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Trans-Mississippi Musings

My 96 Years in the Great West by George W. E. Griffith

Posted by The Muse (themuse) on Feb 22 2017
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George W. E. Griffith, 23 years oldI’ve been working on a tour guide of historical sites in Missouri and Kansas related to the life and times of William C. Quantrill. In researching the background for this tour guide, I came across a memoir written by George E. W. Griffith. Griffith describes his time in Kansas during the 1850s. I include here some of his descriptions that I found particularly compelling. He was living in Lawrence in August 1863 when Quantrill came to town, and I will excerpt some of his experiences during the raid in a future blog post.

George W. E. Griffith was born in a log cabin on December 22, 1833 in Tippecanoe County, Indiana.

That section of the state, near the Wabash River, was then almost a native wilderness. Settlements were few, and every family was engaged in clearing a farm for itself and building a log house, of seldom more than two rooms. [1]

George W. E Griffith described the difficult work necessary to clear land on his family’s farm in Indiana.

It was hard work to clear our farm timber land into condition for the plow and for meadows for the stock. The timber was chiefly hard wood, such as black walnut, butternut, hickory, ash, maple, oak and elm. Trees had to be cut, the brush slashed and grubbed and the logs, limbs and brush dragged into piles and burned. Stumps were usually left in the ground to rot, and many of them continued in the fields for long years. That was not so bad, as long as we cut the grain with sickles, or scythes, but when the reaper came into use the stumps were a great obstacle, and finally had to come out. [2]

Priscilla A. Griffith, 23 years oldGriffith met his future wife while he was attending Mt. Pleasant College in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Griffith describing why he and Priscilla A. Horbach decided to get married and go to Kansas. Her father was dead set against their marriage, so they eloped and were married on October 19, 1854. Priscila was 21 and George 20. [3]

The Kansas-Nebraska bill passed congress in the early summer of 1854, involving this freedom of choice principle for them. Immediately, there was great activity in the matter of emigration to Kansas. Nebraska was considered safe for freedom, but Kansas was more than doubtful. I read an editorial in the New York Tribune, calling upon all young men who wanted to make a start in life, to go west, to Kansas and build up a home. This was the celebrated “Go West, Young Man; Go West,” editorial of Horace Greely. I said to myself: “That means me.” [4]

From Pennsylvania, they traveled to Perryville, Indiana, where Griffith’s father was living. The Griffiths were out of money and stayed in Indiana for six months where George organized a subscription school to earn some money as a teacher. His father also helped George out by loaning him enough money to continue on to Kansas. [5]

We bought a team and a new wagon, with a cover, and loaded up, ready for the start. We were accompanied by Henry Blair, grandson of an old gentleman who was a great anti-slavery man and wanted to aid the young man to go to Kansas and help make it a free state. It was September 23, 1855, when we started from Perrysville. [6]

We crossed the Missouri river at Booneville, Mo. We passed through Butler and Clinton, Mo., both now considerable towns, but then with only two or three houses. We arrived at Fort Scott, Kansas, Oct. 21, 1855, having been 29 days on the road. There I found my brother, William, with his family, in a log cabin, in the woods on the Marmaton river bottom, about five miles from the town. We were now in Kansas, the long sought and wished for, and were ready to enter upon the new life and meet whatever might come to us in the struggle for home and human freedom upon which we had entered. [7]

Griffith decided to “acquire the rights to a land claim” of 160 acres near Prairie City, just south of the county line in Franklin County.

A man named Timmons … had built a log cabin about 25 feet square, with a roof of split shingles and a clapboard door, with a wooden latch. There was one window about two feet square and the floor was made of split logs, smooth side up and fitted together as well as could be done, but the best that could be done did not prevent cracks between the logs in some places two inches. A large fire place with a chimney was in the room, and here my wife did all the cooking, much as mother did in the early settlement in Indiana. [8]

George and his wife got to work getting settled in and getting ready for the coming winter. Although 10 acres had been plowed, the cabin was the only other improvement Timmons had made to the farm. George worked all winter splitting rails for a fence. Spring was just around the corner.

I had not done farm work since I was 18 years old, but having been reared on a farm, under almost the same pioneer conditions as those I was now in, it did not take me long to get hardened to the life and to do things as they should be done. When March came, and the snow melted, I realized that I must get a plow at once, as well as other tools. The only place I could get them was across the line in Missouri, some 50 miles distant. A neighbor, who had two yoke of oxen wanted to go to Missouri for a load of provisions, and so we decided to travel together, he with his oxen and I with my team of horses. [9]

George was well aware Kansas was in a contest between settlers who wanted Kansas to be a slave state and others who wanted it to be a free state. Indeed, when he and Priscilla first arrived at his brother’s farm in the territory, William R. Griffith was about to leave for Topeka. He had been elected as a delegate to the Free State Constitutional Convention. While working his farm, George often went to Missouri.

I made many trips to Missouri, chiefly on business. I got well acquainted with some of the slaveholders and was always well treated by them … I often found slaveholders, owners of farms and homes, were not like the Missouri rowdies and bandit gangs from which we suffered so much in Kansas later on. As a rule, they were not penurious or unkind, but good, upright and liberal-minded men. [10]

Based on his discussion with other Kansas settlers, Griffith concluded the following:

Having secured a place to make our home, the question of making Kansas a free state, began to come up for consideration. I found very few settlers who wanted to establish slavery in Kansas. When I returned to my brother's house in Bourbon County, I soon got ready and my wife and I got in and struck northward. The first night we stopped at a settler's house to stay overnight. I soon learned that he was a southern man, but was opposed to making Kansas a slave state. He wanted no Negroes in Kansas, but if there were any he wanted them to be slaves. He wanted no free Negroes to associate with. In further experience I found a majority of the people had that same opinion, which was a great surprise to me. [11]

Griffith, himself, had no issue with free blacks settling in Kansas. But he was definitely in the minority in Franklin County. With respect to allowing slavery in Kansas, most of the people George Griffith talked to about it were against Kansas becoming a slave state.

At the first election that occurred after I settled in Franklin County, there were about 200 votes polled at my voting precinct. All except four were in favor of making Kansas a free state, but all colored men were to be excluded. I heard the question discussed several times, as to who cast the four votes against not allowing any free negroes in Kansas. One man named James Hanway, living in the southern part of the county, was always named as one of the four, and two others were named, but no one who discussed the question could guess who the fourth man was, but I knew, as I considered that the negro had just as much right to settle in Kansas, and help to govern it, as I had, and so I had no objection to his having a home in Kansas. The settlers whom I met were most all farmers, seeking to procure homes in the new territory. [12]

Here, I want to explain about the general attitude of the settlers in Kansas towards negroes. A great many of my neighbors were from Missouri, but were opposed to slavery. Some of them had moved into Kansas to get away from it. They were mostly poor people, seeking homes, where they would not be dominated by richer people, who owned slaves. Some of them had never owned a slave, while others had owned but few. All work in Missouri was on a slave basis and the poor white man who had to do his own work found that both an industrial and social handicap. So they moved to what they hoped would be a free state. [13]

In pursuance of this legally established right to take negroes as property, temporarily into free states and to recapture them there, if they escaped, negroes were brought by their owners into Kansas, much against the wish of a great majority of the settlers, including those from slave states. A strong sentiment grew up against having any negroes in the state at any time, either slave or free, and this was not confined to citizens from slave states, but was held by a majority of those from other states. Those from slave states were opposed to free negroes, and said that if there must be any at all, they should be slaves. [14]

During my early days in Kansas, I was often across the line into Missouri and talked freely with farmers there and expressed my opinion about human slavery without any objections or resentment on their part. I was always treated politely and generally, they agreed with me in principle, but said that conditions in Missouri required slave labor. While they did not approve of human slavery, yet they lived in a social state where it was necessary for them to use it or get out. Many of them did get out, as I have said, and crossed the line into Kansas to make new homes. These people did not want negroes in the state at all, but especially did not want free ones. Thus, there existed a strong sentiment on the part of the free state element to have Kansas a simon pure white state, with no colored people of any sort. [15]

Griffith wrote that the Topeka Constitution contained a provision to exclude “all negroes from the state.” Actually, there was no provision in the final Topeka Constitution that excluded blacks from living in the state. During the constitutional convention held in Wyandotte in July 1859, the delegates voted on but did not adopt a provision to exclude free blacks from Kansas. [16]

When the constitution was framed by the free state element in the Topeka convention in October, 1855, it contained a provision excluding all negroes from the state, which revealed the sentiment of the free state people. There were, of course, many from the North who did not favor this, but the free state people did favor it in a large majority. [17]


  1. Griffith, George W. E. My 96 Years in the Great West: Indiana, Kansas and California. Los Angeles: Geo. W. E. Griffith, 1929.
  2. Griffith, 96 Years in the West, 3.
  3. Griffith, 96 Years in the West, 14-17, 26-27.
  4. Griffith, 96 Years in the West, 25.
  5. Griffith, 96 Years in the West, 32.
  6. Griffith, 96 Years in the West, 33.
  7. Griffith, 96 Years in the West, 35.
  8. Griffith, 96 Years in the West, 37.
  9. Griffith, 96 Years in the West, 40.
  10. Griffith, 96 Years in the West, 42-43.
  11. Griffith, 96 Years in the West, 60.
  12. Griffith, 96 Years in the West, 60-61.
  13. Griffith, 96 Years in the West, 78-79.
  14. Griffith, 96 Years in the West, 80.
  15. Griffith, 96 Years in the West, 81.
  16. Kansas State Historical Society, “Kansas Constitutions” Accessed February 21, 2017. https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/kansas-constitutions/16532
  17. Griffith, 96 Years in the West, 81-82.



Last changed: Feb 22 2017 at 8:44 AM