The History of Keokuk County, Iowa


Americans are familiar with the contest which preceded the admission of Kansas into the Union. The facts of that contest have become matters of record and as such are familiar to all students of history. Not only so; every school boy in conning over his history lesson becomes familiar with such terms as "Squatter Sovereignty," "Border Ruffian," and such names as "John Brown" and "Jim Lane."

There are, however, attending facts connected with that unhappy strife which have not passed into history, and some of them of local interest, properly belonging to the history of Keokuk county.

It is not generally known that the line of communication between Kansas and the free States of the East lay through Keokuk county; that men living in this county were members of the Free Kansas Emigrant Aid Society; that one of the leading citizens of the county organized branch societies or committees all along the line; and that it was Sigourney where John Brown and Gen. Jim Lane first met.

Prefatory to the narration of these facts it will be proper, for the purpose of better understanding the matter, to give a brief synopsis of the Kansas difficulties.

By the "Missouri Compromise Bill," passed in 1820, slavery was prohibited in all the territory bought of France north of the southern boundary of Missouri—Missouri excepted. By the "Kansas Nebraska Bill," which congress passed in 1854, this prohibition was repealed and the territories of Kansas and Nebraska were organized.

As soon as this bill was passed emigrants from all parts of the Union began to pour into Kansas, those from the North determined to make it a free State and those from the South determined to make it a slave State. Emigrant societies were formed in the North to colonize Kansas with anti-slavery inhabitants. The South sent its representatives also, and from the neighboring State of Missouri armed bands crossed the border, hence the name "border ruffians." Owing to the fact that the States bordering on Kansas from the east and south were slave States and the people intensely hostile to anti-slavery colonization it was necessary for the emigrant societies of the North to send their emigrants north-west through Iowa into Nebraska and from thence south into Kansas. To facilitate the passage of emigrants through Iowa an emigrant society was formed at Iowa City on June 10, 1856, at which time George Woodin, Wm. Sanders and S. N. Hartwell were appointed to make a tour of this tier of counties and also the tier of counties north, in order to enlist certain leading men at each important point in the work of furthering "emigrants" on their way. This term "emigrant" must be taken in a qualified sense. It is true that many of the people at this time going to Kansas were genuine emigrants and consisted of families in search of homes; but the larger portion of these "emigrants"consisted of well-armed and well-disciplined companies of men who were on their way for Kansas to fight rather than to farm.

The meeting held at Iowa City on June 10, 1856, was a public meeting at which several spirited speeches were made but after the public meeting of a general character adjourned a private meeting for special purposes met. It was at this private meeting that the following address or commission was drawn up and placed in the hands of Mr. Woodin, who seems to have been chiefly instrumental in opening up a line of communication:

"To the friends of the Kansas Free State 'cause in Iowa:

"The undersigned have been appointed a committee to act in connection with similar committees appointed in Chicago, and in other States, and with committees of like character to be appointed in the various counties of this State, and especially in those counties lying west and south-west of us.

"The plan of operations is the establishment of a direct route and speedy communication for emigrants into Kansas. The committee have appointed Messrs. Geo. D. Woodin, Esq., William Sanders and Capt. S. N. Hartwell to visit your place for the purpose of having a committee appointed there to facilitate the general plan of operation and carry out the details. They will explain to you the minutiae of this plan at greater length than we are able to do in this communication.

"Capt. Hartwell is a member of the State legislature in Kansas and is recently from the scene of the ruffian atrocities which have been committed in that embryo State.

"We have here pledged ‘our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honors' to make Kansas a free State and we shall expect our friends from this place westward will give us their hearty co-operation.

"Yours in the cause of Freedom,
"W. P. CLARK, Ch'n.                    
"C. W. HOBART, Sec'y.   
"H. D. DOWNEY,. Treas.   
"IOWA CITY, June 10, 1856."                            "M. L. MORRIS."                    

As before remarked Mr. Woodin in particular was active and diligent in transacting the business delegated to him. He made a complete tour of the counties lying in the proposed route of the "emigrants"and established committees. He succeeded in enlisting in this enterprise the most active and reliable men in the various towns which he visited who were in sympathy with the movement. Most of these men are still living and many of them have since achieved a national reputation. The following are the names of the individuals composing the committees at the various points along the route:

Wasonville—Isaac Farley, Myron Frisbee, N. G. Field.
      Sigourney—N. H. Keath, A. T. Page, T. S. Byers, A. C. Price.
      Oskaloosa—William H. Seevers, A. M. Cassiday, James A. Young, Louis Reinhart, S. A. Rice.
      Knoxville—J. M. Bayley, James Matthews, Hiram W. Curtis, William M. Stone, James Sample, Joseph Brobst.
      Indianola—B. S. Noble, Geo. W. Jones, Lewis Todhunter, J. T. Lacy, G. W. Clark, H. W. Maxwell.
      Osceola—J. D. Howard, G. W. Thompson, A. F. Sprague, John Butcher, J. G. Miller, G. L. Christie.
      Quincy—R. B. Lockwood, T. W. Stanley, H. B. Clark, E. G. Bengen, D. Ritchey.
      Winterset—H. J. B. Cummings, W. L. McPherson, D. F. Arnold, W. W. McKnight, J. J. Hutchings.
      Des Moines—A. J. Stevens, T. H. Sypherd, W. W. Williamson, R. S. Chrystal.
      Newton—H. Welker, William Skiff, William Springer, E. Hammer, H. J. Skiff.

It was necessary to observe great caution and secresy, as the administration was at that time in sympathy with the pro-slavery party and United States marshals were on the lookout for armed bands on their way to Kansas from the north. The underground railroad having been put into good running order, Superintendent Woodin and his station-agents did quite a business in forwarding "emigrants"during the fall, winter and following spring and summer.

One incident connected with the workings of the underground railroad especially deserves mention, it was the first meeting of Gen. Jim Lane and John Brown.

Late in the summer of 1856 the people of Sigourney were considerably interested in an unusually large number of emigrants who came through the town late in the afternoon and encamped for the night near by. Persons who had no connection with the "Emigration Society" noticed that Dr. Price and other members of the committee soon became very intimate with the leading men among the "emigrants."In fact so intimate were Price and his conferees with the chief emigrants that they held a conference in a back parlor of the Clinton House, then the leading hotel of Sigourney. After the conference had lasted some time the emigrants returned to their camp to look after some business while the committee remained in the room at the hotel awaiting their return. In the meantime there was a knock on the door, which being opened admitted a healthy, robust man dressed in the garb of a frontiersman, who announced himself as Captain Moore from Kansas, and desiring to see one Jim Lane whom he expected to find at that place. He was informed by the committee that Jim Lane, for such one of the "emigrants" proved to be, had just retired but would return shortly. Upon the invitation of the committee, the stranger took a seat, but upon being questioned by the committee with regard to Kansas affairs, manifested considerable reticence, not caring, apparently, to discuss those matters. Presently Lane returned, and upon being introduced, the stranger looking him steadfastly in the face, and taking as it were an estimate of the man from head to foot, said: "You are Jim Lane, are you? Well, I am John Brown. I guess we have heard of one another before."John Brown now satisfied that he was in the company of friends, and that his cause in Kansas would not suffer by a narration of events then transpiring in that Territory, threw off his former reserve and talked freely and passionately. It is said by persons who were in the room that they never heard such eloquent and impassioned words fall from the tongue of living man as those uttered by Brown when speaking of the Kansas troubles. He first spoke of the country; of its beautiful prairies, its rich soil and its beautiful rivers, and while doing so his countenance lit up with an almost superhuman light and cheerfulness; pausing for a moment he seemed to be deeply moved, his countenance underwent an entire change, and from being an angel, Brown now resembled a fiend. At length he broke forth in the most vehement language; he spoke of the blighting curse of slavery and of the overbearing conduct of the pro-slavery men in their efforts to extend the accursed system; of the atrocities of the border ruffians from Missouri. When at length he contemplated the possibility of this fair land becoming blasted by the curse of slavery, its beautiful prairies turned into slave plantations, its fertile soil pressed by the foot of bondmen, its beautiful streams flowing past slave-pens, he was unable to control himself; he strode through the room, he stamped on the floor and tore his hair with his sunburnt hands. Jim Lane became inspired by the words of his new-made acquaintance and it was arranged that he should make a speech that night in Sigourney. The speech was made from a dry goods box in front of Page's stone block which stood where now is McCauley's hardware store.

The "emigrants" had in their train a queer-looking vehicle, which they said was a prairie plow; it was covered with a tarpaulin, and some of the curious citizens, after the "emigrants" had fallen asleep, were anxious to see what kind of an agricultural implement these tillers of the soil had, anyway; a slight investigation convinced these inquisitive ones that it would plow up the ground in spots if it once got to work on the soil of "bleeding Kansas," but that it would be too noisy and dangerous for the fallow ground of Iowa. That prairie plow proved to be an eight-pound cannon, and was heard from inside of thirty days thereafter. The emigrants, numbering some seventy-five, left the next morning, accompanied by John Brown and Jim Lane. Bleeding Kansas, after bleeding for some four years, boasting for part of the time in two rival territorial governments, was admitted into the Union as a free State in 1861. Jim Lane's pathetic end, falling a victim to his own vices and his own hands, and Brown's misguided, but noble and heroic campaign at Harper's Ferry, are subjects of fireside conversation in almost every household in the land, and it is hoped that the narration of the foregoing incidents, trifling in themselves, but momentous as forming circumstances attending great national events, will not arouse any slumbering animosities nor engender any new strifes.

Transcribed by Pat Wahl. Thank you, Pat!

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