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Early Slaveholders in Kansas: An Intimate Look at the Lives of a Few Pre-Territorial Kansas Settlers.


WHEN JOHN ALLEN MATHEWS left Kentucky to live on the Western Frontier among the Senecas, Osages(this link takes you out of this site, Quapaws and Mixed-blood Cherokees in northeastern Oklahoma and southeastern Kansas, he gave little thought to the role that the Frontier would play in the future of the nation. He thought only of excitement, adventure, profit, and perhaps love. He gave no thought to the broader issues of slavery, abolition, or statehood. When he settled in Missouri, there was little talk of Kansas becoming a territory. That was "Indian country." If he did think of it at all, he supposed, like everyone else on the Frontier, that Kansas would enter into the Union as a Free State as agreed in the Missouri Compromise (1820). Statehood was decades away, he thought, so he did not hesitate to take slaves with him to Frontier. After all, there were many slaves among the Native Americans resettling on the Frontier. Indeed, there were few white men in indian country, he would have reasoned. Statehood, and the end of slavery on the frontier may never happen. It was 1834 when John Mathews settled on the Frontier, one of many slaveholders who would settle in Kansas well in advance of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act(1854). (For a thorough treatment of slave-holding Native Americans, see the three titles by Abel, Annie Heloise in my BIBLIOGRAPHY.)

John Mathews was called "halfbreed" by most who met him. In fact, he was not a mixed-blood, but married into a family of mixed-blooded Osages. In 1835, he married Mary Ann Williams, older daughter of William Sherley Williams and an Osage woman of the Big Hill gen, in Jackson County Missouri(1). (For the title of a fun and accurate biography of William Sherley Williams see my BIBLIOGRAPHY.) Both Mary Ann and her younger sister Sarah had beautiful red hair like their Welch father. Although not Native American, Mathews had more friends among the Senecas and Cherokees than among whites, partly because of the remote location of his first post as blacksmith to Senecas (in 1837) (3), at the extreme northeast corner of Oklahoma, near what is now Seneca, MO. While the term halfbreed might have been applied solely because of his marriage to an Osage, Mathews did adopt many of the ways of the Native Americans among whom he lived, although by the time of their forced resettlement into Oklahoma, they were far from the primitive, uneducated savages that Hollywood portrays.(The most informative body of work on the subject of the Trail of Tears is by Grant Foreman. See my BIBLIOGRAPHY.) Mathews was much like his famous father-in-law; he was a trapper, hunter, cattleman, and farmer, as well as the government blacksmith for the Senecas. Halfbreed to many of his contemporaries, he was in fact the epitomy of the frontiersman.

When John A. Mathews came to the Frontier, Kansas was yet Indian territory. Most white men had seen it only as the vast desert through which the Sante Fe Trail passed to the southwest and the Oregon Trail to the northwest. Fort Leavenworth was newly constructed on the Frontier when Mathews arrived. Fort Gibson, far to the south was connected to Leavenworth by a military road. It was on this road that John Mathews took his Osage wife and her child (Mary Williams had been married to an Osage warrior named Red Corn, and their child, who will figure prominently in this history, was also called Red Corn by his Osage family) to begin his work as blacksmith to the Senecas. They passed the trading post operated by Mary's father Old Bill Williams and Augustus Chouteau on the Neosho River (the exact location of the post is not known, but it was probably near the location where Humboldt would be built (2). It may have been there that Mathews first considered opening his own trading post, a profitable venture, for the Native Americans had by this time become almost entirely dependent upon the goods provided by the white man; their traditional way of life had been taken from them. Kansas was Indian country, but the Indians were not at home in this country. It was land given to them only because white men did not want it.
The Kansas John Mathews Knew: a microcosm of the national struggle to free the slaves

When John Mathews, settled in the far southeast corner of the Osage Reserve, in what would become Kansas, he was one of the few white men in the area. (A history of Labette County, Kansas written by Nelson Case states unequivocally that John Mathews was the first settler in southeastern Kansas.) Among those few whitemen, however, Mathews was not unusual. Many of those employed by the federal government to work among the Indians were slaveholders; most federal appointments went to Southerners, and they, in turn, hired other Southerners. This was the Jacksonian Era (this link takes you out of this site), after all. Most, like Mathews came from Kentucky -or Georgia, or some other slave state - as a young man with visions of glory and riches. To some, the relocating Indians meant opportunity. (1)

In the Osage Treaty of 1839, at the approximate age of thirty, Mathews was appointed blacksmith to the Osages. It was at this time that he purchased a trading post in southeastern Kansas from the estate of Augustus Chouteau. This is where he would spend the rest of his life. (4) Just before his death Augustus Chouteau had tried to compensate for the lack of game in the Three Rivers area of Oklahoma by building a chain of trading posts up the Verdigris, Grand (Neosho), and Spring Rivers. One of these trading posts was located on a bluff overlooking the Neosho River, just above the Osage village called Little Town, at the location of present day Oswego in Labette County, KS

Mathews located at Little Town in 1839, making him the first whiteman to settle in southeast Kansas.(5) He bought the trading post sometime between 1841 and 1843.(6)

Mary Ann Williams: Daughter of "Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man:"

Mathews' first wife was Mary Ann Williams,born in September 1814, she was raised by her Osage mother and her mother's family, a part of the Big Hills Osages. As a child she attended the Harmony Mission from Oct. 10, 1823 until her family relocated to the Osage Reserve on the Neosho River, probably in the late 1820's.

"The following is a part of the chart kept (for attendance at the Harmony Mission School) for the year 1824-25:(7)

Progress.............When admitted..age..Descent..........Progress

Catherine Strange....Jan 14, 1822...3...Eng.-Osage........easy reading les.

Susan Larivive.......Mar 12, 1822...6...Sioux-Fr-Osage....Testament - writing

Rebecca Williams.........." ........9...Pawnee-Fr-Osage.... "

Mary Ludlow..............." ........4........ "............ "

Louisa Anna Bean.........." ........7........ "............ "

Maria Seward.........Apr 22, 1822...6...Osage.............. "

Mary Williams........Oct 10, 1823...8...Osage and English..."

John B. Mitchell.....Jul 11, 1823...10..Osage and French...."

James Chouteau.......Oct 10, 1823...10........"............."

Julia Michael........Jul 11, 1823...9........."............."

Lewis Michael........Feb 23, 1824...6........."...........Words, 1 sylable

Gabriel Marlow.......Nov 6, 1823....16..French-Pawnee.....Arith. Test. writ.

Augustus Chouteau....Jan 28, 1824...9...French-Osage......Testament, writing

Wm. C. Brownlee......Jun 12, 1824...18..Delaware............"

Wm. Rogers...........Jul 26, 1824...17..Pawnee............Reads, writes

John B. Packett......Aug 23, 1824...17..Mother Saik........."

John McDowell........Sep 2, 1824....9...Osage..............."

Mary E. Sibley.......Oct 24, 1824...13......".............Words 3 sylables

Jane Renick..........Aug 10, 1824...7...Osage-French......Easy read les."

The Trading Post at Little Town:

On Feb 25, 1847, John Mathews was granted a 2 yr license to trade with the Osages. Mathews already had a house with the Creek and Quapaw (Historian Nelson Case placed this date at 1849, but records show 1847).(8) Although I can find license for the years 1847-1848, there is overwhelming evidence that Mathews ran the trading post among the Osages from 1838 until his death in 1861.

A good friend of Mathews and fellow Southern Sympathizer was Larkin McGhee. In a letter to historian Nelson Case, quoted in Case's History of Labette County, McGhee says that when he came to southeast Kansas in 1847, Mathews had been there quite some time. Mathews had 40 acres cultivated on the prairie northeast of the trading post (near today's Neosho Elementary School).(9)

Francis Burns, states that Mathews had improved the trading post to include 100 acres on the bluff and 30 acres below it.

Mathews' Life among the Osages:

Since Mathews' wives were Big Hill Osages, Mathews had much influence among them. Anytime the members of the Big Hill gen visited his trading post, he was socially obligated to feed and house them without question, for as long as they wished to stay.(10)

His influence was not limited to the Big Hills, however. As any trader, Mathews held the power of extending credit and collecting upon that debt; a great power, it is one that can easily be abused. By 1861, Mathews had worked hard for over twenty years, earning the respect of the Indians on the Frontier. He owned and operated no fewer than three trading posts, one at Fort Gibson, one at Osage Mission, and the one which was his primary residence at Little Town. Indeed, he did use - or abuse - his influence to raise a company of Confederate guerillas.

Although Mathews might have abused his influence (as did many men at that time), it was his to abuse: he had earned it, not bought it. The 1850's were especially trying for the Osages. 1850 was a particularly dry year. Many Osages had begun farming at Osage Mission. Each village had squash and pumpkins and corn planted, but that year, the farms produced only fodder, and that of poor quality. February had brought snow 30" deep which crusted over and lasted for six weeks. Many of the Osage took to eating acorns and drinking acorn coffee.(11)

1854 was again a dry year and crops failed. In 1855, the grasshoppers destroyed the crops. While the Osages were by no means soley dependant upon their crops, they were nontheless greatly affected by the droughts.(12)

Those dry years only foreshadowed the drought of 1859 and 1860. From September 1, 1859 through October 1860 less than an inch of rain fell on the Frontier. It was the driest year ever in Kansas.(13)

The Neosho River entirely dried up, leaving only a few scattered mud puddles which too eventually dried. Cracks in the ground spread, and parted and were large enough to drive a rail into. Everything burned up. Cattle and horsed died. Indians, who at one time would have moved their villages across the prairie until they found water, now were obliged to stay on their reserves, partly if not fully reduces to depending upon their agences and the traders.

Drought certainly was not the only problem with which the Indians had to deal. Measles killed several hundred Osages in 1852. In 1855, nearly 400 Osages died of smallpox. A severe blizzard crippled the Frontier in 1856.(14)

Mathews stood by Indians during these trying times. Assuring many of those among them that were destitute that they would not starve. He continuously ran wagons to Missouri for water. He helped the Osages so much as to garner ridicule from other traders. He earned their respect.(15)

Mathews also sufferred greatly in the 1850's. His wife, Sarah, died in 1856.(16) His daughter was killed in a prairie fire in 1857.(17)


While the Osages had seen many agents come and go, and nearly as many missionaries, Mathews had been a staple on the Frontier since 1825, and had been at Little Town since 1839 as both a trader and a blacksmith. Blacksmiths were both an essential part of their lives and one which was nearly mystical. They reguarded their blacksmiths with near reverence. Mathews' Osage name, Mo'n-ce-Gaxe, meant Metal Maker.(18)

The Influence Mathews Weilded:

Mathews appears to have began recruiting his band of Partisans as early as 1856 to avenge the burning of one of his barns. His trading post had developed into a village, composed mostly of Little Osages, with the trading post the center of activity.(19) His post was consistant with his Kentucky and Virginia heritage, sporting a race track, stables with more than fifty horses, and the first home in southeast Kansas with plastered walls and painted siding.(20) Although the records do not say whether he lost horses, surely the risk to his thoroughbred stock - some of the fastest where he raced in Missouri, Kentucky and Texas - was enough to drive him to vengence.(21) He immediately formed a company of pro-slavery men to run settlers out of the buffer strip which separated Missouri from the Osage Reserve, later called the Cherokee Neutral Lands. It was an area which was supposed to be free of settlers, save Cherokees and Cherokee halfbreeds some of whom had been living there for nearly three decades. Free Staters, though had begun settling families in the buffer strip (now Cherokee and Crawford Counties in Kansas)as early as 1854. This had been a constant source of contention to slavocrats like Mathews. The burning barn was the latest in an on-going border war, one which would end up costing Mathews his life.(22)

The problem of settlers in the Cherokee Neutral Lands did not end in 1856. In 1859, Cherokee Indian Agent Cowan came in from Missouri with over a hundred soldiers, and with Mathews' participation drove away all the settlers from the buffer strip. Again.(23)

This was not to be the last time that Mathews attacked the settlers in the buffer strip. The next time, he had the support of over an hundred Cherokees, Creeks, Osages and halfbreeds.(24)

Mathews Activity did not go Unnoticed:

This letter dated 1861 lends much insight into Mathews' activities.


"Washington, D.C.

"Hon. Sir: Permit me to inform you, by this means, of the efforts that have been and are now being made in Southern Kansas to arouse both the 'Osages' and 'Cherokees' to rebel and to bear arms against the U.S. Government - At a public meeting near the South E. corner of the 'Osage Nation' called by the settlements for devising of some means by which to protect themselves from 'unlawful characters,' Mr. John Mathis (In the records Mathews name was often spelled Mathes, Mathis, or Matthews. On his daughter's headstone the spelling was Mathes. The misspellings in part can be attributed to the Southern pronuctiation of Mathews as 'Mathis'), who resides in the Osage Nation and has an Osage family, also Mr. 'Robert Foster' who lives in the Cherokee Nation and has a Cherokee family endeavored by public speeches and otherwise to induce 'Osages,' 'Cherokees,' as well as Americans who live on the 'Neutral Lands' to bear arms against the U.S. Government - aledging that ther was no U.S. Government. There was 25 men who joined them and they proceded to organise a 'Secession Company' electing as Capt R. D. Foster and 1st Lieutenant James Patton- This meeting was held June 4, 1861 - at 'McGhee's Residence' - The peace of this section of country requires the removal of these men from the Indian Country, or some measures that will restrain them from exciting the Indians in Southern Kansas.

"Yours Respectfully


"You will understand why you are addressed by a private individual on this subject instead of the Agent, since A.J. Dorn, the present Indian Agent is an avowed 'Secessionist' and consequently would favor, rather than suppress the move."(25)

Mathews Drives-off Father Schoenmakers:

Mathews did not stop recruiting with this meeting in the Osage Nation. He continued recruiting at his trading post in Fort Gibson. He also had support from the young men of the Big Hills to go with him on his next raid. This one was to drive out the founder of the Osage Mission, a Jesuit Priest and Abolitionist, Father John Schoenmakers, who had educated most of Mathews' children, and who had, until border tensions began, been a fast friend.

While at his trading post at Osage Mission, Mathews had been hearing of Father Schoenmakers remonstrations to the Osages on behalf of Abolitonist ideals. When Fr. Schoenmakers endorsed a special delivery of food to the Osages delivered by Special Agent Henry C. Whitney from Humboldt (after the war, Whitney became a well respected lawyer in Humboldt and state senator who fought the railroad for the rights of homesteaders), Mathews was infuriated. Although the Osages were destitute and surely could have used the food, there were many times in the past ten years that the Nation could have used the food more, but none was forthcoming. Only when the government wished to sway the Osage Nation to the Union cause did they provide food. That same month (June 1861), J.B. Britton MD was appointed physician for the Osages (he spent only three weeks with the Osages), and Andrew J. Dorn was replaced (in May) by P.P. Elder as Osage Agent, all in an attempt to limit Southern influence and promote the cause of the Union. The name of the county was changed from Dorn to Neosho.

Mathews persuaded the Osages that the food was poisoned. John Mathews had had enough of Schoenmakers' efforts to help the Union. He gathered his band of guerillas and offered a $500.00 bounty for the life of John Schoenmakers.

Mathews' oldest son, actually a stepson (Mary Ann's son from her late husband Red Corn), named William Mathes (also called Red Corn), however had been a student of Father Schoenmakers and had assisted in several baptisms in the Osage Nation. When he heard of the bounty on the Father's life, he mounted one of the fastest horses at the trading post and set off in a drenching rain to warn the Father.

By the time Mathews' Partisans were gathered and on their way, the torrential rainfall, unable to penetrate the drought-hardened soil, had begun to cause a flood, and the guerillas were stopped just short of the Mission at Flatrock Creek.

Father Schoenmakers quickly gathered his things and fled to Humboldt with Major Whitney and another Father, just barely escaping death.

Mathews later told Dr. Lisle, a friend at Chetopa, that he did not instigate the attempt on Fr. Schoenmakers' life. Schoenmakers, in a speech in 1870, however, directly states that he fled from Mathews. He is also quoted as saying the bandits used war as an excuse to loot, for they thought he was rich. They sought to kill him, scatter the priests, and loot the Mission.

Whereas it is doubful that Mathews, with his wealth and his integrity had such motives, he no doubt sought to kill the Father.

Mathews Burns out Settlers:

The War was now in full swing. The day before the Battle of Wilson's Creek, John Mathews led his company of Cherokees, Creeks, Osages and halfbreeds to the Cherokee Neutral Lands to remove Free Staters who had been squatting there, in hopes of squelching talk of the sale of the Lands at auction, and therefore opening it up legally to the Free Staters.

August 9, 1861: Mathews' company numbered between 100 and 150. They drove out sixty families, burned their property and killed sixteen. Most of the squatters fled to Humboldt, by way of Osage Mission. When news of the raids reached Humboldt, Father Schoenmakers retreated to St. Marys Kansas.

The Emporia (KS) News informed its readers that "of the settlers who were squatting on the Neutral Lands, the sixteen who were killed in the fight with Mathews' party 'had been brutally murdered,' and that Mathews and his party were 'devils in human shape.'"

The First Raid on Humboldt:

The Father's instincts were correct when he suspected that Mathews would pursue him to Humboldt. A mere month later, September 8, 1861, Mathews and his company went to Humboldt in search of the Father and Mathews' brother-in-law, Samuel J Gilmore.

Gilmore apparantly bought out the trading post that Mathews had owned shortly after he married Mathews' sister (Gilmore was a widower). He also bought out the trading post of J.M. Linn, where he had been clerk, but Mathews still had stock in the consolidated trading post, stock which the Free Stater Gilmore took with him, along with Mathews' sister when he quietly fled Osage Mission, about the same time that Schoenmakers did.

Mathews and his band raided the town, busted windows, looted stores, retrieved his possessions, and carried off several negroes. The Fort Scott News said, "the notorious Mathews came up to the Humboldt with about 150 of his gang, and plundered several stores, besides carrying off a number of negroes."

The Kansas State Journal at Lawrence said the raiders consisted of 125 men, a part of them white and part Indians, but the white were disguised as Indian.

Humboldt, for all practical purposes, was defenseless at the time of the raid. Most able-bodied men had joined the regiment raised b Col. Thurston from Allen and Woodson Counties (the 7th Kansas)and were away under the command of General Jim Lane, committing atrocities to Missouri Towns.

Mathews' Death:

Humboldt was not without a Home Guard, however, it was composed mainly of old men and teenage boys. Under the command of James G. Blunt who came in from Ft. Lincoln (a perimeter fort near Ft. Scott. Blunt was in command of the 6th Kansas Cavalry stationed at Ft. Scott.), the 6th Cavalry (a group of 200 - 300) was to unite with the Home Guard where the Neosho meets Lightning Creek just north of Little Town. Both groups pursued Mathews relentlessly.

Mathews group disbanded. Most hurriedly crossed the state line into Indian Country or Missouri. Mathews, however, had two boys left at home, and had to make arrangements for them to be cared for. He didn't dare take them with him. He never slept two nights in the same place after the raid.

He held up in the area near his trading post for several days, but was eventually betrayed by John Burke, a friend of his. Mathews was asleep with several of his most loyal friends at the house of Lewis Rogers, located on the west bank of the Neosho, near the state line, just southeast of Chetopa, when the house was surrounded by the Home Guard and the Kansas 6th Cavalry. The house was surrounded by corn and weeds, giving good cover to the soldiers. Just before sunrise, Mathews was called from the house, and came out with shotgun in hand. He was shot down by several members of the Home Guard. He was 52 years old when he died, September 18, 1861.

This page, the footnotes and bibliography are incomplete, but will be finished soon. Check back often for additions to this page. Thank you. You are visitor # since construction on 22 Oct, 1998

United States

The Osages During the Civil War

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