Kline, were not interviewed or sketched by the press.

Maria Huddleston was 59 years old, a native of Illinois and the mother of three from her previous marriage. Her daughter, Brittie Emert, was one of the “young women” proposed to run for the council in 1888.

Irena Kline was 52 years old and a native of Ohio. She came to Kansas in 1867, where her family farmed northwest of Oskaloosa for 14 years before she and her husband retired and moved to town. She had four grown children when she was elected to the council.

Mary Lowman died June 2, 1912, as a result of a kitchen fire. Her clothing caught fire while she was reviving the coal embers in the cook stove. She ran to her porch, where a passerby heard her cries and put out the flames with his coat. She died several hours later. According to F.H. Roberts, editor of the Oskaloosa Independent, Lowman “was above reproach. . . . Her portrait and life sketch are found in a book published by Frances Willard and Mary Livermore, entitled, ‘A Woman of the Century.’ She became famous unexpectedly when she was elected mayor of Oskaloosa in the spring of 1888, and received letters from all parts of this country and many foreign parts.” Her husband, George W. Lowman, died in 1930. Her children were Dr. Richard C. Lowman (1867-1954) and Monica S. “Montie” Lowman Decker (1870-1968). The New York Times carried Mary Lowman’s obituary, saying that her administrations “were marked as much for efficiency as honesty.”

From the Oskaloosa Independent, June 7, 1912: “Mrs. Lowman and her women friends on the council modestly deprecated all this notoriety but went on with their duties courageously and well, Mrs. Lowman’s self-poise and fine temper greatly assisting in keeping things harmonious and free from bickering or criticism.”


Rest in Peace:

Hanna Morse died May 2, 1911, in Oskaloosa. Her husband, Dennis H. Morse, died in 1913. Her son was William Justin Morse (1864-1938).

Sadie Balsley died Feb. 20, 1907, in Lawrence, Kan. Her husband, Dr. John W. Balsley, died in 1895. Her adopted daughter was Helen Claire “Nell” Needham Balsley (1881-1971).

Emma Hamilton died Feb. 18, 1913, in Oskaloosa. Her husband, William A. Hamilton, died in 1912. Her children were Leila Hamilton Buck (1875-1935), Sada Hamilton (1879-1886), Johnnie Hamilton (1883-1886), Mary Emma “Mayme” Hamilton (1884-1969), Margaret Hamilton Perry (1887-1957), and Albert Wallace Hamilton (1889-1952).

Carrie Johnson died Oct. 5, 1929, in Chicago, Ill. Her husband, Charles F. Johnson, died in 1914. Her children were Myrna Johnson (1885-1886), Terry Johnson (Sept. 1888-Oct. 1888), and Roxlena Johnson Hargreaves (1890- ? after 1930).

Mittie Golden died Jan. 7, 1934, in Oskaloosa, the last survivor of the women’s council. Her husband, Charles E. Golden, died in 1945. Her children were Nellie Gertrude Golden Hosford (1878-1941) and May B. Golden Snellgrove (1881-1955).

Maria Huddleston died May 26, 1894, in Oskaloosa. Her husband, William H. Huddleston, died in 1910. Her children were Samuel Emert (1861-1942), Estelle Emert Gillham (1865-1909), and Brittie Emert Huddleston (1867-1928). She is buried with her first husband, William Emert, in Illinois.

Irena Kline died Nov. 1, 1907, in Oskaloosa. Her husband, David H. Kline, died in 1902. Her daughter Amanda died in infancy. Her surviving children were William Henry Kline (1859-1946), Robert Lincoln Kline (1861-1936), John G. Kline (1864-1917), and Clara Elizabeth Kline Davison (1866-1958).

All the council members except Maria Huddleston are buried in Pleasant View Cemetery, Oskaloosa, Kansas.

* Written and researched by Jane Hoskinson, editor of the Jefferson County Genealogical  and Historical society publication, Yesteryears. Jane was an editor for University Relations at the University of Kansas for 35 years but got her start in journalism at age 11 working for her father, John P. Hoskinson, at the Oskaloosa Independent. Jane has written for this blog before, a well-researched piece about slavery in Jefferson County, Kansas.


[1] Susanna Madora “Dora” Salter is profiled (and Oskaloosa is mentioned) in an episode of KMBC Chronicle: Pioneers. Patriots. Trailblazers: https://www.kmbc.com/article/chronicle-pioneers-patriots-trailblazers/33579212 . See also the Kansas Historical Quarterly, Autumn 1954: https://www.kshs.org/p/kansas-historical-quarterly-susanna-madora-salter/13106.  Mrs. Salter became, in 1887, the first woman mayor elected in the United States.  See the National Park Service article about Kansas and women’s suffrage: https://www.nps.gov/articles/kansas-and-the-19th-amendment.htm#:~:text=In%201912%2C%20eight%20years%20before,Amendment%20on%20June%2016%2C%201919.


[2] On April 7, the Oskaloosa Independent, a weekly paper, listed election returns: “Following is the vote cast at the city election for the respective candidates: Mayor, Mrs. Lowman 110, J.M. Dick 44. Council, Mrs. Morse 110, Mrs. Hamilton 112, Mrs. Johnson 108, Mrs. Balsley 114, Mrs. Golden 111. Mr. Huddleston 46, Macomber 42, Williamson 42, Wilson 41, Patterson 41. Police judge, W.A. Hamilton 111, J.F. Bliss 42.”


Jesse Newell’s Rifle Company Roster: Bob Newell, Died in Battle

Russell Robert shell The_Oskaloosa_Independent_Sat__Aug_31__1861_
Excerpt from Captain Avra P. Russell’s letter about the death of his third lieutenant, Bob Newell. Oskaloosa Independent, Aug. 31, 1861. Image from newspapers.com; article viewable here.

(Bob Newell was a free-state rifleman who rode escort for “The Immortal Ten,” the Kansans whose covert rescue mission freed Underground Railroad conductor John Doy from a Missouri jail in 1859. [See story here. ] Bob, just 21, was among about 20 Jefferson County, Kansas, men summoned to help The Immortal Ten on the last 20 miles of their dangerous rescue. This post introduces the young Robert Newell, killed two years later in the Civil War Battle of Wilson’s Creek in Missouri. Captain Avra P. Russell wrote to Jesse Newell about his son’s battlefield death. (Captain Russell’s letter is transcribed here.)

Captain Russell’s letter glistens as a death notification that could only have been written early in a war. It is mournful, respectful, laudatory, personal. And it was early: early in Kansas statehood, early in the Civil War, early in Robert Newell’s life.

Carefully composed but written with an unbearable purpose, the captain’s letter told Jesse Newell that his son Robert had died in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in southwest Missouri, August 10, 1861.

“The terrible battle at Springfield, fought on the 10th … deprived you of a very promising son, and me of a brave Lieutenant and highly cherished friend,” the August 18 letter told Jesse and Rosannah Newell, Oskaloosa, Kansas.

Bob Newell, as he was known, died at 23 years of age. He and his younger brother, Abram, had rushed into Union army service alongside many other young Kansans when the new state raised its first two regiments. He mustered in to Company G, Second Regiment Kansas Volunteer Infantry. Bob was elected third lieutenant of Company G, serving under Captain Avra P. Russell.Robert Newell from muster roll ks memory

robert newell muster roll ks memo 2
These images are from the Kansas State Historical Society’s “Civil War soldiers name index, Kansas volunteer regiments, 1861-1865” on Kansasmemory.org. Bob Newell’s regiment’s page is here. The partial images show Newell’s age, rank, date of enlistment and mustering in and his death.

The young Newell’s brief life as a soldier began around June 20, barely two months after the Civil War began. And it was just the fifth month Kansas had existed as a state, a free state that forbade slavery.

Newell “…had taken a very active and efficient part through the day, manifesting a coolness and perfect self control almost unexampled in one so young and inexperienced on the field,” Captain Russell wrote of the battle and Bob’s part in it.

The Battle of Wilson’s Creek, a Union loss, was significant as the first major Civil War battle fought west of the Mississippi River. It gave the Confederates control in southwest Missouri.[i] Union forces were about 5,400 men; the Confederate and Missouri secessionist troops about 11,000. Losses were heavy for both sides: The Union lost about 1,235 men killed, wounded or missing and the Confederates and Missouri secessionist troops about 1,100.[ii] To understand the battle conditions Bob and his comrades fought in, told from a young Iowa soldier’s view, read this Emerging Civil War blog post here.

LoC Battle of Wilson's Creek, near Springfield, Missouri
This image, “Battle of Wilson’s Creek, near Springfield, Missouri” shows the battlefield death of Union Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon and was published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on Aug. 24, 1861. It is held by the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/2002736810/

Bob Newell’s death came shortly after Union Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon was killed on the Wilson’s Creek battlefield.[iii] Lyon’s death was the first of a Union general in the Civil War.

Jesse Newell passed Captain Russell’s condolence letter on to The Oskaloosa Independent, which published it Aug. 31, 1861. See the transcript here. It ran with a letter written home by another of Jesse Newell’s sons, Abram, a 21-year-old private in Bob’s unit. Abram was shot in the hand in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek and remained with the 2nd Kansas until October 31st when the regiment finished its service.[iv] Abram’s “Dear Parents” letter may be seen here.


Boots on the ground experience in the Kansas-Missouri border war over slavery had already initiated Bob Newell and a good many other Kansas soldiers to Kansas-Missouri violence. Bob had emigrated to Kansas Territory at 18 years old in 1856. He grew to adulthood in the Bleeding Kansas years when Missourians and partisans from southern states fought to make Kansas a slave state and freestaters fought to keep it free of slavery.[v]

Skirmishes popped up between Missouri and southern proslavers trying to drive freestaters out of Jefferson County and freestaters trying to rid their county of the marauders.[vi] After the peak of Jefferson County strife in September 1856, Jesse Newell was slapped with an arrest warrant that charged him with fighting against the proslavers.[vii]  He provided his own complaint back to the territorial governor, describing the 1856 war occurring in Jefferson County:

Jesse Newell included a frightening anecdote that included his boy, Bob.

“…[This] country is infested with guerrilla bands, for they have taken me and my son Robert out and threatened to hang us both. And since that time they have threatened to hang my brother-in-law Joseph Phitsimons [Fitzsimmons] and have destroyed my property in throwing down my fences and destroying my grain and threatening to burn my house and break up my [saw] mill.”

Named for his grandfather, Robert Newell was born in Richland County, Ohio, in 1838 and moved with his family to the two-year-old state of Iowa when he was 10 years old. The family lived in Mahaska County, not far from a namesake town of Oskaloosa, Iowa. Bob’s two older brothers, Valentine and John, emigrated to Kansas Territory in 1855, the rest of the family settling at what would someday be Oskaloosa, Kansas, in May 1856.

Within two years of settling, Bob Newell owned 160 acres of Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, farm land northwest of Oskaloosa, land that is held today by descendants of Jesse Newell. He also had an interest in his father’s steam-powered sawmill on the west side of the public square. [See the Google image of Oskaloosa, Kansas.]


Kansas Territory, as close as it was to the slave-holding states of Missouri and Arkansas, became a draw for determined enslaved people to escape bondage. Lawrence and its Douglas County surrounds, just across the Kansas River from Jefferson County and Oskaloosa, was a hub for these freedom-seekers. There, plans and routes were fixed to help enslaved men, women and children find freedom and safety in the northern states and Canada. Lawrence and Douglas County were well-populated with eastern abolitionists who wanted to rid the nation of slavery all together, and they were willing to break the law to do so.

I haven’t yet discovered how involved Bob Newell’s father, Jesse, was in Underground Railroad activity, but he gave young Bob a taste of it in 1859.

Bob and his brother John Newell rode with about 18 other Oskaloosa area men in their father’s rifle company to play a small role in one of the most celebrated rescues in Kansas history. They stepped up to help the good trouble makers from Lawrence, the Immortal Ten, who in July 1859 quietly broke Underground Railroad conductor John Doy out of a Missouri jail.

Doy had been headed north from Lawrence with 13 freedom-seekers six months earlier when his group was ambushed by slave catchers.[viii] The catastrophe happened about eight miles south of Jesse Newell’s home in Oskaloosa, and Doy had been on his way to the Newell place. Jesse Newell had agreed to help Doy and his party of freedom-seekers in some way as they continued north. [This link explains what we know about Jesse Newell’s role.]

The ambushers took the entire group hostage: Doy, his two assistants and the 13 men, women and children who had risked all for freedom. The ambushers hurried their prisoners across the border into Missouri and jailed Doy.

Six months later, the Immortal Ten swept Doy from his St. Joseph, Missouri, jail cell, crossed the Missouri River and began their dangerous trip south through Kansas to Lawrence. Suspecting they were being followed, the group’s leader, James B. Abbott,[ix] got word to Jesse Newell to bring his rifle company to be an escort guard for the last 20 miles of the trip.

Bob Newell’s name appears just once in the John Doy rescue story, but it tells us plenty about his mettle.


Newell's Hall ME festival The_Oskaloosa_Independent_Wed__Oct_10__1860_
Methodist festival at Newell’s Hall. Clip from The Oskaloosa Independent, Oct. 10, 1860. Image from newspapers.com

As Oskaloosa developed, Bob Newell built a sort of town hall for citizens,  Newell’s Hall. He was building the wood-frame building at the southwest corner of Oskaloosa’s public square in August 1860, around the same time his father had built a two-story house for his family not far to the east.[x]


Newell’s Hall hosted local congregations of government, military and civil life. County Republicans, county court, church people all gathered there. Oskaloosans assembled at the hall to make sure Oskaloosa had a good enough road to connect it to the Smoky Hill Trail wagon route going from Leavenworth, Kansas Territory, to the gold mines of Colorado. (Oskaloosa won its place on the route.)

Courthouse square
Google map showing locations of the Newell’s sawmill, Bob Newell’s “Newell’s Hall” and Jesse Newell’s homestead. Google maps image, Imagery @2020 Maxar Technologies, USDA Farm Service Agency

Prim Methodists conducted a fund-raising festival at Newell’s Hall to furnish their new church. The October 3, 1860, edition of The Oskaloosa Independent cheerfully urged the ladies and gentlemen of Oskaloosa to pay $1 per couple to come and enjoy the festival. Immediately following the notice was a reply to the impertinent question of whether the festival would include dancing.

“Of course not,” was the organizer’s reply in the newspaper. “We would be surprised to learn that any gentleman or lady of self-respect, and a proper regard for religion and the church, would ever think for a moment, of dancing on such an occasion.”


After Bob Newell died at Wilson’s Creek, Henry F. Woolley had taken over Newell’s Hall. He operated a store on the first floor and the county court met upstairs. Eventually, Oskaloosa was erecting grander buildings. Newell’s Hall was pulled down in 1885 and The Oskaloosa Independent walked readers through a compressed Newell’s Hall history, starting with Bob Newell putting it up in 1860.

“Judge Pettit held district court in the lower room,” the newspaper recounted. “J. Gill Spivey there made a speech and took the oath as a [Union] militia officer, and afterward went south and got a commission in the rebel army.

“[U.S. Sen.] S.C. Pomeroy made a speech there, also, when he was senator, and [U.S. Sen. and Union General] Jim Lane made his appeal within its walls for ‘foot soldiers,’ who would go over to Missouri on foot and come back riding one horse and leading another.”[xi]


Kansas joined the Union as a state free of slavery on Jan. 29, 1861. Three months later, the Civil War began. The new state of Kansas legislature was still writing new laws, trying to determine which city should become the state’s capital and rushing through military-related legislation.

Kansas men were ordered to form “military companies” a few days after the Civil War’s start April 12, 1861. President Lincoln ordered that two full-out Kansas army regiments be filled from those militia-like military companies, and armed and equipped.

Oskaloosa’s public square filled with citizens on April 22 to create a military company.

Wareham Gibbs, a 71-year-old veteran (of the War of 1812, perhaps), marched the crowd from the public square to Newell’s Hall, according to the April 24, 1861, Oskaloosa Independent. The militia men went inside and voted to name their company the Union Guards.

Bob Newell was elected 3rd sergeant of the Union Guards, and Jesse Newell signed up for the uniforms committee. Future Jefferson County military recruiter A.W. Spalding issued a patriotic speech, and so did J. Gill Spivey (And, yes, military records confirm that he did join the Confederates, as referenced above.) The crowd called for John F. Hinton, who declined to speak but instead played a rousing “Yankee Doodle.” The Independent article doesn’t note which instrument he played.

Bob Newell was among those leaving the militia group to join a fighting regiment, the Second Regiment Kansas Volunteer Infantry. The 2nd Kansas organized and drilled in Lawrence during May and set out in June on a 40-mile march to Wyandotte, Kansas (now Kansas City, Kansas), and then across the Missouri River to Kansas City, Missouri. Newell’s comrades elected him third lieutenant of Company G under Captain Russell when they met at Kansas City.

2nd reg bravery from Leav T, The_Oskaloosa_Independent_Sat__Aug_31__1861 p1
A portion of a soldier correspondent’s letter about the Battle of Wilson’s Creek to The Leavenworth Daily Times printed in The Oskaloosa Independent Aug. 31, 1861. The image is from newspapers.com  and may be read here.

The 2nd Kansas’s job would be to help U.S. troops prevent Confederate and Missouri southern sympathizers from conquering Missouri, which was a slave state that did not secede from the United States.

Anonymous soldier correspondents kept Kansas newspapers abreast of Kansas soldiers’ experiences. Some grousing fell upon the long march to Kansas City, a lack of uniforms and their less-than-ideal weapons.

One of the correspondents, who was with Bob Newell’s Company G, wrote that the 2nd Kansas regiment had learned at 8 a.m. on June 18 that they would march to Wyandotte. By 11 a.m. they had crossed the Kansas River at Lawrenece and moved east. They covered 12 miles before stopping at 5 p.m. for a quick supper at Little Stranger Creek, and then took up their march, guns shining in the moonlight.

“During the early part of the evening, bursts of songs, and jests and shouts of laughter echoed over the prairie,” the soldier correspondent wrote, his letter published June 29 in The Fort Scott (Kansas) Bulletin. “But later the unwonted fatigue bore down the exuberant spirits of the men and by 10 o’clock the lines were as quiet as a funeral procession.

“Here and there men would drop out of the ranks, and be down among the tall grass, doggedly determined to go no farther, and it required the utmost exertions on the part of the officers to rouse them to farther effort.”

After sleeping on the prairie grass the regiment was off again, “foot sore and tired.”

“Mile after mile of the weary march dragged slowly along beneath the broiling rays of the sun,” the correspondent wrote. “The blistered foot and parched tongues brought the enthusiasm of yesterday down to zero. The secessionists were cursed as the cause of all our sufferings and many and deep were the maledictions showered on their devoted heads.”[xii]

Soldier “M,” also in Bob Newell’s Company G, wrote that the 2nd Second Kansas finally got part of their uniforms, “a single blouse to each man” when they reached Missouri. Soldier “M” was a correspondent for The Daily Times, Leavenworth.[xiii]

“Perhaps it is no fault of the Government, but still it seems to me that the Kansas volunteers have been treated with gross neglect in the way of clothing, “M” wrote on June 20. “The men grumble not a little about it. Another cause of complaint with the Second Regiment is the character of arms issued to us. They are the common musket, in very bad condition, and I believe they are condemned —  if they are not condemned, they ought to be.”

Writing after the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, correspondent “F.A.R.” charged that the First and Second Kansas regiments had been “shamefully abused” from the start of the war.

“They have never yet received their uniforms, and are half naked, with no tents, and half of them without blankets.” F.A.R. wrote in the September 26 Vermont Phoenix of Brattleboro, Vermont.

“When they started from Fort Leavenworth [First Kansas] in the spring for the South they were provided with condemned tents and blankets, but now they are without either and compelled to sleep on the ground in the open air.

“In the late battle at Springfield [Wilson’s Creek] these two proved themselves the crack regiments, and certainly ought to be provided with clothing and camp equipage.”

The Battle of Wilson’s Creek showed the Kansas troops, considered “raw recruits” in some publications, would fight. The Battlefields.org Wilson’s Creek website page says even though the Confederates counterattacked the Union forces three times, they failed to break through the Union line.

The Confederates and Missouri forces then pulled back, but Union Major General Samuel D. Sturgis, who had taken command when Union Brigadier General Lyon was killed, realized his men were exhausted and running out of ammunition. Sturgis ordered his men to retreat.

“The Confederates were too disorganized and ill-equipped to pursue [Union troops],” the Battlefield.org website summarizes.[xiv]

Despite their loss, the Kansas Union troops won praise for their fighting as regiments and as individual soldiers.

Major John M. Schofield noted in an after-battle commentary that the Union troops’ food and supplies were low and that the soldiers had had to forage in the area.[xv] They were exhausted from their long marches.

But just before the end of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, the “… Second Kansas Regiment [Bob Newell’s regiment], which had firmly maintained its position on the extreme right from the time it was first sent there, found its ammunition exhausted, and was ordered to retire, which it did slowly and in good order, bringing off its wounded.”

In his letter to Jesse and Rosannah Newell, Captain Russell strove to assure the bereaved couple that Bob Newell did not suffer in his battlefield death.

“He was killed almost by my side, at the close of the day, when we were retiring from the field, by the bursting of a shell,” Russell wrote. “The missiles entered the back part of his head, and he fell a corpse – never moved or spoke after falling.”

“[Bob Newell] – was continually in the front of the battle doing noble execution himself, and giving courage to the whole company by his intrepid example,” Captain Russell wrote, bypassing the cold brevity of a formulaic “we regret to inform you” letter that he might have to write later in the war as soldiers’ deaths multiplied.

Russell himself would soon die in the war. He died Dec. 12, 1862, from injuries he received in the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas, five days earlier.[xvi] He was 29 years old.

The soldier correspondent “M” who served with Bob Newell in Company G praised his regiment’s performance at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek and mourned Bob Newell.

“The Kansas 2nd was the last regiment to leave the field, and the only regiment that left with all the companies present, and in perfect order,” soldier “M” wrote August. 18, 1861, from camp near Rolla, Missouri.[xvii] “We left slowly, followed by the artillery and soon were off the field. As we were leaving, a shell thrown by the enemy fell and burst near us, killing our Third Lieutenant, Robert Newell, from Oskaloosa.

“He was struck on the back of the head, and killed instantly. He was a young man of sterling worth, and as true a heart as fought on the field. During the whole time he was at his post, cool and firm. His loss is keenly felt by us all.”

Abram Newell, Bob’s little brother, wrote in his letter home that Bob had been killed while his regiment was in retreat. The artillery shell that killed Bob also injured several other soldiers, Abram said.

“We did not have time to stop and bury him [Bob] then,” Abram wrote. “But he was decently buried afterwards.”

Soldiers who died at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek were buried on the battlefield and moved six years later to the National Cemetery at Springfield, Missouri. Bob Newell, like so many of the others who died that day, has no grave marker, according to the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield website.

[i] I am not knowledgeable enough about the Civil War to supply the big picture part of Robert Newell’s story at Wilson’s Creek. I hope readers will seek, in addition to Kristen Pawlak’s piece here, some of the many articles, papers and books about the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. Ms. Pawlak’s recent article about the battle centers on a member of an Iowa regiment that according to the War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I., Vol. III fought alongside the First Regiment Kansas Volunteer Infantry and Bob Newell’s Second Regiment Kansas Volunteer Infantry in the U.S. forces’ Fourth Brigade.

The National Park Service operates the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, Republic, Missouri; its website: https://www.nps.gov/wicr/index.htm

Jefferson County sent soldiers to the battle in both the 1st and 2nd Kansas regiments. Jeremiah H. Bennet wrote about the Jefferson County soldiers at Wilson’s Creek in The Oskaloosa Independent in two articles:



[ii]  The troops and casualty figures are from the Wilson’s Creek page on the Battlefields.org website.     https://www.battlefields.org/learn/civil-war/battles/wilsons-creek

[iii] Lyon, beloved by his troops, had been a federal in the U.S. armed forces assigned to Kansas Territory after the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act took effect. He was favored by Kansas Territory freestaters. A soldier’s letter written eight days after the Battle of Wilson’s Creek and published in The Leavenworth Times said that Company G Corporal Marshall Edward Spurlock was among those who carried Lyon’s body from the battlefield.

[iv] Abram went on to serve in the Kansas State Militia in 1863 and 1864 as Kansas defended its borders against rebel invasion from across the Missouri border.

[v] The struggle was carried out both with violence and via political tugs of war and elections. The 1854 passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act meant white men (no one else could vote) in Kansas Territory would decide whether to allow slavery in Kansas or to ban it. After defeating the earlier proslavery Kansas Territory government at the ballot box, freestaters in 1859 adopted a constitution prohibiting slavery in Kansas. Kansas became a state free of slavery on January 29, 1861, the time gap due to the U.S. Senate’s slave power opposing a free Kansas. But as southern states began walking out the secession door, enough Senate votes were left to admit Kansas free.

[vi] For background about “Bleeding Kansas” in Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, see earlier posts about the September 1856 “battles” of Grasshopper Falls, Slough Creek and Hickory Point. https://jeffersonjayhawkers.com/2018/01/26/the-battle-of-grasshopper-falls/



[vii]Jesse Newell’s complaint to Kansas Territory Gov. John Geary, dated Sept. 20, 1856, is held in the archives of the Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas. The Joseph Fitzsimmons mentioned in the complaint co-founded Oskaloosa with Jesse Newell.

[viii] Maj. James B. Abbott, the chief organizer of the Immortal Ten and the man who called for Jesse Newell to bring his rifle company and perform escort guard duty, wrote about the rescue and perilous journey from St. Joseph, Missouri, back to Lawrence, Kansas Territory. He read his account at the Kansas State Historical Society annual meeting in 1899. Near the end of his story, he names some of Jesse Newell’s rifle company members [some names corrected]. Read Abbott’s tale here.

“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, 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. Tower, Robert Newell, James Monroe, Resolved 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…”    

[ix] Abbott, endnote viii.

[x] The Newell-Johnson-Searle House, a wood-frame house and limestone cabin on Oskaloosa’s east side, were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017. Only some wood framing inside and portions of the house basement are original to Jesse Newell in 1860, but the small limestone cabin behind it has been dated as a few years older and as original to Jesse Newell. Jesse Newell’s descendants purchased the homestead plot and are busy with restoration.

[xi] The Oskaloosa Independent, Aug. 15, 1885, Page 3.  Jefferson County built its brick courthouse in 1868, providing an official venue for court proceedings and other county functions. The public square upon which the courthouse sat was donated by Jesse Newell and Joseph Fitzsimmons, co-founders of Oskaloosa. The old brick courthouse was destroyed by a tornado in 1960 and replaced with a modern one.

[xii] Read the Fort Scott Bulletin newspaper article by an unnamed soldier here: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/57635204/2nd-kansas-regiment-march-to-wyandotte/

[xiii] This excerpt was taken from a collection of war-time Leavenworth Dailey Times articles. Betts, Vicki,”[Leavenworth, KS] Daily Times, June 12, 1860-October 8, 1861” (2016). By Title. Paper 51. http://hdl.handle.net/10950/705

[xiv] Battlefield.org’s Wilson’s Creek page: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/civil-war/battles/wilsons-creek

[xv] From Major John M. Schofield’s communications of Aug 20, 1861, War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies Series I., Vol. III. P 57. Copyright 1971, the National Historical Society. Schofield was acting adjutant general for the Army of the West at the time.

[xvi] Russell County, Kansas, is named for Avra P. Russell.

[xvii] Soldier “M”’s letter was printed in the Leavenworth Daily Times on Aug. 22, 1861. The information is taken from Kansans go to War: The Wilson’s Creek campaign as reported by the Leavenworth Daily Times Part II. Edited by Richard W. Hatcher III and William Garret Piston. Kansas History 16 (Winter 1993): 224-247. https://www.kshs.org/publicat/history/1993winter_hatcher.pdf