William H. Russell

William H. Russell (1812-1872)

Best known as founder of the Pony Express, he was treasurer of the Kansas pro-slavery crusade.

William Hepburn Russell was born in Vermont and moved to Missouri when his stepfather was appointed Indian agent to the Iowa tribe in 1828. He started work that year at age 16 in Ely & Curtis' store in Liberty, later to work in Aull Brothers store. Aull Brothers transferred the promising young man to their headquarters in Lexington in 1830, where the next year he was made manager. It was the largest business in Western Missouri with three Missouri River steamboats, a ropewalk in Lexington, saw and grist mills and vigorous trade on the Santa Fe trail, with the army at Ft. Leavenworth and with the Kansas Indian Reserves. [Settle, Waddell and Russell, 360]

He soon married Harriet Eliot Warder, daughter of the pioneer Baptist minister in Lexington, and the couple had four children. He purchased shares in the expansion tract of the City of Lexington and started his own business, Allen, Russell & Company in 1838. In 1840 he was appointed Treasurer of Lafayette County and in 1841, Postmaster at Lexington. In 1843 he formed a partnership with Alexander Ramsey for a hemp rope and bagging company. By 1845 he owned 3,000 acres in Lafayette and Ray counties and had built a 20 room house in Lexington with slave quarters and stables. In 1850, Russell and his partners contracted to deliver 600,000 pounds of military material to Santa Fe at 14 cents per pound, the largest contract let at Ft. Leavenworth to that date. Also in 1850, he organized the Lexington Mutual Fire & Marine Insurance Company, with his own ventures as the largest customers. [Settle, Waddell and Russell, 365ff.]

In 1855, the Army awarded a two-year exclusive contract to Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell to haul all military stores west and southwest from Ft. Leavenworth. The partnership hired 1,700 men as teamsters, purchased 7,500 head of oxen and 500 wagons. They established a field headquarters in the infant town of Leavenworth along with a blacksmith shop, wagon repair shop, lumberyard, meat processing plant and dry goods, outfitting, and grocery stores. In the summer of 1857, 48 wagon trains carrying almost four million pounds of goods were dispatched from Fort Leavenworth. Russell's Leavenworth Fire & Marine Insurance Company insured goods from the point of reception at St. Louis to their western destinations. [Settle, Waddell and Russell, 365ff.]

From the beginning of the Kansas struggle, Russell, Majors and Waddell, all slave owners in Missouri, "threw their weight as the most influential capitalists in the territory on the side of slavery." [Settle, Waddell and Russell, 375] Majors and Waddell seem not to have actively participated in the pro-slavery movement, but Russell, always politically active, certainly did. When Senator Atchison formed an association to make Kansas a slave state, Russell became treasurer. [Wilder, Annals, 142] Russell was a founding member of the Kansas "Law and Order Party" in 1856 and was among those delegated to prepare an appeal to the southern states for immigrants and money. [Craik, Southern Interest,360] On July 2, 1856 a broadside announced "Majors, Russell & Company will receive money for proslavery immigrants to Kansas," and in the same month at a Columbia, Missouri meeting to raise money to promote slavery in Kansas Territory Russell made a major speech. [Craik, Southern Interest,376] A correspondent for New York Tribune wrote that the Russell, Majors and Waddell warehouse in Leavenworth was used as adepot for selling rifles, stores and agricultural implements seized from Free-State immigrants. . [Settle, Waddell and Russell, 375.]

In 1859, Senator Gwin of California met with Russell in Washington concerning a fast pony express service to supplement a transcontinental telegraph, until the telegraph line could be completed. Russell wanted an improved federal mail contract, and Gwin sponsored a bill for a transcontinental railroad over a central route, A deal was struck for a central route and a Pony Express and Pacific telegraph which eclipsed Russell's competitor, the Butterfield Line to the southwest, and ensured Russell's mail contract to the west coast. The Pony Express was short-lived, operating only from April 1860 to October 1861, but it caught the imagination of America. [Root & Hickman, The Pony Express, 320]


Charles Clark