KanColl: The Kansas Historical Quarterlies

Touring the Southeast Kansas Area in 1896:
From the Diary of Thomas Butcher

Edited by Betty Littleton

Summer, 1969 (Vol. 35, No. 2), pages 143 to 154
Transcription and HTML composition by Robert J. MacRae;
digitized with permission of the Kansas State Historical Society;
numbers in brackets refer to notes at the end of the article.


     During the 21 years between 1875, when he filed for a homestead, and 1896, when he left Kansas, Thomas Butcher lived on a farm near Sun City in Barber County. He brought his English bride there, farmed his land for corn and wheat, pastured sheep for himself and nearby farmers, freighted between Sun City and Hutchinson, and did occasional butchering (the family trade for as far back as anyone could remember). In many ways his life was probably typical of the life of the settlers during those years. he came to this country from the village of Steeple Claydon in Buckinghamshire in 1870, when he was 20, in the company of several friends -- George Toombs, Benjamin Ladyman, and Tom Clarke. The young men worked for several years in Jackson, Mich., to make money for the farms they hoped to have and, in Thomas Butcher's case, for round-trip passage for Elizabeth Mills, also from Steeple Claydon, who would marry him if she decided she could live in this strange and unsettled land but would return to England if she decided she could not.

     By 1875 Thomas and his friends were in Kansas, and Thomas had filed for a homestead in sparsely settle Barber county, five miles north of Sun City. [1] Elizabeth Mills arrived in Hutchinson in the company of Thomas' brother William on April 25, and she and Thomas were married there on the 28th and went at once to their homestead with its two-room log house that was to be the birthplace of their six children. (A third brother, Fred, who had travelled for a number of years in South America, joined them some time around 1889 or 1890). In the years that followed, Thomas managed to extend his original 80 acres to 800, and apparently the farm afforded an adequate living until about 1892 or 1893, when a combination of circumstances -- severe extremes of heat and cold, prolonged drought, market instability, and overextension of credit to landbuyers -- had increased the number of farm failures (11,122 reported between 1889 and 1892), [2] Thomas' among them. At any rate, by 1894, he had moved to the nearby "Jayne farm" -- a place so poor that he claimed it "won't sprout white beans" -- and he stayed there for about a year before moving on to Lake City, where he stayed for one more year.

     It was during this time -- June, 1896 -- that he made the trip through southeastern Kansas, northeastern Oklahoma, and southwestern Missouri that is the subject of the diary that follows. Unable to find the opportunity he hoped for in that direction, he finally decided to move farther into Oklahoma. He left Sun City in November of that year and on December 31 arrived in Earlsboro, Okla., where he stayed until 1900. In that year he moved once again, this time to Oklahoma City, where settled and prospered (first as a butcher and than as owner of a meat packing plant), and where he died in 1935 -- on April 28, strangely enough, 60 years to the day after he had brought his bride to Sun City.

     Thomas Butcher's diary of his trip -- his observations on crops and on signs of material and mechanical progress in the towns he passed through -- is reproduced below. Where it seemed necessary information has been added within the text in brackets. Otherwise no emendations or interpolations have been made.


June 1st 1896

      Started for Arkansas from Lake City in company with J G Parker of Coats and Wm Bean of Tennessee. Camped 8 miles south of Lake City. Weather very dry and crops suffering for rain.

     2nd Travelled south to Alva I[ndian] T[erritory] and stayed for the night with W P McGill two miles south and two west of Alva. Crops poor and weather still dry.

     3rd Stayed at F M Brown's farm, four miles north and four west of Cleo where they had had a rain a few days previous, making the grass & corn much better. The rain was local and had not extended far to the north.

     4th We eat dinner near Sam Billings' place but did not know till afterwards. Stayed that night at G T McGills'. Crops were a little better but still poor. P.O. address Carwile.

     5th Camped 1 1/2 miles north of North Enid. Crops a little better. Wheat estimated 5 to 8 bu per acre.

     6th Drove to White Rock. Crops getting better all the way. Are leaving the buffalo grass region. Some fields of wheat just cut looked very fine, and we estimated them at 25 bu per acre but the best we heard of only thrashed 22 bu to the acre. A hail storm a week or 10 days previous had damaged the corn and the chinch bugs are working on it now.

     7th Sunday. Took dinner at the mouth of the Chicaski River where it empties into Salt Fork just in the Indian Nation. [3] South of the Salt Fork the Reservation is fenced for grass and leased by the Indians to stock men for grazing but on the north side. Ponca City is about 6 miles distant which we reached about 4 P.M. and noticed quite a concourse of people just west and south of town. Being Sunday afternoon we supposed it was a religious meeting but found it to be an exciting game of baseball. Crops were good in this vicinity, wheat the best we had seen on the road. It rained hard for half an hour before we went into camp about two miles north of Ponca City.

     8th Travelled north to Kildare and Newkirk in a fine fertile country passing many good crops. We estimated the wheat at 15 bu. Visited the Indian schools at Chilocco. [5] There are three main buildings of cut stone, quarried close by beside the combination building at the rear of them used for laundry dining room and power house. The dining room covers an area of three quarters of an acre and is large enough to seat the three hundred and fifty scholars who reside there. They have a shoe shop and tailoring establishment where the clothing and shoes are all made. The shoe making requires 28 or 30 hands in the early part of the school term but not more than 8 or 10 towards the close. The tailoring department also the same number. The boys are taught to cut and make shoes the same as an apprentice but the superintendent (who had been there six years) told me he had never known one to follow the business after he had left school. They have 8640 acres under the fence three hundred and fifty head of cattle twenty seven horses and mules and sixty five government employees twenty eight being Indian. The dairying buildings and apparatus cost seven thousand dollars and furnishes all the milk and butter they use. They have sixty five acres in nursery and small fruits & the scholars and employes raise all the vegetables there. The scholars are required to work half a day and study the other half. During school hours they are subject to a corporal (one of themselves) and there are six such corporals. The principals are held to strict account for everything furnished and a rigid account is required of everything damaged or rendered useless. The estimated cost of the establishment is half a million dollars and the appropriation expected for this year is forty seven thousand dollars. This establishment is a credit to the government. We also saw specimens of writing spelling and drawing and worsted work and lace and needlework that was very good for Indian or white scholar.

     9th Arkansas City is a very enterprising and prosperous town lying between the Arkansas and Walnut Rivers. It is lighted by electricity. We had seen some very find gardens south of Arkansas City cabbage and onions being particularly good but here everything seemed excellent. One man had sold six acres of potatoes for 200 dollars. Grass very fine and luxuriant and timber abundant. Crops in the bottoms excellent. The roads begin go get hilly & rocky and quite a number of abandoned farms. Wheat from 10 days to 2 weeks later than in Pratt & Barber C. The farms belong principally to mortgage companies and have been in splendid condition almost all being fenced with hedge and having good orchards. Very few cattle kept except by wealthy men. Travelled all day over the lower extremity of the Flint Hills and camped at night at Cedarvale where we saw the first new building in course of construction.

     10th Crossed the Big Caney where we saw wheat we thought would yield thirty bushels to the acre. Corn also very fine in the bottoms. Splendid timber and grass everywhere. Passed Wausheta where the crops were not so good. Travelled on to Sedan the county seat of Chautauqua Co a good business town, three new houses and a fine stone business block being built. Crops around here good. Camped in a field a mile north east of town.

     11th Travelled on to Peru a small railroad town. East of Peru about three miles are five oil derricks at one of which they have found oil in quantities that it is thought will pay. Drove on to Caneyville a lively town and six miles east went into camp on the top of the ridge. We saw very few cattle in Chautauqua county which surprised us as this county has free range. The grass here is very fine.

     12th Travelled three miles east to Tyro. Land good for wheat and oats but too thin for corn. In the middle of the afternoon we passed Coffeyville the best town we had seen in the state. Quite a number of new buildings going up and an air of prosperity prevails. The business buildings are stately structures of stone and brick and there is a great amount of business done. The residences are elegant and artistic. We noticed four churches well built and nicely kept and shade trees on all except the main street. Here we left the state and travelled about 7 miles south east and camped in the Cherokee Nation.

     13th Travelled in a South east course to six or seven miles of Vinita. Country all settled in the first place by white men who had married Indian women or who had acquired a head right in some other way and by them rented out to white men. It is a notorious fact that the Indians will not work and the white man reaps the benefit of it here as elsewhere. Very few cattle around here. Saw one fine crop of red clover. The timber getting better but the grass not as good as in the northern part of the territory. Saw a few blooms of white clover on the road side. Camped at night on Big Cabin Creek.

      14th Vinita is a fine business town. The men are well dressed and drive good horses and good size. Crops are fenced hog tight and hogs run loose in town as well as country. They have a fine fair ground boarded around and from the number of stalls and loose boxes I should judge it was well patronized. Altogether it has a racy air. The best horses we saw on the road were here. Timber getting better. Crops a little later owing to long continued rains. Just at evening we reached Grand River a stream 200 yards wide which we crossed on the Ferry at Kerrys [Carey's] Ferry. The last 7 or 8 miles had been very rocky and disagreeable travelling. Grand River was just barely fordable for a man on horseback who knew the channel but it had been forty feet deep. Saw two pea fowl and two stands of bees today. Camped a mile east of the river where we saw 500 sheep running at large without a herder. Saw three fields of timothy two of which looked well.

     15th Entered Missouri at 12 o'clock A.M. Timber much better but no grass. Country all hills and rocks and timber. Drove for two miles without speaking to each other the over-hanging limbs and view being shut off had such a depressing effect on us. Camped for dinner without grass for our horses. South West City is five miles from railroad but is quite a good town. On account of Missouri not being a prohibition state the town gets a great deal of liquor trade from the Indian Territory on the west. On account of being so much timber around, the cleared farms look very attractive. The gardens are very productive. South West City is named on account of its position geographically, being in the Southwest corner of the state. North and north east from here is some open country but the soil is so thin and the rocks so near the surface of the ground that crops are usually light but nearly sure [?]. A small species of clover has appeared there spontaneously in the last 20 years which makes very good grazing and is known as Japanese clover.

     16th Travelled north on the state line and crossed the Cowskin River about 100 yards wide. Water so clear and transparent that whereas it looked to be 6 or 8 inches deep we found it to be over two feet. Good solid rock bottom. Saw the finest orchard we had seen on the trip today. Sprigs of red clover growing along the roadside and white clover growing everywhere that there is enough sunlight. Saw an 80 acre field of timothy and clover which was very fine. Camped on Buffalo Creek, a stream similar to Cowskin. Saw an elm tree 35ft to first limb and four feet through.

     17th Travelled north to the line of McDonald and Newton counties. A great deal of flax is being raised some looking as though it would make 12 bushes to the acre. Almost every farm has a crop of timothy on it. Land all through here is very poor. A good many well improved farms fenced hog tight with rails and some with wire and all have good orchards. Black berries growing in endless quantities along the roadsides. People complaining of hard times financially & great majority of the democrats are in favour of free silver and the financial question is uppermost in the minds of all those we talked with. Camped at noon and stayed all day as our horses had had no grass the night before.

     18th Travelled north and east by the side of cleared farms to Hart P.O. and on to Neosho. This town has the nicest shade around the residences of any town we saw. On account of the timber acting as windbreak and shade the people are fairer than further west, the women particularly. This town has three railroads and is quite a good town but Joplin has kept it from making the strides it would otherwise had made. On account of high water we had to cross the bridge which threw us off the main road & we travelled for 7 miles over the roughest rockiest road we had seen. Passed several gipsy horse traders camps in the wildest part of the road. This is the best place I ever saw for outlaws to hide in. There being no open ground we hired a pasture and camped for the night. At half past ten we heard three shots fired in succession and the train come to a standstill. We thought of train robbers but found out afterwards that it was torpedoes on the track to warn the engineer to slow up.

     19th Travelled north to Diamond where they think the lead and zinc ore extends to. A number of speculators have bought or leased lands here. Camped six miles east of Joplin in Jasper County.

      20 Two miles east of Joplin we saw the lead mines. Prospectors are boring in a great many places and a great deal of mining is going on. Joplin is a very fine town having lots of business fine business houses and splendid residences. The town is lighted at night by electricity and has electric street cars which run to Webb City and are aiming to connect with Galena on the west. On the street car was an advertizement of a baseball game to be played on the day following which would be Sunday. The great piles of rock brought up from the mines give the town and surrounding country a barren and desolate appearance. The mines give employment to a great many mean but on account of the low price of ore a great many mining plants have shut down and ore will close soon in the price does not improve. A mile west of town are three smelters where the ore is rendered marketable. Half a mile further west is the cemetery which is laid off in drive ways and kept in a creditable manner. The walks are clean and free from weeds and the trees and shrubbery are well kept. From here we drove in a due west course till we came to Galena in Kansas. The portion of Missouri over which we travelled is very poor, the soil is very thin seldom more than fifteen inches deep and where the ground is rolling the soil has washed off entirely and left nothing in sight but rocks. Nevertheless we saw gardens where there did not seem to be any soil scarcely, where cabbage onions tomato beet and almost every other vegetable were growing as well as could be wished.

     21st Galena is the liveliest town we saw on the road. The mining excitement is higher here than elsewhere. There were at least a thousand people on the street last evening and a great many had gone over to Missouri to spend their Sunday. The piles of rock are more conspicuous here than at Joplin so many of the mines being on the town site. There was a smelter here but it burnt down was a great loss to the town. At this place as at all others mining is a very uncertain business. A few men have got rich while the majority have lost money, a great many have lost all they had. From here we travelled west to Shoal Creek a fine rock bottomed stream. The roads are rocky and very rough. There is very little nice road for driving buggies over like there is a hundred and fifty miles further west. Still, we saw a great many bicycles here, many more than there are with us in a better country to run a bicycle in. Lowell is a quiet country town on the banks of Shoal Creek and Spring River. Baxter Springs is a town of historic interest on account of the raid made on it by Quantrell in 18[63] when twenty five people were killed [6] and also on account of the wild rough times it had when it was the great shipping point for Texas cattle. [7] The Soldiers' Reunion of 1895 will long be remembered by those who were there. Upwards of 70,000 people were there. Just south of here are the civilized Indians. The Modocs numbering 55 the Quapaw 170 the Miami 55, and the Ottawa 140, the Wyandotte 140, the Peoria 170 the Seneca 300 and Shawnee tribes. They are the remnants of once famous tribes. These have their land allotments of 200 acres each. About six months [ago] an Indian police was shot and killed while serving papers of eviction on a family that was trespassing. The children of Indian women and white men partake very strongly of the traits of the white man and the intermarrying of the races has gone on so long that it is difficult to detect any trace of Indian blood in features or manners. Plenty of them could pass for pure Caucassian. The government furnishes schools for the children and is doing everything it can to make these their wards fit for citizenship. Those who do not farm their land themselves rent it to white men so that the land makes them a good living. That not farmed is fenced and leased for grazing so they are now sell supporting.

     22nd Early this morning it commenced to rain and in four hours four or five inches of rain had fallen. A mile west of us was Four Mile creek which we came to at the state line but it was too deep to be forded so we went north into the state so as to have bridges to cross the streams on. In the afternoon we passed Melrose and Chetopa which used to be a noted place in years gone by but which had lost some of its prestige of late years. [8] Went into camp six miles west. At Chetopa we saw the remains of a wind mill which had probably been used for grinding corn at an early day. What was left was stone and would probably last for a long time to come.

Thomas Butcher
Thomas Butcher (1850-1935) settled on a farm north of Sun City, Barber county, in 1875. His English bridge joined him there, and they farmed for nearly two decades. As with many others, combinations of circumstances forced the family from its property. Following the failure Butcher took a scouting tripo hopefully to resettle and to begin anew.
Below is Sun City, as it looked some years after Thomas Butcher knew it. Photo courtesy of James W. Bibb, Topeka
Sun City, Kansas

Winfield, Kansas

Winfield (above) and Ark City (below), as they appeared about the time
Thomas Butcher passed through them.

Ark City, Kansas

     23rd Passed Bartlett Edna and Valeda. The rain of the previous night had not reached here and the crops are suffering. The soil is getting richer but the rainfall is less. The flower gardens and shade trees particularly show it. In the evening we passed Coffeyville and camped three miles north west. A great majority of the farms here have passed out of the hands of the original owners and are now the property of syndicates and mortgage companies. The yield of wheat we find to be much less than we had estimated it at. The lumber yard is a much more prominent feature of a town here than they were further east, especially in Missouri. The people there use native lumber and do most of the work themselves, We have seen a great many untenanted farms today with orchards ranging from three to 15 acres. Also have seen a great many orchards containing twenty acres and over. [9] There is not much more than half a crop of apples where we have been but the number of acres of bearing trees will make the aggregate number of bushels great. The corn west of Chetopa and as far west as we saw is from three to five feet taller than from there on east or in Missouri. The lateness of the corn may be accounted for by the long continued rams of the early spring and the cloud burst which occurred at Seneca I[ndian] T[erritory] on May 28 and extended around to the surrounding country.

     24th Travelled north fourteen miles to Independence where we heard J S Coxey for about an hour. [10] The streets of this town are wide and commodious and kept in good order. The business houses are substantially built of stone and the walks are shaded and although the town is not as large it compares for neatness and order very favorably with anything we saw. Away from the town we saw a great many farms laying idle, the fences down, the houses gone and the orchards dead or dying for lack of moisture and attention. Three miles west we saw an oil derrick where they were drilling. They were down 300 feet and were wing natural gas to generate steam & to sharpen and harden their drills. Travelled ten miles west and camped for the night.

     25 Drove a short distance and came to what are known as the Range hills. Passed Hale P.O. at noon. From then till night it rained steadily and we got off the road and wound around in the mud & hills and rocks of Chautauqua county and camped at night a short distance west of Farmersburg which we had passed in the middle of the afternoon. The road had been very rough and rocky all day. A great many cattle are kept in this part of Chautauqua Co but the men who handle them are principally renters who prefer owning cattle to land.

     26 Rain all the morning. Took the wrong road half a mile from camp and had more mud and rock experience. Camped for noon one mile north of Chautauqua county line and fifteen miles from the west line. Saw the first jack rabbit today since leaving Missouri. Find cottonwood trees used as shade trees and some of them are dying. A few scattered patches of buffalo grass is to be seen occasionally. From here on east to Missouri the water for stock is almost all held in ponds, dammed up in draws or scooped out in any slight depression. The subsoil is a very close grained clay that holds water like a jug. Crops from here on to the Cowley county line, exceptionally good: in the Caney and Spring creek bottoms especially. Have had fifteen miles of pretty good road. Pulled up on to the Flint Hills in the extreme eastern edge of Cowley county and went into camp for the night.

     27 A very heavy rain fell through the night and the roads in consequence in a terrible condition. A great many Texas cattle (steers) kept in this part of Cowley county. From here on east we had not seen a crop of wheat or oats for 35 miles, nothing but corn and once or twice a crop of flax. Almost all the tillable land is planted to corn and it giving promise of the most bountiful harvest ever known here. All corn from here on east has been planted with check sower. The orchards and shade trees begin to show evidence of dry weather. Have seen a few small crops of oats in the last half days drive but none of wheat. Saw about 30 head of fat steers on full corn feed near Burden that were very fine. The weather had been dry over this southern part of the state till two weeks ago and this rain has revived the hearts of the farmers. Have seen a few small crops of alfalfa but not raised in any very large quantities. Begin to find buffalo grass in larger quantities and a few crops of corn planted with the lister.

     28th Sunday and we rested all day.

      29 Passed the State Lunatic Asylum a very imposing structure built upon a hill about two miles north east of Winfield. The Winfield Cemetery is about a mile from town and has a great many beautiful monuments, and is very nicely kept. The town is located on the east bank of the Walnut River, and is built mainly of a white lime-stone that abounds hereabouts. A great deal of business is done here and an air of business enterprise pervades everywhere. We crossed the Arkansas River and camped for the night.

     30 One mile drive brought us to Geuda Springs famous for the medicinal properties of its seven springs all different which flow out of the ground on an area of 20 feet by 32 feet. One spring is said to be a positive cure for rheumatism. A public park and shade trees have been provided for the use of those who are not wealthy. Three large hotels provide accomodation for any reasonable number of guests. The water is free of access but baths of almost any kind can be had at the regularly fitted up bath houses. These springs have a wide reputation and a great many have been benefitted by the use of the waters both by internal and external use.

     As we leave the Arkansas river and come westward the crops begin to fail. A great many cottonwood shade trees and a great proportion of the orchard trees are dying or are dead. Camped just west of the Chicaski and about 4 miles west from Corbin.

     July 1st As we travel west the crops get poorer and poorer. The hedges have great gaps in them and the well cultivated orchards have dead trees in them. Many fields of wheat are left uncut because the crop is so poor and many others will be a source of debt rather than profit to those who have cut them. Fully one half the farm houses are vacant. The earliest corn has been dried by the sun and whipped by the wind, till it cannot make much however seasonable the weather may be for the future. The most prominent features of the country now are jack rabbits buffalo grass and poor crops. As we come into Harper county the crops are getting better and the roads are dry. Anthony the county seat has a great many vacant houses and stores. Have reached the country of dry weather and sand burs. No hedges or fences on the road and very few houses and half or more of them are deserted. Buffalo grass plentiful. Camped three miles west on Big Sandy.

     July 2 Drove fourteen miles west to Crisfield which had sustained considerable damage on the night of June 17 in a wind storm. Several buildings were blown down, a large school house moved on its foundation and fruit and other trees broke down considerably. The crops from here on to Sharon and Medicine Lodge are very much better and promise a good harvest if the rains continue. Camped at Medicine Lodge.

     July 3 Drove to Lake City up the valley of the Medicine Lodge river where the crops have injured very much on account of dry weather. Wheat scarcely paying for cutting and a great deal of the early corn too far advanced to be benefitted much by the rain. Reached home at 12 o'clock and very glad to get there, having been travelling every day except one since the first day of June.

DR. BETTY LITTLETON, native of Shawnee, Okla., and a great-granddaughter of Thomas Butcher, received her graduate degrees from Lindenwood College, Stanford University, and the University of Missouri. She is author of a novel, In Samson's Eye (1965), and currently teaches English Literature at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo.

1. Wilder's Annals cite the census for figures for March 1, 1875, when Barbour county (the spelling was later normalized as "Barber") had 367 inhabitants. Only Edwards county, with 234, had a smaller census. -- Daniel W. Wilder, Annals of Kansas (Topeka, 1875), p. 674.

2. William Frank Zornow, Kansas, A History of the Jayhawk State (Norman, Okla., 1957), p. 168.

3. The Ponca reservation, bordered on the east by the Osage and on the south by the Oto-Missouri reservations.

4. Established by an act of congress in 1882 for the education of Plains Indian children.

5. Bicycling had become an increasingly popular sport as the numerous entries in The Annals of Kansas for 1894-1896 testify. For example, an entry for April 10, 1895, claims that the "bicycle craze was killing the demand for buggies" and the entry for April 16 adds that "owners of horses and buggies were selling them to buy bicycles." The entry for May 2 notes that "more bicycles had been sold at Columbus since January than in all of 1894." -- See The Annals of Kansas, 1886-1925, ed., Kirke Mechem (Topeka, 1954), v. 1, pp. 188-226 passim.

6. Greeley gives the number as 80. -- See Daniel W. Wilder, The Annals of Kansas (Topeka, 1875), p. 349.

7. Baxter Springs was an outlet for Texas cattle in the late 1860's.

8. After June, 1870, when the Missouri, Kansas and Texas railroad arrived in Chetopa, the town boomed as a center of both the cattle and Indian trade.

9. Since Thomas Butcher was particularly interested in the culture of fruit trees (especially in the arts of budding and grafting), his frequent comments on orchards in the diary may be misleading about the extent of fruit growing in the southwest portion of the state.

10. The Daily Reporter, Independence, June 25, 1896, said the Coxey meeting drew a big crowd, "the populists flocking in from all parts of the county...." Coxey talked for two hours, "preaching genuine calamity populism with great earnestness."

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