Ivan Boyd Prairie Preserve
Black Jack Prairie

Location:

Douglas County east of Baldwin.

Owner/manager: Douglas County Public Works Department. (This property was originally purchased with the assistance of the local chapter of the Santa Fe Trail Society).

Directions:

From the east at Interstate 35 exit 202: Go north on Sunflower Road – in about a mile the road bends west crossing railroad tracks and enters the town of Edgerton. In Edgerton go right on 4th Street – this is the intersection by the Community Hall and the town’s library (in a former bank building now known as the ‘Bank of Knowledge’). Go north three blocks to Highway 56 and turn left. Go west on Highway 56 six and a half miles to a roadside park (with a distinctive log cabin) on the south side of the highway. The preserve is south of the roadside park. There is also a small picnic area along a dirt road kitty corner to the southwest corner of the preserve. Ivan Boyd Prairie likely will be joined in the future with the Battle of Black Jack site southwest of the picnic area. (Note: Coming from the west on Highway 56 the roadside park is about two and a half miles east of Baldwin City).

Free. No camping. Pets on leash.


Ivan Boyd Prairie Preserve is a small prairie linked with what some consider the first skirmish of the Civil War, and it also has some of the best preserved ruts of the old Santa Fe Trail running through it. It is also a fine example of an unplowed tallgrass prairie. I will attempt here to present some of the rich history associated with this small parcel of land, perhaps taking a digression occasionally to tie the local history within a larger context, and only talk a little bit at the end about the prairie itself. Those whose interests are exclusively in prairie plants are encouraged not to linger in this written description but in the prairie itself.

The fine remnant of the Santa Fe Trail at Ivan Boyd Prairie Preserve was the original reason that this preserve was established. Because of this remnant it might even be said that this parcel of land is linked with another war. Banditry along the Santa Fe Trail, which unlike most other historic trails of the west was a two way trail of commerce rather than a one way trail of settlement, almost sparked a war with Mexico in 1843 two years before the actual Mexican War of 1845. The Republic of Texas claimed a small section of the Santa Fe Trail to be within its boundaries, a claim that was not recognized by Mexico. Texas indirectly encouraged some irregular raids along the trail that in 1843 resulted in the harassment and death of Mexican citizens and the shutting down of the trail itself. Cool headed diplomacy eventually prevailed and the trail was reopened, at least until 1845 when Texas was annexed into the United States. (Smith, Randy. 2005. Heroes of the Santa Fe Trail: 1821-1900. Boson Books. p59).

An incident here leading up to and perhaps even sparking the American Civil War was the Battle of Black Jack on June 2, 1856. Early that morning the abolitionist John Brown commanding a party of twenty seven surprised a larger pro-slavery militia commanded by Henry C Pate from Missouri that was camped by a group of black jack oaks a few hundred feet southwest of the present day prairie preserve. John Brown’s militia a week before had raided a settlement at Pottawatomie Creek executing the men that belonged to a Missouri based pro-slavery political party although there were no actual slaves in this settlement. The pro-slavery militia that was camped out by the black jack oaks was there to avenge the Pottawatomie executions. The Battle of Black Jack had a few casualties, several dramatic twists and an unusual outcome.

The primary accounts of the Battle of Black Jack are mostly written from the perspective of John Brown’s side. These accounts include letters from members of the Brown family, a series of letters published in the 1880s in several Kansas newspapers written by August Bondi a German immigrant who rode with John Brown’s party and an account of activities at Brown’s campsite three days prior to the battle that was written by James Redpath a correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune. Some archaeological work commenced in 2006 at the battle site which may eventually supplement the historical accounts.

James Redpath’s account of Brown’s camp prior to the battle was a result of a happy accident. Redpath was the Kansas correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune which back then was considered to be a radical newspaper. In fact it might even be described as literally a Marxist newspaper as Karl Marx was its London correspondent. Redpath’s horse was stolen and while looking for a messenger to deliver his correspondence to the newspaper he stumbled upon John Brown’s camp:

'I lost my way, or got off the path that crosses Ottawa Creek, when suddenly, thirty paces before me, I saw a wild-looking man, of fine proportions, with pistols of various sizes stuck in his belt, and a large Arkansas bowie knife prominent among them.’ (Sanborn, F.B. 1891. The Life and Letters of John Brown, Liberator of Kansas and Martyr of Virginia. Boston: Robert Brothers. p294).

The wild-looking man was Frederick Brown son of John Brown and he was carrying not a weapon but a water pail. James Redpath and Frederick Brown then proceeded to camp where Redpath gives this initial impression of John Brown:

'Old Brown himself stood near the fire, with his shirt-sleeves rolled up, and a large fork in his hand. He was cooking a pig. He was poorly clad, and his toes protruded from his boots.’ (ibid., p295)

Redpath remained in camp for about an hour. He noted that profanity was not allowed and that Brown’s small party seemed ‘earnestness incarnate.’ Brown would not allow the executions at Pottawatomie Creek to be discussed and then stated “ …. Give me men of good principles; God-fearing men; men who respect themselves, – and with a dozen of them I will oppose any hundred such men as the Buford ruffians.” (ibid., p296). Brown’s party included four of his sons and two men who had participated in the 1848 German revolution. One of these was August Bondi an important primary source for the Battle of Black Jack. Another was Charles Kaiser a Bavarian who had served in the revolutionary army of Hungary and whom Bondi described as having a face marked with ‘lance and saber-cuts’ and ‘a taste for war.’ (ibid., p297). Brown’s party of ten was later reinforced by some eighteen members of a local free state militia called the Prairie City Rifles. The core of John Brown's force really was his own family and the German 1848ers, the members of the Prairie City Rifles being mostly farmers motivated primarily to protect their families and property.

That John Brown was able to surprise Henry Pate’s group on June 2 was largely a result of his seizing upon some chance intelligence. Brown attended church service in nearby Prairie City on June 1 and overheard three men riding by disclose the whereabouts of Henry Pate’s militia. As a result he was able to gather his smaller force and approach Pate’s camp the following morning at 4 am. Brown’s party took cover in a ravine within sight of Pate’s tents and began firing at 6am.

Hostilities continued for seven to eight hours with many desertions on both sides. At one point John Brown crept back away from the ravine and was able to persuade some of the deserters to fire at the horses in Pate’s party. Events then took a bizarre turn. Frederick Brown, the ‘wild-haired’ man with the pail that the journalist James Redpath had previously stumbled upon charged Pate’s camp riding the colt Ned Scarlet. Frederick Brown, whom Bondi notes was regarded as a bit ‘flighty,’ continued to ride about Pate’s position while shouting and brandishing a sword. He drew fire but was not hit. Meanwhile Brown’s party continued to shoot the enemy's horses and mules. A few minutes later Pate waved a white flag and walked out to talk with John Brown. Brown demanded an unconditional surrender. Brandishing a pistol at Pate he then approached the enemy’s position with the eight unwounded men still left under his command. As he drew near both Pate and the officer still commanding the position hesitated realizing that their force of twenty outnumbered Brown’s eight. It was too late. Brown placed his pistol at Pate’s head and cried ‘Give the order!’ The order was complied with, a truce was signed and so ended the Battle of Black Jack (ibid, p300).

The Battle of Black Jack is often described as the first pre-Civil War skirmish and sometimes as the unofficial first battle of the Civil War itself. However with regard to the possibility of a war between the north and south I am not so sure that in 1856 one could have reasonably stated that ‘the die is cast,’ the declaration Julius Caesar made as he crossed the Rubicon to commence the civil war that would slowly smother the Roman Republic. The major controversy in 1856 was the spread of slavery. There was posturing over the right of states to secede but not much effort in the southern states to form large organized militias. Those advocating secession were still a small minority and actually most vocal in the anti-slavery northeast. 1856 was also the year a new president, James Buchanan, was elected. James Buchanan was a compromise candidate sympathetic to the southern cause but history occasionally yields examples of unassuming men and women unexpectedly thrown into leadership roles who rise to the occasion. If James Buchanan failed to seize the day at least chance had offered the invitation.

Three and a half years later on December 2, 1859 John Brown was hanged in Virginia for an even more audacious event than his raids in ‘bleeding Kansas’ - the seizure of the Harpers Ferry armory and his attempt to instigate an armed slave insurrection. On the day before the hanging about fifty miles to the north of the Battle of Black Jack site a tall ungainly politician who was considered Vice Presidential material for the underdog Republican Party awaited passage across the Missouri River to the territory of Kansas. Abraham Lincoln had been invited by friends and associates to speak in support of the Republican cause with respect to territorial elections to be held on December 6. To say that the future 16th president was tall and ungainly perhaps is an understatement. As he squatted on his haunches by the ferry landing with his long legs tucked upward Abraham Lincoln appeared to the newspaper publisher Daniel Wilder to look like a great grasshopper. (Farley, Alan W. When Lincoln came to the Kansas Territory. 17 November 1959. Excerpts from an address to the Fort Leavenworth Historical Society). Arriving on the other side of the river Abraham Lincoln gave a brief speech at the Great Western Hotel in Elwood. His remarks were short but significant as this was his first reference in a public speech to John Brown on the eve of the latter’s hanging. While praising John Brown’s beliefs and character Lincoln also condemned John Brown’s actions in no uncertain terms:

"We have a means provided for the expression of our belief in regard to slavery - it is through the ballot box - the peaceful method provided by the constitution. John Brown has shown great courage, rare unselfishness, as even Governor Wise testifies. But no man, North or South, can approve of violence and crime."

On December 2 John Brown was hanged. On December 3 speaking at Stockton Hall in Leavenworth Abraham Lincoln denounced John Brown even more harshly than before and equated his treason with any attempts by the southern states to secede from the Union:

“Old John Brown has just been executed for treason against a state. We cannot object, even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason. It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right. So, if constitutionally we elect a President, and therefore you undertake to destroy the Union, it will be our duty to deal with you as Old John Brown has been dealt with. We shall try to do our duty. We hope and believe that in no section will a majority so act as to render such extreme measures necessary."

On December 5 Abraham Lincoln spoke again at Stockton Hall and then by popular demand he spoke from the steps of the Planters House hotel. The Planters House speech was summarized in the New York Daily Tribune but its exact text has not survived and the Planters House itself no longer stands. After the Planters House speech Lincoln shook the hands of many people in the crowd some of whom were former slaves. One such former slave, Lizzie Allen, many years later gave this description of Abraham Lincoln on that day:

“He was a great big man, wearing a plug hat and a dark suit and with a shawl over his shoulders. When I came up to him he looked down at me and pressed my hand. He was awful ugly. It was the greatest day of my life.” (Paris, Alan E. The Planters House Is a Monument to Exciting Past. February 25, 1940. Leavenworth Times).

In the speeches that Abraham Lincoln delivered in Kansas there are many ideas and arguments that would appear again in the more famous Coopers Union speech that he would give on February 27, 1860. The Coopers Union speech was more than just eloquent oratory. It served to propel Abraham Lincoln to his party’s presidential nomination. The Cooper’s Union speech – in case you were not paying attention to that lecture back in high school – ends as follows: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it.” With those simple words the die was cast.

Slavery and war of course are far more important matters than preserving the plant life on a patch of land. However not much of these more important matters remains at this patch. The Santa Fe Trail ruts are eroding and filling in and the battle that was staged here was brief and almost nothing related to it remains. What remains here are mostly prairie plants. Many decades after the Santa Fe Trail had been abandoned and the Battle of Black Jack largely forgotten a professor at nearby Baker University named Ivan Boyd became fond of walks here. Through his efforts and that of a local historical society one of the earliest prairie preserves in Kansas was established.

The Ivan Boyd Prairie has a rich set of forbs but keep in mind that it is an upland location that suffers from occasional drought. This prairie is particularly notable for its unusually large mid-summer blooming prairie blazing stars Liatris pycnostachya and late season nodding ladies’ tresses Spiranthes cernua. It is a fine place to take a short walk and soak in the sun and some history.