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Thomas Gay: Kansas Reminiscences, Part 8 [Lawrence]

Personal Recollections of Life in Territorial Kansas in Border Ruffian Days

The next morning I was early on my road eastward toward Lawrence. My route lay along the Yellow Kansas river whose siren voice was ever murmuring in my ears, “come to my embrace and I will cleanse you of all exterior impurity, and fill you with exhilaration and strength for your journey.” I was no Ulysses that could resist the persuasive and enchanting voice ever babbling so melodiously in my ears, but just a common every day boy, desiring every-day pleasures, and willing the future should look out for itself. So I listened and obeyed, and went to my doom. The point that witnessed my discomfiture is nearly midway between Lecompton and Lawrence. A skirt of friendly brush upon a jutting bend of the river served me in place of an undressing room. Clothes and gun were deposited upon the bank, and with one mad plunge I was below, with the astonished cat fish of the yellow Kaw.

Now the Kaw is generally a shallow stream, but unfortunately I struck one of its depths. The current was swift, and not being an expert swimmer, when I was fairly in the stream I found I could not make my way back to the point of departure. The banks just below where I had jumped in were in the nature of low bluffs whose bases were washed by the river, giving me no chance to land on that side. So I was carried toward Lawrence, gasping and kicking and sputtering and constantly seeking bottom and finding none, and that miserable liquid siren holding me fast kept whispering, “I’ve got you; you’re a goner, you’re a goner,” and I struck her and kicked her and wrestled with her, and told her if she would let me onto terra firma once more I’d never look at her old yellow face again as long as my name was Gay. I guess that made her mad, for she gave me a whirl round, intending to finish me, when my feet struck bottom, and the banks there being low I struggled out and thanked God for deliverance from the miserable yellow wretch. I had come out perhaps forty rods below where I went in, and after a look around, struck out at a 2:40 pace for the locality containing my fig leaves.

Gentle reader, if you have a heart to pity the sufferings and misfortunes of your species, will you be so sympathetic as to weep a gill or two at what followed? If you do not in the perusal of the above sentence experience some symptoms of a cataract of water overflowing the canals of your lachrymal apparatus, you are not in a fit condition to do me justice in the sympathetic line, and you had better skip this tragedy and pass to where I pick up the ravellings of more important history. Surging forward at a most tremendous pace, I soon came to the thicket where I had deposited gun and garments. Here I was met with a sight which froze my very “victuals,” and filled me with unutterable sensations of despair, compared to which the embraces of the siren with the yellow face were ecstasy. Three butternut wretches, filled to the brim with malice prepeuse [premeditated] and boundless aforethought as to the best method of procedure against the peace and dignity of the legitimate owner of that gun and garments, sat on the banks of that wicked stream, and with my property in full possession, grinned at me out of the depths of their straggling hair with such a horrid levity as Satan might have indulged in, when consummating the full of our first parents, he watched them in their journey to the corner of the garden where grew the fig trees. For a moment there was silence. Nothing but that horrid, horrid meaning composite grin met my vision, as I stood on the burning sand transfixed and speechless. Then as with one accord they all arose and with my clothes and rifle in possession started westward. Then I found my voice and lifted it; I bowed myself in the dust and prayed them to deliver me such part of my property as would shield me from sun and storm, and I wept sore.

I think the taking of my garments was nothing but a terrible joke to frighten me into spasms of despair, for one of the hairy imps soon returned with them intact, raising me from despair to bliss. But the precious rifle was gone — captured by strategy. Then I bid farewell to all hope of honor upon the battle field; and I expect this was a kindly “Kismet,” for the field of blood was fast changing to a field of diplomacy.

Illustration depicting Lawrence, Kansas Territory, May, 1856. The building under the flag is the Free-State Hotel and the earth embankment (right of center) was constructed for the town's defense. The illustration first appeared in Historical Collections of the Great West by Henry Howe. Kansas Memory, https://www.kansasmemory.org/item/208734


How vivid is my recollection of the first sight of Lawrence. The ruins of the free state hotel proclaiming disaster of an earlier period had not yet given place to a new structure. [In May, 1856, Douglas County Sheriff Samuel Jones and pro-slavery forces burned down the hotel.] A stone fort on Mt. Oread was visible a long distance, and I suppose done effective defense services in the cause of freedom. I recollect also several black earthen circular defenses consisting of prairie soil. They were perhaps about a breast high, and so constructed as to enclose a safe retreat for the non-combatants. [The earth “forts” were near Massachusetts Street.] At the base of Mt. Oread, and some considerable distance from the main part of the village, stood a stone church. This was the Unitarian church, and its pulpit was filled at that time by the Rev. Ephraim Nute, [a Lawrence abolitionist and free-state proponent] still living at Sherborn, Massachusetts. As I came into the place a funeral procession was moving toward this church. The escort were men in blue uniforms, and were, I think, members of a military organization at Lawrence. I understood the deceased to be the body of some free state man, that had been murdered some time previous and was now being reinterred with military honors. To this procession I joined myself and entered with them into the sacred precincts of that temple, and listened to the words of God’s ambassador, as he talked of the brotherhood of all mankind and denounced slavery as the sum of all iniquity. Then with the rest I followed the body to its resting place not far distant.

That night I spent in comfortable quarters, listening till a late hour to the stories of men who had passed through severe trials, and resting in confidence of security till late morning, when I left northward for Osawkee, where I arrived in good time, and spent a humiliating hour or two, pouring into Abner’s ears how it happened that I came shorn of my portable property, always supposed to be “loaded for border ruffians.”

In the spring of 1861 I again visited Lawrence. I came in the evening, on my way to Chariton, after a journey to the Pacific coast. I spent the night with Iowa friends who had been for some years in Lawrence and vicinity. In company with one of these friends as a guide, I spent a happy day looking up the land marks of the place. I found the stone church still standing, but now on a populous street, elbowed by more pretentious structures. I have since heard of its demolition, but I never think of Lawrence without a remembrance of that gray sanctuary. [The church was near 9th and Ohio streets.]

Leaving this church to the right we followed a winding road to the sacred top of Oread. The old fort was gone; but in its stead arose in architectural splendor the pride of Lawrence, the University of Kansas, whose eminent instructors have done more than simply make two blades of grass grow where one only grew before; for they have made multitudes of blades of wheat come to maturity where none could properly ripen. Scientifically others have done well, and have slain their thousands of pestiferous insects; but the great west can sing of Professor Snow and his associates as having slain their billions of the worst pest, that ever fed upon the wheat fields of the Mississippi Valley.

The University of Kansas' first building, North College, opened in September 1866.


The museum of this institution is one of the richest of any of our western universities, particularly in its collection of North American animals. Its collection of fossils, minerals and casts of antique statuary is also well selected. I shall always hold in grateful remembrance the young gentleman who so intelligently discoursed on the uses and merits of the university collection, and also enriched the ideas of his hearers, by his exposition of the theory of the gradual change now going on in the enlightened world (and more especially in Lawrence, I think) from physical to mental supremacy, and the likelihood that in the not far distant future the body will be entirely eliminated from the now complex structure of humanity, and “Bel-esprit” will roam and reign untrammeled by gross body and its inherited passions.

It’s a lovely theory, and when I surveyed my 180 lbs. of physical humanity, and thought how it had hampered me in my race for a street car that morning, I said, “now, mind, get a move on yourself and knock off a modicum of this surplus flesh, and fill the space with a lot of ‘Bel-esprit,’ etc.” But alas! I was doomed to disappointment, for I kept getting stouter still, and the mind having to spread itself over additional territory every year is getting thin and worn in holes and quite unable to subdue its arch enemy, the body. Well, I see I have drifted away from my subject. Nevertheless it can remain, and the wise in their own concern can “make a note on it.”

— 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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