Asenath’s Fiery Pen

Asenath’s Fiery Pen:

A Woman Responds to Political Violence in Territorial Kansas

 

Michelle M. Martin

Doctoral Candidate, Department of History

University of New Mexico

Editor’s note: Author Michelle Martin also shares Asenath Campbell’s story in this episode of Around Kansas.

The evening of December 16, 1858 was cold and clear as the residents of Fort Scott, Kansas Territory retreated to the warmth and security of their homes. As darkness enveloped the town James Montgomery, the self-proclaimed leader of the free state/anti-slavery forces in the territory and successor to John Brown Sr., organized his men for a targeted strike against the slumbering residents of Fort Scott. For Asenath Campbell, the daughter of a local hotel owner and fiancé of the local U.S. Deputy Marshal, another night’s rest brought her closer to her anticipated wedding nuptials. Little did she know that Montgomery’s raid on the town would dash her fondest hopes and dreams for a life with her beloved, John Little.

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Living historians portray James Montgomery’s men and the storming of the Free State Hotel in December 1858.

 

Montgomery shouted to his men and they rushed the steps of the Free State Hotel (an anti-slavery establishment), located in one of the former officer’s quarters of the old military post, and stormed inside to free one of their compatriots, Benjamin Rice. Rice was held in a makeshift jail cell on the hotel’s third floor. Asenath’s father, William T. Campbell an anti-slavery advocate, was the proprietor of the hotel.[1] Fearing for his family’s safety he offered little resistance to the mob. After they made their way to the third floor and freed Rice the raiders left the residents of Fort Scott to deal with the aftermath of their deeds. During the commotion Montgomery ordered his men to push several hay bales next to the pro-slavery hotel (located 515 feet across from the free state hotel on the old parade ground) and set them ablaze. While their fire did not burn the pro-slavery hotel as they intended their bullets did strike a blow against the town’s pro-slavery faction.[2]

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A living history reenactor portrays James Montgomery and the raid on Fort Scott and the Free State Hotel in 1858.

 

When the raiders forced their way into the Free State Hotel U.S. Deputy Marshal John Little, whose pro-slavery family lived in the former post headquarters building adjacent to the  Free State Hotel, reached for his weapon and fired a series of shots towards Montgomery and his men. Little moved a crate and stood atop it to look out a transom window above the front door to watch the commotion. The

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The Fort Scott Democrat’s coverage of John Little’s murder in 1858.

 recounted the events of the evening and John Little’s last moments. “He [John Little] mounted a box and was looking to the hotel out a window over the door when a Sharpe’s rifle ball penetrated his forehead and landed against the ceiling. He fell instantly, his blood and brains pouring out upon the floor,” the paper reported. The scene that unfolded was horrific. “The body of the dying man was carried into the next room— not, however, until some villain had despoiled him of his pistol and belt. Some of them, fiend-like, seemed to exalt over his dying struggles,” while his father Blake, a physician, was helpless to save him.[3]

 

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Fort Scott, Kansas looking toward the grounds of the former military post that became the nexus of the community.

 

With morning’s first light Asenath Campbell and her family—anti-slavery supporters—learned of the violent death of her betrothed. The local community rallied around the Little and Campbell families. Despite their political differences, the two families formed a close friendship when their children fell in love and announced their engagement. Newspaper tributes extolled John Little’s virtues as an honorable, noble man who loved his family, community, and country. What of his fiancé, the highly educated, erudite Asenath?[4] How did she process the passing of her beloved? What happened to her in the aftermath of her intended’s political murder? Women in Territorial Kansas learned quickly that politics and its unintended consequences visited their homes and firesides with great frequency.[5] Instead of retreating to their parlors and bemoaning their plight, women in Territorial Kansas advocated for themselves and their families in the face of loss.

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Living history reenactors at Fort Scott National Historic Site portray the Campbell and Little families and share the tragic events of December 1858.

 

As the shock of Little’s death wore off, Asenath took pen and paper in hand and issued a direct challenge to James Montgomery and his men. In January 1859 Asenath penned a fiery letter to Montgomery and named him as John Little’s assassin. Whether or not she intended for her letter to be published in the local papers is unclear.  However, her letter appeared in the Fort Scott Democrat, the town’s pro-slavery publication. Her words spoke to the anguish and pain that many women felt in the territory as waves of political violence swept over the fertile Kansas plains like tidal waves. She began her letter by demanding that Montgomery pay her heed. “Montgomery, Listen to me. Today I heard you said in a speech a few days since, that you were not sorry you had killed John Little, that he was not killed to soon,”[6] she implored. Continuing she extoled the virtues of her deceased lover in an attempt to paint Montgomery as a man with no morals.

 O, the anguish you have caused – He was one of the noblest men ever created, brave and true to his country and word. You can’t prove he ever injured an innocent person. – A   few days more and we were to of been married then go south to trouble you no more. But through your influance he was killed, sent to another world without even time to pray or say goodbye to his friends.[7]

Asenath then issued Montgomery and his men a direct, dire warning:

But remember this, I am a girl but I can fire a pistol and if ever the time comes I will   send some of you to the place where thers “Weeping and knashing of teeth,” you a minister of God, you mean a minister of the devil and a very superior one too. I have no more to say this time & you and your imps please accept the sincere regards for your future repentance.[8]

Asenath expressed the feelings of many women who suffered at the hands of the political factions that fought for control of the territory from 1854-1861. Establishing homes and caring for their families was directly impacted by the activities of men who took up arms in the struggle over Kansas’ entry into the Union as a free or slave state. Women learned that, despite their own political leanings in the territorial struggle, death crossed social, economic, cultural, and political lines and created suffering in equal measure for the territory’s women.

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Fort Scott was a military post from 1843 to 1854. The first officer’s quarters (to the left) was sold at auction and became the Free State Hotel owned by William T. Campbell.

 

Asenath’s letter to Montgomery was not her first act of political activism in Fort Scott. In June 1858 Asenath and several of the leading women of the community met at the home of Mrs. Hill to discuss how to better protect themselves against the various threats to their lives, homes, and families. The Fort Scott Bulletin recapped the gathering for its readers.

Since the cowardly attack of the town by Lane’s banditti, the ladies have come to the   conclusion that their sex affords them no protection against these outlaws, and in view of all the facts they held a meeting at Mrs. Dr. Hill’s on Monday evening last. Among the ladies present were Mrs. Judge Williams, Mrs. W.T. Campbell, Mrs. Col. Wilson, Mrs. S.A. Williams, Mrs. Col. Arnett, Mrs. A. McDonald, Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Clark, Mrs. Hutchinson, Mrs. Palmer, Mrs. Doak, Miss Mary Little, Miss Kate Meason, Miss Sene Campbell, Miss Alice Campbell, and Miss Dickey.

In addition to the assemblage of women— who represented both anti and pro slavery families from the community of Fort Scott— the women invited several of the town’s leading men to take part in the conversation and hear their grievances. Lieutenant Merchant and Marshall Smith were present and the women in attendance questioned them extensively about how they intended to protect the women and children of the community. Lt. Merchant indicated that a company of infantry soldiers were to be brought into the community for its protection. The women exacted promises of protection from both men who, according to the paper’s editor, left “feeling that it would be easier to oppose Montgomery’s rifles than such a battery of fair eyes.”

For the women, Asenath included, their action in the face of danger forced the town’s male power brokers to take notice of their plight and guarantee their safety. Playing on the notion of feminine fragility they made their case for protection. The fact they organized, demanded the men’s attendance at the meeting, and stood their ground showed they were well versed in the political situation in the territory. They did not sit idly by knitting, sewing, and bemoaning their plight. From their perspective, the women felt they took decisive action that ensured their views and needs were acknowledged by the town’s men who exercised political and physical power over their lives and bodies. Forcing the town’s leaders to be present at a meeting of women— a primarily feminine sphere— showed the community at large that women’s concerns were valid and deserved attention. Anecdotal accounts indicate that several of the town’s ladies learned how to load, fire, and clean pistols and rifles in the event the community was threatened or attacked while men were away from their homes and businesses. As Asenath’s letter indicates, she knew how to fire a pistol and would, if the opportunity presented itself, use a weapon if necessary. There is no evidence to suggest that Asenath carried through with her desire to send Montgomery and his men to the place where there was a “Weeping and knashing of teeth.”[9] With John Little’s death Asenath found herself in a more dire predicament: she was pregnant with Little’s child.

The 1860 federal census provides the tantalizing clues regarding Asenath’s life after John Little’s sudden passing. The home of William T. Campbell consisted of his wife, children, and a one-year old girl named Kate Campbell. Her mother’s birthplace was listed as Michigan (Asenath’s birthplace) and her father’s birthplace was left mysteriously blank. Following the family in the 1870 census Asenath no longer appears as a member of her father’s household. In February 1868 Asenath married James Gordon Stuart, a cabinetmaker from Nova Scotia, who emigrated to Fort Scott. The census records Asenath, James, and Kate Stuart as residents of Fort Scott. The fact Asenath gave birth to Little’s child, remained single for nearly ten years, and then integrated his child into her new marriage shows the flexibility at work in rural communities, especially in Kansas, where so many women were impacted by the political violence of the territorial era and the American Civil War.[10] With widows and orphans in every Kansas community prospective bridegrooms had to overlook the fact that women had been involved in prior sexual relationships with men. This contradicts many of the established views that men sought sexual purity in their prospective marriage partners. For women in Kansas, like Asenath, the lines of purity, necessity, and love blurred to create blended families. Sadly, for Asenath her marriage to James was short lived. In April 1870 Asenath and James suffered the crushing loss of their infant daughter Eliza. While still in mourning for her daughter Asenath’s world once again spiraled out of control as her husband died after less than three years of marriage.

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Asenath’s final resting place in Fort Scott’s Evergreen Cemetery.

 

After James’s death Asenath and her daughter Kate sold the home they shared with James and Eliza and moved in with her widowed mother. In 1880 the federal census lists Asenath Stuart and Kate Campbell as residents of her mother’s Fort Scott home. The shifting of Kate’s name from Stuart to Campbell is telling. Perhaps Asenath wanted her daughter to bear her family name in an attempt to protect her from the grief attached to her stepfather and sister and their untimely passing or the violence of her biological father’s past. Eventually Asenath and Kate moved to Denver, Colorado and built a life away from Fort Scott. Ironically, while visiting her siblings in Fort Scott in 1894 Asenath Campbell Stuart died unexpectedly. Her obituaries lauded her as one of the early residents of the community but mentioned nothing of her engagement to Little. She was buried in Fort Scott’s Evergreen Cemetery near her parents but within sight of the graves of John Little and James Stuart.[11] Today Asenath’s story is a key interpretive component to understanding the Bleeding Kansas era at Fort Scott National Historic Site.

 

Notes:

[1] William T. Campbell appears in numerous newspaper articles and advertisements in the local papers in the 1850s including the Fort Scott Democrat and The Fort Scott Bulletin in which his business ventures and local political activities are chronicled.

[2] For a discussion of the events in Kansas Territory and in particular the Montgomery Raid on Fort Scott see generally Nicole Etcheson. Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 196-198; Thomas Goodrich. War to the Knife:  Bleeding Kansas, 1854-1861. (Mechanicsburg, PA:  Stackpole Books, 1998), 213-225; Clifford H. Lyman. Aaahh Bourbon 1842-1865. (Fort Scott: Clifford H. Lyman Publishing), 141-150; Jeremy Neely. The Border Between Them: Violence and Reconciliation on the Kansas-Missouri Line. (Colombia: University of Missouri Press), 73-75; Kristen Tegtmeier Oertel. Bleeding Borders: Race, Gender, and Violence in Pre-Civil War Kansas. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009); G. Murlin Welch. Border Warfare in Southeastern Kansas, 1856-1859. (Pleasanton, KS: Linn County Historical Society, 1977).

[3] Fort Scott Democrat. December 16, 1858.

[4] Asenath Campbell was born in 1837 in Kalamazoo County, Michigan and came to Kansas Territory when her father migrated there to establish a hotel. Prior to her arrival in the territory Asenath attended the Kalamazoo Female Seminary where she received an extensive classical education. Her father was a prominent businessman in Kalamazoo and a friend to former Michigan Governor Eaphroditus Ransom who also settled in Fort Scott. Both men were anti-slavery advocates and hoped to ensure Kansas’s entry into the union as a free state. Asenath’s engagement to John Little, who came from a prominent pro-slavery family, shows how the political lines were blurred between families in many Kansas territorial communities.

[5] The writings of Sara Tappan Doolittle Lawrence Robinson, Julia Lovejoy, Clarina Nichols, and Mahala Doyle attest to the impact of violence upon women in the territorial period. Newspapers from the territory are riddled with notices regarding the widows and orphans of the era.

[6] Asenath Campbell to Kames Montgomery, January 4, 1859. Accessed online at https://territorialkansasonline.ku.edu/index.php?SCREEN=show_document&document_id=100299&SCREEN_FROM=search&submit=search&search=Campbell&startsearchat=0&searchfor=keywords.

[7] Asenath Campbell to Kames Montgomery, January 4, 1859. Accessed online at https://territorialkansasonline.ku.edu/index.php?SCREEN=show_document&document_id=100299&SCREEN_FROM=search&submit=search&search=Campbell&startsearchat=0&searchfor=keywords.

[8] Asenath Campbell to Kames Montgomery, January 4, 1859. Accessed online at https://territorialkansasonline.ku.edu/index.php?SCREEN=show_document&document_id=100299&SCREEN_FROM=search&submit=search&search=Campbell&startsearchat=0&searchfor=keywords.

[9] Asenath Campbell to Kames Montgomery, January 4, 1859. Accessed online at https://territorialkansasonline.ku.edu/index.php?SCREEN=show_document&document_id=100299&SCREEN_FROM=search&submit=search&search=Campbell&startsearchat=0&searchfor=keywords.

[10] Kansas sent more men to participate in the Union cause during the American Civil War per capita than any other state in the Union. After the war Kansas was called the Soldier State given the high percentage of her citizens who were Civil War veterans both Union and Confederate.

[11] Asenath’s daughter Kate and her remaining family in Fort Scott selected her burial location based on availability of plots and most likely proximity to the final resting places of her parents. There is irony in her placement given its closeness to both her murdered fiancé and father of her child and her former husband.

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