1859 Letter - Going to Pike's Peak, Kansas!

In addition to book reviews, I like to post and comment on some of the primary material that I come across. One big source, which I've dipped into before, is the series of Ranney Letters I transcribed at the Ashfield Historical Society. They often throw spotlights on ideas and issues that aren't part of the mainstream history of their period. Here's another example of that.

In this letter, Harrison Ranney writes older brother Henry in January 1859.  This letter contains a lot of interesting clues about life in 1859.  Harrison mentions that their seventy-year old mother, Achsah, is busy churning seven pounds of butter a week from her cow.  He describes the situation on his farm and on his brothers’ nearby farms in Southwestern Michigan, and he gives Henry a little news and gossip about local people, many of whom are also originally from Ashfield Massachusetts, where Henry continues to live.

The big news, however, is that another brother, Lemuel, and many other local men are talking about going west to join the new gold rush in Kansas.  As odd as it sounds, ten years after the California Gold Rush, the Kansas Territory was the hot new place to make your fortune.  This is because the territory of Kansas was much larger than the state it became in 1861.  The Kansas and Nebraska territories established in 1854 extended to the Continental Divide and included Pikes Peak and much of what is now Colorado and Wyoming.

Kansas in the 1850s is usually remembered as “Bleeding Kansas,” a battleground where the issue of whether to extend slavery into the new western states exploded into a savage war along the Missouri border.  For the most part, we’ve forgotten that in 1859, both Kansas and Nebraska were part of
The West in a way they no longer are. Fort Laramie, the site of the 1868 Treaty between the U.S. and the Lakota, Dakota, and Arapaho nations, was originally in the Nebraska Territory.  Pikes Peak, now 100 miles south of Denver and 30 miles west of Colorado Springs, was in Kansas.

“How did I miss this?” I thought with some alarm when I came across this letter. When I flipped through the pages of books from the “Western” part of my library, such as
The Legacy of Conquest, I found Kansas and Nebraska embroiled in Stephen Douglas’s expansionism.  Similarly, on my “Impending Crisis” shelf, David Potter’s book of that name devotes many pages to the 1854 Act and to the Lecompton Constitution.  But Lecompton is in the northeastern corner of present-day Kansas, and Stephen Douglas was from Illinois.  The free-state revolutionaries of Topeka and the Bleeding Kansas border war with Missouri were likewise situated on the eastern borders of the present state. So, no help there.

On the pages of the
Kansas Historical Society’s website, I learned that the people of Kansas were apparently divided in 1859 over whether their state should be a “Big Kansas” including the western gold region, or a “Little Kansas” without it.  Kansas actually entered the Union in January, 1861, during the (extremely) lame-duck session between Abraham Lincoln’s election and his inauguration, with a population of 107,206.  William Seward had introduced a bill in the Senate in February, 1860, to admit “Little Kansas” under its free-state Wyandotte Constitution, which fixed the border at 102 degrees west longitude, excluding the Rockies. Seward's bill was defeated by Democrats who opposed Kansas as a free state; but they also objected to the “Little Kansas” borders, saying the Wyandotte convention had exceeded its authority in changing the territorial boundaries.  Were they afraid that the country around Pikes Peak would soon have sufficient population (the target was 93,000) to become yet another free state?

It just goes to show, I guess, how much complex and interesting detail lies just under the surface of the broad brushstrokes we use to integrate local and regional histories into American History.  The Kansas State Historical Society’s site includes a reprint of a 1967 article from their journal written by Calvin A. Gower of St. Cloud (MN) State University, titled “‘
Big Kansas’ or ‘Little Kansas’,” which describes the Pikes Peak gold rush and the controversy over Kansas’ borders.  We’re lucky to have more and more of these resources online at our fingertips.  Does their availability obligate us to rethink the relationship between the broad strokes and the details – at least for the regions where we live, write, and teach?


My Transcription:

Hillsdale Jan 16th /59
Dear Brother

Yours of the 10th came to hand last night.  We are enjoying usual good health this winter.  LGs and Ansons people are well, also Lucius family.  Mother is making seven lbs Butter per week from her cow this winter.  You saw this cow probably when you were here.  We have not heard anything from R. Densmores folks for some time past.  Are looking for them out here this winter.  Lem is not doing anything this winter, but thinks or talks of going to Pikes Peak in the spring.  

There is quite an excitement here about the gold in Kansas.  There are more than two hundred persons in this county say they are going to Pikes Peak next season.  I do not suppose there will be more than half that number go.  I heard Lucius speaking about your sending Anson some fifty dollars last fall.  I asked him some two months since if he had written you to let you know that the money was recd.  He said not but would write you in a few days.  That is the last I had heard or thought of it until I read your letter last night.  He said the money came so thats all right.  

We have had quite an open winter thus far.  No cold weather to speak of.  Have had only about ten days of sleighing the fore part of Dec or last of Nov.  We milk two cows & make butter to sell this winter & keep two fine hogs & one span of horses.  We will probably milk 3 or 4 cows next summer.  Our wheat looks well.  We have on the ground eighteen acres, ten acres new ground & eight of corn ground, all of which we put in before the fourth of September last.  Our new ground we broke up in June and cross plowed in August.  So you can judge from that we expect a good crop of wheat if the season is favorable.

I intend to plant some ten or twelve acres of corn in the spring and sow four or five to millet.  We raised eight acres of corn last summer and fatted six hogs.  Ours were larger than your Pig.  But not so large according to the age.  One of ours weighed 420 lbs, the others were not so heavy.  

I paid Rowlson for the Standard for one year in advance to be sent to you.  I think it was about one year ago now.  He may perhaps keep on sending it after the year is up. I know there is not much in it but advertisements.  Still I thought perhaps you might like to see what was a going on out here if it was not much, as we did not write you very often, and that you might see something in the paper that would interest you.  Therefore if you would like to read it another year, just let me know and I will have it sent to you.  All it will cost you will be the postage.  

I recd a Greenfield newspaper from you last week.  We have not heard from Harry Lawrence nor have we seen any of the St. Jo people down here.  Lem is not married, nor have Lucius folks any children.  But Fox and his wife have had another fight!  He has sold off everything but the House Hold Goods and wanted to give his wife one third of the farm.  But she would not divide the property that way.  Consequently he lets her and the Boys remain on the land while he goes to Kansas.  He sold two horses, harness, wagon, two plows, one drag for two hundred twenty five dollars on two years time.  Lucius bought his sheep.  Fox says he goes dish time certain.  But folks think they will make up again as usual.

The last we heard from Frank he was trying to get in Deputy Sheriff under Wm Hildreth.  Have not heard from him direct since last fall.  L.G. saw Powell Lound at Coldwater in the fall.  He said he would sell his place for thirty dollars per acre.  And that other place was about five dollars per acre cheaper than when you were out there.  About here it is Hurah for MO or Kansas, don’t care much which.

It is dinner time and I must stop blowing.  Helen joins in sending Love to all.

Yours Truly
H. J. Ranney