1858: James L. Sayle to William J. Orendorff

This incredible letter was written by James L. Sayle (1818-1860), the son of Elias Sayles (1780-1835) and Sarah Sayles (1795-1853). James came to Kansas Territory with his family in time to participate as a delegate to the convention held in Topeka on 23 October 1855 to form a state constitution. We surmise from the letter that James entered Kansas Territory with the hope of making Kansas a free state but after having his livestock stolen and his land and family threatened by what were probably the Kickapoo Rangers, he decided to relocate to Nebraska Territory.

The irony is that James was born and raised in McLean county, Illinois, and though he was probably against the admission of Blacks into Kansas, he was probably also not an abolitionist. In the 1850 US Census, James was enumerated with his wife, Sarah (Layton) Sayles (1817-1899) in District 13, Wapello county, Iowa, with his seven children. James and Sarah were married in McLean county, Illinois, on 7 May 1839. By the time of the 1860 US Census, James had passed away, his oldest son John and David were farming the 160 acres he purchased near Brownsville, the final land grant awarded in 1860.

In his letter, James mentions the marriage of his eldest child, Lettitia Adelice Sayle (1840-1904) to John Strain (1832-1897). The couple were married in Andrew, Missouri, on 9 March 1856 in Andrew, Missouri. John Strain was born in 1832, in Tippecanoe County, Indiana. In 1854, he made his way west to Iowa, then to Missouri, and finally to Kansas Territory and was present during the turbulent “border ruffian” days. Family memoirs acknowledge that he was an ardent abolitionist and that his life was frequently threatened while living in Kansas Territory. To resist the Border Ruffians, Strain formed a company of thirty men who joined the main body of abolitionists under Charles Robinson at Lawrence and were with them during the “Wakarusa War“—a bloodless standoff between the free-soilers and pro-slavery forces in December 1855. The following year, Strain and his wife moved with his father-in-law’s family to Nemaha County, Nebraska.

James’ letter also refers to a land dispute between a free-stater named John Miller (cousin to John Strain), and a pro-slavery squatter named Milton Frelan. Three weeks after the Land Office at Kickapoo ruled in favor of Miller, he turned up missing suggesting to his friends and relatives that he had been murdered.


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Sayles wrote the letter to his cousin, William J. Orendorff of Canton, Illinois

Nemaha City, Nemaha county, Nebraska Territory
May the 2nd 1858

Dear cousin William J. Orendorff,

We received your kind letter dated March the 28, 1858, and found us all well as common except Sarah and her health has been poor ever since we left Kansas [Territory] and she is as well as common and hope these few lines may find you all well.

As you wanted to know what we was doing, I will tell you. We are making our licks at putting in a crop and we have got about 108 acres under fence and about 70 acres in good cultivation. We are on a nice prairie situation, 2½ miles northwest of the mouth of the Little Nemaha River 3½ miles from Brownville, the county seat, Nebraska Territory. And as you wished us to tell you something about our troubles in Kansas, we will give you a slight sketch of it. We was driven out of Kansas twice with my family and the last time, me being a conservative kind of a fellow, they gave me a few days to wind up my affairs and leave and I accepted the order as they had pressed 3 of our horses. We thought if we got anything away, we had better be at it. So we left the next day with the loss of $1,000 and two years work and glad to get off at that.

John Miller that had the timber claim was drove off the same time that I was and Milton Frelan went onto the claim and Miller went back and stood him a trial at the Land Office at Kickapoo City, Kansas Territory, and Miller gained the claim and in about three weeks Miller was missing and has not been seen or heard of since and we suppose he has been murdered and thrown in to the Missouri River.

And [our daughter] Lettitia has married a Mr. John Strain, cousin to John Miller and they live about a mile from us and are on a claim doing well.

And tell Uncle John and Aunt Pegga that we have not forgotten them. And tell [your brother] John and Mary that Sarah says she would like to see them and their little children. And give our respects to [your brother] Washington and tell him not to remain a bachelor always.

Times in this country is very hard in regard to money matters as the land sales will come off on the 6th of September next and if you can send me a 160-acre land warrant, and I will take it as a great favor and pay you good interest on your money. If you can do it, tell me next time. I can live on it and what the interest will be and write soon so that I can prepare further on account of the land sales money rates 40 percent. 160 acre warrants $180 cash in hand or $280 on 12 months time.

We don’t think of any more that will be interesting to you—only send us your wife’s name.

— James L. Sayle & Sarah Sayle

[to] Wm. J. Orendorff


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