With the Border Ruffians: Memories of the Far West, 1852-1868
(Contents of Book II)

R.H. Wilson was born in Liverpool in 1831, and by the age of seventeen was shipping out on his first voyage to India. After a few years of working aboard various freighters, including two vessels hauling guano to Scotland, he quit the life of a sailor and started a farm in Virginia. In 1855 he headed west to the Kansas Territory, where large sections of tribal reserves were being opened up for white settlers. A staunch pro-slavery advocate and occasional owner of slaves himself, Wilson fought against the Free State settlers and later joined the Confederate Army. The second section of his autobiography, which records his involvement in the Kansas wars, is significant in that it describes the conflicts from a pro-slavery perspective; this point of view is particularly interesting because it often seems the very antithesis to the symbols of pastoral harmony found in Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land and the primary accounts of anti-slavery settlers.

Wilson’s philosphy on slavery is somewhat complex. Just before his journey to Kansas he became owner of three slaves, having accepted them in lieu of a debt owed to him. The woman, Ann, and her two younger brothers were hired out as kitchen and domestic laborers. Their income apparently went straight into their owner’s pocket, who boasted that the sum would be “more than enough for my modest wants” (76) (emphasis added). While he says on the fourth page of his book that, in retrospect, he was on the wrong side of the slavery issue, he couches this admission with the qualification that the rumors of mistreatment by owners was blown out of proportion. In his own words,

”The separation of the families, by the sale of the father, mother or children, was cruel and detestable. Doubtless there were here and there brutal masters, and worse overseers; but these were the exception. Negroes, it must be remembered, were chattels, and most valuable chattels too, and it was in the owner’s interest to treat them well. . .”(4)

. . .and so on. This southern apologism is complicated by his reactions to some isolated events involving blacks, which seem genuinely sympathetic. He recalls that his first introduction “to the cruelty and barbarity of the ‘Institution’” occurred shortly after his arrival in the Territory. On his way to Fort Leveanworth, Wilson saw one of the members of a gang of slaves make a mad dash for freedom, only to be shot down by his owner as he ran. As Wilson describes,

”It was a brutal deed, done by a brute, but the law sanctioned it. It was almost as much as my life was worth to remonstrate; so I held my tongue and rode on, sickened and disguted with this, to me, new aspect of slavery.” (74)

When he begins his first forays into the Territory, in order to make as good a claim as possible before the land was legally opened up for settlement, he is forced to trust Ann with his small fortune of $2,000. She keeps the money safe, and in his estimation “was the only honest person in the place” (79). He refuses to sell Ann and her brothers when propositioned because it would mean “their being separated. . . and possibly falling into bad hands” (61); in one of his brief periods of poverty, however, he sells off “the poor creatures” in a moment of truly benevolent arrogance:

”I was truly sorry to part with the poor creatures, and I think they were attached with me; but I had no alternative, and found them good masters, which was all I could do for them.” (96)

Although the notion that Ann and her brothers were more saddened at the thought of being separated from each than from their enlightened owner is a bit more credible than Wilson’s interpretation, he still does not fit well into the character of a Simon Legree.

His ambiguous participation in issues of race persist even through his final departure from Kansas in 1859. Traveling up the Missouri River on a steamboat, Wilson becomes involved in “a bad case of nigger-stealing” (137), where he assists-- albeit with the majority of the other passengers-- in rescuing a free black woman who beleived her white escort was a confidence man intent on selling her into slavery. This presents yet another example which suggests his attitudes towards the actual people in bondage are not on the same level as his support of ‘the Institution’. A key to his philosphy could be found in his frequent use of the terms ‘chattels’ and ‘creatures’: like most white men of his day, regardless of their position on emancipation, Wilson believed in the socio-intellectual-- if not wholly biological-- superiority of the Anglo-Saxon. All in all, the thought that 'it certainly can be nice to have people wait on you, and earn money for you, and if they are going to do all these things they should be well-treated, like a good horse', is probably the most accurate representation of his views.

This philosophy of scientific imperialism can also be seen in his ideas about land. Wilson is a quintessential example of a 'squatter', who grabbed as many plots of land as he could in order to sell them at a profit. He matter-of-factly describes ways in which he and his associates regularly evaded the law to make their claims, "the commonest being to put them in the names of nominees" (97). The gang that he led was never above bully tactics to get rid of claim-jumpers, and often threatened to "maintain [their] squatter rights at all hazards" (102). Wilson takes advantage of the wildlife as well as the land. On the way to Fort Riley, he kills a couple of buffalo from one of the thick herds roaming the nearby plain. Since the group he was escorting "only wanted their humps" to sustain them on the trail, "it would have been sheer waste" to use the animals for target practice. Wilson seems to be proud of his economy and restraint; however, it doubtful that the Indian tribes who coexisted with the buffalo would have a similar standard for what is and what is not 'sheer waste' as someone who only used a single part of the animal. While his observations on the diminishing fauna, not to mention the entire Indian culture, carry a tone of fatalism that could perhaps be construed as sympathy, he utters a telling remark on the way back from Fort Riley that is symbolic of his attitude as an a typically ignorant prospector and consumer:

"I returned to Leavenworth without adventure of any sort, well pleased with the money I had earned, and with the rich rolling prairies of Kansas.

'What a splendid country is awaiting the advent of the white man!' I thought." (78)

This statement pretty much sums it all up: unlike the yeoman farmers or transcendental abolitionist preachers, whose literature diffuses themes of pastoral harmony, Wilson approaches the land with notions of exploitation and greed.

A particularly ironic-- though surely coincidental-- symbol in his 'Memories of the Far West' further serves to confound the metaphor of the Garden. It is also an example of the numerous classic scenes of Old West violence that apparently permeated Wilson's life. The symbol deals with the small town which eventually cropped up near the claims that Wilson his gang (officially known as the Squatter's Association) had made. One Sunday they went into town to 'get' a man who had been threatening them, and ran into some trouble. This town was primarily composed of general stores and taverns, which "generally did a brisker trade on that day than on others" (112). As the Squatters approached the hotel their victim owned, they got caught in an ambush-- right in the middle of the street. One of the men was hit point-blank by a shotgun blast, and when the surviving members of the gang managed to trap their enemy, they called a truce merely in order to escape with their lives.

And the name of this wretched haven of drunkards and killers?

Monticello. The father of all yeoman farmers spins in his grave.

Another twisted metaphor found in Wilson's story returns to the less than honorable ethics of land-grabbing. When Wilson and his gang had made the choisest claims as possible and wished to return to town for awhile, they hired a guard to preserve them. 'Shad' was a wizened old character who "had spent all his life on the frontier; Indian fighting, claim-rushing," and doubtlessly indulging in all the vices of the lawless society. For those who do not recognize him, this "tough as leather" (97) petty mercenary is Henry Nash Smith's Leatherstocking. Instead of a heroic trail-blazer, however, he is a whiskey-guzzling squatter.

As stated earlier, R.H. Wilson's autobiography is significant in that it offers a counterbalance to the numerous accounts of individuals involved with the anti-slavery cause in Kansas. He objectively describes the shortcomings of the Free State settlers, and freely admits his disgust with the behavior of the Bushwhackers he rode with. His cynical interpretation of the chain of political events from the Missouri Compromise to the Kansas-Nebraska Bill is probably more accurate than those of extremists on either side of the conflict. While his style of writing would not be considered particularly fluid, his recollections are entertaining if not occasionally vivid. He incorporates the ambivalence and confusion that was probably more reflective of the average southwesterner in that period than the Harvard Divinity School group whose memoirs otherwise inundate the historical record. Memories of the Far West is a convincing perspective from the other side, provoking interpretations of history and society which merit further exploration.


Table of Contents
With the Border Ruffians: Memories of the Far West, 1852-1868
Book II: Kansas, 1955-1859
Chapter 1: The Rival Parties
Chapter 2: With 'The Border Ruffians'
Chapter 3: Claim-Making, and Squatter Rights
Chapter 4: The Fray at Monticello
Chapter 5: The Capture of Miliner
Chapter 6: Last Days in Kansas
Chapter 7: Kansas to Canada, and Thence to Texas

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