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Thomas Gay: Kansas Reminiscences, Part 5 [On the Run after Hickory Point]

Personal Recollections of Life in Territorial Kansas in Border Ruffian Days

In the fall of the year of our Lord, 1856, on the west side of the Delaware reservation, somewhere between Osawkie (sic) and Lecompton, is the edge of a skirt of woodland, and near a babbling spring brook, stood a commodious log cabin, the dwelling place of an Indian and his family. While an adverse “kismet” was leading the main portion of my companions in arms to humiliation and imprisonment [after the Battle of Hickory Point], a more kindly brother was directing the steps of a squad of three or four, including the writer of these ‘recollections,’ to this friendly Indian refuge. We came upon it long after nightfall, on our route, I think, to the house of my companions. Nearly exhausted, we determined if possible, to procure a morsel of food, and rest for the remainder of the night. Secreting our rifles in the timber and retaining only our revolvers, we applied for food and shelter.

The Grasshopper River. Image courtesy of Jefferson County Historical Society.

Mr. and Mrs. Lo received us stolidly but not unkindly, and while one of my comrades engaged [the husband] in a conversation of mixed English, Indian and pantomime, the good [wife] roasted, very rare, upon some embers in a huge fire-place, a mighty chunk, from the carcass of some bloody beast that lay half consumed upon the ground floor of an adjoining room. She also built for our destruction a wonderful pudding, or batter or mortar, containing the essence of the worst solids, liquids and gasses that were lying round in promiscuous confusion in that cabin. Of this compound, which was “rank and smelled to Heaven,” we did all eat and contrary to our most sanguine expectations, we were all able for more in the morning.

I silently blessed brother and sister Lo for their good intentions toward the pale faces, but further than this I dare not go, as I fully expected the “batter” would reverse my inwardness and destroy my gastric juices for all time to come. I learned then how wise is nature, or providence, which after allowing the world to be overrun with wicked cooks, kindly furnishes us with copper lined intestines to withstand the corroding influences of their preparations. TAKE NOTICE: Now that [the wife] has departed, this does not refer to any cook in Iowa or Kansas.

The next morning we held a conference of war. I do not now remember whether we, at that time, had any suspicion of the near presence of the federal troops, or whether we had any knowledge of our comrades’ capture [the "capture and imprisonment of ninety or a hundred men by Uncle Sam," free-state men held in Lecompton, see Part 4], but at any rate we decided to separate and each manage for himself.

If any of those three or four stalwart sons of freedom are yet alive and this article should meet their eyes, they will perhaps remember the “Sonny” that dipped with them into that hospitable mortar, in the Indian cabin, near the Grasshopper river, on the night of September 13, 1856. When I stepped out of that cabin, involuntarily, I turned northward, and naturally my thoughts were: “Well, what next?” If I should return to Osawkie I was sure to be under suspicion as a participant in the late fracas; but in my present demoralized condition I had not sufficient strength of purpose to successfully carry out any scheme, that kept me apart from Abner Lowell.

My judgement was, that it would be better to remain away, till the excitement had somewhat subsided; but my feelings were stronger than my judgement, and I followed the Grasshopper northward slowly and cautiously. When within a mile or two of the cabin, I concealed myself and waited for the friendly darkness to approach. Then exhausted, foot sore, hungry, wretched and woebegone, erstwhile so gay and hopeful, I crept to the door of the cabin and knocked. Now in those perilous times it was customary to have private signals by which we could make each other known in the darkness. Abner and I, dwelling together, but often absent from each other for a night or two, had our own signal for entrance to his cabin. This I tattooed on his door, which was almost immediately opened by Abner, who, seizing me by the hand, pulled me into the room; uttering this joyful but anxious exclamation, in which he forgot he was anything but a Yankee, full of provincialisms: “Lordy! Lordy! If ‘taint Tommy! Thank God! Well, I snum!” That night Abner Lowell was glorified in my eyes, and if the angels of heaven ever come down to this earth and dwell for a time in pleasure in the abodes of men, they must have been there having a picnic that night.

How sweet to the sufferer is the personality that has within its breast a heart of love and tenderness for our woe, and the [undecipherable] and gracious tactful mentality to direct it to supply our every want, and fill every unexpensive desire. Has not every one at some period of their life been blest with the companionship of some other person, that filled the full measure of their ideal, and who was an inspiration in all the details of their varied experience? When we read of the close companionship of Joseph and Benjamin, David and Jonathan, Paul and Timothy, Abelard and Elosia, Washington and Lafayette, Childs and Drexel, we must not think that they alone have found that supreme companionship which is the height of earthy bliss. We see it everywhere in nature. Even among the lower animals, two are often seen which are inseparable, and seem to life for each other alone. It is true of the companionship of children, of youth and of age. It is a blending of characteristics, subtle undefinable, but which imparts to each happiness to company and pain in separation. To me till this day, this ideal man is Abner Lowell, who lived in 1856 and ’57 in that little cabin on the banks of the Grasshopper.

He disposed of my gun. He made me lie down on his bunk. He undressed my feet, and rubbed and bathed them. Tenderly and soothingly he washed the dust from my hands and face. Then he cooked me a meal. Oh! Paradise! To lie and inhale the aromatic odors of that stew. That was in it all the rich perfume of “Araby the Blest” and through the incense I saw every where the form and face of one of Heaven’s cherubim personified in my friend.

Jefferson County, 1855-1865, map showing platted town sites and existing roads prior to the the coming of the railroad in 1864; Kaw Agency (first white settlement in Kansas 1827); battle sites of Hickory Point & Slough Creek (1856). The Delaware River was first known by the Indians as Necascatobe (the waters where the martins dwell) by the French fur trappers as Sauterelle (grasshopper); by the first white settlers in 1854 as the Grasshopper. The original map was embroidered by Jefferson County Homemakers Home Demonstration Club. Image courtesy of Jefferson County Historical Society.

I don’t think I had before understood by what a narrow chance I had escaped capture on the evening of the 13th. Abner was, however, well informed of the situation, and until I had knocked on his cabin door had given me up as having been captured with the others. When I fully realized the danger I had thus far escaped, my happiness was deep and quiet and my heart was full of thankfulness. After supper I related to him the incidents of the late conflict of Hickory Point. He then told me there was a single safe course to pursue, and that was to keep close until the excitement had somewhat subsided. He said that in all probability the marshal would feel pretty well satisfied with his large capture, and would find before long that those he already had in durance would become in the nature of an “elephant on his hands.” In a few days, he argued, even if I was reported as a “suspect,” there would be no desire for me, and that I must meanwhile content myself to remain in obscurity as the least of two evils.

I have somewhere remarked that Abner was what Pope designates, “the noblest work of God,” i.e., “an honest man.” He also belonged to one of the highest order of human manipulation. What I mean by that is, that he possessed the knowledge, the artistic touch and heaven born instinct of the true cook, supplemented by a willingness to put his qualities into practice. He would bake his beans, so that when they were opened, they would sing this soothing line:

“B’ gosh we’re Boston beans and we are superfine.”

And he would so compound in proper proportions the ingredients of his brown bread, that when sliced off, it was redolent with the bewitching flavor of New England’s perfect cookery. While the “yankee” of their souls floated with its exquisite perfume into our olfactories and filled the upper anatomy with bliss, the grosser portion ministered ecstasy to the tongue and palate on its smooth passage to usefulness and happiness in the vicinity of the “belt line.”

Now after the manner of cooking not yet obsolete in yankeedom in these days, Abner had constructed, near his fire place, a huge stone oven, into whose yawning depths I could thrust myself upon indications of the near presence of any individual. This oven projected its bulk outside the north end of the cabin, and opened by a good sized orifice inside. This opening was closed by a sheet-iron hingeless door. That night Abner displaced a small stone or two on the outside, rigged the sheet-iron door so it could be fastened inside, furnished it with an old buffalo robe, and my retreat was complete. Once only, did I have occasion to put it to serious use. One night without any previous warning one of our pro-slavery neighbors knocked. Quietly but swiftly I crawled, and Abner boosted me into the contracted quarters, where I lay doubled up like a broken backed jack knife.

Abner was a born strategist. He admitted the neighbor after some delay, rubbing his eyes meanwhile, and yawning as if he had just been roused from a deep slumber. The Missourian insisted on talking a good deal of “Tommy” the poor “solitary” in the oven, and the “solitary” couldn’t help thinking of the chap in the fairy tale, in a similar place, and the voice of the dreadful giant, with his “Fe, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman, Dead or alive, I’ll have some,”

And speculating as to whether Abner could keep the Missourian off the scent, if any odor in his proboscis should lead him to a

“Fe, fi, fo, foy, I smell the blood of a yankee boy.”

Nothing serious however transpired and the Missourian left with the impression that I was expected back in a few days, when we would make up a company for a hunt westward into the buffalo country. Three days after this I was “at home” for all my former friends, and in a few more days more Abner had organized a small company ready for the fall hunt.

—Thomas Gay


These articles are from a series written by Thomas Gay in 1894 for the Chariton (Iowa) Herald newspaper. In Part V Mr. Gay describes his own experience after the Battle of Hickory Point, when many Free-State fighters, resting after the battle at what now is Oskaloosa, were taken prisoner by the U.S. government (whose Kansas Territory governing party at the time leaned to pro-slavery) and imprisoned at Lecompton. Mr. Gay and others evaded capture, and he describes his stealthy trip back from battle to safety.

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 October 2015.

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