The apocryphal story of how Haddam got its name lies somewhere between contrived hokeyness and puerile balderdash, and goes something like this: in the late 1860s, a raiding party of Native Americans captured several settlers in the vicinity of present-day Haddam and dragged them back to their camp with the intent to do grievous bodily harm. Before any bloodthirsty acts could be committed, the settlers managed to loosen their bonds and slip away into the night. When the escape was discovered the next morning, one of the captors merely shrugged and said, “Well, we had ‘em.”
The official, if not obscure, one-line statement of how Haddam got its name can be found on page 312 of the “Biennial Report of the Board of Directors of the Kansas State Historical Society,” published in 1916. Haddam, it states in language so savagely brief that one wonders if the penny-pinching editors were trying to wring every last drop of ink from their ink pots, was “founded, 1869; named for Haddam, Conn.”
A little more detail can be found in William G. Cutler’s “History of the State of Kansas,” first published in 1883. According to Cutler’s sources, “The town was founded in 1869, when J. W. Taylor built a store upon land donated by Geo. Canfil. About this time A. Whitney opened a store on his claim, just west, and started a rival town of Haddam. The fight waxed hot and heavy for five years. Mr. Whitney being appointed post-master at one time, and removing the office to West Haddam. In 1874, however, he sold out his store and removed to the rival and the present town.”
So—not just one Haddam, but two. But what was the Connecticut connection?
George and Orson Canfil came to Kansas from Freeport, Ill. and settled on West Mill Creek on July 3, 1859. Ten years later, George Canfil deeded land for the site of a new town which he named after Haddam, Conn. Why not Freeport? Historical documents make no mention of this apparent discrepancy.
Enter Ed Schwing, editor of the Haddam Bulletin, a community newsletter for residents of Haddam, Higganum and Haddam Neck, Conn. For most of his life Schwing happily existed with the belief that there was but one Haddam within the length and breadth of the United States, and whose singularity bestowed upon it a distinctive exclusivity.
That belief was shattered in 2003 when he checked his computer for a weather forecast. A obliging menu asked for clarification: was this for Haddam, Conn., or for Haddam, Kan.? He stared at the screen in disbelief. Another Haddam—and in Kansas, to boot?
Once he collected his wits, he began to delve into the origins of his own town which, he found out, could be traced back to Much Haddam, a parish in Hertfordshire, England. Though there were no records linking any of the area’s first settlers to the parish, it was surmised that the Colonial Connecticut General Assembly in 1668 named the new town Haddam to honor one of the members of the Colonial Assembly whose family hailed from there.
“How then,” he wrote in an article published earlier this year, “could a small town in Northern Kansas, 1,500 miles away from the original, end up with the same name? I had to find out.”
Schwing started making phone calls. The calls led, in turn, to Peggy Parker, whose parents had once owned the Haddam Cafe, and Anita Childerson, Haddam’s webmaster and town historian. Both acknowledged that the town was named after its Connecticut namesake, though neither could explain why Whitney or Canfil did so.
No matter which way he turned or what query he sent out over the vast World Wide Web, a dead end was the inevitable conclusion. About the time Schwing was ready to concede defeat, he stumbled across an article published in the November 1943 issue of the Kansas Historical Quarterly.
Its title, “The Letters of John Ferguson, Early Resident of Western Washington County,” gave no clue to its contextual significance. According to the introduction, a series of letters between Ferguson and his former employer told the story of Ferguson’s coming to the Kansas Territory in 1859 to take a stand against slavery. A native of Ireland, he settled on Mill Creek in what is now western Washington County. Ferguson kept in touch with his Connecticut friends by corresponding with Cephas Brainerd, his former employer in Haddam, Conn.
The words were like a jolt of electricity.
Cepheus Brainerd was a Haddam-born lawyer whose career in New York gained him notoriety in political and legal fields, such as his representation of about 1,000 African-American citizens of New York who had lost property during the Draft Riots of 1863 and his efforts as executive director of the Young Men’s Republican Union to bring presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln to Cooper Union. The trajectory of his career, as well as the history of the family farm in Haddam, were compiled by his daughter, Eveline Warner Brainerd. Eveline, who was also the town historian, worked as a librarian at Haddam’s Brainerd Memorial Library until her death in 1948. Following her death, records, documents and letters she’d amassed over the course of decades—many involving her family and, in particular, her father—were donated to the Connecticut College and other various libraries and organizations, among them the Kansas Historical Society.
Schwing had his connection, but it was still tenuous.
Ferguson’s position was also tenuous. To the west were Cheyennes, Arapahos and other Plains tribes, while to the east were Confederate sympathizers and the free-fire zone of the Missouri borderlands. During the 1860s, native tribes launched new waves of attacks on unprotected settlers, and with many of the men off fighting the Civil War, those who remained were few and largely without adequate armament.
In Ferguson’s first letter, dated June 9, 1861, he tells Brainerd that rebels were arming and equipping the Indians in an effort to drive them out. “They will have a job of it,” he wrote, “for we have suffered enough in Kansas to make us fight like demons.” The previous year had been extremely dry, and without aid from eastern states many would have starved to death. Nevertheless, Ferguson had high hopes for his farm, with three acres of wheat and 15 acres of corn in production and another 50 acres under the plow.
Each week grew more dire. “Things look rather squalid now,” Ferguson wrote on July 20, 1861. “We are expecting [raids] on us any day. I don’t know how we will make out, we have neither arms nor ammunition to fight them. A great many are leaving with fear. Four tribes met and held a council 40 miles west of my place last week and what they are going to do there can’t nobody tell.”
Crops were doing fine, he added, though he was still consisting on a diet of corn meal. If the attacks held off, he wrote, he would have a fine harvest. If not, “I will get me a horse and a Sharps rifle and hunt Indians and secessionists for the next six months, and shoot every one I get my eye on.”
Between July 1861 and January 1862, Ferguson married and had a daughter. His next letter, dated Dec. 23, 1862, was brief and troubling. “I have been driven around all summer from hawk to buzzard by those infernal Indians,” he wrote. “I left home twice on account of them and I haven’t moved my wife home yet and I don’t expect to until I see what theft they are going to do next spring. If the government doesn’t send us some help next summer we will all have to leave here.”
In September of 1864, Ferguson wrote Brainerd from Fort Desmoines, Iowa. “I presume you have heard of the Indians’ depredations on the Little Blue in Kansas and Nebraska that is the cause of my being in Iowa,” he wrote. In August, Cheyenne and Arapaho raiding parties scoured the Little Blue Valley, killing several settlers and torching farms. Most of the settlers in Washington County were forced to flee to Marysville.
Ferguson’s opinion of Lincoln soured after a significant number of volunteers who enlisted to defend the frontier were transferred to Arkansas and Mississippi, leaving the settlers undefended. “I’m afraid Lincoln is going to lose a good many votes this fall on account of it,” he wrote. “But where I am now I have got into a nest of copperheads.”
Come spring, he told Brainerd, he intended to return to Kansas as soon as it was safe. “My neighborhood was growing and improving fast this summer,” he wrote. “We had succeeded in getting a post office established within one mile of my house, and I succeeded in getting it named Haddam, so I expect to live in Haddam when I go back to Kansas.”
And there it was; Schwing had found his answer.
In a subsequent article, Schwing wrote a moving tribute to the man who named Haddam, Kan. “From County Down, Northern Ireland, a young immigrant came to Haddam, Connecticut, in 1852 and was hired to work a farm on Walkley Hill Road. After a few years of living and working here, in 1859 John Ferguson left for the Kansas Territory as part of the abolitionist movement to make it a free state. At the same time, he hoped to fulfill a dream, the dream of every immigrant coming to this country, making a better life for themselves and their family.”
And yet Ferguson’s roots in Connecticut remained strong. In 1867 Indian raids were increasing along the Little Blue River, and tensions were running high. Ferguson had been elected Justice of the Peace of the township, a position he wasn’t sure he was fit for. “You may know by that that the men out here aren’t the smartest or I wouldn’t have been picked,” he wrote.
“I expect old Haddam is still on the Connecticut River,” he went on. “I presume you have been up there this summer and had a pleasant time. I do wish I could have been there with you and had a good mess of cherries off those young trees of yours. Never mind, I will be there someday if I live for there is where the happiest days of my life was spent, and I hope there is where I will spend my last. Give my respects to Misses Brainerd and also to Martha and Cynthia, and give me all the news from Haddam. Your friend, John Ferguson.”