The Story of Kansas

1891-1900: The rise of populism

View of a large Reeves steam tractor plowing prairie land to turn up sod. Created between 1891-1912
View of a large Reeves steam tractor plowing prairie land to turn up sod. Created between 1891-1912 Courtesy of Center for Great Plains Studies

Mortgage foreclosures and sheriff's sales filled the newspapers. "Wall Street owns the country," lamented Kansan Mary Elizabeth Lease.

As an orator, writer, lawyer and politician, Lease could move crowds, embarrass politicians and outrage newspaper editors.

"Kansas had better stop raising corn and begin raising hell," she told farmers.

She was called the "People's Joan of Arc," because of her efforts to rally and build the Populist movement.

So great was her involvement in the Populist Party that she became a champion for the rights of farmers, laborers and women throughout the nation during the late 19th century.

But her fame came at a price.

The Wellington Monitor didn't mince words when it called her "a miserable character of womanhood and hideously ugly of features and foul of tongue."

And, in Raleigh, N.C., the newspaper likened Lease to John Brown, saying she invaded the South "with the declaration that the Negro should be made the equal of the white man and that all differences between the sexes should be obliterated. Great God, what next from Kansas?"

Populism ruled Kansas in the 1890s and as a grassroots movement, it swept the prairie. It had reason to spread and spread fast. Farmers were forced to borrow money to get their crops in. When the crops failed, they were hit with foreclosures.

It was desperate times and many of this decades leaders were unlikely heroes.

There were men such as Jerry "Sockless" Simpson, labeled by newspapers as so poor he didn't own socks.

Simpson became a member of the Farmer's Alliance, which by the late 1880s was one of the fastest-growing organizations in Kansas. The alliance gave rise to the Populist movement.

In some ways, the 1890s were the last gasps of the true Old West. On Oct. 5, 1892, the bank-robbing days of the Dalton Gang abruptly ended in a bloody shoot-out on the dusty streets of Coffeyville.

And, in 1898, William "Buffalo Bill" Mathewson killed the last buffalo around Wichita.

The grasslands of the rolling prairie had been chopped and diced into farm fields and towns.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle