With the Border Ruffians: Memories of the
Far West, 1852-1868
by R.H. Wilson
Published by John Murray; Albemarle Street, London, 1908.
[R.H. Wilson was born in Liverpool in 1831. He went to sea at seventeen. A few years later he started to farm in Virginia. In 1855 he headed for the Kansas Territory. He was strongly pro-slavery.]
FULLY resolved to throw in my lot with the South, I now joined a company of mounted Rangers, raised by A. B. Miller, who, though a professional gambler, had the reputation of a plucky fighting man, and was at once elected orderly sergeant myself. No oath of enlistment was taken, but there was no fear of desertion or insubordination, since death would have been the penalty for either crime.
Our company was the best mounted and equipped in the Southern force, and, as soon as we were mustered, moved into camp at Salt Creek, about three miles from Leavenworth City, where about eight hundred Missouri and Southern volunteers were assembled.
Our commander was "General" Davy Atchison, a well-known and influential character in those parts. When I met him, and served under him, he was about fifty-five years of age, and one of the most popular men in his section of the country; in fact, a typical Western politician. A lawyer by profession, he was also a planter and large slave-owner; consequently thoroughly "Sound on the goose." At this time he was U.S. Senator for the State of Missouri, and had been Vice-President of the United States. As an Indian fighter and hunter he had made himself a great reputation.
With a somewhat rough exterior, he was really
a kindly man, and, being "hail-fellow-well-met" with
all his supporters, was, as I have said, extremely popular.
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Miller introduced me to the "General" soon after I joined the camp. He invited us into his tent, and ordered drinks forthwith. Youngster that I was, the old fellow received me without any "side" or stand-offishness, so that I felt on a friendly footing at once, and, like the rest of his followers, would have gone anywhere with him.
Life in camp was pleasant enough at first, for our "General" didn't go in for much drill, possibly because he didn't know much about it himself, and our principal duty was to keep watch and ward over the river and stop all passing steamboats to search them for Free Soilers and their arms. Those that did not stop when ordered were promptly brought to by a field battery we had posted on the river, commanding the passage. All suspected Free Staters were taken out and kept under guard, and of course all their arms were confiscated.
Our excuse for this rather high-handed proceeding was that " The Massachusetts Emigrants' Aid Society," with great resources at its back, was pouring men and arms into Kansas, with the avowed object of conquering and dominating the Territory, by fair means or foul, for the Free State party.
Our first apparently important movement was now made on Lawrence, the Northern headquarters, which was protected by considerable earthworks and held by a force of some two thousand men under Robinson, the "Free State" governor, and other leaders of the party.
I may say at once that, though we did a deal
of marching and counter-marching, and though on several occasions
a general engagement between the opposing forces seemed imminent,
it never came to a pitched battle; and all the many lives that
were lost in this miserable border fighting, were lost in small
affairs between scouting parties and outposts. Many men too, on
either side, were killed in this way to pay out old scores and
gratify private spite and revenge.
LAWRENCE SURRENDERS 85
So one fine morning we "Border Ruffians," as the enemy called us, struck camp and marched out some fifteen hundred strong, with two 6-pr. field-pieces, to attack Lawrence, my company acting as the advance guard. We halted the first night near Lecompton, our capital, my company being on picket duty, spread out fan-like some two miles round the camp. Next morning Governor Shannon, our own party's governor, paid us a visit of inspection, and was pleased to express his high approval of our discipline and workmanlike appearance.
I can't say much for our discipline myself, but there is no doubt we were a fighting lot, if only the Northerners had given us the chance of proving it.
The morning after the inspection we marched on Lawrence, where we expected a sharp fight, which we were fully confident of winning. My company acted again as the advance guard, and when, about midday, we reached Mount Oread, a strongly fortified position, on which several guns were mounted, covering the approach to the town, great was our surprise to find it had been evacuated. As soon as our general r received the report, he ordered our company to make a wide circuit round the town, to seize the fords of the Kansas River and hold the road leading east.
Then he moved the rest of his force to within half a mile of the town, formed square on the open prairie, and sent in a flag of truce, demanding an unconditional surrender of the place. To the no small disgust of the "Border Ruffians," Governor Robinson, without further parley, threw up the sponge, and meekly surrendered the town and the 2,600 men it contained.
No doubt his men were not very keen on fighting,
being the riff-raff of the Northern towns enlisted by the Emigrants'
Aid Society, and most of them quite unused to bear arms of any
kind. Many of them bolted for the Kansas River ford and the Eastern
road; and we of Miller's's company took quite three times our
86 WITH "THE BORDER RUFFIANS"
of these valiant warriors prisoners. I well remember how scared the poor wretches were! I am glad to say that the prisoners' lives were spared, all but two, and they were hanged by the Provost Marshal for horse-stealing, the penalty for which was invariably death, in that Western country, even in ordinary times.
Though the prisoners were spared, I regret to say the town was not, for Atchison's men got completely out of hand, battered down the "Free State Hotel," and sacked most of the houses. It was a terrible scene of orgy, and I was very glad when, about midnight, we of Miller's company were ordered off to Lecompton to report the day's doings to Governor Shannon. There we were kept several days, scouring the country for Free Soilers, and impressing arms, horses, and corn.
In these operations we occupied Topeka, the pro-Slavery capital, and had a brush with a body of Northerners, under Jim Lane, in which we lost two men killed and six wounded.
Next, at "Lone Jack," we had a skirmish with Captain John Brown's men, but the firing was at long range and no harm was done, for the Free Staters soon retired, and we were not strong enough to follow them up.
On the march, the day after this, to Stranger Creek, and whilst scouting ahead of the company with two other men, I came on the bodies of two young men lying close together, both shot through the head. The murdered men, for it was brutal murder and nothing else, were dressed like Yankee mechanics, and apparently had been done to death the previous night.
I had heard that one of our scouting parties
had taken some prisoners, but that they had escaped; and now it
was plain what had been done by some of our ruffians. That night
I told Miller that I would be no party to such disgraceful villainy,
and that if any more of it went on I would quit the company, for
I had no mind to fight with murderers, or with a rope round my
A QUARRELSOME RUFFIAN'S FATE 87
made light of the whole affair; said the other side had done just the same, and that for his part he did not mean to ask for, or give, quarter.
At Stranger Creek we remained the next day, waiting for orders, and a party of the boys was sent out foraging. Presently they returned with bundles of green corn, some chickens, and a pig or two. The eatables were fairly divided amongst the messes, and soon all were busy cooking the welcome additions to the everlasting bacon. But the supply of corn was scanty, and there was almost a fight amongst us for it, each man being keen to get a bit for his horse.
What now followed shows how cheaply human life was held in those rough times, and how feeble was the discipline the Governor had praised so much.
Amongst the foragers was one Mike Murphy, a barkeeper from Leavenworth; a very quarrelsome and ill-conditioned fellow. He had taken more than his share of the corn, and Lieutenant Kelly, a Texan, ordered him to hand over part of it for his horse. Murphy refused, swore at him, and dared him to come and take it. The lieutenant took no notice of this, but quietly stepped over and helped himself to the bundle.
Murphy seized his loaded rifle, and Kelly bolted for the only tent we had standing, using it as a screen. Mike thought he saw a chance, took a snap shot, missed, then threw down the empty rifle, and ran for the bush. Kelly then whipped out his six-shooter, fired three times, and missed.
All this time Murphy was running for dear life, and had just reached the edge of the covert, when the lieutenant fired again. This time his aim was true, and the bullet struck the fugitive full in the middle of his back. With a tremendous bound, like a shot buck, and one piercing scream, he fell in his tracks and lay motionless.
We carried him into camp, where he lingered
88 WITH "THE BORDER RUFFIANS"
next day, in great agony, and then died. Kelly reported what he had done to our captain, and was placed under arrest.
Though in the opinion of the company, or the majority of it, he was justified in killing Murphy, it was thought best he should resign his position, which he accordingly did, and I was elected by the unanimous votes of the men to fill the vacancy. To be chosen second Lieutenant of such a corps may not be thought a very high honour; but my comrades, whatever else they were, were fighting men, and I was proud that they thought a youngster like myself fit to fill the billet.
We now moved on to Leavenworth, where our chiefs were every day expecting an attack from the forces led by Colonel Jim Lane. This man had made a reputation in the late Mexican War, and was placed in chief command of the Free State invaders, with all the power and wealth of the New Englanders at his back. Therefore, as a measure of precaution, a strong laager was formed round three sides of the town with chained wagons belonging to Major & Russell, the great firm of freighters. The fourth side was a bluff overlooking the Missouri, and needed no defence.
Two mounted companies, of which mine was one, were camped on Brush Creek, about a mile from the Leavenworth line, with pickets spread out in a circle, some six miles round.
Colonel Lane, however, thought himself not strong enough to attack us, and drew off to Lawrence, where he entrenched himself. So the rival forces remained for some time doing nothing, each waiting the other's attack.
Meanwhile much "bushwhacking" and murdering went on on both sides, and in this respect there was but little to choose between them.
On scouting duty we were supposed to burn and
destroy the houses and property of any Free Staters we
A RISKY VISIT 89
could find, and to kill, or capture, the owners. Hateful enough work that I detested, and avoided whenever I could.
Of course I was often in command of parties sent out on such an errand, but I am glad to think that, in this position, I was now and then able to save homesteads from fire, and their owners from murder. On one such occasion I had been instrumental in saving a large ranch belonging to a prominent Free Stater named Cody; to this I owe it that I am now alive to tell the story that follows.
One night, whilst on picket duty, I left my party, and taking one man, Missouri Smith by name, rode over to a ranch some six miles away in the hills near Stranger Creek. I fully believed there were none of the enemy's scouts in the neighhourhood, and having a great attraction at the ranch, in the shape of a young lady named Margaret Hendricks, staying there, thought I would risk it. I was only twenty-three, so perhaps I may be excused. Anyway I fancy the same thing has been done often enough before, and for the same reason. Bright eyes are hard to resist in the days of one's youth. The owner of the ranch, Falk by name, was, I knew, in the Free State camp, but his wife and her sister, a "Californian widow," were at home, and my friend Margaret was with them. An hour or two's chat with the ladies would be such a pleasant change from camp life, that go I must!
We reached the ranch about 9 p.m., seeing no sign of the enemy by the way, and hitched our horses to the fence close by.
The only arms Smith and I had were our six-shooters; mine I carried in my belt.
The ladies welcomed us very kindly, though
Margaret warned me I was doing a very risky thing, as some of
Lane's scouts had recently been seen in the neighbourhood, and
begged me not to stay. If they caught me
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they would surely kill me, and I mustn't risk my life, but go at once. Boy-like, I laughed at the danger, told her she needn't be afraid for me, and stayed on.
We had supper, and were enjoying ourselves mightily, for Margaret had forgotten her fears, when suddenly, without the slightest warning, four men fully armed burst into the room, a pistol was clapped to my head before I could stir, and I was called on to surrender, "or my d-----d head would be blown off." I glanced round; besides the pistol at my head, I was covered by four carbines, and my man Smith, who had been asleep, was already securely bound. It was hopeless to resist, so of course I caved in, and was at once disarmed.
Sergeant Everard, in charge of the party of eight men, abused me roundly. "We know you well, you d-----d villain; we've been after you a long time, and now we've got you at last, we'll hang you pretty quickly."
A pleasant plight to be in; even a worse one than I feared, for I had expected to be shot, not to be hanged! But I was helpless, and could only try to brace myself to bear the dread ordeal like a man.
It was no good to plead for mercy, I knew; my company, or some of its members, had done too many ruthless deeds, for which no doubt I had the credit; so I held my tongue.
But if I was silent, the three ladies, and especially Margaret, who knew Everard, and another of the party named Cline, begged hard for my life; but it seemed to me, made no impression on our captors.
They took us out to an oak-tree close by, and
got ready the ropes, fastening them to an overhanging branch.
The end seemed very near. I stood stunned and stupefied, and said
no word; only the tears and entreaties of the kind women folks
sounded in my ears, as though heard in a dream. During those few
moments that I stood waiting for my death, the present seemed
THAT AWFUL DANGLING ROPE 91
and my thoughts went rushing through all the events of my short life. So short it seemed, and so sad to end it in this terrible way; and there was no one to tell my dear ones in the far away vicarage home how I had died. Best after all that they should not know it!
Then some one touched me on the shoulder; the ropes were ready, and our captors impatient to be done with the hanging. That touch roused me from my stupor, and I bethought me of Cody, and what I had done for him only a few days ago. I spoke at last, and told Everard the story; asked him to ride over to Cody's (it was only two miles off), and he would learn that I was not the ruffian they supposed.
Margaret averred that my story was true, and that I had saved Cody, arid others of their friends, from ruin and worse. She, and the others, begged so hard that he would do this little thing, for their sakes, that at last Everard consorted, though with a bad grace; and rode off, leaving Smith and myself safely guarded under that oak-tree with its dangling nooses.
For an hour wo stood there, with seven men round us, ready to shoot us doif we tried to escape.
Would Cody come, and would he be true enough to speak in my favour if he did ? Hope and despair alternated in my mind, and in all my long life I have never spent such an hour as that; the minutes seemed hours, and the hour dragged itself out to years.
Now my straining ears caught the distant sound of galloping hoofs. Was it one horse, or two ? How intently I listened to the dull thud on the soft turf!
Nearer and nearer came the sound; there were two horsemen, sure enough. Cody had come, and the bitterness of death was passed!
The moment he heard Everard's story, he had
saddled his horse; and there he was, shaking my hand most warmly
and assuring me I was safe. A moment's
92 WITH "THE BORDER RUFFIANS"
whispered conversation apart, between the two men, and I was allowed to go back into the house again.
Everard announced that on Cody's intercession, and on his statement of how I had befriended him, and other Free Staters, my life, and Smith's, would be spared, but we would have to give up our horses, arms, accoutrements, and any money we had on us. You may be sure we were glad enough to get off even on these terms; so after most warmly thanking the ladies, and Cody, for saving our lives, and many hearty handshakes, we departed.
To Margaret Hendricks special thanks were due; for it was her influence with Everard, and her tears and pleadings, that saved me from a shameful death.
I thanked her from my heart of hearts; and so we parted.
I shall never forget that wretched six-mile tramp across the prairie with Smith, who never spoke a word, and seemed dazed and stupefied by the experience he had gone through. For myself, that hour under the oak-tree and its dangling ropes will never be forgotten.
Arrived at camp, miserable and crestfallen, I got a severe reprimand from Miller, but retained my position as second Lieutenant, and had to provide myself with another horse, accoutrements, etc.
By this time the lawlessness and anarchy prevailing in Kansas had become a scandal to civilisation, and great pressure was brought to bear on the Government at Washington to put a stop to it. The President therefore ordered out two regiments of U.S. cavalry, under Colonel Sumner, to keep the peace, and issued a proclamation directing both parties to disperse; the troops to march against either side that might disregard it.
Thereupon we were marched into Leavenworth and disbanded, and the so-called Kansas War came to an end.