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Thomas Gay: Kansas Reminiscences, Parts 6 and 7 [Lecompton]

Updated: May 21, 2023

Editor's Note: Thomas Gay, having moved to Kansas Territory from Wisconsin in 1856, said he came to the territory to make it a free state. Colorfully, he recounted his entry and participation in the Battle of Hickory Point and how he was living with a man he called Abner Lowell, from Massachusetts, in a cabin on the Delaware River (then the Grasshopper River). In parts 4 and 5, Mr. Gay described 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 described his stealthy trip back from battle to safety.

Part 6, a blend of letters between Mr. Gay and his brother, is summarized and quoted here only in part. Besides who was courting which young lady, and who would likely prevail in national elections, Mr. Gay writes of his homesickness but has high praise for Abner Lowell. He talks about his experience at Hickory Point and the famed weapon of the freestaters, the Sharps rifle. Part 7 describes the politics and atmosphere of Lawrence, Lecompton and Ozawkie. His references to numerous governors, appointed in Washington D.C. to rule Kansas Territory, do not literally mean the governors were killed. Between July 1854 and February 1861, six men served as Kansas governors and three men served five times in between them as acting governors. No one lasted for long in such a hot seat.


Personal Recollections of Life in Territorial Kansas in Border Ruffian Days, Part 6

... You remember that rifle I made in Wm. Johnson’s shop. Well, Abner made me file off that inscription. I took it with me in a little fracas up at Hickory Point. But I don’t like it very well. When I get a good chance I am going to trade it off for a Sharps rifle. A fellow can kill a buffalo before he can bunt you over, with one of them; they carry so far, you know. If I’d had one at Hickory Point, there’d been lots less fellows to come over here and kick up a row. They are a "sneaking" bad lot, and need killing.

The man I worked for before I went away, is a pro-slavery man; but he’s no slouch I tell you. He treats me all right, and don’t say anything, if I do talk to his [slaves]. His name is Dyer and I expect to get a job in his store if this Hickory Point business doesn’t sour on him. [George Dyer, with his brother William Dyer, operated a general goods store at Osawkee.] Jim Black is just as mean and cantankerous as he was in Fond Du Lac, and I don’t have much to do with him.

Abner intends to go on a buffalo hunt west of Fort Riley in a day or two, and he expects me to go along. He thinks it ain’t safe for me here now, after the affair up at the Point. But it seems to me I ought to be doing something besides hunting buffalo; but would be better I guess than serving the territory in "duranceville" at Lecompton.

I guess Horace Greeley has told you by this time of how the soldiers took a lot of our boys the night of the battle. Well, they did not get your brother, Tom. I was too sharp for them. Phil, I hope when you get older you will be sharp enough to get out of scrapes.

I haven’t seen Jim Lane yet, and I don’t know as I shall make any special effort to find him. I like fighting well enough, but if I’m going to do any more somebody’s got to furnish a Sharps rifle and some grub; it was a disgrace the way they treated us. I didn’t get a bite to eat all that day, and if it had not been for Sharps 1853 Percussion Single Shot Rifle

a good [Indian woman] who furnished two

or three of us with some dog meat, I guess, and a lot of batter I would now be an angel, which I ain’t now by a long ways.

... They’ve built a saw mill close up to our little town, and have been doing a land office business a week or two. If we can get the territory quieted down I think this will be a pretty good place to live.

... There is a lot of whiskey drank here. Jim Black sells it and drinks himself terribly. It’s dreadful. You need not be afraid at home that I will ever touch it.

Personal Recollections of Life in Territorial Kansas in Border Ruffian Days, Part 7

It was originally intended that these “Recollections” should consist of not to exceed twelve numbers. If this purpose is carried out I must either very materially curtail my details of particular events or I must record them in less number. I will therefore dismiss entirely the buffalo hunt and all other recollections of the year 1856, and ask the reader’s imaginary presence in a trip to Lecompton and Lawrence, in May or June 1857. Towns and communities were to a large extent settled along the line of political affinities. The old proverb of “birds of a feather,” etc., held good in the settlement of early Kansas.

Osawkie (sic) was largely pro-slavery; Lecompton altogether so. Lawrence was a unit for freedom, and headquarters for free state ideas and deliberations. Leavenworth, at that time the commercial metropolis, was more divided in sentiment, while Topeka was mostly anti-slavery. I had now been about a year in the territory, and concluded I would like a glimpse of that place where so many governors were being converted to wholesome truths, and politically murdered by the national administration, for expressing and putting them into practice; and that other little city – its equal in renown but of a more glorious type, lying eastward a half day’s journey by foot, in an Edenic valley, between river and highland – but scourged and scorched by influences engendered in the bosom of its western rival.

My route was southward through the Delaware reservation, and I was alone. The way was enchanting. It was a constant succession of gentle declivity and charming depression, clothed with verdure fresh and green and interspersed with clumps of trees and larger groves nestling in beauty on slope and valley. Occasionally springs of fresh water emerged from the limestone formations, and ran trickling down in sparkling beauty, toward the Grasshopper [now the Delaware River], and the course of that stream could everywhere be traced by valley bottom or continuous skirt of woodland.

Memory of recent events sat lightly on my brain; but the gentle fingers of the angel of longer ago, softly touched a sweeter remembrance, and awoke to active life amid the quiet surroundings, enchanting visions of a northern home, in whose sacred precincts I had dwelt and loved, a weary year ago. But as delightful as was this memory, another would persistently thrust it aside, exclaiming, “Memory of parents, brother, sisters and every other faithful friend, stand you aside, till I take possession of, and glorify this boy.” Then the Heavens would stoop down and encircle the lonely traveler, and in this celestial glory he was but a single angel, and it was a girl angel; and her name was ‘Liza. Then in imagination as they two tripped along the happy shining way, the Illuminated mortal would ask the heaven born, how she would like to be a real “Gay” angel, and the beatific vision gazing into his countenance and beholding the dawning symptoms of embryotic whiskers, would softly croon "maybe, bine-by; bine-by.” So on earth and in heaven. I made my journey southward. Following a pretty well beaten track, I came, some time in the early afternoon, upon the Indian Cabin, where my comrades and I had partaken of the ... famous mortar pudding. I left my benediction upon it, for its friendly shelter in a time of peril, and passed on to Rising Sun, and across the Kansas river into Lecompton.

Lecompton! What memories awake to life by the sound of that name in the minds of those who followed closely the events immediately preceding the war of the rebellion. The little hillocky, scrubby hamlet was declared the territorial capital in 1855, and soon after, it became the seething caldron from out of whose devil’s broth arose the fumes of the iniquitous conspiracy to make Kansas a slave state. There has been a “divinity” or perhaps a “natural selection,” “which has shaped its ends, rough hew them as they did,” and today it lies commercially crushed, and in “Amyclaean silence,” with “none so poor to do her reverence.” But in that elder day, he who was privileged to sit around that caldron and stir its horrid broth, gloried in the renown of that hamlet, whose name is “truly damned to everlasting fame.” At the time of this, my first visit to this place, it was growing in notoriety as the political graveyard of governors. [Gov.] Shannon’s and [Gov.] Geary’s bones already lay bleaching there, and their ghosts were wandering up and down “seeking rest and finding none.” [President] Buchannan, treacherously murdered [Gov.] Walker in December of 1857, and the year following, the merciless guillotine chopped off the head of [Gov.] Denver, and added another “shade” to haunt the bloody assassins.

There was a popular ditty at that time, a parody on a well conned nursery rhyme, applicable to the “Kansas-Nebraska bill,” which ran something like this:

“Hush, my babe, lie still and slumber; Pierce and Douglas guard thy bed; Border ruffians without number Watch around thy wooly head.”

A parody of this old song in this shape, made to fit the dead renown of Lecompton, is here given:

“Hush, poor burg, lie still and slumber, The yellow Kaw shall guard thy bed; The ghosts of governors, four in number, Shall dance on thee and keep thee dead.”

Do you ask why this terrific slaughter of executives? It is easy of explanation. They rose superior to the dastardly policy of the chief magistrate and his bitter pro-slavery advisors — acknowledged the existence of the great free state party of the territory, and refused to endorse palpable fraud and needless violence on the part of those whom they called their political friends. So the Union was raked from Maine to Texas, to find creatures subservient to the will of the oligarchy. But by a strange fatality which argued well for the honesty of the average man, each of these appointees after a short residence among their political friends in the territory, refused to endorse the methods which were being used to establish the peculiar institution upon the people of Kansas; and a speedy death was their reward.

Climbing an eminence not far from the river, I came upon a two-story building having the usual signs of a tavern of those times. The bar room was attractively fitted up, with bottles containing various colored liquid victuals; and every few minutes the “thirsties” marched up to the bar and called for something to drench themselves with. Now Osawkie was not a very dry town, and I was quite accustomed to hear the clink of glass and listen to the hiss of spirits in their exhilarating journey from bottle through gullet and on to purgatory below; but the business methods these Lecompton fellows exhibited in taking something for their stomach’s sake, quite took away my breath, and I sat and stared at that well-dressed throng of territorial officials, speculating as to whether even John B. Gough could manufacture sufficient material from it, to start a lodge of the Sons of Temperance.

As I wandered through the baleful miasma of this scrubby place, it seemed to me that even then only “in the moment of its breath, it had received the lurking principle of death," and that it contained physically and morally the germs of disease and speedy decay. I saw the foundations of a capitol building, fit type of the power that had decreed its construction, and like the recent constitutional decisions, establishing a new foundation for our country, in which human bondage should have larger scope and right, those stones were destined never to support its projected superstructure. But when in the fullness of time Kansas was proclaimed a free state, Topeka became the capitol, and a structure was reared whose walls have never echoed the sentiment of bondage.

In the fall of this same year, I again visited Lecompton, in company with the Jefferson County delegate to the convention that framed the famous Lecompton constitution, and had an opportunity to study, in my boyish way, for a few days, the process of constitution making, and the character of the constitution builders. Of this infamous instrument, and the manner of its submission, and the influence it was destined to exert directly on the dominant party of the nation, and indirectly on the other, I hope to discuss in a later article.

—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. 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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