Bessie Thomas Staked Her Claim Among Ellis County Kansas Settlers

Bessie Reed Thomas arrived in Kansas in 1871, a bride of 18, with a shotgun across her knees. Her husband, William K. Thomas, a veteran of the Civil War, was coming west to settle on his soldier’s claim, 160 acres in Ellis County. This family of Ellis County, Kansas, settlers would make the most of their average-size claim.

In their two wagons they carried a Ben Franklin stove and provisions to last a year: a barrel of apples, flour, sugar, dried fruit, and smoked meat. One of their wedding gifts, a wonderful sewing machine, one of the first to be marketed, never arrived in Kansas; on the way the young groom had persuaded his wife to trade it for a cow, which was to be the beginning of their Hereford herd.

By fall the family had moved from the wagon to a new dugout. Bessie papered the dirt walls with copies of the Louisville Courier, and later, in 1879, she added a layer of the Weekly Capital, a paper that would later be named Capper’s Weekly. The newspapers not only kept the dirt from falling into that room, but they served as a barrier to snakes, centipedes, scorpions, and the huge spiders common in that country.

Countless settlers had abandoned claims in Kansas. Indian massacres, tornados, blizzards, and grasshopper plagues had taken their toll, and an epidemic of diphtheria had wiped out entire families. To bring more settlers to the region, the government offered a deserted claim to anyone who would sleep on it for six months. A quarter section adjoining the Thomas’s original claim was acquired in Bessie’s name; she slept in a sod house there, a house similar to the one which now stood on her husband’s claim as a replacement for the dugout.

The government made still another bid for new settlers, offering a timber claim to anyone planting and nurturing a thousand young trees on the land. To qualify for this additional claim of 160 acres, the Thomases traveled 16 miles to the Saline River bottoms to obtain cottonwood saplings which they planted and tended, hauling water from their windmill.

With this new claim they were the possessors of 480 acres of Kansas prairie-hardpan, buffalo grass, and tumbleweed, a plant Bessie often mistook for a crouching Indian.

The ranch continued to grow. William added 1,360 acres at a cost which was less than the asking price for one of those acres today. Between 1871 and 1899, he accumulated 2,200 acres.

A 10-room stone ranch house on the property was the birthplace of their sixth child, the writer of this account.

Marie Reed Thomas

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.