Though the year this letter was written is difficult to decipher, it most certainly was written in June 1856 by James M. Kimball (1835-1871), the son of Abraham Kimball (1807-1884) and Ruth H. Burnham (1808-1885) of Howland, Maine. From this letter we learn that James was among many other young men who were part of “Lane’s Army” and made the journey from Iowa City to Topeka, Kansas Territory in the summer of 1856 on what has been called “Lane’s Trail.” This letter was penned while encamped in Iowa City after a journey which took him from Janesville, Wisconsin, to Chicago (where James and his comrades picked up “arms”), to Rock Island, and then from Davenport to Iowa City on a railroad line that had only been completed in January 1856.
The Lane Trail was blazed as an alternative route to Kansas Territory that would allow free-staters to avoid the efforts by Missourians to block their passage through the State of Missouri. The Lane Trail originated in Iowa City, Iowa, passed through Tabor, Iowa, crossed the Missouri River at Nebraska City, Nebraska Territory, from which it turned south before ending in Topeka, Kansas Territory.
In July of 1856, James Henry Lane led a wagon train of emigrants from Iowa City down this trail leaving trail markers, sometimes tall poles in the tall prairie grass and other times piles of rocks. These would become known as “Lane’s Chimneys.” The men recruited for this trip had been promised a Sharps rifles — a breech-loading rifle known for its long range and accuracy. Jim Lane did not have the Sharps rifles, but they did have approximately 1500 rifles obtained from the Iowa state arsenal. The wagon train became known as “Lane’s Army of the North.”
A history of the Milton Academy in Wisconsin confirms that James Kimball was a a Janesville boy and attended the academy in 1861. Previous to this, however, he and Emery M. Hamilton went to Kansas and participated in the Border Ruffian troubles and were brought back home through the liberality of friends who sent money for their return. During the War he served as Sergeant of the Signal Corps and after its close he studied law and practiced in Janesville. He served for some time as Register of Deeds of Rock County, and was for years law partner of George R. Peck. He died in 1871.
A letter offered for sale on the internet written by W. H. Morrison, Milton [WI], 15 January 1857, to R.E. Wood, says that the participants who went to Kansas Territory came home to heroic welcomes. It reads, “Mr. Kimball & Hamilton returned from Kansas” to lecture at a local rally where “Mr. Ross the Editor of the Kansas Tribune also made a few remarks. It was held at the 7 day house and I never saw a house crowded much fuller than that was.”
Census records reveal James M. Kimball was employed as a hired farm hand to Augustine Washington Merrifield (1820-1892) who was married to his Aunt Cordelia Burnham (1823-1896). James married their daughter, his first cousin, Jannetta Anginette Merrifield (b. 1843) in January 1861. He then joined Co. E., 5th Wisconsin Infantry in July 1861 and transferred to the Signal Corps in January 1864.
A note on back of carte-de-visit of James M. Kimball (above) reads: “Presented to R. H. Kimball by her son J. M. Kimball while in the war at Washington Reg. Sept. 27, 1862” from files of Linda Bohlke
Addressed to R. E. Wood, Esq., Milton, Rock County, Wisconsin
Rock County Camp
Iowa City [Iowa]
June 13th 1856
Friend R. E. Wood
I believe that I promised to write to you and tell you some things that I saw and heard in my rambles in the West. Well as I now have a few moments of spare time, I will try and do according to my agreement (for you know that I always do as I agree). Well, to commence, after we left Janesville [Wisconsin], we found the road as dusty as you could wish to see them and we were crowded into about one half of the space that we had ought to have had but as the horse went very slow, we had a grand time in riding to Afton [Wisconsin].
We had to wait there one hour and a half, I think, before the cars came and then came the sound of “all aboard” and we went on board and found the cars as full as they could be gained; but nevertheless we made an opening where we could get in and in we got and off we went at the rate of twenty miles per hour until we came to the junction and there we found that we must change cars and soon they came along and we went on board and found a plenty of room and as soon as we were underway any quantity of dust and dirt which made the journey quite agreeable you know.
Well there was nothing very extraordinary happened to us on the route to the City of Chicago. We expected to have left on the eleven o’clock train that evening, but we were disappointed in getting our arms and so we were obliged to wait there until the next morning at nine o’clock. The next morning we went after our arms and Emery ¹ and I were so much behind that we had to hire a cabman to take us to the cars and he had to run his horses a part of the way. We were soon underway. After we got to the depot, we had a plenty of room but the dust was awful. There was no use in hoisting the windows for the dust would fill the cars in a short time, so we had to ride in the heat and get along as best we could.
When we arrived at Rock Island, we had to cross the [Mississippi] river on a ferryboat ² and then take another train of cars, but we were not long in doing that and in a few moments we were off again at the rate of sixteen miles per hour. And from Davenport to this place we had one of the most pleasant rides that I ever had. There was not a particle of dust and the cars were very large and cool.
We arrived here about nine o’clock P.M. and as there was no one at the Depot to tell us where to go, we went to the woods and laid down on the ground without any tents and slept there sound as a log. We then told the Sec. of the committee that we were not in condition to camp out but they did not make any arrangements for us and we went to work and made our own arrangements. Last Saturday, General Lane came and he at once made all necessary arrangements and now we are as comfortable as we could wish to be. We do not know when we shall start west. We expected to have left last Wednesday but the General had to leave and go to Cleveland to attend the convention there, but that has been postponed for one week and whether we shall wait here until that is over, I cannot tell.
There are about 100 boys here in our camp and some left today. The Mill____ train passed through here last night and if we start soon, we shall catch them. Some of the boys are playing cards and swearing like the old Mick. I would like to see the old boys in Milton but that will not be for one year at least. Please excuse all errors and give my respects and best wishes to all that may inquire and take a good share yourself. Emery is off playing ball and I shall have to close as the mail closes soon.
In order that your letters may reach me, direct to me at Topeka, Kansas [Territory]
I am your firm friend, — James M. Kimball
¹ Emery M. Hamilton was an abolitionist from Milton, Wisconsin, who belonged to The Kansas Settlers Association with James Kimball. They were known alternatively as the Wisconsin Pioneer Company. Their purpose was to go to “bleeding Kansas” as free-state settlers or to defend them from the pro-slavery thugs who threatened to drive them from the territory. [Source: Emery M. Hamilton Record Book, 1856, Wisconsin State Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin] Milton Academy records state that Emery attended the “academy between the years of 1855 and 1858, and then went to Kansas [Territory] with James M. Kimball and participated in the Border Ruffian warfare. Friends sent money for their return and then he began teaching school in the South. When the Union soldiers were investing New Orleans this man took passage on a steamer down the Mississippi and made his way by stealth into the Union lines. He received various promotions and when mustered out was a Major of the 1st U. S. Infantry C.D.A. He later studied law, engaged in the coal mining business, became a promoter of various concerns, and was, the last known, practicing law in New York City.”
² James and the others in his company had to cross the Mississippi River on a ferry boat at Rock Island because the new railroad bridge, which was completed in April 1856, was rammed by a steamboat in early May and then caught on fire, destroying one span of the five-span bridge. A lawsuit ensued between the steamboat owners and the Rock Island Railroad Company in which Abraham Lincoln served as the lead attorney representing the railroad.