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Thomas Gay: Kansas Reminiscences, Part 3 [The Battle of Hickory Point]

Personal Recollections of Life in Territorial Kansas in Border Ruffian Days

(From the Chariton Herald, Feb. 22, 1894)

I think some old time philosopher has somewhere promulgated a theory something like this: “In times of peace, when mankind are engaged in building up and fostering commerce and manufacturies, and art and science, etc., the protoplasm of the blood is infused with infinitesimal organisms in the shape of deer, goats, lambs and other animals of like inoffensive nature. But when the tocsin of war sounds in the ear, by some unexplained process of rapid evolution the microscopic deer become blood hyenas; the goats, man-eating tigers; and the lambs, fierce lions.”

By this simple means, it is argued, man, recently so serene and peaceful, becomes at once a ferocious monster, driven onward by irresistible but unseen forces toward blood, the goal of his new desires.

If this be true, on the evening of September 12, 1856, my blood was charged to its full capacity with the forms of all the savage monsters that ever found habitation on earth; and these forces were propelling me irresistibly forward toward an encounter which I felt sure must take place in the immediate future at or near Hickory Point, a little hamlet five or six miles from Osawkie, on the military road leading to Fort Leavenworth.

As I remember it now, after the lapse of more than a third of a century, the air of Kansas in our little village was electrified with rumors of war.

I think [Free State leader James H.] Lane was on a journey northward and had corralled a gang of border ruffians in three or four log cabins on a slight eminence, not far from a pretty grove of timber, consisting mostly of hickory, and giving that name to the hamlet of Hickory Point.

It seems that Lane, though brave enough, was also discreet and refused to attack the enemy with simply small arms.

The “Annals of Kansas” records in substance that Lane sent to Lawrence and Topeka for reinforcements. Harvey* came up from Lawrence with a good company and a brass six-pounder, and Whipple ** also came with a company from Topeka. But Lane it seems decided after sending for these men not to attack at all, and sent orders to that effect to Harvey and Whipple. The countermanding order failed to reach them, and they pushed on, and themselves made the attack on the 13th. Be that as it may, I fell in with these congenial abolition spirits, and received on September 13, 1856, my baptism of blood.

*[James A. Harvey, 1828-1857, came to Kansas Territory in August 1856 leading free-staters organized from Chicago. Once in the Territory, he was named colonel of the Third Free-State Regiment. Source: multiple, including Kansas State Historical Society.]

**[Col. “Charles Whipple,” 1831-1860, was the Kansas alias of Aaron Dwight Stevens, a free-state fighter and abolitionist executed for his part in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in an attempt to lead slaves to insurrection. Source: multiple, including Kansas State Historical Society.]

Now let me retreat a little. On the evening of the 12th of September I had a long chat with friend Abner [Lowell] with the result recorded in Part II. He forseeing trouble to me, and regarding himself in a measure responsible for my well-being and safety, refused his consent to let me go, but the fierce creatures in my protoplasm were insatiable and irresistible, and I determined to fight if given an opportunity.

I left in the early morning the 13th, long before light, in order not to be seen by curious neighbors. Shaking Abner by the hand as he sat on his bunk, I said to him chaffingly: “Old fellow, when I come back there won’t be any border-ruffian lead in my heel.” He answered sadly: “No, Tommy, you are too fleet a pedestrian for any of their dilatory missiles to ever overtake you.” Then I went out into the darkness.

Hickory Point lies north and east of Osawkie. I went southward, keeping on the east side of the babbling Grasshopper River, and into the Delaware reservation. Then I turned eastward. My object was to strike a section of country on a direct line between Lawrence and Hickory Point. I argued that if there was to be a battle at Hickory Point or vicinity, there would be squads of free state men from Lawrence, that stronghold of anti-slavery sentiment, to take a hand in it, and that I would be likely to fall in with them and render valuable assistance with my double-barreled “death dealer.”

It turned out as I had hoped, and the sun was not very high before I struck a squad of anti-slavery men on foot and mounted, who after a few short, sharp questions by the leader, in regard to my politics and desire, not only grieved me, but made me glad also, by exclaiming: “Well, ‘Sonny,’ just fall in. I guess we can use you all right.” We soon joined another and larger company of lion-blooded pioneers, dusty, thirsty fellows seeking blood to appease the vengeance within their souls for real or fancied atrocities committed by border-ruffians. This second detachment was the possessor of a brass cannon of four or six-pound caliber, and moved forward with haste and decision. To this company we joined ourselves and the heterogeneous mass of armed humanity swept across that beautiful prairie, toward where glory and vengeance awaited them.

The weather was warm, and before we reached the entrenched forces at Hickory Point, we were pretty well done up with heat and thirst. There was a halt made just out of range of the border-ruffian guns and a fusillade with Sharps rifles and other small arms notified the enemy that operations had commenced. Upon our side the advantages were longer range guns, and the effective brass field piece. The log houses of the enemy answered for pretty fair fortifications, but as the occupants must of necessity mass themselves in close order they were liable to be struck by our long-range rifles or knocked into “smithereens” by the iron of our battery. We scattered ourselves over a good deal of ground and rested and peppered away just out of the range of our enemies’ inferior guns, with the most invincible courage and daring recklessness.

The Battle of Hickory Point, Sept. 14, 1856, 2nd day. From a sketch by William Breyman, a participant, who is shown in the foreground with team and caisson. Col. James A Harvey is mounted; in the foreground above him is Capt. J.C. Bickerton, also mounted. Lieut. Pratt holds a ramrod near the cannon, "Old Sacramento." Image courtesy of Jefferson County Historical Society.

The boys were in for a good soul-inspiring conflict, and they prolonged it by not getting too near the cabins of the enemy. But it takes a good deal of powder and lead to carry on a prolonged conflict, and I think after we had kept up this thing till along in the afternoon our ammunition was getting quite low, at any rate there was a lull in the carnage and it seemed as if some kind of a parley was going on; perhaps with a view to the cessation of the conflict; and sure enough, the word soon passed along, that the enemy had kind of capitulated. I don’t think now it was much of a surrender. We allowed them to retain their dead and wounded, their firearms and other munitions of war, their pants and shirts, and such hats and shoes as they possessed; only stipulating, I think, that they should divide fair on the contents of certain demijohns, safely stored away out of any possible danger, during the prolonged struggle. In one respect they were richer than we, they were the happy and proud possessor of a corpse, the remains of a reckless Missourian that had insisted in putting himself in front of our bullets. Two or three others had also been struck in various sections of their anatomy and they seemed to stand pretty well in the estimation of their comrades, but the deceased was fortunate in possessing their profound reverence and highest respect.

I remember thinking that it seemed to be a kind of disgrace not to have a corpse or two of our own, and had selected during the exchange of discourtesies, a grisly old yankee with a long-range rifle, as a splendid victim for that position. He had so insisted on addressing me as “Sonny,” and “By Goshed” my carbine as a “rale cute pepper box,” and “durned” himself sarcastically, “if he didn’t allow I’d murder some Mizzourian before chore time,” that I had selected him as the proper one to fill that honorable position. Not, perhaps, that I actually desired his death, but I thought it would be very nice to have something happen, to give a different turn to his conversation or entirely check the flow of his everlastingly sarcastic gab. As it was, a few stray bullets put in some fair work on our men, but not of so serious a nature as to let out the entire ghost of any of them.

We were fairly well content with our lack of a corpse or two and gave the more glory to our wounded. I think they must have been a happy lot, possessing as they did something substantial in the way of evidence, to back up their future stories of how they fought and actually bled for freedom in Kansas.

I think now there was a large screw loose somewhere in this affair. Harvey and Whipple were certainly aware of the questionable policy, not to say right, of this undertaking, and they must have known that Uncle Sam’s cavalry was scouting the country for just such opportunities for arrest, as the free state party had now given them. They were aware that they could not fight Uncle Sam, and it would have been discreet to have kept a few fleet horsemen out on the watch for the enemy, as flight and exemption from arrest was the only possible victory we could hope to achieve over such a foe.

Soon after the close of the attack on the demijohns, we broke up into squads and moved southward. But either we were too near worn out with want of food and rest, and had been too dilatory in getting away, or the demijohns had emptied an enemy into the mouth of our leader that stole away his brains, for a body of cavalry, acting under a terrible “uncivil process,” in the hands of a United States marshal, intercepted a goodly number of our boys, and lugged them off to their camp at Lecompton.

—THOMAS GAY, Chariton Herald, February 22, 1894

Ed.’s note: “Yesteryears” readers know, no doubt, that many versions exist about what happened before, during and after the Battle of Hickory Point. The above is yet another. But what appears below is quite a different version of affairs. The following are excerpts from the September 16, 1856, edition of the “Squatter Sovereign,” the ultra pro-slavery Atchison, Kansas, newspaper of Virginian John Stringfellow.

Battle of Hickory Point. TWO DAYS’ HARD FIGHTING. 250 MEN REPULSED by 50. Grasshopper Falls Taken,” read the headline in the Squatter Sovereign. “Seven or eight of the Abolitionists were killed and wounded, but not one of our men was injured; although there were several narrow escapes,” read part of the story, while another section noted that “Charles G. Newhall [who was with Hickory Point men] fell mortally wounded.”

As Mr. Gay noted at the end of Part III, the U.S. Troops arrested free-state fighters (between 90 and 100) post-battle and imprisoned them at Lecompton. The men had stopped at what is now Oskaloosa, but then was known as Slough Creek or Newell’s Mills, where Oskaloosa co-founder Jesse Newell had a sawmill under construction. One or two days before Hickory Point, James Harvey and a band of free-staters had captured (and set free, minus their stands of arms, horses, provisions, wagons) pro-slavery South Carolina troops that were in Kansas Territory to help the pro-slavery forces. The Squatter Sovereign, referring to the Slough Creek battle, noted the arrest of many of Harvey’s men after Hickory Point:

“...This is all very well, but we doubt if they [the Territory government] will take the pains to ferret out their depository on Slough creek, and restore to the proper owners the two hundred thousand dollars worth of property these miscreants have wrested from the possession of peaceable pro-slavery men.”


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. Mr. Gay, born in Canada, served in the Civil War in an Illinois regiment, and soon after the war lived in Iowa the rest of his life. 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 2015.

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