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


Manhattan, May 26, 1859.

I like Kansas—that is, natural Kansas—better than I had expected to. The soil is richer and deeper; the timber is more generally diffused; the country more rolling, than I had supposed them. There are of course heavy drawbacks in remoteness from the seaboard, heavy charges for bulky goods, low prices for produce, Indian reserves, and the high price of good lumber. For instance, pine boards used in building at this place came from Alleghany County, N. Y., and were rafted down some mill-stream to the Alleghany, thence down the Alleghany to Pittsburgh and the Ohio to Cairo; were thence taken up the Missouri to St. Louis, the Missouri to Kansas City, and the Kansas to this place, which has but twice or thrice been reached by a steamboat. When here, they were dog cheap at one hundred dollars per thousand superficial feet, or ten cents for every square foot. In the absence of steamboat navigation on the Kansas, they must here be richly worth one hundred and twenty-five dollars per thousand feet. And, while there is pretty good timber here for other purposes, there is little—and that mainly black-walnut —that will make good boards. The ready cotton wood along the banks of the streams cuts easily, but warps so when seasoned that it will draw the nails out of the side of a house. Elm is of course equally perverse; and I have seen few indigenous boards that were not either black-walnut or oak. But much of the oak is small, short, and gnarly; while the black-walnut is likely to be exhausted. I see young ones coming up thickly in some of the river bottoms; but these have much to contend with, and will not at best be large enough to saw for many years. No doubt, the timber of Kansas increases each year, and will increase still faster as roads and improvements are multiplied, limiting the sweep of the prairie-fires; but it will always cost more to build a decent house of wood in the interior of Kansas than in any part of New York or New England—I think twice as much. This is a heavy tax on a new country, where not only houses but barns are a general, primary, and pressing need. I rejoice to see the new timber creeping up the bluffs of the streams; I note with pleasure that much of this is hickory and some of it white-ash; I doubt not that there will always be wood enough here for fencing and fuel; but if the Pike’s Peak region can send a good lot of pine lumber (even yellow-pine) down the Platte and the Arkansas, it will be worth more to Kansas than all her gold.

I consider Kansas well watered-no prairie-state better. I do not confine this remark to the present, when everything is flooded, and likely to be more so. I mean that springs, streams, creeks, rivers, are quite universal. For my own private drinking, I should like a supply not so much impregnated with lime; but, for limestone water, this is generally quite good.

And the limestone itself is among the chief blessings of Kansas. I presume it underlies every foot of her soil I have yet traversed, with nearly every square mile that will be comprised within the state of Kansas. You see it cropping out from almost every bluff; it lies thickly strewn in bowlders over the surface of every headland or promontory that makes out into the bottoms, low prairies, or ravines; so that if you want to use it, it is always to be drawn (or rolled) down hill. Though not here needed as a fertilizer, it can everywhere be quarried with little labor into building-stone, or burned for use in putting up chimneys and plastering walls. Though somewhat decomposed (I presume, by the action of water upon it through thousands of years) and readily cleaving into blocks of suitable size for house-walls, it is said to harden by exposure to the atmosphere, and make a very durable wall. It is the constant though unobserved decomposition of this stone that has contributed so largely to the fertility of this soil, and now countervails the enormous waste through the rivers. I presume all the guano imported yearly into our country does not equal in fertilizing value the annual outflow from the Kansas river alone.

I judge that Indian corn can be grown here as cheaply as anywhere on earth. Thousands of acres last year produced their hundred bushels of shelled grain per acre, at a very moderate cost for labor and none at all for manure. An extensive farmer, who grew many thousands of bushels near Leavenworth, assured me that the cost of his corn, cribbed in the ear, was just six cents per bushel of ears, equal to nine cents per bushel of grain —three half bushels of ears of the great Ohio kind here cultivated making a bushel of grain. Of course, this estimate excludes the cost of land, breaking and fencing; but, making a fair allowance for these, the net cost of that corn cannot have exceeded twenty cents per bushel. I presume it would now sell in his crib for forty cents, while here in the interior it is worth from twenty-five to thirty-five cents per bushel.

I met at Osawatamie an old Whig and now Republican friend who left New York City (where he had been an industrious mechanic) and settled between Lawrence and Topeka two years ago. He had last year eighty acres in corn, which yielded four thousand bushels, worth to him thirty-five or forty cents per bushel. His clear profit on this corn, above the immediate cost of growing it, can hardly have been less than one thousand dollars. He will grow more this year, with wheat, potatoes, etc.; yet he is one of a class who are popularly supposed incapable of making money by farming. I suspect few life-long farmers of similar means will have good buildings over their heads and fruit-trees and other elements of material comfort around them sooner than my friend.

Wheat and oats did badly last year, owing to the heavy summer rains which rusted and blighted them. Too little of either have been sown for this year’s harvest, yet I find both winter and spring wheat looking remarkably well almost everywhere. Oats are scarcely more than out of the ground; yet they, too, promise well, so far as can now be foreseen.

But an unpleasant truth must be stated: There are too many idle, shiftless people in Kansas. I speak not here of lawyers, gentlemen speculators, and other non-producers, who are in excess here as elsewhere; I allude directly to those who call themselves settlers, and who would be farmers if they were anything. To see a man squatted on a quarter-section in a cabin which would make a fair hog-pen, but is unfit for a human habitation, and there living from hand to mouth by a little of this and a little of that, with hardly an acre of prairie broken (sometimes without a fence up), with no garden, no fruit-trees, “no nothing”—waiting for some one to come along and buy out his “claim” and let him move on to repeat the operation somewhere else—this is enough to give a cheerful man the horrors. Ask the squatter what he means, and he can give you a hundred good excuses for his miserable condition: he has no breaking-team; he has little or no good rail-timber; he has had the “shakes;” his family have been sick; he lost two years and some stock by the border-ruffians, etc., etc. But all this don’t overbear the facts that, if he has no good timber, some of his neighbors have it in abundance, and would be very glad to have him work part of it into rails on shares at a fair rate; and if he has no breaking-team, he can hire out in haying and harvest, and get nearly or quite two acres broken next month for every faithful week’s work he chooses to give at that busy season. The poorest man ought thus to be able to get ten acres broken, fenced, and into crop, each year. For poor men gradually hew farms out of heavy timber, where every fenced and cultivated acre has cost twice to thrice the work it does here.

And it is sad to note that hardly half the settlers make any sort of provision for wintering their cattle, even by cutting a stack of prairie-hay, when every good day’s work will put up a ton of it. If he has a corn-field, the squatter’s cattle are welcome to pick at that all winter; if he has none, they must go into the bottoms and browse through as best they can. Hence his calves are miserable affairs; his cows unfit to make butter from till the best of the season is over; his oxen, should he have a pair, must be recruiting from their winter’s famine just when he most urgently needs their work. And this exposing cattle all winter to these fierce prairie-winds, is alike inhuman and wasteful. I asked a settler the other day how he could do it? “I had no time to make a shelter for them.” “But had you no Sundays?—did you not have these at your disposal?” “O, yes? I don’t work Sundays.” “Well, you should have worked every one of them, rather than let your cattle shiver in the cold blasts all winter—it would have been a work of humanity and mercy to cut and haul logs, get up a cattle-stall, and cover it with prairie-hay, which I will warrant to be more religious than any thing you did on those Sundays.” But the squatter was of a different opinion.

How a man located in a little squalid cabin on one of these rich “claims” can sleep moonlit nlights under the average circumstances of his class, passes my comprehension. I should want to work moderately but resolutely, at least fourteen hours of each secular day, until I had made myself comfortable, with a fence around at least eighty acres, a quarter of this partitioned off for my working cattle, a decent, warm shelter to cover them in cold or stormy weather, a tolerable habitation for my family, at least forty acres in crop, and a young orchard growing. For one commencing with next to nothing, I estimate this as the work of five years; after which, he might take things more easily, awaiting the fruit from his orchard and the coming up of his boys to help him. But for the first four or five years, the poor pioneer should work every hour that he does not absolutely need for rest. Every hour’s work then will save him many hours in after life.

For the farmer who comes in with liberal means, the task is obviously much easier. Let us suppose one to be worth $5,000 the day he lands on the Kansas shore of the Missouri, and see how quickly he can make a farm and a home. He arrives, we will say, in August, when he can see just what the country produces, whether in a state of nature or under cultivation. He buys a quarter-section (which is land enough for any man) in a choice locality, including thirty or forty acres of timbered river or creek bottom, say for $10 per acre, charges $1,000 of the $1,600 thus called for to the account of the pro-slavery democracy, for defeating the free land bill, and sets to work, with two good hired men. He buys five yoke of oxen for a breaking-team, a span of good wagon-horses, a cow in fresh milk, and three heifers which will be cows next spring, puts up a cabin that will just do, and is ready to commence breaking by the 1st of September. As his men break, he follows with the horses, sowing and harrowing in wheat so long as that will answer, but does not stop breaking till the ground is frozen. Now he begins to cut and draw timber for a fitter habitation to which to welcome his family in the spring. Having done this, he gets good mechanics to finish it, while he and his men go to work at fencing, by cutting saw-logs for light, narrow boards, if there be a saw-mill convenient; if not, then by cutting for and splitting rails. So soon as the dryest land will answer for it, he begins to put in spring wheat, then oats, then corn, putting up fence whenever the soil is too wet for plowing. Let him not forget to have a few acres seasonably set in fruit-trees, some of them dwarfs for early bearing. Thus his money will not have been exhausted by the ensuing fall, when he will have crops coming in and more than a hundred acres of his land broken and subdued for future cultivation. I see no reason why a resolute, good manager should not be comfortable after his first year or two, and henceforth take the world as easily as need be. He who comes in with but $2,000, $1,000 or $500, must of course be much longer in working his way to a position of comfort and independence; but if he will work right ahead, wasting neither days nor dollars, and keeping clear of speculation and office-seeking, he can hardly fail to do well.

As to the infernal spirit of land speculation and monopoly, I think no state ever suffered from it more severely than this. The speculators in broadcloth are not one whit more rapacious or pernicious than the speculators in rags, while the latter are forty times the more numerous. Land speculation here is about the only business in which a man can embark with no other capital than an easy conscience. For example: I rode up the bluffs back of Atchison, and out three or four miles on the high rolling prairie, so as to have some fifteen to twenty square miles in view at one glance. On all this inviting area, there were perhaps half a dozen poor or middling habitations, while not one acre in each hundred was fenced or broken. My friend informed me that every rood I saw was “preŽmpted,” and held at thirty up to a hundred dollars or more per acre. “PreŽmpted!” I exclaimed; how preŽmpted? by living or lying?” “Well,” he responded, “they live a little and lie a little.” I could see abundant evidence of the lying, none at all of the living. To obtain a preŽmption, the squatter must swear that he actually resides on the quarter-section he applies for, has built a habitation and made other improvements there, and wants the land for his own use and that of his family. The squatters who took possession of these lands must every one have committed gross perjury in obtaining preŽmption—and so it is all over the territory, wherever a lot is supposed likely to sell soon for more than the minimum price. I hoard of one case in which a squatter carried a martin-box on to a quarter-section, and on the strength of that martin-box, swore that he had a house there “eighteen by twenty“—he left the officer to presume the feet. So it is all over; the wretched little slab shanty which has sufficed to swear by on one “claim,” is now moved off and serves to swear by on another, when the first swearing is done. I am confident there is not at this hour any kind of a house or other sign of improvement on one-fourth of the quarter-sections throughout Kansas which have been secured by preŽmption. The squatter who thus establishes a “claim” sells it out, so soon as practicable, to some speculator, who follows in his wake, getting from $50 to $300 for that which the future bonafide settler will be required to pay $250 to $1,500 for. Such, in practical operation, is the system designed and ostensibly calculated to shield the poor and industrious settlers from rapacity and extortion; but which, in fact, operates to oppress and plunder the real settler—to pay a premium on perjury—to foster and extend speculation —to demoralize the people, paralyze industry and impoverish the country.

But the fierce. chilly gale has blown away the tempest of last night*—the clouds fly scattered and brassy—it is time to look for the Leavenworth Express, whereof two stages west from this point will bear me beyond the bounds of settlement and civilized life. Adieu to friendly greetings and speakings! Adieu for a time to pen and paper! Adieu to bed-rooms and wash-bowls! Adieu (let me hope) to cold rains and flooded rivers! Hurrah for Pike’s Peak!

[* There was a heavy snow storm that night at Denver, and throughout its vicinity.]

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