The Wakefields loved life on the frontier

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By Linda Hanabarger

In my column last week, you learned of John Allen Wakefield, the first white settler of Otego Township. In that story,  there were Indians, wars, log homes and Abraham Lincoln.
In this story of the second half of John Wakefield’s life, there are more Indians, vigilantes and late-night raids with a Lewis & Clark connection thrown in.

John Wakefield married Eliza Thompson, a daughter of Abraham and Elizabeth Brown Thompson, around 1818,  and the couple spent the early years of their married life in Otego Township. All of their children, except for the youngest, John Jr., were born in Fayette County.
About the same time the capital moved to Springfield, John and Eliza moved to Galena, where other former Vandalia residents lived and worked the lead mines.  Among them were Eliza’s sister, Martha, and her husband, Friedrich Hollmann, who is credited with building the first tavern in Vandalia for the Ernst Colony.
In 1846, the Wakefields moved again, this time to Iowa County, Wis., where John continued to work in mining. A few years later, they moved again to St. Paul, Minn., and built a large hotel. John was elected the first city judge of that community.
The year 1851 saw the family living in Waukon, Allamakee County, Iowa, where John built a large frame house on the California Trail. Indian attacks were a real fear, and Wakefield built a stone gun tower adjacent to the house. The house and gun tower are still standing, and their photo accompanies this article.
Ever the wanderer, three years later John sold out his property and moved south to Kansas. He knew there was trouble brewing. Statehood was coming to Kansas, and John wanted to be a part of it.
From his obituary we learn, “On the 8th day of July 1854, he entered the Territory of Kansas and on the 18th day of the same month, pitched his tent in what is now Douglas County, containing at the time but one or two families.”
At the first squatters’ meeting, Wakefield was chosen judge of the squatters’ court. The Wakefield family was smack dab in the middle of the border wars that had people living in terror from 1855 to 1857. John continued to work against slavery, no matter where he lived; an unhealthy position to take in Douglas County, Kan., located so close to the Missouri border.
He became the first Kansas Free State candidate, and a delegate to congress.  Even though Wakefield clearly won the popular vote in the territory, he was ‘expelled by the border ruffians from his seat, which was wanted for a “bogus” member.
A letter written by Wakefield to his daughter, Mary Ann, and dated Dec. 24, 1855, from Lawrence, Kan., tells of the vigilantes. "Thirty of these demons entered my house at midnight, opened the trunks by eschewing the locks, pretending that they were hunting Sharps rifles, but my wife had been too smart for them.
"She, that day, had buried our money in the earth. But to show their bravery,  they shot down from the upper story of the house down through both floors. Your mother has become a great heroine. She is known all over the territory, and nine men out of 10 say that she aught to draw a quarter section of land for her bravery that night in defending a lone traveler who had stopped for the night.
"The pistol that had been shot down through the floors was cocked to shoot him, but she demonstrated so bravely against them taking the life of a lone traveler, that they let him alone and shot off their pistol down through both floors. I was 15 days away from home. If I had went home, I suppose they would have killed me, as they did Barber, a near neighbor. All of this because we were from free states."
On Sept. 1, 1856, John and Eliza were burned out. The same year, while en route to Illinois for aid in men and arms, he was captured by Buford’s South Carolinians and narrowly escaped death as a “traitor to his native state.”
In the early years of their marriage, John and Eliza operated a lodging house in their home in Otego Township, 6 miles east of Vandalia. They continued to do so in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and now in Kansas. Soon after their house was torched, he rebuilt it, and three years later, in 1859, began construction of a large stone barn. The orchard he set out around his home continued to bear year after year.
Many times, history does not tell “her-story,” but Eliza Thompson Wakefield is described for us not only in her husband’s letters but in a book published in 1856 by Sara T.L. Robinson, under the title, “KANSAS – Its Interior & Exterior Life.”  Her account allows us a rare glimpse into  the Wakefields' home.
"The carriage halted in front of a large cabin, or two cabins rather, the place which is usually left open between them being made into a broad hall. [The] girl said, 'This is Judge Wakefield’s.' The lady,  whom we came to see, opened the door before we reached it, being glad to see a familiar face. She was very pretty and intelligent, and the mother’s heart could be seen in the soulful eye as she caressed [a] little boy, 12 months old. Her husband was from the aristocratic old state of Virginia, and of a gentlemanly, dignified bearing.
"The house is a home for travelers, and its capacious rooms were now full. Young mothers with their little children sat by the fire and looked weary with their travels.  Supper, too, was being prepared for the old judge, who came in from Lawrence, and with cheerful words always so full of humor, greeted us as he distributed the letters he had brought from there.
"The beds were partitioned from the common room by long curtains. Baskets were hanging on poles over our heads,  and bags of most capacious size were suspended from the walls, while meat and other articles for cooking found a place in the room. Judge Wakefield is from Iowa, and has been, since his first coming here, one of the standard-bearers of freedom’s army."
John and Eliza died within two years of each other, Eliza on May 9, 1871, at Reno, Kan., and John in June 1873 in Lawrence, Kan.
They were survived by six children: William Harrison Thompson; Thomas Jefferson; Emily, who married John Culver Terry; Martha; John Allen Jr.; and Mary Ann, who married Alexander Hamilton Willard Jr., son of Alexander Sr., a blacksmith and gunsmith who accompanied Lewis & Clark on their Voyage of Discovery. A son, Lysander Wakefield, died in California.