By Andy May
Note to reader, this post is not about climate change or science.
Caleb May was born Jan. 19th, 1816 in Madison Co., Kentucky. His father, James May, died in 1830 when Caleb was just fourteen. His two older brothers, David and Isaac married in 1832, leaving him as the main support of a widowed mother with 4 children younger than himself. As a result, he had to work the family farm and only had time for a few months of formal schooling. Although he was mostly self-taught, he was fond of reading and was always current with the politics of the time. Caleb’s older brother, Isaac May, was the great-great grandfather of the author.
When Caleb was ten years old, he witnessed a family of little slave boys sold at a local slave auction. The boys were sold to a farmer in the far south and were separated from their mother. The pain he saw in them and in their mother affected him deeply. He became convinced, from that time forward, that slavery was cruel and a blot on civilization. This incident guided much of his life and caused him to work tirelessly to fight slavery in his eventual home in Kansas and to help Kansas become a free state.
At the age of 16 he and his family moved to Decatur Co., Indiana, to a new farm and he continued to support his mother and younger siblings. He was married January 4, 1838, in Decatur County, to Miss Margaret Parnell. During their marriage, they had fourteen children of whom eight lived to old age, and five died quite young. One of his sons, Samuel, was murdered by Comanche Indians in Texas in December 1873, he left a wife and two children. One of the children died, the other was raised by his maternal grandparents. Two sons and three daughters moved to Oregon and two sons and one daughter remained in Kansas. Two sons and three sons-in-law served in the Union Army during the Civil War, they were: William, Enoch, Henry Williams, Thomas Rodebaugh and Albert Graham, respectively.
The family remained on the Decatur County farm for ten years, and then moved to Arkansas where they resided three years. Then they moved to Buchanan Co., Missouri, where they lived until Kansas was opened for settlement. In 1854 they moved to Atchison Co., Kansas, took a claim, opened a farm and Caleb became one of the active free-state (the free-state party was the name of the anti-slavery party at the time) men of the Territory. At that time, it was unsafe for any man to express opposition to slavery in Atchison County, but in defiance of threats against his life, he became distinguished as one of the boldest anti-slavery men of the Territory. In 1855, at the age of 39, he was elected as a delegate to the Topeka Constitutional Convention and was one of its most useful working members.
In 1878, later in his life, Caleb May was described by the Coffeyville Kansas Journal as follows:
“[Caleb May is] a hale and hearty old man. … In personal appearance, his is a striking figure. Over six feet in height, angular, raw-boned, and somewhat bent by toil in the woods and fields; very dark complexion; small, piercing eyes, shaded by heavy bristling eye-brows; projecting forehead and dark hair; long arms and legs, and large hands and feet; cool, alert, and a dead shot with a rifle; obstinate in opinion, and having a tenacious memory; of firm principles and perfectly fearless in maintaining them – he is the ideal of a pioneer and frontiersman; of that race of men who have kept in the front of civilization during its march across the continent and subdued the wilderness for its uses.”
The Topeka Constitutional Convention and The Wakarusa War
The Topeka Constitution was the first effort to form a Kansas governmental structure and define its basis in law. The delegates to the convention were elected in October of 1855 and they included Caleb May from the 13th Representative District of the Kansas Territory. The proclamation, from the Chairman of the Executive Committee of Kansas Territory, James H. Lane, states:
“[The delegates shall] form a Constitution, adopt a bill of Rights for the People of Kansas, and take all needful measures for organizing a State Government preparatory to the admission of Kansas as a State into the Union.” The Kansas Herald of Freedom, Wakarusa, Kansas, 20 October 1855.
The Topeka Convention assembled on October 23, 1855 at noon. At the same time as the Topeka Constitutional convention was meeting, a group of Missouri pro-slavery volunteers marched on Lawrence, Kansas, a prominent free-state community in northeastern Kansas. The pro-slavery force was determined to destroy Lawrence. This force was organized in response to a very strange series of events called the Wakarusa War.
On November 21, 1855, a Kansas pro-slavery resident, Franklin Coleman, murdered Charles Dow, who was a free-stater. The murder was not over politics, but over a land dispute. The disputed land was south of Lawrence and was owned by Jacob Branson, who recovered Dow’s body after the murder. Coleman admitted shooting Dow, but argued it was self-defense. Sam Jones was the county sheriff in the Lawrence area, he was headquartered in Westport, Kansas and was a pro-slaver. He arrested Jacob Branson for disturbing the peace, jailed him in Westport and let Frank Coleman go. The arrest of the innocent land-owner Branson and the release of the murderer caused an uproar in the community, so the free-staters formed a posse and freed Branson from jail. Then, they took Branson to Lawrence.
Sheriff Jones ask Kansas governor Wilson Shannon to call out the Kansas territorial militia to aid him in the arrest of Branson’s rescuers. When the governor called out the militia, Sheriff Jones arranged for 2,000 Missouri pro-slavery men to show up for the muster. To make matters worse a band of about 100 pro-slavery men raided the Liberty, Missouri arsenal for weapons.
When Caleb heard about the call for men to defend Lawrence, he gathered twenty armed men and they set out, through pro-slavery Atchison County, toward Lawrence. Unfortunately, the whole company of men that Caleb had collected were attacked by pro-slavery forces before they could leave Atchison County and Caleb and his men were imprisoned. He managed to escape the prison and make his way to Lawrence where he showed up with a horse and a double-barreled shotgun. In all around 500 armed men made it to Lawrence in time to defend the city. The famous John Brown of Osawatomie, Kansas and some of his sons also responded to the call-to-arms.
The winter of 1855-1856 was bitterly cold, probably the coldest winter of the 1850s. By the time the forces were set for battle it turned cold with a miserably cold rain. The Lawrence defenders were in relative comfort, but the Missouri invaders had to be miserable. It is possible that the horribly cold and wet weather helped prevent bloodshed.
Governor Shannon, John Brown and Caleb May realized how serious the situation was and then the following occurred according to a letter by John Brown who witnessed the events:
“On reaching the place, we found that negotiations had commenced between Gov. Shannon (having a force of some fifteen or sixteen hundred men) and the principal leaders of the Free-state men, they having a force of some five hundred men at that time. These were busy night and day fortifying the town with embankments and circular earthworks up to the time of the treaty with the Governor, as an attack was constantly looked for, notwithstanding the negotiations then pending. This state of things continued from Friday until Sunday evening. On the evening we left, a company of the invaders of from fifteen to twenty-five attacked some three or four Free-state men, mostly unarmed, killing a Mr. Barber, from Ohio, wholly unarmed. His body was afterward brought in and lay for some days in the room afterward occupied by the company to which I belonged (it being organized after we reached Lawrence). The building was a large, unfinished stone hotel, in which a great part of the volunteers were quartered, and who witnessed the scene of bringing in the wife and friends of the murdered man. I will only say of this scene that it was heart-rending, and calculated to exasperate the men exceedingly, and one of the sure results of civil war. After frequently calling on the leaders of the Free-state men to come and have an interview with him by Gov. Shannon; and after, as often getting for an answer that if he had any business to transact with any one in Lawrence to come and attend to it, he [Governor Shannon] signified his wish to come into the town, and an escort was sent to the invaders’ camp to conduct him in.
When there, the leading Free-state men, finding out his weakness, frailty and consciousness of the awkward circumstances into which he had really got himself, [meaning Governor Shannon now led a force of Missourians against his own state] took advantage of his cowardice and folly, and by means of that and the free use of whisky and some trickery succeeded in getting a written arrangement with him, much to their own liking. He stipulated with them to order the Pro-slavery men of Kansas home, and to proclaim to the Missouri invaders that they must quit the Territory without delay, and also give up Gen. Pomeroy, a prisoner in their camp, which was all done; he also recognized the volunteers as the militia of Kansas, and empowered their officers to call them out whenever, in their discretion, the safety of Lawrence or other portions of the Territory might require it to be done. He, Gov. Shannon, gave up all pretension of further attempt to enforce the enactments of the bogus [a name for the current pro-slavery Kansas Territorial legislature] Legislature and retired, subject to the derision and scoffs of the Free-state men (into whose hands he had committed the welfare and protection of Kansas), and to the pity of some and the curses of others of the invading force. So ended this last Kansas invasion, the Missourians returning with flying colors after incurring heavy expenses, suffering great exposure, hardships and privations, not having fought any battles, burned or destroyed any infant towns or Abolition presses, leaving the Free-state men organized and armed, and in full possession of the Territory, not having fulfilled any of all their dreadful threatenings, except to murder one unarmed man, and to commit some robberies and waste of property upon defenseless families unfortunately in their power.” Excerpted from John Brown’s letter to his family, dated 16 December 1855 (Sunday).
Other free-staters also made their way to Lawrence, they included Thomas Barber who was killed by Pottawatomi Indian Agent and pro-slavery advocate George Clarke on December 6. The killing of Thomas Barber, described by John Brown above, near his farm in Clinton, Kansas, was a major event and he was made into a martyr in both Kansas and in New England. Barber’s grave is in Pioneer Cemetery, now located on the west side of the University of Kansas campus on the top of Mount Oread. It is said his funeral cortege reached all the way from downtown Lawrence to the top of Mount Oread. The killing and the funeral inspired a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier called the “Burial of Barber.” Below are the closing stanzas of the poem:
Frozen earth to frozen breast,
Lay our slain one down to rest;
Lay him down in hope and faith,
And above the broken sod,
Once again, to Freedom’s God,
Pledge ourselves for life or death.
That the State whose walls we lay,
In our blood and tears, to-day,
Shall be free from bonds of shame,
And our goodly land untrod
By the feet of Slavery, shod
With cursing as with flame!
Plant the Buckeye on his grave,
For the hunter of the slave
In its shadow cannot rest;
And let martyr mound and tree
Be our pledge and guaranty
Of the freedom of the West!
John Brown sent another letter to his wife from Lawrence in which he said the free-staters fury was such that “CIVIL WAR” will result. Brown deliberately capitalized civil war.
Caleb and the others remained in the town until a peace treaty was signed on December 8 and the fighting ended for the time being, but this still marks the beginning of a ten-year ordeal that would come to be called “bleeding Kansas.” Below is a map showing the location of critical places in the story of the Wakarusa War.
The movement of Atchison County from Pro-Slavery to Republican (1855-1859)
Free-State delegates passed the Topeka constitution on December 15, 1855. The Territory-wide election for officers and approval of the constitution on January 15, 1856 was boycotted by most pro-slavery men. Among those elected was Charles L. Robinson as governor. The constitution was forwarded to Washington with a plea to the U.S. Congress for its acceptance. President Pierce condemned the document and did not support it. It was presented in the Senate by Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan and in the House by Representative Daniel of Indiana. It passed the House by two votes on July 2 but was held in committee by the Senate. On July 8, Senator Stephen A. Douglas took up the Topeka Constitution in a bill counter to Senator Cass, which threw the issue back upon the people of Kansas in accordance with the provisions of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Free-State legislature reconvened in Topeka’s Constitution Hall on January 5, 1858. Governor Robinson urged keeping the State government intact and laws were passed. The Topeka Constitution was once more sent to the Congress, but no action was taken.
The following years were tense and the acrimony grew between the pro-slavery party (soon to be called the Democratic party) and the free-staters. The free-staters changed their name to the Abolitionist Party in 1856. Then in 1858 they all joined the new Republican Party, which was a single-issue anti-slavery party. The Republican Party had been formed in 1854 and would soon nominate Abraham Lincoln for the Presidency. Caleb May had always been a Democrat but identified himself with the Free-State Party, was an Abolitionist, and quickly joined the Republican Party. He was also a member of the first convention to organize the Republican Party in Atchison County. In 1855 Atchison County was ardently pro-slavery, but by 1859 it had become solidly abolitionist and Republican.
Caleb May was a leader of the minority free-staters in Atchison County and disliked by the majority pro-slavery citizens. At the time the leading newspaper in the city was the Squatter Sovereign. Immediately after Caleb’s return from Lawrence, Kansas and the Wakarusa War in December of 1855 he was told of a rumor that he was hatching a conspiracy to invade and burn the town of Atchison. In response to this he wrote a letter that was published by the Squatter Sovereign on 1 January 1856. We should remember that while Caleb read well, he had only a few months of formal school and he had never learned to write, following is a portion of the article and the letter in their original unedited form.
“[The following letter] emanates from a man who has proved recreant to the State [Kentucky] that gave him birth. Although he, in his peculiar style, denies a statement to the effect that he is one of the party to burn Atchison, his own admission proves he is in full fellowship with the traitors at Lawrence, and even shouldered his gun and marched in their defense, against the law and order party [pro-slavery party] of Kansas Territory. In addition to this, we find his name signed to the Abolition production of the Topeka convention, of which body he was a member. This letter proves conclusively that only the ignorant portion of the southern population are ever caught out of the Pro-Slavery ranks or are weak enough to be seduced by the enemy. It is unnecessary to suggest a reward for this traitor. How appropriate would be a Hemp necklace, placed around his neck by his own countrymen, whom he has so basely attempted to betray – But to the letter.
December the 21 1855 to all ho it may concern. Caleb May has bin informed that there is reports circulated against me consirning me being engaged in a conspiracy against the town of Atchison to which I make this reply the man that started that report is a base lyer and I will meet him any place or any day that he will say and decide the matter by god authority for men that knows me knows that I have always proteste against any mob or conspiracy let it come from what party it mite that was the very reason why I went to larence because ther came an express to me that she was invaded by an armed forse from Missouri which was brought to me by a proslavery man and he went with me and I would go againe under the same impression I am one agans all mobs let them come from where they may I gow for the people of Kansas settling ther affares with out enterfereance from any other state I have but little more to say in conclusion and that is if there should any more such reports be circulated I think that it would look more brave to inform me of it than it would to make the threats that I have bin informed that has bin made if I am base enuff to be guilty of such things I am brave enuff to acknolledge them which any man will say that knows me.
Rought by CALEB MAY”
This was followed by the following from the Atchison Squatter Sovereign newspaper under the headline “Falsehood Corrected!”, dated 1 July 1856:
“We learn that one Caleb May, an ignorant and fool-hardy abolitionist, living about ten miles from Atchison, has been boasting of coming into this place and using insulting language to the editor of this paper – also proclaiming himself an abolitionist in our presence. As the report is credited this neighborhood, we feel it due to ourself to brand the assertion as a base and malicious lie. We do not allow ourself to be insulted by any one, much less an abolitionist; and when Caleb wishes to try our good humor, we will give him a “peep into futurity.” No, this same cowardly skunk – we mean Caleb May – has, we are told, been in this city, but not very recently. During his stay here, he was very quiet and civil, which was all very proper. No person who visits this place and attends strictly to his own business will be molested; but the very moment a person attempts to bully the Pro-Slavery party here, or any member of it, he is sure to go home “with a flea in his ear” [this is an old expression, meaning a strict or stinging rebuke]. Those of our friends who have expressed surprise that we would let such an outcast as May insult us, are informed that he has had no interview whatever with us, and all his assertions to the contrary are as base lies as were ever coined in a fanatic’s brain”
At this time, Atchison was mainly Pro-Slavery. But, tension was high. Caleb was in the minority free-state group and generally avoided the city but did visit without being molested and was respectful. This was despite numerous threats against him.
A pro-slavery Kansas court indicted him in 1857 for usurpation of office (that is participating in the Topeka Convention), but he was acquitted. He was almost constantly in the field in defense of the rights of the free-state people, and on two or three occasions was threatened with hanging. In 1856, he was elected a Colonel for the Free-State Forces on Stranger Creek.
In 1858, he was elected a Commissioner of Atchison County, holding the office for one term. Three more state constitutions were created: the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution (1857) and the Free-State Leavenworth Constitution (1858,) before the Wyandotte Constitution (1859) ultimately led to Kansas being admitted into the Union as a free state in 1861. The Leavenworth Constitutional Convention was contentious, and the core of the debate was over negro suffrage. One group wanted to limit voting rights to white men only and the other wanted to allow black men to vote. This is discussed in some detail in a White Cloud Kansas Chief newspaper article from 15 April 1858. There was also considerable debate about allowing black people to immigrate to Kansas. A third group wanted the constitution to be silent on these issues and leave it up to the legislature to decide in the future. Caleb May was in the latter group and spoke to the issue as follows, from the White Cloud Kansas Chief article:
“Caleb May, of Atchison, suits us. That is the way we like to hear a man talk – Caleb May, of Atchison, was just such an Abolitionist as God himself, for He, in his Holy Word, said that the mingling of races was forbidden, and he was not willing to allow the negro what we had not given to our own wives and mothers.”
While this seems racist today, we need to remember that in 1858, women and American Indians were not allowed to vote, the times were very different. As it was the Leavenworth Constitution was well ahead of its time and very progressive, so much so that the U.S. Congress rejected it overwhelmingly within weeks of its submission to them on May 18, 1858.
The final attempt at a constitution was created at a convention in Wyandotte, Kansas in 1859. Caleb May was also elected to attend this convention. While Atchison was mostly pro-slavery in 1856, by 1859 it was majority Republican. The free-state and abolitionist parties had merged into the new Republican Party by this time and now had the majority in Atchison County. Robert Graham, John Ingalla and Caleb May were elected to be members of the Wyandotte Convention by a 120-vote majority. Caleb May received 414 votes total. The Wyandotte Constitution was approved by voters on October 4, 1859 and sent to the U.S. Congress. The U.S. House of Representatives voted 134 to 73 to admit Kansas under the constitution and the Senate approved it unanimously. The unanimous vote in the Senate was because eleven states had seceded from the United States and their Senators had left their seats. The final approval was on January 21, 1861.
The Civil War began a short four months later. Caleb May was the only person elected to all three free-state constitutional conventions. In 1861 it was decided that Kansas was too large to administer, and a decision was made to split it into two states, Kansas and Colorado. Caleb led the effort to add two degrees of longitude to the west end of Kansas, at the expense of the new state of Colorado. The convention determined to limit the western boundary to the twenty-third instead of the twenty-fifth meridian of west longitude, using the American longitude convention of the time. Today we would say he moved the western boundary from 100°W longitude to 102°W longitude, the earlier values are because the U.S. did not accept the Greenwich prime meridian as zero longitude until 1884. On the ground, the added land is everything west of Dodge City and Wakeeney.
After the adoption of the Wyandotte Constitution, he was the Republican candidate for State Senator from Atchison County, but was defeated by imported votes of South Carolinians temporarily located in Marshall County.
After the Civil War started, Colonel Caleb May formed a cavalry unit of 100 men and they were located near the west end of Atchison, Kansas on 7 September 1861 to defend against an invasion from Missouri.
Caleb’s son William was a second lieutenant in the Union army and was badly wounded with a bullet in the thigh on January 7, 1863, but he recovered. This was the very vicious Battle of Prairie Grove (Washington County, Arkansas, south of Joplin, Missouri and east of Tulsa, Oklahoma), which was probably the bloodiest battle of the Civil War west of the Mississippi. Due to the close proximity to Kansas and Oklahoma, the battle involved many relatives on both sides. The Union won the battle, largely due to the Kansas divisions, but more than two thousand men were killed in the battle.
In Caleb’s life he opened five different farms in Kansas, all of them were orchards and vineyards. The farms were in Buchanan County, Missouri, two in Atchison County, and two in Montgomery County, Kansas. His last orchard, near Independence and Coffeyville, consisted of 800 apple trees, 2,000 peach trees, 50 cherry trees, 50 pear trees, and 30 plum trees, besides many others, and a fine vineyard. Before the advent of barbed wire, Osage orange (Hedge apple) trees were used to make hedges to protect orchards from animals. In 1868, Caleb made a thousand-dollar profit by growing many Osage orange seedlings for sale. In addition to the orchards, Caleb was an accomplished wheat and corn farmer. He also raised hogs and cattle.
Caleb never had the advantage of a good education, he loved reading and could be an eloquent speaker, but he could not write well. He was very well liked in his community later in life and well respected.
Caleb sold his Montgomery County farm around February 21, 1884 and he and his wife Margaret moved to Eustis, Florida to live with their son William. Shortly after they arrived Margaret passed away. Four years later, August 27, 1888, Caleb passed away peacefully. He left no will and his son William May administered his estate.
Please note that copies of the original newspaper articles from newspapers.com and more can be downloaded here.
Mullis, Tony. “Wakarusa War” Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Oct. 13, 2018 at http://www.civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/wakarusa-war
Pine, Jeremy, May Genealogy, the ancestors of Dorothy, Nelson and Donald May, link.
The Kansas Herald of Freedom, 9 May 1857.
White Cloud Kansas Chief newspaper 15 April 1858.
Davis, K. S. (1984). Kansas: A History (The States and the Nation) [Kindle Android version], link.
The Coffeyville Kansas Journal, May 11, 1878.
Squatter Sovereign, Atchison Kansas, 1 July 1856, 1 January 1856.
Atchison Champion, June 11, 1859.
Leavenworth Bulletin, 7 January 1863.
Emporia Weekly News-Democrat, 10 January 1863.
The Daily Kansas Tribune, 8 July 1871.
The Coffeyville Kansas Journal, 11 May 1878.