LEGENDS OF KANSAS

 

History, Tales, and Destinations in the Land of Ahs

 

Columbia - A Ghost Town Story

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By Diana Staresinic-Deane

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Freighter

Crossing the prairie, photo by W.D. Harper

 

 

Traveling over the prairie without a road, save a dim wagon track in the grass, through a county as yet unnamed and over the divide between two nameless creeks, we were all watching to see the Neosho timber.

 

-- John Van Gundy, Reminiscences of Frontier Life on the Upper Neosho in 1855 and 1856

 

 

 

 

“Do you think this might be it?” I asked my husband, Jim, as we drove down Road M. We were in search of the remnants of Columbia, a ghost town documented in Daniel C. Fitzgerald’s Ghost Towns of Kansas: 6. Other than the wooded area along the Cottonwood River, which we were about to cross, we were surrounded by nothing but acres and acres of farmland. But, if we had correctly interpreted the various descriptions from early Lyon County residents, then we were about to drive past the ghost of one of the county’s oldest towns.

 

In the mid-1800s, the only white residents in this part of the country were (supposed to be) missionaries and government-licensed traders along the wagon trails. Lyon County's earliest settlers were no different. The first official U.S. citizen to find his way to the area was Charles Withington, who in 1854 set up shop at what would become the town of Allen on the Santa Fe Trail, which rolled through the northern portion of the county. The next major stop along the trail was Council Grove, where an entire government settlement of shops and services existed as a last stop for travelers on their way to New Mexico. The rest of the area’s inhabitants lived on the Kaw or Sac and Fox reservations.

Then the Kansas-Nebraska Act changed everything.

As the
Kansas border was opened up to white settlers, Withington and some of Council Grove'ss merchants and missionaries – T.S. Huffaker, Seth M. Hays, Goodson Simcock, and Christopher Columbia (and some sources say William T. Harris) – saw an opportunity to claim their own land and set up shop in present-day Lyon County, which was then two counties: Breckenridge County to the north, and Madison County to the south. (The dividing line for anyone familiar with Emporia was Logan Avenue, just a block north of the David Traylor Zoo.)

 

In 1855, these men set up a little cluster of buildings that included lodgings, supplies, and a blacksmith near a river crossing at what is now Section 23 in Township 19S, Range 11E. Only the the sections weren’t so clearly marked back then because they were not officially surveyed until 1857. Columbia was officially in Madison County, which would only exist for a few more years.


“The best that one could do then was to guess off a quarter section of land in a desirable spot and mark it out large enough to be sure of a good portion of the land embraced in the description. Even then, it would be likely to happen that the claimant’s cabin would finally be in one section and his well in another; or, there might be two or three cabins in the same quarter section.”  -- John Van Gundy, Reminiscences of Frontier Life on the Upper Neosho in 1855 and 1856

 

Most of us native Kansans were programmed early on to associate Kansas’ origins with an anti-slavery mentality. But 1855 Kanas was more complicated than that, and Lyon County even more so. The people moving in to the area represented a variety of political beliefs. The majority of the Council Grove men who set up shop in the settlement of Columbia were pro-slavery; Seth Hays was himself a slave owner. Others, like David Van Gundy (father of John Van Gundy) was a Constitutionalist who believed that states and territories had the right to make their own decisions about such things. Still others were Free-Staters or Free-Soilers, who believed that there was no need to extend slavery rights to new territories, and still others like Joel Haworth, whose home was part of the underground railroad a few miles up the Cottonwood River from Columbia, were abolitionists who believed slavery should be eliminated from all U.S. states and territories.

 

Now imagine all of these different people homesteading next to each other, depending on each other, out on the open prairie.

 

1855 was also the year of the Bogus Legislature, when pro-slavery Missourians sneaked into Kansas to cast their votes to make the Kansas territory slavery-friendly. At this time, Columbia was the county seat for Madison County, and a pro-slavery leadership was elected for the county and its representation to Topeka.

Breckenridge and Madison County residents maintained this uneasy, unsettled existence, which finally came to a head September 14, 1856, when abolitionists -- including John E. Cook, who would hang alongside John Brown at Harper’s Ferry–launched an attack on settlements along the Neosho River. Mrs. Sarah Van Gundy Carver, daughter of one of the area’s earliest settlers, died that night, and several stores, including Withington’s, were robbed and looted. Many of Neosho Rapids’ residents -- 78 families, according to the documentary A History of North Lyon County -- headed east for safety. Only five families returned and found that new settlers had already jumped their claims.

 

By the end of 1856, the men of Columbia were ready to go back to Council Grove, where Seth Hays operated a saloon known as The Hays House and jointly operated The Last Chance store with Simcock. The stores at Columbia were turned over to Dr. Stiggers.

 

John Van Gundy described his first impression of Columbia at that time:

 

Thousands of pro-slavery men from Missouri crossed the

 border into Kansas to stuff the ballot boxes.

 

“We traveled in a westerly direction until we came to a wagon road turning south and soon came in sight of a log house with a lean-to on the south.” According to Van Gundy, Stiggers was operating a dry goods store, a drug store, a grocery, and a liquor store all under the same roof just north of the river ford. As one of only a few doctors in the area, he was also busy giving medical attention to patients. Food was cooked in the lean-to.
 

As the population of Breckenridge and Madison counties grew, so did the demand for the U.S. Postal Service. Columbia served as an official post office. By 1857, Jefferson S. Pigman, who took over the store at Columbia after his own store in Neosho Rapids was looted during the abolitionist raid a few months before, was dispersing mail that came from Westport, Missouri, down the Santa Fe Trail to Council Grove, and was finally delivered to Columbia. These routes could be dangerous. In her Early History of Lyon County, Kansas, Lucinda Jones writes about freighter Tom Evans and his brother, who saw “gruesome sights,” including a “group of eight men hanging to a little oak tree, horse thieves.”

I can’t help but wonder if this tree once stood on land that is now someone’s front yard.

 

Continued Next Page

 

 

Columbia, Kansas Location Map

 

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