In 1879 and 1880, freedmen (former slaves) sent around 1,000 letters to Kansas Governor John St. John seeking information on migration to Kansas (the Exoduster movement). Governor St. John replied to many of these letters. This exchange between Kansas’ highest official and the freed people of the South documents the hardships, hopes, and misconceptions of southern blacks at the end of Reconstruction.
Community and religious leaders penned many letters on behalf of others, such as small communities or churches. Most of the letters seek to discern truth from fictions--as Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, "Father of the Exodus" advised--about settling in Kansas.
Though the envelopes have not survived, many letters were likely addressed to “John St. John” instead of the “Governor of Kansas.” Isaiah Montgomery explains: “note that I address you without prefixing title in order that the letter may not attract undue attention. Nothing is too hard to suspicion of this Country where it has been the custom for a century or more to ransack the mails to prevent the circulation of documents breathing the spirit of freedom.”
Upon receiving a letter, the Governor’s Office summarized its contents on a memo, noting the author’s name and date, and pasted the memo to the back of the letter. Staff filed the letters first by subject (i.e. “immigration – Negro exodus”) and then in chronological order. St. John or his secretary would then pen a response and “press” a copy of the reply into a letter press book. Pressing involved wetting copy paper (often referred to as “onion skin”) with water, interleaving letters between these wet pages, and applying pressure to the whole until ink from the letters transferred to the copy paper. Too much or too little water could result in a poor copy.
Since many correspondents wrote the governor back after receiving his letters, it is obvious that many of the governor’s letters reached their intended audience. But did the governor intentionally conceal his title/office on the envelope as some of the letters request? Again Isaiah Montgomery: “Please address an answer (as early as convenient) with no mark on the Envelope to denote that it comes from the Capital or any official.”
Here at the State Archives, we hold both the original letters sent to Governor St. John and copies of his responses “pressed” into letter press books. All correspondence received by the Governor has now been digitized and transcribed and is available on Kansas Memory.