Droughts.As early as 1837, in a report from the Shawnee Mission, Mr. Johnson stated that the crops were short from drought, but he hoped they would have a sufficiency. Samuel J. Stewart, in writing of the early days of Kansas in 1856, says: "There was an overflow of the Neosho in May; then the rains ceased to fall and by the 4th of July all the little branches we had believed 'flowed on forever' were entirely dry. By August all the springs were no more, and we suffered from lack of water. Sickness came and a few died; others turned their faces to the east."
So severe was the suffering of the pioneers that the eastern states raised funds for relief. The Massachusetts legislature appropriated $20,000 for the relief of Massachusetts men in Kansas and large sums were raised in other eastern states by relief societies. The year 1857 was also very dry, the driest in some sections of the territory ever known up to that date. The rivers were unusually low and it was possible to ford the Kansas at almost any point, while several of the main tributaries became mere rivulets. On Aug. 26, 1857, Mons. Bordeau arrived at Kansas City with the first news of gold in the Pike's Peak region, and advised the gold seekers to take the Arkansas river route, as the "Kansas is destitute of timber and water."
It was the summer of 1860, however, which gave Kansas its reputation for droughts. During the fall and winter of 1859-60 but little rain fell. The spring of 1860 continued dry though there were a few showers that put the ground in condition for cultivation. The account of Hartman Lichtenhan, one of the early settlers, as given in the Kansas Historical Collections, says: "During the year 1860 not a drop of rain fell from the 15th of May until the following January. Nothing was raised, and in consequence provisions were very high. I freighted all summer from Leavenworth and Kansas City to the towns in the western part of the territory."
Horace Greeley, in the New York Independent of Feb. 7, 1861, said: "Drought is not unknown to us; but a drought so persistent and so severe as that which devastated Kansas in 1860 is a stranger to the states this side of the Mississippi. No rain, or none of any consequence, over an area of 40,000 square miles from seed time to harvest. Such has been the woeful experience of seven-eighths of Kansas during 1860."
The settlers were poor, without money to buy provisions at the prevailing prices, consequently they grew disheartened and nearly one-fourth of the population left the territory for new lands or returned to their old homes in the east. On Oct. 29, 1860, Thaddeus Hyatt wrote to the war and interior departments: "Thousands, of once thrifty and prosperous American citizens are now perishing for want. Winter is upon them; of clothing they are nearly bereft; food they have not to last them through the cold season that is approaching. Some have already died; others are daily dying."
Meetings were held in the principal towns of nearly every county to learn the extent of crop failure and devise means for assistance. Dr. Samuel Ayers, who traveled through portions of Linn and Lykins counties, said: "There will be almost universal destitution, and unless aided the people can not live." Aid societies were formed in the east and the abolition societies of New England sent Samuel C. Pomeroy to Kansas as distributing agent. Money and clothing were collected in all the eastern states and sent to Atchison, the distributing point. In addition to the actual necessaries of life, the committee also furnished seed wheat for the farmers, most of it being contributed by the farmers of New York, Wisconsin and Missouri. Forty-one counties received aid through the relief society and in a few cases special trains were used to transport supplies to the counties which suffered most.
Mrs. Emily Harrison, of Ellsworth, in her reminiscences of early days in Ottawa county, published in Vol. IX, Kansas Historical Collections, says that in 1867 there was a flood in June; "The drought followed, and after the drought came the grasshoppers of 1867. They covered the earth and stripped the prairies. Food was costly."
The summer of 1870 was dry with a partial failure of crops. Forty-two days passed without rain. The legislatures of 1869, 1871 and 1872 each made appropriations for the relief of drought sufferers. (See Harvey's Administration.) In 1874 came the long dry spell which gave the state the name of "Droughty Kansas." Only eighteen inches of rain fell in eighteen months. Rev. W. Bristow, pastor of a church at Eureka, Kan., that year, says: "The 14th day of June a heavy rain fell; all through the months of July and August occasionally heavy black clouds would loom up in the west, but no rain would come; the wheat crop was cut short; the chinch bugs went from the wheat fields into the corn fields; then came the hot winds like a blast furnace until it seemed that nothing green could survive. And to add to our troubles, late in the summer the grasshoppers came and completed the destruction of everything green."
Similar conditions prevailed in central and western Missouri, Nebraska and Colorado. Famine stared people in the face, and the situation became so alarming that the governors of the four suffering states met at Omaha to consult with regard to means of alleviating the distress.
Some parts of the state suffered so from crop failure in 1881 that the legislature appropriated $25,000 for general relief. The state then had a respite from droughts until 1891, when the legislature found it necessary to appropriate $60,000 for general relief and to provide seed, the state railroad commission being made the disbursing agent. To benefit by this appropriation the counties issued warrants payable to the state on or before Feb. 1, 1892, and the county took each applicant's obligation for the cost of grain furnished him, payable before Jan. 1, 1892, with interest at six per cent. Only four years elapsed before the state again suffered from a lack of rainfall, and the legislature of 1895 appropriated $100,000 "or so much thereof as may be necessary," for the purchase and distribution of seed grain by the board of railroad commissioners in certain counties of the Fourth, Sixth and Seventh Congressional districts. No one was to receive grain unless a resident of the state for a year or more.
In 1891 occurred the last drought of which there is a record. Old settlers claimed that the summer was the driest since 1860. The mean temperature for the summer was 103°, that of 1874, 94.7°, while for 1860 it was 103.9°. On July 15, 1901, it was estimated that $2,000,000 a day would hardly cover the losses of the farmers in grain and stock. George M. Walden, president of the Kansas City stock-yards company, said: "Ten more days without rain in this section will mean ruin to the corn and hay crops and absolutely no feed for next winter." In nearly every case of drought the succeeding year has brought bountiful crops, and the farmers of the state have been able to recoup themselves for their losses.Pages 547-549 from volume I of Kansas: a cyclopedia of state history, embracing events, institutions, industries, counties, cities, towns, prominent persons, etc. ... / with a supplementary volume devoted to selected personal history and reminiscence. Standard Pub. Co. Chicago : 1912. 3 v. in 4. : front., ill., ports.; 28 cm. Vols. I-II edited by Frank W. Blackmar. Transcribed May 2002 by Carolyn Ward.
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