The West of Francis McKenna: an Edinburgh boy in the United States

01 April 2019
2.0314cu-Worked-Up-Small-37044.jpg Stillwater Street Parade, 1900. Dickinson Research Center, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
Kimberly Roblin of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma recounts the exciting tale of Francis A. McKenna, who left Edinburgh as a teenager to begin a new life in the US, experiencing life as a soldier and taking part in the Land Run of 1889.
The West of Francis McKenna: an Edinburgh boy in the United States Images

Kimberly Roblin of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma recounts the exciting tale of Francis A. McKenna, who left Edinburgh as a teenager to begin a new life in the US, experiencing life as a soldier and taking part in the Land Run of 1889.

Stereotypes often plague the American West. Cowboys and Indians. Outlaws and lawmen. Wagon trains. Cattle drives. Dusty boardwalks and swinging-door saloons. The truth, however, is far more diverse and complex than the mythology suggests. It is a destination, an experience, an idea, and for some of us, even home.

For Francis A. McKenna, it was all of these. The Edinburgh native left Scotland as a teenager and arrived in the United States around 1853. Forty-seven years, 2,200 kilometres, and 2 pierced ears later, he sat for a portrait in Stillwater, Oklahoma Territory. Look closely. His face is not fiction. While Wyatt Earp was dealing faro, Doc Holliday was battling tuberculosis, and Billy the Kid was eluding capture, Francis was forging his own path in the West—one of service, risk, ambition, opportunity, and ultimately, of Odd Fellows.

The adventure begins

We first pick up his trail in the spring of 1861. The Civil War had just erupted, splintering the country into Union and Confederate states, and President Abraham Lincoln called on all loyal citizens to facilitate, to aid this effort to maintain the laws and the integrity of the nation.  Francis did not hesitate. He enlisted with the 2nd Kansas Volunteers and spent the next three months marching and fighting across Missouri.

The terrain and weather were severe. In crippling heat and humidity, his regiment trekked over the Ozark Mountains and forded streams nearly waist-deep in ragged shoes and blistered feet. When their term expired at the end of August, The Weekly Commonwealth proclaimed: At Forsythe, they proved themselves ready to meet the foe and at Springfield (Wilson’s Creek), they fought like heroes. They must have a public reception as will be a deserved tribute…and will be an assurance to all our volunteers that our people sympathize with them, in their sufferings, and can admire and appreciate their deeds of valor and patriotism.

Francis’s time in the military, however, was only beginning. He reappeared four years later on a hospital admission ticket that revealed a plot twist. He was no longer a soldier, but a sailor aboard the U.S.S. Pontoosuc. As a 2nd Class Fireman, he had been injured on the gunboat’s deck during the Second Battle of Fort Fisher, a pivotal Union victory that stripped the Confederacy of their last major port. In addition to his injury, the hospital recorded his birthplace and itemized his personal possessions: 1 hammock, 1 blanket, 1 coat, 6 trousers, 5 flannel shirts, 1 handkerchief, 2 caps, and 2 boots. Although earrings are not among them, it is probable that his pierced ears correspond to his time in the Navy.

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Kansas life

After the war Francis returned inland to Kansas and settled in the small community of Beattie, located in Marshall County. Area newspapers provide a glimpse into his daily life, interests, and activism. He signed a petition to release an aging man convicted of selling liquor without a license, painted houses in nearby Axtell, served as city clerk, and received a $900 pension from Uncle Sam. He married Emma Beamon (27 years his junior) and received a very respectable charivari from the boys who wanted to show their high regard for Mac.

He was also elected to positions within the local lodges of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans’ organization, and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization dedicated to friendship, love, and truth. Both not only promoted, but created community. For Francis, the Odd Fellows also provided continuity when he and Emma started a new chapter in April of 1889. 

In for the Land Run

After more than 20 years in Kansas, Frank McKenna started for Oklahoma, according to a brief notice in The Irving Leader. He was not alone. Thousands of hopeful settlers from across the country were converging on the territory for one reason: a chance to stake a 160-acre claim in the Land Run. Pursuant to the Homestead Act, anyone who stayed on a claim for five years and improved it, could keep it, free and clear. For those who could not afford to buy land, it was the only way they might ever hope to own it. At high noon on April 22nd, the wait finally ended as the promised land was at last thrown open with bugle calls and canon fire. Eyewitness accounts described the scene:

Fully 50,000 people are waiting on the border of that small patch of ground. Fast horses, stages, and all sorts of private vehicles will bear them into the coveted territory. Ten thousand or more will get possession of all the desirable land, and they apparently will have to hold it against five times as many disappointed men. Everybody is armed.

In no country save America and no part of that country save the great west, could such a thing be possible.

At the starting signal they moved all together, great waves of cheering breaking upon the air.

Somewhere in all of this was Francis. The following year he and Emma appeared on Oklahoma Territory’s first federal census. They lived in Cimarron City, a town named for the adjacent river and located 11 miles west of Guthrie, the first capital and future stopover on the Mumford & Sons Gentleman of the Road tour. The McKennas eventually grew restless, however, and moved 45 miles northeast to Stillwater, the metropolis of Payne County. According to the 1900 Census, they lived on Husband Street, Francis was a landlord and more importantly, a father. Emma had given birth to their daughter, Ruth, in 1894.  

Stillwater in 1900 was vibrant and diverse. The sound of the saw and hammer filled the streets as enterprising residents built homes and businesses. It had a university, grain elevator, book bindery, creamery, ice plant, cigar factories, cotton gins, brick yards, mills, marble works, blacksmiths, schools, and more churches than saloons—a rare distinction at the time.

They were also a city and county of immigrants. Birthplaces included 44 of the then 45 states, and at least 19 countries: England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Holland, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Italy, Russia, Mexico, and Canada.

Just as he had in Beattie, Francis played an active role. He owned lots on Main Street, built and leased buildings, and helped alleviate horse and buggy congestion by building a 1900 equivalent of a free parking garage. He also became a justice of the peace and served his community through the Odd Fellows. It was his membership that ultimately led to the portrait now in our Dickinson Research Center’s Collection.

Around 1900, he and his fellow members visited the photography studio of Henry Wantland (also an Odd Fellow). Francis sat in a smart suit, plaid shirt, earrings, Odd Fellow collar, and stared at the camera directly. He could not know what we now do. Within two years he, Emma, and Ruth would move to Colorado City. Within three years, he and Emma would divorce. And sadly, within four years, Francis A. McKenna would no longer be living. He died in 1904 and received full military honors at his funeral. Presiding were his brothers—the Odd Fellows.

The little boy in Edinburgh, amid the closes and the castle, could never have imagined where his life would take him. It took him across the Atlantic to America and into the military and the Civil War. It took him over territories and prairies. It took him to the Odd Fellows, and to Emma and Ruth. And it took him into the West, into history, and ultimately, to us.

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Partial list of newspaper sources

The Kansas State Journal. August 8, 1861

The Marshall County Democrat. June 15, 1883

The Star. August 22, 1885

The Star. March 18, 1887

Fort Scott Daily Monitor. April 23, 1889

The Marion Star. April 23, 1889

The Payne County Populist. February 8, 1900

The Stillwater Gazette. December 27, 1900

The Weekly Gazette. March 3, 1904

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The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma is America’s premier institution of Western history, art and culture. Founded in 1955, the Museum collects, preserves and exhibits an internationally renowned collection of Western art and artifacts while sponsoring dynamic educational programs to promote interest in the enduring legacy of the American West. The Museum’s Dickinson Research Center houses the archival collections and library. Collections span centuries and include more than 700,000 photographs; 44,000 books; manuscripts, dime novels, maps, film posters, movies, and more.

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