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
X A Friend in Need
After supper that evening a gentleman drove in from the west on his way to Kansas City. He seemed to be well acquainted with Donnelson, who must have told him something of my predicament. The newcomer approached me with outstretched hand. He was a slight, smooth-shaven man, probably in his early sixties, although his thick brown hair showed no touch of gray.
"I hear you have come from Ohio," he began, drawing up a chair.
"Yes," I replied, "I wanted to help make Kansas a free state, but perhaps there is nothing I can do after all."
"Kansas is going to need boys like you," he said in a reassuring manner. "You'll find plenty of work to do, and perhaps I can help you get started." His keen blue eyes looked right through me.
I learned that he was Robert Simmerwell, a Baptist preacher, who had come to the United States from Ireland with his parents, his four brothers, and his sister, arriving in Philadelphia in the spring of 1812.
"All but one member of our family contracted fever on the boat," he recalled, "and three months later, I was an orphan and homeless. I was just sixteenprobably about your age."
"Yes," I replied, "I'll be sixteen in May."
He explained that he had been apprenticed to a blacksmith, receiving his food, lodging, and clothing, and had attended school at night. He had then served as a missionary among the Pottawatomie Indians in Michigan
Territory and later at the Baptist Shawnee Mission on Pottawatomie Creek in eastern Kansas. In 1848 the government set up a new mission a few miles west of Topeka. In a three-story stone building with twelve rooms, boys and girls were given instruction in the manual arts, as well as in reading, writing, arithmetic, and religious subjects. One aim was to Americanize the Indians, so as to attach them to our country and its institutions.
There was much more to the missionary's story, and I listened attentively. In the fall of 1854, he and his wife had retired from active work in the Pottawatomie Mission, to homestead on 160 acres of virgin land farther south. His wife had died the following year, but his three daughters were now with him. The oldest one, Sarah, was soon to be married, and his only son, William, had a little family of his own nearby.
Did I know much about farming, Mr. Simmerwell wanted to know, and seemed pleased with my answer. He then proposed that I stay on his farm and help with the work, which was becoming too strenuous for him to handle alone. He offered me fifteen dollars a month and a home. This appeared to be a happy solution to my problem and I readily agreed. I retired that night in a cheerful frame of mind, my heart filled with gratitude.
Early the next morning a Pottawatomie Indian with a wagon and a team of horses stopped by on his way to the Baptist Mission. Speaking to him in his own language, Mr. Simmerwell arranged for me to ride with the Indian as far as Big Springs and wait there for the Missionary. This was much better than covering the distance on foot, as I had done twice already. If only Holman could see how well
things were working out, he would regret his hasty departure!
On arriving at Big Springs, I thanked my driver for his kindness. He made it quite evident, however, that I owed him more than thanks. The few coins I put into his hand apparently satisfied him, for he smiled and drove on. When I counted my remaining change, I found I had just sixty-five cents.
Needless to say, it was with a feeling of relief that I saw Mr. Simmerwell come driving up the road a few hours later. We were not long in reaching his farm, in a beautiful valley with an abundance of timber along Six Mile Creek.
Three attractive young ladies rushed out of a two-room log cabin and greeted their father affectionately. They were introduced to me as Sarah, Ann, and Elizabeth. In due time I met the other members of the householda little girl of ten, named Fannie; Mrs. Elizabeth Gault, a sister of Mr. Simmerwell, and her three children, Robert, Eliza, and Annie. In addition, there were three regular boardersmaking, in all, twelve persons on the farm. Even so, they found room for me in one of several little cabins, and I soon felt quite at home.
Mr. Simmerwell had a blacksmith shop on the placethe first in Williamsport township. His knowledge of the trade had proved useful in all of the missions he served, as well as in this community. Five acres of ground were already broken and my first task was to plow the tract and plant it with corn. I was expected to harness a yoke of oxen for the purpose. We had never used oxen in Ohio, and I knew nothing about these powerful beasts of burden.
Without disclosing my ignorance, I looked about for some substitute and discovered a herd of Indian ponies, twenty or so, grazing in a pasture. I corralled them, selected two of the more docile animals, and found enough collars, straps, buckles, and strings in the barn to harness them. They were not hard to break, and before long I had the corn in the ground. It was good to find a place where you could plow straight furrows without going around stumps and rocks.
Mr. Simmerwell spent much of his time traveling by horse and buggy from one settlement to another, preaching to people in their homes and distributing religious publications. His was the volunteer work of an itinerant pioneer missionary. Upon returning from one such trip in 1854 with his horse, old Black Betty, he had stuck his buggy whipa slender cottonwood switchinto the ground just west of his log cabin. The cutting took root and grew into a sturdy tree, prized by later generations. In 1907 it measured more than twenty feet around the base.
When, at Mr. Simmerwell's request, the Home Missionary Society sent a preacher from the East to aid the
Baptist cause in this region, the first sermon was preached in the Simmerwell house. Soon after my arrival, Mr. Simmerwell organized the Auburn Baptist Church and Sunday School, and the following year donated a two-story stone house for a parsonage.
It became my duty on Sundays to hitch the oxen, with which I was now on familiar terms, to a big wagon and drive the girls the three and a half miles to Sunday school and church in Auburn. They looked so prim and sedate in their best Sunday go-to-meeting dresses that I could not resist the temptation to tease them by getting astride the nigh ox just as we neared the church.
One day I asked Lizzie, the youngest daughter, how long she had been in Kansas. She blushingly replied, "Twenty-two years." It seems she was the very first white girl born in the territory. The date of her birth was January 24, 1835. Her parents were then living in the Baptist Shawnee Mission in Miami County. The three older children were born in Michigan Territory, coming to Kansas with their parents in 1833.
All of them received a good education. William attended Shurtleff College at Alton, Illinois. The girls went to a school in Independence, Missouri and to the Reverend Nathan Scarritt's school at the Methodist Mission. For about four years Elizabeth attended the seminary at Monticello in Illinois, taking courses in Latin, geology, chemistry, geometry, philosophy, music, and drawing. Latin she considered easiest of all.
Ann, who was not as strong as the other girls, suffered from a spinal trouble, believed to have resulted from a fall in babyhood. She died in 1858.
A neighbor of the Simmerwells, Isaac Baxter, was
courting Sarah, the oldest of the girls, and they were married soon after I began living on the farm. The young bridegroom hauled walnut lumber from Leavenworth by ox-team to build their house. It was a two-story dwelling, having six rooms and a kitchen in a separate building. This arrangement kept the living quarters cooler in summer, for the wood stove gave off much heat. Many a night, wayfarers, caught in a storm, slept on pallets on the kitchen floor, thankful for a dry place to rest. Like her father, Sarah could never turn anyone away.
Crossing their farm pastures was a trail worn by heavy wagons and known as the California Road. One branch of the Mormon trek from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake in Utah, which started in 1846, passed this way. Caravans were sometimes seen even in 1857. The California gold rush had brought ninety thousand people through Kansas, many following the route of the Mormons.
Some say the Mormons, who contended with heat and cold, drought and flood, hunger and starvation, scattered sunflower seeds along the way to mark their trail. At any rate, it is generally agreed that the seeds' clinging to mud on wheels of pioneer wagons resulted in a widespread distribution of the bright yellow blooms.