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An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859 by Horace Greeley (1860)


Lawrence, Kansas, May 20, 1859.

It resumed raining in Kansas, after a few dry days, on Thursday, the 12th inst., and rained “off and on” till Saturday night. Sunday, the 15th, was cloudy and chilly, but without rain, until evening, when thunder-showers came up from every side, and kept flashing, rumbling, and pouring nearly throughout the night. Kansas brags on its thunder and lightning; and the boast is well founded. I never before observed a display of celestial pyrotechny so protracted, incessant and vivid as that of last Sunday night. The country, already saturated with water, was fairly drenched by this deluge, which rendered many streams ordinarily insignificant either dangerous or for a season impassable.

At 6 a. m. on Monday morning, four of us left Atchison in a two-horse wagon, intent on reaching Osawatamie (some eighty miles rather east of south—one hundred by any practicable route) next evening. The sky was still threatening; we knew that the streams were swelled beyond reason; but our pilot was a most experienced pioneer, who had forded, been ferried over or swam every stream in Eastern Kansas, and was confident of his ability to go through by some route or other. So we went ahead in a southerly direction, across swells of prairie rather steep-sided for Kansas, and through ravines in which what were usually rills were swelled into torrents. From the high level of the prairies, little but a broad sweep of grass on every side was visible but soon we were descending into a new ravine, and now belts and spurs of timber were seen, generally widening as they tend toward the Missouri. I noted that these woody spurs, composed mainly of black-oak and cotton-wood (the latter a very poor but quick-growing timber, ranging somewhere between poplar and basswood), began to spread on every side wherever the annual fires were repelled from the adjacent prairie, whether by the interposition of a road or otherwise, and that the young trees that thus spring up along the sides of the ravines and run out into the level prairie, are quite often hickory, white ash, etc., even where none such are visible among the adjacent timber. I was fully convinced that wood becomes more abundant with the progress of settlement and cultivation. Of course, there is timber enough to-day in the Territory; but the better portion of it is too generally confined to the intervales of the larger streams, too far for their comfort from most settlers on the prairies. Could prairie-fires be wholly arrested, the increase of timber would overbalance ten-fold the annual use and waste; and the quality improves even faster than the quantity. This is real progress. For, though there is quite enough in Kansas, and a pretty good variety of all species except the evergreens, which are lamentably deficient, there are points at which there is none within several miles—the little that formerly ran up the small ravines which here cut in upon the great high prairies—being soon exhausted by use for building, fuel, and fencing, and requiring years for its reproduction.

Twelve or fifteen miles south of Atchison, we struck the great California trail from Leavenworth, and thence followed it east by south into that city, some fifteen to eighteen miles. I should have liked Gerrit Smith as one of our party, that I might show him the practical working of his theory that Government has no other legitimate business than to keep one man’s fingers off another man’s throat and out of any pocket but his own. The great California trail, like the Santa Fé and all other primitive roads through this prairie country, keeps along the highest “divides” or prairie swells, avoiding the miry “bottoms” of the streams and (so far as possible) the ravines which the water falling on the high prairie has cut down to them, of course winding considerably, but making the best and most serviceable natural road that can be, and one that in dry weather is excellent, and in wet as good as possible. But each settler along this trail, in the absence of any legal establishment of the trail as a highway, is at liberty to run his fences right across it as the line of his land runs, and so crowd it off the high “divides” into all manner of angles and zigzags, across this ravine and into that slough, until the trail is fast becoming the very worst road in all Kansas. I have had a pretty full experience of bad roads during this week; but the very worst and miriest was that portion of the California trail (and United States military road from Fort Leavenworth west to other forts) which works its sinuous way through the region generally settled by thrifty farmers, lying directly west of Leavenworth. And the worst hill for teams I have seen in Kansas is traversed by this road within five miles of Leavenworth, between the fort and the rich but miry valley of Salt Creek on the west. This road, unless it can be restored, will soon have to be abandoned, and thence Leavenworth must suffer.

As we neared the California trail, the white coverings of the many emigrant and transport wagons dotted the landscape, giving the trail the appearance of a river running through great meadows, with many ships sailing on its bosom. Most of the independent wagoners were still encamped by the wayside, unable or unwilling to brave the deep mud; their cattle feeding on the broad prairie; the emigrants cooking or sitting beside the wagons; women sometimes washing, and all trying to dry their clothing, drenched and soaked by the pouring rain of the past night. One great wagon-train was still in corral with its cattle feeding and men lounging about; the others might better have been, as it was clearly impossible to make their lean, wild-looking oxen (mainly of the long-horned stripe, which indicates Texas as their native land, and which had probably first felt the yoke within the past week) draw them up the slightest ascent through that deep, slippery mire. A great deal of yelling, beating, swearing, was being expended to little purpose, as I presume each train corraled for the ensuing night within a mile of the point it left in the morning. These contractors’ wagons are very large and strong, each carrying a couple of good extra axles lashed under its body, to be used in case an old one gives way under a heavy jerk; the drivers are as rough and wild-looking as their teams, though not quite so awkward at their business; but to keep six yoke of such oxen in line in the road, and all pulling on the load, is beyond human skill. It is a sore trial to patience, that first start of these trains on their long journey—to Utah, Fort Hall, Green River, and some of these to New Mexico, though this is not the Santa Fé trail. The loads are generally fifty hundred weight; the wagons must weigh at least fifteen hundred each; and, though this would seem moderate for twelve oxen, it must be remembered that —they are at this season poor and at first unbroken, and that the road is in spots a very bad one. A train consists of ten to thirty wagons; each train has its reliable and experienced master or director; and when a team is stalled, another is unhitched from its own wagon and sent to the aid of the one in trouble. The rate of progress is necessarily snail-like; these trains will do very well if they make twenty miles the first week, considering the weather. But then the feeding of the teams (like the lodging of the men) costs nothing, as they live on the broad prairie, and though they will often be fearfully hungry or dry in traversing grassless tracts on their route, they are said generally to gain in flesh (for which there is ample room) during a journey of three or four months. Of course, they improve in docility and effectiveness, being at first so wild that, in order to be yoked, they have to be driven into the corral (formed, as I may have explained, by the wagons closely ranged in hollow square, the tongue of each being run under its next neighbor, for defense against Indians or other prowlers). Very few wagons or cattle ever come back; the freighting is all one way; and both wagons and cattle are usually sold at or near their point of destination for whatever they will fetch—to be taken to California or disposed of as they best may.

We drove into Leavenworth City about 11 a. m., and found that the delegates from this county had generally given up the idea of reaching Osawatamie, judging that the Convention would have to be adjourned or postponed on account of the swollen and impassable streams. Stranger Creek barred all egress by way of Lawrence, which we had intended to make our resting-place for the night; a creek nine miles south of Leavenworth had turned back the stage running in that direction; in fact, no stage made its way out of Leavenworth that day in any direction which was not forced to return, baffled by the high water. So at 3 p. m. we shipped our horses and wagons on board the steamboat D. A. January, and dropped down the Missouri some fifty miles, past the bleaching bones of several dead cities (not including Quindaro, which insists that it is still alive) to Wyandot, in the lower corner of Kansas, with Kansas City, Missouri, three miles off, in plain sight across the mouth of the Kansas or Kaw River. Wyandot, though hemmed in and impeded, like Quindaro, by an Indian reserve back of it, is alive, and is becoming, what it ought fully to be, the outlet and inlet between Southern Kansas and the Missouri River. It has a beautiful location, and decided natural advantages over Kansas City, which, with other Border-Ruffian strongholds south of it, has hitherto engrossed too much of the travel and trade of Kansas. We halted at Wyandot over night, had an improptu Republican gathering and some off-hand talk in the evening, and set forth at six next morning for Osawatamie (forty-six miles a little west of south by a bee-line, but over fifty by any practicable route), which we were desirous of reaching before night, as the Convention was to be held next day.

Our route led south-west over rolling woodland through the Wyandot Reserve, descending into the bottom of the Kansas or Kaw River—said bottom being from one to two miles wide, and very heavily timbered with elm, yellow oak, black walnut, hickory, cotton-wood, sycamore, basswood, etc. Nearly all the rivers and larger creeks of Kansas run through similar bottoms or intervales, from half a mile to three miles wide, and timbered much like this. These intervales are composed of a dark, rich mold, oftener over than under three feet in depth, but they are so level that they could hardly be cultivated without drainage, even were it advisable to strip them by wholesale of timber, as it decidedly is not. The houses and barns that shall yet thickly dot the adjacent prairies are now mainly growing in these bottoms, and should stand there as trees till they are wanted. When cleared and drained—and in some places the rotting out of the stumps, and thorough plowing thereafter will go far toward effecting the drainage required—they will yield bounteous crops of almost anything that does not dread frost. Though it seems hardly possible that their soil should be richer than that of the prairies, it is deeper, and probably contains a more varied and choice admixture of the elements of vegetation. But the Kansas or Kaw bottom was not only soaked but covered with water—for it had rained here smartly only the preceding morning after it ceased at Atchison, and the road across the bottom was for the time an all but impassable morass. I trust the citizens of Wyandot will not long leave it thus.

We crossed the Kaw on a fair wooden toll-bridge, one thousand two hundred feet long, just erected—or, rather, not quite completed. In default of a toll-house or gate keeper, a man at work on the bridge in his shirt-sleeves, took the toll. I believe no other bridge across the Kaw is now standing, though there has been one at Topeka, fifty miles up, and perhaps at other points. Bridges are sorely needed throughout Kansas, not only because the streams are addicted to rapid and vast augmentations from thaws or rains, but because their banks are almost perpendicular, and often miry toward the bottom, while the streams are nearly as deep at either shore as in the middle, making the attempt to ford difficult, even when it is not dangerous.

The Kaw was, of course, nearly full (all the rivers of Kansas have low banks), and was running very swiftly; still, it seems of moderate size, for a river which leads about six hundred miles westward of its mouth; but all the rivers of this region, the Missouri included, seem small, considering the area drained by them. The facts that they run rapidly, are apt to be deep, and that their depth is nearly uniform from side to side, account in part for this appearance.

Half an hour after crossing the Kaw, we emerged from the road and the Reserve upon the high prairie, the clouds of the morning broke away, and the day was henceforth perfect. The young grass of the prairie, refreshed by the-heavy rains, appeared in its freshest, tenderest green; the delicate early flowers were abundant, yet not so numerous as to pall by satiety the pleasure of looking at them, and the panorama presented was magnificent. Passing Shawnee, a prairie village of twenty or thirty houses, with a large hotel, our road bore more directly south, and soon brought us in sight of the great Santa Fé trail, with its white-topped emigrant wagons, and three great contract trains, one of them still in corral, the others with six pair of mules to each wagon, attempting to make progress toward New Mexico—attempting it, for the most part, in vain. The mules were small, and new to work-to this work, at all events—and drew badly; while the wheels cut so deeply into the yielding paste beneath them that little or no advance was made. I presume they all corraled for the night within two miles of the places where we saw them.

Crossing the trail almost at right angles, we left the smart village of Olathe (county seat of Johnson county) a mile or so to the west, and struck off nearly due south, over high prairies sloped as gently and grassed as richy as could be desired, with timber visible along the water-courses on either hand. Yet there was little or no settlement below Olathe—for the next twenty miles that we traveled there was hardly an improvement to each four square miles of the country in sight. And yet, if the Garden of Eden exceeded this land in beauty or fertility, I pity Adam for having to leave it. The earth was thoroughly sodden with rain, so that temporary springs were bursting out on almost every acre, while the water-courses, including those usually dry, ran heavy streams, each of them requiring skill in the charioteer and good conduct on the part of the horses to pass them without balk or break. We must have crossed over a hundred of these “runs” in the course of this day’s travel, each of them with a trying jerk on the carriage, and generally with a spring on the part of the horses. These water-ways have generally a limestone bottom not far below the surface of their bed; but their banks are apt to be steep, and are continually growing more so by reason of the water washing away the earth which has been denuded of grass and worked loose by hoofs and wheels. Traveling by jerks like this is not so pleasant as over a macadamized road, yet our day was a bright and pleasant one.

Thirty miles of progress, twenty of them over prairie, brought us to Spring Hill, a hamlet of five or six dwellings, including a store, but no tavern. Our horses needed food and rest—for the wagon with its four inmates, was a heavy drag over such going—so we stopped and tried to find refreshment, but with limited success. There was no grain to be had, save a homoepathic dose sold us for a quarter by a passing wagoner, and thankfully received; we gave this to our steeds, regaled ourselves on crackers and herring, and pushed on.

Our direct route led due south to Paoli, county seat of Lykins; but persons we met here assured us that there was no crossing Bull Creek on this road, and that we must bear away to the west through Marysville (a village of perhaps a dozen houses, including a store and a tavern), so as to cross at Rock Ford, three miles beyond, which opened the only chance of getting over. We did so, and crossed in safety, with the usual jokes when we were fairly over; but I confess that the wide, impetuous stream, so impenetrable to the eye, and so far above its average level, wore a vicious look to me when we approached and plunged into it. Its bottom is here hardly half a mile wide, but is capitally wooded with hickory, oak, black-walnut, etc. Emerging from it, we rode over twelve miles more of high, gently rolling prairie, with wood in the ravines on either side, which brought us to the village of Stanton (of twenty or thirty houses, including two stores and a tavern) which we reached before sunset, having traveled at least fifty miles since we started in the morning. Night and the Marais des Cygnes—here brought us to a halt—the creek being at this time impassable—and we had to forego our determination to reach Osawatamie before sleeping. So we halted at the little tavern, where we found five or six others bound to Osawatamie, like ourselves, at least one of whom had swam three creeks since the morning. Fifteen or twenty others drove up during the evening; we had supper, a neighborhood meeting and a Republican talk at the school-house, and adjourned to fill all the beds and floors of the tavern as full as they could hold. The kind, active, efficient landlady did her best, which was good enough; and all were snugly bestowed except another editor and myself, who accepted the kindly proffered hospitality of a Republican farmer, and were capitally entertained at his house, half a mile distant.

As night fell, the lightning had begun to gleam and flash nearly around the horizon; by ten o’clock, the thunder rolled; at twelve, a high gale could be heard sweeping over the prairies some moments before it struck us. The lightning blazed almost incessantly for hours; yet the rain-fall at Stanton was very slight. But there were heavy showers at Marysville, at Paoli, and almost everywhere else around us, still further raising the streams, so that many who had come part way were unable to reach Osawatamie next day.

We were early on the bank (a mile from Stanton) of the Marais des Cygnes, which was running heavy drift-wood, and otherwise misbehaving itself. It had buried up the ferry-rope, without whose aid the boat could not be propelled across its sweeping current; one of the trees to which that rope was attached was now nearly in the middle of the stream; and there had been no crossing for a day or two. But a new rope had been procured and somehow stretched across the stream; whereby we were taken across in our turn, after waiting somewhat over an hour. A mile or so of well timbered and too well watered bottom brought us again to prairie, over which we drove rapidly into Osawatamie, which we reached before ten a. m.

Osawatamie is a village of at most one hundred and fifty houses, situated in the forks of the Marais des Cygnes and Potawatamie, a somewhat smaller creek, which comes in from the south-west. The location is a pleasant and favorable but not a commanding one; the surrounding country is more considerably cultivated than any I had passed south of the Kaw. The two creeks supply abundant and good timber; an excellent steam sawmill has taken the place of that which the border-ruffians burned; a flouring mill, tannery, brewery and a large hotel, are being erected or completed. I presume there is a larger town somewhere in what is known as Southern Kansas, though I do not know which it is.

But Osawatamie has a higher interest than any other spot in Kansas, except possibly Lawrence, because of her honorable eminence in the struggle which has secured Kansas to free labor. She was long the only settlement near the Missouri border which was avowedly, decidedly free-state; the only free-state village that could be reached by a night’s march from Missouri. To be known as a free-state man at Topeka, Waubonsee, Emporia, or any other post well inland, involved struggles and sacrifices; to be one at Osawatamie, was to live in nightly and well-grounded apprehension of robbery, arson and murder. The pro-slavery settlements in the neighborhood were strong and malignant; and they had only to draw upon Missouri at sight for any amount of force, and the draft would be honored. Yet to surrender this outpost was virtually to give up all Kansas south of the Marais des Cygnes; and, though its maintenance was sure to cost property and blood, it was not surrendered, for Old John Brown was among its early settlers. Twice was it sacked and laid in ashes, once after a desperate fight of two hours, in which Old Brown with forty of his neighbors held at bay four hundred well-armed Missourians, who had the advantage of a cannon. So fearfully outnumbered, Old Brown, after seeing his son and several of his neighbors shot dead by his side, and after killing at least as many Missourians as there were of his own party altogether, was gradually driven back through the open timber north of the village, and across the Marais des Cygnes, the ruffians not venturing to pursue their victory, though they had attacked from the west, and so were driving the free-state men toward Missouri.

The women and children had meantime fled to the woods on the south; the village was burned after being robbed, the only iron safe therein having been blown open by firing a cannon into its side, and so plundered of some silver-ware and a considerable sum in money Osawatainie was thus a second time “wiped out.” But it has risen again from its ashes, and is once more the home of an undaunted, freedom-loving people, who are striving to forget their bereavements and sacrifices in view of the rich fruits they have borne to liberty and human good. They have gathered the dust of their martyred dead into a common grave on a prairie-knoll just west of their village, and propose to erect there a monument which shall teach their children and grand-children to love and cherish the cause for which those heroes joyfully laid down their lives. I beg leave to suggest an enlargement of the scope of this enterprise—that this monument be reared to all the martyrs of freedom in Kansas, and that the name of each be inscribed upon it, and his mortal remains, if his relatives make no objection, be placed beneath the column which shall here be reared as a memorial of the struggle which secured Kansas to free labor, and is destined finally to hasten the expulsion of slavery from Missouri. Should a monument be proposed on this basis, I feel confident that subscriptions in aid of its erection might reasonably be asked of all who prefer freedom to slavery, and would not be asked in vain.

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