APRIL 5, 2001

by Ron Parks

Young Thomas Huffaker

This year the Kaw Mission State Historic Site celebrates the 150th birthday of the historic Kaw Mission. This is the eighth in a series of monthly articles describing themes, events, and personalities associated with the Kaw Mission 150 years ago.

One hundred fifty years ago when a tall, slender young man named Thomas Sears Huffaker first set his eyes on the newly-constructed Kaw Mission, he was encountering the foremost and final destiny of his long life.

Huffaker's bearded face wore a serious expression, his eyes exuded a cool intelligence, and his receding hairline and dignified stature seemed to confer a maturity beyond his twenty-six years.

He had come to Council Grove via the Santa Fe Trail, having departed a few days earlier from the Shawnee Mission, where he had been employed since 1849 as a teacher of Indian students, primarily of the Delaware and Shawnee tribes.

The young Mr. Huffaker had his work cut out for him. A few weeks earlier he and his partner, H. W. Webster, had contracted with the Methodist Episcopal Church South for the management of the Kaw Mission school and farm. Huffaker was to be in charge of the school; Webster would supervise the farm.

Thomas had deep roots in the Methodist Episcopal Church South. His father, George Smith Huffaker, was an ordained minister of the Methodist Church South and established churches in several Missouri towns including Haynesville, Lawson, and Liberty.

George was born in Wayne County Kentucky in 1800. In 1822, he married eighteen-year-old Catharine Lowe. Catherine bore thirteen children over a twenty-three-year span. Born on March 30, 1825 in Clay County, Missouri, Thomas Sears was the second oldest child of this brood.

His father's Kentucky upbringing undoubtedly influenced Thomas's attitudes toward the leading ecclesiastical and political questions of the day, foremost of which was the issue of slavery. In 1844 the Methodist Church had split apart on this question.

The Church South's position was that slavery was strictly a political question that required no doctrinal response from the Methodist Church. In fact some members of the Southern Methodists expressed opposition to slavery in the political arena.

Thomas Sears Huffaker was not one of these. He embraced the institution of slavery, as had his Shawnee Mission employer, Thomas Johnson, who was the owner of several slaves. And two years after he came to the Kaw Mission, Huffaker purchased a slave.

The bill of sale read as follows:

Mar. 31st 1853

To all whom it may concern. Be it known that I have on this day for the sum of six hundred dollars (The price of which is hereby acknowledged) sold to Thos. S. Huffaker a certain negro woman named Cynthia aged about thirty years and I hereby warrant said woman to be sound in body and mind and a slave for life. Given under my hand this day and date.

N. H. Scruggs

When Huffaker brought Cynthia to Council Grove, her circumstances of bondage would have been neither conspicuous nor unique. A majority of the early settlers here, like Huffaker, had their origins in the border states of Kentucky, Missouri, and Virginia where slavery was both legally and culturally sanctioned.

One of Council Grove's leading citizens, Kentucky-born Seth Hays, owned a slave commonly referred to as "Aunt Sally." In fact, the March 1855 census of the Council Grove district counted ten slaves among the eighty-three inhabitants.

Two mysteries surround Thomas Huffaker as slave owner. First, how could a young man just getting started on a teacher's salary afford the six hundred dollars purchasing price? Secondly, what happened to Cynthia? No known historical records exist about her life in Council Grove.

If Cynthia was used as a domestic servant in the Kaw Mission, she would have had some help.

During the first year of the school's operation, the wife of Huffaker's partner, Mrs. H. W. Webster, resided at the mission with her husband. After a year the Websters, according to Huffaker, ". . . . became dissatisfied so far from civilization and society, returned to their adopted state."

Two other Euro-Americans resided at the Kaw Mission: the hired housekeeper, a widow named Mrs. Joshua Baker, and her daughter, fifteen-year-old Eliza Ann Baker.

Thomas courted Eliza and on May 6, 1852, twelve months after the Kaw Mission school had begun to operate, they were wed in the upstairs southeast room. The wedding, said to be the first of Euro-Americans in Council Grove, was conducted by Reverend Nicholson, a missionary who just happened to be traveling on the Santa Fe Trail to Mexico.

But in April of 1851 it is doubtful Thomas Huffaker had marriage on his mind when contemplating the life ahead of him. Next month the Kaws would return from their communal bison hunts on the western plains. Then the Kaw children would enroll in his school, and young Thomas Sears Huffaker would be challenged to fulfill the purpose of the Kaw Mission.

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