Chet’s Summer Road Trip, 1857

In the summer of 1857, Chet Arthur and his pal and putative law partner, Henry Gardiner, set their sights on making their fortune out west and made an improbable road trip to Kansas.

What we know of this trip is largely from a single source: an interview Arthur had with Ward Burlingame, a Kansas newspaper editor and aide to several Kansas Senators and a Governor who may have been in Washington in 1882 to secure a permanent position in the post office back in Kansas. Burlingame put the article into a dispatch to a Topeka newspaper, the original of which has been hard to track down. (I’m working on it. Help appreciated.)  Arthur did mention the Kansas trip in passing to other contemporaries, but the Burlingame interview is the only relatively complete account.

We present below the full text of an article from a 1937 newspaper by a local Lawrence historian, Edward Bumgardner, which seems to have relied on the original article, perhaps quoting it verbatim. The account is thus third-hand, and without much corroboration, but has a free-wheeling and oddly self-deprecatory quality to it that suggests Arthur was indulging in a nostalgic recollection of a foolhardy episode of his youth more than building his own myth. With that said, Arthur’s Kansas adventure, like much of his early life, is very thinly documented and resistant to scholarship due to lack of contemporary corroborative sources. (This account omits what is perhaps a later fanciful elaboration by Chet of a running gunfight from a stage coach, which we’ll post another day.)

Not Chet’s stage, but might as well have been; courtesy National Park Service

I’ve annotated it lightly by providing links to related topics; the transcription is mine, with hyphens and other artifacts from the original article adjusted for leigibility, but original spellings have been preserved. Footnotes in square brackets are mine.

Some discussion of the context of this trip in Arthur’s life and national events first.

Arthur was 27 years old when he first set out, and had been practicing law in New York City for about three years. In the course of Arthur’s life he relied on many patrons to further his interests and fortunes, but in the Kansas adventure he struck out more or less on his own, with a buddy. Gardiner later formed a full partnership with Arthur for his Civil War practice, a lucrative one specializing in war damage claims and supply issues related to the logistics of the Union Army, that got Arthur involved more deeply with Republican machine politics and patronage following his stint as a (thirty-one year old!) Brigadier General in charge of supply in New York for the first two years of the war.

One might be a bit astonished in knowing about Arthur’s later life, where the creature comforts and attractions of city life were prominent, to think he was setting his shingle on the frontier at one point.

Bleeding Kansas
Bleeding Kansas, courtesy National Park Service

Kansas was not yet a state, and was embroiled in the middle of an internal civil war, “Bleeding Kansas”, between pro-slavery and abolitionist settlers following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 which provided for a popular referendum on the legality of slavery in the territory. There were election irregularities (mostly outright fraud), voters shipped in from out of the territory, mixed signals from both Congress and President Buchanan, and competing state governments in Leavenworth and Lecompton.

Chet, late 1850’s

Arthur was clearly an ideological abolitionist, having been raised by a firebrand abolitionist minister, William Arthur, and was involved at least peripherally as a junior attorney in the Lemmon and Jennings civil rights cases during his first years as a lawyer. It’s possible he was motivated by the call of Northern abolitionists to assist the Jayhawkers of Lawrence and environs in making the Free State case. Yet the account below suggests a certain naiveté to what was actually transpiring in the territory, particularly with respect to the violence and lack of general rule of law. One suspects given the immediacy with which Arthur was sucked (suckered?) into land speculation that he was more interested in making his fortune than ideology, and certainly his conduct in later public life is consistent with that theory.

Nell Arthur

Something else had happened to Arthur in 1856 that probably impelled him westward. He was introduced, on the porch of a Saratoga Springs hotel, to the beautiful and talented Ellen “Nell” Herndon by their mutual acquaintance, Arthur’s college buddy and Ellen’s cousin, Dabney Herndon, and Chet was quickly enamored.

Arthur had a few obstacles to his romance with Nell. She was a southerner, from a slave-owning family – she and her mother were taking their summer airs at Saratoga. (Arthur’s visit to her family’s home in Virginia was the first time he’d ever encountered an enslaved person, by later accounts.)

William Herndon.jpg
Captain William Lewis Herndon

Beyond that, her father was famous and well-regarded. Commander William Lewis Herndon was a career naval officer, who had been captain of a brig during the Mexican-American War and then become a celebrated explorer of the Amazon River.Nell was an only child and quite doted upon by her parents, so one can speculate what Chet was up against fairly easily. A fairly poor Yankee with only an infamously irascible abolitionist preacher father as far as family reputation and fortune would have been fighting a rising tide in terms of trying to get paternal permission for a marriage.

So it is that about nine months into his courtship of Nell, Arthur left her and New York behind for Kansas — but because he continued to stay in correspondence with her (one surviving letter from later in 1857, on Nell’s birthday in late August, betrays a man completely besotted) it’s reasonable to conclude the purpose of the trip was largely to make a name for himself with his putative father-in-law as well as some cash, if possible.

Coming back hat in hand in early September, presumably having lost his investment in Kansas land, without a job or law practice, it’s easy to imagine the love-lorn Arthur in a state of desperation. Fate intervened: in what was a catastrophe for the nation, Arthur found the impediments to his marriage quickly removed. Captain Herndon was at sea when Arthur returned, in command of the SS Central America, a mail packet that was under US Navy command because of the important cargo it carried. That cargo was a very large supply of gold from the California gold fields. When the Central America went down in storm on September 12, 1857, Nell Herndon lost her father and the country was plunged into a “Panic” (a recession, in the parlance of the time) among the most severe in US history when the lost gold caused New York banks to have a capital shortfall.

The SS Central America

With Captain Herndon’s death, Nell and her mother turned to their favorite lawyer to clean up Herndon’s estate and complicated financial dealings. Thus it was that Chet got a crash course in Wall Street finance and the banks’ dealings with government while cementing his relationship with Nell, all without the disapproving glares of her father. Chet and Nell were married on October 25, 1859, they moved in with her mother (and kept a lavish house on her inherited dime) and within a year Chet was hobnobbing with the leaders of the new Republican party of New York and found himself appointed to Governor Edwin Morgan’s staff.

Chet never did return to Kansas, but he did take one more epic road trip to the west, as President, in 1883. And that shall be the topic for another summer road trip post, on another day.

Daily Journal-World, Lawrence, Kansas, Tuesday August 10, 1937, p. 5


Lawyer, Who Later Became President, Once Toured Lawrence

By Dr. Edward Bumgardner

Eighty years ago Lawrence entertained unawares a man who was to become president of the United States. The future president not only visited Lawrence with a view to locating here, but he actually practiced law in Douglas county for one day.

Early in the summer of 1857, Chester Arthur, a young lawyer from New York City, accompanied by his partner, Henry D. Gardiner, came to Kansas to settle and grow up with the country. Entering the territory by crossing the Missouri at St. Joseph, they came down to the west side of the river to Leavenworth, where they remained and investigated conditions for several days. They were so favorably impressed with the prospects of Leavenworth that they bought between 200 and 300 town lots and felt inclined to cast their lot there. Before deciding definitely on a location, however, Arthur wanted to see other towns in the territory, and from Leavenworth he came to Lawrence.

After he assumed the presidency following the death of Garfield, Arthur related his Kansas experiences to Ward Burlingame [1], a prominent Kansas newspaper man, who put the story on the record. As he related his Kansas adventure in the White House 26 years afterward, Mr. Arthur’s ride thru the Delaware reservation in a stage bound for Lawrence was a bright spot in his memory. Nature had been so kind to Kansas that he was much pleased with the new country: but he was soon disturbed by the unsettled political conditions and by the belligerent attitude of the men making up the opposing factions into which the Kansas settlers were divided.

At Lawrence he met General Lane who introduced him to Sam Walker—“the celebrated Sheriff Walker,” he said. “I always liked Walker very much indeed. I think that the man who most impressed me of all the men I met and talked with at the time, was Sam Walker.” The temper of Lawrence people was not reassuring, and Arthur determined to interview the governor regarding the political situation in the territory. Early one morning he started from Lawrence to Lecompton on horseback.

When he had traveled about half the distance he was overtaken by Lane and Wood who were also going ton an errand to the capital. To Lane’s astonishment Arthur seemed to be unarmed. When asked where his revolver was, the New York man admitted that he had none. Lane then proceeded to give him a severe lecture on the folly of a northern man going to the pro-slavery capital unarmed, and insisted upon his accepting the loan of one of his revolvers, as he had two. Arthur took the gun, but as he had never had any experience with such a tool, he did not know what to do with it, and he was more nervous during the rest of the day than he would have been without it.

On arriving at Lecompton, Mr. Arthur immediately sought the governor. He learned that the executive mansion was a story-and-a-half frame house having two rooms downstairs, and one room upstairs in which the governor had his office. Entrance to the office was gained by going up an outside stairway made of cottonwood boards and thru an anteroom in which were stored a pile of corn, some empty boxes and a collection of saddles and bridles.

In the office room, the governor, Robert J. Walker, sat at a round table that was covered with green baize. He had taken up his duties at Lecompton about two months before this time. Altho he considered Lawrence “the hotbed of abolition movements,” he had offended the pro-slavery element by his efforts to be fair to the free state settlers, and he was already distrusted and denounced by both sides. Having so many troubles of his own on his mind, he could not recommend Kansas to a stranger as a placid community in which to locate for the practice of law. As an illustration of the turmoil in the territory, a man named Bailey [2] had been killed in Lecompton the night before. In a talk lasting more than an hour Governor Walker presented such a gloomy picture of conditions in the territory that Arthur’s enthusiasm for Kansas was quenched.

Leaving the governor’s office, he went to the hotel for dinner. A man sitting at the same table and conversing with him was suddenly arrested by a deputy sheriff and charged with the murder of Bailey. The man had learned that Arthur was a lawyer and he insisted on his going to court to defend him. Tho he hesitated at first, he finally went with the prisoner to the justice court and secured bail for him. Thus Chester A. Arthur practiced law in Kansas; but he had seen enough of the West. He returned to Leavenworth, took a steamer to Omaha, and was soon back in New York. He never saw Kansas again; but according to the standards of that time, he was a citizen of Kansas for about a month. He owned real estate in Kansas, he practiced law here, and when he became president he was “formerly a Kansas” man.

[end of quoted article]

[1] Burlingame was a sometime newspaper editor who acted as a Congressional Aide to two Kansas Senators as well as an early Kansas Governor, and moved back and forth between Kansas and Washington DC between the time of Arthur’s visit (arriving at the same place Arthur did, Leavenworth, a year later) and Arthur’s Presidency. His original interview with Arthur is lost; it seems to have been quoted by Bumgardner in detail, perhaps verbatim, without citation. In any event Burlingame had been set up with the sinecure a Post Office position under Republican patronage in Kansas, and remained in Kansas thereafter.

[2] Possibly James G. Bailey, a Lecompton merchant and banker described in February 1857 by an opponent as an “arch-hypocrite of abolition” or his brother David, who was in business with him as a banker. I suspect it’s David who was murdered in 1857, as one James G. Bailey was reported to have died in an Indian attack in 1861, according to an 1862 Butler, Pennsylvania newspaper account, while David seems to have fallen out of the public sphere after 1857. We are tracking this down.