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The official site of Kaw Nation

August 1858 — Preston Plumb


“150 Years Ago” Series

August, 2008

By Ron Parks

Covered All Over with White Settlers

As he traveled horseback through the Kaw Reservation in early July, 1858, Preston Plumb was pleased with what he saw. The publisher of Emporia’s Kansas News and future U.S. senator noted “…evidences of thrift and enterprise… on every hand. Where, one year ago, there were but few settlers, and little or no improvement, there is now a large population, highly cultivated farms, and comfortable dwellings.”

From sheriff Cy Goddard’s place at the mouth of Rock Creek near present Dunlap, Plumb rode eight miles up the creek to Agnes City. Here he visited a few hours in the home of Judge Arthur I. Baker, who had in the mid 1850s established a fine limestone house and trading post where the Santa Fe road crossed Rock Creek. Baker’s place, too, was located on the Kaw Reservation.

“Every timbered claim on the Reserve is occupied,” wrote Plumb. “Much has been done, however, as the large fields of grain on every hand attest.” That the recently-arrived Euro-American denizens of these well-timbered and productive claims were not legal occupants seemed not to faze Plumb, who asserted “Their [the Kaws] claim to a reservation 20 miles square…was of a later date and is in violation of the treaty made between them and the General Government. Their illegal claim will doubtless be set aside, and the settlers allowed to pre-empt the land.” 1

Plumb’s confident assertion that the Kaws were late to claim this land seems unwarranted by the facts. The1846 Kaw Treaty obliged the federal government to set aside a twenty-mile-square reservation for the tribe. In 1848, at the direction of the Office of Indian Affairs, the Kaws moved onto their new reservation on the upper Neosho. Then in December, 1856, a well-publicized survey commissioned by the U.S. government precisely defined the reservation’s boundaries.

From the site of Council Grove located inside the reservation, the distance to the west boundary was five miles, to the east boundary fifteen miles, and to both the north and south boundaries ten miles. The Kaws had established three villages in 1848, one on Rock Creek less than a mile from the home of Cy Goddard, the county’s chief law enforcement officer.

What the Kaws thought of their reservation being overrun by white squatters was of no concern to Preston Plumb. But the governor of Kansas Territory, James W. Denver, after a meeting with a full delegation of Kaw chiefs in his Lecompton office on March 24, 1858, expressed in a letter to acting commissioner of Indian Affairs Charles Mix a radically divergent point of view:

“Their reserve is covered all over with white settlers, who will not allow them to plant their corn this spring, and they have no agent to protect them in their rights. If prompt measures are not taken in this matter you will find yourself compelled to subsist these Indians during the coming season or pay for their depredations on the surrounding whites…the settlers have set up their opinions at variance with the action of the government and resolved to resist it. Nothing but prompt and decided measures will do any good, and if you do not buy them out, the law ought to be rigidly enforced.” 2

Denver’s prediction of depredations was born out when on August 12 a fracas broke out between a party of Kaws and white squatters on Big John Creek near the northernmost of the Kaw villages. The white people involved were Adam Helm, P. D. Reed, and their wives. Some Kaws had come into Reed’s house and allegedly became unruly. A struggle ensued during which several blows were struck. Helm shot a Kaw in the arm, whereupon the Indians struck both Mrs. Reed and Mr. Helm with a tomahawk, “…cutting his hand and head badly.” With the Kaws in pursuit, Helm fled to his home, which the enraged Kaws proceeded to rob.

Later Helms claimed he lost beds and bedding, clothing, meat, flour, sugar, coffee, one calf, poultry, beans, melons, pumpkins, corn, and potatoes worth $176.00. Reed’s claim for stolen property was for $63.25.

Two days after the incident, according to the testimony of another Big John Creek squatter, John Back, “…the greater portion of the tribe met with the citizens of Council Grove and country surrounding it, Mr. T. S. Huffaker and Sam Sampson[ a member of the Kaw tribe] acting as interpreters. The headmen were present, and admitted that they had taken property both from Mr. Reed and Mr. Helm,–and agreed to restore what was not destroyed or lost, and to pay for what they did not restore.” 3

That there were more benign ways to co-inhabit with the Kaws is illustrated by the contents of three letters signed by “Maggie” in April and May of 1857. We know very little about Maggie beyond what she revealed in these letters sent home.

In the spring of 1856 she had settled with her husband and extended family on Rock Creek three miles south of A. I. Baker’s place. Her letters describe profound difficulties: sickness in the family, cold winds, cramped quarters, rampant claim jumping, and a meager diet. Maggie also clearly understood the ramifications of establishing a home on the Indians’ land:

“All the land hereabouts really belongs to the Kaw Indians… [It] has been set apart by Uncle Sam, as their reservation. It is a most excellent section of country…White men come in here and are taking claims looking forward to the time when the Indians will be removed and the first settlers be able to get their land…”

Apparently, Maggie and her family succeeded in earning the Kaws’ trust. On May 3 she wrote: “We feel we have some friends here. Even the Indians feel sorry for us. They go in and out at their own will, bringing articles to trade or giving us sympathizing calls. We are not at all afraid of them…” 4


1. Kansas News (Emporia), July 24, 1858.

2. James Denver to Charles E. Mix, March 25, 1858, Letters Received, Office of Indian Affairs, Kansas Agency.

3. Affidavits of Adam Helm and John Back, January 27, 1862, Letters Received, Office of Indian Affairs, Kansas Agency.

4. The Daily Republican (Emporia), “Series of Old Letters,” October 11, 1882.

September 1858 — Westport and Montgomery


The Kanzas One Hundred Fifty Years Ago

September 19, 2008

By Ron Parks

Kanza Agent Montgomery and Westport

On the first day of autumn, 1858, the agent for the Kanza tribe, 23-year-old John Montgomery, left his Council Grove home to begin a 450-mile journey east to Saint Louis. Here on October 2 he would pick up $9,780.28 in silver and gold coins, carefully packed in “five specie sacks and two specie boxes,” the term “specie” referring to coinage. On October 15 Montgomery would be back in Council Grove, preparing to distribute $8,000.00 of this money to the Kanza Indians in payments known as “annuities.”

Montgomery began his journey east on the much-traveled trade and supply route known 150 years ago as the Santa Fe Road, since morphed into the modern “Santa Fe Trail.” The first night out from Council Grove, he stayed on 142-Mile Creek (near present Allen) in the comfortable home of his wife’s parents, Charles and Dorinda Withington. 1

John Montgomery and Mary Ellen Withington married on December 17, 1856, about one month after Mary Ellen’s 15th birthday. In September 1858, Mary Ellen was either carrying Montgomery’s child or nursing an infant, for the June 1860 census lists their daughter, one-year-old Mary Ellen Montgomery.

Montgomery left the Withington residence on September 22, charging the U.S. government $1.00 for lodging and fifty cents for dinner, and proceeded east in the company of his 14-year-old brother-in-law, George Edward Withington, who was paid $9.00 to provide conveyance for the Indian agent to Westport, Missouri. 2

John and George spent the night of September 22 in a cabin about fifty miles from Council Grove at the station of McGee and Stand near the crossing of 110-Mile Creek. Here they paid the customary $1.00 lodging and fifty cents dinner fees. The station’s owner, Fry P. McGee, was a slave owner, and during the “Bleeding Kansas” period he was a notorious partisan of the pro-slavery forces.

Although the Kanza agent’s views on the slavery question remain somewhat obscure, inferences on this question can be made. For one, he was a native of Tennessee, a slave state. And he was appointed as Kanza agent in 1855 by the administration of President Franklin B. Pierce, a pro-slavery Democrat. Finally, in October, 1858, A. I. Baker reported that Montgomery had “…damned the people as a set of Abolitionists and said that he would…drive them from the country.” 3

On September 23 the young men paid $1.50 each for lodging and dining at Bull Creek, some 30 miles east of 110-Mile crossing. Later that day, after logging another 23 miles on the Santa Fe Road, they arrived at Westport, located in present Kansas City, Missouri, some six miles south of the Missouri River.

In 1858, Westport was a thriving trade center with a population of about 2,000. It was the eastern portal to three overland trails: the Santa Fe, Oregon, and California. Merchants and tradesmen prospered by outfitting wagon trains preparing to travel these trails. But the primary reason for the town’s prosperity was the Indian trade.

In the 1830s and 1840s it was the policy of the federal government to relocate tribes from their homelands in the East to reservations in “Indian Country,” lands in present eastern Kansas and Oklahoma. Since the inception of Westport in 1843, members of neighboring emigrant tribes, and the native Kanza and Osage, were frequent visitors.

In 1846, historian Francis Parkman observed:

“Westport was full of Indians, whose little shaggy ponies were tied by dozens along the houses and fences. Sacs and Foxes, with shaved heads and painted faces, Shawanoes and Delaware’s, fluttering in calico frocks and turbans, Wyandot dressed like white men, and a few wretched Kanzas wrapped in old blankets, were strolling about the streets, or lounging in and out of the shops and houses.” 4

Not only did Indians spend their annuity money in Westport, they also channeled a great number of animal peltry there, most prominently buffalo robes. In 1858, the Kanzas supplied Council Grove traders Hays, Conn, Hill & Company 1,800 robes worth four dollars each. The Council Grove merchants shipped these hides to Westport, where they were taken to the Missouri River, to be carried east by steamboat for processing and marketing. 5

Both economically and culturally, Westport was Council Grove’s parent. Separated by 120 miles on the Santa Fe Road, both towns were centers for overland trail outfitting and the Indian trade. Westport merchants Albert Gallatin Boone, Cyprien Chouteau, and Joseph Chick established the earliest and most dominant commercial operations in Council Grove. From 1846 through the Civil War, newspaper references to Council Grove merchants “going to the river” meant trips to Westport to pick up their goods. And Westport’s pro-slavery; border-state sensibility became Council Grove’s conventional wisdom.

John Montgomery stayed one night in Westport’s Harris House Hotel, a three-story brick building famous for its hospitality and cuisine. The next day he took a hack stage from Westport to Kansas City for fifty cents, dined in Kansas City for fifty cents, then on September 28 he paid a fare of $12.00 and boarded the steamboat “Peerless” for a five-day journey down the Missouri River to St. Louis. 6

One can imagine the youthful Indian agent sitting on the deck of the “Peerless,” gazing at the great comet—some newspapers called it the “comet of the century”—that in late September shone brightly above the western horizon. This river trip to St. Louis must have seemed like a holiday from the difficulties he left behind back at the reservation. There the Kanzas awaited the return of their agent and the distribution of annuities, after which they would journey to central Kansas on the tribe’s annual winter bison hunt.


1. Montgomery’s First Quarter Report, 1859. Letters Received, Office of Indian Affairs, Kansas Agency.

2. Don Schiesser of Allen, Kansas, generously provided background information about the Withingtons and John Montgomery.

3. Kansas News, (Emporia), October 16, 1858.

4. Francis Parkman, Jr., The Oregon Trail (New York, Putnam, 1849), p. 40.

5. Border-Star (Westport), February 11, 1859.

6. Montgomery’s Fourth Quarter Report, 1858. Letters Received, Office of Indian Affairs, Kansas Agency.

October 1858 — Prairie Fires


The Kanza Reserve 150 Years Ago

October 20, 2008

By Ron Parks

The Air Is Filled with Smoke

In October 1858, prairie fires erupted on and near the Kanza Indian Reservation, a twenty-mile-square chunk of land encompassing Council Grove. E. Goddard, a squatter living illegally on the reservation near present Dunlap, had twenty tons of hay destroyed by fire the first week of October.

“The prairies commenced burning much sooner than was anticipated, and thus some were taken unawares,” reported the Emporia newspaper, The Kanza News, on October 9. “The grass is still burning and the air is filled with the smoke. In a short time the prairies will present a black and desolate appearance in strange contrast with their green and verdant look of a few weeks since.”

Fanned by a persistent southwest wind, the fires had burned several days, destroying not only hay but many split-rail fences. The October 23 Kanza News reported that “…The prairies have mostly been ‘burnt off.’”

In contrast to our annual Flint Hills controlled burns conducted in the spring, prairie conflagrations in October were the norm in early-day Kansas. Moving west across northeast Kansas in 1830, explorer and surveyor Isaac McCoy noted in his journal on October 18 “…the ashes from the recently burned prairies and the dust and sand raised so by the wind annoyed us much, the wind rising, I found that the dust was so scattered that it became impossible to perceive the trail…”

McCoy then noted the atmosphere to the west darkening and determined that a misty rain must be approaching. He and his exploring party began to inspect the security of their animal packs when “…a few minutes taught us that what we had fancied to be rain, was an increase of the rising dust, sand, and ashes of the burnt grass, rising so much and so generally that the air was much darkened and it appeared on the open prairies as though the clouds had united with the earth.”

“Our eyes were so distressed that we could scarcely see to proceed, it was annoying to our lungs. The black burnt grass, lodging on our hands and faces, and each one rubbing his watery eyes with pain, soon occasioned a most horrid appearance, our clothes also blackening fast…” 1

Then as now, viewers of nocturnal Kansas grass fires were struck by their beauty. The October 27, 1855 issue of the Lawrence Herald of Freedom observed: “The prairies are on fire, and present a gorgeous appearance after night as it lights up the heavens with lurid glare.”

But the newspaper tempered its aesthetic enthusiasm with this admonition: “A law must be passed, as soon as there is a competent body to act on the question, making it a penal offence to set these fires. Great damage is frequently caused by them. We have learned of several very narrow escapes of houses being burned during the late fires.”

The newspaper does not place the blame for the fires. But early-day Kansas in October offered prime conditions for a prairie to light up. Man-made fire barriers such as tilled fields, ditches, and roads were few and far between in the tallgrass prairies of pre-territorial and territorial (1854-1861) Kansas. The dry tan and gold grasses standing thick and tall stretched unbroken for miles over the landscape. Couple this tinder with the dry, windy atmosphere of autumnal Kansas and a major conflagration was likely.

Men also set fire to the prairie in the autumn, especially Indian peoples of the tallgrass region such as Osages, Kanzas, and Pawnees. Folk memory among Flint Hills ranchers records that the Indians would set the prairie afire by wrapping rawhide around a big ball of dead grass, lighting it, and then pulling it behind a running horse. 2

The Indians had their own reasons for managing the prairie by means of fire. An insight into their motives and methods is contained in historian Richard White’s study of the Pawnees, a tribe who like the Kanzas lived in permanent villages in the tallgrass region, practiced horticulture, maintained a substantial horse herd, and hunted bison in the mixed-grass regions of the central plains to the west.

White wrote: “The Pawnees appear to have regularly burned the prairies in the fall, with less frequent burning the in the early spring. They set these fires both in the vicinity of their earth lodge villages and along the routes—the Platte, Republican, Blue, and Smoky Hill valleys—to their hunting grounds. The operation involved some skill, and whites who witnessed it were impressed by the way the Indians took advantage of the winds to burn the grass around the villages without touching the surrounding cornfields.”

The rationale for the Indians’ burning was that it stimulated earlier growth and guaranteed a larger yield of nutritious grass in the spring. This not only attracted game to their hunting grounds but also provided better forage to their horses when it was desperately needed following the lean months of winter. 3

On the Kanza Reservation, agent Hiram Farnsworth was keenly aware of the destructive potential of fire. In 1861, he wrote to his superiors in Washington D.C. urging them to abandon their plans to build the 138 huts for the Kanzas out of wood. Instead Farnsworth recommended stone as the primary building material, in part because of the threat posed by prairie fires that frequented the reservation. The government did, in fact, heed their agent’s advice.

The events of October, 1859, had provided substance to Agent Farnsworth’s concerns. The October 29 and November 5 issues of the Emporia News contained several descriptions of prairie fires. A brief sampling follows:

“Our city was visited on Wednesday last by one of the grandest prairie fires we ever beheld—completely sweeping over one-quarter of the town…about a week since, a large body of prairie west of us burned, destroying a number of cabins and considerable hay….losses are reported as much more severe, including buildings, cornfields, hay and grain ricks, together with cattle and hogs….The air was so filled with dust and ashes from the burnt prairie, that we could hardly get a glimpse at the sun. It was a bad day for ladies and hooped skirts.”


1. Barnes, Lela, “Journal of Isaac McCoy for the Exploring Expedition of 1830,” Kansas Historical Quarterly (November, 1936): pp. 339-377.

2. “Pasture Burning in the Flint Hills,” Kansas School Naturalist (March, 1993).

3. White, Richard, The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social
Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos
(Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), pp. 184-186.

November 1858 — We Want a Gun Smith


The Kanza Reserve 150 Years Ago

November 14, 2008

By Ron Parks

“We Want a Gun Smith”

In November 1858, the two blacksmiths assigned to the Kanza tribe, assistant blacksmith Abraham Park, and head blacksmith Lemuel Park, were fired. No one was named to replace them and, in spite of the requirement of the Kaw Treaty of 1846 that the U.S. government provide the tribe with blacksmiths, the position was not filled for many years to come.

The Kanza agent, 23-year-old John Montgomery, had for several months petitioned his superiors in the Office of Indian Affairs in Washington D.C. for the dismissal of his agency’s blacksmiths. Finally, having received no reply to his entreaties, Montgomery assumed the “matter left at my discretion” and proceeded to wield his administrative axe.

The agent’s explanation was straightforward: “…the amount of labor for one year at the smith shop at this place can be performed with the space of three weeks.” Justifying the termination of employees in terms of time inefficiencies is a timeworn formula of managers in both public and private organizations. However, this particular dismissal reflected a more complicated picture of the incongruities between government Indian policy and the actual conditions experienced by the Kanzas.

Since becoming the Kanza agent in April 1855, Montgomery had been plagued by the blacksmith situation. The first blacksmith, Jepe King, resigned in December 1855. In March 1856 Montgomery asked his supervisors to fill the position, stating “I think it is very necessary under present circumstance in employing a person…who will observe the Intercourse Law in every respect.”

Among the provisions of the 1847 amendment to the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1834 was the imposition of substantial prison sentences to vendors convicted of selling alcohol to Indians in what was referred to as “Indian Country.” 1 Although we know of no convictions of Kanza agency blacksmiths for this particular offense, we do know that Montgomery found sober blacksmiths in short supply.

On April 30, 1857, Montgomery discharged assistant blacksmith Frances James “on account of his drunkenness and consequent bad conduct.” The next day he filled the vacancy by hiring John Finney at $240.00 per year, only to remove Finney five months later “for intemperance.”

The character of the agency blacksmiths surfaced during a meeting of Kanza chiefs and Commissioner of Indian Affairs James Denver in Washington D.C. on July 22, 1857. Tribal spokesperson Hard Hart complained that “The blacksmith is also a bad man. He is a mean man….We want a gun smith, and not a common blacksmith.”

Chief Hard Hart’s plea for a gunsmith brings into sharp focus the disparity between what the government sought to impose on the Kanzas and what the Indians actually needed.

All three Kanza treaties—1825, 1846, and 1859—promised blacksmiths to the Kanzas with the understanding that the Indians would turn away from hunting and embrace farming as their primary means of sustenance. According to this policy, as small farmers, the Kanzas would need their tools and implements—shovels, hoes, axes, mowers, wagons, reapers and so forth–kept in a state of good repair so as to establish and maintain themselves as productive agrarians.

Having lived with the Kanzas for three years, Agent Montgomery had a keen sense of their actual needs when he wrote in June, 1858, “The Kansas Indians have little or no blacksmithing to be done, and the work that is done here is chiefly repairing of fire-arms, spears, and cooking utensils, but the work is principally upon fire-arms,…there is sufficient [work] to keep a Gunsmith well employed.”

On December 1, 1858, Montgomery once again beseeched his supervisors for a change: “…at this time, and at other periods during the year, not a single Indian can be found within the limits of this reservation; that they are scattered over the plains west of here for the purpose of hunting wild game upon which they chiefly subsist,….” He then recommended “…employing a gunsmith instead of a Blacksmith and assistant for these Indians—a change which they have repeatedly asked for.”

The Kanzas affinity for the hunt can be partially explained by the weight of cultural tradition, particularly ingrained gender roles. For generations Kanza women had raised corn, beans, pumpkins, and squash in small patches of ground employing hoes with which they practiced shallow tillage. Men were hunters, an occupation requiring great skill and endurance, the successful pursuit of which conferred subsistence to the people and great honors to the hunter.

To transform Kanza men into farmers, the aim of government policy, required a radical shift that few if any cultures are capable of. It made far more sense to the Kanzas, and their agent, to both uphold their traditions of gender identity and more effectively harvest bison, elk, deer, and other game. To do so required keeping their rifles and shotguns, of which the tribe had ample supply, in good working order.

By November of 1858 another change had recently come to the Kanza Reservation which compounded the tribe’s reluctance to convert to commercial farming: “Their [The Kanzas] reserve is covered all over with white settlers, who will not allow them to plant their corn this spring” reported James Denver following a meeting with Kanza chiefs in March 1858.

Denver’s assessment echoed Agent Montgomery’s June 1857 description of the invasion of white squatters onto the Kanza Reserve: “…and although there is not the slightest grounds to justify them in locating immediately around this place it is now being done, breaking prairie, cutting the timber, fencing farms and cultivating the soil: the Indians having heretofore been driven from their little farms…”

In August 1858, a sympathetic Quaker neighbor, Thomas Stanley, defined the obstacles faced by the Kanzas: “…the present state of the reserve would forbid my doing anything towards encouraging them to go to farming…Some of them did plant some but as it is not fenced (and if they had wished to fence it I think the settlers would have objected.) it is in danger of being destroyed by the settlers stock.” 2

The Kanzas lived on the Council Grove Reservation until 1873. They were never assigned a gunsmith.


1. Unrau, William E., White Man’s Wicked Water: The Alcohol Trade and Prohibition in Indian Country, 1802-1892 (Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 1996), p. 57.

2. Thomas Stanley to Charles Mix, August 23, 1858, Letters Received, Office of Indian Affairs, Kansas Agency.

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