Kansas Collection Books: The Abolitionist, by George W. Schiller

Chapter 9:
Politics on the Prairie

     Staggering numbers traveled the Oregon-California Trail from 1842 until 1872. The explosion of pioneer immigrants into the Louisiana Purchase area was estimated to be as high as 250,000 people over the thirty-year period. Not all travelers completed the 2,200 mile journey. Some stopped off as various places for various reasons. The journey for many was to find new homes and build new lives. Others were merchants, bankers, lawyers, and other professions. Some became discouraged and disillusioned and returned homeward.

     The immigrants were for the most part a hardy breed and were accustomed to a rigorous way of life. However, very few of them were conditioned to walking ten to fifteen miles each day alongside their wagons. They were not familiar with sleeping in the open with only the night sky for a blanket or cooking their meals over an open campfire. They were not comfortable going weeks on end without a bath or a change of clothing. Worst of all, they had little or no medicine or medical attention in case of sickness or accidents. To compound their problems, they suffered epidemics of contagious diseases such as typhoid fever, dysentery, and malaria. The most contagious and deadly disease was cholera. Epidemics of this disease often struck without warning and cholera usually attacked the very young or the elderly whose resistance was low. This devastating disease could strike a person in the morning and by the next morning that person could be dead. It was so highly contagious that those who had helped with the burying of the bodies often contracted the disease and would be dead within a few days. It was common to find several gravesites along each mile of the Trail.

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     Many wagons that arrived at Barrett's Mill brought sick or injured travelers. Some had heard of the cemetery at Barrett's Mill and brought their deceased ones to be buried. Albert and Mary soon realized that some sort of medical provisions were needed. Albert built a small wooden building somewhat separated from the mainstream traffic. It was used as a temporary infirmary for the sick, ill, or injured. The women of Barrett's Mill took turns caring for the patients as best they could. Occasionally a doctor or medically trained person was passing through. Albert often successfully persuaded them to stay awhile and minister to the patients. Mary insisted that every known medical and safety precaution be practiced to prevent the spread of contagious diseases.

     The most prevalent ailment was mosquito-spread malaria. It was more of an intermittent plague than a disease and most everyone suffered from time to time. The fever and chills alternated days with predictable regularity. Death rates were high among newborn infants. Albert and Mary were not the only ones who lost babies. With only minimum care and medical skills available, many of the frail babies did not survive.

     Now that both the sawmill and gristmill were in operation, Barrett's Mill became more widely known for its services. Albert's brothers, Thomas, William, Uriah, John, and Joseph, were all now living nearby. The brothers were settled into pioneer life. William was planning to manage the new hotel that was soon to be built in Marysville. The other brothers were farming or helping Albert with the mill operations. Other relatives were already nearby or on their way to settle there.

     Albert's sister, Winifred, was married to Isaac Walker and they lived near Barrett's Mill in their first home. Later they moved a few miles upstream to settle on the west fork of the Vermillion River and established the village called Winifred.

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Winifred was a true pioneer woman in every sense of the word. She and Mary Barrett had nine children between them, some of them school age. They rode horseback together around the countryside to raise money to hire a schoolteacher for their children. When Winifred was married, her father gave her a walnut bureau that she and Isaac had stored in Iowa on their way to Kansas. She and one of her sons drove a team and wagon back to Iowa to recover the bureau. They were gone for a month. Later while her husband and sons were serving in the Civil War, she carried on the farm work alone. These two Barrett women, who had achieved the Barrett name, one by birth and one by marriage, both became known for their pioneering and homemaking skills.

     The most valuable possessions the pioneers owned were their livestock. They depended on the horses, mules, and oxen for transportation. Some of them had brought other domesticated animals such as pigs, chickens, turkeys, and ducks. The pioneers soon learned that these animals must be fed, protected, and corralled lest they stray away or simply disappear. The larger animals were sustained by the plentiful supply of prairie grasses. However, due to the lack of fences, it was necessary to herd them to keep them from straying away or being stolen. The older boys were assigned to herd the animals while they grazed on the abundant grasses. This was called "guard duty." When the prairie grasses in the immediate vicinity of the village were depleted, the herdsman drove the herd several miles away each day to find better grasses for the animals. The boys were cautioned to always be on the alert for prairie fires. If a fire could be seen in the distance, they were to move the herd back to the safe corrals in the village as quickly as possible. The prairie fires moved with the wind at an incredible speed and to try to out-run a prairie fire was often a fatal move. One young herdsman

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named Watson was badly burned when he attempted to outrun a fire. His fast moving horse stumbled and fell. The boy was burned and his herd scattered to the four winds, some never found again.

     A severe drought began in early 1859 and continued for nearly two years. Very little rain fell for over a year. As the vast prairies grew dry in the hot, rainless summers, the grasses dried and became highly combustible. During the fall and winter months, the grasses became dormant and created an even greater fire danger. When spring came with the high March winds, the fire danger increased. Not all new pioneers were aware of the dangers. The log cabins and other wooden structures were especially vulnerable, while the dugouts were safer. Most settlers quickly learned to burn or plow a fireguard around their dwellings each season to protect them from the wildfires. On one occasion, a prairie fire started west of the Big Blue River, south of the Kansas-Nebraska border. Before a brisk north wind, it traveled south at an incredible speed. There was no way to contain the fire and it finally burned out when it reached the Kaw River near Fort Riley, forty miles away. The residents of the village of Barrett's Mill soon learned that a fire was just one more thing to deal with in their quest for a new life in a new land. The drought was broken in late summer 1860 by a severe tornado that damaged the surrounding area, but drenched the land with much needed rain.

     In addition to sicknesses and injuries, there were still other problems that confronted the mountain folks from Ohio. The settlers' first concerns were housing and shelter for their families. With Albert's sawmill running at full speed, lumber was available, but on a priority basis as there were numerous requests. Later, the pioneers built barns and corrals to contain their animals. Pasturing their newly acquired land required fences. There

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was a generous supply of trees for fence posts but the newly developed barbed wire was yet to come and would be expensive. Wooden rail fences that the group had constructed in Ohio were not practical due to frequent prairie fires. Yet, as more and more claims were made and the countryside was settled, the free-grazing rights were diminished and finally eliminated.

     The construction and operation of a river ferry in the territories was a rather ingenious endeavor. A heavy rope was stretched between two large trees on each side of the river. The ferry barge was a large raft type boat, big enough to carry both teams and wagons. The barge was attached to a pulley that rolled along the large rope stretched between the trees on opposite sides of the river. By an ingenious system of ropes and pulleys, the barge could be slanted to take advantage of the river current to propel it across the river. To propel the barge back across the river, the barge was tilted in the opposite direction. In later years most streams were eventually bridged.

     The Vermillion River was neither very large nor deep. It could usually be forded at several places near Barrett's Mill when the river was at normal level. However, when at flood stage it was too swift and deep for wagons to cross. At one time or another, there were ferries at different locations along the Vermillion River. Because the need for the ferries was only occasionally, they did not continue to operate for any length of time. When high water occurred, there sometimes would be a number of wagons waiting several days to cross the river.

     Marysville was on the Overland Stage route and by 1860, Frank Marshall had a ferry across the Big Blue River for use during periods of high water. However, like most everything, the profitable times that came from ferrying wagon trains across the Blue

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River came to a halt in the summer of 1860 during the prolonged drought. Traffic along the Trail could ford the river with little or no trouble. There were other ferries across the major streams like the Big Blue in the area; most of them did a substantial business during years of heavy rainfall.

     The wet-dry cycle continued to plague Barrett's Mill. In dry years, little Gould's branch dried up and there was no water for the steam engine that powered Barrett's Mill. Using his engineering knowledge, Albert built a dam on the Vermillon River and then dug a tunnel to divert the water from the Vermillion to Gould's branch which supplied the mill steam engine. That solved the too dry problem, but not the too-much water problem.

     Brother William's desire to establish a hotel in the area became a reality. With the sawmill running at top speed, Albert now had enough lumber to construct the hotel that William wished for. The brothers decided that it would be prudent to build the hotel in Marysville, inasmuch as it was on the Overland Stage line that carried considerable overland passenger traffic. In 1859, the American House was completed and William Barrett became the proprietor. The lumber for the hotel came from Barrett's Mill by mule and ox teams, twenty miles downstream. This hotel was one of the early buildings in Marysville. It was a significant improvement to the town of Marysville, one of the best hotels between the Missouri River and the mountains, and under William Barrett's management it became noted for its hospitality and fine food. The hotel gained a favorable reputation among travelers on the California stagecoach lines as a place to stop and refresh their weary bodies in frontier luxury. The second story held many balls and religious meetings and became known as a meeting place for famous pioneers and men

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of distinction. It was for many years the only sizeable public house and meeting place in the Blue Valley. William operated the hotel for several years. When his health broke he sold the hotel and retired to his son's farm near Barrett. William died in 1878 and is buried in Frankfort. The hotel bore four different names: the Barrett, the Cotterell, the American and the Tremont. After standing for forty years it was torn down in 1899.

     The conflict over slavery everywhere had fueled by the passage of the Federal Fugitive Slave Act that legally mandated punishment for those persons who provided help for runaway slaves. In defiance of the Act that had been pushed through Congress by Southern states, the Underground Railroad developed support to assist runaway slaves in the new territories, especially in Southeast Kansas. Travelers along the Underground Railroad usually came and went under the cover of darkness, resting under cover by daylight. The Railroad flourished for several years, especially in southeast Kansas Territory.

     Runaway slaves came to the Kansas Territory from Missouri towns along the Missouri River. The Underground Railroad, although supposedly secret, was present and operative. An escape to Canada along the Underground Railroad took at least three weeks of clandestine travel. Although albert did not actively participate in he Underground Railroad, he kept a supply of blankets, food and water in the loft of his barn for those who needed it. Albert also allowed runaway slaves to remain, sleeping in the barn and working at the mill as hired hands. Quite often Mary had Negro women in her home helping with the housework.

     John Brown, a New Yorker with five sons, came to Kansas Territory to further develop the Underground Railroad and to work to the free slaves. His fervent desires

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and his passionate rages often exploded in many directions. He was a violent man with equally violent sons, but had organizational abilities. Border Ruffians killed one of his sons during a raid by four hundred Missourians on the town of Osawatomie in 1856. That incident heightened Brown's resolve to combat the pro-slave outlaws and free the slaves in Kansas. While some applauded his efforts, his activities fanned the flames of dissent and heightened the guerrilla warfare. He had no desire to settle in or develop an interest in Kansas Territory. His often-radical efforts were simply to achieve freedom for black slaves. His acts of violence continued to grow to astounding levels. Albert was torn between his hatred for slavery and his native Quaker philosophy of peaceful co-existence. He knew there would be conflict in the new territory but was appalled at the level of violence that had developed in Southeast Kansas.

     A newspaperman named "Pete" Peters, a strong slavery proponent, had established a newspaper in Marysville and was spreading hatred and venom with his editorials. A gathering of free-state men raided the newspaper office and dumped the printing press in the river. Peters was running down the river for his life when he encountered Albert on his way to Marysville. Not recognizing Albert, he blurted his story that the men who raided his newspaper office were intent upon hanging him. He pleaded with Albert for help. Extracting a solemn promise from him to leave the territory, Albert's compassion took over and he gave the runaway editor his horse and sent him on his way. Albert had already seen too much violence and bloodshed. He could not abide by allowing a party to hang a man even though he strongly disagreed with the editor's beliefs.

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     Following the incident of the runaway editor, Albert began to examine his own thoughts about the slavery matter and his sometimes-belligerent attitude. The hatred concerning slavery had grown out of all reasonable bounds and threatened to overwhelm the very reasons that he and most settlers had come to the territory, that of a free way of life. Albert had, for most of his life, been hotheaded and quick to display his displeasure with those he disagreed with. Observing the results of actions by both radical abolitionists and pro-slavery factions, he realized that unless there were some changes, no peaceful settlement could ever be reached. It was at this point that Albert decided he should temper his attitude and his ways of expressing his views, especially in the matter of slavery. He would strive for peaceful negotiations to replace the violence and bloodshed displayed by both sides. He would devote his efforts towards building stronger peaceful political relationships to solve problems that were threatening to destroy the territory of Kansas before it was born into a state.

     Albert was instrumental in forming the early Republican Party in Kansas and served as county chairman for a period of time. However, the level of partisan controversy and bickering served to keep the party in a constant state of turmoil and caused Albert to seek other avenues for his quest of peace in the area. One of the viable options seemed to lie in the formation of a new political party. At a meeting with other like-minded settlers, attempts were made to establish a new party named the Free-State Party. The founding group felt that both the Democratic and the Republican Parties were far more interested in gathering strength and votes for their party than the matter of keeping Kansas free from slavery.

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     This newly formed party gathered force and attracted the attention of John Brown and Jim Lane and other radical abolitionists. They quickly joined the new party with the expectation of using it to spread their violent approach to settling the slavery question. After several raids on pro-slavery settlers that resulted in death and destruction, the Free-State political party wrote its own death sentence by continuing many of the actions and attitudes it was originally designed to avoid. Albert and several others abandoned the party and denounced its methods. Albert and his fellow settlers were disappointed and yet relieved by the party's dissolution. It seemed logical that establishing a new independent party that could and would deal with the unworkable situation which had prevailed in the territory was a wise move. However, this attempt failed in many respects.

     The armed conflict over slavery in the Kansas Territory began in 1855, shortly after the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed. This turmoil lasted until after the Civil War when peace finally came to the new state of Kansas. The percentage of enlistment from Marshall County for Civil War duty was among the highest in the nation. Kansans paid dearly with their blood and tears for their statehood and reflected their history with the prophetic motto adopted with their state flag that reads "To the stars through difficulty."

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