One-Way Ticket to Kansas, the autobiography of Frank M. Stahl, as told and illustrated by Margaret Whittemore. University of Kansas Press, 1959. Transcribed by John D. Meredith
IX Out Where the West Begins
Kansas City had entered upon a year of rapid growth. Stage and mail routes towards the west were already established. When the large freighting firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell persuaded the government to unload boats here instead of at Leavenworth, Kansas City became the chief point of departure for all regions farther west. During 1857, the six to ten boats arriving daily at the levee discharged about 75,000,000 pounds of merchandise. Much of this freight passed over the Santa Fe Trail to Mexico, where it was exchanged for buffalo robes, hides, wool, and furs.
The morning sun was casting long shadows in front of us when Holman and I set off on foot toward Kansas. Four miles out we reached a stone house known as Donnelson's stopping-place and were glad to set down our heavy bags. Between here and Lawrence we found only a few scattered dwellings belonging to the Delaware Indians, a peaceable tribe whose men spoke broken English and wore the loose garb of outlying settlers. We were entertained one night in an Indian shack, sleeping on blankets laid on the rough puncheon floor. The meal they served us was simple but appetizing.
As we traveled westward, we looked off across rolling hills and fertile valleys, now showing the first green of spring. The Kansas River swung back and forth in long sweeping curves. At Lawrence we found rugged homesteaders grim in their determination to keep Kansas free. This hotbed of strife had not yet recovered from the
pro-slavery raids of the preceding year. East of Lawrence we came to the home of a Mr. Wakefield, a staunch free-stater, who bravely rebuilt after border ruffians had burned him out. His was the only house on the fifteen mile stretch between Lawrence and Big Springs.
The free-state party had been organized in 1855 at Big Springs under the leadership of Charles Robinson and James H. Lane. About a year later the town druggist brought a keg of whisky to his store and proposed a "grand opening." Up to that time the town had been bone-dry, and its citizens intended to keep it so. They rolled the keg out into the street, poured the liquor into a pile of shavings, and set the pile on fire.
Only a small cluster of houses made up the settlement as we saw it. Members of the United Brethren faith had built a little stone church the year before. We were impressed by the fact that most of the men in town wore unusually long whiskers.
As we were about to start on again toward the west, a middle-aged man came by on horseback and suddenly drew rein.
"Well, if this isn't Absalom Holman," he exclaimed, "it's his ghost! What are you doing in Kansas?"
The two had known each other in Ohio. Holman introduced his friend. The man said he had filed a claim in the southeastern part of the territory and suggested our going there.
"I have enough work to keep you both busy for a while," he said. "The usual wage is fifty cents a day. Not much, but a man can live on it."
This sounded good to us. Work was what we wanted and had to have if we were to stay in Kansas.
"Meet me at Donnelson's," my new acquaintance said, specifying the day: "then we can go together from there."
He set off on horseback and we on foot. Although for us it meant retracing our steps nearly fifty miles, we did it with light hearts, rejoicing over our good fortune. When we finally reached Donnelson's, however, our prospective employer was not there. We waited another day, but still no sign of him.
Nothing could have been more disheartening. What were we to do? We were now almost back to Kansas City, where our long fruitless tramp had started!
"Well," declared Holman in exasperation, "it's no use staying in this dreary place. Let's go back to Ohio!"
He could leave if he wanted to, but for me leaving was out of the question. Had I made a mistake in not bringing enough money for the return trip? My meager funds were nearly exhausted. I had to stay.
Holman made ready to start back. "I hate to leave you
here alone," he said, "but I guess that's the way it has to be. Any message for your father?"
"Tell him I'll make out all right and I'll send a letter when I get settled."
In spite of my brave words, there is no denying the desolate feeling I had when he left me. Here I was, a stranger alone in a strange land, not knowing what lay ahead.