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


Manhattan, May 24, 1859.

I left Leavenworth in the Fort Riley stage at 6 a. m. on Tuesday, a day in advance of the “Pike’s Peak Express,” which crosses the U. S. military road at this point, in order to gain time to visit Topeka and Manhattan, and sum up my impressions of Kansas for The Tribune. Our road from Leavenworth lay over the heavy hill westward (which Leavenworth must soon cut down or it will cut her down materially), passing thence through the rich valley of Salt Creek and over a “divide” into that of the Stranger, which we forded at Easton, a village of thirty to fifty houses, famous for border-ruffian outrages and murders in 1856. The bluffs of the Stranger are here one to two hundred feet high, generally timbered with oak, etc., and so covered with limestone bowlders that scarcely more than half the ground is visible. These bowlders are generally oblong and irregularly flat, making the best of stonewall. I am informed that nine rods of capital wall is regarded as but a fair week’s work for a good wall-builder, working by himself. We pass out of the valley just beyond Easton, rising to the slightly rolling prairie; and henceforth for forty miles to Topeka our way lies through a gently heaving sea of grass, with timber generally visible along the water-courses on either side. Occasionally, however, we descend from the crest of the prairie into a barely perceptible hollow, and now nothing but grass and sky are visible, the two meeting, at the lorizon on every side. I do not like this region quite so well as the more rolling country south of Olathe and Prairie City, across Bull Creek and the Marais des Cygnes; but it is very fertile, fairly wooded, and sufficiently irregular in surface to carry off the water and leave few or no marshes or sloughs except in the road, where the frequent crossing of unbridged water-courses is attended by a jolt and a jerk which render a doze dangerous and scarcely possible. In riding over such roads, all the pleasure must be drank in through the eyes alone.

We stopped for dinner at the crossing of Grasshopper Creek, at the village of Osawkee, once the seat of Jefferson County’s public buildings and a land office, both now removed. Grasshopper Falls, I believe, next obtained the coveted distinction of being shire town; both another popular vote removed it thence to Oskaloosa, on the road from Leavenworth to Lecompton, on the north line of the Delaware Reserve, which still covers a good part of Jefferson as well as of Leavenworth and Wyandot Counties. Osawkee, now probably four years old, is therefore in a state of dilapidation and decay, like a good many Kansas cities which figure largely on the map. Its business having left it, its great hotel was very mysteriously burned, and I presume the insurance on it was duly paid. We dined here at a very modest but comfortable tavern, kept by a kind and worthy Pennsylvania Dutchman, who recognized me from our having met at the Whig National Convention at Harrisburg, nearly twenty years ago. Bearing south of west from Osawkee, we crossed Rock and Muddy Creeks (neither of them more rocky nor muddy than the other), and were obliged by the lack of a bridge (now being-repaired) over Halfday Creek, to keep on west to a petty village called Indianola, whence we turned a sharp angle through the magnificently fertile and admirably timbered bottom of the Kaw or Kansas to the Topeka ferry, which we reached a little after sundown, but were delayed by a great contractor’s train which had been all day crossing, and was likely to be a good part of the morrow, so that we did not get across and into Topeka till nearly dark. I noticed with sorrow that the oxen which draw these great supply-wagons are often treated very cruelly, not merely in respect to the beating and whaling which every human brute delights in bestowing on every live thing over which he domineers, but with regard to food and drink. Here were cattle that had stood in the yoke all that hot, dry day with nothing to eat or drink; and, when they came down to the river mad with thirst, they were all but knocked down for trying to drink. I was assured that oxen are sometimes kept in the yoke, without food or drink, for two days, while making one of these river crossings. There can be no excuse for this. Those which have long to wait ought to be taken off and driven a mile or more if necessary to grass and fed there; at all events, they should be watered at least twice a day. How can a competent train-master-to say nothing of humanity—overlook the policy of this?

The river is here wider than at Lawrence or Wyandot below, is nearly as muddy as the Missouri, and runs with a swift current even to its banks. An attempt had been made during the day to swim across a drove of cattle; but the strong current carried them below the ferry landing on the south, whence the steep bank forbade their getting out, so that they went down the river several miles, and three of them were drowned. The experiment of swimming proved wretched economy, alike in time and money.

Topeka is a village of probably one hundred houses and one thousand inhabitants, situated on the north line of Shawnee County, which has the Sac and Fox Reserve on the south, the Potawatamie on the north-west, and the Delaware at a little distance on the north-east. Along the north bank of the river opposite, a party of half-breeds have a reserve a mile wide by twenty miles long, and I give the good-for-nothing rascals credit for admirable judgment in selecting their land. There is probably not an acre of their tract that could not be made to produce one hundred bushels of shelled corn by the application of less labor than would be required to produce thirty bushels on the average in New York or New England. The soil is a river deposit four to six feet deep; the timber large and choice—oak, elm, bass, black-walnut, sycamore, etc., with wild grape-vines four to six inches through, and a thick undergrowth of shrubbery and annuals. I begin to comprehend, though I do not excuse, the covetous impatience wherewith Indian reservations are regarded by their white neighbors.

Topeka was one of the strongholds of the free-state cause throughout the dark days of Kansas. Here assembled the first convention chosen by the people to frame a state constitution as a rallying point for defense and mutual protection against the border-ruffian usurpation of 1855; here the free state legislature, peacefully assembled in 1856 to devise and adopt measures looking to a redress of the unparalleled wrongs and outrages under which Kansas was then writhing, was dispersed by federal bayonets and cannon; here the guns of the U. S. troops were pointed against a mass-meeting of the people of Kansas, assembled in the open air to devise and adopt measures for the redress of their intolerable grievances, and that meeting compelled to disperse under penalty of military execution. And here I renew my vows of hostility to that federal standing army until it shall have been disbanded. It is utterly at war with the genius and perilous to the existence of republican institutions. The regular soldier is of necessity the blind, passive, mechanical instrument of power. If ordered to shoot his own father, he must obey or be shot himself. Twice has the French Republic been crushed by Bonapartean usurpation—crushed by the bayonets of a standing army pointed at the breasts of her faithful legislators. A republic whose citizens are not willing to do their own fighting—all that is necessary and proper—but must have a standing army to do it for them, lies at the mercy of any bold, unscrupulous adventurer who can work his way to the command or the favor of that army. I trust ours is near its end.

After greeting friends and speaking in Topeka, I learned with surprise that the stage for Fort Riley would start at three in-the morning, leaving but a narrow margin for sleep. On rising, however, I found that the high wind would not allow us to cross the river yet, and it was nearly six o’clock when we actually started.

We had now enjoyed three dry, bright, warm days, which had turned most of the mire of the roads to a sort of adobe, or sun-burned brick, though enough still remained in sunken holes and brook-crossings to remind us of what had been. But the lightning had flashed, and the clouds gathered throughout the night; and, as we drove out through Indianola and took the military road westward, the thunder gave indications of the shower which burst upon us a little before nine o’clock and poured till eleven, turning the brick of the road to mire again. And, though the rain ceased, the day remained sullen and lowering, with transient glimpses of weak sunshine, to the end.

Our route lay for thirty miles through the Potawatamie Reserve, and was no longer encumbered with great army supply-trains, as they were either north of us on the California trail to Laramie, or south on the road crossing at Topeka and leading to Fort Union and Santa Fé. A few of the wagons we passed this day may have been heading for Forts Riley and Kearney; while “Pike’s Peakers,” both going out, and returning disheartened, were in considerable numbers. I do not see how those returning could well resist the temptation to halt and make claims, as I hear many have done, generally seeking them in the south part of the territory, where speculation has been less rampant than in the vicinity of the Kaw. With a wagon-load of provisions and three or four yoke of oxen, a squatter might, even yet, by the help of a good plow, get in twenty acres of sod-corn this season, cut hay for winter, and break a glorious breadth of prairie before hard frost could stop him next fall. Whoever does this judiciously and resolutely will have reason for gratitude to Pike’s Peak, even though he never see the color of its gold nor get nearer to it than the Big Blue.

We traveled all day with the timber of the Kaw visible on the south, sometimes quite near us, then one to two or three miles distant. Our road lay for a considerable distance along the bank of what seemed a deserted bed of the river, which has since made a new and deeper channel more to the south. At one point this old bed is so deep that it still retains water, and now figures as a narrow lake. We traversed the prairie, of course, except where it was cut by the creeks coming down from the north to lose themselves in the Kaw. The Soldier, the Red Vermillion, and another Rock Creek, were the principal of these streams. Our road passed St. Mary’s (Catholic) Mission, where there is quite an Indian village and a very large improvement, which I guess white men were paid to make. Yet, whether to their credit or otherwise, I believe the truth cannot fairly be disputed, that Catholic Missions have been more successful in establishing a permanent influence over Indians than any others, except, perhaps, those of the Moravians.

At the Red Vermillion—still on the Potawatamie Reserve, but near its western edge—we dined; the landlady a half-breed —the dinner the hardest I ever yet paid half a dollar for. Doubtless, however, my eyes will be opened to an appreciation of cold hog and corn dodger as delicacies, long before they are blessed with a sight of the Sacramento.

A wide, marshy bottom—over which each charioteer seeks an untraversed path, since a rut buries him so much deeper in the mire—lies just west of the Vermillion (which, with two or three other steep-banked streams, we crossed on Indian toll-bridges, cheaply built and very profitable to their owners;) whence the land rises into rolling sandy ridges, some of them thinly wooded up their sides with white and burr-oak. Thence we strike the old-fashioned deep, black prairie again—most inviting to the cultivator, but not so grateful to the traveler, just after a soaking rain—and, passing the stakes and ruinous cabin or so of one or two still-born cities, we leach the Big Blue, which here joins the Kansas from the north. It is nearly as wide as the Kansas or Kaw at Lawrence, but of course neither so swift nor so deep. It is far clearer, even just after a heavy shower, than the Kansas; as is strikingly evinced at and below the junction, where the two streams run for some distance side by side in the same channel without mingling.

The Big Blue rises near the Platte, in what is now Nebraska, but which will be included in Kansas if the Platte is made her northern boundary, as it seems likely to be. Its general course is a little east of south; its length one hundred and fifty miles. I understand that there is a good deal of settlement already along its course and on its tributaries, though I judge from the relative purity of its water that some part of this region must be less fertile than those of Kansas I have seen.

Manhattan is an embryo city of perhaps one hundred houses, of which several were unroofed and three or four utterly destroyed by a tornado on the wild night I passed at Atchison (15th inst.) So violent was the tempest, that a large sign-board was carried across the Blue and thrown down fully half a mile from the spot at which it was taken up; and other heavy articles were swept away which have not since been found. Several families deprived of home and shelter by the hurricane are temporarily lodged in the basement of the new hotel just erected here—a three-story building 55 by 33, with limestone walls and black-walnut finishing—an establishment of which there is urgent need. The embryo city is located on the flat, deep bottom in the forks of the rivers, with a high limestone bluff, affording capital material for building, just behind it. The Kansas comes hither from the south-west, and has Fort Riley and its large military reservation fifteen miles distant on its north bank, with the intended city of Ogden just east and “Junction City” just west of it, at the forks of the Kansas, whence its more northerly branch is known as the Republican, and its more southerly as the Smoky Hill.

At Junction City, is a newspaper—the most westerly, I presume, in Kansas, apart from the Pike’s Peak region—founded and kept alive by an army sutler, and of course “Democratic” in its inculcations. In opposition to it, The Manhattan Express is about to be issued here by M. Vivalde, an Italian exile and a devotee of universal liberty, who will of course sustain the republican cause. I commend him and his journal to the confidence and patronage of all who would like a weekly bulletin from the Far West. I spoke here last evening in the midst of another gathering tempest, which burst in rain as I closed, and it continued to flash and roll all night, with considerable rain, and is cloudy and blowing a gale to-day. I fear we shall be stopped by high water on the plains.

I had hoped to sum up my impressions of Kansas in this letter, but that would make it too long. Let me close with an incident which is currently reported throughout this region as having recently taken place at a crossing of the Big Blue, known as Marysville (of course not the Marysville of Bull Creek), some sixty miles north of this place:

A party of disheartened gold-seekers, it is said, were returning from the plains, and came to this ferry, which they insisted on crossing without payment, saying they had no money. The ferryman refused to take them over until paid—(another account says he asked them an exorbitant price)—when they attempted to take his boat and put themselves across—whereupon he drew his revolver, they drawing almost at the same instant. He was of course riddled with balls, and fell dead, but not till he had either killed or severely wounded five of his assailants.

One more illustration of border life: A quarrel recently arose about a “claim”—that fruitful source of frays and lawsuits in new settlements—on one of the creeks a few miles from this place. The stronger party, composed of several who are known here as bad fellows, told the resident he must leave, which he, in fear for his life, consented to do. His wife, however, more resolute, resolved to hold possession, and bade them defiance, turning as she did so to go into the house and bar the door. As she turned, she was fired at and fatally wounded. She died two hours thereafter, having first made a statement of the affair, which was taken down from her dying lips. The adverse party came down at once to the nearest justice and told their story, expecting to clear their leader, who fired the fatal shot; but the justice, after hearing them through, considered that it implicated the whole party (five), and consequently held them to answer to the charge of murder.

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