Kansas City’s Mystery One-Month Mayor
By Diane Euston
Tucked away in a ten-inch album, hidden away in an attic in California, were photos of some of Kansas City’s greatest pioneers. Like so many dusty attics and untouched basements, stories were just waiting to be rediscovered by someone willing to refrain from tossing memories in a trash can.
Through my relationship with the McGee family in Kansas City (the namesake of the Kansas City street), I learned of the discovery of this photo album once owned by Mobillion McGee (1817-1888). He had come to the future site of Kansas City in 1828 with his parents and siblings and stayed long enough to watch the city grow from the bluffs. Although Mobillion and his wife never had children of their own, they adopted a young girl in Kansas City named Josephine Angelo Brown (1864-1928) before moving to Pasadena, Ca in 1883.
Luckily, Brown held onto her adopted father’s album. And thankfully, it passed through several generations, wrapped and tucked away out of view. And finally, it was found by the great-grandson of Brown, Smokey Bassett.
Instead of just quickly looking through this old album and tossing it aside, Bassett could sense there was something important about its contents. Curious, he researched the names of those identified in the album to try to trace its contents. It didn’t take him long to realize that what he had was quite important to Kansas City’s history in the 1850s and 1860s.
Not only were there photographs of prominent Kansas Citians- but there were photos of president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis and Confederate guerrilla leader, William Quantrill.
Bassett did some sleuthing and contacted the McGees in Kansas City in order to share his findings. He copied every image and passed it along to the family, a treasure for them, and with time, a treasure for all of us.
I never know where my research will lead me. Flipping through the photos of this precious album, I ran across a perfectly patinaed photo of a man I had never seen before. Sitting proudly in a chair and placed next to another photo of his wife in Mobillion’s album, he is labeled as “Mayor William ‘Cash’ Bonnefield [sic].”
The patinaed photos of Mayor William “Cash” Bonnifield and his wife Sarah Jackson Bonnifield. The photos were found in the Mobillion McGee album.
As a local historian, I had never in my years of research even heard of this man. And as it turned out, the rest of Kansas City had been looking for a photo and information on him for many, many years.
In 1929, the Kansas City Star printed a plea from a historian, asking for a photo and information about William Bonnifield. He wrote, “If there is a relative or friend in position to enlighten the writer of these records, or produce from some old war album a photograph or tintype of Mr. Bonnifield, advice to that effect would be greatly appreciated and serve to close the missing link in the records.”
No one responded.
In 1938, the newspaper reported that three photos of the mayors of Kansas City, all serving in the 1860s, were missing at City Hall- one of them was William Bonnifield. A great-granddaughter came forward and supplied a photo of her relative taken much later than the one contained in the McGee album.
In 1974, the Kansas City Star wrote an article that states, “Wanted: information on a man named William Bonnifield. He is said to have come to Kansas City in 1850, worked with a family named McGee, became mayor in April of 1862, stayed on the job one month, and then disappeared from sight.”
If this doesn’t raise your curiosity on Kansas City’s missing mayor, I don’t know what will.
In my hands was a copy of an original photo of this elusive mayor, lost for so long at City Hall and lacking any true story of his life. William Bonnifield was mayor of Kansas City for one month in 1863- in the heart of the Civil War strife in our city. It’s time to set the record straight about who this man was and why he may have vanished from our history.
The Land of Milk and Honey
William A. Bonnifield was born Sept. 4, 1814 in Randolph Co., West Virginia, the second-born to Rhodham (b. 1788) and Nancy Bonnifield (b.1793). The couple had fifteen children, the last being born in 1834.
Western Expansion of settlers into the American wild west was well underway at the time, and many were looking for more land and opportunity. In 1835, Rhodham Bonnifield traveled with his brother to what would become Iowa to evaluate the land available. In 1832, six million acres in the easternmost part of what would become Iowa had been purchased by the government for $640,000 (eleven cents per acre). Known as the Black Hawk Purchase and named after Sauk and Fox Chief Black Hawk, this land was up for legal white settlement. Rhodham’s son, Wesley (1827-1908), relayed to a local newspaper that his father believed “that all this western country was destined to become a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Iowa was the perfect place for the Bonnifield family; even though they hailed from the South, Rhodham wasn’t a slave owner (it was said he was vehemently against it) and preferred to settle in a place that would likely be a free state.
In 1836, William and his brother, Arnold left Virginia to attend Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. The following year, the Bonnifield family left Virginia forever to claim a piece of land in the Black Hawk purchase. With twelve children in tow, they traveled in a Virginia schooner while the women and children rode in a spring wagon through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
They stopped for the winter near Quincy, Illinois as Rhodham continued into the territory to purchase two claims near present-day Fairfield, Iowa. The following February, part of the Bonnifield clan were sent out to build a temporary cabin.
Shortly thereafter in 1838, William Bonnifield left college and met his family in their new home. William along with his brothers and father worked to construct a new two-story log cabin for the family. Logs for walls were hand-hewn with a broad ax, finished with lime and sand, and then were washed. The floor was made of walnut, and the roof was constructed with shaved walnut shingles. The fireplace in the center of the main room was made with flat rock quarried nearby and was used for both heating and cooking.
This may not seem like much for a family of fourteen, but a two-story log cabin was a lap of luxury at the time.
A year later, an addition to the side of the cabin was added “by one of the sons of Mr. Bonnifield as a place to study in.” Likely, this addition was made by William to continue his education.
Rising into Respect Amidst Tragedy
In January 1839, a new county named Jefferson was created where the Bonnifield cabin stood. The government hired 24-year-old William Bonnifield as the first surveyor of Jefferson Co. The sprinkling of white settlers knew they needed a county seat- a town where government and businesses could be convenient to the new settlers. The spot had been chosen and the town laid out by William Bonnifield. William even assisted with the construction of the courthouse.
The town needed a name. Gathering at the Bonnifield cabin sitting on benches near the fire, county leaders tossed around some options. Names such as Paynesville were suggested. Randolph was submitted, possibly by one of the Bonnifield’s as an homage to their home county in Virginia. Rhodham Bonnifield’s wife, Nancy listened intently nearby as the men spoke of the picturesque prairie of the countryside and what name would be appropriate. Without much hesitation, Mrs. Nancy Bonnifield suggested the name “Fairfield.” According to records, the group of men “found the name fitting and it was instantly adopted.”
The house continued to be the location of social, political and religious life. Territorial governors, delegates to Congress, and anyone of high esteem stopped for hospitality at the Bonnifield cabin.
Just as their new lives were underway in Iowa, tragedy struck the family. An epidemic, possibly cholera, was sweeping across the countryside. William’s oldest brother, Arnold fell to the disease in October 1839; two married sisters perished in early 1840. Then, the heart of the family was hit. In April 1840, William’s mother, Nancy passed, and within a month, his father, Rhodham, was gone.
Five members- including both parents- had died. The youngest of his siblings was six years old. For the following eight years, William did his best to raise his siblings, and he was even successful in sending his surviving brothers off to school at his alma-mater, Allegheny College.
In 1843, William continued his government service when he was made postmaster of the town of Lockridge in Jefferson Co. In the same year, he married Sarah Ann Jackson (b. 1824) in Henry Co. and started his own family. Before moving out of Iowa for good, the couple welcomed three children.
Going to Kansas City
Records don’t indicate the reason behind William Bonnifield’s moving away from Iowa, but by 1855, they had left the farm and settled into the blossoming City of Kansas. In 1860, William was listed as a gardener but seems to be keeping close to Kansas City’s finest businessmen. William served on the school board committee alongside Mayor M.J. Payne as the first school building was being planned.
The Bonnifield’s welcomed another child while living in Kansas City, and they settled into an area of town that held some prominence in the history books.
The first documented connection to the McGee family in Kansas City occurs when William Bonnifield bought a prized lot in McGee’s Addition. The subdivision was built by future mayor Milt McGee (1819-1873). In 1857, he platted a subdivision south of the city known today as “McGee’s Addition” to encourage people to travel south to his newly-built hotel at 16th and Grand Ave. This hotel, commonly referred to as Planter’s, Farmer’s Exchange, and most commonly McGee’s Hotel, became a landmark during the Border Wars and the headquarters of many pro-slavery men who commonly stormed into Kansas Territory.
In 1857, only 21 people lived this far south in his subdivision- a subdivision that now comprises Sprint Center, Power and Light, and the Convention Center. But by 1860 when the Bonnifield’s moved in, the area boasted 2,319 people and 469 buildings. His house would have stood on the eastern side of current-day Holmes Rd. at 17th St and is the current site of the Lyric Opera House.
Knowing that William Bonnifield came from a strong “free state” background, it is surprising that he would have chosen to move to an area in the center of the Border Wars and chosen a city with pro-slavery tendencies. It’s even more surprising that he made friends with the McGees, a Southern Democrat slave-owning family involved in the city’s politics. Regardless, William Bonnifield was bound and determined to make his mark in Kansas City.
Mayor for a Month
Bonnifield may have been against slavery, but he identified as a Democrat- the party of slaveowners. In 1863, Bonnifield ran for mayor under the Democratic ticket and won by 370 votes. Even as a Democrat, Bonnifield openly declared he was pro-Union. He wanted to run a city situated in a county that was largely supporting the Confederacy.
Free-staters in Kansas were thrilled when he won the election. The Wyandotte County Gazette wrote, “Now indeed may we say that Kansas City is thoroughly redeemed from the terrible incubus of pro-slavery fanaticism and succession” and declared this a victory “for the gallant Union boys of Kansas City.”
He was the seventh mayor of a young city in the midst of the Civil War. The city was occupied by Union troops but certainly supported secession by smuggling goods to guerrillas in the countryside. William Bonnifield may have been completely qualified for the job- and his resume surely supports this- but he chose to run for mayor at the wrong place and the wrong time.
There are very few records about William Bonnifield’s tenure as mayor. The Kansas City Star reported in 1929 that when he was elected, “That period was marked by the most intense excitement of the Civil War, the city practically being under martial law.”
The story goes that Bonnifield assumed office but was outnumbered by pro-slavery Kansas Citians. Most of the City Council at the time fell on the wrong side of history and sided with the South. In retaliation after his election, the City Council withheld his pay. Records repeated in newspapers state he “held office for one month and then disappeared from sight.”
After being mayor for one month, Bonnifield walked away from Kansas City, Mo. City records show that mayoral duties for several months were handled by the city clerk and the registrar. Other records suggest Robert T. Van Horn took over immediately.
Life After Kansas City
Stating that Bonnifield disappeared isn’t correct; he just moved to friendlier territory. He hopped over into the free state of Kansas and moved to Wyandotte Co. His son served in the Union army, he had two more children while living across the state line, and he even ran for Kansas state representative in 1867- as a Republican.
After failing to be elected, William Bonnifield chose to move with his family to Douglas Co., Colorado just south of Denver in the late 1860s. Newspapers in Kansas City suggest he went into mining with the McGees, but there isn’t any concrete evidence to support this. It is clear that William was able to serve several elected offices.
In November 1875, 61-year-old William Bonnifield was hauling a load of wood when his horses got spooked and took off at full speed. William fell under the wheels and was run over, “crushing several ribs on his left side and also injuring him about the head and face.” Within a few days, he died from his injuries.
His obituary in the Denver News called him “highly esteemed by every citizen” and stated, “He was for two years mayor of Kansas City.”
Two years is definitely wrong, but he certainly didn’t hide his shortest-in-Kansas-City stint as mayor. He just didn’t correct people about how long he served.
The Bonnifield Lasting Legacy in Iowa
Kansas City may have forgotten its one-month mayor, but the Bonnifield legacy strongly lives on in the southeastern Iowa town of Fairfield.
In 1906, a farmer decided to tear down a structure he had used for two years as a hay barn. Within a short amount of time, an organization called the Old Settlers contacted him and asked if they could save the structure if it was moved to a park in Fairfield. The farmer agreed.
The structure was none other than the Bonnifield cabin- a cabin built with the help of Kansas City’s future mayor. Luckily, the community saw the need to save what turned out to be the oldest two-story log cabin in the entire state.
William Bonnifield’s brother, Wesley, was still alive and donated the $500 needed to move the cabin nine miles east to the park in Fairfield. In 1908, the cabin was disassembled and moved to a ten-acre parcel called Waterworks Park where visitors can see it on display today.
While taking it apart, an old purse and a map were found hidden inside the cabin. A letter inside the purse was dated 1856 from San Francisco and, along with the faded map, were supposed to lead the unknown recipient to buried money left by Chief Black Hawk. The map was believed to indicate the Bonnifield cabin as a starting point and showed the treasure buried 400 feet away.
The treasure was said to be worth $10,000, and the Evening-Times Republican reported, “Pioneers say they remember vividly that three Indians who were appointed to bury this money were killed in an Indian war soon afterward.”
Also included in the purse was a clipping taken from an 1828 newspaper that gave a recipe for making bitters.
William Bonnifield’s life in Kansas City was short-lived and lost over time. There are less than a dozen references to him in local newspapers in the past 140 years, and the mystery of this man has placed him into ambiguity. He lived in our city- he was well-respected enough to be elected mayor. His loyalty to the Union during the Civil War chased him out of his position, and for decade after decade, historians searched for his photo and his existence.
A series of events has led us to finally understanding and acknowledging Kansas City’s shortest-serving mayor. A man in California chose to care about a small album of photos and share them with the McGee family in Kansas City. The McGees then shared the images with me. This very album that started this whole journey has been donated by Bassett to the Jackson County Historical Society. A treasure was saved; a book of photos survived past all the odds.
I don’t believe in coincidences; I believe this story was meant to be told in due time. Now we can acknowledge the obscure and often-forgotten seventh mayor of Kansas City, William Bonnifield. And here’s hoping his history will be included in future pages of our history books.
Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.