Gold Digger’s, Indians, and the Santa Fe Trail

In 1858 and 1859, during the period of the Pike’s Peak gold excitement, large numbers of gold hunters passed over the trail for the new diggings. Some of these were driving good teams and wagons, some were on horseback, others had small push carts, and some even wheelbarrows, loaded with all their earthly possessions tied in a small roll. During one day in 1859 three hundred and twenty-five vehicles by actual count crossed at the ford on Elm creek, near the old mail station. At the height of the gold excitement it was not unusual thing for five hundred vehicles to cross at that ford in a single day. Often the wagons bore the inscription “Pike’s Peak or Bust” painted on the wagon covers, and it is a matter of history that many of these pilgrims returned “busted’.’ – some having never reached the gold fields. Others, however, were successful, and became founders of Colorado towns.

A few years since the Kansas Daughters of the American Revolution, assisted by the State Historical Society, marked the line of the trail across the state, setting one or more substantial granite markers in every county through which the trail passed. To accomplish this the legislature made an appropriation of $1000, while the school children of the state raised by penny contributions the balance needed to do the marking. One of the markers was placed in the town of Burlingame, near where the post office was located in 1857; one at Havana, about four and a half miles distant; one was set at the junction of the Leavenworth road and Santa Fe trail, at Wilmington; and another was placed near the old mail station at the ford on Elm creek, in Lyon county.

The winter of 1857- ’58 was very mild. But little snow fell, and the young stock lived on the prairie grass. In the spring of 1858 enough moisture fell to soak the ground, and the grass, sod corn and gardens had plenty of moisture. In August that year heavy rains fell, causing creeks in the vicinity of the Dragoon settlement to overflow their banks. An election to vote on the Lecompton constitution was held August 2, 1858. Should this election result in the constitution receiving a majority of votes it meant that Kansas would be a slave state, consequently all the voters of the Dragoon district made ready to go to the polling place at Wilmington, some four miles south of the creek, to cast their votes against the proposition. When our party arrived at Dragoon creek it was found bank full from the recent rains. There were no bridges across the stream in those days, so a temporary structure was managed by cutting a large elm tree that leaned out over the stream, reaching nearly half way across. Albert, the fourteen-year-old son of George Harvey, took an axe, and climbing on the fallen tree trimmed it so as to get as far out over the creek as possible. He then plunged in and swam to the other bank, carrying his axe with him; on that bank he cut another tree, which fell across the first one, thus affording a bridge over which George and Samuel Harvey, Samuel Woods and myself crossed. Before we reached Soldier creek, which was fordable only on horseback, we overtook Jehu Hodgson, who lived on the south side of the Dragoon. He was riding horse-back. After crossing Soldier creek he dismounted and led his horse back into the stream, making it swim to the opposite side, when it was caught and ridden back by one of our party. We repeated the performance until we were all across. At the election Wilmington precinct gave a solid vote against the pro-slavery constitution. The total vote in the territory for the constitution was 1788; against the constitution, 11,300; making a majority against of 9512.

William Madden returned to Ohio the winter of 1857- ’58. But in the spring he again joined the settlement, accompanied by his brothers Jehu and John and Aaron Harvey. Jehu Madden had been on Dragoon creek the previous year, having preempted a claim and sold it to Caleb J. Harvey, who at that time was a school teacher at the Quaker Shawnee Mission. Jehu and John Madden and Aaron Harvey were unmarried men and kept bachelor’s hall in William Madden ‘s cabin. The Madden boys brought a young horse team with them.

My father and mother, and two brothers – Daniel and Warren – came from Buchanan county, Iowa, bringing with them two yoke of oxen and three horses. They arrived April 15, 1858. By this time I had built on my claim a cabin fourteen by eighteen feet, with an upper floor.

In May, 1858, John Kester and family of about eight persons arrived from Ohio. Henry Easter and family of six persons came from Illinois. They brought three yoke of oxen. They were accompanied by Dr. Calkins, who, that summer, taught the first school in the settlement, using Henry Harvey’s house for the school room. The doctor did not bring his own family until later.

Matt Wysong, previously mentioned as stopping at the home of Willard Blair in 1857, came back to the settlement in 1858, bringing his family of three with him. He did not preempt land, however, and soon returned to Ohio.

Samuel Armstrong, an unmarried man from Pennsylvania, came during the spring of 1858, and took a claim.

The first public celebration of Independence Day in the settlement was on July 4, 1858. All the neighbors met in a grove on George M. Harvey’s place and had an interesting and enjoyable time.

William Probasco, a brother of Mrs. Allen Hodgson, was killed by lightning on the afternoon of July 25, 1858, during a shower and electrical storm: he was lying on a feather bed at the time. Other members of the family received electric shocks but were uninjured. There was no cemetery there at this time, so Jehu Hodgson gave a tract of a little more than one and one-quarter acres for a public burying ground, and Mr. Probasco was the first person buried in this, the present Harveyville cemetery.

Highwaymen and horse thieves were a form of annoyance that the early settlers had to contend with. In the spring of 1858 William Curtis, who lived near Wilmington, sent his two sons to Kansas City with an ox team to purchase supplies. On their return trip they were met at a lonely point on the trail by a highwayman, who robbed them of what money they had. William Madden, who was also on his way home from Kansas City, met the robber and talked with him. Madden had scarcely reached home when he learned of the robbery, so getting four young men to accompany him, they procured horses and set out after the highwayman, whom they found and brought back to Council City. He was given a trial by a vigilance committee: the money of which he had robbed the boys was taken away from him, and he was sentenced to receive thirty-nine lashes on the naked back; six members of the vigilance committee being selected to jointly perform the castigation. After the infliction of the penalty the culprit was given his supper, escorted out of town, and told never to come back.

The summer of 1858 George Brain, who owned but one horse, lariated him one night near his cabin. The next morning the horse was gone. Brain procured the assistance of some neighbors, and by following the trail and inquiring they found the horse and thief at Lawrence, and both were brought back. It being late in the evening when they reached Mr. Brain’s claim, the thief was tied and put in the cabin. That night a masked committee called at the cabin, tied Mr. and Mrs. Brain, and took the horse thief away with them. As reports differed about the disposition of the horse thief at the hands of the vigilance committee, I can give no further particulars. 1

There was no published time card for the first “railroad” through our settlement, and no regularity was observed in the running of the trains. The road was in operation during the years 1857, 1858 and 1859, and all cars ran at night. The stations were few and far apart, the one on Dragoon creek being in the loft of Henry Harvey’s house. Enoch Piatt’s house in Wabaunsee was the next station. This railroad was better known as the ‘”Underground Railroad,” and runaway slaves were the only passengers carried.

Not much wheat was sown during the early years in the territory, as the price of seed wheat was so high. There were heavy rains during the spring and summer, of 1859. Corn did well that year and grass made a vigorous growth. In the falls of 1858 and 1859 the grass was so high that as a guard against fire the settlers plowed and burned fire-breaks around their houses and fences. Even these precautions did not always save property, and prairie fires were very destructive.

The first “stock” hogs in the settlement were purchased in Missouri. These hogs were not thoroughbreds, but were of a variety known as ” Razor-backs,” possibly so called on account of the extremely thin or flat frame of the breed. These hogs in their native state roamed the woods at will, and it was with difficulty that they could be kept within any inclosure. They ate large quantities of corn but could not be fattened.

In the spring of 1859 three Indians were seen early one morning, by one of the settlers, taking Samuel Devaney’s horse and pony along the Indian trail that ran in a northwesterly direction across Samuel Armstrong’s claim, The nearest neighbors were hastily notified, and Samuel Devaney, Samuel Wood, Samuel B. Harvey and Jeptha Beebe started in pursuit as soon as horses, arms, and ammunition could be procured. They trailed the Indians to a steep ravine on the east branch of Mill creek, not far from John Copp’s claim. The Indians were armed with bows and arrows only. In the fight one of the Indians was so severely wounded that his companions mounted their ponies and fled, leaving him and the stolen property in the hands of the settlers. A member of the pursuing party went to the home of Mr. Copp and related to him the circumstances, whereupon he had the unfortunate Indian carried to his home, placed near a hay stack, and made as comfortable as possible. The men then returned home with the recovered property and told the neighbors what they had done. Later Mr. Copp, supposing that the wounded Indian was a member of the Pottawatomie tribe living on the reservation north of Mill creek, notified the tribe and they sent a squad to take him away. As soon as the Pottawatomies saw the wounded Indian they said he was a “Pawnee – our enemy,” and they proceeded to scalp and torture him, finally killing him. When Mr. Copp learned what they had done he insisted that they bury him, which they reluctantly did.

In 1859 many Indians passed through the settlement en route to their hunting grounds. Many of these bands camped near the settlement, and in evenings, in company with boy friends, I frequently visited their tepees. Most of the settlers who came in 1859 left in 1860 on account of the drought. Gilmer Young and William Blankenship, however, remained, and both later became Kansas soldiers.

Spear, Stephen Jackson. Reminiscences of the early settlement of Dragoon Creek, Wabaunsee County. Reprinted from Vol. XIII, Collections Kansas State Historical Society. 1915.

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  1. For an extended account of the above occurrence see “Early History of Wabaunsee County, Kansas,” by Matt Thomson, 1901, p. 145.[]

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