Personal Recollections of Life in Territorial Kansas in Border Ruffian Days
In the early summer of 1857, there were premonitions of serious trouble in Utah. Brigham Young, president of the Mormon church, had, hitherto, by virtue of his supreme influence among the people of that territory, been successful in persuading the powers at Washington that he was the only individual in whom should reside the functions of government in Utah. [President] Buchanan decided to ignore his claims and another was selected. [Buchanan appointed Alfred Cumming to serve as Utah’s territorial governor.] The Mormons differed in opinion with the chief magistrate, and a streak of war clouded the western horizon. Buchanan at first determined to send Gen. [William S.] Harney with a force of United States regulars to carry out his will in this direction, but decided in view of the condition of affairs in Kansas to keep them there, and [Albert S. Johnston], afterwards one of the most famous of the confederate generals, was given command of the expedition. He left too late in the summer, and instead of marching in triumph into Salt Lake City, he only reached the mountains, where he was snowed in, and there remained till the spring of 1858, in a famished condition, to the intense satisfaction of Brigham Young and all Mormondom. During the winter of 1857-58 the administration became uneasy as to the ability of Johnston and his half-starved and winter-weakened forces to cope successfully with the well-fed and confident Mormons, and it was decided to send Harney and the whole available army to his assistance, as soon as it was possible in the spring.
My employer, Geo. Dyer, received an appointment as government sutler, and in March commenced preparations to transport his store of goods to Salt Lake City, as soon as the army were prepared to move. [George Dyer, with his brother William Dyer, operated a general goods store at Osawkee.] His “outfit” was to consist of thirty-five wagons, drawn by six yoke of cattle each, with their drivers, wagon masters and assistants, extra cattle, ponies, etc. A large number of the drivers or “bull whackers,” as they were called, were picked up in Jefferson County, and were as mongrel a lot of bipeds as one will often see together: Half-breed Indian, greaser, Missourian, mingled with the Yankee, the Canadian-Frenchman, and sons of the Emerald Isle. To this motley band of “whackers,” Abner and the writer of these “chronicles” joined themselves, for the stipend of $23 per month, for the time consumed in going to and returning from Mormondom. If we should elect to not return, but take up an abode in the city of the saints, we were to have $40 per month. Alas! We were destined not to reach that scene of supposed hostilities, for Johnston swooped down on the boasting saints before Harney was well started on his journey, and they found that Uncle Sam although sometimes a little slow is always sure.
The driving of oxen in a sutler’s train is an art only mastered by long practice. The first step in a “whacker’s” education is the whip drill. The whip is something fearful and wonderful. A stout stock two and a half feet long, a lash sixteen or eighteen feet, with an inch and a quarter bulge five feet from attachment, and an innocent looking silken terminal at the extreme end constituted the “whacker’s” mechanical “ox persuader.” It was nothing except in the hands of a professional. The first step in drill was to learn how to bring out the voice of that little imp, ever dangling at the end of the lash. The expert grasped the stock in both hands, sent the lash in a serpent curl forward, and the voice entered in the ears of the delinquent steer, like the report of a rifled gun. The next essential was to select some tender spot on the poor creature’s haunch, send the lash forward with its vicious cry, then with another whirl lift the selected spot clear out of the brute’s anatomy. This seemed to reverse the attraction of gravitation in the rear of the steer, which started skywards, throwing his front forward onto the yoke, which pulling on the wagon tongue brought the load of whis— I mean sutlers’ stores, forward at a more rapid rate.
This constituted the mechanical part of the drill, but there was something else which no expert “whacker” which had the least respect for his professional reputation, omitted to perform on special occasions, when the lash had failed in voice and act, to bring the load forward. This was the use of an expletive nomenclature, gathered from the vocabulary of Mexican, half-breed, Canadian and Missourian. If this expressive mixture of all that was evil and soul harrowing in these dialects failed in conjunction with the ounce of flesh, to bring the vehicle forward, the “whacker” succumbed, and metaphorically speaking shed tears of mortification and shame. After the drill was completed, we were taken to Atchison, where the train was to be made up for its long journey westward. Here we went into camp, and as fast as the oxen were purchased they were trained for future service. The first oxen that fell to me were two gaunt, huge fellows with a vast superfluoulty of horn that curved and shot out in every direction. I used them as “wheelers” for I soon found in practice about the hills of Atchison, that they had the most extraordinary hold-back qualities.
They had been born and raised in the nation of Missouri and from having seen so many mules and their relations, imagined that one of the chief objects of their existence was to go slow, or better still, stop and consider before going the downward road. So they would, on the slightest appearance of a decline in the highway, sit down and with their hind legs sticking straight forward they would take a ride at the expense of their companions in front. That was all right, as it saved me from locking my wagon, but I never quite forgave them for not learning the “Wisconsin” language. From childhood to old age they had learned nothing but “Missouri,” and I don’t think they ever quite understood my language or motives.
Just in front of these old villains I had as lovely and artistic a span of steers as was in the whole “outfit.” One of these steers was born a heifer and, speaking anatomically, had grown up into a charming cow, but owing to some peculiar notions and perhaps some circumstances which “it” could not control to all intents and purposes “it” had become transformed into a splendid steer. George Dyer, who seemed to be always interested in favoring me, assigned “it” to me with the observation that “milk was a valuable commodity on the plains, and that his ‘mess’ would like all I had to spare at 15 cents a quart.” It was not long before it dawned on me that “it” was not that kind of a creature. Having taken up the burden of life as a steer “it” had made no preparations to do duty also in the line of the sex wherein “it” was born. Its whole career while in my possession proclaimed that “it” having made up its mind to be an ox desired to be first class.
My leaders were a sprightly yoke of young muleys, and at first gave me no end of vexation. At the command “forward march” they invariably went “file right” or “file left” or to the rear. They were always both of exactly the same mind, and that was just contrary to mine. Finally I lent them to Pedro Stinella for a few days. When they returned they had lost a lot of their anatomy and were terribly spotted. I pitied them, but blessed Pedro, for they kept the road better, especially when I shouted to them a few words in Portugese that Pedro had imparted to me as absolutely necessary for that breed of steers. The method for securing the oxen as practiced in camp and always on the journey afterward was to form an inclosure with the wagons. Into this inclosure, open at the forward end, the oxen were driven before light. Thirty-five men, each with a yoke on his shoulder must go into this pen and among the 420 oxen and select and secure his “off” wheel ox; this secured, he must in turn secure in order the balance of his six yoke of oxen and attach them to his wagon. It was terrible; and the man that could with “Bright” on his toes, with “Buck’s” horns through his shirt, with “Tony’s” tail in his face, and with “Pompey” squeezing the spasms out of his inwardness, calmly and serenely request “Bright” to step on the other foot a while and pat “Buck” lovingly on his brow, and kindly remove “Tony’s” tail to its proper position, and soothe “Pompey” with “So! Poor fellow”,— Well the man that did do that, why he didn’t belong to Dyers’ “outfit.” I think he was dead when that train was made up. But there is no question in my mind that if he did live, he is a happy man now.
On the first of May our train was complete. A part of the army was already on the march, and the next morning we moved out toward the land of the Buffalo and the Indian. A strange wild life was before me for a few months, but of this I am not to speak in these papers; and as I move out into the great unknown I also take leave of my readers, thanking them for their kindly words of encouragement during the writing of these “Recollections.”
– Thomas Gay
Jefferson County Centennial Pageant, 1955: "Real oxen and genuine prairie schooner by 'Smokey' Wilson, Joplin Mo. Astride horse: Karl Hockenbarger. Beside burro: Bill Grindol of Perry, KS." Photo courtesy of Jefferson County Historical Society.
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.