As I’ve been writing the Second Song of the Jayhawk, I’ve done a lot more research on land development in Kansas during the late 1850s. Always following historical trends to find points of tension (and thereby, plot) in the era and area, I find that as 1856 turns to 1857, something very interesting begins to happen. People fight less over slavery, and the politics of slavery, and more over land.
I think there are several reasons for this, but one of them is that the land survey ordered by the Congress is drawing to a close in most of eastern Kansas, and it’s time for settlers to purchase the 160 acres they claimed before it goes to public auction. Property boundaries are now drawn, in a legal sense; stone walls and wooden fences, creeks and streams and whatever else served among neighbors as tentative agreements now matter a lot less, if at all. And people needed money.
$1.25 an acre was generally what Kansan settlers paid for their land in the late 50s. This would have been a low price for such a title, but still not an insignificant amount of money for immigrant farmers like the Dugans, or Missourian farmhands like the Hawkinses. And it wasn’t as if land disputes were uncommon in ’55 and ’56. In fact, a wonderful analysis by Dale E. Watts suggests I think rather conclusively that most murders in “Bleeding Kansas” were as much about land as slavery. Which is kind of sad, I think, and perhaps illustrative of the underlying causes of the Civil War as well. Maybe even of human nature.
Nevertheless, my characters’ plot of land is based on where my great-great grandparents, Patrick and Maria Mullins, settled in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. I base this not as much on land records as my grandpa’s memory. A few years ago I took him driving in the country outside Atchison, and he remembered very clearly where it was. Now it is part wheat crop, part fallow.
I went back as far as I could to see when this plot of land was surveyed, and when it went onsale, and found it was surveyed by Henry Kuhn beginning in 1856, and likely went up for public auction in November of 1858. The Dugan and Hawkins families, then, would have had that time to purchase their land, and official survey maps published just afterward were not terribly difficult to find. But this gem, a hand-written map with squatters’ names on it, excited me beyond expression. Kuhn had scrawled it out in his family recipe book. See the blank square near the middle? Section 16? That is where my grandpa took me. That is where my characters spend their lives. Why is that section empty? There are probably easy explanations for it, but I don’t really want to know them. I will invent my own. This is fiction, after all.
And I’m glad Kuhn’s family didn’t have one more recipe, or else the plot twists in the Second Song may never have been possible.