Hidden History: Osage County hospitality served with side of Southern pride

The road to Santa Fe was forged right through the middle of Osage County, and by 1822 the route was secured, opening travel for wagon traffic. Starting in 1825, the route was surveyed and mapped, treaties were made with the Native American tribes to secure safe passage, and modifications along the route such as bridges were constructed for easier travel.

After the establishment of the trail, the land in what would become Osage County became part of a tract land reserved for the Shawnee. The Shawnee favored settlement along waterways and had long been active in trade with Euro-Americans, so trail crossings like those at Switzler and 110 Mile Creek were a natural location for settlement.

The name for 110 Mile Creek, originally called Jones Creek, received its new name indicating its distance along the Santa Fe Trail from Fort Osage, in Missouri. The location was lined with a considerable amount of timber and had a few Shawnee houses with their fields nearby. The grove at 110-Mile Creek was well known to the military and saw regular use as a camping spot.

Aside from those of native blood, no other individuals were supposed to enter reservation lands without ties to the local Indian agency or the military. Some, like a man named Richardson and his compatriot who settled at the 110 Mile crossing, found their way around this by taking wives among the Shawnee. The pair had conducted a toll stop on the trail at that location, built a story and a half tall building and another smaller one near it.

The Richardson claim was sold to a man named Fry P. McGee in the summer of 1854 in anticipation of the land being opened up for general settlement. McGee had spotted the location on a return trip from Oregon where he had previously taken his family. McGee, apparently not content with the land, returned the following year and acquired the property in Kansas Territory. McGee assumed Richardson’s claim but retained the name Richardson for the area. McGee’s arrival was not only one desiring the favorable location, but a move intent on helping secure Kansas’ admittance to the Union as a slave state.

Fry P. McGee and his wife, Martha, taken circa 1860. Photo thanks to Diane Euston.

McGee’s claim included a sizable house where travelers could rest for the night, a tavern providing food along the trail, cabins for his slaves, and a horse powered sawmill, and it became a mail stop along the trail.

McGee made improvements at the crossing, petitioning the state legislature for permission to add a ferry across the creek. His plans however were thwarted by the lack of water in the drainage. Despite the lack of a ferry, traffic through the stop at 110 was so frequent that at times McGee would collect $20 to $30 per day at 25 cents per wagon passing through his crossing.

His tavern and hotel provided lodging for newly arriving emigrants or travelers along the trail. Rates for services at McGees were $1 per night for lodging and 50 cents for dinner. Three enslaved individuals worked in the McGee household in 1857, one woman and child who helped in the kitchen with Mrs. McGee, providing hotcakes and chicken for the travelers, and a boy of 14 that helped about the property.

The nearby town of Council City, later named Burlingame, was forming in the fall of 1854 and many of the settlers on their way to the new settlement would stop at McGee’s. He would offer his hospitality, but admonish them as one Council City resident relayed, “to go right home, as Kansas was the damnedest overrated country in the world.”

Despite wishing the citizens of the nearby town with conflicting beliefs would give up on their endeavor and leave, he didn’t wish any harm upon them. The first winter was a difficult one for the new emigrants – most came to the territory on the assurances that Council City was more established than it really was and were undersupplied with food and shelter. The citizens found aid in the unlikely person of Fry McGee, ever the southern gentleman. Those early settlers credited McGee with their survival of that first winter.

Fry McGee, one early Burlingame settler recorded, was “the most drunken, profane and worst of the [McGees], having come boldly into Kansas to live, and liberally cursing and feeding all [travelers] who were unfortunate enough to enter his presence. But with the cursing, his abuse ended; while cursing you, and the whole race of Yankees, he would give you the best his house afforded, for a moderate price and ask you to drink with him in the bargain. With all his abuse of language, which everybody seemed to expect and nobody to resent, he [never did] a mean action, and was scrupulously honorable and honest in his dealings.”

Kansas Territory at this time was a turbulent place. When the territory was opened, Missourians poured into Kansas, quickly formulating a territorial government. Their pursuit of bringing Kansas into the Union as a slave state caused an influx of hundreds of “residents” into the territory at election time. Reports circulated that some of the Missourians were paid a dollar a day for showing up for the election. Hundreds of Missourians would arrive and camp near McGees declaring “hell and damnation to the s–s of b—–s” standing in their way. Harassment by the pro-slavery contingent, or the fear of it, would cause many free-state voters to refrain from voting.

Election time was not the only worry for those with free-state beliefs. With the success of the emigrant companies from the New England states, the cry went out for emigration from the southern states to boost the chances for Kansas’ admission as a slave state. Pro-slavery emigrant companies were raised, most notably the one by Alabama lawyer, Jefferson Buford.

Buford gathered approximately 400 men and arrived in May 1856 to Kansas Territory. Buford and a group of his men were enrolled and armed at the capital of Lecompton by the governor as territorial militia. But instead of being a neutral presence, Buford’s men roamed the countryside, supporting pro-slavery settlements and harassing uppity free-staters. Buford and his men planned to burn Council City, but the plan was foiled by a friendly warning from Fry McGee.

On one such occasion, McGee’s warning sent the Council City citizens to Abel Polly’s house, as this was heard to be the point of attack. Abel Polly had a favored prayer that he reused for every occasion, tweaking the language as appropriate. On this night though, he forgot to amend it and continued, “We thank Thee, Heavenly Father, that circumstances are as favorable as they are.” A lady in the group, in anticipation of that portion of the prayer laughed, causing the others to burst out into nervous laughter.

Threats of violence were not just directed at the free-staters, McGee’s property was subject to attacks by the radical abolitionists. In 1857, a group associated with John Brown started from Topeka and raided the Wakarusa valley, ending up at McGee’s, where they looted his store and took goods valued at $2,000 and 20 head of horses and mules. If he had advance notice of raids, McGee would remove his family and possessions, including his slaves, to Missouri to avoid losses of life or property.

The abolitionist tide eventually turned in Kansas, and McGee’s life in Osage County ended when he died at the young age of 45, on Sept. 17, 1861. He was eventually interred at Elmwood Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri, where in an earlier chapter of his life he made his mark as a founding father of the booming river city.

Photo of Fry P. McGee and his wife, Martha, taken circa 1860, thanks to Diane Euston; see https://newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com/2018/09/early-kansas-city-was-influenced-by.html

Please note: The site of McGee’s former hotel and creek crossing is on private property and is not publicly accessible.


wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She lived in Osage County for 20 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.


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