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Thomas Gay: Kansas Reminiscences, Part 10 [Jim Lane]

Personal Recollections of Life in Territorial Kansas in Border Ruffian Days


From the year 1855 to 1859 there was no character that stood out so prominently among the masses of the free state people of Kansas, or that aroused more enthusiasm among their friends in the north, as that of James H. Lane. He was in congress at the time of the formation of the Kansas-Nebraska bill [The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) left it to settlers’ votes to determine if Kansas and Nebraska would enter the Union prohibiting or allowing slavery], and, strange as it appears, voted for that measure, with all its dark but plausible sin. We next hear of him as chairman of a convention at Lawrence in June 1855, called to organize a national democratic party in the territory, which convention requested the people of other states “to let them alone in their purposes to form a state government.” In August, of the same year, he was an active member of the first free state convention, held at the same place. This convention was composed of men from all parties that desired to make Kansas a free state. A convention at Topeka on the 19th of September was the outgrowth of the action of this body. To this convention Lane was a delegate, and was on the committee to prepare an address to the people.

In the fall of that year he took an active part in the Wakarusa war [see Civil War on the Western Border: https://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/wakarusa-war], and with [Charles] Robinson negotiated terms of temporary peace with Governor Shannon. In August, 1856, he led a party of 400 immigrants into the territory by the new route through Iowa and Nebraska. It is likely that a portion of these men came through Lucas County [Iowa], and perhaps there are yet living here those who saw some of these bands of free state men. It seems that for every important condition of long continued and violent upheaval of society, or political disturbance, there is waiting some one who is better fitted than any other person to combine and render effective the diverse elements, and mould the people into a homogeneous whole, fit to make effective their central purpose. James H. Lane, better known as Jim Lane, seemed to fill the peculiar niche created by the Kansas-Nebraska bill. He had, as a democratic representative in congress from Indiana, voted for “squatter sovereignty” in the territories, and being of that party which was in control of the government, he drew to his support not only free state democrats, but men from all the parties that desired the curtailment or abolition of slavery.

He was a shrewd politician, and did not hesitate to meet his enemies with the same weapons they brought against him. With him it was in diplomacy as well as war, “Boys, there is the enemy. They are a bad lot! They need licking! Come on! Smite them hip and thigh; legally if possible, but smite, and forget the golden rule till they surrender.” With his active, dashing, aggressive personality, he impressed his fitness to command upon that portion of the free state party who were in the territory for adventure, quite as much as for a desire to make it a free state, and kept in close touch with that element that must come to the front in hostile encounter. He was not popular as a man with the real political leaders and cool heads of the party, but they needed his aggressive service and knew he must not be ignored or rendered secondary. He soon grew into the confidence of the masses, into the respect of the leaders, and was cordially hated and feared by the enemy.

So we say that, notwithstanding some looseness of character, some intrigues of doubtful morality, and some rough methods of procedure, Lane was, upon the whole, the most useful free state character developed during the struggle for freedom in Kansas. I first saw Lane in Osawkie during the political campaign of 1857. He came to advocate a certain line of policy in regards to the proper course to pursue in obtaining political control of the territory. A stand was erected in a grove nearby, and around this was gathered a mass of humanity, composed of men of every shade of political belief. Promptly on time, Lane drove swiftly up on horseback, hitched his horse to a sapling, mounted stand, hung his hat on a limb, reached his right hand up his left coat sleeve, drew out a wicked looking revolver and cocked it. For a moment no word was spoken – only the lick of revolvers among the assembled broke the silence. Then Lane opened his mouth and tore the panoply of heaven with this discordant shriek: “Whom the Golds would destroy they first make mad. If there is any man here that don’t know me, let me say I’m Jim Lane, and if there is any border ruffian here that would like to cover himself with glory, I pause a moment while he shoots me.” No man had the courage to put in practice his ardent desire for his death.

As John Calhoun, of famous “Candle Box” memory, [A pro-slavery voter fraud incident linked to Surveyor General John Calhoun] was to speak in the afternoon, the crowd was probably pretty evenly divided in political sentiment, and all were armed with the usual weapons of frontier citizens. I stood with Abner [Lowell, Gay's host in Osawkie, probably a pseudonym] by a jack-oak tree wondering at the reckless audacity and insolence with which this man flung his scorching epithets into the inwardness of his reckless foes. He shrieked into their ears a recital of all the horrid crimes they had been guilty of, and he cursed them as a “job lot” of desperadoes, too mean for the worst apartment in hades, and for which there was being constructed a special and warmer room in which they were to be kept separate from respectable sinners. I never before realized how many vindictive epithets a person could use in 75 minutes, and the opposition just ground their teeth and scowled and said not a word.

After the first creeping terror of blood at close quarters was passed, I yelled and hurrahed and cheered till I was as full of enthusiasm as a howling dervish. Even sedate Abner, he of the smitten heel, shinned up the jack-oak and mixed the Harvard yell with frontier enthusiasm and shouted and defied the “unwashed” and cried, “bully for Jim,” until in the excess of joy he lost his footing and tumbled ingloriously down through the thick branches, upon the heads of the multitude below. Nothing daunted, he soon untangled himself and jumped upon a stump hard by, he roared in ecstacy, “Lay on Macduff,” and Jim, a little angered and a good deal pleased did “lay on” till he flayed them alive and left them bleeding and gasping with rage and amazement at the supreme audacity of this Nemesis. It is not probable that another man in Kansas could have stood before that audience and uttered a hundredth part of that tirade, without having been speedily numbered among a long list of martyrs.

That night, as Abner and I were at supper, I ventured to remark that Lane did not have to talk long before he (Abner) moved his conservative base plump on Jim's ultra platform, and I asked how he could reconcile his hilarious antics in Lane’s presence, with his conservative wisdom in mine? “Well, Tommy,” said he, as he finished the last slice of brown bread, “you fly round so terribly that I like to act as a kind of balance wheel to keep you steady. But the fact is, that I’ve been going too slow and steady a good while, and when James turned on all that steam I felt as if I must vibrate or explode.” Then we finished “All is well that ends well,” and went to our dreams.

— Thomas Gay


These articles are from a series written by Thomas Gay in 1894 for the Chariton (Iowa) Herald newspaper. Mr. Gay lived in Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, for a few years beginning in May 1856. Copies of his articles were obtained from the Lucas County Genealogical Society (Iowa) and from the Kansas State Historical Society Biographical Scrapbooks, volume 55. His name is included on the Poll List for an August 1858 election at Osawkee Township (Kansas State Historical Society). Mr. Gay, born in Canada, served in the Civil War in an Illinois regiment, and soon after the war settled in Iowa, where he lived the rest of his life. Thomas Gay moved to Kansas Territory from Wisconsin and wrote that he had come to help the free-state cause. He lived with a family friend from Wisconsin, “Abner Lowell,” whom Gay wrote was from Massachusetts. The cabin was located on the Delaware River (then called the Grasshopper River) somewhere between Ozawkie and Lecompton. Some readers might recognize parts of later installments because a few snippets were used in the book, “Ozawkie on the Delaware, 1854-1876,” by Erma L. Steffey.


This story appeared in "Yesteryears" in April 2016

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