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Grandpa Was Right! (pretty much)

I’ve told this story a couple times in book talks; that several years ago my grandpa took me out to his grandfather’s farm, and that experience was a big influence on Song of the Jayhawk and how I imagined the lives of Patrick and Maria Dugan. Afterward I traced our path and found the section he took me to, but then found no good records that they in fact lived on that farm. Nobody did, in fact. Part of me doubted his memory and wondered what may be wrong with that section.

A little more research has uncovered the fact that grandpa was right! Patrick and Maria did own that land. Here is evidence of it from several decades later, in 1903.

Standard Atlas of Atchison County, 1903. Courtesy KSHS, DaRT ID: 209399

Standard Atlas of Atchison County, 1903. Courtesy KSHS, DaRT ID: 209399

But when did they settle there? Why aren’t they listed in the Kansas Tract Books?

The answer to the last question is rather simple: the Land Ordinance Act of 1785 dictated Section 16 of every Range be set aside for public education. Aha! Silly me. So they were not allowed to purchase that land in the 1850s. As schools were built in the area (Irish Point and Good Intent), the government must have then opened that land for sale. You don’t need 160 acres to educate children, of course (not in the way we educate them anyway).

So when did they purchase this land? And when did they arrive in the area? Obviously, in the novel I place the Dugans there when it is convenient for me as a writer, in the thick of Bleeding Kansas, and use my own confusion to further the plot. But I’m still interested as a family historian.

Mullins mortgage, 1882. Courtesy Atchison County Register of Deeds.


This document shows them mortgaging it in the 1880s. Okay, that’s a lot earlier.

Still, this is much later than I expected, having been told they settled here in the late 1850s or early 1860s. But notice they also mortgaged, in that same transaction, the SE ¼ of Section 4, and that the 1903 map also shows a “Patrick Mullen” owning that section as well.



Mullins purchase, 1866. Courtesy Atchison County Register of

Mullins purchase, 1866. Courtesy Atchison County Register of


And walla, here is their original 1866 purchase of that farm, for $500. So grandpa was right! He did take me to Section 16, and they did own it. It just wasn’t their first farm in Kansas.

What I love most about this is that as we left Section 16 that day a few years ago, grandpa pointed north, toward Section 4, and said, “That’s wild country up there.”

Yes, grandpa, it sure was.

On Family, On History, and Family History

Last week the man who sparked my interest in Kansas history passed away at 97. James Henry Mullins Jr. was the father of nine, grandfather of twenty, and great-grandfather of 25. And we were all there this weekend, in Atchison, to celebrate the life of a man who, despite these impressive numbers in his progeny, was only with one person at a time. You. When you were speaking with him, he was only with you. At both the rosary and the funeral, two uncles and the priest all spoke of how grandpa taught us all how to be a family. They spoke of how accepting he was of difference, his quiet demeanor, his dry sense of humor. I don’t remember anyone ever seeming to feel judged by him, belittled in any way, or ignored. He would sit, or stand next to you, and when you spoke there was nothing else on his mind but what you were saying. He made all his grandchildren feel as if he loved them most of all. That is how he taught us to be a family, because it isn’t always easy: when you are with someone, be with them. Don’t let your mind take you somewhere else, some other time. Even if you’re a novelist.

The day of the rosary three of his sons and three of his grandsons (including me) played his favorite golf course–once a cow pasture, a course he helped found in the 60s–and I could feel him as I stepped onto the tee-box on 1, overlooking the broad, sloping fairway; in the northerly wind as it spread the old oak leaves on 4; but mostly, as I kneeled on the 9th green and watched my uncles, and my cousins, as they shared this cool, sunny afternoon together. We were doing what he seemed always to do–just being together. Just being. And he was with me. He is with me now, as I write this, folded back gently into the God from which he came in 1917. And now, as I’ve returned to Denver, my job and commute and parenting, and all my 44 cousins and 7 surviving aunts and uncles return to their lives (not to mention the countless friends of the family who spent the weekend with us) and Facebook is flooded with pictures of the weekend, I’m reminded to do just that–just be.

The characters in the Second Song, as well as the first, struggle with this as well, of course. Monsters from their past, their future, thoughts of what they should be or should have been torment them. But every now and then, perhaps on a porch with family, it all dissolves away. These are the most precious moments in any life, in any age. I’ve written about this before, but something about history and family history also compels me to just be.

This photo is of Mabelgrandpa’s mom, Mabel Mullins, her sister Edith, and a family friend with her son. It’s just like so many of the pictures flooding my social media world today, various groupings of sisters and cousins and uncles and second-cousins, just being together. And it leaves me to believe that grandpa would have it no other way, except that this being would transcend familial ties. I think he would ask us all to see that time, and place, and blood, are all transcended. If we decided, here and now, to just be.

Is Something Wrong With Section 16?

I have spent a lot of my life camping and backpacking, so I’m on some levtractbookel familiar with the process of choosing a spot, as it were–deciding where the tent goes, the fire, etc. And I’ve noticed how quasi-irrevocable this choice is; it seems despite the rock in your back, the fact the wind blows the smoke at the tent, or that the spot is a muddy pool every time it rains, you don’t move it. You made your bed and now you lie in it.

I can only imagine how the early settlers of Kansas chose their spots. Speculators may have chosen based on where they thought railways would be laid, or future towns. The poorer, simpler settlers in 1854, 1855, I’m sure, looked for hardwood and native stone so they could build a cabin. And most probably cared quite a lot about the quality of the soil and access to water. Proximity to like-minded people also mattered–one wouldn’t want to be the sole Free Stater in a Pro Slavery township. German and Irish immigrants tended to congregate, like my great-great grandparents, who settled next to families named “Kelley,” “McMahon,” and “Farrell” in a community that years later would come to be known as “Irish Point.”

But their spot, which I believe to be the SE 1/4 of Section 16, Range 20, Township 5, Atchison County, seems to have been one of the last spots chosen in Irish Point. I’ve written about this before and how it’s great fodder for writing. These gaps among facts I often want to leave as they are so I can fill them with fiction. But sometimes the historian and librarian in me comes forth, and I want to know the facts.

Many of the land sales in territorial Kansas were recorded in Kansas Tract Books, which detailed transfer of ownership from the government to private parties. But again, I find Section 16 empty. Section 15 and 17 have detailed records, and many of the sections in Irish Point were sold as early as 1855 (October being a popular month, perhaps because Kuhn had come through the neighborhood by then?). Why? Was there really a dispute over this section that delayed its sale, as I portray to some extent in the first novel and expand in the second? Or was something wrong with Section 16? Could court records help? Are there other tract books available through the county?

I will keep looking to satisfy my inner historian, but in the meantime will keep writing my own reality for Section 16, and it may just have to involve something other-worldly.

In Atchison

Had a wonderful time last night at the Atchison Library giving my first reading for Song of the Jayhawk, not to mention the festivities at the Amelia Earhart Festival and a visit to the Kansas History Center in Topeka. This is the actual flag the mob attached to Pardee Butler’s rEasternAidExpressaft when they sent him down the river in the novel’s opening scene.

And, many thanks to Mary Meyers and the Atchison Globe for the press (sub required)! Mary and I talked Atchison history for a couple hours and had a great time.

Happy Grandma Kuhn Didn’t Have One more Recipe

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 on, Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply. Henry Kuhn Record [and Recipe] Book, Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply. Henry Kuhn Record [and Recipe] Book

sale, 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.

Why I Write About the Past


 I think I was in the fifth grade when I read my first two historical novels—Irene Hunt’s Across Five Aprils and Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. Though it would be another ten years before I fully realized it, these two stories, set during the Civil War and centered around young male protagonists, launched a lifelong love affair with history and historical fiction.

But I am not an historian. My path in this regard is far less academic than it is empathetic. There is something in the study of history that is—for me, and I believe for others—more personal. Hunt’s Jethro Creightonn and Crane’s Henry Fleming were as real to me as the children in my classroom. And now, decades later, I remember them as I remember those same children. I experience them as a part of my childhood, and this phenomenon of memory has somehow become true for just about everyone who ever lived. As I read about the past, it is no longer past. History seems not an “other” to me, but an interest that lies primarily in myself and my own time.

This is what I believe historical fiction does for us, a harmony in which I hope Song of the Jayhawk strikes at least a single note: it connects us to the lives of people who came before us. And in doing so, in writing and reading about the past, we find wisdom and solace, a frame of mind that both humbles and emboldens us. The library in which I work greets each of its visitors, etched in stone above its entry, with the phrase “He who knows only his own generation remains forever a child.” If that is true, then I believe that it is the study of history, and the enjoyment of historical fiction, that we find growth and maturity.

Writing this novel, and conducting the research to do so, has been both a personal journey and a discovery of the world. And in anticipating more novels in this series, I am excited by the prospect of continuing that journey. It never ends. I feel my great-grandparents within me as I write, and the life of Irish immigrants in territorial Kansas. I feel my Maness side, back to the cabins of the Appalachians, where it is raining and the hounds are restless. I feel my Baumann side, and western Missouri, and all the lives they touched, as well as those who touched them . Flowing through me, within me, swirling around like a tempest of memory as I walk through my life.

I can only hope, and pray, that at last this whirlwind has spilled out onto the pages of this book.