From the collections at the Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum. Reprinted with permission from The Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum and the Leavenworth Times. Donated by Debra Graden.

Letters From the West (Second in a 5-part Series)

orignally published in Kansas City Star

Shocked by Crudity of a Town

The following is among letters written to his father in Massachusetts by John J. Ingalls, on his arrival in Kansas Territory. Ingalls later became a senator from Kansas.


Sumner House, Sumner,

Kansas Territory,

Oct. 5, 1858.

Dear Father--I closed my letter this morning rather abruptly to catch the mail, having just landed myself in the Promised Land, supposed to be flowing with milk and honey.

My notions never having been particularly exaggerated, I was not surprised at not finding a Boston or New York. Mr. Wheeler had not arrived, and I proceeded at once to the hotel, from which my letter is dated, a house whose floors are as destitute of carpets as its table of decency.

It is quite a large building--resembles its representation in the litographic fiction which was shown me more nearly than any other feature of the "city." The two lower stories only are completed, the upper being merely lathed, and if guests choose to take one of those a reduction of $1 per week is made in his bill, the price then being $4 instead of $5 per week.

It is a rude, unfinished structure, with no pretensions to comfort or convenience. It is situated at the summit of the "bluff" on which the "city" is located, and is reached by a rude street of the most preposterous grade imaginable.

It is immensely steep; more like the roof of a house than anything else I can compare it to, and so gullied with rains, so interspersed with rocks and the stumps of trees, in many cases several feet high, that a New Hampshire teamster of ordinary temerity would shun the task of traversing it. The few carts that go down invariably descend with chained wheels.

This is the only street in the place which has any pretesion to a grade, the others being merely footpaths leading up and down the wild ravines to the few log huts and miserable cabins which compose the city. None of the premises are fenced, the whole place being open to the incursions of dogs and pigs, which exist in large number, and seem, in fact, to constitute the greater amount of the population.

Akin to Desprair

it was election day yesterday, and of course I had an excellent chance to see the inhabitants and judge of their character and condition. They appeared without any exception to be a shabby, ill-dressed, unthrifty people, most like the inhabitants of the Irish quarter of a large city, wearing upon their countenences a look of ill-concealed discontenet akin to despair--as if written over their hearts was t legend fabled by the Italian poet to be inscribed above the gate of hell: "All hope abandon ye who enter here."

There are no churches in the place, instead of four, as was represented to me. No respectable residences; no society; no women except a few woebegone, desolate-looking old creatures; no mechanical activity; nothing which would seem to indicate a large and intelligent energy; no schools, no children; nothing but the total reverse of the picture which was presented to me.

On the engraved romance a "college" was imagined, of which no person here of whom I have inquired has even so much as heard the idea advanced. There was also a large and elaborate machine shop, whose actual locality is covered by a rickety old blacksmith's shop, carried on by a decrepit nigger.

I did not anticipate the clean and healthy thrift of a New England village, nor the noisy splendor of a metropolis, but I am quite unable to convey to you any definite idea of the disappointment, not unmingled with anger and mortification, with which I contemplate the state of affairs here.

I wish I could give you a photograph of the place but a new Western village is truly indescribablein language. It can only be compared to itself. There are perhanps 200 houses here, 20 or 30 ofwhich are visible from any one point, some without windows and doors, some without shingles or clapboards, nearly all without cellars, and situated on heaps of stones or stumps of old trees, and distributed without any regard to order or regularity.

It is so unlike anything I ever saw or dreamed of that I am not yet prepared to say whether I shall like it or not. My ideas must change somewhat first.

There is apparently no trade, no commercial exchange with other states or other parts of the territory, no commission businness; no reshipment or forwarding, and the few small grocery shops seem to contain only those articles demanded by a wretched and destitute population.

Undulating Prairie

Half a mile back of the "bluff" the contry expands into an undulating prairie,well watered and somewhat heavily timbered. I walked to the breezy summit of one of the highest swells yesterday, and could hardly think, except with a strong effort of memory, that I was in Kansas.

Before me flowed the muddy Missouri, choked with sand and snags, beyond which spread the heavily wooded "bottom" several miles in width, to the forest-covered bluffs which limited the eastern horizon. On either hand were the hither shores of the river and the cabins of "Sumner," while westward extended the vast grassy spaces, unfenced and unpeopled, scarred with a few gray wagon trails, till the eye could no longe comprenend it in the autumn-tinted distance.

I have made some very pleasant acquaintances since I left home. One gentleman from St. Louis in particular, whom I met upon the boat and was with two days, till he landed for a tour through the wilds of Missouri, from whom I parted with sincere regret.

There was also on the boat a young fellow with whom I conversed nearly an entire day, not knowing his name, till he mentioned the place where he resided, when I asked him if he knew one of my old classmates who used to live there. To my surprise it proved to be his brother.

He was traveling with his father, a gentleman high in the leagal profession in New York, to whom he introduced me, and through him I obtained an introduction to Judge Johnson of Leavenworth, with whom I had a long conversation on matters in Kansas.

He told me, as all with whom I have spoken have done, that everything is dead here in the winter; there is no business doing and a great many go East to remain till spring. What is best for me to do under the circumstances I do not know--whether to stay here and get posted in the laws, earning nothing meantime, or return East for a few months.

My own choice would be decidedly the former, if I could support myself. I like the climate, and fancy that I feel better than I have before for many months, though that may be attributable to the excitement and change of travel.

Great Hopes

There is no money in the territory, though the postponement of the land sales has had the effect of easing the stringency somewhat but the emigration last spring was all of a particularly poor description, owing to the financial troubles of the preceding autumn; they brought no money, and consequently did not improve affairs at all.

It is thought that the emigration of the succeeding season will be of a better class, and great hopes are entertained ofr the ensuing year.

The gold fever seems to be rapidly subsiding. The papers in the territory discountenance it, whether because its continuance tends to depopulate the store towns of because there is really no gold at Pike's Peak is not fully settled.

Parties are leaving some point on the river dialy; one left this place a few days ago. The distance is about 700 miles, through a counry of polar sterility, infested by tribes of hostile Indians.

Very truly, your son, John James Ingalls

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