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

(published in KC STAR in 1972)

Last in a 5-Part Series

'Everything Is a Run for Luck'


The following letters, written by John J. Ingalls on his arrival in Kansas Territory, are among those at the Kansas State Historical Society.


Lawrence, Kansas Territory,

January 2, 1859

Dear Father--I left Sumner for this place on Friday p.m. at 3 o'clock, via Leavenworth. We did not reach the latter place till 9 in the evening, after six of the most intolerable locomotion I ever experienced.

The coaches are constructed with special reference to safety in passing over corduroy roads, through sloughs and ravines, having no regard whatever to the comfort of the passengers. They are built on the same plan as a carryall, with open sides and no back to the seats. The roads are extremely bad, ice alternating with mud, and the whole spiced with bodily contusions and much bad language on the part of the worldly-minded freight.

There is no snow at all on the prairie and but very little in the wooded bottoms.

I endeavored, in one of my letters to Morris, to convey to you some idea of the appearance of the country between Sumner and Leavenworth, so that I need not repeat the description here.

We had one rather amusing adventure on the road after dark, which is characteristic of the territory. A part of the road runs directly through a man's claim and is fenced on both sides, making what they here call a "lane." Not affording the latitude of travel which the other parts of the prairie allow, they are always badly cut up and very heavy, so that travelers take down the fence and go through the fields when it is possible.

Through the fence I speak of there is a gate near each end, and it being after dark, the driver thought he would attempt the passage, though the proprietor had once before told him he would shoot him if he ever went through his lands again.

The gate squeaked on its hinges and closed behind us as we dragged slowly through the sodden grass. And after about a half mile's progress upon arriving at the other gate we found it chained and locked! Here was a quandary. To go back was very distasteful; to take down the fence was impossible, and the proprietor's house was but a few rods distant, and the noise would alarm him. I suggested prying it from its hinges and swinging it 'round upon the chain. With the help of a rail this was done, and we were just through when the owner appeared with a big dog and big oaths, bent on deeds of valor. Some pistols were cocked on both sides, but the matter was arranged, and we got on our way.

The Great Point

Leavenworth is increasing with fabulous rapidity. It has already about 10,000 inhabitants and will undoubtedly be the great point in Kansas.

Descending into the city at night from the north one is conscious of that indefinable sensation which indicates the neighborhood of masses of men. The irregular, serrated outline along the dim horizon, the scattered lights, the stir, the impulse--all are here.

Since Christmas, a week yesterday, there have been five murders in the city limits, all of the worst description, in the worst places. Remaining overnight at the Planters' House, I started at 7 yesterday a.m. for Lawrence.

From Leavenworth to Lawrence is 35 miles, which we accomplished with three relays of horses in 10 hours--three and a half miles per hour--the best commentary on the state of the roads which can be given. there are not more than half a dozen houses on the entire route, and not a tree for the central 25 miles. I never suffered more from hunger in my life. I had taken a little cracker and chees, but the oxygen of the prairie wind soon burned it up and created an urgent demand for more.

The country is undulating prairie, with occasional roads of inky blackness, winding through the ruddy distance, or lost, absorbed in the deeper blackness, winding through the ruddy distance, or lost, absorbed in the deeper blackness of the hills, which had been recently burned by the annual fires. The well-trodden paths, vanishing through the vast unfenced and apparently uninhabited expanse, left a singular impression upon my mind, as if there was something wrong about it.

The treacherous tricklings of the "divides" made an inevitable slough every mile or two, swollen by sudden rains, with innundations which interrupt travel for days. The soil is so compact that it sheds nearly all its moisture. Brick is made from the surface dirt everywhere through the country.

Most of the land between the two cities is the property of the Delaware Indians, the remnant of which tribe, now about 950 in number, still dwell here in crude huts and live a life of indolent degradation. Government gives them $100 each per year--enough to keep them drunk nearly all the time.

Many of them were just returning from a New Year's spree as we passed along. They dress in many colors and ride small ponies of peculiar breed, which are highly valued for their good disposition and great endurance.

Kaw Bottom

Four miles from Lawrence the road leaves the high prairie and enters the Kaw bottom, a soil of unrivaled fertility, streaked with patches of deformed, haggard-looking trees. The grass if from 4 to 6 feet high, and the narrow road runs through it like a path through a field of standing rye.

The "Kaw" or "Kansas" river is about half the width of the Merrimac at Haverhill. It is a somber, dismal-looking stream, swift and treacherous, overhung with savage growths on its precipitous shores. It is crossed by a swing ferry, a queer contrivance, in which the river furnished the motive power.

the town is situated upon the southern bank and presents a mean, slender appearance from the river. The site is a level as a floor, surrounded by an amphitheater of hills at the distance of a half mile from the river on the north, but opening on the south and west to the old prairie level.

Most Enchanting

This morning I visited "Mt. Oread," on the top of which stands the old free-state fort--a rough, irregular structure of shelvy limestone, 4 feet high, with embrasures for cannon on three sides. The prospect is one of the most enchanting I ever beheld. It has several bold features which landscapes here generally lack--some spurs and sudden elevations which disturb the monotony and relieve the eye.

"Blue Mound," in the southwest, visible 15 miles, rises abruptly like an island from the sea. The horizon in that direction is limited by a line of timber which marks the course of the Wakarusa, a tributary of the Kaw.

Lawrence was a first called "Wakarusa," but someone who had a genius for investigation discovered that in the original the apparently romantic name had a significance which I can only properly paraphrase by the term "hip deep," in consequence of which the appellation was abandoned for the present term.

There are some good residences in the town, some fair business blocks, and the best hotel west of the Ohio. It is called the "Eldridge House," after its propritor, and was opened on Friday evening by a New Year's inauguration ball. It is built of brick, with all the appointments of a first-class house, and cost $75,000. It seems to me that it must prove a ruinous speculation, but everything in Kansas is a run for luck.

I attended church this morning, for the first time since I came into the territory. There was as much style and fashion in the audience as would be seen in an eastern city. B. F. Dalton and wife, of Boston notoriety, were pointed out to me. You are aware, doubtless, that this is one of the most celebrated places in Kansas, historically, and the sufferings and sacrifices of its early settlers are too fimiliar to need repetition here.

It may interest you to know that I am here as a "lobby" member of the Legislature, the session of which commences on Tuesday next. Many of the members are on the ground, rolling logs and pulling wires. They are compelled to meet at Lecompton, 12 miles west, but will immediately adjourn to this place.

I am seeing to the "Sumner City charter" and getting up a "Pike's Peak Express Company," which will cost nothing and probably be a very valuable franchise. I am to be one of the corporate members. I can have a clerkship in the house if I choose to remain through the session, but hardly think I shall stay.

I had a long conversation last evening with a miner who left Pike's Peak on the 22nd of November. He showed me specimens of gold and described the country as well wooded and watered, free from disease, and temperate climate. The fever runs high here. There will undoubtedly be 100,000 people there in eight months from this time.

Companies are organizing in all directions. Two large trains of goods start from here in a few days to be ready for the opening trade. I received a letter from Mr. Morris last week, but do not hear from hove very regularly. With much regard to all the family, in haste, but very truly, your son, J.J.I.


Senate chamber

Lawrence, Kan.

Feb. 11, 1859

Dear Father--The legislative farce closes today in a most inopportune storm of snow, the only really disagreeable weather we have had since the session commenced. It is peculiarly unfortunate for me also, as I sent for a team to come down across the country and take me back to Sumner, and the ride will be intensely uncomfortable over the bleak, snowy prairie 50 miles, with only one small village on the entire route.

The work done by the assembly has been varied and extensive. The bill abolishing slavery was finally passed, but too late to avoid the veto of Governor Medary. He has three days in which to consider a bill, and the one in question was only carried after a spirited and angry debate about midnight on Tuesday.

The governor declined to receive it officially when it was handed to him, as the Legislature had adjourned, so that the three days would, unfortunately, carry it to Saturday morning at 9 o'clock.

I shall receive $5 per day instead of $3, owing to the kindness of the body whom I have the honor to serve so acceptably, which will give me $200 clear for my six weeks work, my board being paid by a draft on the proprietors of the paper in New York for which I have been corresponding.

A bill has been passed funding the debt of the territory. Bonds will be immediately issued, payable in New York in 1865, with interest at the rate of 10 per cent. If I had the money I would buy a few hundred dollars of scrip, as it can be purchased of needy holders who want the money to pay their board, at a handsome discount. In haste, but very truly, your son, John James Ingalls.


Sumner, Kansas Territory,

Feb. 16, 1859.

Dear Father--I reached home day before yesterday, after a somewhat adventurous ride of two days from Lawrence, across the country, which I have not time now to detail. The Legislature gave me $6 per day instead of $3.

I found quite a mass of business accumulated here against my arrival, which will keep me employed for a few days. The books and stationery are here. The letter and the Gazette which you criticized has reached me. I notice one or two wretched errors. I am sure I never wrote "peaks of smoke," though what I did say has escaped me.

The favorable notice in the Publisher appears to have been communicated by some partial friend. Appreciation is pleasant, but I was not aware that such a lively sense of my merits existed in Haverhill.

Improvement are going on in Sumner to a considerable extent. It compares very favorably with any of the towns in the territory which I have visited, and I believe I have seen all except Topeka and Manhattan, which lie on the Kaw some 50 or 60 miles beyond Lawrence. I should have taken that circuit on my return had not the weather been so unpropitious.

It has since cleared away quite warm again, and the snow has all disappeared.

The Hannibal & St. Joe railroad will be opened for travel throughout its entire length on the 28th. There is to be a great celebration on the 22nd, at which I hope to be present.

I am in receipt of letters from mother and Moms, which I will answer at my earliest leisure. My health continues excellent. In haste, but very truly, you son, John James Ingalls.

P.S.--The new charter passed and is creating great excitement among the office seekers. It provides for 22 offices, including 12 aldermen, and I am offered any position under it if I choose to accept. I have not yet made up my mind what course to adopt. If I go west in the spring it won't be worth while to make any further engagements here.

We also got our "Pike's Peak Express Company" chartered, and shall organize as soon as Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Valentine come on. I think I told you I am one of the corporators.


Sumner, Kansas Territory,

March 15, 1859

Dear Father--I believe I have been somewhat remiss in my correspondence of late, owing to the excitement of electioneering and other incidents attending the organization of the city under the new charter, together with sundry other items of business, including the preparation and delivery of a lecture, and an epidemic among the people which leads them to sue and be sued.

The election was held yesterday and resulted in the choice of a satisfactory board of officers, among which I have the honor to be numbered as "city attorney"--an office of more honor than profit, I presume.

The majority by which I was elected was quite complimentary, as indicating the confidence the citizens have in my ability to serve them. I received all but 14 votes, though it was only after repeated solicitation that I consented to have my name used in connection with the office. The foreign element is quite large, consisting chiefly of Germans and Norwegians, and they do not fraternize very cordially with the Americans.

I have also received from the governor a commission as notary public, the functions of which are similar to those of justices of the peace in Massachusetts. They have power to take acknowledgments, depositions and affidavits, and receive much better fees than are allowed in eastern states. Justices are not appointed by the executive here, but elected by the people, and they act almost exclusively in a judicial capacity.

Quite a Hit

Speaking of the governor, you may have noticed in one of the New York Evening Posts I sent home a personal description of that dignitary. It was considered quite a hit here and extensively copied into the newspapers of the territory. If he saw it and was aware of its paternity, it is highly probably he would not have favored me with a commission.

The amount and character of the emigration to Pike's Peak is truly astonishing. Every boat is crowded with passengers bound for the mines, and a great many of them labor under the impression that the favored locality is but a few hours' walk from the shores of the river.

On landing at Leavenworth, which is the chief point of departure, they frequently decline stopping at hotels, supposing that they can reach Pike's Peak by an afternoon's walk. As a class the gold hunters are poor, of the carpet-bag description, and the military roads are already thronged with anxious hundreds, on foot, dragging hand carts, on mules, and with ox teams.

Fortunately the weather is exceedingly mild, and the grass already getting green under the influence of the genial climate. A few days of freezing weather such as frequently alternates with these days of treacherous mildness would kill them by the score. There must be several thousands already enroute. I counted over 100 this morning in the course of an hour's ride, among them was a large party from Michigan.

It is reported by some drivers on one of the return government trains from Salt Lake, that several hundred miners who had wintered near Cherry creek were on their way back to civilization again in a state of extreme destitution--no gold, no food, clothes or cattle. Whether this is true or not, the tide is gravitating so strongly westward that no successful attempts can be made to stem it.

The excitement does not seem to rage so high in Masachusetts as in other states. I hardly see a reference to it in the Boston papers. the only notice I have seen was so supremely absurd that I supposed it must be a hoax. A company had been organized at Springfield, it seemed, who proposed to build boats at some point on the Missouri and seal up the Kansas river to its junction with the Smoky Hill fork, and thence to Cherry creek.

Only Catfish

It looks prettily on the map, as you will see by referring to the atlas hanging in the front hall at home, but unfortunately that stream is only navigable by catfish, and by them only at certain seasons of the year.

Some town speculators wishing to build a town which should have the prestige of being at the head of navigation on the Kaw purchased a steamboat of about one-mule power and six inches draught and started one summer morning on their perilous journey. Toward night they ran aground on a sand bar, and there the craft remains to this day. The termination of its trip determined the location of the city of Topeka, celebrated for the constitution which was there elaborated.

Some parties still more adventurous and ambitious pushed up a few miles beyond in a skiff and founded the city of Manhattan at the mouth of the Big Blue. So say those learned in the lore of the early history of Kansas, with how much truth I do not know.

Very truly, your son, J.J.I.


Sumner, Kansas Territory,

March 29, 1859

Dear Father--Affairs in the territory seem to be brightening a little, but even now the prostration seems almost perfect. Want of money is the great difficulty. There is grain enough and stock enough, but no medium of trade, and consequently we men whose estates lie in our brains are somewhat at a loss to realize.

The emigration has made matters a little easier, but I think there is a strong and increasing conviction that Pike's Peak is a humbug; it is certainly my opinion that it is, and what the result will be I do not care to predict. It looks dark.

A vote was taken on Monday to decide on the question of a convention to frame a constitution under which to ask admission as a state next winter. Returns come in slowly where there are no railroads or telegraphs, but the result will undoubtedly be affirmative.

The election for delegates occurs in June; the convention will be holden at Wyandotte in July; the constitution will be submitted to a popular vote in October; and, if accepted, the election of officers will take place in December.

The question of admission is another thing. Public sentiment I believe to be quite strong in the idea that the application will be rejected, and the step would not probably have been taken were it not evident that we can hope for no justice, favor or decency from the executive.

The resources of the territory are not sufficiently developed to bear easily the increased taxation in support of a state organization. But recent statistics show a present valuation of $25 million, and this is only approximate--a very respectable growth for four years. Should the future sustain the prophecy of the past, it will be but a short time before Kansas will stand on a permanent basis of assured prosperity.

Very truly,

yoru son,J.J.I.


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