Great Plains Pioneering: Grasshoppers, Gooseberries, & Indians

Man plowing the prairie

Depending on your age, when reflecting on America's westward expansion, it's difficult not to think of the Oregon Trail video game. The original game was designed to teach 8th graders about the realities of 19th-century pioneer life. If you're a bit older, perhaps you watched Pioneers of the Plains and learned about the Carter family, who traveled westward from Ohio through Indiana, Illinois, and onward to the Western Plains.

Robert Firman Stokes, my 3rd great-grandfather, made a similar trek during his lifetime. A Methodist minister and farmer, Robert was born in 1812 in Montgomery County, Kentucky. By 1830 his parents had moved the family to Putnam County, Indiana. Two decades later, Robert, his wife Sally Ann Wilson, and their six sons settled in McDonough County, Illinois. Here their son John was born in 1851. Four years later, Sally Ann died. With seven sons under the age of 20, he quickly married 28-year-old widow Hannah Parker Jones. The following year the seven Stokes sons and Hannah's three children welcomed baby sister Susan Emmaline, who they called Emma.

Emma was the writer and keeper of family correspondence. Letters from the 1860s and 1932 tell the story of her family and their effort to journey Westward.

Following the Civil War and the death of two sons on the battlefield, Robert made plans to settle on the Plains of Kansas. With sons Melville and John, Robert headed to Brown County, Kansas. Here they planned to build a house, plant crops, and ultimately have the rest of the family join them.

In 1932 Emma wrote her nephew, Rolla Stokes, her brother Milton's son of her recollection of her father's trek.

On May 10 (1869) Father, Melville, John and a Spiker - a cousin of Henry, with three covered wagons, and one extra horse to ride and drive 2 cows started for Kansas. Got to Quincy (Illinois) and had to camp a day or so till the water got down so they could cross the (Mississippi) river.

Robert wrote to Hannah and Emma telling them they arrived safely.

Section 15 Town(ship) 21, Brown County

June 18, 1869

Dear wife and family,

I send you a few lines to inform you how we are and where we are. We are as you see on our land in Brown County, Kansas. All is well as can be, found our land to look as well as we expected. I think a prettier country I have never seen.

We found to our great surprise a fine pool of water on our land, several feet deep and neighbors say that these pools were several feet deep the driest the time last summer. They are on a slough on the east side of our land and there is _______ in contemplation running on the East side of our land and we found three new buildings put up since I bought last fall. These families are by the names of Decker and the other two are by the name of Stapleton, all small families. They appear to be civil folks. I think they will be good neighbors. They are all building on this expected road. We intend to build on the same route too.

We landed here last Tuesday at about one o’clock. We stayed all night about 16 miles from there on eve Sunday and I expected to get here on Monday. But Emy, what do you think hindered us? Well, I must tell you for you might not guess in a long time.

___ found a calf on the road about 10 o’clock. She began to complain. When Robert says, “what can be the matter with their cow? She is all swelled up on one side. I looked at him and said, “There is something the matter of her.” I am afraid we traveled on a little while and I watch her at length. I stopped and said, “We will wait a while on her” and so we did. She would eat but still not well it seemed. I said it may mean we will feed the teams and eat our dinner and wait on her a little. So we soon seen that she was about to calf. We thought she had been hurt for sure. But presently She ____ the nipple and the little fellow began to dance around and she thought all was right with him if we only would give him time but then what to do with the mother was the next question.

Well, we concluded to let him suck a while and put him in the wagon, and roll on slowly. And so we did and got on to Grasshopper (Atchison Co., KS), within 6 miles of our land. Took him out and ____ rejoiced over him and took care of him that night. Next morning, we rolled out to our land, took him out and all went alright and is doing well.

Times is pretty hard here. The corn is very high here. We will have to get some distance ____ can’t get it. The grasshoppers are very bad in some localities and are very bad in some parts of Missouri. They appear to be moving on east and will be in a short time in Illinois. I have no doubt. Some places the grain looks well. In others it most all destroyed. There is none in those parts that is in this immediate neighborhood the grass is fine. The cows have fine times so eat and lie down is all they have to do.

The boys has get a plow of one of the neighbor’s and is plowing.

I expect to get to Atchison (Kansas) Monday. I planned to go yesterday but it rained. So you see, it can rain after the first of June. Though some people say it never rains after that time. It proved another thing, it was as still a day, the day we got here, as anybody would want to see.

I have not determined what kind of house I will build yet. The people generally build one-story houses here. Some of them are very little at that the grain is so ____ and high.

I am almost opposed to the use of money for anything but will do the very best I can, the Lord being my helper. I hope that God will direct me in all I have to do. I feel so ignorant knowing that I have always seemed to get along so well. I am almost afraid to do anything but will try to do the best I can.

The team has stood it well considering the hardships they had to undergo. Jack’s neck got pretty badly hurt but he stood up to it. Finally, I got stuck one time but there was an old clever man closed by braking with an  ___ team and he pulled me out quick.

Emy, there was an old Indian and Squaw came along by yesterday. I gave them a drink at our neighbor’s well.  They came back in the evening and sold us gooseberries. I would not have spent my money for such a thing but I thought I might stand a better chance to get some ____of them and then it be such a nice little piece of news to send to you. Though I had traded with the Indians. They had a little papoose or baby as we call them. It looked as ___ as buck rabbit as we say sometimes.

Melville is digging by the slough and has got to water. I do not know if he will be able to get water enough to do much good or not. The people say that they can’t get water in or near the slough hardly ever. So we cannot tell whether we will make it pay or not. We thought we would try it anyhow.

It would be so great a favor to us if we could get water without digging a well. Our neighbor dug 45 feet and got water but think that he had better went about 5 feet farther. It is good water, but not enough of it.

You will direct your letters to Kennekuk (Grasshopper County, Kansas). Kennekuk Is the place where we have to go to get our plow sharpened and It will be handy for us to get our letters. It’s about 7 miles from us. There is no post office at Whiting (Kansas) yet.

Pray much, pray for us, may God bless you, all is my sincere prayer.


Robert F. Stokes

To Hannah Stokes his wife

John and Melville must have missed their little sister terribly. Robert wrote to Emma, scolding her for not writing and urging her to be patient.

Well, Emma, I have been looking for a long time for a letter from you. Still, you have not written. The boys are saying every few days what can be the reason that Emma does not write? I hope you will write to them, if not to me.

I hope you are not getting out of patience, having to wait so long. I know, my dear daughter, that it has been a long time. You have had to wait much longer than I thought you would have to wait. But have patience, my dear little daughter, and be faithful pray much and I will hurry all I can. I have had to work in a good deal of misery, but thank the Good Lord, that he has given me better health so that I do not suffer much now. How thankful I feel to him for his blessing.

It will not be long now, I think, till we shall see each other soon and I think you will be pretty well pleased with your new home. I will try to make it look as well as I can under the circumstances and you come not looking for anything very large, but that you’re coming to a new county where you will not have to rent from others and move every year from place to place.

Your sweet face is on my mind nearly all the time. I don’t want to flatter you, but I just think you are the sweetest girl in the world. I love you more and more every day. Live faithful, pray much, and pray for me and your brothers and sisters that we may be a family much devoted to God.

From Robert F Stokes

To Emma Stokes, his daughter, the sweetest child to him in Thy world, be patience

Within a few months of Robert and the boys' arrival, they are ready for Hannah and Emma to join them. The letter certainly brought welcomed news.

Section 15 Town(ship) 4 Sucar Street

Brown County Kansas of urgent

Dear wife and Emma, after so long a time, I suggest you may begin to prepare to come to Kansas. Though it’s still raining very often and progress is very slow, we have got our house, if we may call it a house. Praise all for putting on the rafters. We have it partly enclosed. We want to enclose it before we put on the roof. One of our neighbors, building this spring, undertook to put on his roof before he sided up and the storms came on him and blew it down like it served old John Wiley by us at Macomb (Illinois).

Now, if Henry Spiker can come and bring you, see what he will charge for it. And if he charges you over twenty or twenty-five dollars, you write to me and tell me how much money you have got on hand, and I will tell you what to do. Try and get some money from that old fellow at Vermont (Illinois) if possible. And let Henry pay you what he owes us and I suppose David (Hannah’s son) will pay the pasturing of his colts come to what money you have on hand. You can come on the Cars (train cars).

Now, be as saving as you can. You know the more saving we are, the more we will have to furnish our little house. It takes a great deal to live here. All has to be bought for one year, yet you know, and when it came to paying from 3 to 4 dollars a hundred for flour and 18 and 20 dollars for bacon. It takes a heap to keep up a family though the incoming crop may be cheaper. We hope it will. Wheat that is fall wheat, of the best quality is worth one dollar and five cents a bushel. Oats 25 cents. The corn crop is going to be very heavy from every appearance. Thanks to God for it. And the potatoes are a deal in Atchison (Kansas) at 15 cents, though they want more out here, but they will be very cheap. I am sure I never saw so great a prospect for potatoes in my life.

You said you wanted me to write a word of encouragement to the boys, I do not know that I can write anything more encouraging than I have. I can say there is no drawback to this country except it be an account of the timber and there is plenty of that, but it’s in the hand of the Indians and we can’t get at as it we would but still, I have got almost a plenty of posts to go ____my…

If there is another page of the letter, it has been lost, so we don't know the rest of Robert's instructions to Hannah and Emma or when they arrived in Brown County.

What we do know is that this is most likely the last letter Robert wrote. On September 16, 1869, at age fifty-seven, he died.

Emma continued in her letter to Rolla:

It was June 6 when they got to our bare 1/4 section in Kansas. (They) commenced to haul lumber 14 miles and finally got a house started when Father took sick. They laid boards in one corner of the shell of the house and fixed up a bed on which he died in less than two weeks, September 16, 1869.

This seems to somewhat contradict Robert's account, but it shows that he certainly was not well for some time.

One hundred miles south of Brown County, near Garnett, Kansas, sons Russell and Milton settled. Hearing of Robert's passing. Russell, the oldest surviving son, penned a letter to Melville and John.

In the letter, Russell also makes mention of the struggle Robert has undergone over the last five years and his only solace has been in his devotions. Whether physical or mental challenges, the death of Samuel and Simpson in the Civil War certainly must have taken a toll.

Garrett Kansas, Sep 26th, 1869

Dear Brothers,

“Dearest Father thou has left us.

Here thy loss we deeply feel

But ‘tis God that hast bereft us

He can all our sorrows heal”

No boys ever had a kinder and better father and he has gone to his reward. Our loss is his gain. Our sorrows are his happiness. We have a life with the world’s trials to fight against while he has fought those battles and now is forever at rest. We cannot help weeping but should not wish him back again to this wicked world. You no doubt feel lonesome as his body is absent from you but his spirit is with you and then his many prayers and blessings will never be forgotten.

I know I shall always remember the last time I saw him. He walked over to the depot at Blandinsville with me and talked for at least one hour there and his last words were the asking of God’s blessing upon me and saying, “Russell, don’t neglect your religious duties.” Those words will now follow me to my grave, as they were the last words of my father. Of course., if I had met him again in this life, that parting at Blandinsville would have been forgotten, but as he is gone, of course, they will be the same as his dying blessing to me.

I should have been glad to see him in his sickness but circumstances forbade it. So I try to be reconciled and believe you done all you could for him and I think he gladly welcomed death as his life for 5 years past has been anything but pleasant and his only enjoyment was his devotional hours. Of course, we should have been glad to have him live a few years more until matters could have been more settled, but God knows best and we are assigned to his will. I would like to see you both but could not leave very well.

Now Milton will be up to see you next month if nothing goes wrong. Hope John is well and you are both getting along nicely. Suppose you have more teams than will do you much good now. If so, I think you had better trade for timber or land of some kind or young cattle.

When you write again to tell us all about things and whether we can help you anyway. Now boys, give up father and live just right and you will get along all right. May God bless you and keep you faithful through life.

Annie would like to see you. Ruth is well. So, goodbye, Russell


In an envelope with William J Stapleton's name and address, an unsigned letter with no salutation tells of Robert's passing. William and his brother Thomas were the Stapleton neighbors that Robert mentions in his first letter.

William J Stapleton Envelope

Kennebuk, Kansas

October 19, 1869

Into the hand of God and willing to live or die without taking any trouble care ____. Before one of the neighbors were sitting by his bed and talking with him. I’ve said there was nothing in his way, that he would have been glad to see the rest of his family but he was resigned to the will of God and would take no trouble about anything in the world.

At the first of his sickness, he often spoke of his family so scattered and wondered if he was to be taken of without seeing them or them knowing anything about his destiny and asked his boys to join with him in prayer that he might be willing to, as God saw fit, he prayed on his bed for his family that they might ever honor the true religion they enjoyed together. Some two days before he died he told us that he was given...

The letter's next page is missing, so we don't know the rest of the writer's reflection.

Robert's probate contains a petition filed by Hannah, pleading for settlement of her husband's estate so his debts could be paid. The inventory and appraisal were made by R J Young, George Mill, and Thomas F. Stapleton. Mr. Stapleton, who lived on the farm adjacent to  Robert, was appointed temporary guardian of his minor children, John and Emma.

Robert's extended family settled in Kansas following his untimely death.  In 1874 tragedy struck the Stokes again. Hannah and John died in July and September. Sons Melville and Russell remained in Garnett, Kansas for the rest of their lives. By 1880 Milton and his wife along with Emma had returned to Illinois. In 1889 Emma married Robert Sindle. They owned a harness and saddle shop, in Henderson County, Illinois. Here, Emma died in 1941.

Stokes, Robert F Probate Final notice Brown_County_World_Sat__Jan_14__1871
John Stokes funeral procession, October 1, 1874
John Stokes funeral procession, October 1, 1874. Brown County World newspaper

Fifteen years before marrying her beloved Rob, she received correspondence from Edward A Cox, a neighbor in Garnett, Kansas.  Watch for the next IHDP blog for the letter in which Edward tells "My Susie Stokes" about his train ride from Kansas westward and his assessment of 1874 San Francisco.

Thanks for taking the time to read the story of Robert Stokes' brave journey to Kansas. As I'm sure you noticed, there are missing words in the transcriptions. If you happen to view the original letters and some of my missing words become obvious to you, will you leave a comment below?

While waiting for the contents of Mr. Cox's letters, you can Dig into More I Hunt Dead People Stories...

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