Biography of Chester Thomas

Chester Thomas. There are two factors which loom larger than any others in determining the life and characters of an individual. They are, first, the stock from which he springs and of which he is naturally an expression, and second, his surroundings.

The observance or non-observance of the virtues by successive generations of ancestors largely forecasts and predetermines the character of those who come after them so far as inclination, mental and moral gravity, are concerned. Strength begets strength, weakness reproduces weakness, wisdom and folly advertise themselves in their offspring.

Circumstance however, surroundings, environment, play an equally important part in the development of life. The savage becomes civilized when removed from his native surroundings and brought into contact with humanizing and refining institutions; almost the entire work of the schools, properly conducted, is predicated upon the theory that the twig may be bent or straightened as the case may require, that reason and judgment may be taught the impulsive and hasty; in other words that the defects of the native constitution may be healed. If this were not so society would become more and more the victim of the unfortunate.

In this sketch we have to deal with a man whose attitude to things moral and just was determined by his ancestors; whose manner and method of carrying out his purposes was largely fixed by the custom of the times in which he lived and the habit common among men. There is no desire to represent him as a saint, certainly not as an unusual sinner, but as a man well born, whose greater heritage was a sincere love for the flag of his country, for liberty and justice to all; a proportionate courage, an almost intuitive knowledge of men, a just estimate of measures and a gift of absorption in the business in hand which amounted almost to genius. His brain seems never to have been idle, no sacrifice of personal comfort or time too great for him to make for the cause which he espoused. Other men busied themselves in breaking out their farms and remained within more or less easy call when their services were in demand; he was always on the watch tower to mark the approach of the enemy or on the firing line to thwart his designs. The aim is simple. To set forth truthfully a brief account of a peculiar, strong and useful character, that of one who lived through eventful times always playing a prominent and eventful part, one of the chief actors in scenes and situations which have become historic. Incidentally it may be said that to write all that might be written would furnish ample material for a rare and useful book, illuminate much that the present generation had little opportunity to know about explanatory of an earlier date in the history of our country, the origin and establishment of some of its most cherished institutions. But this of necessity is not such a book.

Chester Thomas was born in Troy, Bradford County, Pennsylvania, on the 18th day of July, 1810. The Thomas family came to Pennsylvania from Vermont and were among the very early settlers in that part of the country. Many of them served in the war of the Revolution. His mother, Susannah, was the daughter of Dr. Reuben Rowley, a distinguished soldier in the war above mentioned. She is described as a “warm hearted Christian woman noted for her deeds of benevolence and charity who lived to a green old age.” An uncle, Isaac Thomas, is mentioned as among those killed on General Sullivan’s march up the Susquehanna River.

Chester Thomas is described by one as “tall, angular” in his person. Another says that he was “long, gaunt, his face wearing a pleasant smile.” After his death a friend wrote of him as “a man possessed of fine physical and mental powers and an intuitive knowledge of men with an unusual sagacity in the choice and use of means by which to attain desired ends.” Still another wrote, “I don’t think he ever read a book in his life, he never made a public speech, he seldom looked into a newspaper but somehow his knowledgeableness was always a wonder and an enjoyment.”

As may be readily surmised Mr. Thomas’ school advantages were meagre, as were all the educational opportunities of that time, and had he possessed less force of character he would not now be remembered. He was a man of kindly heart, faithful to his friends, the people with one accord naming him “Uncle Chet.” Though intensely interested in whatever he undertook he radiated good will and humor as the sun sends out light and heat. A marked and conspicuous character at all times, he deserves mention among the many distinguished and able men who participated in what Mr. Lincoln called “the durable controversy” in behalf of freedom for the slaves.

Such words as wily, diplomatic, wary, shrewd are applied to him. From all of which one gathers that while he had little of the schooling which may be described as book learning, he had a faculty of knowing what was going on about him, a keen sense of what was right and what was wrong, desirable and undesirable, and an understanding of men and motives with the resultant ability of leadership.

After reaching manhood he held the office of sheriff in his native county. As sheriff it was plainly his duty under the law to assist in the recapture and return of escaping slaves, but this he flatly refused to do. To some slave owners whose fleeing chattels had reached Pennsylvania soil and who applied to him for assistance he said, “I wont help you catch your niggers, they are over there, I’ll tell you where they are and you can go and get them if you want to but I wont help.”

Mr. Thomas came to Kansas in 1858. The war which afterwards engaged the North and South in a fierce and bloody struggle was already on on Kansas soil. The pro-slavery and anti-slavery debates in Congress had encouraged both sides to attempt to occupy the debated ground in advance of any formal decision, and while east of the Mississippi the contestants were content to wage a war of words, west of the Father of Waters the discussion was punctuated with actual combat. It was in a battle involving bloodshed in the year 1859 that John Brown, a former citizen of the State of Connecticut, but then living in Miami County, Kansas, was rechristened, to be afterwards known as “Old Ossawatomie Brown” after a fight in and near the Village of Ossawatomie in which one of Brown’s sons was killed.

Other blood had been spilled upon both sides and the eastern part of the territory and for a hundred miles westward was the scene of an irregular conflict, while from the limbs of many a tree hung the bodies of victims of an intense and unforgiving partisanship. But two classes of people came to Kansas Territory in those days. The fertility of the soil, the possibility of great crops, of carving out a state which would rival the best of her sisters in some respects and exceed many of them in other particulars was as yet undreamed; the thought of material advantage was as remote as the east is from the west; there was but one reason for coming and that was political or, if you please, moral: the extension or the non-extension of slave territory.

Mr. Thomas was a friend, a personal and intimate friend of David Wilmot and Galusha A. Grow, prominent congressmen from Pennsylvania. The three were frequent hunting companions, members of the same political organization, voted the same ticket and held the same general views. Wilmot was a member of Congress when it was proposed to place in the hands of the President of the United States a certain sum of money to be employed as might be necessary in negotiating a peace with Mexico, with which nation we were at that time at war. While favoring the proposition in general Wilmot presented and there was passed by the House of Representatives, but not by the Senate, what had since become known to history as the Wilmot Proviso. In brief, this proviso declared that if, in the course of the deliberations, the Mexican nation should be asked to cede any part of her territory to the United States all that part so ceded should be free, that “neither slavery or involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory except for crime whereof the party shall be duly convicted.” While the bill referred to failed to pass both houses of Congress and become a law, it did form the foundation of prolonged, earnest and bitter discussion and was the entering wedge which finally divided the democratic party and led to the formation of the republican in 1856.

Mr. Wilmot was a conspicuous leader in and member of the first republican convention, and from thence on acted with the republican party. His old friend, Galusha A. Grow, succeeded him in Congress and soon joined the republican party, as did Chester Thomas also, who immediately moved to Kansas, enlisting personally in the conflict then being waged from the time of his arrival.

There is a story of Mr. Thomas often told by people who have not understood its real significance. It is to the effect that after he had arrived in Topeka an old Pennsylvania acquaintance met and twitted him as to his change of heart in matters political, saying, “Chet you were such a devoted democrat in Pennsylvania how is it that you have become so radical a republican in Kansas?” and Mr. Thomas replied, “there are more of them in Kansas.” The story had been often repeated, often laughed at and received as an example of political shrewdness, readiness to turn the coat, to adjust oneself to conditions for personal profit, to desert principles for official and popular reward. But the facts do not at all justify such a conclusion. Mr. Thomas’ reply was mindful of the proverb, which says “answer a fool according to his folly.” He knew with whom he was talking, that it would avail nothing and be a waste of time to attempt to explain the reasons for his change of party, that, in fact, such a reply would involve the review of years of discussion of difficult questions and would not repay the trouble. The times were exciting, grave problems were being considered and some of them were being settled; in the day of battle actions count and words are out of place.

Now, however, it is proper, though possibly unnecessary, to go deeper and more candidly than Mr. Thomas saw fit to do into the reasons underlying his abandonment of the democratic party. The democratic was a slave party. It had dominated the general Government and Congress for fifty years, had passed such laws as were demanded by the institution of slavery, providing severe penalties for their violation. It had made the North subsidiary and helpful to the holding of slaves. Justice, however, requires the saying that slavery did not begin in the South and was not at first a Southern institution; that Massachusetts held slaves and New York, and that those states did not abandon slavery for moral reasons, freeing their negroes, but by selling them to be owned and held further South, they having discovered that in the colder climates and on the smaller farms the slave was an economical burden and not a source of financial profit. But while it was a slave party there were many men in the ranks of democracy, men of note and character, to whom black servitude was repellant, unjust, unAmerican. Among these was David Wilmot, already mentioned, Galusha A. Grow, who soon became a national figure and a republican in politics, and their old friend, Chester Thomas, who enjoying less of public opportunity than they, turned his face westward, came to the Territory of Kansas, enlisted himself personally in the struggle then going on and became a republican, not because “there was more of them,” as the story had gone, but because republicanism meant a free state when Kansas should be admitted to the Union and in the nation meant liberty and equality of person and privilege to all. Thus do the facts set forth a man acting consistently and from principle and rob an oft told tale of all that was amusing in it aside from the quick wit which it suggested.

When Mr. Thomas started West, Wilmot gave him a letter to James H. Lane, afterwards United States senator from Kansas, in which he said, “if ever you have a hard political nut to crack consult Thomas.” The letter was duly presented and Lane and Thomas became fast friends and fellow workers. Upon his election to the Senate Lane found a larger field demanding the exercise of his powers. He was a strange man who did many strange things, but he was a dependable patriot, recklessly brave, a marvelous orator on occasion, able to accomplish what would have been impossible to a person with less determination and effrontery, and it is an unanswered question whether in those turbulent days requiring quick wit and physical courage of a high degree, a more conservative and usual character could have rendered the service to his state and nation which he did.

In his candidacy for the Senate, Lane was ably seconded by his friend Thomas. The two worked together and frequently occupied the same bed. As an indication of the general poverty of those times it is said that on the night preceding his election to the Senate Lane and Thomas occupied the same room in a little hotel in Topeka, and that on the morning of the eventful day they pooled their finances and found the sum to be $1.75. From the time of his election, Lane and Thomas largely controlled the politics of Kansas. Lane had his salary and it was necessary to provide for Thomas and Thomas was therefore appointed to establish and supervise routes for the transmission of the United States mails through Kansas, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and westward to the Pacific. The appointment came through President Lincoln and a well authenticated account runs to the effect that Lane and his friend called on the President to whom Mr. Thomas was introduced, Lane saying, “he will tell you who we want for the federal offices in Kansas.” The President, sitting at his desk, reached over and taking a piece of buff colored paper said, “well, Mr. Thomas who do you want?” Thomas replied promptly with a name for each place as the President called it, finally reaching that of United States mail agent or supervisor, when Thomas said, “I will take that myself.” President Lincoln smiled and said, “all right.”

The office of supervisor was important and difficult. It involved travel over a large territory, with settlements few and far between, unprovided with the essentials of personal comfort and infested with savages. Thomas addressed himself at once to the work before him. The settler in a new territory might consent to separate himself and family for a time from the advantages of established neighborhoods, but he wanted very much to keep up the old lines of communication and interest; letters and papers were to him items of large moment. To establish the mail routes was the duty of the supervisor and afforded an opportunity incidentally to a man of Mr. Thomas’ genius to further other interests which might appeal to him. The location of the state capital had come up for settlement by popular vote. Thomas was a citizen of Topeka and Topeka was a candidate for capital honors. Naturally he desired that his town might be preferred.

To establish and maintain mail routes and to get votes for Topeka did not necessarily involve any conflict between official duty and private privilege and Thomas in his visits to sparsely settled communities in the Territory of Kansas as yet unprovided with mail facilities evidently so regarded the facts in the case. Meeting by appointment the men in these neighborhoods, there would ensue a discussion of needs and of ways and means by which to supply them, when that was done Thomas would remark, as if it were an afterthought, “by the way, we are going to locate a Capital for the State one of these days, have you thought about it, how do you feel about it?” and, of course, men whose principal thought at that minute was to secure means of communication with their friends farther east, scarcely one of whom ever expected to see the capital no matter where located, were easily convinced that Topeka was a proper place to receive that high honor. In all probability no other individual or half dozen of them labored so diligently and efficiently for the city of his adoption as did he. It was afterwards said that every settled community in Kansas had at least one mail route laid through it. Why not? It needed it, had a right to it and though the Postoffice Department did not establish all that were recommended it was through no fault of Thomas, the United States mail agent. Of the voting which followed a humorous anecdote is often repeated. The City of Lawrence was an opposing candidate of no mean pretensions, ably seconded by a number of influential men. On the day of the election it is said that a messenger mounted on a horse bearing evidence of hard riding came into Topeka and breathlessly announced, “Uncle Chet they are voting eighteen year old boys down there at Lawrence,” to which Mr. Thomas replied, “hush, dont say a word, keep still, we are voting them at sixteen up here.”

In other ways he was greatly helpful to Topeka. The Union Pacific Railway began building West in 1866. It was almost entirely a Government project. There was a corporate body but it furnished little or no money. Those were the heydays of graft. It went on peacefully, undisturbed. The reformer had not yet appeared. National legislators and state were confidently expected to fatten at the public expense, to fail in this was to raise a damaging suspicion of weakness and few men in public place cared to give rise to such an imputation.

The survey of the proposed railway was made through Jefferson County, intersecting the Shawnee County line at a point near what is known as Calhoun’s Bluff, some three miles northeast of the City of Topeka and along the northern bank of the Kaw River. From that point, for some reason unexplained, the line west was deflected northward, passing a village then known as Indianola, leaving Topeka three miles to the south. Topeka was a mere hamlet, consisting of a few scattered cabins and a sawmill, and it was perfectly clear that if the road should be built as surveyed Topeka’s future was ruined.

Thomas at the time was away from home, but word was carried him as to the situation. He came at once, went on to Washington, found Senator Lane and the two called upon the railway company. Mr. Lane said, “here is my friend Chester Thomas of Topeka. You have surveyed your road to leave his town out in the cold and we want that survey changed and changed d–d quick.” The railway management knew better than to have a row with a United States senator and were prompt to assure both Lane and Thomas that the stakes would be drawn, a new survey made and Topeka established as a station on its line as soon as completed that far, and it was so done without any further trouble. Lane’s biographer, the Hon. John Speer, says that “Topeka owes more to Chester Thomas for the location of the Capital than it does to any other one man and that it should erect a monument to his memory.” It would seem also from the foregoing that its indebtedness had other reasons.

Illustrative of Mr. Thomas’ sagacity in matters political what is known as the York incident may be mentioned. Pomeroy was a candidate for re-election to the United States Senate and Thomas was his stanch friend and lieutenant. The Legislature was in session and the day of election near. Pomeroy was very diligent and nervously anxious to succeed. One day he told Thomas that York, a member of the Legislature, had been to see him and that he represented himself as poor, badly in need of money, willing to vote for him but wanting $7,000 in cash. Thomas strongly advised against any money consideration, explained that York’s vote was not needed, that anyhow he was an uncertain quantity. Pomeroy agreed for the time being, and promised that he would have nothing to do with York, but afterwards met him and yielded to his solicitations. The remainder of the story is soon told. York, advancing to the front of the speaker’s chair, made a dramatic avowal of the fact that he had been bribed and laid the money on the table. Pomeroy was defeated. That he deserved his fate had not been questioned. But about York and his part in the drama all is conjecture, except that he asked to be bought and, so far as his word was concerned, sold himself for an agreed price which was paid. Neither before or after the event did he particularly impress those who knew him familiarly as being more than usually virtuous. He sought the limelight voluntarily. Whether he thought to win the laurels of a hero and stampede the Legislature in his own favor or was one of those whose ambition is satisfied with the occupancy of the center of the stage for a brief hour are facts which only God and Mr. York are able to explain.

Mr. Thomas often said, “don’t try to buy a politician, if you must buy anyone buy an honest man.” This he explained by saying that the politician had a reputation to care for, knows that he is being constantly watched, the “honest” man had no particular and personal axes to grind and is free to act without greater danger. Mr. Thomas’ knowledge of existing circumstances and conditions was almost uncanny and his address to them a marvel of skill. He could be a master and hide the mastery. On one occasion when he was a member of the Council (territorial) a fellow member said to him, “Mr. Thomas, I will give you a hundred dollars if you will move for a re-consideration of my bill which was turned down yesterday and help me to get it through.” Thomas replied, “I wont touch your bill, not for one hundred dollars or all that it is worth to you.” The member was turning away disappointed when Thomas continued, “yonder sits an honest man, go and offer him proper persuasives and get him to move a reconsideration with a few pertinent remarks to the effect that he was mistaken yesterday as to the character of the bill and had since then found it to be meritorious, and yonder is another honest man, get him to second the motion with a few proper remarks in explanation of his change of attitude.” The advice was followed, the bill was rescued and passed.

Upon a certain occasion it became perfectly plain that “the slate” nominations for county officers would bear the names of some who were unfit to be trusted and whose place on the ticket might defeat it. Thomas said, “gentlemen what we want is a Christian on that ticket or it is lost. I know a Christian out in the south side of the county plowing corn, with the crown out of his hat and the toes out of his boots, he would make a good candidate and a good officer.” The suggestion was accepted and the ticket elected. The man plowing corn referred to was the Hon. P. I. Bonebrake, afterwards state treasurer, president of the Central National Bank of Topeka, leading man in affairs moral, financial and civil for more than a half century past.

Indian wars prevailed in Kansas from the coming of the first settlers until some time after the close of the Civil war. Mr. Thomas was for a time engaged in the Texas cattle trade and a frequent traveler over the great plains to the Southwest and along the Santa Fe trail, a region infested with bands of hostile Indians, always ready to rob, murder and steal, whether the victim was an individual, an immigrant wagon bearing the pioneer and his family or the more pretentious and better armed cattle outfit. Large herds had been gathered and driven to the vicinity of the North Platte River in Nebraska and Thomas, with a partner, was engaged in supplying beef to the Ogallala branch of the Sioux Nation of Indians which was gathered about Fort Bridger in Wyoming; the Government hoping by the supply of food to keep the savages from the war path. One herd taken Northwest, for the purpose described, numbered 6,000 head, and the outfit was attacked while on the way, but after several hours of hard fighting succeeded in driving its enemy off. On the plains southward, along the trail already mentioned, in what was then known as the Indian Territory and Texas Mr. Thomas had many skirmishes with the Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Kiowa and Comanche tribes. While moving along the Chisholm trail he was one time captured by the Osage Indians, then a powerful nation, so called, which numbered its warriors by the thousands and lived in large villages along the water courses in the region which they claimed. A ready courage, prompt action and sound judgment were in constant demand in dealing with the Indians. Vigilance was, in a peculiar sense, the price of liberty and of life. Thomas had started for Texas with four trusty cowboys. They had the necessary saddle horses and a light spring wagon drawn by mules and driven by a negro; were well armed with Springfield repeating rifles and a brace of revolvers to each man. One afternoon one of the cowboys said that he saw Indian signs, the herds of buffalo in the distance were restless and drifting, probably because of the presence of horsemen out of sight to Thomas and his party; but the outfit continued its way without disturbance until evening, although an hour or two before sunset they saw Indian horsemen in the distance. Knowing then beyond a doubt, that they were being watched they made a hasty camp, ate supper and started on for a night drive hoping in that way to elude the enemy. They had gone however but a few miles, when rounding the top of a hill they were confronted in the valley beyond with the fires of a large village. Reconnoitering with the utmost care they saw hundreds of warriors engaged in a war dance. Returning to the wagon they made a detour sharply to the left and traveled several miles striking the trail they had left farther south and continued their way until day break when they again camped and rested until noon. They resumed their journey in the afternoon, hoping to have effected their escape, but after crossing a divide, indicating another water course and valley, discovered themselves literally surrounded by the savages. Indian horsemen rode in all directions and Indian tepees covered the valley for a mile or more. There was evidently nothing to do but to “face the music,” to try whatever virtue there might be in a bold front. On reaching the village three or four hundred warriors swarmed about them demanding, as usual, to have a “big talk.”

Thomas told his men to dismount and stand with their backs to the wagon which they did as the “big talk” proceeded. The Indians of the West were always great beggars, they wanted tobacco, sugar, coffee, ammunition, anything, everything edible and portable. Thomas divided tobacco, coffee and sugar with them and after a parley of an hour or so suggested that it was time to be going on. The cowboys mounted, the driver took his place to start the mules and a half dozen warriors grabbed them by the bridle bits. Thomas expressed surprise, though he did not feel it, and walking forward demanded an explanation and shoved the intruders aside, but when a second start was attempted the bridles were again seized. One of the warriors could talk a little broken English and Thomas told him to go and call his chief. The chief came, Thomas told him what had happened; the chief affected to treat the matter lightly and evaded apology. Then Thomas through the warrior who could talk some English said, “Now we are well armed with repeating rifles and my men are good men and good shots and if we get into a fight quite a number are going to be killed. Of course, we will lose, but we are likely to kill from ten to twenty of your young warriors and the question is, whether you are going to attempt to capture us, if so, the fight will start and it is a question whether either of us and especially you can afford it. You are aware that if the worst comes, the United States troops from the nearest fort will be sent in pursuit of your band to punish you and you know what that kind of a campaign means. We are not going to be captured.”

The above is another incident illustrating the unusual resourcefulness of Chester Thomas and the incident nothing unusual in those strenuous days.

The chief, who was a wise old Indian, said that he did not wish to fight, spoke of the conduct of his young warriors as hasty, commanded them to clear the way and the outfit proceeded without further disturbance, though the Indians did inquire where the next camping ground would be hoping, possibly, to steal the horses and cripple the expedition. Thomas in reply raised his hand twice which meant over two divides, but by traveling all the afternoon and night the savages were outwitted and the Osage borders left behind.

One traces the course of Mr. Thomas’ activities with wonder. How he found time to do so much, to be in so many places distant from each other, engage in so many things of such widely different character successfully is an increasing surprise.

When Mr. Lincoln arrived at the White House there were many threats and well grounded fears that he might be assassinated. United States Senator James H. Lane of Kansas proffered the President a body guard, which at first was refused, the President not having yet arrived at a just estimate of his danger and the desperateness of the enemy, but later the offer was renewed and accepted and 150 Kansas men bivouacked in the East room of the White House. Chester Thomas was one of the men. Afterward and during the Civil war he was commissioned captain and assistant quartermaster, U. S. A. and served in various places. Still later in life he performed the offices of a magistrate in the city he had done so much to honor, and was subsequently appointed by President Arthur on recommendation of Senator John J. Ingalls, receiver of the United States Land Office in Arizona.

In every situation Mr. Thomas was a man of note, proving himself equal to the demands of changing occasion and place, meeting the severe requirements of the times with an apt and splendid ability. As he once said his life covered a period which marked the commencement of nearly all the important events connected with the progress of the American people during the nineteenth century. Certainly no account of political movements of the last half of that century would be complete without mention of his name and the part which he played in them. He hated slavery. Enforced servitude was to him a monster injustice, an advantage taken of those whose weakness and ignorance should have assured them kindly protection. His hate became an obsession around which his life took on form, impulse and purpose. He reasoned slavery was so great and flagrant a wrong that any means necessary to its overthrow were justified.

He lived in an age different from that in which this sketch is written and amidst surroundings which have wholly disappeared. Human energy now is directed in altogether different channels, methods and rules of conduct are new. To understand him it would be necessary to reproduce a bygone time and recreate past circumstances. He had hosts of friends, a few enemies, illustrating the philosophy of Lavater who said “he that had no friends and no enemy is one of the vulgar and without talents, power or energy.”

The appearance of men and women able to direct in times of crisis and compel the good to come out of threatening conditions is one of the most interesting and encouraging facts in human history. Our own land had peculiar reason to rejoice on this account. In every emergency it had had its Moses in the person of a Washington, Lincoln, Cleveland or McKinley. These all were great souls, worthy of high place in the loving esteem of the American people, but it should not be forgotten that they were ably seconded by others “of strong hearts and true” who with a love of country and justice not less than theirs were content to lay out their lives for the right choosing to suffer affliction rather than consult personal ease.



Connelley, William E. A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. Chicago : Lewis, 1918. 5v. Biographies can be accessed from this page: Kansas and Kansans Biographies.

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