Washington Marlatt’s 1864 Diary

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Washington Marlatt in 1864

Only occasionally do I get the chance to transcribe an important piece of history. Rarer still do I get to glimpse into the mind and study the character of an important figure in Kansas history through the private musings of a personal diary. Just such an occasion presented itself to me recently when I had the pleasure of forming an acquaintance with Sally Nield, a descendant of Washington Marlatt (1829-1909). By blessing (or curse) Sally has inherited most of Marlatt’s papers which she intends to donate to some appropriate archive in the near future but before doing so, she offered me the opportunity to transcribe and share some of his materials. ¹ I could not pass it up.

Readers unaware of the details of Washington Marlatt’s career can familiarize themselves with him by reading William E. Connelley’s 1918 publication entitled, “A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans,” which has a lengthy biography of Marlatt. He is best known for having served as the first Principal of Blue Mont College, the forerunner of what is now Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.

The first piece that I selected and published was entitled, “Kansas Journal” in which Marlatt chronicled his journey to Kansas Territory in 1856. Though only 18 pages long, it had never been transcribed and published previously though it did form the basis for a series of newspaper articles Marlatt wrote in the early 1870s. Followers interested in reading this piece can find it at Washington Marlatt Comes to Kansas Territory.

The second piece I selected to transcribe and post on-line was the Pocket Diary kept during the entire year of 1864 while serving as an itinerant minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church on the Atchison Circuit and the Wyandotte Circuit. This particular diary intrigued me for a couple of reasons. First, my great-great-grandfather, Rev. James Sayre Griffing (1822-1888) was a contemporary of Marlatt’s and their paths crossed on multiple occasions throughout their careers. I’d hoped that my ancestor might be mentioned in Marlatt’s diary and was not disappointed. Second, a quick read of Marlatt’s diary gave indication that his diary—though sometimes cryptic—was rich in detail and color, but more importantly captured his emotions during a very turbulent and difficult time in Kansas history.

When the year 1864 opens, we find Marlatt completing his second year on the difficult Atchison Circuit—difficult not only because the location was over 100 miles away from his homestead in Riley County necessitating the rental of a home for himself, wife and two young sons, but also because Atchison was a city predominantly settled by proslavery emigrants who were sympathetic to the Confederacy. The frigid January weather and the icy reception to his entreaties for spiritual refreshment in the poorly heated church caused him to lament, “Evening prayer meeting. In attendance 19—mostly new recruits. Old regiment nearly all dead or unfit for duty. ‘Oh! that they were made alive.’ House cold. Hearts cold.”

But if Marlatt thought the challenges of being an itinerant minister were difficult at Atchison, he was soon to find it more so at Wyandotte and Quindaro, Kansas. His first visit to both of these communities gave him only an inkling of what he was to face in the months ahead. At Quindaro, he found the “people hopeful, but prospect hard—no concord—no harmony—one great discord. None have ever been converted.” Traveling further to Wyandotte, we learn that he “spent the day in looking for the church—or a man in the church. Ichabod is written on the church and people.” Scholars of the Bible will recognize Ichabod from the Book of Samuel wherein Ichabod’s name is said to mean the glory has departed from Israel.”  

Though he found some pillars of the church among the white settlers and Wyandotte and Delaware Indians living on the spit of land sandwiched between the Missouri and Kansas River bottoms of Wyandotte county, he also found religion at a “frightenly low ebb,” a lack of succor among the church members who faced hardships of their own, and few who were willing to assist him find adequate shelter for his family. Added to this, Marlatt—as well as his wife—grew increasingly discouraged as the months wore on by illnesses of family members, by setbacks and failures in attempts to grow food during a summer drought, by periodic threats of bushwhackers from Missouri, and by humiliating himself in begging parishioners to honor their commitments to pay his salary. By the first of October, Marlatt confessed to his diary, “Losing footing for hope in regard to Wyandotte Circuit—more especially Wyandotte everyday. Fear there is no bottom.” By month’s end he had concluded to give up the circuit, writing, “It is bad economy after all—to minister & people—making him poor in purse, & both poor in spirit.”

Perhaps weighing in on his decision to give up the Wyandotte Circuit in October was the threat of Gen. Price’s Confederate army invading Kansas in that same month. This threat was met by the Kansas Militia who joined with General Curtis’ army at the Battle of Westport to turn away the invaders. As did other itinerants, Marlatt sat down his bible and picked up his rifle and I found Marlatt’s diary to contain a riveting account of that battle, not previously published.

Finally, before inviting you to read the diary, I feel a word of warning is absolutely necessary. This diary was written over 150 years ago in a time when racial epithets were in common use, reflecting a society largely built on racial class distinctions that are repudiated today by most Americans. Racial slurs such as “nigger,” “darkey,” or “Sambo” occasionally appear in Marlatt’s diary and I have to confess to wincing a time or two. And though this diary was personal and unintended for publication, Marlatt’s words probably betray an underlying racial prejudice against Blacks that was deep-seated and shared by most of white America in the mid-19th Century. Readers of Marlatt’s career and contributions to the religious, educational, civic, and social environment of Kansas understand that he had a Christian heart and that he abhorred slavery and was sympathetic to the plight of the freedmen. To lift any portion of Marlatt’s diary entries out of context and to besmear his legacy would be doing him and his descendants a grave disservice.

¹ On 13 March 2020 I received a message from Sally that she had completed a donation of Marlatt’s 1864 diary along with several other pertinent papers from the same period of time to the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka, Kansas. Among these papers are the handwritten notes kept by Marlatt of the marriages, baptisms, list of church members, &c. from the period of his ministry in Kansas from 1862 thru 1867.

[Editor’s Note: The image in the header is a composite I created from the wonderful painting by Western artist Denny Karchner.]