The Value of Reading Old Newspapers


Reading these old papers is like looking at history through a telescope. It is brought up close so you can see the details. The history books tell us that the Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe Rail Road came to Cowley County in the fall of 1879. But they don't tell us that one of the most exciting exhibits in Pleasant Valley township are the boots of Mr. D. B. Wells who was hit by lightning during a storm the previous Friday afternoon. The electricity went down the chimney, through the stove pipe, into the stove, out the stove door and passing down Mr. Wells' boots into the floor. Although the boots are completely demolished and Mr. Wells' seemed so, after two three hours he arose and walked about. The reporter considered this a miraculous escape and challenged anyone to trot out a better one.


Instead of summarizing the decade in a few paragraphs these writers detail every local election, remark on the level of the river, eulogize old timers passing, state how many bricks were manufactured in town this week, list the menu at the church social, and analyze everything from the state of temperance of the Indians to the condition of the local orchards, one by one. The resolution and detail begins to give that smell and taste and touch of the times. The names begin to become individuals rather than ancestors. The political fights become Greek dramas and every murder becomes a mystery, to be solved with clues from next weeks paper.


Like a telescope and a time machine, the several weeks can go by in an hour, the mystery unfolds and the crime is solved. Sometimes the solution is more involved, reading the old stories, the biographies, the movie scripts, and then analyzing all of the clues to see that they got the wrong guy! The Indians become, not "good guys" or "bad guys" but, good and bad people. People who try and fail, and try and succeed, and help whites and hurt whites and are themselves helped and hurt. The Indian raiders who have been in the county jail all summer are being released because the cow boys who lodged the complaint have gone to Texas, and Colorado, and Nebraska and no one is here to testify. Thus Wild Hog, Left Hand, Big Thorn, Noisy Walker, Blacksmith, and Tangled Hair will take a pleasure trip to Salina rather than going to Dodge City for trial. Wild Hog's wife and daughter came up to accompany them along with Old Crow and his wife and daughter.


Flour is $3.00 for a hundred pound bag, hemp robe is 12 1/2 cents per pound, Salt Fish is 10 cents per pound and Bacon is 8 cents a pound on October 22, 1879 in Arkansas City, Kansas. Ten years ago, the only white people in the lower fifty miles of Kansas were illegally "camped" on Osage Indian land. Nobody ever told me that Little Joe and his family on "Little House on the Prairie" were illegally intruding onto the Indian lands. Nobody said that the reason that the Indians were starving and would eat even crumbs off the floor was that the Congress of the (Newly Re-) United States would not pay them the money for the purchase of the Osage lands in 1808 (from the Mississippi west to Colorado and from the Missouri River in the north to the Arkansas River in the south) until they agreed to sell their Osage Diminished Reserve (the bottom 50 miles of Kansas) to the railroad for 18 cents per acre.


Nobody pointed out that the people of Kansas killed the deal of their crooked Senator and got President Grant to appoint responsible Quakers to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and in the process got the Indians a dollar and a quarter an acre and got the land sold to the people instead of the railroad that had the Senator in their pocket. And then that railroad got beat out in the competition to reach the border for the charter to cross the Indian Territory to Texas. The newly formed Katy won the competition and were as fair as they could be in that time and place and still win.


The Santa Fe built Kansas and Kansas built Santa Fe. Across the west, Kansans rode the Santa Fe to Colorado and New Mexico and Arizona and California. And wrote home about it. And the papers published the letters. In 1870 "The West" was the newly opened Osage Diminished Reserve, the pre-empted lands. The references of the papers to the "Southwest" mean the country southwest of St. Louis and southwest of Emporia. The "West" becomes Dodge City by 1880, Dodge City on the far side of the settled counties. By 1890 the Santa Fe has stretched the "Southwest" to include the New Mexico and Arizona which is the Southwest of today.


The papers tell the story of the technologies which drove the development of the old Southwest. Steam sawmills came in immediately. Steam powered shingle machines quickly followed. Steam threshing machines were used as soon as they were available. Coal deposits were pursued and developed. Oil and gas were seen to be possible fuels of more convenience than coal. Techniques had to be developed to handle and burn these fuels. Problems to be solved.


Lots of problems:


And on and on.