El Dorado 150: July 4th, 1847, The First Fourth?

Deanna Bonn
Philip "Gooch" Ferguson, a newspaper editor prior to joining the 3rd Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers, which was involved in the Mexican War. He kept a journal documenting his time in service and his records indicate Captain Clarkson and Campbell were not in Butler County on July 4, 1847.

Perhaps no truer words can be said, about the history of our town, than those written in the Historical Atlas of Butler County, Kansas, “I am fully aware of one fact, and that is that you might call on different ones to write up the history of Butler County and their recollections about the first settlers would materially disagree at least in some particulars, suffice it to say, in the beginning — I mean the beginning of the settlement of Butler County —Wm. Hildebrand and Bob Derackin and others too numerous to mention came to El Dorado, Butler County and made a settlement, and we are glad they did come and held the first until we all came, and we are all here for better or worse, at least a very large majority of us are happy because we are here, fully believing it is for the better that we are so situated.”

While looking to identify the genesis of the stories we accept as fact, it appears that some of them may not have been recorded accurately. As a result, early documentarians and historians who meticulously researched and relied on the earliest published information, may have unwittingly helped perpetuate a falsehood by citing and publishing the inaccuracies.

The earliest of histories that is often cited is William G. Cutler's History of the State of Kansas, first published in 1883 by A. T. Andreas, Chicago, Illinois. In its Preface, the publisher claims, “It is the most complete and exhaustive history of a single State ever published, and has involved the investment of more capital, and the expenditure of more intellectual and literary labor, than has ever before been employed on any work of its kind in this country.”

In his account of Butler County, Cutler writes, “The first celebration in this county of our national holiday took place long before Butler was a county or Kansas a Territory. In July, 1847, Captain J. J. Clark, with his company of Missouri Mounted Volunteers bound for the Mexican war, came along the old California trail and crossing the Walnut about a mile below the site of El Dorado, on the evening of the 3d camped over night. The following day the eagle screamed, and salutes were fired, and due honors paid to the warriors of an older day.”

This appears to be the earliest mention of the first Fourth of July celebration in Butler County. Cutler does not cite where he learned of this story. He does, however, identify that the information of the county’s early settlement was carefully compiled from the recollection of Martin Vaught, J.D. Conner and D.M. Bronson and from data in their possession. Cutler then boldly makes a statement which implies the information he presents as the most accurate and more believable than any other historical document stating, “It will be found to differ considerably from the matter found in the report of the State Board of Agriculture into which numerous errors had crept, either through lack of care on the part of the correspondents, or unavoidable typographic mistakes.” Cutler’s account has thus been recounted by later historians. However, with the aid of modern technology and resources previously unavailable to earlier historians, we are able to gain a more accurate picture. The following is an article published on Friday, August 4, 1876, in the Walnut Valley Times, and it can be reasonably accepted as the actual genesis of this story. “Butler county in 1847. Capt. J. J. Clarkson’s Company of Missouri Mounted Volunteers, enlisted for the Mexican war, marched from Greenfield Missouri, Col. John Ralls (for whom Ralls County was named) commanding, cross the Walnut River no [sic] the old California trail running through Butler County, and crossing Walnut River a mile below Eldorado, on the 4th day of July 1847, and after crossing said stream went into camp and proceeded to celebrate the 4th in a patriotic and becoming manner. Elder J.W. Campbell now a citizen of Rock Creek, Butler County, was a private in Capt. Clarkson’s company and participated in said celebration. This was the first celebration of the kind in the

county, if not in the state. This bit of history is furnished to Capt. Miller by Elder Campbell and is certainly worth preserving.”

It appears that Capt. Clarkson’s name was originally misidentified as Clark in Cutler’s account. But that is not the only error to be found when reviewing the information. Stratford noted that the information on this first celebration came from Captain Clark’s diary. That information appears to be an assumption made by Stratford as there is no mention by previous historians.

Philip Gooch Ferguson, a private in the 3rd Regiment Missouri Mounted Volunteers Company D, was a newspaper editor for the “Miner’s Prospect,” in Potosi, Missouri, prior to volunteering for the war and he resolved to document his time at war through a diary. His diary was eventually given to the Missouri Historical Society.

“July 3d - Left independence for Fort Leavenworth.” On July 4th he wrote, “To-day we cross the Kanzas, a clear beautiful stream, in which a number of us took a bath, which was very refreshing after the fatigues of the day.” After crossing, they set up camp which was only 4 or 5 miles from Fort Leavenworth.

They remained camped at this location there until July 9th and during that time, Ferguson traveled to Fort Leavenworth, twice. Around 10 a.m., they started out for Santa Fe.

Ferguson kept a table of distances from Fort Leavenworth to Santa Fe in his diary. His records show the 3rd Regiment Missouri Mounted Volunteers were camped outside Fort Leavenworth on July 4, 1847, and aside from a bath in the Kanzas, he makes no mention of a holiday being celebrated. On July 19th, Ferguson writes, “Lay by to-day at Cottonwood - The only timer here is cottonwood - the creek being skirted with pretty large trees, mixed with small willows. On the opposite side three cos. of our Regt. are camped - Korponay’s, Boke’s & Clarksons - having trains with them; they want us to march with them but the Capt refused to do so, saying he wished to march faster than they could.”

From this timeline, it can be reasonably inferred that the story of J.W. Campbell “crossing Walnut River a mile below Eldorado, on the 4th day of July 1847” was inaccurate. Whether the story was inaccurately reported by Miller, as told him by Campbell, is unclear.

What is clearer, is that the subsequent retelling by Vaught, Conner and and/or Bronson to Cutler differed and unfortunately, this error, along with the subsequent retellings have found their way into history books and local oral traditions. As a result, this inaccuracy creates further questions as to the veracity of many other stories.

In celebration of the 150 years since the incorporation of the City of El Dorado on September 12, 1871, it is incumbent on us to ensure a truthful revision of our history is documented, published and preserved.