Biography of Col. James L. Abernathy

Col. James L. Abernathy. For nearly a half century one of the conspicuous figures in Kansas history was the late James L. Abernathy, whose name is inseparably interwoven with the material prosperity of Leavenworth, to which he came in 1856, when it was but a frontier town. He was born in Warren County, Ohio, March 20, 1833. In early manhood he accompanied his parents in their removal to Rush County, Indiana, and at Rushville, the county seat, embarked in mercantile pursuits.

In the early ’50s the great West, then represented by the vast unsettled territory west of the Missouri River, seemed to possess glamour and fascination for the adventurous spirit of American youth, and it found lodgment in the mind of young Abernathy. In 1856 the contention of the free soil and proslavery factions for possession of Kansas soil, and the notable public debates of the time, had focused attention on this section of the country. This may have had something to do with Mr. Abernathy’s choice of Leavenworth as a home. Undoubtedly he was attracted by the business possibilities of the place, for it was full of bustle and enterprise, a frontier forwarding point for the rapidly increasing population. He was accompanied by his brother, William, and together they embarked in the retail furniture business, in a small way beginning the manufacture of furniture, and this was the beginning of one of the greatest of Leavenworth’s industries. It had already assumed large proportions when grim civil war threatened the disruption of the Union.

Mr. Abernathy had taken a strong attitude against the pro-slavery factions and had voted for Abraham Lincoln. It is believed that he recruited the second Kansas company for the war and later he was commissioned captain of Company K Eighth Kansas Volunteer Infantry, and was in command of his company on its forced march from Fort Scott, in the dead of winter, to the beleagued, isolated post of Fort Kearney, in Western Nebraska. Still later he served all through the Cumberland Valley campaign, and was a participant in the Battle of Chickamauga. When peace was declared he laid aside the sword and again resumed the peaceful pursuits of commerce at Leavenworth.

While his brother was serving his country, William Abernathy had become interested in a wholesale and retail furniture business at Kansas City, under the firm name of Woods & Abernathy, and Colonel Abernathy became connected with this concern, and in 1869, upon his brother’s death, succeeded to his interest. About this time he also became associated in the firm of Abernathy, North & Orrison, and later, as a silent partner, in its successor, the firm of North, Orrison & Co. For business reasons, and to separate the wholesale from the retail trade, other affiliated concerns grew up, such as the J. H. North Furniture & Carpet Company, and its successor, the Duff & Repp Furniture Company. The manufacturing and jobbing departments at Leavenworth, in the meantime, had grown to gigantic proportions and expansion continued.

Colonel Abernathy was active and seemingly untiring in many directions. He was gifted with a keen business acumen which was the potent reason for the wonderful success that attended his various investments. As time passed he became connected with numerous enterprises at Leavenworth. His abundant, tireless energy prevented him from taking life easy and found relief in many useful ways. In 1886 he was one of the organizers of the First National Bank of Kansas City, of which he was director, vice president and president. He served as mayor of Leavenworth for three years, having been elected in 1873, on the citizens’ ticket. As a commissioner of the metropolitan police board, by appointment of Governor Humphrey, he was one of the first to attempt the enforcement of the new prohibition liquor laws. He was interested financially, officially or otherwise, in many enterprises in and about Leavenworth, all contributive to her growth and progress and to the furthering of her good name, of which he was jealously proud. After the close of the Civil war he was one of the commissioners named to locate the Kansas soldier’s monument in Chickamauga Park.

In 1859 Colonel Abernathy was married to Elizabeth Martin, and a family of six children was born to them, namely: Frank, who died in infancy; William M., Walter L., Harry T., Omar and Cora, who is the wife of Dr. A. G. Hull.

Colonel Abernathy was a commanding figure physically, six feet in height and of dignified presence. Mentally he was a giant, and in every sense was well fitted to be a leader in whatever he undertook or wherever he might reside. He possessed the ability to grapple successfully with large propositions, to carry on big enterprises while at the same time was able to note details. Beyond most men, he had the power of concentration, caught an idea in a flash and was quick of decision. Notwithstanding the many honors of which he was the recipient, and of a business success that was quite unusual, he was a man of simple tastes, of unostentatious manner, although he was ever ready to defend his convictions if he believed them to be right, and once his opinion was formed, he pursued the course laid down, regardless of what public opinion might be.

Colonel Abernathy’s personality, as his friends knew it, was charming, for with all his strength of character there was a strain of courteous gentleness that made him beloved by his associates and esteemed as well as respected by the entire business community. This was particularly exemplified in his home life, and at his own fireside he was at his best, irradiating sympathy, appreciation, generosity and loving kindness. The business house of which he was the head for so many years always sustained a reputation for enterprise, honorable methods, generosity to competitors and to its many patrons. Colonel Abernathy died December 16, 1902.



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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