Wild West-style voter fraud

Lying underneath parking lot pavement and the skeleton of where Hy-Vee once conducted business at 123rd and State Line are the invisible remains of a small hamlet called Oxford.

1856 political cartoon. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Wild West-Style Voter Fraud

How a town that time forgot tipped the Civil War

By Diane Euston

 Lying underneath parking lot pavement and the skeleton of where Hy-Vee once conducted business at 123rd and State Line are the invisible remains of a small hamlet called Oxford.

 This little town, now erased permanently from view, was platted in 1857 just across the state line from New Santa Fe. On the Missouri side, New Santa Fe hosted a variety of stores, homes, blacksmith shops and a post office that offered last-minute services to travelers on the Santa Fe Trail.

 Kansas Territory was open to legal settlement in 1854; at that time, droves of pioneers flooded into the territory to take advantage of the opportunity to purchase cheap land and possibly sway the upcoming elections. Due to “popular sovereignty,” residents of the territory would decide whether newly-formed Kansas would be a slave or free state.

 New Santa Fe was a pro-slavery town hugging the border, so when Oxford was platted in 1857, the majority of people who opened businesses also supported slavery. Just months after the town was established, Oxford would grace the pages of newspapers across the country due to blatant election fraud.

 In March 1857 a new territorial governor named Robert J. Walker was appointed by President James Buchanan. Gov. Walker arrived at the territorial capital in Lecompton, Ks., and made his intentions for Kansas Territory quite clear–he urged free staters to take part in the elections, assuring that the election would be conducted fairly and would be decided “by climate, not politics.”  Gov. Walker may have been naïve about the seriousness of Bleeding Kansas and the wars that had already erupted along the state line.

 On October 5-6, 1857, an election for territorial legislature was underway. Free staters and pro-slavery parties were at the boiling point. Whoever would be elected to Congress would certainly be in charge of drafting the state constitution, and their viewpoint on the issue of slavery would turn the state one way or the other.    

 There were about 11 houses in the little town and a blacksmith shop run by German immigrant Henry Westhoff. Territorial records indicate about 500 legal voters resided at that time in all of Johnson County, Ks.  Less than 100 lived in Oxford Township.

 On that Monday and Tuesday in October 1857 the town of Oxford watched as 90 legal voters cast their votes on the first day. By the next evening, the ballots were taken across the state line and into the town of New Santa Fe by Henry Clay Pate. Between there and Westport, the list of voters in Oxford grew exponentially. A whopping 1,626 votes were verified to have come from the little town of Oxford on the state line.

 In 1900 George W. Martin, secretary of  the Kansas State Historical Society, stated, “Great importance was attached to the vote at Oxford. . . If the vote return stood, the legislature was pro-slavery, and if Oxford was not entitled to the votes then the legislature was free-soil.”

 If the votes carried across the state line by Henry Clay Pate were deemed legal, Kansas Territory, without a doubt, would have become a slave state.

The Governor’s Mansion in Lecompton, 1857

 Thirty legal voters from Oxford sought out Gov. Walker and demanded an investigation on the votes be conducted. Even though Walker wished to see slavery in Kansas , he was forced by pressure of the free staters to validate the Oxford results. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that over 1,600 votes were fraudulent, and through further investigation, it was found that the votes added on that October night were copied directly from a Cincinnati, Ohio, city directory.

 The gig was up; the loss of those votes from Oxford defeated the election of several pro-slavery candidates and gave Republicans a majority in the state legislature. Throwing out the votes in Oxford had national repercussions, and the southern states were less than satisfied with Gov. Walker. The Alabama Beacon newspaper reported, “For this act the Governor has been denounced in the strongest terms.”

Artist depiction of the Lecompton Constitution

 The result of this fraud had the whole nation on edge. By December, Gov. Walker had been chased out of office and the Lecompton Constitution, written by pro-slavery delegates, was up for vote. In part, it allowed slavery and excluded free blacks from living in Kansas Territory. George W. Martin wrote, “But Oxford was not to be snuffed out. At the election December 21, 1857, on the adoption or rejection of the Lecompton Constitution, 1214 illegal votes were again cast.” A few weeks later, another 696 illegal votes were cast.

 History tells us the end of this story. In a vote in August 1858 the Lecompton Constitution supporting slavery was finally rejected and free staters controlled the legal vote. This eventually led to Kansas being admitted as a free state in 1861 and contributed to the beginning of the Civil War.

The Territorial Capital Museum in Lecompton where the Lecompton Constitution was drafted

 The town of Oxford didn’t disappear immediately. It continued to conduct business along the state line and even was used as Union barracks during the Civil War. By the war’s end, most of the town had disappeared from view, but Henry Westhoff continued to run his blacksmith shop in the old town until eventually the fields took over and Oxford faded from memory.

 In June 1953 the Leawood Drive-in replaced the old town and was in operation until 1976. By 1979 developers had decided to use the land for a new shopping center to be aptly called “Oxford Plaza.” By the time the business deal was done, the name had been sadly switched to “Leawood Plaza.”

 Today there is no marker or monument to commemorate the goings-on in this town that has been erased from the land. But the town of Oxford held an important role in the future of the state of Kansas and helped set the stage for the Civil War that tore our nation apart.

Diane writes a blog of the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.

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