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Robert S. Stevens Collection, 1856-1875

Containing letters and telegrams, 1856 - 1875

Microfilm MS 2890 - MS 2892
Ms. Collection No. 241



That Robert W. S. Stevens was a man of many abilities was reflected in his numerous careers. At various times on his life, he was a banker, businessman, land speculator, lawyer, railroad promoter, teacher, and politician. Stevens had a remarkable flair for adapting himself to whatever was required of him at any given moment. For the most part, he succeeded brilliantly.

Robert Wadleigh Smith Stevens was born in Attica, New York, on March 27, 1824. He was the only son of Judge Alden Sprague and Achsa (Smith) Stevens. Alden Stevens broke the family tradition of yeoman farmers by acquiring a college education. He first became a teacher, and later an attorney and judge. The elder Stevens was an advocate for modernization in education and was also interested in the development of railroads, a novel idea at the time. These activities highly influenced the shaping of Robert Stevens’s subsequent achievements.

Stevens attended common school in his native Attica. He probably began college when the family underwent a period of financial strains causing his formal education to end by age 17. Being a precocious individual, Stevens was not one to allow his education to end with the termination of his schooling. He continued to study on his own and was certified as a public school teacher in 1844. He also read the law with the district attorney of Wyoming County at about this time. Admission to the bar came around 1846. Aside from his legal and educational pursuits, Stevens worked at a number of other occupations while still living at home. Among these experiences included clerking at an auction house, a job with the post office, and a partnership in a mercantile venture. In 1850, Stevens had his first experiences in railroad promotion with the construction of the Tonawanda Valley Railroad. Although this was only a short-line railroad, this experience would be put to good use two decades later when he would oversee construction of what became the Missouri - Kansas - Texas (Katy) Railroad. By 1852, Stevens was successful enough man of affairs to enable him to wed Mary Proctor Smith in October of that year. She was a second cousin on his mother’s side and came from a well - to - do lumbering and land - owning family from Manchester, Massachusetts. This marriage was generally a happy one; they had only one surviving child, Charles Frederick, born in 1856.

A staunch Democrat in an area which was predominantly Republican, Stevens gained stature in his party by avidly campaigning, at the local level, for James Buchanan’ s bid for the presidency. At the same time, he also made the acquaintance of Wilson Shannon, a former territorial governor of Kansas. Shannon convinced Stevens to move to the Kansas Territory so that they might practice law together. Stevens was to emigrate to the Kansas Territory in 1856. President Buchanan rewarded Stevens’s loyalty by appointing him special U.S. Indian commissioner. His task was to arrange for the sale of Kaskaskia, Peoria, Piankashaw and Wea tribal lands, ceded to the United States in 1854. Stevens also served as mayor of Lecompton in 1858.

In 1860, Stevens was authorized to improve conditions on the Sac and Fox Indian reservations in east-central Kansas. These steps, which included modern housing, sawmills, and other small industries did not find favor with the Indians involved. Not only did Stevens lose much money on this venture, but the U.S. Government failed to forward the money to him as was promised in the contract. This debt would not be satisfied for twenty years.

Stevens moved to Lawrence in 1862 to become a bank president and also filled a vacant seat in the Kansas Senate. Stevens finished that term, not seeking re-election. Stevens was one of the few men spared during Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence in 1863. He was involved in the impeachment proceedings launched against Governor Charles Robinson. Robinson was charged with financial fraud, but was eventually acquitted.

Although successful in most of his endeavors, Stevens remained deeply in debt through the late 1860s, mainly due to the Sac and Fox episode. Determined to satisfy his financial obligations, Stevens needed to find a profitable, if not lucritive, business venture. By 1869, he had befriended Judge Levi Parsons, a New York - based financier, who had a keen interest in building new railroads in the rapidly expanding West. Stevens convinced Parsons to grant him permission to supervise construction of what was to become the Missouri - Kansas - Texas Railroad. This would assure Stevens a place in Kansas history.

It was Stevens who oversaw the day - to - day operations of the M-K-T during its formative years. Although based in Sedalia, Missouri at the time, he made frequent trips to Kansas while the line was being constructed. Furthermore, his first - hand knowledge of Kansas geography helped the M-K-T (or “Katy,” as it was soon to be called) become the first line to reach Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Stevens also secured an exclusive contract to build through that region and eventually reach Texas to tap that State’s tremendous resources. Stevens founded what was to become Parson, Kansas. Named for the railroad’s founder and president, Parsons was, until the late 1950s, the M-K-T’s headquarters. He also founded Denison, Texas, which honored the line’s vice president and was second only to Parsons in importance to the fledgling railroad. Stevens left the M-K-T during the time of Jay Gould’s control of the line, but later returned after the Gould era to oversee the Katy’s final push to the Gulf of Mexico. By the late 1870s, Stevens had not only satisfied his old debts, but had become quite wealthy as well.

Returning to Attica in the 1880s, Stevens was to serve one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Reorganization of his district in favor of the Republicans lost him re-election, but only by a very narrow margin. His final years were spent pursuing various philanthropic activities. These included renovation of local schools and the complete rebuilding of the Attica Presbyterian Church, although he was never an official member of that denomination. A series of illnesses weakened him in later years beginning around 1890. The death of his only sister, Caroline Briggs, was an emotional blow, hastening his own demise. Shortly after attending his sister’ s memorial service in January 1893, Stevens fell ill and died on February 23. He will always be remembered for having built a transportation empire that not only opened the Southwest but enhanced and hastened the economic development of Kansas as well.

Scope and Content

The Robert Wadleigh Smith Stevens collection covers the years between 1856 and 1875. The more than 1,800 documents are mainly of a business nature. There is a sprinkling of personal correspondence, some letters relating to Stevens peripherally and several newspaper articles which are relative to Stevens’s life and work. The collection pertains almost exclusively to his work and association with Kansas, first as an attorney - land agent in Lecompton, later as general manager of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway Company.

The collection is housed in four containers and is divided into five series, each arranged chronologically. The donor, Robert C. Stevens, typed and edited transcriptions of the originals, and indexed all documents in the collection. The indices are separated into a document index and a proper name index. These indices precede each series and serve to determine the boundary of a given series.

A note about the dating scheme utilized in this collection. Dates follow a six digit arrangement, by year/month/date. 74/12/31 would be 1874 (year), 12 th month, and 31 st day; or December 31, 1874. Undated documents (usually month or date) are simply given double zeros (00) and will generally precede known dates. The exception is in Series 3, which consists of only telegrams. Here, unknown dates follow the known dates. There is an editorial notation in the Series 3 indices for further information.

Generally speaking, there is much more material in greater depth and detail concerning R. W. S. Stevens’s work on the M-K-T Railway. However, the earlier material does provide valuable insights into his personal, political and professional life in Kansas immediately prior to the Civil War. There is also information on his efforts at the Sac & Fox Indian Agency and the Atlantic and Pacific and Missouri Pacific railroads. Correspondents include George Denison and Levi Parsons. These documents are all transcribed, facilitating reading and research.

The collection ends in the summer if 1875. Therefore, it will not contain any information about his term as a congressman, nor about earlier and later careers. The original manuscripts, as well as other family papers, are housed in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library (Ithaca, N.Y.), as part of the Stevens Family Papers, [ca. 1770- 1990] (collection no. 1210).

Special thanks are in order to Robert C. Stevens of Pittsfield, New York, for the tremendous amount of time and energy he has devoted to helping to make this collection easily accessible. This has, in turn, made it possible to process this collection all the more quickly and efficiently for public use.

Contents List


Series 1 Letters : 1856-1859
Series 2 Letters : 1860-1869
Series 3 Telegrams, 1870-1871
Series 4 Letters : 1870-1873
Series 5 Letters : 1874-1875

Series Description

Collection 241   Box Folder

Microfilm Roll #

Series 1 Letters : 1856-1859      
  Document Index 1 1 MS 2890
  Names Index 1 2 MS 2890
  56/08/24-58/08/28 1 3 MS 2890
  58/09/14-59/12/31 1 4 MS 2890
  59/09/01-59/12/31 1 5 MS 2890
Series 2 Letters : 1860-1869      
  Document Index 1 6 MS 2890
  Names Index 1 7 MS 2890
  60/01/01-60/02/29 1 8 MS 2890
  60/02/00-60/04/27 1 9 MS 2890
  60/05/07-62/01/27 1 10 MS 2890
  62/02/05-65/11/12 2 1 MS 2891
  65/02/01-69/11/12 2 2 MS 2891
Series 3 Telegrams, 1870-1871      
  Document Index (editor’s note follows) 2 3 MS 2891
  Names Index Series 3 (editor’s note folows 2 4 MS 2891
  70/09/22-70/11/Unk[nown].9 2 5 MS 2891
  70/12/01-70/12/Unk.8 2 6 MS 2891
  71/01/02-71/02/Unk.4 2 7 MS 2891
Series 4 Letters : 1870-1873      
  Document Index 2 8 MS 2891
  Names Index 2 9 MS 2891
  70/05/01-71/12/29 2 10 MS 2891
  72/01/19-72/08/31 2 11 MS 2891
  72/09/01-73/01/31 2 12 MS 2891
  73/02/01-73/03/31 2 13 MS 2891
  73/04/01-73/09/30 3 1 MS 2892
  73/10/01-73/12/22 3 2 MS 2892
Series 5 Letters : 1874-1875      
  Document Index 3 3 MS 2892
  Names Index 3 4 MS 2892
  74/01/09-74/03/31 3 5 MS 2892
  74/04/07-74/06/30 3 6 MS 2892
  74/07/01-74/07/31 3 7 MS 2892
  74/08/03-74/11/30 3 8 MS 2892
  74/12/01-74/12/31 4 1 MS 2892
  75/01/01-75/06/16 4 2 MS 2892

Additional Information for Researchers

Processed by

Brandt Becker / Robert A. McInnes


1 ft. (3 boxes)


Donated in 1992 by Robert C. Stevens.


Researchers needing to cite any or all of this collection in footnotes should cite the specific document, box and folder number, Robert Wadleigh Smith Stevens Papers, 1856-1875, Kansas State Historical Society microfilm [roll number].

Copyright Notice

This material may be protected by copyright law (Title 17, U.S. Code).

The user is cautioned that the publication of the contents of this manuscript collection may be construed as constituting a violation of literary property rights. These rights are derived from the principle of common law, affirmed in the 1976 copyright act, that the writer of an unpublished letter or other manuscript has the sole right to publish the contents thereof for the duration of the copyright. Unless he or she affirmatively parts with that right, the right descends to his or her legal heirs regardless of the ownership of the physical manuscript itself. It is the responsibility of the author or his or her publisher to secure permission of the owner of literary property rights in unpublished writing.