The Story of Kansas

February 8, 2010

Kansas abolitionist endured torture

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series' name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: "To the stars through difficulties."

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: “To the stars through difficulties.”

In the territorial days of Kansas, there were few things Pardee Butler didn’t experience — particularly when standing by his faith and convictions. Butler was tarred and feathered. Whipped 39 times. Strapped to a log and set adrift on the Missouri River with the letter “R” for Rogue painted on his forehead.

Butler, an abolitionist minister, settled in a part of Kansas in the summer of 1854 that flourished with pro-slavery sentiment. For the next three decades, his voice and writings often came to the forefront of Kansas news.

Like many homesteaders, Butler arrived in the territory before his family. He staked out a 160-acre claim in Atchison County and spent a year building a cabin and establishing a farm. In the summer of 1855, he was ready to bring his family to Kansas.

On Aug. 17, 1855, Butler went to Atchison to catch a ride on a steamboat headed for Illinois. While waiting for the steamboat, Butler, a Disciples of Christ minister, began talking about slavery with other people waiting for the boat. He told them he thought slavery was wrong and should be abolished. Those views didn’t go over well with the people who favored slavery. He was confronted by people who demanded that he sign a document proclaiming himself to be pro-slavery.

He refused and was dragged by a vigilante crowd who demanded he either be hanged or drowned. Instead, some in the crowd reasoned it would be better to set Butler, a nonswimmer, adrift on the river, strapped to two logs.

As they set him adrift, he told the crowd:

“Gentlemen, if I am drowned I forgive you. . . . If you are not ashamed of your part in this transaction, I am not ashamed of mine. Goodbye.”

Butler survived the incident and later wrote:

“Floating down the river, alone and helpless, I had opportunity to look about me . . . ”

His accusers had placed a makeshift flag on his raft accusing him of being an agent of the Underground Railroad.

Butler managed to free himself and pull the flag down. He used the staff to paddle to shore.

He later returned to Kansas with his family. His abolitionist views remained intact as he preached against slavery.

In 1858, Butler became the state evangelist for the Kansas Missionary Society. He was again accosted by pro-slavery men who tarred and feathered him for his views.

After the Civil War, Butler became a leading advocate in the Prohibition movement.

He wrote:

“I am appalled at the amount of drinking and gambling that has existed in Kansas, especially in the Missouri River towns . . . Under the shade of every green tree, on the streets, in every shop, store, grocery and hotel, it has seemed as if the chief business of the people was to gamble and drink.”

Butler died in 1888, eight years after Kansas became the first state to write into its constitution a prohibition on alcohol.

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