The Stevens County War -- The Bloodiest
County Seat War of the West
<< Previous 1
By Emerson Hough in 1907
In the month of May, 1886, the writer was one of a party of
bound for the Neutral Strip and the Panhandle of
where a small number of
still remained at that time. We traveled across the entire
southwestern part of
below the Santa Fe railroad, at a time when the great land boom of
1886 and 1887 was at its height.
Town site schemes in western Kansas
were at that time innumerable, and a steady stream of immigration was
pouring westward by rail and wagon into the high and dry plains of the
country, where at that time farming remained a doubtful experiment. In
the course of our travels, we saw one morning, rising before us in the
mirage of the plains, what seemed to be a series of crenellated
turrets, castles peaked and bastioned.
in the early 20th Century.
We knew this was but the mirage, and knew that it
must have some physical cause. But what was a town doing in that part
of the world ? We drove on and in a few hours found the town -- a
little, raw boom town of unpainted boards and tents, which had sprung
up almost overnight in that far-off region. The population was that of
the typical frontier town, and the pronounced belief of all was that
this settlement was to be the commercial metropolis of the Southwest.
This little town was later known as Woodsdale, Kansas.
It offered then no hint of the bloody scenes in which it was soon to
figure; but within a few weeks it was so deeply embroiled in war with
the rival town of Hugoton as to make history notable even on that
Mr. Herbert M. Tonney, now a prosperous citizen
was a resident of that portion of the country in the stirring days of
the land boom, and became involved to an extent beyond his own seeking
in this county seat fight. While serving as an officer of the peace,
he was shot and left for dead. No story can serve so well as his
personal narrative to convey a clear idea of the causes, methods and
results of a typical county seat war in the West.
"I do not need to swear to the truthfulness of my
story, for I have already done so in many courts and under the
cross-examination of some of the ablest lawyers in the country. I have
repeated the story on the stand in a criminal case which cost the
United States government more money than it has ever expended in any
similar trial, unless perhaps that having to do with the assassination
of President Lincoln. I can say that I know what it is to be murdered.
1886, I moved out into southwestern Kansas,
in what was later to be known as Stevens County, then a remote and
apparently unattractive region. In 1885 a syndicate of citizens of
had been formed for the purpose of starting a new town in southwestern
The members were leading bankers, lawyers, and merchants. These sent out
an exploration party, among which were such men as Colonel C. E. Cook,
former postmaster of McPherson; his brother, Orrin Cook, a lawyer; John
Pancoast, J. B. Chamberlain, J. W. Calvert, John Robertson, and others.
They located a section of school lands, in what was later known as Stevens
County, as near the center of the proposed county as the range of sand
dunes along the Cimarron River would permit.
Others of the party located lands as close to the town
site as possible. On August 3, 1886, Governor Martin issued a proclamation
for the organization of Stevens county. It appeared upon the records of
the State of Kansas
that the new county had 2,662 bona-fide inhabitants, of whom 868 were
householders. These claimed a taxable property, in excess of legal
exemptions, amounting to $313,035, including railroad property of
$140,380. I need not state that the organization was wholly based upon
fraud. An election was called for September 9, and the town of Hugoton --
first called Hugo -- was chosen.
can be competition in the town-site business, however. At Meade Center,
Kansas, there resided an old-time Kansas man,
Colonel Samuel Newitt Wood, who also wanted a town site in the new
county. Wood's partner, Captain I. C. Price, went down on July 3 to look over
the situation. He was not known to the Hugoton men, and he was invited by
Calvert, the census taker, to register his name as a citizen. He protested
that he was only a visitor, but was informed that this made no possible
difference; whereupon, Price proceeded to register his own name, that of
his partner, those of many of his friends, and many purely imaginary
persons. He also registered the families of these persons, and finally --
in a burst of good American humor -- went so far as to credit certain
single men of his acquaintance with large families, including twenty or
thirty pairs of twins! This cheerful imagination on his part caused
trouble afterwards; but certain it is that these fictitious names, twins
and all, went into the sworn records of Hugoton -- an unborn population of
a defunct town, whose own conception was in iniquity!
"Price located a section of government land on the north side of the sand
hills, eight miles from Hugoton, and this was duly platted for a town
site. Corner lots were selling at Hugoton for $1,000 apiece, and people
were flocking to that town. The new town was called Woodsdale, and Colonel
Wood offered lots free to any who would come and build upon
them. Settlers now streamed to Woodsdale. Tents, white-topped wagons and
frail shanties sprung up as though by magic. The Woodsdale boom attracted
even homesteaders who had cast in their lot with Hugoton. Many of these
forgot their oaths in the land office, pulled up and filed on new quarter
sections nearer to Woodsdale. The latter town was jubilant. Colonel Wood and Captain Price, in the month of August, held a big
ratification meeting, taunting the men of Hugoton with those thirty pairs
of twins that never were on land or sea. A great deal of bad blood was
engendered at this time.
"Soon after this Wood and Price started together for
Garden City. They were followed by a band of Hugoton men and captured in a
dugout on the Cimarron river. Brought back to Hugoton, a mock trial was
held upon them and they were released on a mock bond, being later taken
out of town under guard. A report was printed in the Hugoton paper that
certain gentlemen of that town had gone south with Colonel Woodand
Captain Price, 'for the purpose of a friendly
hunt.' It was the intention to take these two prisoners into the wild and
lawless region of No Man's Land, or the Panhandle of
there to kill them, and to bring back the report that they were
accidentally killed in the
chase. This strange hunting party did go south, across No Man's Land and
into the desert region lying around the headwaters of the Beaver. The
prisoners knew what they were to expect, but, as it chanced, their captors
did not dare kill them.
Meantime, Woodsdale had organized a 'posse' of
twenty-four men, under Captain S. O. Aubrey, the noted frontier trailer,
scout. This band, taking up the trail below Hugoton, followed and rescued
Wood and Price, and took prisoners the entire Hugoton 'posse.' The latter
were taken to Garden City, and here the law was in turn set at defiance by
the Woodsdale men, the horses, wagons, arms, etc., of the Hugoton party
being put up and sold in the court to pay the board of the teams, expenses
of publication, etc. Colonel Wood bought these effects in at public
"By this time, Stevens county had been organized and
the Hugoton 'pull' was in the ascendancy. A continuance had been taken at
Garden City by the Hugoton prisoners, who were charged with kidnapping.
The papers in this case were sent down from Finney county to the first
session of the District Court of Stevens county. The result was foregone.
Tried by their friends, the prisoners were promptly discharged.
"The feeling between the two towns was all the time
growing more bitter. Cases had been brought against Calvert, the
census-taker, for perjury, and action was taken looking toward the setting
aside of the organization of the county. The Kansas
legislature, however, now met, and the political 'pull' of Hugoton was
still strong enough to secure a special act legalizing the organization of
Stevens county. It was now the legislature against the Supreme Court; for
a little later the Supreme Court declared that the organization had been
made through open fraud and by means of perjury.
"Naturally, trouble might have been expected at the
fall election. There were two centers of population, two sets of leaders,
two clans, separated by only eight miles of sand hills. There could be but
one county seat and one set of officers. Here Woodsdale began to suffer,
for her forces were divided among themselves.
"Colonel Wood, the leader of this community, had
slated John M. Cross as his candidate for sheriff. A rival for the
nomination was Sam Robinson, who owned the hotel at Woodsdale, and had
invested considerable money there. Robinson was about forty years of age,
and was known to be a bad man, credited with two or three killings
elsewhere. Wood had always been able to flatter him and handle him; but
when Cross was declared as the nominee for sheriff, Robinson became so
embittered that he moved over to Hugoton, where he was later chosen town
marshal and township constable. Hugoton men bought his hotel, leaving
Robinson in the position of holding real estate in Woodsdale without
owning the improvements on it. Hence when the town-site commissioners
began to issue deeds, Robinson was debarred from claiming a deed by reason
of the hotel property having been sold.
Bert Nobel, a friend of
Robinson's, sold his drug store and moved over with Robinson to Hugoton.
Hugoton bought other property of Woodsdale malcontents, leaving the
buildings standing at Woodsdale and taking the citizens to themselves. The
Hugoton men put up as their candidate one Dalton, and declared him
elected. Wood contested the election, and finally succeeded in getting his
man Cross declared as sheriff of Stevens County.
"It was now proposed to issue bonds for a double line
of railroad across this county, such bonds amounting to eight thousand
dollars per mile. At this time, the population was largely one of
adventurers, and there was hardly a foot of deeded land in the entire
county. In the discussion over this bond election, Robinson got into
trouble with the new sheriff, in which Robinson was clearly in the wrong,
as he had no county jurisdiction, being at the time of the altercation
outside of his own township and town. Later on, a warrant for Robinson's
arrest was issued and placed in the hands of
town marshal of Woodsdale. Short
was known as a killer, and hence as a fit man to go after Robinson. He
went to Hugoton to arrest Robinson, and there was a shooting affair, in
which the citizens of Hugoton protected their man. The Woodsdale town
marshal, however, still retained his warrant and cherished his purpose of
arresting his man.
"On July 22 of this year, 1888,
learned that Sam Robinson, the two Cooks, and a man by the name of Donald,
together with some women and children, had gone on a picnic down in the
Neutral Strip, south of the Stevens county line.
raised a 'posse' of four or five men and started after Robinson, who was
surprised in camp near Goff creek. There was a parley, which resulted in
Robinson escaping on a fast horse, which was tied near the shack where he
was stopping with his wife and children.
Short, meantime, had sent back word to Woodsdale,
stating that he needed help to take Robinson. Meantime, also, the Hugoton
men, learning that
had started down after Robinson, had sent out two strong parties to rescue
the latter. A battle was imminent.
"It was at this time that I myself appeared upon the
scene of this turbulent and lawless drama, although, in my own case, I
went as a somewhat unwilling participant and as a servant of the law, not
anticipating consequences so grave as those which followed.
"The sheriff of the county, John M. Cross, on
receiving the message from
Short, called for volunteers, which was equivalent to
summoning a 'posse.' He knew there was going to be trouble, and left his
money and watch behind him, stating that he feared for the result of his
errand. His 'posse' was made up of Ted Eaton, Bob Hubbard, Holland Wilcox,
and myself. At that time I was only a boy, about nineteen years of age.
"We had a long and hard ride to Reed's camp, on Goff
had sent up his message. Arriving there, we found Reed, who was catching
wild horses, together with a man by the name of Patterson and another man,
was not in sight. From Reed we learned that Robinson had gotten away from
Short, who had started back, leaving word for Mr. Cross,
should he arrive, to return home. A band of men from Hugoton, we learned
later, had overtaken
and his men and chased them for twenty-five miles, but the latter reached
Springfield, Seward county, unharmed.
"Robinson, who had made his escape to a cow camp and
thence to Hugoton upon a fresh horse, now met and led down into the Strip
one of the first Hugoton 'posses.' Among them were Orrin Cook, Charles
Cook, J. W. Calvert, J. B. Chamberlain, John Jackson, John A. Rutter, Fred
Brewer, William Clark, and a few others. Robinson was, of course, the
leader of this band.
"After Sheriff Cross asked me to go down with him to
see what had become of
I went over and got Wilcox and we rode down to the settlement of Voorhees.
Thence we rode to Goff creek, and all reached Reed's camp about seven or
eight o'clock on Wednesday morning, July 25, 1888. Here we remained until
about five o'clock of that afternoon, when we started for home. Our horses
gave out, and we got off and led them until well on into the night.
Continued Next Page
<< Previous 1