Tag Archives: land

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.

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

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

kansasmemory.org, 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.