An Englishman who came to America via Canada and in turn was a Civil War spy, a Christian Church minister, and a member of the Kansas House of Representatives is an example of the diverse assemblage of Americans who came to Osborne County, Kansas, in the 1870s and 1880s seeking free land under the terms of various homestead and timber claim acts. Benjamin F. Matchett’s story reflects three major themes of American life in the latter half of the nineteenth century – war, politics, and westward expansion – and through his unpublished autobiography (completed in 1923) one is able to experience each of those events in Matchett’s own words and actions.
Benjamin Matchett was born December 3, 1839, in Rumford, Essex County, England. He was the eldest of four children born to Benjamin and Charlotte (Merrin) Matchett. His father was engaged in public works and the young Ben was able to attend private school on his father’s comfortable salary. He worked as a training clerk in the civil engineering department at Stratford, England, for his first job, and when he was fourteen years old Ben started at his second job as a clerk in the Ways and Means Department of the Eastern Counties Railway in London.
In the spring of 1855 the Matchett family emigrated from England to Canada. The seven-week voyage was made difficult by a series of storms, but they arrived safely in New York City and made their way to Montreal, Canada. Their journey ended at Cornwall, Ontario, Canada, where the father became an engineer for the Grand Trunk Railway. Ben served as his timekeeper and was given the additional responsibility of making out the payroll. He attended school for a while in Monlennette, Ontario, in 1856 before his father retired and moved the family again that July, this time to LaPorte, Indiana, where they bought a farm and settled down permanently. That fall Ben enrolled in the local schools and worked on the farm until the fall of 1859, when he studied for a year at a select school.
“The spring and summer of 1860 brought me to the parting of the ways, for I reached my majority December 3, 1860. My father, being somewhat in debt for the farm he had purchased, made me promise not to leave home but to help him the ensuing year. But when the news flashed over the country that a lot of Rebels had fired upon Fort Sumter and Major Anderson had been forced to lower the Stars and Stripes to armed treason it set the North on fire and it was the hardest thing I ever did to stay on the farm from morning till night. I wanted to be in town where I could get the latest news every hour mixed with outbursts of patriotism . . . I stayed with my father about five months; then with father’s and mother’s consent I enlisted in June 1861 in the 15th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Company G. We rendezvoused at Lafayette [Indiana] and drilled some two weeks and were mustered into the United States service for three years and were ordered at once to Camp Chase, Ohio. We lay here only two or three days and were ordered to Parkersburg, Virginia.” — Benjamin Matchett.
In July 1861 Matchett was diagnosed with a hernia and discharged. He returned home to LaPorte where he was treated by Dr. Brewster Higley, who later achieved lasting fame as the lyricist to the song Home on the Range. Ben reenlisted in August in the 29th Indiana Volunteer Infantry as a corporal. His regiment marched to Munfordville, Kentucky, where Ben was asked to go and spy on the Confederate forces at Bowling Green, Kentucky. He and another soldier set out but were soon captured by Confederate pickets and taken into the main Confederate camp.
“Upon reaching headquarters we were taken before General Hindman and several of his staff or officers. Comrad Burch and I had agreed that I was to do most of the answering in the questions pounded to us. General Hindman said, ‘Gentlemen, where are you from?’ I answered, ‘From LaPorte County, Indiana.’ He asked if that was our native state [and] I answered, no, sir, I was born near Rumford, Essex County, England, and was born December 3, 1839 . . . .” — Benjamin Matchett.
Matchett proceeded to truthfully tell the general his life story up to the start of the war, which fitted neatly into the international situation of the time, as England was in strong sympathy with the Confederacy. He then spun a tale of searching for a brother who had come south before the war commenced and soon convinced the general of his sincerity. They were then set free and were even given an official pass to cross freely through the Confederate lines “in search of brother Ezekiel.” The pair soon entered Bowling Green, liberally using their pass to go where they pleased, and at one point even ate dinner with several Confederate officers. They then returned north and successfully reached the Union lines with an astonishing amount of detailed information concerning the Confederate forces and their battle plans.
Ben then served in the Union signal corps. He went on one more spy mission before receiving medical discharge in February 1863, after which he returned to LaPorte and was appointed deputy provost marshal, under General William Wallace, which position he resigned in 1864. He married Alida Josephine Munn, a childhood sweetheart, in LaPorte on December 13, 1863. They were the parents of nine children: Ida; Katherine; Christine; Mabel; Vesta; Estall; Alta; Benjamin; and Andrew. In the following spring he went to Kankakee County, Illinois, where he commenced farming, and continued until the fall of 1865. In the spring of 1866 Ben moved his family to a farm near Gallatin, Missouri. There in October 1869 he joined with the Christian Church and the following summer he was ordained a minister. The Reverend Benjamin Matchett pastored in the Gallatin area and also at Pleasant Ridge, Missouri, before heeding the call of the West and at midnight on March 3, 1885, the Matchetts arrived at the village of Bloomington in Osborne County, Kansas. Benjamin filed on a homestead in Lawrence Township and started a Christian Church in Bloomington.
“We had decided to open our new church the first of January 1886, and some of our friends from Missouri came down into Kansas to enjoy the occasion, but alas, it seemed that all the fates in the universe had turned against me and the country. The night before Brother and Sister Johnson of Winston, Missouri, arrived, the warm weather froze up so suddenly that the frogs were frozen up with their mouths open and in a few hours it was down to twenty degrees below zero and kept on going down. The gentle breezes of summer and fall had become furious and piled every ravine, orchard, yard and road full of snow. It thus raged about seventy-two hours and the lion had become a lamb and we were fixing for a period of rejoicing, but the storm had only stopped to rest and after twenty-four hours turned loose again and made the first storm respectable . . . We were on the South Fork of the Solomon [River] and two hundred and thirty miles west of Atchison and only one through train in thirty days; luckily Brother and Sister Johnson got out on that train and they have never been much attached to Kansas.” — Benjamin Matchett.
Matchett labored at and organized churches in Osborne County at Portis, Alton, Downs, and south of Osborne, and was twice in charge of the church in Osborne. But summer drought brought no crops and little money into the country, so in October 1890 he decided to rent out his homestead and moved his family to Mount Vernon, Washington. He held lengthy meetings there with the intention of starting a church. During these meetings, however, he received a telegram from Osborne informing him that the Farmers Alliance Party convention there had nominated him as their candidate for Osborne County Representative to the Kansas Legislature in the upcoming election. Matchett was taken by surprise, as he had never considered a political career and was not even a member of the Farmers Alliance Party (which later evolved into the Populist Party). After some consideration he wired back that he could not take part in the campaign but if he was elected he would return and “serve the people to the best of my ability.” A week after the election the Reverend Matchett received another telegram informing him that he had been elected by a seven hundred vote majority and asked that he “return to serve as promised.”
Reluctantly Benjamin did so and in January 1891 he took his seat in the Kansas House of Representatives. A stranger to everyone, he was nevertheless appointed the chairman of two committees and received 123 out of 125 votes to be Speaker of the House ProTem. The elected Speaker saw the political storm approaching the session and was regularly absent, and so Matchett filled the Speaker’s chair for much of his two-year term.
“Upon another occasion that proved to be the stormiest setting of the session, the Speaker, seeing the fight coming on over the state printing, called me to the chair and in a short time some twenty-five or thirty members were on their feet. The Speaker left the chamber with fists clenched and the House all in an uproar. I pounded and rapped for order, but all to no purpose. Then I ordered the sergeant-at-arms to clear the galleries and floor of all spectators, which was not complied with. The representative from Topeka was the Honorable Mr. Webb . . . He came down the aisle and took a position close to the chair and addressed the Speaker, wishing to know why he was not keeping order . . . I replied, ‘According to the rules laid down, it is recommended for the presiding officers to give them over to their folly and indiscretion and [so] I will recognize no member until the House becomes orderly!’ Whereupon he mounted a chair and in a shrill squeaking voice yelled for order and everything became quiet and he made a brief talk . . . and in a short time we proceeded with matters at hand, and surely it was a calm after a storm without a cloud.” — Benjamin Matchett.
In the end Benjamin was voted a raise in salary by the legislature for a fair and prudent job under admittedly “difficult” circumstances. He served out his term and despite popular outcry from across the state he declined to serve again, and instead returned to Bloomington and the church there. He remained active in Populist affairs and preached at churches throughout Osborne County and at Seiling and Sheridan Flats in Oklahoma Territory. The summer of 1897 saw him return from a pastoral trip in Oklahoma to the Bloomington railroad depot, where he was met by his wife. She gave him this ultimatum: “I can’t stand it any longer. My turkeys have all roasted alive in the yard and our fat hog is just baked to death, and everything is dead and burnt up and I am going to leave.” They sold the homestead and that October they bought a home in Abilene, Kansas.
Benjamin continued his pastoral work in Abilene and in Caldwell County, Missouri. In the spring of 1903 the Matchetts rented out their home in Abilene and left to organize several churches in Oklahoma Territory. A year later they moved to Kansas City, Kansas, and Benjamin became pastor of churches in both Kansas and Missouri. By 1907 he had added four more churches in Missouri to his pastoral work, which he officially retired from in September 1911. The Matchetts then moved to Oakland, California, and spent much of their retirement traveling and visiting with relatives and friends. Benjamin served his last pastorate at Fruita, Colorado, during 1913 and only gave sermons upon request in the years following.
The Reverend and Mrs. Matchett made their last move in 1919 back to Kansas City, Kansas, to be nearer their children. Benjamin died February 9, 1926, while visiting a son in Grand Junction, Colorado. His remains were returned to Kansas City and buried there with full military honors. The reluctant politician, the ardent minister, and the old soldier was able to lay aside his lifelong labors and rest at last.