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Settlement of Southwest Kansas



For several years after Western Kansas was being opened for settlement, the counties in this region remained unorganized and had no population except the cattlemen. They were the lords of the land, but had no interest in it except as it provided grass and water for their stock. They ranged their cattle over thousands of acres without the restriction of a single fence, but they were doomed to witness a marvelous change in the country.

The supremacy of the cattlemen was of short duration. The railroad company, which had been the prime means of beginning the cattle industry, was also the chief inducement for people to come in and homestead the land. Just as soon as it was known that the Indians had abandoned this region people all over the United States began to study the maps of Western Kansas.

The spring of 1878 opened with plentiful moisture. As far as the eye could reach the short-grass plains were covered with a carpet of green, unmarked by roads and highways. Not a sign of civilization except the iron rails of the Santa Fe railroad. Not a tree or a shrub was here to break the vision, nothing in sight but the great herds of Texas cattle grazing at will in this vacant "back yard" of Kansas settlement.

But the eyes of the cowboys who guarded the herds began anxiously to watch the distant horizon, for they had heard the rumors of coming settlers. As the days passed, sure enough, tiny dust clouds appeared far to the east and grew, and soon they could discern covered wagons lumbering slowly, but steadily advancing over the maze of cattle trails. As the hours passed they could hear the shouts of the drivers above the creaking wagons urging their sweating horses or ox teams and tired domestic possibilities. They were not dismayed by the fact that it was sparingly watered by the few creeks and the Arkansas river, which was usually dry several months of the year. Scarcer and scarcer grew the timber as they made their way west, until all that there was grew on the islands in the river, beyond the reach of annual prairie fires. But they did not complain because the land before them lay bare to all the garish sunshine of the year, with out the shadow of a tree or the seclusion of primeval forests. Their eyes roamed in every direction and they were not dismayed when they saw only the townsites of ants and prairie dogs rising in dwarf mounds above the level height of the close-curled buffalo grass. They were thinking of a time in the future, when the buffalo grass would be replaced by tame grasses and by fields of golden grain. They dreamed of cities which would spring up to replace that debris of animal and insect architecture, which alone had littered the landscape for centuries.

To the landless it seemed a great boon to have the opportunity to settle upon government land and acquire fee simple title to a quarter section of land for a mere living upon it. Even many who had farms or places of business in the east decided they could better their conditions by disposing of their property and settling upon the cheap, yet fertile land of the west. Briefly, it may be stated that the heads of families, or persons over 21 years of age, were entitled under the acts of congress to 480 acres of land, 160 as a homestead, 160 as pre-emption, and 160 as timber claim. Only 320 acres, however, could be entered at the same time. Five years' residence was required on a homestead claim before patent could be issued. The settler had six months after he filed on land before establishing a residence and commencing his improvements. He might also be temporarily absent six months. Preemption required immediate settlement. After six months, cattle toward the valleys of the Pawnee or Arkansas rivers. And they could see written across the canvas tops in crude letters, "WESTERN KANSAS OR BUST".

The vanguard of grangers had arrived. They were hardy pioneers, looking for a home, a place to settle and rear their families. They were not daunted by the great vacant expanses of rolling prairie and level plains. Even though it looked like a barren waste, they knew it held by paying $1.25 per acre, patent could be secured. Within limits of railroad land, $2.50 per acre was paid. No settlement was required under the timber culture act. The claimant was required to break five acres of land during the first year, five acres during the second year, and cultivate the first five, and the third year plant five acres to trees, tree seeds or cuttings. All this could be done by an agent, and a non-resident could acquire title to land under the provision of this act. Since there was only one timber claim in each government township, and it could be owned by a non-resident, this class of claims were soon all taken up. But the job of plowing and cultivating the timber claims supplied some of the settlers with money so they could stay on their homesteads. In many cases, in lieu of payment for their labor, they were given title to the timber claim.

Naturally, the cattlemen were resentful of the coming of the settlers and homesteaders who kept arriving singly and in groups during the years of 1878 and `79. Coming in wagons, or dropping off the trains along the railroad sidings of the Santa Fe, they were met by the cowboys, who did their best to discourage them from settling here.

"Say, let us tell you something," they would begin. "It never rains out there and you will starve to death. Dodge City is as far west as civilization will ever go, and that place is hardly a fit place for a civilized man with a family." From that time on there was a struggle between the grangers and the cattlemen as to who would occupy the land.

In 1878 there was a sprinkling of homesteaders scattered over the prairies, and the next year, 1879, many more filed on claims. Nature seemed to favor the efforts of those first settlers, even if the cattlemen didn't. Everything planted that first year yielded bountifully, and the country gave out every promise to those desiring to make permanent settlement. Towns were established and dugouts and sod houses of homesteaders dotted the plains, where they lived as snug as "wasps" in their mud houses. James Craig came to Garden City in March, 1879, and he tells how they located the claims:

"I found Buffalo Jones and Bill Stapelton on the job ready to show people over the country, and locate them on government land, and for some time after my arrival they did a thriving business. I remember driving around with Jones and Stapelton locating people. The land office at that time was located at Larned, and Jones received a report every day of all land located the previous day. We would start out in the morning with perhaps six or eight people who wanted to locate. It was my job when we started from a known corner to count the revolutions of the wheel of the vehicle we were riding in. A handkerchief tied to a wheel and knowing the distance around the wheel was a quick way to measure between the corners, and of keeping track of the section, township and range. We could tell the prospective settler just how far we were from Garden City."

It has been said of that first year that it was a "will o' the wist which lured hundreds of homesteaders into this region, only to have their hopes blasted by drouth during the next succeeding years." The dry weather set in the fall of 1878, continued all through the year of 1879, and with little intermission during 1880-81-82.

In those years, in spite of the fact that the settlers congregated to pray for rain and for relief from climatic conditions, it never rained, and the country looked like a parched desert. The very grass would crunch and fall to powder beneath the feet of the settlers. At the end of four years, few of the first enthusiastic people who had taken claims were left. Even as the "Arabs quietly folded their tents and moved away", so did the first settlers, but instead of folding up tents, they unfolded their old canvas tops and spread them back in place over the weather-beaten wagon bows. Beneath the old sign "WESTERN KANSAS OR BUST" they scrawled in bright new letters, "Busted by God", and the heads of the famishing horses that were hitched to those "ships of the Great Plains" were headed back east toward "wife's folks".

It has been said that all who remained did so because they couldn't get away. But that is not true. Those who kept on did so because they could, and because they wanted to. They had a persistence born partly of faith in the country and partly of a dogged determination to stick to their possessions to the end. They refused to be beaten by climate or any other circumstance.

Many had come into the country well dressed, but after two or three years their clothing was worn out and they had not the means to buy new. Socks became a luxury. Blue jeans covered the worn cloth trousers of the men and they were not particular as to the style of their coats. Their stiff derby hats were dented and battered but continued to do service. The women made over the good clothes they had brought with them for their growing children, and for themselves made new cotton dresses. And then as their plight became known boxes and barrels of clothing began arriving from relatives and benevolent organizations in the east. These donations were hailed with delight, although the housewives were often filled with despair and disappointment when they tried to fit out their families with "used and discarded clothing."

But it was not so much a question of what to wear, as what to eat? The Rev. A. C. McKeever, a pioneer of Finney county, recently said in an address to the old settlers at Garden City:

"There were times when the flowers did not bloom, the grass did not get green, and the larder was low. If it had not been for the jack rabbits and the wild ducks and geese, a great many of the early settlers would have found it much harder.

"I remember hearing about a case in the early days of a man who had come out west to make his fortune. He had faith, he was ambitious, and he worked hard. The report went out through Ohio, Indiana and Illinois that the people were starving to death on the plains, and the good people of Ohio sent a young man out here to investigate, and provided a purse whereby the suffering might be relieved. This young fellow from Ohio came to the man who had staked his all to make his fortune. Of course he did not want to turn over the money to anyone who was not in need, so he was very careful in his investigation and cautious in his movements. He asked the settler how he was getting along, and true to the policy of the early settlers, he was told what a wonderful country it was, and how delightful to live in such rarefied air, and told about the beautiful sunsets. Then the would-be-benefactor asked him where they got their provisions, and told him that word had gone out that the settlers were starving and that a carload of provisions had been sent out for those in need, but he was so glad to learn there was no need here. The settler was silent for a few minutes, then he said, "Well, you know, we got along fine last year and expected to this year, but our dog died, and you know, it takes a damned good dog to catch rabbits.'"

There was little money in the country among the settlers, except the pension checks received from the government by the civil war soldiers. The chief industry among the homesteaders was picking up buffalo and cattle bones of which there appeared to be an inexhaustible supply all over the prairies, and hundreds of loads were brought in to points along the railroad to be shipped, for which the settlers received five or six dollars a ton.

Mrs. H. W. Crow recalls how her husband and Sim Buckles would go far out on the prairie to gather bones. There were no roads or trails to follow and in order to find their way back to Garden City, they would tie a log under the wagon low enough to drag on the ground to make a mark, so they could follow it home. They would also haul in "buffalo chips" and rick them up like hay stacks to keep them dry for winter fuel.

Another source of income which was obtained in a hard but thrilling way was the catching of wild horses, which were shipped east. In 1880 two men from Pennsylvania came out to Garden City to buy up wild horses to take backeast and sell at retail. They had no difficulty in buying two car loads of fine horses, but a difficulty arose when they offered a $1000 bill in payment. It was impossible to get it changed, and they finally had to go to Larned where the United States land office was located.

In those days C. J. Jones, the Craig brothers and others would go out antelope hunting. They would fix up sleds so they could get over the ground quickly and it was an easy way to haul in the game. They usually returned with a few, or perhaps a number, and would ship them to Topeka or Kansas City, receiving four or five dollars apiece for them.

N. F. Weeks, who with his brother, J. W. Weeks, located at Garden City May 3, 1878, has left a written record of some of those early hunting trips:

"About 1879 white-tailed deer were more or less plentiful in the sand hills, and Jones and others made frequent trips into the sand hills. Jones was always accompanied by his favorite stag hound. On one of these trips I accompanied him, and reaching a place where the Dan Larmor ranch was afterwards located, a fine buck was sighted and the hounds took up the chase. We were riding in a platform spring wagon, Jones driving and I holding the gun. As the chase warmed up Jones kept urging the team to greater speed. It was a mad rush across the hills, the wagon swayed and bounced and at times it almost upset. The deer headed for the Island in the river. Finally we struck some particularly rough and boggy ground and we both took headers from the wagons. Jones managed to land on his feet and kept on running. Just how I struck the ground I have never been able to tell, for it was like being hit by a cyclone, but I saw Jones plunging into the water and heard him shouting to bring the gun. I finally reached the island where the dog was holding the deer and Jones dispatched it with a bullet.

"Parts of the wagon and pieces of the harness were scattered for miles down the river and the wagon had to be sent to Sterling for repairs. That did not bother Jones in the least, he got what he went after and did not count the cost. Jones always had a lot of hunting dogs and when he was unable to supply them with meat they formed the habit of raiding the butcher shops of Halsey and Butts, and frequently would carry off a whole quarter of beef, for which Jones would pay without question. One of his favorite hounds disappeared once and he went to Colorado in search of him, thinking he had followed some emigrant wagon off, but the dog was never found.

"Early in the fall of 1879 Jones suggested a hunt in the Cimarron river country for buffalo. At that time he had a large number of wolf and stag hounds, and others of like character, and recently having secured a high-grade pup, he wanted to try it out on big game. So accompanied by my brother, Joe Weeks, and George Edwards, son of Jesse Edwards, we left Garden City with two wagons. I rode with Jones and we traveled southwest toward the Cimarron. Antelope were plentiful in the sand hills, and we soon sighted a large herd. I shall never forget that sight. The sun was just coming up and its first rays fell on the brownish-red and white of the grazing animals. Immediately the hunting instincts were aroused, every muscle became taut, every nerve in the man seemed to quiver with excitement, and his eyes snapped and glittered as only a man's will when the instincts of the true hunter are aroused.

"On getting within fair shooting distance he could have bagged several easily, but he wanted to see his dogs perform, and suggested that he would cripple an antelope, and then the dogs and the pup would be turned loose. This was done, the leashes were unloosed, and with loud baying the dogs took after the startled and fleeing antelope. Some time elapsed and the older dogs returned to the wagons, but much to Mr. Jones' anxiety the pup failed to show up, so telling the other men to continue their journey to the Cimarron we started in search of the pup. All day we kept up the search, but the pup was never seen again.

"Our water supply gave out and late in the day we headed for the Cimarron where we expected to find water. About nine or ten o'clock that night we came up to the other members of the party. Their supply of water was also exhausted and the river was entirely dry. This was a serious situation. Our horses were already in an exhausted condition, and it was a two days' drive to the Arkansas. There was no water on the way, nothing but the sun-scorched prairie sage brush and withered grass. Early the next day we started and our progress was necessarily slow.

"We made camp the first night, and fortunately there occurred that rare phenomena of the plains, a dew fell, and eating the dew-covered grass our horses were somewhat refreshed. We were all suffering from thirst, and we ate nothing but crackers all day, and by eating them slowly, a saliva would be started in our dry and parched mouths. Late in the day what a glorious sight unfolded itself. There ahead of us was the Arkansas river, and the water glistened in the sunlight. It was a joyous, life-inspiring scene, and man and beasts quickened their steps. Reaching the water, all rushed to partake of its blessed relief. It was warm and unpalatable, but it quenched the burning thirst. The horses drank with avidity, and when they had had enough for the time, they could not be forced from the river, and finally one of Edwards' horses died. During the torture of those days, Jones was the guiding spirit."

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Note: Text taken from "Conquest of Southwest Kansas" by Leola Howard Blanchard, which can be ordered through the Finney County Historical Museum.

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