Bill Simms






Told by Bill Simms, ex slave, age 97 years, Ottawa, Kansas.

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"My name is Bill Simms."

"I was born in Osceola, Missouri, March 16, 1839."

"I lived on the farm with my mother, and my master, whose name was

Simms. I had an older sister, about two years older than I was. My

master needed some money so he sold her, and I have never seen her since

except just a time or two."

"On the plantation we raised cows, sheep, cotton, tobacco, corn, which

were our principal crops. There was plenty of wild hogs, turkey, ant

deer and other game. The deer used to come up and feed with the cattle

in the feed yards, and we could get all the wild hogs we wanted by

simply shooting them in the timber."

"A man who owned ten slaves was considered wealthy, and if he got hard

up for money, he would advertise and sell some slaves, like my oldest

sister was sold on the block with her children. She sold for eleven

hundred dollars, a baby in her arms sold for three hundred dollars.

Another sold for six hundred dollars and the other for a little less

than that. My master was offered fifteen hundred dollars for me several

times, but he refused to sell me, because I was considered a good husky,

slave. My family is all dead, and I am the only one living.

"The slaves usually lived in a two-room house made of native lumber. The

houses were all small. A four or five room house was considered a

mansion. We made our own clothes, had spinning wheels and raised and

combed our own cotton, clipped the wool from our sheep's backs, combed

and spun it into cotton and wool clothes. We never knew what boughten

clothes were. I learned to make shoes when I was just a boy and I made

the shoes for the whole family. I used to chop wood and make rails and

do all kinds of farm work."

"I had a good master, most of the masters were good to their slaves.

When a slave got too old to work they would give him a small cabin on

the plantation and have the other slaves to wait on him. They would

furnish him with victuals, and clothes until he died."

"Slaves were never allowed to talk to white people other than their

masters or someone their master knew, as they were afraid the white man

might have the slave run away. The masters aimed to keep their slaves in

ignorance and the ignorant slaves were all in favor of the Rebel army,

only the more intelligent were in favor of the Union army."

"When the war started, my master sent me to work for the Confederate

army. I worked most of the time for three years off and on, hauling

canons, driving mules, hauling ammunition, and provisions. The Union

army pressed in on us and the Rebel army moved back. I was sent home.

When the Union army came close enough I ran away from home and joined

the Union army. There I drove six-mule team and worked at wagon work,

driving ammunition and all kinds of provisions until the war ended. Then

I returned home to my old master, who had stayed there with my mother.

My master owned about four hundred acres of good land, and had had ten

slaves. Most of the slaves stayed at home. My master hired me to work

for him. He gave my mother forty acres of land with a cabin on it and

sold me a forty acres, for twenty dollars, when I could pay him. This

was timbered land and had lots of good trees for lumber, especially

walnut. One tree on this ground was worth one hundred dollars, if I

could only get it cut and marketed, I could pay for my land. My master's

wife had been dead for several years and they had no children. The

nearest relative being a nephew. They wanted my master's land and was

afraid he would give it all away to us slaves, so they killed him, and

would have killed us if we had stayed at home. I took my mother and ran

into the adjoining, Claire County. We settled there and stayed for

sometime, but I wanted to see Kansas, the State I had heard so much


"I couldn't get nobody to go with me, so I started out afoot across the

prairies for Kansas. After I got some distance from home it was all

prairie. I had to walk all day long following buffalo trail. At night I

would go off a little ways from the trail and lay down and sleep. In the

morning I'd wake up and could see nothing but the sun and prairie. Not a

house, not a tree, no living thing, not even could I hear a bird. I had

little to eat, I had a little bread in my pocket. I didn't even have a

pocket knife, no weapon of any kind. I was not afraid, but I wouldn't

start out that way again. The only shade I could find in the daytime was

the rosin weed on the prairie. I would lay down so it would throw the

shade in my face and rest, then get up and go again. It was in the

spring of the year in June. I came to Lawrence, Kansas, where I stayed

two years working on the farm. In 1874 I went to work for a man by the

month at $35 a month and I made more money than the owner did, because

the grasshoppers ate up the crops. I was hired to cut up the corn for

him, but the grasshoppers ate it up first. He could not pay me for

sometime. Grasshoppers were so thick you couldn't step on the ground

without stepping on about a dozen at each step. I got my money and came

to Ottawa in December 1874, about Christmas time."

"My master's name was Simms and I was known as Simms Bill, just like

horses. When I came out here I just changed my name from Simms Bill, to

Bill Simms."

"Ottawa was very small at the time I came here, and there were several

Indians close by that used to come to town. The Indians held their war

dance on what is now the courthouse grounds. I planted the trees that

are now standing on the courthouse grounds. I still planted trees until

three or four years ago. There were few farms fenced and what were, were

on the streams. The prairie land was all open. This is what North Ottawa

was, nothing but prairie north of Logan Street, and a few houses between

Logan Street and the river. Ottawa didn't have many business houses.

There was also an oil mill where they bought castor beans, and made

castor oil on the north side of the Marais des Cygnes River one block

west of Main Street. There was one hotel, which was called Leafton House

and it stood on what is now the southwest corner of Main and Second


"I knew Peter Kaiser, when I came here, and A.P. Elder was just a boy


"The people lived pretty primitive. We didn't have kerosene. Our only

lights were tallow candles, mostly grease lamps, they were just a pan

with grease in it, and one end of the rag dragging out over the side

which we would light. There were no sewers at that time."

"I had no chance to go to school when a boy, but after I came to Kansas

I was too old to go to school, and I had to work, but I attended night

school, and learned to read and write and figure."

"The farm land was nearly all broke up by ox teams, using about six oxen

on a plow. In Missouri we lived near the Santa Fe trail, and the

settlers traveling on the trail used oxen, and some of them used cows.

The cows seem to stand the road better than the oxen and also gave some

milk. The travelers usually aimed to reach the prairie States in the

spring, so they could have grass for their oxen and horses during the


"I have lived here ever since I came here. I was married when I was

about thirty years old. I married a slave girl from Georgia. Back in

Missouri, if a slave wanted to marry a woman on another plantation he

had to ask the master, and if both masters agreed they were married. The

man stayed at his owners, and the wife at her owners. He could go to see

her on Saturday night and Sunday. Sometimes only every two weeks. If a

man was a big strong man, neighboring plantation owners would ask him to

come over and see his gals, hoping that he might want to marry one of

them, but if a Negro was a small man he was not cared for as a husband,

as they valued their slaves as only for what they could do, just like

they would horses. When they were married and if they had children they

belonged to the man who owned the woman. Osceola is where the saying

originated, 'I'm from Missouri, show me.' After the war the smart guys

came through and talked the people into voting bonds, but there was no

railroad built and most counties paid their bonds, but the county in

which Osceola stands refused to pay for their bonds because there was

no railroad built, and they told the collectors to 'show me the railroad

and we will pay,' and that is where 'show me' originated."

"My wife died when we had three children. She had had to work hard all

her life and she said she didn't want her children to have to work as

hard as she had, and I promised her on her death bed, that I would

educate our girls. So I worked and sent the girls to school. My two

girls both graduated from Ottawa university, the oldest one being the

first colored girl to ever graduate from that school. After graduation

she went to teach school in Oklahoma, but only got twenty-five dollars a

month, and I had to work and send her money to pay her expenses. The

younger girl also graduated and went to teach school, but she did not

teach school long, until she married a well-to-do farmer in Oklahoma.

The older girl got her wages raised until she got one hundred and

twenty-five dollars per month. I have worked at farm work and tree

husbandry all my life. My oldest daughter bought me my first suit of

clothes I ever had."

"I have been living alone about twenty-five years. I don't know hew old

I was, but my oldest daughter had written my mother before she died, and

got our family record, which my mother kept in her old Bible. Each year

she writes me and tells me on my birthday how old I am."

Bill Homer Bill Williams facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail