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Thomas Gay: Kansas Reminiscences, Part 9 [Osawkie Land Sales]

Personal Recollections of Life in Territorial Kansas in Border Ruffian Days

On the 15th day of July, 1857, commenced at Osawkie* the sale of the Delaware Trust lands. These lands include that part of the Delaware reservation lying north of a line drawn east and west, perhaps a mile south of the little hamlet. There was no homestead law at that time, and all lands obtained by settlers ranged in price from $1.25 per acre upward. The lands were however appraised, and those settling upon such appraised land were privileged during the time of sale to prove their claim and upon payment of appraised value receive a patent for their land. The little hamlet, apparently dead and in process of decomposition, all at once jumped to a wonderful resurrection. Buildings, substantial and otherwise, were erected in every direction. A huge hotel four stories in height was commenced in the spring of that year, and Osawkie was destined, in the minds of its sleepy inhabitants, to become, first, the county seat of Jefferson County, and next, the capitol of the territory.

* Ozawkie has had various spellings, including the earlier Osawkee.

First cabin in Osawkee—used at Land Sales for office in 1857. Later it was the home of O.C. Dewey. The older lady in the chair is Mrs. Corman. She and her husband were proprietors of the first hotel in Ozawkie in 1856. Image courtesy of Jefferson County Historical Society.


For a week previous to the opening of the sales, the road from Weston [Missouri] and Leavenworth was alive with teams and vehicles of every description, and they all bore, in some of its multifarious forms, the frontier liquid elixir of life. Whatever else any vehicle might contain to minister to the inner comforts of the gathering throng, the place of greatest space was given to the “spirit king,” and for a long month he ruled triumphant in Osawkie. The Missourian, and people from the slave states generally, drank whiskey and brandy, and as they were the most numerous and aggressive, they gave tone to society. They looked upon a wine or beer drinker with contempt. They would sometimes lower themselves to a kind of speaking acquaintance with a free state man, if he stood the treats pretty liberally on the strong potations of the “first families;” but for a beer guzzler there was no word in their vocabulary that could quite express their horror for his character, and the man that absolutely refused to drink at all, was simply outside the inclosure of their civilization – a kind of moral leper that should not be allowed to contaminate the elect.

By the 15th of the month, two or three hundred tents and temporary structures occupied all hitherto vacant territory in the vicinity of the town. The proprietors all sold liquid fire of some kind, and most of them ran some kind of a gambling machine; there was the sound of the clinking glass and the rattle of dice from morning till late night, and then all the horrors of Dante’s inferno broke loose, and each ‘circle’ vied with others to make a horrible hell, worthy of their occupation. The drunken wretches would fall upon each other with bitter curses, and pound and slash and shoot and disfigure each other, and howl like maniacs till, Satan, who had been prowling about the place for some time, finally could endure it no longer, and went back to his old home to rest and recruit. This horrid carnival of debauchery and the exhibition of wild emotions of all that is cruel and base in man, when brought to the surface by love of gain and the excitement of liquor will never be effaced from my mind.

The money loaners were out in full force, and woe to the poor settler who was obliged to borrow any considerable sum, to save his claim and improvements for himself and family. The rate of interest was appalling, and the great financial crash of 1857 following immediately, worked immense calamity to multitudes of settlers.

Around the building in which the business of the sales was transacted was drawn a cordon of U.S. troops, sent down from the military post of Fort Leavenworth. If there was in all the world any class of humanity worse in morals than these troops and their officers, I pity the people afflicted with their presence. No man of any respectability would, at that time, enlist under our flag to serve his country as a common soldier in our regular army; so the little army of about 12,000 men was formed almost exclusively of the worst scum of our foreign population. These soldiers, who proved themselves good fighters, both in Mexico and in border warfare with Indians, were difficult of management in quarters and camp, and the discipline exercised over them was strict in the extreme. The officers were as drunken and overbearing, and brutal as the privates were drunken and disobedient, and the line of demarcation between officer and private blended in no friendly or sympathetic way.

The punishment of the private was swift, sure and humiliating in the extreme; the punishment of the officer for his offenses against the private, especially in isolated quarters, was something never heard of. For intoxication, I have seen privates strung up by the thumbs till the agony was almost unbearable; for the same offense in the officer there was no punishment, and I have frequently seen the carcasses of men wearing epaulettes of Uncle Sam lie dead drunk for hours, piled away in some shady spot, waiting till the effects of their potations expended themselves. Nine out of every ten of these were men of southern birth and education, and in the “conflict” that came later on, most of them deserted the stars and stripes and gave their allegiance to the stars and bars.

The one officer of prominence in the territory, who was in sympathy with free state ideas, and who at all times and under the most trying circumstances commanded the respect and confidence of northern men was Col. E.V. Sumner [Edwin Vose “Bull” Sumner, commander at Fort Leavenworth], afterward a gallant commander in the Army of the Potomac. He was a veteran of the Mexican and Indian wars, and as a faithful soldier, obeyed the orders of his superiors, however, distasteful they might be. Knowing his strong opposition, as a man, to the encroachments of the slave power, the pro-slavery administration, by a refinement of cruelty dwelling only in the bosoms of those lost to all sense of shame, selected him to carry out the edicts of the bogus pro-slavery government of the territory, and while his manly heart bled to perform the evil orders of his superiors, his arm performed its soldier’s duty, and he earned the respect and love of those he was obliged to operate against. I remember the gray haired, kindly faced old soldier well, and once ferried him and escort, with a quarter million in gold, across the Grasshopper [Delaware River] at Osawkie. I saw him frequently also in 1863 doing valiant service in a more congenial field of action – in the Army of the Potomac, and I often speculated, as I contrasted him, and other old veterans, with smooth-faced McClellan, then superior in rank, as to whether it would not have been wiser to have given experience, and age and tested loyalty, preference over youth and vaulting ambition, in the management of that splendid army of loyal troops.

— Thomas Gay


1857 Map of the Delaware Trust Lands. Compiled by George M. Smith. Image courtesy of Jefferson County Historical Society.


In August 1857, the Prairie City Freeman's Champion described the Osawkee land sales as "another Saturnalia or Pandemonium." See "Land Sales at Osawkee," https://www.jchsks.com/post/land-sales-at-osawkee


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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