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Thomas Gay: Kansas Reminiscences, Parts 1 and 2

Personal Recollections of Life in Territorial Kansas in Border Ruffian Days

(From the Chariton Herald, Feb. 8 and Feb 15, 1894)

These recollections may have a possible interest to the old as a reminder of the exciting events which followed the passage of the “Kansas – Nebraska bill.” By granting the squatters sovereignty, this bill opened up a possible slavery to every new state coming into the Union. [The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed male territory settlers to determine whether the territory would allow slavery.]

In Kansas territory the first battles between slavery and freedom were fought; and upon her fair face was turned, during years of physical warfare and political contention, the eyes of all the rest of the Union.

They may also have an interest to the younger generation as a reminder of what actuated men of that period, and what methods they employed to establish as law, their conflicting ideas of human rights. The idea of the Kansas-Nebraska bill was the [U.S. Senator Stephen A.] Douglas idea, “I don’t care whether slavery is voted up or down.” The idea of the north and south was, “We do care;” and as it was to be determined by votes, it became necessary for voters of other states to emigrate to that territory.

As a matter of fact, however, the early history of the territory was not controlled by its legal voters, but by fraud and violence largely on the part of the men from the slave state on the eastern border of Kansas backed by the pro-slavery administration in Washington.

Although not yet a voter, I had drank in the spirit which then pervaded freedom lovers of the north, and burned with a desire to leave my quiet home in Wisconsin and follow Jim Lane in what I believed to be his cyclonic march through the hordes of border-ruffianism, until such time as age should fit me to assume the duties of a suffrage citizen. [James H. ‘The Grim Chieftain’ Lane, an Indiana congressman who had served in the Mexican War, moved to Kansas Territory in 1855 and became a controversial leader of the Free State party.]

A good deal of fighting had been done, and I supposed a good deal more was to follow, and it seemed to me that there was a great chance to lay in a fine stock of glory to bring out winter evenings to my future children, and at the same time reduce by invincible powder and lead the number of voters on the other side of the question.

So one morning in early spring when in the midst of breakfast, I startled the family by announcing my desire to go down into Kansas and seek my fortune, and help save the future state for freedom. I was then hardly twenty years old, and must have the paternal consent for such an undertaking. The matter was pretty well discussed by the family during the next few days, and I became a little restive awaiting the decision.

I was at that time in the employ of a gun-smith, and had at leisure times constructed a double-barreled rifle or carbine. I had set a brass plate in the stock with this bloody legend engraved upon it: “Anti-slavery rifle. Always loaded for border ruffians. – T.G.”

This formidable weapon, which I supposed would eventually mow terrible lanes through the ranks of the pro-slavery hordes, I brought home one evening, and deposited in the corner of my bedroom. Just before retiring, it was discovered and handed round for inspection. The inscription caught my father’s eye, and intensified in him, I think, the love he bore to liberty, and awakened a desire to have one of his sons cover himself with honor in the cause of freedom; for then and there I was made glad with his consent and blessing.

In a few days I left that home never to return. My life was now before me. My opportunities were waiting for me. Father, mother, brothers, sister, friends, became secondary, in my desire for a new life in a strange land.

If I had then known how infinitesimal would have been my influence and how much suffering was before me, I would still have gone; but saddened and more reluctantly. It is well that,

“Heaven from all creatures hides the book of fate;

All but the page prescribed, their present state;

From brutes what men, from men what spirits know:

Or who could suffer being here below?”

I travelled by train from Fondulac, Wisconsin, through Chicago, Alton and St. Louis and to Jefferson City, the end of the iron road. Here I took steam boat to Leavenworth, landing in that then metropolis of Kansas on a Sunday morning, in the month of May, 1856.

At that time no iron track touched any part of Kansas soil. Passengers and mail were carried westward by [stage] coach, which left Leavenworth every morning, westward.

My destination was Osawkie, about forty miles west, on the great military road [Fort Leavenworth to Fort Riley], where it crosses the Grasshopper River [now Delaware River; “old” Ozawkie moved for Perry Reservoir]. This river is a northern affluent of the Kaw, or Kansas River, and the town is perhaps ten or twelve miles north of the then-famous city of Lecompton, capital of the territory of Kansas.

In Osawkie, I expected to find an acquaintance who had during the first excitement of settlement migrated, and who was a factor in bringing me into the territory.

He was an adventurous descendant of the Pilgrim mothers, and had carried a Sharpe’s rifle, I think, with “Osawatomie Brown,” [John Brown] certainly with “Jim Lane.” I reached his cabin situated in a lovely grove on the banks of the Grasshopper, on that Sunday evening and was made tumultuously welcome by friend Abner Lowell.

I observed that during all our conversation Abner’s eyes wandered suspiciously toward my prospective boring machine, which I had carefully deposited in a corner of the room. Finally he took it, and rolling back the blanket of his bunk, he deposited it out of sight in the straw beneath. Then bolting the door he drew off a shoe from one of his sockless feet and traced, to my astonishment, the course of a rifle ball that had entered his heel and came out near the joint of his little toe. Then carefully drawing on the shoe, he whispered to me these remarkable words:

“Tommy, that is what I received following Jim Lane’s advice.”

“But,” said the now excited and bewildered youth, “you wasn’t shot, was you?” Abner was a Boston man, and he said deliberately, “Where you observe that apparent disturbance of the anatomy of my foot, a ball has perforated me.”

“But, Good Heavens, did they shoot you?” “Precisely.” “Border ruffians?” “Exactly.”

Now, in my innocence, I had hardly realized that any missile, flung even out of the mouth of a blunderbuss in the hands of the other party, would have struck one of the elect. But here was evidence that the rascals had boring machines that would bore holes in the other fellows, if they choose to “monkey” with them at too close quarters.

I think I was a little slow at that period of my life, for it took me some time to assimilate this new idea and all it might mean to me in the conflicts I had laid off to have with the “bad men.” But by and by an equilibrium in the mental faculties was restored, and I was in a condition to go into details. I remembered that Abner had pointed out the entrance of the ball at the heel, and an exit at the toe, and I began to speculate how such a thing was possible. “Why Abner,” said I, “I can’t see how it happened. How could a ball get in at the heel and come out near the toe?” Now Abner was “the noblest work of God;” so he said, “if you will never mention it to an unsympathetic world, I will tell you, Our heels were toward them.” Then I was stricken dumb. Here had I come down to Kansas with a double barreled rifle, “breathing defiance and scorn,” to help swell the number that was to drive the border ruffians like sheep out of the territory. I find my best friend, one of the very elect, peppered with border-ruffian lead; and a thousand times worse, peppered in the heel, and mortal afraid to have a gun seen in his cabin.

It was a little too much for me. My equilibrium was again knocked from under me, and I soon crawled under Abner’s blankets, dreaming of conflicts galore, full of peppered heels, and with a sad ending.

The next morning friend Abner advised that the “bloody legend” be filed off the gun stock. He argued in this way: “The legend will not render the rifle more efficacious in delivering its missile. If captured, your rifle will show to the enemy your vindicative purpose. If seen by my pro-slavery neighbors, while you remain here, we will both be under their [ illegible] ; and that the original and avowed purpose of a rifle is to deliver bullets ascending to the owner’s desire, and not for promulgating sentimental ‘legends’.” With these realistic arguments for the removal of this dangerous “legend” I had nothing in oppose, and really, I said to myself, it is not possible to establish a reputation, or make a record for this path finder with my “legend” however sentimentally bloody it may be. So I will wait for the record. And then stamp in enduring brass a record of its noble victories.

[Portions are illegible, but Mr. Gay wrote that he was content to conceal his rifle from the eyes of suspicious neighbors and set out to “study the country and its political situation” from the perspective wisdom of his friend Abner. He noted “The country was as yet nearly as God had left it” with rolling prairies untouched by the plough. “The beautiful groves of walnut, hickory, oak, elm... were only molested in the vicinity of straggling village or more prosperous town.”]

My friend Abner was a typical yankee. He had combined with other ingredients of his soul a desire to adventure and unhampered by conventionality: a love of liberty acquired and transmitted not only for himself but for his race as well. He possessed also the yankee’s love of gain and a talent to turn nearly every adventure into an advantage. The first of these characteristics had brought him to Kansas; and the last kept him there, well satisfied that it possessed a good future for him.

He considered he had done his duty to freedom when the border-ruffian lead struck him, notwithstanding the disgrace of being struck in the rear. He was there disposed to take a more conservative view of the situation prevailing when I met him, than was his friend, fresh from a knowledge of only the theoretical point of the case. Not but that he was still an enthusiastic anti-slavery man, but he had seen enough to make him cautious, and firmly of the opinion that “discretion” is an essential and very valuable ingredient in “valor.” In our journeyings over the country in the vicinity of Osawkie, Abner endeavored to impress me with the advantages of different localities from a financial point of view, quite as much as he discussed the political situation.

He even rather discouraged me from joining in the warlike forces, and hinted that it would be safer and better to remain with him, and build myself up in a financial way, at least until such time as age had ripened me into a voter, and careful study of the prevailing situation had filled me with better sense.

So I remained in Osawkie during the summer months and drove the saw and pushed the plane to the tune of two dollars a day. But all this time I was dissatisfied; my double barreled “Kansas Saver” was out of a job, and jobs where it could have done service were plenty enough.

Ruins of the Free State Hotel after the sacking of Lawrence, May 21, 1856. Image from State Historical Society of Missouri.

In May, the Free State Hotel at Lawrence had been burned and the town sacked, by the notorious Sheriff Jones and Atchison [Douglas County Sheriff Samuel Jones and David Rice Atchison, pro-slavery U.S. senator from Missouri]. In June the Missouri River was blocked against the passage of free-state emigrants. By July and August two or three thousand free booters of Missouri were patrolling the territory, and conflicts and murder and proclamations, and writs, and threats and arrests, by ruffians and so-called abolitionists, and governor and sheriffs and United States troops became so confusing that about the only satisfying method of escaping from the muddle was to just believe in yourself and Jim Lane and fight it out on that line.

So one day in the early fall I said to Abner, “I am sure I will never be satisfied to work here ingloriously. It is no use arguing. ‘I’m off for the wars away.’ Is it all right enough for you, who have come out of the conflict with a somewhat questionable ‘glory’ in your heel, to stay here; and I don’t wish you to think I blame you. But the spirit of Sampson is within me, and I must go down and ‘smite the Philistines’.”

— THOMAS GAY, Chariton Herald, Feb. 8 and Feb. 15, 1894


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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