Biography of James Madison Harvey

James Madison Harvey, fifth governor of the State of Kansas, was born in Monroe County, Virginia, September 21, 1833, and was the second child and oldest son of Thomas Jefferson and Margaret (Walker) Harvey. His ancestors for several generations were Virginians. His paternal ancestor in America was Henry Harvey, who came from England about 1725, settling in Orange County. Henry Harvey’s son John was the paternal grandfather of the subject of this sketeh. Other ancestors of the colonial period were Michael Woods of Albermarle County, who was a deseendant of a Yorkshire trooper of Cromwell’s army; Capt. Henry Walker, who came to Botetourt Gounty from England a few years before the Revolutionary war; John Handley, an early settler of Augusta County, and Robert Poage of Augusta County, a descendant of Seotch Covenanters. Of the women among his ancestors several were of Seotch descent, Grizelda Pollock, Mary Campbell and Isabella Bruce. Lucy Estes was the maiden name of his paternal grandmother.

His parents removed from the Old Dominion when their son James M. was an infant, going first to Rush County, Indiana, thence to Iowa, and finally to Adams County, Illinois, where both died, leaving their children a goodly heritage in all save worldly wealth. Besides their own family of nine children, their household included a large family of orphaned nephews and nieces, and the combined family of cousins had the family home and farm, where they lived and worked together until they went out into the wider world.

James Madison Harvey acquired his education in the public schools of Indiana, Iowa and Illinois, and, following his tastes and talents, became a finished practical surveyor and civil engineer. We quote from a contemporary review: “He early manifested a thirst for knowledge, and any history, no matter how large, was none too big for him. Even before he was ten years old, his favorite pastime was to busy himself with a book of history so large that he could scarcely handle it. He would set it against the wall and lie down on the floor in front of it, completely absorbed. His memory was excellent and to the day of his death he was very accurate in his references to matters of history.”

On October 4, 1854, James M. Harvey was married to Miss Charlotte Richardson Cutter of Adams County, Illinois. From 1854 to 1859 he followed the occupations of teacher and surveyor in Adams County, Illinois.

In the year 1859, just before Kansas was freed from territorial enthrallment, Mr. Harvey, with his young family, came hither. He settled in Riley County and at once began to develop his pre-emption claim. “Here his Viking-like strength of body and spirit contended single-handed with the problem of wresting from the seeds of new prairie sod a subsistence; planting crops and orchard, digging and blasting a well, fighting the prairie fires and the drought and building a home. Walking beside slow-moving oxen he worked until set of sun and then, when occasion required, was ready to start off on foot to Fort Riley, a walk of five miles, to procure medicines for his sick neighbors. He was never too busy to take time to “locate” a new settler or to help him to “prove up,” and with compass and chain he trod with him the lines, showing where the best lands lay. To one without a sympathetic spirit, or, let us say, to one without poetic simplicity of outlook, this grim round of toil might seem sordid and lacking in the joy of life. Not so to the subject of this sketch. Children loved to follow his steps in his daily round of tasks. Sympathy and understanding on the part of both was never feigned.”

As a citizen of Kansas he at once became keenly interested in the affairs of public welfare and was soon recognized as a man of patriotic spirit, of ability and of extraordinary intelligence. He gave enthusiastic and telling support to measures which led to the admission of Kansas as a Free-State, and when the Civil war came on, in 1861, James M. Harvey enlisted as a soldier in the Union army. He organized Company E, Fourth Kansas Volunteer Infantry, at Ogden, Kansas, and was mustered into the service at Fort Leavenworth, and from 1861 to 1864 was captain successively of Company E, Fourth, and Company G, Tenth Kansas Volunteer Infantry. He served with honor in the campaigns in which his command took part, and was mustered out in 1864. On October 19, 1864, he was commissioned colonel of the Fourteenth Regiment, Kansas State Militia, called out for service in repelling the raid of Confederate General Price. He then returned to his farm and served in 1865 as representative from Riley County in the Kansas Legislature, and was returned in 1866. In 1867-8 he was a member of the Kansas Senate. As a legislator, Mr. Harvey displayed such power as to attract the admiration of the leading men of the commonwealth, and to give great promise of future eminence in public life. We again quote from the review before mentioned:

“Prior to the holding of the republican primaries in 1868, Mr. Harvey canvassed his chances of support for the gubernatorial nomination in perhaps a dozen counties and found a good support; but to make a canvas required money, and this was not at his command, so he decided to retire from the field. The state convention was about to be held. At this stage a neighbor of Senator Harvey was informed by a friend in another part of the county that if the senator needed money to conduct his campaign, he would supply him. The result of this unexpected offer was that Senator Harvey borrowed $200 of this friend, and that sum paid all the expenses of the campaign. Some years later, Governor Harvey said to this friend, ‘That offer of yours, tendering me money, was the turning point of my life. I had decided not to go before the state convention as a candidate, and had given it all up. I would not ask any one to loan me money, but the tender of it unasked was the occasion of my going into the convention, and the result made me governor, and, later, United States senator.’ Other candidates before the convention were George A. Crawford and Ex-Governor Carney, with the former in the lead, but after the second ballot Carney withdrew and Harvey was nominated. That was before the days of prohibition. Some of Harvey’s supporters thought that a little whiskey was desirable, but there was not a drink of Harvey whiskey to be had, for he said, ‘If I can’t be elected without paying for whiskey votes with drink I prefer to remain a private citizen.’ Those most familiar with the campaign say that not a dollar was spent for whiskey, nor anything except personal expenses. He was a plain man and not at all given to display, and his success seems to have come because of his worth as a citizen. His majority in 1868 was about 16,000 and in 1870 about 20,000. The cognomen ‘Old Honesty,’ given him in the Kansas Legislature, continued through his two terms as governor, and followed him through the United States Senate. It was a well-merited designation and far too appropriate to be lost sight of.”

“The period,” says Noble L. Prentis, “covered by Governor Harvey’s administration may be counted, perhaps, as the most interesting of the gubernatorial periods. It is inspiring to see anything grow; and those were growing days for Kansas. It was not so much a ‘boom’ period as one of genuine increase. The Union Pacific Railroad, the ‘Kansas Pacific’ of that day, was completed through the state to Denver, the first road to span Kansas in either direction, and other roads gained a great start. Everybody wanted railroads, and then, when they were built, wanted more. The state was also a builder; it was in the first year of Governor Harvey’s reign that the state government removed its ‘local habitation’ from the old ‘State Row’ to the first completed wing of the capitol, and the executive office from the front room of a newspaper office, to the apartments new occupied by the governor. It was an era of town-building. There were some failures, but the greater number of towns which were started or which took a fresh start in the years 1869-1873 are still ‘good towns,’ and some have risen to the dignity of actual cities. It may be said that of the numerous foundations of many kinds laid in those years, most have proved enduring. The great claim, boast and pride of Kansas in that period was agriculture; and it was an appropriate circumstance that the governor of the state in those years was a farmer– not a political or ‘play’ farmer, but an actual owner and tiller of the soil; a farmer, and, like George Washington in his youth, a land surveyor. He was called from these pursuits to be a soldier, and a governor, and a United States senator; but when released from these labors he went back to his plow and his compass and chain. It is hard to believe that there was a time so recently, when the governor, in his messages, enlarged on the garden-like productiveness of the state, recounted with pride the triumphs of the farmer called out to ‘speed the plow’ and urged that all means be used to forward immigration; when, moreover, the railroad companies not only proclaimed but demonstrated the fertility of their acres by exhibition in half the windows of Kansas of great cars of corn and sheaves of wheat, one of which would have been a fortune to the gleaning Ruth; great red apples, and everything that goes to fill Ceres’ horn of plenty in the pictures. Kansas, with a farmer governor, was then given ‘hold advertisement’ as pre-eminently the farmers’ state; and everybody mocked the old geographers and their descriptions of the ‘American Desert.’ ”

On February 2, 1874, after four days of balloting, Governor Harvey was elected to the United States Senate to serve the unexpired term of Alexander Caldwell, resigned. He took his seat as United States senator February 8, and filled the position with credit to himself and honor to his state until March 4, 1877, when his term expired.

As United States senator, though his term was short, he held at its close positions of importance on several committees. He was chairman of the select committee to examine the several branches of the civil service. He was also a member of the committee on public lands, on agriculture, on mines and mining, and of the select committee on the levees of the Mississippi.

Botween 1873 and 1884 Governor Harvey filled government surveying contracts in Kansas, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah.

In 1884, his health being impaired, and hoping to receive benefit from a milder climate, he, with his family, removed to Virginia, living three years near Norfolk and three years in Richmond. In 1890, the family returned to Kansas to the old home where, with the exception of the summer and fall of 1891 spent at government surveying in No-Man’s-Land, and the winter of 1893 passed in Southern Texas, Governor Harvey lived until his death. He died of Bright’s disease, at his home in Riley County, on Sunday evening, April 15, 1894, aged sixty years. It was such an ending as we love to picture of a life well rounded out. It was like the passing of a glorious sunset into the quiet of a calm summer’s evening. His grave was made in Highland Cemetery (Junction City), on one of the bluffs overlooking the Republican and Kansas River valleys.”

He is survived by his wife and six children: Clara, Emma, Lillian, Martha, James M. and John A. Clara is Mrs. Joseph P. White of Oklahoma City.

Noble L. Prentis, who was one of his friends, said as follows: “Governor Harvey was a man of sturdy frame; fit in youth to cope with any toil; brave enough to meet any danger; a deliberate, not to say slow, sort of man, but capable of being roused to a certain heat and glow as of iron in the fire. He had dark, solemn eyes, which seldom glittered or fiashed, but which looked every man in the face and never quailed. But he was a man quite incapable of making what the Scriptures call a ‘vain show.’ This inability to ‘show off’ followed him in all he did. Those who knew him as a soldier could readily conceive that he would stand and die whenever the time came, if those were the ‘orders,’ but never that he would shine and coruscate in the dispatches. In a state full of orators, he, with a full command of facts and ideas, scarcely ever made speeches, never, if he could with propriety avoid it. He was a reading man and especially fond of poetry by the masters of verse; but it is doubtful if this was known outside of his immediate circle of acquaintances. He lived his honorable, brave and simple life; and when he had done serving his state, either as its chief magistrate or its representative in the senate chamber, he lived apart from the ‘madding crowd,’ on his farm which was miles from any town,–traversing weary leagues in New Mexico with, his surveying party; seeking restored health in the oldest of old Virginia; at last returning to husband his remaining days and die in the Kansas he loved, which will bear forever on her map his honored name, in that of one of her central counties.”

Hon. Ed Secrest of Riley County wrote of Governor Harvey: “Whether driving oxen in breaking the prairie, or moving among his distinguished peers in the United States Senate chamber; whether offering shelter to the many early settlers who called at his home, or conferring with the counselors of state at the capitol,–he remained a true son of the prairie in mien and mood, heart and soul, and in republican simplicity.”


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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