William G. Cutler's History of the State of Kansas


[TOC] [part 3] [part 1] [Cutler's History]


The first settler of Atchison County was a Frenchman named Pensinau, who in 1839 married a Kickapoo Indian, and located on the banks of the Stranger near Mount Pleasant. In June, 1854, a colony of immigrants crossed the river at Iatan, Mo., and took claims in the neighborhood of Oak Mills, Walnut township. They were F. P. Goddard, G. B. Goddard, James Douglass, Allen Hanson and George A. Wright. But the actual settlers and the founders of the city and county of Atchison did not enter the territory of Kansas until the next month.

The currents of feeling and the strange actions of men, which stirred the whole county during the pioneer days, eddied and centered around the town of Atchison. As Lawrence was the Free-soil champion of Kansas, so, for the first three years of her life, Atchison moved and had her being in the Pro-slavery principle. From 1854 to 1857 is a clean-cut period in her history. During the latter year the local leaders of the Pro-slavery party saw how the scales of public sentiment tipped in the outer world, and concluded to forget politics, invite the immigration of all respectable classes, and to unite business energy with business energy, for the good of a community with an evident and an eminent future before it. But these three years are so pregnant with examples of the intense pitch of feeling to which political and property prejudices will drive men, the world over, that the period "would point a moral and adorn a tale," even had Atchison been the champion of the Free-soil doctrine and surrendered at last to Pro-slaverydom. Atchison was the gateway through which a powerful champion of the Pro-slavery classes expected to advance his forces and finally take possession of the State of Kansas, in the name of his institution. David R. Atchison, President of the Senate, and acting Vice-President of the United States, was an able and a bold leader, and if that advance was to have been, it would have been accomplished under his guidance. A lawyer by profession, ambitious, in the prime of life, a native of Kentucky, a politician in his native State and in the powerful commonwealth of Missouri for twenty years, a fearless advocate for the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, a champion of Popular Sovereignty and the Kansas-Nebraska bill, he looked across the broad Missouri from the rich hemp, corn and grazing lands of Platte County to this unbroken but wealthy territory, and saw at the apex of the great bend of the Missouri River a chance not only to make a bold commercial venture, but to extend over a broad domain the influence of his political party; and who in the West could more reasonably have counted upon a successful issue from such an enterprise! As soon as the Territory was fairly open to settlement, Senator Atchison selected the site of the new town at this point where the Missouri River bends so boldly inland. It was on the direct line of travel to New Mexico, Utah and California, and was already a favorite stopping place for the weary emigrants bound for those far-off regions - a kind of natural half-way haven between the Far East and the Far West. The outfitting points for this immense traffic, previous to 1854, were at Independence, Weston and Westport, situated in the old "Platte Purchase" - territory bought from the Indians in 1825, in order to complete the natural boundaries of the State of Missouri.

Under the fostering care of slave labor this territory had been made to yield enormous returns to its proprietors, which, combined with its Western trade, had made the country a garden of opulence and a bee-hive of activity. Undoubtedly, it was the aim of the founders of Atchison, that, in all particulars, history should repeat itself. So when the Kansas lands were thrown open to settlers in 1854, Senator Atchison and his friends at once founded a town, and named it in his honor. It was on the Fourth of July, 1854, that Senator Atchison and a few Platte County friends dedicated the new town. From subsequent events, however, it would seem that all of the citizens of Platte county were not agreed upon the advantages of the site which was finally selected. On the 20th of July, five men left Platte City, Mo., to decide definitely upon a good location. They were Dr. J. H. Stringfellow, Ira Norris, Leonidas Oldham, James B. Martin and Neal Owens. With the exception of Dr. Stringfellow they had all taken claims in Walnut Creek Valley, four miles west of the present City of Atchison. Traveling in a southwesterly direction for a few miles from Platte City, the party reached the river opposite Fort Leavenworth, and crossed to the Kansas side. Continuing along the Missouri's western shore, in the course of the day they reached Walnut Creek and John Alcorn's lonely cabin upon its banks. Mr. Alcorn tried to prevail upon them to select his newly-taken claim as the site of the town of Atchison. But the site-hunters were induced by Dr. Stringfellow to continue their course up the Missouri River until they reached the present limits of the City of Atchison; or, as he says, in more definite and therefore in more historical terms, until they came to the "south edge of the rim of the basin which circles around from the south line of the city, extending west by gradual incline, to the divide between White Clay and Stranger Creek, then north and east around to the northern limits of the city." From their elevated position they could look down into this beautiful valley gradually sloping from the old military road, five miles west, and, as it approached the Missouri River, narrowing to a width of a few hundred feet. They were not only charmed with the beauty of this vast amphitheatre, but also by its natural advantages of the easy access and its peculiar facilities for obtaining artificial approaches. Here it was that the great reiver made a bend from the northeast, throwing this point twelve miles west of any locality above, twenty miles west of Leavenworth and thirty-five west of Kansas City. This site was also nearer to the rich agricultural region, just open for settlement, than any other point on the Missouri River. Hurrying down upon the lower land, the explorers found that two men had made claims, a short time previous, George M. Million and Samuel Dickson. Mr. Million owned 160 acres of land, by virtue of squatter sovereignty, his track lying south of what is now know as Atchison Street, his ferry landing at the foot of what is now that through-fare, and his cabin on the opposite bank of the Missouri River. Mr. Dickson, a resident of Rushville, Mo., had erected a small hut near the spring in South Atchison and deserted it. But there it stood in all its loneliness, the first edifice ever erected upon the present site of the City of Atchison. It was a structure twelve feet square, having one door and one window and a large stone chimney running up the outside. L. Yokum built it. When the searchers after a good town site came down upon the low land they luckily found Mr. Million and his ferry upon the Kansas side of the Missouri River. They at once commenced negotiations and the production by Mr. Million of an old map of the State of Missouri, which he spread out for their inspection, forced the conviction to become unanimous that this point was further west than any other upon the great detour of the river, and that it was the site to be selected. When the party from Platte City thus decided they could look over the present site of the City of Atchison, and see nothing but hills broken by water courses and lowlands stretching to the west, covered with a heavy growth of cottonwood. But the river lay to the east and the natural outlet to the west was so free and easy that they perceived at once, that the town could not but become another gateway through which must pass the great overland travel. As all of the prospectors except Dr. Stringfellow had taken claims in the Valley of Walnut Creek, that gentleman was the only one who could select a tract of land. He therefore made a claim north of Mr. Million's. They then proposed to form a company and lay off the future town of Atchison. Mr. Dickson was willing, but Mr. Million objected, saying that he did not want his claim "spoiled" in that way, but that he would sell it for $1,000! That was a preposterous price, but Platte City had put her shoulder to the task of founding a city where that city ought to be founded, and she did not turn back, Million being induced to part with his interest in the town site for $1,000, payable any time within twelve months. All the preliminaries having therefore been satisfactorily arranged, Messrs. Stringfellow, Owens, Oldham, Morris, Martin, Million and Dickson agreed to form a town company and receive into their organization six additional parties, viz: David R. Atchison, Elisha Green, E. H. Norton, P. T. Abell and B. F. Stringfellow (as one), Burnes brothers (as one) and Stephen Johnson. A week after the town site had been thus selected, the original and the proposed members of the company gathered under a large tree which stood on the river bank about one-half a block south of Atchison street. In the meantime Senator Atchison had made over his interest in the town to his nephew, James Headley, a smart young lawyer, and Jesse Morin had been admitted as an additional member; therefore the name of the founder of the town does not appear in the list of the members of the company. The Burnes brothers mentioned were Lewis, Daniel D., James N. and Calvin F. So that the members of the town company, as they met under the trees on the Missouri bank, numbered eighteen. Here they formally organized by electing Col. Peter T. Abell, President; Dr. J. H. Stringfellow, Secretary; Col. James N. Burnes, Treasurer.

Col. Abell was the personal friend of Senator Atchison, and was exactly the right kind of a man to take up a pet town and coddle it into maturity. He was in many respects a remarkable man, and although he should not have all the praise and credit of starting Atchison along a prosperous commercial path, he ought to have the lion's share. Like General Atchison, he had been all his life a native of Kentucky and Missouri. Like Senator Atchison, he was a lawyer by profession, but, unlike him, his nature did not run to political ambition. By instinct and by a long experience he was an energetic, broad-minded business man, who inspired everyone with confidence and the majority of people with enthusiasm. Although a Southern man to the core of his being he soon saw that the only way to build up a prosperous community was to forget political differences; so that after the hot Pro-slavery times of 1856 had passed, Col. Abell, although possessed of a warm temperament and still holding the most decided convictions, seldom gave expression to any sentiments which could offend an ultra Free-soil citizen. His personal appearance also marked him for a commercial leader. Although not really of a hardy constitution, his outward physique carried the impression of perfect health and an iron frame. He was six feet one inch in height, weighed 190 pounds, had black hair and eyes - and yet notwithstanding his large proportions, was ever as active bodily as he was mentally. At the time he became President of the Atchison Town company he was a resident of Weston, Mo., and made that place his home for one year after Atchison had been surveyed.

Having thus regularly organized, the company divided the town site into one hundred shares. Each of its members - and it will be borne in mind that Messrs. Abell and B. F. Stringfellow and the Burnes brothers were received as two parties - retained five shares, the balance of thirty being reserved for the common benefit. The services of Henry Kuhn were obtained for surveying the 480 acres of which the town site consisted. This important proceeding was accomplished on the 20th of September, and the next day was fixed for the sale of lots. The event proved to be of more than local interest. It was understood that General Atchison was to make a speech upon the questions of the day, and the gathering had therefore quite a political as well as a business significance. The Senator from Missouri and a crowd of his supporters were present, but there appears to have been some disagreement as to the exact expressions used by their leader in the speech which he delivered before the land sale commenced. One reporter asserts that he said, "people from every quarter should be welcomed into the territory and treated with civility as long as they showed themselves peaceable men." Some one called out: "What shall we do with those who run off with our niggers?" "Hang 'em," cried another voice in the crowd. To this Mr. Atchison prudently replied: "No, I would not hang them, but I would get them out of the territory - get rid of them." A St. Louis man, whose hearing was perhaps affected by his strong Pro-slavery sentiments, reports the Senator as answering his anxious questioners thus: "By ___, sirs, hang every abolitionist you find in the territory."

The best account, however, of this important gathering, and one which bears upon its face the marks of having been reported by a careful eye-witness to all the proceedings, was given by a gentleman from Parkville, Mo., and is published entire:

"We left Parkville on the 'New Lucy,' on Wednesday afternoon, and had a fine run to Weston, where we laid all night, taking on a goodly number of passengers. Starting on Thursday morning, we arrived at Atchison in the forenoon. Among the company was our distinguished Senator, in honor of whom the new city is named. There was a large assemblage on the ground, with plenty of tables spread for dinner, where the crowd could be accommodated with bacon and bread and a drink at the branch for fifty cents a head. Our party, however, fell in with some friends from the Missouri side who hospitably placed the contents of their saddle-bags (such as were eatable and drinkable) at our disposal.

"The survey of the town had just been completed the evening before. The stockholders held a meeting to arrange particulars of sale, and afterwards, as had been previously announced, General Atchison mounted an old wagon and made a speech. He commenced by alluding to the beautiful country which was now beginning to be settled - to some of the circumstances under which a territorial government was organized, and in the course of his remarks mentioned how Douglas came to introduce the Nebraska bill, with the repeal clause in it. Senator Atchison said that for himself, he was entirely devoted to the interests of the South, and that he would sacrifice everything, but his hope of heaven, to advance her welfare. He thought the Missouri Compromise ought to be repealed - he had pledged himself, in his public addresses, to vote for no territorial organization that would not virtually annul it; and, with this feeling in his heart, he desired to be chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories when a bill was to be introduced. With this object in view he had a private interview with Mr. Douglas and informed him of what he desired - the introduction of a bill for Nebraska like the one he had promised to vote for; that he wished to be chairman of the Committee on Territories in order to introduce such a measure, and that if he could get that position he would immediately resign as Speaker of the Senate. Judge Douglas requested twenty-four hours in which to consider the matter, and said that if, at the expiration of that time, he could not introduce such a bill as he (Mr. Atchison) proposed, which would at the same time accord with his own sense of right and justice to the South, he would resign as the chairman of Territorial Committee in Democratic Caucus, and exert his influence to get him (Atchison) appointed. At the expiration of the given time Senator Douglas signified his intention to report such a bill as had been spoken of. Gen. Atchison next spoke of those who had supported, and those who had opposed the bill in the Senate, and remarked that Northern Democrats came up nobly to the work, and that Northern Whigs had proved recreant to the cause of justice and right. Southern men, he said, acted as they should have done, with, he was sorry to say, two exceptions. (A voice in the crowd here called out, 'Bell and Houston!') Yes, he said, these were the men - one Whig and one Democrat, both aspirants for the Presidency, but poor miserable devils! They had made a false step, and he might say that now he (Atchison) had a fairer chance for that high honor than either of them. The American people loved honesty, and could appreciate the acts of a man who, openly and above board, voted according to the will of his constituents without regard to political favor. Senator Atchison next alluded to the slavery question, as it is now being agitated in our community, and closed by expressing his profound contempt for Abolitionists, and said that if he had his way he would hang every one that dared show his face here. In reference, however, to Northern men settling in the Kansas Territory, he said he knew there were sensible, honest, right feeling men among them who would be as far from stealing a negro as a Southern man would, and his remarks applied only to avowed Abolitionists.

"Such is a glance at some of the points in Senator Atchison's speech. When he concluded the sale commenced, and during the afternoon thirty-four lots were sold at an average of $63 each. Those disposed of were mostly back from the river, and, as far as could be seen, with two or three exceptions, were bought by owners of the town. Prices ranged from $35 to $300 - one at each of the extremes. This sale was to be continued the next day, when lots more advantageously situated were expected to be offered.

At this meeting, held on the 21st day of September, action was taken upon two matters which always come up first in new communities - the project of building a hotel and the enterprise of establishing a newspaper. Each of the one hundred shares was assessed $25, and the result was the completion, during the succeeding spring of the "National Hotel," corner of Second and Atchison streets. The company agreed to donate $400 to Dr. J. H. Stringfellow and R. S. Kelley to purchase a printing office, and the Squatter Sovereign made its bow to Atchison, in February, 1855. Its proprietors were uncompromising pro-slavery men. The new candidate for public favor received a cordial welcome, especially from some of the Leavenworth papers. The Kansas Herald of February 9, 1855, says: "The Squatter Sovereign published at Atchison, Kansas Territory, by J. H. Stringfellow and R. S. Kelley, made its appearance last Saturday, the first number of which is now before us. It is a large size sheet, very neatly printed and well filled with original and choice selections. It is edited with considerable ability, is Pro-slavery in sentiment and will be a valuable acquisition to the true interests of Kansas. We welcome our neighbors into the journalistic field, and bid them good-speed." But, alas! the professional tilts between the two papers were too lively, within the next three months, to keep alive such brotherly feelings. In May the Herald relieved itself of its venom as follows: "It is with great reluctance we condescend to notice anything from the vituperative pen of the insignificant, puerile, silly blackguard who at present presides over the editorial conduct of the Sovereign. Atchison may be, but Leavenworth is not the place where Peter Pindar's remark that 'every blackguard scoundrel is a king' is recognized by the community. * * * The egotistical dupe of the Sovereign thinks we are a representative of the verdancy of Virginia. Be this as it may, we can retort by saying that the mendacity of Missouri is represented in the person of one R. S. Kelley, of Atchison."

H. Rives Pollard, of Virginia, had charge of the Herald in the absence of Gen. L. J. Eastin, senior editor, and Mr. Kelley who, since April 10, had written "P. M." after his name, managed the Sovereign when Dr. Stringfellow was away. The quarrel between the two young men waxed so hot that in June the fiery Virginian challenged the Missourian to mortal combat. But although made up in the "border-ruffian" stripe, somewhat, Mr. Kelley was quite popular in the community, and refused to risk the possibility of having his career thus terminated. There had been almost a similar revulsion of feeling between Leavenworth and Atchison as marked the intercourse between their editors. Atchison was gaining several advantages over her elder sister. At this time the most important point was the fact that several Salt Lake and overland freighters had been induced in June, to select Atchison as their outfitting point. Livingston, Kinkead & Co., and Hooper & Williams were among the largest of these firms. To the west of the town about five miles, passed the old military road. In this vicinity the town company sold the Mormon Immigrant agents a section of land which had been purchased from squatters, and there their people founded quite a settlement. It is true the "buildings" were mostly tents, and the "citizens" seldom remained long in their temporary homes. But the activity was so constant and the trade of the emigrants so continuous that Atchison derived as much benefit from the adjacent town as though it has been permanently a portion of her own corporation. The actual outfitting was all done in Atchison, and this fact first established her business career. In a few years much of this immense trade was transferred from the eastern banks of the Missouri to the town of Atchison. The credit of obtaining for Atchison this advantage is particularly due to Samuel Dickson, the Burnes Bros., Stephen Johnson and George T. Challiss, all enterprising merchants. The National Hotel had now been completed, trade was brisk, the Squatter Sovereign was always on hand to blow the horn of the new town whose future was assured, and nothing stood in the way of a complete town and county organization. The Court of Commissioners first met in O. B. Dickerson's house in September, having been elected by the Territorial Legislature, August 25. The association of the town of Atchison was incorporated on the 30th of August, 1855, by John H. Stringfellow, Peter T. Abell, Samuel R. Dickson, Elijah H. Norton, Lewis Burnes, Ira Norris "and their associates." The corporation was empowered to purchase and hold a tract of land not to exceed 640 acres, the stock of the company to be deemed personal property.

The county was surveyed into townships in 1855, but not into quarters and sections until the fall of that year. The town company at first required every settler to build a house at least sixteen feet square upon his lot. When the survey of 1855 was made many found themselves upon school lands. Among those who had thus erected dwellings in 1854 and 1855 were James T. Darnall, Archibald Elliott, Thomas J. C. Duncan, Andrew W. Pebler, Robert S. Kelley, F. B. Wilson, Henry Cline and William Hassett. Matters remained unsettled as to the title to these school lands for some time thereafter. During 1857 the title to all lands embracing the town site and open to settlement was acquired from the general government, and subsequently the title to the school lands was obtained from the territory. The town company thus derived a clear title to all lands covering the site and conveyed them to the settlers and purchasers according to their respective interests; and the title thus acquired was confirmed by decisions from the court. The survey of North Atchison was made in October, 1857, by J. J. Pratt, Dr. J. H. Stringfellow, proprietor. It consisted of the northeast quarter of the northeast quarter of Section 36 town 5 south, range 20 east. South Atchison was platted in May, 1858, Samuel Dickson, proprietor; West Atchison, February, 1858, John Roberts, proprietor. John Roberts' first addition to Atchison was made in 1858; also L. C. Challiss' addition. Other additions to the corporate limits of the city have since been made. A few days previous to the surveying of North Atchison, Lancaster, eleven miles west, was platted, no doubt with the intention of becoming the county seat. Sumner was at this time Atchison's most formidable rival. But the next year the dispute was settled in favor of Atchison, and her court house was completed in 1859. That was the second point obtained by her enterprising people.

[TOC] [part 3] [part 1] [Cutler's History]