The man to whom it was once attributed the daunting fact that he laid the foundations of history and culture wherever he went was born October 25, 1826, in Hanover, New Hampshire. Richard Baxter Foster was the son of Richard and Irene (Burrough) Davis Foster and heir to a distinguished family legacy that enabled him to take advantage of the better schools in the area. He completed his education with graduation from Dartmouth College in 1851, after which he removed to Illinois, where he taught for three years. On October 23, 1851, he married Jemina (Ewing) Clelland. They were the parents of a son, Walter. Jemina died in 1853.
After this tragedy Foster moved to Clay County, Iowa, where he met and married Lucy Reed on May 8, 1855. The couple had ten children, eight of whom lived to adulthood: Festus, Richard, Frank, Lurad, Charles, Guy, Grace, and Eunice. Two children, Alice and Edwin, passed away at a young age and are buried in the cemetery at Osborne, Kansas. In 1856 Foster campaigned with abolitionist John Brown during the border war conflict between anti- and pro-slavery forces in Kansas and Missouri, and was present at the capture of Fort Titus from pro-slavery defenders near Lawrence, Kansas.
With the outbreak of the Civil War Foster moved his family to Nebraska, where he enlisted as a private in the 1st Nebraska Regiment in 1862. When the first black infantry regiments were being formed in the Union army Foster volunteered for the 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry and was commissioned a first lieutenant. The members of the this regiment were not mustered out of service until January 1866 at Fort McIntosh, Texas. Lieutenant Foster later held that he ordered the last shot fired in the war.
During the war many black soldiers had attended classes around the campfires taught by their white officers. At its end Foster entered into a conversation with another officer over the lack of a school in Missouri where the soldiers could continue their education. Foster was then approached to raise money to establish such a school, and from among the men of the 62nd and 65th Colored Infantry Regiments over six thousand dollars was raised. He took the money and attempted to establish the school in St. Louis, but his efforts failed. He then moved to Jefferson City, Missouri, but difficulties continued to plague him. A white Methodist Church refused to house the school because the students were black; then a black Methodist Church turned down the idea because the teacher would be white. Finally Foster found an abandoned schoolhouse that could be used to house the school. His initial response to the structure was not encouraging. “The rains pour through the roof scarcely less than outside. I could throw a dog through the side in twenty places. There is no sign of a window, bench, desk, chair, or table.”
From these humble beginnings Lincoln Institute began in September 1866. Foster was the first administrator–known as the principal–and served until 1870 and then again in early 1872, when he was denied reappointment for not supporting the republican governor for re-election. The school continues into the present day as Lincoln University.
Foster then felt a calling to go into the ministry. He was ordained a minister in the Congregational Church and thought to do his work along the frontier in Kansas, where he also might claim a homestead for his family. On May 16, 1872, he arrived in Osborne and secured a homestead two miles north of the town, and that August he was ordained the pastor of the local Congregational Church. That first summer he also helped to establish churches in Bethany and Corinth Townships in Osborne County and at Smith Center in Smith County. Forging a true Congregational following proved a real challenge amid the constant stream of settlers passing through the region.
“This county is not yet two years old as far as real settlement is concerned. There are probably 3000 people, most scattered on homesteads . . . There is a great diversity of religious sentiment. In my rounds I have met members of twenty-six denominations–Congregational, Presbyterians, United Presbyterians, Campbellites, Moravian, Methodist Episcopal, Protestant, Methodist, Protestant Episcopal, United Brethren, Lutheran, Dutch Reformed, Universalists, Hicksite Quaker, Jews, Second Advent or Soul Sleepers, Dunkards, Mennonites, Evangelical Association, Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Unitarian, Spiritist, Mormon, and Roman Catholic.” — Reverend Foster in the Home Missionary Magazine, June 1873.
In 1873 a large two-story stone house was erected on the Foster homestead. Standing on top of the divide between Osborne and Portis, the house could be seen for miles and was a local landmark for several decades. In 1874 Reverend Foster served on the five-county area committee that distributed relief aid to rural families devastated by the grasshopper invasion which occurred that summer. Over the next two years he helped to establish churches at Cedarville in Smith County, Stockton in Rooks County, and in Ross Township in Osborne County.
In November 1878 the Osborne Congregational Church dedicated its first frame building, the fourth church structure to be erected in the county. The building is now a private home. Foster remained pastor at Osborne until May 1882, when he left to become a minister in Red Cliff, Colorado, high in the Rocky Mountains. He later returned to Kansas and served at pastorates at Milford and in 1889 at Cheney.
In the spring of 1889 the Oklahoma Territory was organized and Reverend Foster joined the rush of homesteaders into the new region. He settled at Stillwater and there preached the first-ever sermon in the territory, a distinction he was afterwards proud of. He was elected the first Payne County Superintendent of Schools for one two-year term and he organized the first Congregational Church in Stillwater. “His sermons were pithy, epigrammatic, and never more than twenty-five minutes in time of delivery,” recalled one Stillwater church member.
While the shortness of his sermons would have made him a popular figure on its own merits, Foster also possessed the confidence and fortitude that made him a natural leader among his fellow citizens. A good example of this came in 1891 when the territorial governor was to deliver the address dedicating the state agricultural college (now Oklahoma State University) at Stillwater. At the last minute he could not come and the city officials turned to Reverend Foster, who stepped in and gave a fine address that was well received.
In late 1892 Foster organized a Congregational Church at Perkins, Oklahoma. A year later he resigned his pastorate in Stillwater and moved to Perkins. He was granted a degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1893 by Howard University and published three works of literature: Sketch of the History of Lincoln Institute; What is Congregationalism?; and What Do Congregationalists Believe? In 1895 he became the minister at the Congregational Church in Okarche, Oklahoma, and lectured on “Bible and Ecclesiastical History” once a week at nearby Kingfisher College in Kingfisher, Oklahoma.
Reverend Foster’s active life finally succumbed to ill health and in 1898 he was forced to retire. He passed away March 30, 1901, and was laid to rest in the Okarche Cemetery.
“He was, in every sense, a pioneer, strong in body, firm in character, and aggressive in spirit. He was capable of enduring hardships and carrying to success anything he undertook, willing to give his time and talent and his life, if need be, for any cause he would espouse. It may be truthfully said that no man who ever lived in this county had more to do with laying the foundation of all that he has made of our history. He was not an orator, but a man of profound scholarship, logical and practical, his earnestness always impressing his hearers with sincerity.” — Robert R. Hays in the Osborne County Farmer, April 18, 1901.
Richard Foster was a soldier, teacher, and pastor. His spirit embodied the vigor prevalent in the early years of Osborne County and he is an admirable selection to the Osborne County Hall of Fame.