Baxter Springs, Kansas, isn’t actually part of Northeastern Oklahoma, but it’s close enough to the border to share the same history. A gun fight, Civil War battle, cattle drives, range wars, even an interesting series of robberies.
Settlers begin arriving around 1835 but the community wasn’t founded until 1849. That year, John Baxter, his wife and eight children moved from a southern state and squatted on 160 acres that included a mineral spring, the town’s future namesake. Baxter built an inn and general store along the Military Road, a frontier trail completed in 1843 that was becoming the major thoroughfare south to Texas. A self-styled Universalist missionary, Baxter cultivated many friends but also a few enemies. Eventually he became fatally involved in a dispute over a section of land. He wanted to obtain the land for his son and, as time passed, the disagreement became more heated. Finally, November 23, 1860 the Baxter’s confronted the owner, a man named Common, it escalated into a gun fight and Common killed them both.
By this time a thriving settlement had developed around the inn and in 1862, since it was located on the Military Road, a vital link between Fort Scott and Fort Gibson, a decision was made to establish a military field camp there. The next year it became a permanent post named Fort Blair, in honor of a Kansas cavalry officer, Colonel Charles Blair. Disaster struck when, during the fall of 1863, the outpost was attacked by William Quantrill and over 400 guerillas. Soldiers in the fort managed to fend off Quantrill, but unbeknown to both, a small contingent of 100 troops led by General James Blount, mainly comprised of the regimental band, arrived from Fort Scott. The contingent was there to conduct a ceremony honoring Fort Blair. Although the general managed to escape, Quantrill’s men slaughtered, mainly executed, unarmed band members and the few accompanying soldiers. For years following, skulls were unearthed on the battlefield, most with a single bullet hole through them.
The community had begun to thrive before the war began because longhorn cattle drives, originating in Texas and headed north, passed through on the Military Road. Frequently labeled the “Texas Road” or “Shawnee Trail,” it became the route of choice for herds destined for St. Louis, Kansas City or St. Joseph, Missouri. Cowboys who had herded cattle from southern Texas, then across Indian Territory under tedious conditions were anxious to spend their money. When they finally reached Baxter Springs, they were amply accommodated by local citizens. The cattle drives were so voluminous that corrals had been constructed to accommodate as many as 20,000 steers. As a result, Baxter Springs became the original western frontier town, pre-dating other well- known historical “watering holes,” such as Dodge City (1871), Tombstone (1879), or Abilene (1881) by nearly 20 years. But trouble begun to plague some of the drovers before the Civil War when local farmers discovered that some of their herds were being infected by “Texas Fever.” It was soon determined that Longhorn cattle, immune to the disease themselves, bore ticks that infected local cattle and killed them. As a result, stockmen began blocking some of the herds.
The advent of the Civil War stopped the cattle drives, Texas became a confederate state and the war west of the Mississippi focused primarily on northeastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas. When the conflict ended, cattle drives resumed to meet the pent up demand for beef in northern communities, but resistance by Missouri and Kansas farmers again became violent. In one incident, trail boss James Daugherty and his herd of 500 were attacked and scattered, one of the trail hands was killed and Daugherty himself was tied to a tree and whipped. Still, he managed to recover most of the herd and eventually sold them at Fort Scott. Despite the attacks, during those post war years over 220,000 head of longhorns made their way to northern markets. But eventually the resistance became so intense that after the railroad was extended thru Kansas, herds were diverted further west to the recently developed Chisholm Trail.
Baxter Springs enjoyed a surge of growth after 1903 with the discovery of lead and zinc in Indian Territory. Although there was no mining in the immediate vicinity, it was located a few miles northeast of Picher and Cardin and the town became a residence of choice for many mine owners and operators. Between 1917 and 1947, the Picher-Cardin mines produced 20 billion dollars in ore, but the mineral spring became a casualty of the mining.
Local historians are also quick to remind visitors that for a time, Baxter Springs claimed to be the “most robbed” town in America. They cite that, among others, members of the Jesse James gang robbed the Crowell Bank followed later by Henry Starr and his gang and for the next few years several lesser known bandits. Other “celebrities” include Bonnie and Clyde who robbed Eden’s grocery store twice in one week in 1933. Like its sister cities to the south, Baxter Springs holds bragging rights to an interesting past.
Author's Note: 1806, The Exploration and Settlement of the Cherokee Nation is available on Amazon.com and BARNESAND NOBLE.com
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.