(On this date, October 4, 2016, the Osborne County Hall of Fame is pleased to present to the world for the first time anywhere the first member of the OCHF Class of 2016.)
A community leader in his home county for decades, Samuel Willis Chatfield then became one of the first homesteaders of Osborne County, Kansas. There he was soon called upon to help organize and establish the first county government. 145 years later his contributions to the county’s founding are being rewarded with an induction into the Osborne County Hall of Fame.
Samuel was the third of five children born to Abraham and Jerusha (Cotton) Chatfield. He was born August 31, 1829, in the small New York town of Prattsville, in Greene County. There both the Chatfield and Cotton families were noted families, and young Samuel grew up well versed in hard work, having learned the trades of the barber and carpentry, as well as studying to be a medical doctor, though he never earned his medical degree. He was 21 years old when he was elected a City of Prattsville Town Supervisor in 1850 and began serving his first term in the Town Hall.
In 1853 Samuel met and married Charlotte Bligh, with whom he raised six children – Willis, Charles, Eben, Eliza, Elizabeth, and Mary. Shortly after Mary’s delivery in 1863 Charlotte passed away, and it would be two years before Samuel took a second wife, Elizabeth Newcomb, who became a second mother to the six children. In 1873 a seventh child, Austin, joined the family.
For reasons not entirely clear, sometime after his second marriage in 1865 Samuel devised the idea of going west and proving up a homestead claim. In the late 1860s he set off for Branch County, Michigan with other Chatfield family members. From there he moved to Kansas in the latter half of 1870, settling on a 153-acre homestead in northern Osborne County. His family remained behind when he set out west, and it would be nearly fifteen years before they came west themselves to join him.
When Samuel settled on a homestead in the northeast quarter of Section 6, Township 6 South, Range 12 West, he was one of the first one hundred settlers in Osborne County. At this time the county had not yet politically organized – the boundaries having been surveyed and defined just three years prior – and therefore was legally attached to neighboring Mitchell County as “Manning Township”. But as more and more settlers poured into the newly-settled region over the next year they soon desired their own government, and on June 2, 1871 a great meeting was held at (1996 Osborne County Hall of Famer) Calvin Reasoner’s general store in the town of Arlington. At this meeting the first set of preferred county officials was agreed upon and forwarded to the governor for approval, along with a petition to officially organize Osborne County.
Over the previous year Samuel’s skills as a carpenter, frontier doctor, and natural leader had shown him to be a notable asset to the region, and also being the first and only professional barber in the county did not hurt. His stock among his fellow men was such that at the Arlington meeting he was chosen to be one of the first county commissioners, along with (1996 Osborne County Hall of Famer) Frank Stafford and Charles Cunningham. This appointment was confirmed by the Governor of Kansas in September 1871, who designated the three as “special commissioners” to govern the county until the first official county commissioners could be elected in the November 1871 general election and take their places in January 1872. Samuel was designated chairman of the board of special commissioners.
One of the first duties of the special commissioners was to divide the county into townships that in turn would be grouped into three commissioner districts. Samuel designated the township that included his homestead Bethany Township, and the township to its east he named Ross Township. These two townships comprised the First Commissioner District. In 1872 the western portion of Bethany Township organized itself into a new township, Lawrence, so designated by Samuel and included in the First District.
At the time there was a prolonged fight being waged to determine which town would be declared the permanent county seat. To bolster their claim the town government of Osborne City offered the special commissioners their choice of any block within the city limits, to be given to the county upon which to build the county courthouse and other buildings. On November 22, 1871, commissioner board chairman Samuel Chatfield selected the square on West Penn Street (today’s Main Street) still being used for the county’s purposes.
Also at the time of the Arlington meeting a local government was being organized on Samuel Chatfield’s own farm. The Bethany Post Office was established just to the south of his farm on June 2, 1871, and the southeast portion of his farm became part of the community of Bethany, also established at this time. In 1872 Samuel stepped down as a special commissioner. He proved up his homestead claim and continued to work as a barber and carpenter, even taking on building construction as a line of work.
“The Cawker City Sentinel says that Cawker City has voted bonds for $5,000 to build a school house. On Saturday last the contract was let to Mr. Samuel Chatfield, of the town of Bethany, contractor and builder. The house is to be of magnesian limestone, put up in the most substantial manner, and provided with the latest improved school furniture. Work is to commence immediately, and the house will be completed by the first of August.” – Atchison Daily Champion newspaper, 19 March 1872, Page 5.
Over the next few years Samuel opened a wagon shop in Bethany and frequently visited his family in New York. In 1879 the Union Pacific Railroad built a line through the area that bypassed Bethany on the north. To secure a railroad depot at that site Samuel Chatfield and Philander Judson laid out the new townsite of Portis, which included the eastern half of Chatfield’s land and the western half of Judson’s farm. The plat of the new town was finalized and dated October 11, 1879.
Samuel Chatfield continued to prosper, even being named Bethany Township Justice of the Peace on August 16, 1883. Four years later he felt the need to return to his former home in Bronson, Michigan, where he then lived for the next 16 years. While there he could not quite escape the public eye, though for a rather unusual reason:
“Samuel Chatfield, of Bronson, Michigan, has in his possession one of the first copper coins ever made in the United States. On one side are thirteen links representing the thirteen States of the Union; the words, ‘United States’, and on a small ring, ‘We are one.’ On the other side are the words ‘Engio,’ ‘1777,’ a ‘rising sun,’ and ‘Mind your own business.’” – Democrat and Chronicle newspaper, Rochester, New York, October 3, 1888, Page 5.
In 1903 Samuel moved back to Portis and for a time enjoyed a quiet retirement among his old friends there. Sometime after his 80th birthday in 1908 he moved back to his birthplace in Greene County, New York. Samuel died in Maplecrest, New York, on January 4, 1918, and was buried in the Big Hollow (now called Maplecrest) Cemetery at Windham, New York.
SOURCES: Lorna Puleo, Durham, New York; ancestry.com/localities.northam.usa.states.northcarolina.counties.forsyth/; U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; The Essentials of the of the Early History of Osborne County, Kansas, unpublished manuscript, compiled by Von Rothenberger (2011); Cawker City Historical Society, Cawker City, Kansas; Atchison Daily Champion, March 19, 1872; Downs Times, August 5, 1880; Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, New York, October 3, 1888; Osborne County Farmer, July 19, 1906; Portis Independent, May 16, 1908.