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As Civil War veterans struggled to reenter society, some formed their own unique communities

On September 16, 1861, Albert Freeman Waugh left the comfortable civilian world of Sheboygan Falls, Wis., and enlisted in Company H of the 1st Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. Private Waugh was shot through the knee at the Battle of Perryville in October 1862, spent six months recovering in a hospital, and returned to Sheboygan Falls in 1863 crippled for life. Even though he had been gone barely two years, he no longer felt at ease in his hometown. After several years of trying to reclaim his old life, he gave up. In 1872, he “took by force” his family and moved to Kansas, claiming that the “stumps and stones” in Wisconsin made farming impossible, an excuse his son described decades later as “perfectly invalid at the time it was given.”

Newspaper advertisements like these encouraged veterans to turn their backs on gory battlefields and move on with their lives. The idea of the West as a “garden” was promoted even before the Civil War, and veterans saw relocation to the land of “sparkling water” as a chance to remake their lives. (Courtesy of Kurt Hackemer)

Over his wife’s objections, Waugh relocated the family near the brand-new town of King City in McPherson County, Kan., where a colony of Union Army veterans and their families had been established in 1871. The colony had first been organized in meetings at Ashtabula, Ohio, and was also known as the Ashtabula Soldier’s Colony. It was one of the first of several colonies that would spring up on the western frontier, offering those who had served in the war an opportunity to start anew. 

The idea of “colonies” was not a new or novel concept. Dozens sprang up across Kansas in the 1870s organized around religion, geography, or country of origin, with the idea of providing mutual support in an uncertain environment. Similar colonies appeared in western Minnesota, the Dakotas, Colorado, and Nebraska, but soldier colonies catering to Union veterans were exceedingly rare, with less than 10 dotted across the northern Great Plains. Soldier colonies were an efficient and cost-effective mechanism for organizing and relocating veterans to the frontier after the Civil War. But they were far more than that. A significant percentage who migrated west had been exposed to high-trauma combat during the war, and many used the anonymity and newness of the frontier to reintegrate into society on their own terms.

Albert Waugh needed the solitude and lack of established social structure on the frontier to put his life back together. Although he served as a judge, county commissioner, and self-taught doctor, he did so quietly, always refusing “to make speeches or enter any public forum.” Waugh’s son, Frank, later ascribed the move to a “joy of adventure” and “the desire to think one’s own thoughts and determine one’s own acts.” But the most important factor was the way the war annexed his life. As Frank recalled:

I know now that those days of grand excitement with the army, those wild forays into roadside groceries and farmyard smokehouses, those sleepless nights on the ground with eyes and heart open to the stars, those exhilarating marches through strange towns and over unfamiliar hills, and especially those hours of battle when all the desirable things of this world are relinquished and life itself staked against the ultimate gain of personal integrity—I know now that in these experiences all former things had passed away, and that there had arisen in their place an imperious demand for a new life—a life of new objectives and new sanctions. Such a life could not be projected upon the old background. It tore itself free from the old environment and began again upon the virgin sheet of the untouched Kansas prairie.

The war was disruptive, taking soldiers away from family and social networks for extended periods of time. When they returned home, they often found that two parallel changes had occurred, both of which made reintegration into civilian life difficult. First, they learned that life at home had progressed without them. The economic, social, and political events that defined people and their relationships with each other had continued unabated, and no amount of letter writing nor the occasional furlough could prevent the persistent feeling of disconnection. The new veterans lamented lost economic opportunities, unfulfilled relationships, missed community celebrations, lack of engagement with local politics, and aging children and parents. Somehow, they would have to find their way in this familiar but changed world.

Second, veterans learned that the war altered the social norms that had defined them as civilians. As soldiers, they ranged over vast distances, interacting with individuals and cultures quite different than what they had known. They engaged in sanctioned theft and destruction of property as foragers, grew used to a more rough-and-tumble existence in their all-male world, and might engage in the organized killing of fellow human beings. Returning home to a civilian population that welcomed them back but expected minimal disruption could be an overwhelming challenge.

Veterans struggled to reconcile the adrenaline associated with battle with the carnage and destruction they witnessed, and many found themselves dealing with postwar trauma. The concept had not yet been described medically, making it all but impossible for historians to assign the “trauma” label to specific veterans using contemporary records. Still, the scale and ferocity of Civil War combat makes it impossible to deny that soldiers experienced it. While symptoms of trauma cannot be assigned to specific veterans, those who had served in units that experienced intense combat have been identified as having a higher likelihood that their wartime experiences might induce trauma. Many of those soldiers who migrated west to settle in colonies were found to have served in such units, and, therefore, had a higher likelihood of having suffered from trauma. 

Albert Freeman Waugh of the 1st Wisconsin before a Confederate bullet tore through his knee at the October 1862 Battle of Perryville, Ky. The wound left him crippled, an everlasting reminder of war. (Courtesy of Lara Stone)

Moving west seemed relatively straightforward. The Homestead Act of 1862 theoretically opened a billion acres of government land to settlement. Interested parties found a quarter section of available land, paid a nominal filing fee to establish a temporary claim, and had to establish residency. After six months, the homesteader could either buy the claim or live on the claim for five years and improve it with a dwelling and cultivation. At that point, the homesteader would own the land. However, it was rarely that simple. It took a fair amount of capital to set up a viable farm, and new settlers hoped for favorable conditions so they could make it to the second year. 

Veterans had some advantages over the general population when moving west. In 1871, Congress modified the Homestead Act to allow Union veterans to count each year of Civil War service toward the law’s five-year residency requirement. Military service could be beneficial in other ways, too, especially for those who had been wounded or disabled during the war and received federal pensions. In the case of the Dakota Territory, 24 percent of all veterans were on the pension rolls in 1885, significantly higher than the 6.5 percent of all veterans who received a pension. Those monthly payments provided guaranteed income during a transition that might otherwise be fraught with economic uncertainty. 

During the 1870s and 1880s, colonies sprang up across the Northern plains. The Dakota Territory, Kansas, and Nebraska vigorously advertised for settlers using immigration boards that often cooperated with the railroads. Boosters such as George Batchelder assured potential settlers that “the man of small means can purchase excellent lands cheap, and by a judicious investment of a small capital, he will become rich in a few years.” Others more explicitly suggested the plains as the perfect location for colonies, noting, “It will be found on examination that a very large proportion of new towns and new settlements, perhaps the vast majority of those in the new States, have been started” by cooperative associations. These efforts worked. Ellis County, Kan., for example, became home to 24 colonies of various types during the 1870s; a 1906 examination of settlement patterns in the state observed, “Foreigners have peopled Kansas by groups and colonies rather than as individuals acting independently.” Migrants arrived in ever-increasing numbers, facilitated in part by the railroads, which offered package deals of land and transportation to colonies. This was no small thing at a time when railway tickets for a family of five could cost the equivalent of six months’ wages.

The advertising, promotion, and boosterism that appealed to so many religious organizations and ethnic groups found a similarly receptive audience among veterans. A recent study suggests they had higher geographic mobility than nonveterans and were already more likely than the rest of the population to move west, attributing their wanderlust to the fact that the war had already taught them to leave home. Whether a result of wanderlust or the fact that so many veterans had difficulty readjusting to their home communities after the war, the frontier called. In early 1870, a group of disabled veterans from Dayton, Ohio, proposed “to form an agricultural colony in the west” consisting of 25 otherwise able-bodied men who had each lost either an arm or a leg. An important component of their plan was that each veteran would be drawing a $15 monthly pension, which would provide the capital necessary for their venture. This colony, a newspaper writer suggested, would be better than “living an aimless life in an asylum.”

The Waughs prospered after the move to Kansas. Above, an image of their farm in McPherson. (Courtesy of Lara Stone)

The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) advised its various posts that “preparations to take advantage of the [Homestead] act should be commenced immediately.” It wanted colonies to be coordinated through the GAR “in order to secure unity of action and mutual aid and support,” with an optimistic goal “to organize in the Territories a soldiers’ state.” Whether or not they were affiliated with the GAR, veterans across the North began meeting, which led to an initial wave of colonies in Minnesota, Nebraska, and Kansas.

In Ashtabula, Ohio, organizers there did not exclude nonveterans from joining the venture, a strategy also adopted by other successful veteran colonies. “Any person…whether citizen, or Soldier” could pay two dollars to join the association, entitling them to collective benefits like negotiated rail rates or land selection. The first meeting of the Ashtabula County Soldiers’ Free Homestead Colony drew over 300 interested people. One of its selling points was an organizational structure and approval process designed to prevent land speculation, ensuring fair land prices for all involved. This approach resonated well with potential colonists, and the colony soon had membership requests from Ohio and neighboring states, which led to the colony directors changing the name to the Soldiers’ and Citizens Mutual Benefit Free Homestead Colony. They reasoned that “by thus uniting [we] will have good society and soon secure to ourselves all the advantages of older countries of schools, churches, &c, [and] also avoid the trials and privations of frontier life alone.”

The Waugh family. Front row, daughters Mary Lana and Fanny Elizabeth flank their mother, Madeline. Son Frank and father Albert in the rear. (Courtesy of Lara Stone)

The connection between potential colonies and railroads was evident from the beginning. The Ashtabula colonists, for example, planned that “each member, and family shall be entitled to first class passage over all Railroads from which the Directors may secure special rates.” Similarly, the New England Military and Naval Bureau of Migration worked closely with the Northern Pacific Railroad to facilitate migration. Colonies that proposed to either seek homesteads on public land or purchase land directly from the railroads received special rates. The railroads did their part and vigorously advertised in eastern newspapers about opportunities available to veterans. The Northern Pacific Railroad, for example, let readers know that its commissioner of immigration was working closely with the New England Bureau of Migration to create veteran colonies. The Union Pacific Railroad touted “Cheap Farms! Free Homes!” in the “best farming and mineral land in America” through its land commissioner, with a specific appeal to veterans. Those purchasing land directly from the railroad received free passes from the East.

Furnished with free or reduced transportation, and with access to affordable land, veterans began heading west. In 1871 and 1872, four veteran colonies successfully took root in Gibbon, Neb.; King City, Kan.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; and Colony, Kan. Members of the Soldiers’ Free Homestead Colony who arrived in Gibbon in April 1871 probably had the most abrupt introduction to the Northern plains. Colonists collected in Chicago and made their way to Omaha, where they boarded the train that took them to the colony site. The train left Omaha on April 6 at 6 p.m., which caused a rumor to circulate “that we were being taken on a night train because, if we saw the country in the day time we would desert before reaching the destination.”

When they arrived in Gibbon the following afternoon, they found nothing but a railroad section house and a siding on which the Union Pacific left some passenger cars and boxcars to serve as temporary shelter. Just a week before, “a prairie fire had swept over the entire country leaving it black, bleak, desolate and uninviting.” 

One colonist turned around and left, but the rest, about 65 families, stayed. By April 18, 61 homestead claims had been filed with the nearest land office. This was done communally, with lots drawn to see who would have first choice of the surrounding land. By July 1872, nearly 150 families had found their way to the colony.

The migrations to King City, Detroit Lakes, and Colony occurred in similar fashion. The Ashtabula colonists arrived in King City in June 1871. Within one year of founding, King City contained 25 houses and several businesses, including two general stores, a brickyard, a lumberyard, two hotels, a blacksmith shop, and a farm machinery dealer. A post office and doctor’s office quickly followed.

The flag-topped stone Collyer schoolhouse, an example of that, was built in 1885. Trego County Historical Society

A second wave of veteran colonies began with a January 1878 gathering in Chicago to organize a soldiers and sailors colony in Trego County, Kan. Like the earlier colonies, promoters welcomed both civilians and veterans, collected a modest membership fee, and sent a locating committee west to find suitable land. They identified their spot in western Kansas along the line of the Union Pacific Railroad and founded the town of Collyer. Members of the advance party erected “Colony House” next to the railroad to serve as temporary shelter for arriving settlers and provided a team and wagon to get them to their claims. An unclear title to the land forced the Chicago Colony, as it became known, to relocate a half mile away from the railroad, but a steady stream of colonists arrived in 1878, 1879, and 1880. Potential colonists received encouragement from local boosters who nonetheless admitted, “Inconveniences, of course, are experienced, but with a hearty appetite and plenty of hope, we live in anticipation of happy days in a land of plenty.” Those “inconveniences” caused the population to fluctuate when crops failed in the 1880s, with the population of original settlers falling to 37 men, women, and children by 1888, but Collyer survived.

As new counties in the Dakota Territory formed in the 1880s, two more veteran colonies took root in the newly created towns of Gettysburg and Loyalton. The Gettysburg colony first organized in Chicago in the spring of 1883. By the fall of 1884, 700 settlers occupied the surrounding countryside. Organizers invited “all classes of business men” to join the veterans and successfully lobbied the Chicago and North Western Railroad to extend its line through the new community, and by 1887 the town alone boasted 400 residents. As Gettysburg established itself, a group of veterans near Royalton, Vt., organized a colony of their own. The Vermont colony met with various railroad representatives in early 1885 to identify a location “offering the best railroad facilities, best soil and other natural advantages” and negotiate bulk passenger and freight rates. They settled on a site in Edmunds County, which they christened Loyalton, and the first settlers arrived that same spring.

The Other Gettysburg

The Civil War still impacts this small Dakota town. (The Medicine Rock Cafe)

Founded in 1883 by Civil War veterans and named for the titanic Eastern Theater engagement, Gettysburg, S.D., remains a thriving small-town community. Incorporated into a City in 1907, and dubbed the Gettysburg “where the battle wasn’t,” it now boasts a population of about 1,150. In the wake of the controversial death of George Floyd in 2020, the town changed its police logo, which featured a U.S. flag alongside a Confederate flag. Floyd’s uncle, Selwyn Jones, was one of the town’s residents advocating for the change to the logo, which adorned a patch worn by the two-person police force.

As was the case with Albert Waugh, there are clues suggesting that some of these veterans had wartime trauma that needed to be processed. In Gibbon, Neb., most colonists “were veterans of the Civil War who found in this new life an answer to their restlessness.” Those restless veterans included men like Adam Zimmerman, who had been wounded in the head at Petersburg. When he was found “on the battlefield, he had maggots in his head and they could see the pulsation in his brain. They had to put a steel plate in his head.” Newspapers in Colony, Kan., reported gatherings of veterans where “the boys were called upon to tell Army yarns,” or where a “baker’s dozen of old veterans” met on the anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh to reminisce with each other. Within just a few months of its founding, Gettysburg saw the establishment of a GAR post. At its first meeting “old battle scenes, hard marches, and old jokes were rehearsed and talked over, and general good feeling prevailed” as veterans interacted with each other.

Veterans in more established parts of the United States regularly used their status to engage collectively in political activity, often under the auspices of the GAR. Not so in the colonies. Local newspapers reveal a decided lack of political involvement, and instead the veterans living in the colonies participated in the GAR with a focus on social events, Memorial Day, and Fourth of July celebrations. The Gettysburg Herald noted that the 1888 Fourth of July celebration “was marred by no serious accident, no brawls, no drunkenness. It was sensibly and gloriously celebrated.” In these communities, that was the full extent to which veteran status was celebrated. Otherwise, veterans went quietly about their lives.

the McPherson Hotel, named along with a Kansas county, for Union Maj. Gen. James Birdseye McPherson. (McPherson Library)

And that, perhaps, is exactly what those veterans wanted and needed. They were more likely than veterans in general to have experienced trauma during the war, which in turn made it that much more difficult to reintegrate into civilian life after the war. When they moved to the frontier, they deliberately chose to do so in the company of fellow veterans with whom they shared a common bond.

On the frontier, veterans could define new relationships and even new existences on their own terms. As Frank Waugh remembered of his father, in creating a new community “he was building solidly a new life and a new character in place of those so passionately renounced.”

Kurt Hackemer is provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at the University of South Dakota. This article is an excerpt of Hackemer’s “Civil War Veteran Colonies on the Western Frontier” published in The War Went On: Reconsidering the Lives of Civil War Veterans, edited by Brian Matthew Jordan and Evan C. Rothera, and published by LSU Press.