(Alice Smith Dow, 1854-1943, was one of De Soto's early residents, moving to what she described as a village in 1860 when her father the Rev. W.H. Smith became the town's first minister. He was later responsible for the construction of Stone Church at 84th and Peoria streets. The family lived a quarter-mile west of homes and businesses hugging the Kansas River at what is now 85 Street and Penner Avenue.
In conjunction with the De Soto sesquicentennial, The Explorer will serialize the Dow's 1940 recollections of De Soto's early days.)
The year of 1860 was a fateful year for this country. Mutterings of the great storm coming had been rumbling in our ears for months. At last sectional feeling grew so high and threatening that my father, the Rev. W.H. Smith (1813-1889), thought it time for one of his "abolitionist feelings" to leave Missouri, where he had been pastor of a church. My father was a New Yorker by birth and education.
The territory of Kansas was just emerging from the free state trouble of 1856. Our destination was the little village of De Soto on the Kansas River, which was founded in 1858 by B.W. Woodward and Mr. Hutchinson of Lawrence. The first white citizen was J.M. Weathers, who built a cabin there in 1857.
Soon, two towns were laid out: De Soto on the river and Lexington three miles to the southwest. A two-story tavern was built in 1858, destroyed by fire and rebuilt the same year. The settlers of Lexington were Southerners, while De Soto was decidedly Free State. Hence, a rivalry sprang up, as always exists in settlements close together. In the elections of 1858 and 1859, many of Lexington's pro-slavery friends would come from Missouri to vote. However, no violence ensued, as might have been expected in such a partisan and lawless period.
With his family, consisting of a wife and four children, the Rev. Smith embarked in a light spring wagon with another wagon following containing the household goods. There was a great journey ahead of us for those days, although not much more than a hundred miles in prospect. I do not remember a great deal about it except that we camped out at night and that I thrilled with fear when I looked away from our campfire into the dark woods about us, imagining all sorts of wild animals prowling about that would surely get father and the man who drove the team as they slept under the wagon. Mother and we children were safely sleeping in the spring wagon, or I thought, with all the curtains tightly buttoned around it.
River town aspirations
What later became Kansas City, or the beginning of it, was only Westport Landing, where we crossed the Missouri River, following the Santa Fe Trail to Olathe, Kansas, where we remained over Sunday at the home of the Rev. I.C. Beach, a brother minister, continuing our journey to De Soto the next week, and it was a very small village on the banks of the river. It was big with hopes and ambition to become a "river town," where boats might come and go loaded with freight for the West. It was believed that the river would be navigable. One or two boats did go up as far as Topeka, but the sand from the "Great American Desert" soon put a stop to that dream, and the drought of 1860 made the river a sandy desert, with pools of water here and there, leaving the little frontier town high and dry.
I have heard my mother say that not enough rain fell between April and August to wet a pocket handkerchief. There were no wells in town. All water for household purposes was carried over the hill from the "Joe Flint" spring, and the women took their laundry to Kill Creek, where washday was kind of a picnic. There was a broad shelving rock on the bank where fires were made and the work done.
The people were very poor; there were no reserves of food or clothing. There was not an orchard or an apple in the country. Corn meal was the staple food: coffee was made of rye or okra seeds, browned and ground; there was no meat except rabbits and squirrels. Mother said the neighbors would come and ask for bacon rinds to grease the griddle for their "hoe-cake." I can well remember in some later years our delight when an "apple wagon" made its appearance from Missouri. In front of the wagon was a forked stick with three or four apples impaled on the twigs.
There was an abundance of wild grapes and plums in the woods and hollows along the river, where the grape vines climbed the tall cottonwoods, and purple clusters hung far above our heads.
There were a few farms or clearings in the forest, but most of the river bottom was covered with great walnut and oak trees, which were later felled and hauled to the mill that stood on the bank of the river in De Soto, where they were sawed into rough planks and used for almost all building purposes. My father's house there is built almost e