John C. Johnston: Harvey County Founding Father

Our thanks to HCHM volunteer, Damon Penner, for contributing a guest post. Damon is a senior at Wichita State University, and has volunteered at the museum for the past 3 years.  He has also volunteered at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson

John C. Johnston: Harvey County Founding Father

By Damon Penner, HCHM volunteer

Handwriting and Coffee Stained Paperwork

Soldier, teacher, homesteader, and church founder are just a few words that would
describe Mr. John C. Johnston. Johnston, responsible for collecting the Civil War pension
paperwork in the Harvey County Historical Museum’s collection, was a man who made an
impact on the town that became Newton, KS as well as his neighbors. Through archival research,
I have been able to piece together a short biography of the man, whose handwriting and coffee
stained paperwork I have had the honor to assist in preserving for future generations.
Generations which Mr. Johnston never got the opportunity to physically meet.

Swept up in the Wartime Enthusiasm

Johnston, was not a native of Kansas, but an immigrant from the state of Pennsylvania.
Born in Greenville, Pennsylvania (in Indian County) in 1846, Johnston, like many of his fellow
Pennsylvanians, was swept up in the wartime enthusiasm and passions the were brought about
with the American Civil War’s beginning in 1861. Enlisting at a local recruitment office,
Johnston, aged 15, was made a member of Company A of the 61 st Pennsylvania Volunteer
Infantry Regiment (which holds the distinction of losing the most officers of any US Army
regiment during the Civil War). Serving in the famed Army of the Potomac and in many of the
battles in which the army fought such as the Seven Days Battles, Antietam, Fredericksburg,
Chancellorsville (Fredericksburg sector), Gettysburg, and the bloody battles of 1864, Johnston
saw three year’s action, receiving a facial wound from an artillery shell at the Battle of
Spotsylvania Courthouse (the wound left him disfigured and afraid to show the left side of his
face for the rest of his life).

Civilian Life

Returning to civilian life however, proved to be boring. Cold feet eventually brought him to Kansas. Accepting a teaching position in the Greenville, Pennsylvania area and marrying a local woman, Johnston lived the life of a teacher for five years. Seeing that Johnston was bored with teaching, his brothers, William and James, and a cousin convinced him that they should head west to Kansas and establish homesteads, which they had been granted because of their status as Civil War veterans. Reaching Sedgwick County, the four travelers would hire a guide to take them to the Highland township in modern day Harvey County. Against their wishes, however, the land that the guide had taken them to (and they had subsequently claimed) was in Marion County. Although their claims were the only claims in the area, Johnston and his fellow veterans sought to create an entirely new county that would encompass their claims.

A New County

Made possible by some politicking with Wichita and Sedgwick County officials, Harvey
County was established in February 1872. Constituting the Alta, Emma, Garden, Burrton,
Darlington, Halstead, Lake, Lakin, Macon, Newton, Pleasant, Richland, and Sedgwick
townships. Seeing that, although he had made his wish for a new county possible, Johnston had
to conduct a formal annexation of the Walton and Highland townships to the county in 1873.
Needing a county seat for this new county, the cattle town of Newton was chosen as the new seat
for the county. Contrary to popular belief, Johnston and the other founders of Harvey County
chose to name the county not after the founder of the famous Harvey Houses, but rather the
governor of Kansas at the time of the county’s establishment, James M. Harvey.

Serving the Community

Becoming a resident of the recently selected county seat, Johnston, his wife, children, and
the men that traveled to Kansas with him, would leave an impact on their brainchild. One of his
friends would serve as one of the first representatives in the state legislature for Sedgwick
County (although he lived in Harvey County). Another, along with Johnston would serve as
Harvey County’s representatives, while two more would serve as the representatives for Marion
County. Seeking to not only have an impact on the politics of Harvey County, but the religiosity
of the county seat’s populace. Establishing the First Presbyterian Church in Newton, Johnston
would see to it that Newtonians would be able to worship together.

Between all of the activities brought about by his public service, Johnston would help local Civil War veterans and their families to receive the money owed them by the government for their services in the Civil War. Although he was influential in the making of modern Newton, it is this humble act of assisting his former comrades in arms in Harvey County that is the act that I am the most grateful for.

Bibliography

  • Johnston, John C. “Early Days in Kansas” The Newton Journal (Newton, KS), February 29,
    1924.*
  • Johnston, John C. “Reminiscence of Early Kansas Days” The Newton Journal (Newton, KS) July
    15, 1921.*
  • Hawks, Steve A. “61 st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment” The Civil War in the East,
    2020, accessed on June 28, 2020 https://civilwarintheeast.com/us-regiments-
    batteries/pennsylvania/61st-pennsylvania-infantry/.
  • *Note: Both articles are available for viewing through the Harvey County Historical Museum.

Civil War Inventory at HCHM

Additional Stories from the Johnston Civil War Pension Collection

 

Stories Waiting to be Told: HCHM Archives

 

 

Minor Child of George Beard, alias George Winter: Civil War Pensions

A Man Named Winne: from the HCHM Archives

Pieces of a Puzzle: M. Thomas Family

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

In honor of Juneteenth, a day celebrated by many Black communities to commemorate the end of slavery, we are sharing the story of  an Old Settler Black family.

Introduction

Harvey County is made up of diverse cultures.  Many families can trace their history back to the early settlement period of the 1870s and 1880s.  Traditionally,  focus has been on the white settlers in celebrations like Old Settler’s Day. However, Black and other mixed race families,  like David Anderson & Mary Rickman Anderson Grant , were homesteading in 1871. In 1880, a group of at least 32 Black individuals, including Katie Vance, settled in Newton. Their stories are harder to find, often only brief mentions in the newspaper provide scattered clues. Many times the stories are not neat and pretty. This is the case with the family of M. Thomas as seen through the eyes of local newspapers.

Recently, a short blurb in 1888 about a 15 year old “colored girl”  in Police Court caught my attention. Curious to see if I could find out more, I did some digging.

Newton Daily Republican, 1 March 1888

The M. Thomas family came to Newton in about 1880 from Trenton, Todd, Kentucky.  The family consisted of Madison, his wife, Matilda, and three children, 13 year old William, 11 year old Mary, and 7 year old Ellen. In 1885, the family was living along north Main between 10th & 11th and Madison worked as a laborer.

The two of Thomas children experienced difficulties with the law in the late 1800s, all of which were reported in colorful detail by the local papers.

The Thomas Siblings

Ellen Thomas : “Frisky Colored Maiden”

In 1887,  14 year old Ellen Thomas must have fallen in with a rough crowd.  In September, she was arrested with four men for disturbing a meeting at the Second Baptist Church.  The men, George Morrow, C. Coleman, George Vance, and Bob Wylls, were each fined three dollars and court costs. The judge showed “mercy to the woman” and did not fine her.  Later, he reportedly regretted not being harder on her. (Newton Daily Republican, 9 September 1887)

At the end of September, Ellen was arrested along with Charles Coleman  for stealing a watch while at the county fair.  This time the judge was not so lenient and Ellen was fined two dollars and costs.

Justice’s Docket City of Newton Criminal Cases 1880-1889

In March 1888, Ellen  was arrested for drunk and disorderly. The Newton Kansan noted that “Ellen is an old offender and has figured quite conspicuously in the courts in this city on several former occasions, and the officers’ patience is about exhausted.” (1 March 1888) She plead guilty and paid the $5 fine plus costs.

In April, Ellen was again mentioned in the Evening Daily Republican under the heading “Too Hilarious”

“Ellen Thomas a colored woman, who has on more than one occasion figured romantically in police court circles, and Albert Lewis also colored, were taken before Police Judge Spooner . . . who fined them each $5 and the court trimmings for disorderly conduct on the streets Friday night.” (22 April 1888)

The reporter failed to describe what was “Too Hilarious” about the situation.

A more serious crime was committed in October when the Newton Daily Republican  reported that she was “Fined for Her Fun.” Ellen was described as the “frisky colored maiden, who assaulted the young white girl Miss Scott.” The trial was held in Judge Lupfer’s court and Ellen was fined $5 and costs which the editor felt would “no doubt cause her to have more respect for the law.” (22 October 1888)

She again caught the attention of the police and newspaper readers in October 1891. After serving time  in jail for an “affray” with Mrs. Weston (another Black woman), Ellen was released, but soon found herself back in jail for attempting to help a fellow prisoner escape. The Newton Daily Republican recounted:

“It seems that while in jail she lost her heart to one of her fellow-prisoners, a colored man giving his name as McCloskey, and ever since she received her freedom has been trying to devise a way for him to escape. Today Sheriff Pollard caught her giving him two saws made especially for cutting iron and promptly arrested her.” (22 October 1891)

This time she was sentenced to 15 months at Lansing for the attempt. She returned to Newton in 1893, “a rather notorious colored woman.” Ellen next appears in Police court with several others on charges of being operators, inmates or frequenters of questionable houses.” However, in this case she was found not guilty.

Ellen appears once more in the Newton paper in a strange story featuring “Female Footpads.”

Newton Kansan, 26 Jan 1900

The Newton Kansan on January 26, 1900 colorfully describes the hold up of “L. Titsworth of Lincoln. . . by three wenches” on West 4th near the Second Baptist Church in Newton.  Titsworth was walking around town to pass the time when,

“he was accosted by the dusky Amazons, one of whom flashed a pistol in his face. He surrendered at once and the woman went through his pockets, taking two $5 bills and a silver dollar.  This was about 8 o’clock; services were going on in the church at the time.  the audacity of the affair left Mr. Titsworth almost speechless and by the time he regained composure the females had flown.”

Warrants were quickly issued for Ellen Thomas, Mary and Gertie Doe. In a strange turn, the February 23 issue of the Newton Kansan noted that

 “The criminal docket was wiped up this morning owing to the fact that ‘Colonel’ Titsworth failed to leave his address and refuses to stay in one place long enough to allow said address to become known . . . the case dismissed.”

The editor noted, “The colonel is a smooth proposition and will no doubt be the defendant in a state case some time.”

Ellen Thomas also seemed to disappear from Newton and the record.

Bill Thomas: “Full of Lead”

William or Bill was born in Tennessee in approximately 1867. He was 13 when the family arrived in Newton.  By the mid-1890s, he was working as a porter at the Clark hotel in Newton.  He had scuffles with the law off and on.  The most serious event was in 1896 and also involved his sister Ellen.

Newton Kansan, 5 November 1896

During Republican rally with a large crowd, Thomas apparently took insult at “Red” Woodford slapping his sister Ellen. Thomas drew his 32 caliber revolver and fired, hitting Woodford at least twice. Woodford drew his own weapon and chased after Thomas.  Even though both men sustained possibly fatal wounds, the paper reported that they “showed great courage so far as the effects of the shots were concerned.” Woodford was carried to Harry Lum’s and Thomas to Dr. Roff’s, both too badly wounded to be arrested, neither expected to live.

In May 1897, the Newton Kansan reported Red” Woodford Captured. Apparently, both men were strong enough to escape Newton before they were arrested for the November 1896 shooting.  Woodford returned to the area in May 1897 and Sheriff Charles Judkin wasted no time in arresting him.  The paper reported that Bill Thomas was in Louisiana.

Madison & Mathilda Thomas

Madison and Matilda Thomas seemed to have lived a much quieter life than  their children.   One can only wonder what they thought.

Matilda Thomas: “A Colored Woman”

In 1892, sorrow struck the family when Matilda died of “a severe attack of asthma.” on December  10. Her obituary was a brief announcement in the paper. She was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Newton, Ks.  Matilda was born in Kentucky in approximately 1842.  She possibly met Madison Thomas after the Civil War and they were married.  Their first child, William was born in 1867.

Newton Daily Republican, 10 December 1892.

Madison Thomas: “The Price Paid”

Born a slave in about 1829 in Virginia,  little can be pieced together about Madision Thomas’ life. A small notice in the Newton Kansan for July 18, 1907 notes:

“Thomas is at present time 86 years of age and is growing feeble but at one time he was evidently a good man as the price paid for him was 1200 dollars.” 

The article also describes Thomas’ bill of sale for a “negro slave . . .Madison Thomas . .  in Richmond, Va in the year 1858.” When the war broke out Madison enlisted in the Union army under General Thomas and “was given by his own master the bill of sale for his own body.”

Under the command of General Thomas, it is likely that Madison served with the USCT 1st Brigade (14,16,17,18,44) or USCT 2nd Brigade (12, 13,100) and which was raised in Tennessee. He was posted along railroads in 1864 and moved to Nashville with General Thomas to participate in the Battle of Nashville.

After 1911, Madison Thomas, former slave, Union soldier, laborer and Harvey County resident since 1880 disappears from the written record. While his wife, Matilda Thomas, is buried in Greenwood, there does not seem to be a record of his death or burial.

Sources & Notes

  • Thank you to HCHM Volunteer Damon Penner for his research on Madison Thomas’s Civil War record. (Any errors are mine.) Damon is a senior at WSU and is currently volunteering at HCHM working with the Civil War Pensions.
  • More on Juneteenth 
  • Newton Daily Republican: 1 July 1891, 7 January 1893
  • Newton City Directories: 1885, 1887, 1902, 1905, 1911.
  • U.S Census: 1880, 1900, 1910,
  • Kansas Census: 1895, 1905,

 

The Most Enjoyable Home Talent

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

In 1902, seven year old Forrest Williamson, son of John & Lillie, said, “I do” to young Irene McManus in a “Tom Thumb Wedding” performance at the Newton Opera House in front of friends and family.

Photo taken by Murphy Studio, Newton, Ks, 1902.

Tom Thumb Ceremony

The July 2 edition of Evening Kansan Republican  described the event as

  “one of the most enjoyable home talent performances ever presented in Newton. The actions of the little tots who appear for the first time before a large company are always interesting, but last night their performances were peculiarly amusing as they attempted to ape the manner of their elders.”

Guests were escorted by the“gallant ushers.” The “old maids (Hazel St. John, Mable Cobb and Marguerite Fritz) separately and singly, each exhibiting some eccentricity which literally ‘brought down the house.’ One found it necessary to stop just before she stepped up on the stage, remove a hand glass, and arrange her bangs. Another carried with her through the ceremony and fondled now and then her pet cat.”  

The wedding party consisted of bride’s maids, Gladys Duff and Grace Reed with Yuarda O’Rourke who “tripped lightly before the bride carrying the ring.”

Next the bride, escorted by her father, “was a veritable picture of childish beauty.”

The ceremony took place on the stage “quickly performed by the minister, and the groom placing the ring on the bride’s finger” during which “the bride’s mother shed copious tears.”

Friends and relatives “crowded up to offer congratulations . . . the old maids  gave the bride a frigid handshake.”

Throughout the performance “each of the little ones seemed to understand the character he was to impersonate and acted it out well.”

Following the wedding supper and a closing by A.J. Duff, the Evening Kansan Republican editor noted: “A better pleased audience never filed out of the opera house.”

Tom Thumb Weddings

Tom Thumb weddings became popular after the 1863  marriage of an ultra-diminutive 19th century actor, Charles Stratton — whose stage name was Gen. Tom Thumb – to super-tiny Lavinia Warren in New York.  Stratton was a national celebrity for his performances in a P.T. Barnum  sideshow.

The couple received wedding presents from wealthy Americans, including a miniature horse-drawn carriage fashioned by Tiffany & Co. Barnum sold tickets to the wedding reception. The newlyweds were invited to the White House by President Abraham Lincoln.

As a result, Tom Thumb weddings became a popular program for children. For the mock marriage, a little boy puts on a tuxedo and a little girl dons a bridal gown. They walk down the aisle together and exchange “vows.”

Churches and organization used the productions to raise money and to teach young people about formal fashion and wedding etiquette, or just for celebration’s sake.