Wednesday, May 29, 2013

An Overland Journey by Horace Greeley

"Go West young man." Advice given by Horace Greeley to young men seeking a future in America.

In the summer of 1859, Horace Greeley founder and editor of the New York Tribune made a trip west.

The first leg of his overland journey was to Kansas to attend the first Republican Party political convention in the newly created Territory of Kansas. The convention was to be held in Osawatamie.

Osawatamie was a symbolic choice. Settled in 1854 by those favoring abolition of slavery, including the Reverend Samuel Adair, his wife Florella, Osawatamie was a center of conflict in "Bleeding Kansas." The Adair cabin a few miles northwest of the town was a station on the Underground Railroad and Florella's half brother, John Brown, used this cabin as his headquarters during his bloody stay in Kansas. In 1856, during the Battle of Osawatamie, John Brown and 30 free-state defenders held off 250 pro-slavery militia from Missouri. However, the town of Osawatamie was burned to the ground.

Detail map of eastern Kansas 1856
Red circles indicate stops by Horace Greeley
E. B. Whitman, Lawrence, Kansas

The distance from Atchison to Osawatamie is 80 miles as the crow flew and, in reality more like 100 because of the terrain. The party journeyed south and east. There were no railroads. Stagecoaches ran between major cities. Roads then were more like trails. Streams were forded, rivers crossed by ferry.

After Osawatamie, Greeley intended to continue his trip to San Francisco to highlight the need for a transcontinental railroad.

Monday morning, 6 a.m., May 16th, 1859, Horace Greeley, in a party of four, left Atchison, Kansas  intending to reach Osawatamie, Kansas the next evening. The party rode in a wagon drawn by two horses. On the prairie they were greeted by hills covered in green grass with dots of color here and there from the fresh spring flowers. "From the high level of the prairies, little but a broad sweep of grass on every side was visible but soon we were descending into a new ravine, and now belts and spurs of timber were seen, generally widening as they tend toward the Missouri." The annual prairie fires kept the timber confined to the areas near the rivers and streams.

Atchison county, Kansas Atlas,1903
Published Geo. A. Ogle, Chicago

"Twelve or fifteen miles south of Atchison, we struck the great California trail from Leavenworth, and thence followed it east by south into that city, some fifteen to eighteen miles." Greeley described the many settlers with their Conestoga wagons pulled by oxen, as so many ships with billowing sails "giving the trail the appearance like a river though the great meadows." Because of the pouring rain the night before, the westward bound emigrants were encamped trying to dry out their clothes and give the oxen a rest. Greeley observed that the traffic west was one way, and that both wagons and cattle were sold at their point of destination for whatever they would fetch, and continue on eventually to California.

The party arrived in Leavenworth about 11 am, meaning that the trip from Atchison to Leavenworth, a distance of about 30 miles, was accomplished at the speed of 6 miles and hour, or three times as fast as the speed of an oxen team pulling a wagon, that is when the oxen could avoid the mud and mire and travel at all.

The route Greeley and his party took was altered by the weather. Instead of continuing on to Lawrence, the party shipped horses and wagon on a steamer 50 miles down the Missouri River to Wyandot, near the junction with the Kaw River. From there they debarked.

Detail of Wyandotte County Kansas 1878
Published G. M. Hopkins of Philadelphia

Tuesday, May 17th, the following day they continued on. "We crossed the Kaw on a fair wooden toll-bridge, one thousand two hundred feet long, just erected—or, rather, not quite completed." They passed Shawnee, a village of less than 30 houses and a large hotel.

Johnson County, Kansas Atlas 1874
Published by E. F. Heisler

The road then turned in a more southerly somewhere near a spot marking the crossing of the Santa Fe Trail. Today there is a marker in Downtown Overland Park  at 80th street and Santa Fe Drive. The Santa Fe Trail,  unlike the other trails west, was a trade route with with its white canvas covered wagons pulled by six pair of mules, attempting to make Santa Fe, New Mexico to trade manufactured goods for silver.

Greeley and his party continued to Olathe, then the county seat of Johnson County, then back a mile or so west and south on what is today Highway 169 to Spring Hill, "a hamlet of five or six dwellings, including a store, but no tavern," Marysville, and Paoli. At sunset, they reached the village of Stanton, with 20 to 30 houses, a schoolhouse, two stores and a tavern. There they were halted by the rain and the Marais des Cynges River.

Miami County, Kansas Atlas 1878
Created by Edwards Brothers of Philadelphia

They had traveled perhaps 50 miles in a day. The day's journey from sunrise to sunset, about 12 hours, again means that they averaged about 4 miles an hour.

Wednesday, May 18th, they crossed to Osawatamie.


Today's trip by highway takes less than two hours. MapQuest follows a similar route taken by Greeley.

Greeley and his party originally intended to stop in Lawrence Kansas but the heavy rains forced them to Wyandot. In 1856, the city of Lawrence was raided by pro-slavery force headed by William Quantrill. Greeley visited Lawrence after his stop in Osawatamie. Whitman's map of 1856 highlights the fact that in 1856 the territory of Kansas was home to many Indian tribes.

John Brown carried out his raid on Harper's Ferry in the fall of 1859.

The county maps can be found online at various sources including

An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859 by Horace Greeley (1860) can be read in its entirety online at

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