I am currently in the process of researching and writing a biography of the late Kansas Senator, Preston B. Plumb, and thought I would share this abbreviated biography I have researched and written, as there is a terrible lack of information on the web about his life. There is a great deal of information omitted from this biography, but it should at least give a general idea of his importance to Kansas and American history.
Preston Plumb accomplished more in a single short lifetime than most people could accomplish in two or three lifetimes. His career includes founding the city of Emporia, Kansas, starting and managing newspapers, becoming a lawyer, president of the Emporia National Bank, service as Lt. Colonel of the 11th Kansas Cavalry during the Civil War, election to the Kansas state legislature and U.S. Senate, and even smuggling guns to the notorious Free-State leader and abolitionist, John Brown. Plumb dedicated his life to selfless service for the state of Kansas and has seemingly been lost to history.
Born October 12, 1837 in Berkshire, Ohio, Preston B. Plumb was the eldest child of David and Hannah (Bierce) Plumb. His father was a respected wagon maker in the community but Preston had little interest in following into his father’s trade. Even as a child, he excelled at nearly everything he tried. It is quite likely he had something similar to a photographic memory, as later in life friends would remark how he could simultaneously carry on a conversation, read a newspaper, and dictate letters to stenographers.
At the age of 10, Preston had his first brush with death. On July 4, 1846 Preston went to the nearby woods with a few friends to play in a barn. The owner of the barn kept two pet bears chained inside, dangerously close to a set of swings. While pushing a friend on the swing, he slipped and fell close enough to one of the bears that it could grab him. Suddenly, one bear began mauling him. Luckily, the other bear became agitated and began to fight the other. This allowed Preston to roll away and out of the bears’ reach. His wounds were so severe that he was not expected to survive. He persevered, healed and carried the scars from the bear attack for the rest of his life.
Encouraged by his mother, Preston left for Kenyon College, a preparatory school, at the age of 11. At school, he found an affinity for printing and a keen interest in the newspaper business. He paid his own tuition through his work at the school paper, and returned to Marysville, Ohio after three years.
Plumb Becomes a Newspaper Man
Back in Ohio he worked for the local newspaper, the Tribune, and then purchased the Xenia News. The Xenia News became a strong anti-slavery voice in the 1850’s as Plumb’s editorials became more and more involved in the cause. During this time he left Ohio and traveled to Kansas City, Missouri to report on the current conflicts between Kansas and Missouri. This time period, known as Bleeding Kansas, was marked by nearly constant clashes between pro-slavery guerrillas, anti-slavery citizens, and roving groups of bandits. Plumb personally witnessed pro-slavery Missourians stealing possessions from westward heading settlers that they believed were anti-slavery. It was a time of overall lawlessness, and Plumb’s reports to the Xenia News illustrated the situation well. It was this trip to Missouri that seemed to trigger his urge to stop being just a bystander and to get involved. He met with staunch abolitionist, John Brown and found a worthwhile cause in the Free State movement. Most famous for his assault on Harper’s Ferry, John Brown was among many others who were working tirelessly to stop the slave trade from entering Kansas.
Smuggling weapons into Kansas was an extremely dangerous endeavor. There were roving bands of bandits and pro-slavery militias on the prowl ready to confiscate the cargo and murder anyone involved with transporting it. Being caught by either of these groups would mean an almost certain death sentence. Preston Plumb was no coward, and offered to help the National Kansas Committee transport weapons to Kansas. He traveled first to Chicago, Illinois, where he was then sent to Iowa City to meet a contact named Dr. Bowen. Bowen had arranged wagons, horses and cargo for Plumb to transport to Kansas. Plumb could not make such a dangerous trip alone and recruited approximately a dozen men for the trip, some of whom he had known from Ohio, and others he recruited through his travels. Their cargo was one brass twelve-pounder cannon, 250 Sharps rifles, 250 Colt revolvers, 250 Bowie knives, 12,000 rounds of ammunition, and various supplies for use along the way. The weapons had been purchased and sent by New England abolitionists who strongly supported Kansas.
As captain, Plumb drilled his company, called “The Grizzlies” in military combat and skills, as it was expected that they would need to fight along the way. In early September 1856, Preston Plumb, not yet 19 years old, let his detachment of volunteers from Iowa City to Topeka, Kansas. Although they were never attacked by bandits, Plumb put down a mutiny and crossed a checkpoint where his cargo was hastily searched. He successfully completed his journey to Kansas and intended to stay there.
He sold his interest in the Xenia News and began looking for a good plot of land to start a town. His first location was Mariposa, as he named it, but the location was not successful. In 1857 he purchased a share in the Emporia Town Company with the intent to start a newspaper there and to help establish the town. He sent word to his family in Ohio and they also headed to Emporia and built a homestead.
The first buildings in Emporia were rough, but Plumb’s overflowing enthusiasm spread throughout the community. He started the Kanzas News and began advertising the site to attract new settlers. If he had no news to report, he was known to regularly walk 70 miles to Lawrence, Kansas to find something to report. A man of constant energy, he often started this trip after a full day of work at his newspaper, erecting buildings, or other hard labor. He quickly became a respected leader of the town and was known for his generosity and goodwill.
Plumb’s first foray into politics began when he was a delegate to the 1858 Leavenworth Constitution convention. This version of the Kansas state constitution included a provision allowing male African Americans the right to vote. This constitution was ratified by the citizens of Kansas, but was not approved by the U.S. government. Although it failed, Plumb made numerous friendships and connections here that would benefit him for the rest of his life.
Between 1859 and 1861 Plumb attended law school in Cleveland, Ohio. Upon being admitted to the bar in Burlington, Kansas in 1861 he set up a law practice in Emporia. In September of that year, the city of Humboldt was sacked by a band of guerillas and Plumb eagerly wished to enlist in the military to fight the pro-slavery bandits and outlaws plaguing Kansas towns. His younger brother, George, enlisted in the 8th Kansas Cavalry, but Preston was besieged by his fellow residents of Emporia not to enlist. They wanted him to run for election to the state legislature to set county boundary lines to the benefit of Emporia. In November of 1861 he was elected to the state legislature and was able to appoint Emporia as the county seat of Lyon County. During this time he also met a fellow representative, Martin Anderson, who he would later serve with in the 11th Kansas Cavalry.
After resigning his term in the state legislature, Plumb was finally able to join the fight. He enlisted in the 11th Kansas Infantry in September of 1862. He had been authorized by close friend, General Thomas Ewing, to recruit a company of men from six counties. He was Captain of Company C and later mustered in as a Major by the end of the month. The 11th Kansas was issued antiquated Prussian muskets manufactured in 1818 which were much heavier than the traditional Springfield or Enfield muskets. They were unwieldy and many of the men wondered if they’d been converted from infantry to a light artillery unit.
Plumb’s service in the field was without reproach. He led his men from the front, even having a horse shot out from under him during one engagement. The 11th Kansas Infantry served with distinction against Quantrill’s raiders and General Sterling Price’s Confederate army. In early 1863 the 11th Kansas was mounted and became the 11th Kansas Cavalry. Plumb worked diligently to secure this change. The 11th Kansas fought at the Second Battle of Lexington, Battle of Little Blue River, Second Battle of Independence, Battle of Byram’s Ford, Battle of Westport, and the Battle of Mine Creek before being sent out west to present day Wyoming.
He was promoted to Lt. Colonel and established regimental headquarters at Camp Dodge in the foothills of Casper Mountain, near present day Casper, Wyoming in the spring of 1865. The 11th Kansas had been tasked with protecting the Overland Trails and telegraph stations from Native American attacks. Plumb led his men into a skirmish on June 3rd near Platte Bridge Station. He was later assigned to Deer Creek Station and then Fort Halleck, while the soldiers of the regiment were scattered throughout the area at various outposts. He was promoted to Colonel in late 1865, but was mustered out of the army before the promotion became finalized.
Kansas State Legislature
After returning to Kansas, he resumed his law practice and became involved in the cattle business with his brother, George. He still retained his 1/5 interest in the Emporia Town Company, but had given away all of his lots to the poor or businesses to benefit the town, except two lots. The value of his property was less than $3,000, but he remained very optimistic about his prospects. He had not planned on becoming involved in politics again, but a few of his friends felt he needed to go back. While Plumb was in Ohio visiting friends in October of 1866, his friend Jacob Stotler suggested his name for the state legislature. Plumb grew tired of Stotler’s letters urging him to run and began ignoring him hoping that the issue would eventually disappear. Word reached his would be opponent that Plumb was running, and his opponent began circulating stories that Plumb no longer cared for Emporia and had abandoned its citizens. This enraged Plumb to the point that he immediately left Ohio and returned to Emporia the afternoon before the election. He and his brother George went to work immediately on his campaign sending George to the eastern half of the district while he went to the western half. Plumb’s reputation preceded him and he was elected by a margin of nearly 2 to 1.
He served two years within the state legislature while maintaining is cattle ranch and law firm. When the legislature convened in January 1868 he was chosen as Speaker of the House. While in office he dealt with restructuring county lines, the sales of bonds, careful management of the state’s finances, and ratification of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
It was also during this time that a chance meeting through his work as a lawyer introduced him to his future wife, Caroline (Carrie) Southwick. While helping a widow dispose of her Kansas property and return to Ohio, he became acquainted with her niece. Caroline’s father, Abijah Southwick, was a staunch abolitionist and ran a major stop along the Underground Railroad in Ashtabula, Ohio. Preston Plumb and Caroline Southwick were married at her mother’s home in Ashtabula on March 8, 1867. They had six children, one dying at a very young age. Not much is known about their dynamic or family life.
Emporia National Bank
In the early 1870’s Plumb became involved in banking in Emporia. As president of the Emporia National Bank he was responsible for the issuance of loans that saved and started many businesses through the community. In 1872 Plumb applied for a charter for his bank, but was refused on the grounds that there was not enough money within the community to allow for the bank. Undeterred, he called on Senator Pomroy, who was able to secure the charter for him. The panic of 1873 began only a year later, triggering a depression across North America and Europe for the next four years. Many banks failed around the world, but Plumb was able to maintain the Emporia National Bank and save it from collapse.
During this time, Plumb became well known for loaning money to citizens and businesses that were unable to procure loans from other banks. This generosity saved homes from foreclosure and sale, and kept business afloat when they were struggling. In one instance, a man was denied a loan from the bank and found Plumb outside walking and pleaded his case to him. Plumb told him to come back to the bank after lunch, and he personally loaned the man the money he needed to save his home. One pioneer lawyer commented, “Many of the first settlers of Morris County borrowed money from him in early days when times were hard. If his bank could not let them have the money, Plumb would loan them his own money. There are many well-to-do citizens about Council Grove whom Plumb tided over from year to year in early days and carried until they could get on their feet.” (Connelley, 217)
Elected to the U.S. Senate
In 1877 Preston Plumb was elected as a Republican to the U.S. Senate. He was re-elected in 1883 and 1888, and served from March 4, 1877 until his death December 20, 1891. While in the Senate he served on the Military Affairs Committee, Mines and Mining Committee, and as chairman of the Committee on Public Lands. Known as a strong orator armed with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of facts and figures, he was a force to be reckoned with on the Senate floor. He was a champion of citizens and small business owners, and did not respect politicians who were in the pockets of large corporations. His accomplishments in the senate are too many to list here, but he championed a bill through the senate that created the executive Department of Agriculture. Today, that is something the President can create with the approval of Congress, but at that time, Congress was the only body that could create a new executive department.
Although he always supported business, he was also against rapid development at the expense of public lands and helped create Sequoia National Park in California. He was against the idea of tenure for civil servants as he felt that this would stagnate innovation. He supported 12 year term limits so that there would always be an influx of fresh ideas. He was also against the diplomatic corps as he felt that it was a waste of government money to fund high society soirees abroad when they did little to bring business and trade to the United States.
Plumb had a reputation as a hard worker and nowhere was this more evident than through his work in the Senate. Numerous colleagues were baffled by his ability to seemingly do two things at once. He could give a speech in the Senate while simultaneously reading his daily correspondence. Some senators mistook the papers in his hand for notes, when in reality he was giving an engrossing speech while also reading his mail. After his first election he received around 65 letters per day, by the time of his death, he was receiving hundreds. He read and responded to every letter he ever received.
Plumb died suddenly December 20, 1891 in his apartment in Washington D.C. after complaining of a severe migraine. He had been troubled by various health issues prior to that and the official cause of death was given as exhaustion. He was only 54 years old.
His memorial in Washington D.C. was attended by the President and Vice President of the United States as well as many members of Congress. When his body arrived by train in Topeka, it was received by members of the Grand Army of the Republic, Knights Templar, and members of his old regiment the 11th Kansas Cavalry. In addition, approximately 15,000 mourners also arrived at the train station to pay their respects. The body was then sent to Emporia where it was guarded day and night by members of the 11th Kansas until it was escorted to the cemetery for burial. The coffin was draped with the old battle standard of the 11th Kansas, war torn and weary, but representing the best that Kansas had to offer. Truly symbolic of a man that accomplished so much for the great state of Kansas and indeed the entire country.
Connelley, William E. The Life of Preston B. Plumb. Chicago: Browne & Howell Company, 1913.
Library of Congress
Documents from the author’s collection.