Hidden History: Burlingame veteran’s fight for honor continued in civilian life

Burlingame Cemetery holds more than 250 veterans of the Civil War. Approximately 10 of those soldiers served in the United States Colored Troops. While that number seems relatively small, the ratio in comparison to other area cemeteries is quite high. Those that served in the Colored Troops fought for their freedom and had to overcome many obstacles including changing perceptions of how people felt about differences in race. One of these Burlingame Colored Troops veterans is Isaac Williams.

Isaac’s origins are uncertain, as is often the case with those formerly enslaved. The first evidence of Isaac is when he enlisted for the war effort at Benton Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri, with the 4th Missouri Colored Troops in December of 1863, which later became the 68th USCT. Some men serving in this regiment are noted to have been from eight central Missouri counties, however St. Louis was also a way station for the fugitive slaves coming in from the South on their way to free territory to the north or west. Isaac was transferred to the 67th USCT and mustered out at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at the end of the war.

After his service, Isaac found work and assistance from abolitionists in Osage and Lyon counties, in Kansas.

In 1865, Isaac was living near Waveland (near Wakarusa) with Charles C. Gardiner. Gardiner was a civil engineer, receiving training at Alfred University in New York, one of the few schools at the time that was integrated. Gardiner came to Kansas in 1859 and settled north of Burlingame. He removed to Missouri just before the war and served with two units of the loyalist Missouri home guards. At the end of the war, Gardiner was stationed at St. Louis, where he likely met Isaac.

While in Missouri, Gardiner married Lydia Buffington, a Quaker woman whose family assisted fugitives on the Underground Railroad. The Gardiners returned to Kansas in 1865, settling at Waveland, where they opened their home to Isaac and at least two other refugees.

From the Gardiner household, Isaac went to work in Lyon County for Nicholas Lockerman, around 1870. Lockerman supported the free state cause and was a wealthy stockman with a ferry that crossed the river on his property.

Isaac’s time in Lyon County was short – in the late 1870s he returned to the area north of Burlingame and rented land from O.H. Sheldon, a businessman who helped shape early Osage County.

Former Kansas governor Charles Robinson said of Sheldon, “When the wave of corruption swept over our young state, more blighting in its effects, if possible, than the curse of human slavery, against which successful war had been waged, no smell of fire was found upon his garments.”

O.H. Sheldon assisted in the establishment of many area towns: Burlingame, Superior, Wilmington and Scranton, serving as the first postmaster – a necessity for a new town. On Sheldon’s land, Isaac built a story-and-a-half house and established a prosperous and well cultivated farm, and was considered a friend of the family.

Isaac used his successes in farming to assist others less fortunate. In the time before the establishment of a county poor farm, those in need of assistance, medical or financial, relied on the homes of those willing to offer their help. Those individuals opening their homes to the needy were reimbursed by the community, and Isaac and his wife hosted at least two young men. Community life in Burlingame, while still holding to the equality of the races originally intended for the town by the founding fathers, still had an expectation by some to be segregated, and care for those in need was separated along racial lines.

Isaac was a companion of O.H. Sheldon’s son Charles (nicknamed “C.M.”) and his friends. C.M. Sheldon was “a young man of marked financial ability with a wealth of character and sterling worth which has won him the confidence and respect of all who [know] him”.

C.M.’s friends William B. Follett and William B. Davis were also partners with him in ownership of the Osage County Chronicle. Follett was a former resident of the radical abolitionist town of Oberlin, Ohio, and had come to Kansas in 1878. Davis had established himself in the area as a real estate broker and cattleman. These men included Isaac Williams as part of their company for fishing and traveling.

One outing involved a heated exchange and an instance of blatant discrimination in neighboring Osage City. Osage City was incorporated in 1872, and built primarily as a mining and railroad town. The diverse population was focused on industry rather than the abolitionist ideals that built Burlingame. Because of the varied background of the citizens, discrimination in Osage City was not uncommon. In this particular incident in 1885, Isaac and Follett met with an unfortunate reception at a local eating establishment. Follett, as co-owner of the Osage County Chronicle, wrote up the confrontation in the local paper.

“[A]t noon they called at a restaurant to get their dinner. As they entered the dining room a dude boarder, whose dinner had just been served, gave one hurried glance at Isaac and with his hand on his stomach rushed into the street.”

The owner was so horrified at the loss of the business that he harangued Follett and Williams.

“Just then the proprietor of the hash house put in an appearance and addressing Mr. Follett exclaimed: ‘There now, you’ve brought a d—-d n—– into my place and scared off a boarder who has been with me four or five months.’ Of course Mr. Follett and his colored companion felt very badly for the unfortunate landlord, who owing to a little thoughtlessness on their part had lost his only boarder. The next time they have occasion to visit Osage they will be more careful. In the meantime it is to be hoped that the poor landlord and his dude boarder will become reconciled and the stomach of the latter be restored to its normal condition.”

But Follett issued a stinging admonishment to the proprietor, stating the “landlord or boarder who can’t stand the presence of a respectable colored man as Isaac Williams, has no business in free Kansas.”

Isaac’s wife Harriet died in 1887, and he followed her into death in 1893. With his family gone, his grave was left without a permanent marker and his memory eventually faded into history. But ultimately Isaac was able to live as a free man and be buried by those he loved.

Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.
I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.

(From Bury Me in a Free Land by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, public domain.)

Tintype photo from Wendi Bevitt’s collection is of an unidentified USCT soldier in front of a Benton Barracks, St. Louis, Mo., backdrop.


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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