John A. Wakefield

John A. Wakefield (1797-1874)

"The judge had written a history of the Black Hawk war, and during our stay, I am quite sure he related to us the whole content of his book. I have felt so convinced of this fact that I have never had any desire to read his work."
[Stevens, Wakefield's History]

John Allen Wakefield was born in Pendleton, South Carolina into a Scots- Irish family. When he was seven years old, his family moved to middle Tennessee and then on to Barren County, Kentucky. In 1808, in Wakefield's eleventh year, they moved on to St. Clair County, Illinois, where the family lived "forted" against hostile Indian attacks. The War of 1812 soon followed and the 16 year old Wakefield became a scout for the Illinois Militia, where he served with distinction. At the close of the war he went to Cincinnati, where he studied medicine and then to St. Louis to finish his studies. After receiving his diploma, he decided to study law and was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1818. He settled in Vandalia, married, and practiced law. Wakefield and his wife, Eliza, had 12 children, 8 of whom reached maturity.

In 1822 a convention was called to permit slavery in Illinois. Wakefield, very much opposed to slavery, "plunged into the campaign with great vigor, paying his own expenses while canvassing the state." On the strength of this experience, he was elected to the Illinois House in 1824. When the governor called for volunteers to fight in the Blackhawk War in 1832, Wakefield enlisted. First appointed as a surgeon, he was quickly transferred to scouting where he continued until the end of the war. He was promoted to the rank of Major and was slightly wounded in the Battle of Bad Axe. The following year, with the war fresh in his memory and his journal at hand, he wrote a history of Blackhawk War. Praised for its completeness and accuracy, Wakefield's history was published in 1834. After the war, Wakefield moved to Northern Illinois and, in 1846, still further north into Wisconsin. In 1849 he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota where he was proprietor of the Tremont House hotel, frequently lectured on temperance, and was elected the city's first Justice of the Peace. In 1851, he moved to Iowa before leaving for Kansas in 1854. [Stevens, Wakefield's History, Introduction]

Wakefield moved his family to a site on the California road about six miles west of Lawrence early in June 1854, building one the "best farmhouses" on the road. He presided at the first meeting of the "Actual Settlers' Association" at Bryce Miller's cabin on August 12, 1854 and was elected "Chief Justice" of the squatters group. [Connelly, Kansas and Kansans, Ch.18] One historian commented that "Wakefield's qualifications for chief justice were a law degree, maturity (at 60, he was older than most of the settlers) and a black stovepipe hat." [Brackman, August 8-14,1854] Wakefield was great debater, nonetheless. One early Kansan remembered Wakefield in a religious debate with New Light or New Jerusalem man near Clinton. Wakefield went over to Clinton with 33 pages of citations and had 12 pages left to cover after he "completely annihilated that fellow." [Horton, Reminiscences, 200] There is no doubt Wakefield was a talkative man. James McClure, traveling through taking a census for the 1855 election, wrote:

"We spent only one night in Lawrence, and the next day we went to the claim of Judge Wakefield, some seven or eight miles west of Lawrence. The judge had the best-improved place we had seen. His cabin is quite large and comfortable. He was a very prominent man, and had high political aspirations, and was very fond of expounding his opinions on all subjects, as he had led himself to believe he was not only thoroughly conversant with all of them, but that his discussion of them was of deep interest to his listeners. The judge had written a history of the Black Hawk war, and during our stay I am quite sure he related to us the whole content of his book. I have felt so convinced of this fact that I have never had any desire to read his work." [McClure, Taking the Census, 229]

In November 1854 Wakefield was one of three candidates for Congressional Representative from the Territory. Robert Flenniken, a Democrat and former diplomat, had traveled to Kansas with Territorial Governor Reeder and was backed by the governor. The third man, John Wilkens Whitfield, a former government agent for the Pottawatomie tribe and a pro-slavery Missourian, was elected, because as William Addison Phillips wrote, "unfortunately the free-state men were divided, and had no great faith in either of their candidates." Phillips thought Wakefield "unquestionable and reliable." He was no abolitionist but declared himself to be a "free-soiler up to the hub and all." Phillips thought Judge Wakefield much the smartest of the three candidates, "the standard in neither case being very high." Wakefield was a portly man. If the victor had been chosen by weight the judge "would have distanced both of his competitors put together." Unfortunately, in Phillips' opinion, "the judge was doomed to be defeated, first by his friends and then by his enemies." [Phillips, Conquest, 41,42]

Wakefield was one of the free-state men elected in the May 22, 1855 "second election" for the Territorial election, and his election was certified by Governor Reeder. When free-state members were ousted by the pro- slavery majority and replaced by the winners of their districts in the March 30 "first election," Wakefield rose to leave and prophetically declared: "Gentlemen, this is a memorable day, and may become more so. Your acts will be the means of lighting the watch-fires of war in our land." [Brennan, May 2001] Following his Bogus Legislature expulsion, Wakefield was chosen as a delegate to the Big Springs meeting where he served as chairman and then to the Topeka convention, where Phillips thought he was instrumental:

"...What should we have done at that Topeka Convention without those speeches of Judge Wakefield's? There was something delicious in them, which broke the dull monotony of egotism and politics. The judge is an old man. He is a Western man; a Virginian(sic) to begin with. He has been in Kentucky,' Eelenoy,' Iowa, and was one of the first settlers in Kansas. The judge, amongst his other accomplishments, has a faculty for quoting Latin. He has `ben a judge whar there was thirty lawyers a practisin'; has filled a prominent sphere in politics. He fills a large sphere anywhere." [Phillips, Conquest, 136]

Wakefield was often called to make speeches. After the "Sack of Lawrence" in May 1856, the judge "came down from the farm" and stood before the ruins of the Free State Hotel saying:

"Feller citizens, I hav had the honor of bein' a jedge in Ioway an'Minnesoty and Ellenois, an' I give it to yer, feller citizens, `pon my honor as a legal gentleman, that if these here fellers wanted to indict this here hotel as a nuisance (he pronounced it new-e-sance) they should have proceeded in the proper manner, and first obtained a writ of statu squaw!" [Horton, Reminiscences,205]

On September 1, 1855, the "Border Ruffians" in the guise of the Territorial Militia, fired and burned Wakefield's house, barns and fields. His library and his gardens were destroyed and he reckoned the loss at $3808 in his claim to Commissioner Strickler. The claim was approved for payment, but like all the territorial claims, remained unpaid. [Strickler, Report, 166-168] Wakefield was elected Territorial Treasurer under the Topeka Convention and served on the judiciary committee. He later served in the 1864 Kansas State Legislature. At the convention to name the first state officers after admission under the Wyandotte Constitution, Wakefield sought an office. He was invited to speak and said:

"Feller citizens, I feel highly honored at your request that I should make a few remarks. I have lately been on a "tower" through the valley of the great Neosho, seen many of my friends, and while, of course, I have my preferences, should you think, with others, that it is desirable for me to take a place upon the state ticket, I would feel very much more at home upon the bench. Feller citizens, I think I have some claim upon your suffrages. I was here in the days that tried men's souls. I was here, feller citizens, in the dark days of '56 and at my little cabin, eight miles west of this city, when it was burning over the head of my defenseless family, there were at that time, feller citizens, there were sixteen bayonets of the federal government, which could have afforded no protection-there were sixteen bayonets pointed at this poor, old breast!" [Horton, Reminiscences,205]

Charles Clark