Monday, July 14, 2014

Gaps fiction can fill: An essay by Jack Marshall Maness

Today I'm welcoming novelist and fellow academic librarian Jack Marshall Maness, who's here with an evocative post about family history, the personal relationships we can have with a particular place, and his process of uncovering Kansas' dark, violent, and politically fraught past.  I hope you'll enjoy reading his essay as much as I did.


Gaps Fiction Can Fill
Jack Marshall Maness

I am a Denverite. Apart from two relatively short stints away from my hometown, I have lived here all my life and have no plans to leave. It may seem curious, then, as a native and loyal Coloradoan—a state with its own rich history—that I have chosen in Song of the Jayhawk to write about a small river town tucked away in the far northeast corner of Kansas. Much less about a relatively obscure era of American history, the 1850s, which perch on the threshold of a decade that has enjoyed far more fictional and historical treatment.

I write about Kansas for many reasons. For starters, it is unspeakably beautiful. The rolling hills, woodlands, and ecosystems flush with wildlife that exist in eastern Kansas—between the hundredth meridian and the Missouri River—are rich and complex. One photograph of the sunrise over the river from my grandparents’ front yard, taken by my uncle last autumn, attests to the beauty of this part of the state.

View of the Missouri River from my grandparents’ house, looking southeast.
Photo by Jim Mullins, used with permission.

If its beauty is one reason I write about Kansas, the primary reason are its people. This is really where Song of the Jayhawk was born. When I was young my brother and I would accompany our mother every summer across what was once known as the “Great American Desert”—western Kansas—to her hometown of Atchison (bickering, with no air-conditioning, the whole way). We’d spend several weeks with our cousins, exploring the bluffs and tributaries of the Missouri. We’d then drive down to the southeast town of Coffeyville, where my dad would join us and we’d spend time with his family. We’d explore yet another river system, the Verdigris, and catch frogs with yet another cousin. Summer after summer, aunt after cousin after uncle, my family and Kansas became an integral part of my soul. Kansas is a second home to me.

And yet, as we would exit the Interstate near Topeka and veer north toward Atchison, an eerie sense of disquiet would befall me. As we wound through the dark, narrow roads, lined with cacophonous woods flush with insects, I knew family myths and ghost stories awaited me; like the one about my Irish great-great-grandmother, who, it is said, could move objects with her mind and once chased the children around the room with a flying sewing machine. There would be late-night visits to the cemetery, Ouija board games, and all the while the deep, dark, silent rivers would slither by below us.

The Missouri River. Photo by Ivan Quniones, used with permission.

As we neared town, boredom became excitement, and it would be repeated as we neared Coffeyville; family stories of toothless old men in wooden chairs hand-carved with images of pirate heads; and a mysterious Cherokee ancestor who would appear and depart through a back door, leaving behind a love story. Kansas was not only a second home; over the years it became a mystery, a gap among history, legend, genealogy and family lore. One I simply had to understand.

Senator David Rice Atchison of Missouri in 1850., Kansas State Historical Society,
Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.
I learned from my maternal grandfather, who is now 97 (and an aunt’s father, who compiled an amazing amount of genealogy), that my great-grandfather was actually born on a farm north of Atchison, and that his father had come to Kansas as early as the late 1850s from Ireland, fleeing, no doubt, famine and oppression. But Patrick and Maria Mullins unfortunately happened to settle in one of the most violent towns in one of the more tumultuous periods of American history, a town now known as “the most haunted town in Kansas.”1 (A website spurned by a paranormal cable program even loosely drew a connection to my grandfather’s grandmother, who was committed to the state mental hospital in 1886 after she “began burning everything she could get her hands on.”2).

Haunted or not, history holds a more telling and interesting story; that the town was founded on a fundamentally evil principle—to spread slavery across the continent. Congress had decided in 1854 that “squatter sovereignty” would allow settlers to decide if Kansas would be a part of the North or the South. Highly organized, vested, and subsidized emigration flooded the area, and Atchison was founded as a vehement Pro Slavery settlement. Its paper, the Squatter Sovereign, was known for venomous editorials that included sentences such as, “[d]eath to all Yankees…”3 And according to one account, its namesake, Senator David R. Atchison of Missouri, told its people “[b]y God, sir, hang every abolitionist in the territory.” 4

Pardee Butler, some 10-20 years
after the novel’s opening scene., Kansas State Historical Society,
Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.
And the town-folk took him at his word. Just blocks from my grandparents’ house, on August 18th, 1855, a mob decided whether or not to hang the abolitionist Reverend Pardee Butler from Ohio. Butler had chosen to speak out against slavery and refused to keep quiet. According to one account, they narrowly voted to send him down the river on a raft instead of hanging him, only to tar-and-feather him the following year and set him out naked upon the plains. One of my relatives knew Butler and was a member of his congregation in his later years, long after “Bleeding Kansas,” as it would come to be known, was over.

Now the intrigue I had always felt as a boy made sense. Kansas (and my family) weren’t haunted—they just had a dark, mysterious history. And in the gaps among the history, genealogy, and family lore I knew I now had the beginnings of a novel, even a series of novels. What was “Bleeding Kansas” like for my great-great grandparents? What was it like for the Irish and German immigrants who came not for the fight for the cause, but just to own a farm? Why was my great-great grandfather’s land one of the only unsettled sections (16) in this hand-written map the surveyor scrawled in his family recipe book?

Atchison County Surveyor Henry Kuhn’s Record (and recipe book)., Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Song of the Jayhawk fills these gaps with fiction.

As I write in the novel’s introduction, the territory’s namesake tribe, the Kanza (or Kaw) Indians, did not tell many stories to whites, but they delighted in telling them to one another. One of their favorites was about a monster, the Mialueka—creatures with large beaks who tricked people into following them to the darkest recesses of the woods, or the rivers, from which they may never return.5 I have long delighted in wondering if this story was the inspiration for the infamous Kansas “jayhawk.” The librarian and historian in me believe not, but the writer knows it is so. It simply must be.

It is the truth behind the history that will forever haunt the present, a mysterious beast that emerges from the shadowy recesses of the past, for an indelible moment, and soon disappears.

Our choice is whether or not we follow.


Jack Marshall Maness is the son of four generations of Kansans. He is a librarian and professor at the University of Colorado.  

Song of the Jayhawk is his first novel, and he is currently working on its sequel. Follow his progress at


1 Hefner Heitz, L. (1997). Haunted Kansas. University Press of Kansas: Lawrence, KS.

2 Atchison Globe, July 13, 1886.

3 A wonderful overview of the Sovereign’s role in Pro Slavery propaganda is provided by Cecil-Fronsman, B. (1993). “Death to All Yankees and Traitors in Kansas: The Squatter Sovereign and the Defense of Slavery in Kansas,” Kansas History, 16(1). Kansas State Historical Society: Topeka, KS. Available at:

4 Ingalls, S. (1916). History of Atchison County, Kansas. Standard Publishing Company: Lawrence, KS, p. 66.

5 Unrau, J. (1975). The Kaw People. Indian Tribal Series: Phoenix, AZ., p. 18


  1. Indeed, funded and organized primarily by South Carolina fire eater wealthy elite, up through Missouri.

    They attempted the same thing with California, including outright shooting anti-slavery legislators. But California was so much further away and it was so expensive, difficult and time consuming to get a planter and his slaves there, the slave power aristos were always far and away outnumbered by the free soilers. None of this stopped them though.

    But, you probably know all this too! :)

    Sent from Presidio County, Texas, part of the Trans-Pecos agreement that Henry Clay put together during the years of the Great Debate about California: slave or free soil.

    1. Fascinating! I know some of this, but less than I would like. It does seem history tends to repeat itself--more than history enthusiasts would like, perhaps? Thanks much. Will have to dig into California and Texas some more!

    2. It is very colorful and very interesting, as well as, well, horrible, as you say. Or maybe as Faulkner said, several times, in different ways.

      Love, C.

  2. Wow, what great memories, Jack. I've added Song of the Jayhawk to my TBR list!

  3. There are things all flatlanders have in common.