This article originally appeared in Pyramid #13
by Robert Collins
As I was researching my latest book, Touring Elk & Chautauqua Counties, I came across accounts of the county seat war that created the two counties. It then occurred to me: There were plenty of county seat "wars" in the West. PCs in a GURPS Old West (or any other Old West RPG) campaign ought to run into one or two during their adventures. Let me begin by telling you the story I discovered.
The Howard County StoryHoward County was part of the Osage Lands along the southern border of Kansas. The Indians were only residents until after the Civil War, then a trickle of pioneers began moving to the area, well to the south of Eureka. The government negotiated a treaty with the Osages in 1867, and a county was laid out. It was named for Civil War general O.O. Howard.
Elk Falls was first granted the status of county seat in 1870. But a group of young men from Osage Mission had a different idea. They founded a town called Boston some 4-1/2 miles southwest of present-day Moline. Their new town was almost in the exact center of the county.
There was a spring west of the town, but it didn't come close to fulfilling the water needs of a town. The Bostonians tried to dig a well in the center of town, but they found no water. So, in secret so as not to hurt their chances of getting the county seat, water was poured into the well from the spring. The residents kept up the illusion that they had a fine well and plenty of water for a prosperous town.
Howard County had kept on growing in 1871 and 1872, so the citizens decided it was time to settle on a permanent county seat. An election was held in 1872, and the town of Peru won, although Boston didn't take part. Elk Falls contested Peru's victory on legal grounds, and they held onto the seat. Another election was held in 1873, and this time Boston won. Again Elk Falls challenged, and again they won in court. Finally, on November 17, 1873, Boston and Elk Falls faced each other at the ballot box over the Howard County seat.
Boston won, and apparently there was strong backing for it. Reports are that many residents from Howard City and Longton came to Boston to hail their victory. But there was no such sentiment in Elk Falls, whose residents suspected fraud. They went back to court, but not before the county clerk's office had already moved to Boston.
The Bostonians were determined to keep the seat out of Elk Falls any way they could. They offered town lots to a local judge (who happened to hold lots in Elk Falls). When the judge rejected the "bribe," Boston organized a war party. On the morning of January 20, 1874, the war party attacked Elk Falls and captured all of the county records.
Elk Falls called out the sheriff. He went to Boston with a posse of 40 men two days later. The posse was barred from entry, and the Bostonians stonewalled the sheriff. When the frustrated sheriff tried to arrest some Boston men, he was ordered to get out of town and not come back!
The next month, the sheriff called in Governor Thomas Osborne. Osborne enlisted a county militia and marched on Boston. He also had warrants sworn against every man in town. Faced with the governor and the prospect of being declared in open rebellion against the State of Kansas, Boston gave in. All the records were returned, and plans were made for a new, free and fair election.
During those contested months, the Howard County government was in total chaos. Only half the county taxes were collected: the county treasurer embezzled the other half! He managed to get away, but two Boston men who aided him were caught.
In the fall of 1874, Howard County went through one more election. By this time, however, it was agreed that the election should be about splitting the county. The voters decided in favor of division. The northern half of the county became Elk County, named for the Elk River, with Howard getting the county seat. The southern half became Chautauqua County, named for a county in New York, and Sedan won its seat. Most of Boston, which now sat close to the new county line, was moved to Howard. Within a decade, nothing was left of the little town that had fought so hard for the Howard County seat.
So Why Argue About a County Seat?Good question. The issue of who would get the county seat wasn't just an arcane government matter; it was a matter of community survival.
The town that won the county seat would get all the county jobs. Those jobs would bring people to fill them, and those people would either bring or start families. This in turn stabilizes the town's basic businesses and encourages entrepreneurs to start others that need a larger population base to succeed.
This air of permanence and prosperity makes the town more attractive to a railroad. If the town isn't already connected, it will be, and the town fathers won't have to make as many financial promises to get it. The community's certain prospects are sure to attract competing lines, further steadying its future.
Conversely, losing the battle for county seat sealed the fate of many a small Western town. Towns that came out on the short end of the stick often became ghost towns, especially in sparsely-settled areas. The question of the county seat was often a matter of life or death for towns in the West of the 19th century.
Violence and threats of violence are part of these conflicts. When it's a matter of life or death for your town, you'll do almost anything to keep your town alive. While violence never exploded in Howard County, it did in other conflicts, and sometimes people died. But it was never in anyone's best interest to let things get too out of control. Violence was often discouraged in favor of other tactics, like rigging elections, stumping in undecided areas and filing legal briefs.
County Seat Conflicts & Old West Campaigns"County Seat Wars" provide good adventure opportunities in continuing campaigns. One side can hire the PCs as muscle, election officials (honest or otherwise), attorneys, or as all three. The other side can try to lure them away trough threats or bribes. Alternately, they could be sent in as neutral arbitrators by a higher authority. It would be their job to restore order and make fair decisions, come hell or high water.
Adventuring in a county seat was could also be a way to start off a campaign. Again, they could be hired by one side or the other, or they could be sent in to calm passions. The adventures would give the PCs a chance to meet the NPCs, adjust to the region and investigate the background. Once the "war" was over, they could decide if they wanted to stay, and what they'll do as new residents. And don't forget that how they acted in the conflict might color their dealings with the locals.
A great advantage of using county-seat conflicts is that history is rife with examples of what real communities did to try to win the seat. A GM can use almost any book on ghost towns in a given state for adventure ideas. For example, The Ghost Towns of Kansas by Dan Fitzgerald would be good for a campaign in Kansas.
Also helpful are histories about states and counties, either in bookstores or libraries. Especially helpful to the GMs would be contemporary accounts of conflicts written soon after the events. Check the library or a museum for the older books, or the library for newly-published editions or updated versions.
A "county seat war" is a good way to liven up or initiate an Old West campaign. A little research, some rearranging of events, and your PCs will have hours of fun trying to find a permanent home for the county government.
Article publication date: June 1, 1995
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