One day during his second term as governor, John A. Martin unbosomed himself to a reporter concerning a matter which was the greatest cause of worry that he had to encounter during his administration. It so happened that a great part of the counties in the western third of the state were organized during his two terms as governor, and in nearly every one there was strife and bloodshed connected with the location of the county seat. Governor Martin, himself, a thoroughly honest man, was astonished and grieved to find that men in whose integrity he had had the fullest confidence, when once mixed up with a county-seat contest, seemed to forget about every moral principle and lend themselves to almost every form of lawlessness and crime in order to win.
"What is the use of it all?" said the governor, sadly. "Finally the courts will settle the matter of which towns are entitled to the county seats, and all this violence and bloodshed will avail nothing."
As one travels over western Kansas now, or in the years that have passed since the fierce county-seat wars eded, if he is told the story of those bloody conflicts, he wonders what it was all about. There is nothing that he can see about one of these little prairie towns that would excite the cupidity of men to say nothing of tempting them to engage in the bloody forays that marked the history of the frontier. One had to live in those times to have some adequate understanding of the situation. During the middle eighties a great tide of immigration swept over western Kansas. Within two years the population of the western third of Kansas increased a quarter of a million. The U. S. land offices were crowded almost day and night with applicants wishing to file on homesteads. Land office attorneys were swamped with business and making money far in excess of their fondest dreams of a year or two before. County-seat boomers figured that within a few months after becoming the seat of county government their town would rival in size and business the best county-seat towns in eastern Kansas or in the older states.
Suppose, then, that the county seat founders laid out of the town on a section of land which at government price cost perhaps $800 and the cost of plotting it into streets, alleys, and lots. Counting eight lots to the acre, there would be 120 lots in the town site, and judging by the prices asked and received in prosperous county seat towns in the East, $100 per lot on the average would be a conservative estimate. That would mean that the town site which perhaps cost the founders all told three or four thousand dollars would sell within a few months for more than half a million. Was there ever a get-rich-quick scheme which equaled it on paper? In the days when the Belgian hare craze swept over the country, an expert in figures could estimate that from a single pair of rabbits their progeny would in ten or fifteen years mount away up into the millions and make the fortunate investor a multi-millionaire. But then there were some risks in the rabbit business and it would at best take several years to realize the fortune, but the founders of the county seat figured that once they had captured the prize of the county capital the rest was sure and easy. They would simply clean up at the ratio of more than a hundred to one within the brief space of six months or a year.
Of course they could not look into the future when drouth and hot winds would drive out the homesteaders, when all their hopes would fade and the towns would shrivel almost to nothing. Not sensing the future they fought ruthlessly and unscrupulously. They blackened their souls with crime and stained their hands with blood. The county of Wichita was organized in 1886 and almost immediately two towns became rivals for the county seat. Leoti was supposed to be located in the geographical center of the county and the rival town of Coronado was established three miles east of the center. The census enumerator was a Coronado man, but when his report was finally handed in to Governor Martin there seemed to be so much uncertainty about it that he had decided to send a special commissioner out to get at the real sentiment of the citizens for the benefit of the governor. Samuel Gerow of Atchison was selected for that unpleasant job and apparently he performed his work honestly and fearlessly, although at times threatened with bodily harm by the rival factions when one side or the other concluded that he was giving the other the better of the count.
The legislature of 1887 amended the law providing for the organization of counties and the location of county seats requiring a registration of the legal voters prior to the election. Under this new law the county seat election was called for March 10, 1887. If the framers of the law supposed that this would do away with county seat troubles they were mistaken. It merely shifted the contest from the final election to the registration and the conflict raged with as much bitterness as before.
In the case of Leoti and coronado the culmination came on a bright mild Sunday afternoon, February 27, 1887, when in the main street of Coronado was enacted one of the bloodiest tragedies in all the wild history of the border. Each town supported a newspaper, both, of course, intensely partisan, and no doubt unfair, so that it is hard to get the real truth of what happened on that fatal day. In examining the files of the rival newspapers I find the following account in the Coronado Herald of June 16, 1887.
"During the time one Gerow was taking the wishes of the voters of this county in regard to the temporary county seat, certain parties in Leoti sent to Wallace to secure the services of one Charles Coulter and his six-shooter, both too well known in western Kansas to the sorrow of many good people. Coulter came and for the promise of $750 undertook the job of making Leoti the county seat. His first appearance was at the polls north of Coronado with about 150 imported toughs to receive $4 per day. Coronado voters dared not go near the polls. Again on the day of registration he, with his companion, Rains, stood at the polls with guns and dictated who should register and who should not. Coronado men left the place of registration to avoid bloodshed. During the time they were at the polls the unarmed Coronadoites were covered with rifles in the hands of Coulter's friends, stationed in the town of Leoti. Later that day Coulter and Rains held up two Coronado men with guns and killed a valuable horse belonging to them.
"Up to this time not a single Coronado man had exposed a weapon or lost his temper. On Sunday morning February 27, while the people of this town were at church, William Rains and A. R. Johnson came to Coronado from Leoti and asked a druggist here for a bottle of beer. They were informed that there was not any beer in town. Not seeing anybody on the street they remarked that it would be a good time to round up the d--n town. They returned to Leoti and recruited their forces with Charles Coulter, Frank Jenness, A. N. Boorey, Emmet Dennins, George Watkins and a case of beer. When they arrived at Coronado they proceeded to make everybody they met drink and dance at the muzzles of pistols. Later Coulter commenced to knock men down with his pistol, while Frank Jenness would single out men to cover with his pistol. But such sport was too timid for drunken desperadoes, so Coulter opened the ball by shooting Charles Loomis twice, while rains shot him (Loomis) in the arm. Up to this time not a single weapon was drawn by a Coronado man, but after these three shots were fired by Coulter and Rains it seemed for thirty seconds from pistol reports that every man in and near the crowd was shooting. When the smoke cleared away the old maxim was verified: Death loves a shining mark and in Coulter and Rains it certainly had struck two daisies.
An entirely different account is that published in the Leoti Standard the week following the tragedy. It runs as follows:
On Sunday morning the town of Coronado was the scene of one of the most cowardly and dastardly crimes ever perpetrated in any community that had any pretense of being civilized it being the shooting from the back of seven of our best and most respected citizens. The victims were Charles Coulter, instantly killed; Wm. Rains, instantly killed; George Watkins, fatally wounded; Frank Jenness, shot six times; A. R. Johnson, wounded three times; A. N. Boorey, shot three times; Emmet Denning, leg broken by shot.
The bitter fight caused by the county seat fight and the way Leoti has beaten her opponent by might of right, and right of might, is well known. Coronado had been satisfied until Sunday to carry on the fight by trickery, fraud, lies, and forgery and in this way had managed to make the town and people despised by all who had the slightest insight into the matter. A note was placed in Mr. Coulter's hands on Sunday inviting him over that afternoon and telling him to bring a friend or two with him and have a good time. It had been customary to visit back and forth so in the afternoon the crowd of seven went over. They arrived there about two o'clock and after a couple of hours of pleasant chatting with their friends and acquaintances, they all got in the buggy and started off. As they drove by the bank building Frank Lilly standing in front of the bank, applied some foul name to Mr. Rains at the same time making a moition as if to draw gun. Rains sprang from the buggy and said that Lilly would have to fight for that. Lilly replied that he had no gun, whereupon Rains handed his gun to one of the party in the buggy and offered to fight with his fists. Lilly refused and Rains took his revolver and returned it to his pocket. Meantime Coulter, Denning and Johnson had gotten out of the buggy. Charles and "Red" Loomis, and John Knapp were standing near the bank at the time. As Rains put up his gun he remarked that he could easily whip Lilly. Lilly retaliated by calling him a liar, at which Rains drew his revolver and struck him over the head, mashing his hat, but not knocking him down. The men in ambush who were awaiting the signal now opened a volley of some sixty or seventy five guns on the unsuspecting crowd (from Leoti). Every man was shot shot from the back. The four men on the ground were brought down and of the three in the buggy, Watkins and Jenness fell out. The horses were shot and started to run away with Boorey still in the buggy.
After falling from the buggy Jenness got on his feet and started toward Leoti on a run. A number of shots were fired at him, five taking effect. The men of Coronado now ran out and commenced shooting at closer range and after Coulter and Rains both were dead, put the muzzles of their guns against them and fired.
The account goes on to say that when a party from Leoti went over to Coronado to get the bodies they found them lying in the street uncared for. Fourteen bullet holes were found in the body of Coulter and eleven in the body of Rains. Afterwards complaints were sworn out against a number of Coronado citizens, who were arrested and taken to Garden City and Dodge for safe keeping. For some reason the case against them was never prosecuted. As one reads the accounts quoted he can understand the reason why. It is perfectly evident that neither account is a fair statement of the facts. That Coulter could employ 150 toughs to carry a county seat election and pay the expenses out of a paltry $750 is of course absurd. It is also entirely evident that the men of Coronado were not the long suffering patient citizens pictured by the Herald and neither were Coulter and Rains and the others of the seven who went to Coronado on the fatal Sunday the estimable peaceful citizens pictured by the Leoti Standard.
No doubt they went to Coronado in a spirit of bravado and no doubt on the other hand the citizens of Coronado expected to kill them when they came. Leoti won in the county seat contest as it undoubtedly was entitled to and Coronado faded from the map. The Herald after a little more than a year of troubled existence, suspended and barring the fact that there is a whistling station on the Missouri Pacific called Coronado the town is but a memory. Leoti survives a town of some 400 people, peaceful and reasonably prosperous. Possibly the name of Leoti too would have faded from the memory of men had it not been that ten years after the tragedy of a man from that town of striking appearance and remarkable curvature of the lower limbs breezed into state politics, secured the nomination for state treasurer and became the adviser and manager of the political faction at that time led by J. Ralph Burton. Had Burton followed the advice of his faithful friend from the windswept county of Wichita he might perhaps still be a member of the highest legislative body in the world. (When Kansas Was Young, by Thomas ALlen McNeal, pages 163-170)