City of Sabetha, Kansas

Early History — 1857-1883

The materials in this series of pages on the early history of Sabetha were taken from A History of SABETHA, KANSAS and Surrounding Area 1854 - 1976, published by the Sabetha Bicentennial Organization in 1976.  It was prepared by a committee consisting of Pauline Rokey (chairman), May Wines, Elmer Snyder, Candee Lehman and Harvey Rokey.  A copy of the complete publication is available at the Mary Cotton Public Library in Sabetha.


Sabetha is located on the extreme eastern border of Nemaha County, in Rock Creek Township.  In its vicinity are groves of natural timber, serving to break the prairie lands, admirably watered, and producing all of the grains and grasses adapted to the area.   The vicinity of the town was closely settled by a sturdy class of farmers, the typical Kansas men - keen, alert, aggressive, and public spirited - who made it what it claimed to be during its early days, the leading shipping point of grain and livestock between Hastings and St. Joseph. 

Naming Controversy

The naming of Sabetha will always bring on a controversy.  There are several versions of how Sabetha got its name, each backed by its staunch advocates.  Mr. William B. Slosson, one of the original settlers of Albany, wrote to George W. Martin, second Secretary of the Kansas Historical Society, as follows:

General Jim Lane had dug a well in the edge of Brown County close to the Nemaha County line, had stuck a stake and marked it "Sabetha," presumably because he camped there over Sunday.  That is how Sabetha got its name and got on the early maps of Sabetha.

According to an Article written by Lillian Hughes Neiswanger and printed in the Sabetha "Herald" on July 12, 1961, Sabetha was located in Nemaha County on an 1857 map of the Kansas Territory.  On an 1860 map, Sabetha was located in Brown County.   Also in the same article, it mentions that there were two settlements a half mile apart, each claiming to be Sabetha.

A version written by Nannie Bingham and printed in the Sabetha "Herald" in the July 5, 1961 issue, related that her grandfather was asked by the Indians helping him why they did not work on Sunday.  He told them it was the Sabbath, and they called the town "Sabetha."

Perhaps the best story and the one that seems more logical is told in Tennal's HISTORY OF NEMAHA COUNTY:

. . . Early in the fifties, a tall, slim, wrinkled man of middle age, a bachelor, came to the vicinity of Sabetha on his way to California.  The bachelor had had a wonderful dream of a gold mine in California, and was trying to make the trip to find it, alone.  He had an elaborate map, showing the location of the gold and the topography of the country surrounding.

When he had traveled with his ox team from St. Joseph to near the present site of Sabetha, the traveler met with misfortune.  One of his oxen died.  This fateful incident led to the naming of Sabetha.  The man was a Greek scholar and well versed in mythical lore; also a student of the Bible.  His oxen were named Hercules and Pelleas.  Pelleas passed away on Sunday, and the bachelor was obliged to remain here.   He pitched a tent and dug a well.  The well he named Sabbaton, the Greek word for Sabbath, in honor of the day.

The traveler had two gallons of whiskey which he peddled to the few settlers and passersby.  When the whiskey was  gone, he went to St. Joseph and procured more, becoming a full fledged bartender.  People came in to drink at the Sabetha well, as well as at the traveler's bar.  The well water was exceptionally fine, and the Sabetha well became known from St. Joseph to California, as it was on the direct route of travelers to the golden state.

The traveler, having partially realized his dreams of wealth through his golden liquor trade, returned to his home in the East.

First Settlement

The first settlement upon the land where Sabetha is now situated, was made by Captain Arthur W. Williams, a native of Rochester, New York, who came to Kansas in the early spring of 1857, and under the townsite law, pre-empted one-half section of land, laying out the future town of Sabetha in the spring of 1858.  In 1857, Captain Williams established a store and received a commission as postmaster, the few settlers being obliged prior to this time, to go to the Missouri River, a distance of nearly fifty miles, for their mail.  During the same year, there arrived in the vicinity of the new settlement, George, John L. and William Graham, Edwin Miller, William B. Slosson, Issac Sweetland, Lawrence R. Wheeler, and Noble H. Rising.   Mr. Rising established the second store soon after his arrival.

Captain Williams, in addition to being the first postmaster, was also the first justice of the peace.  He related that his sales averaged two hundred dollars a day during the Pikes Peak emigration of 1858 and 1859, the new town being located directly upon the St. Joseph and Denver trail.  Captain Williams’ store building burned down soon after its erection.  It was rebuilt and continued under the same proprietorship until 1861 when it was closed along with that of Noble H. Rising because the owners joined the Union Army.  This occasioned the opening of a new store by John J. Goodpasture, the only man left in Sabetha at that time.

First Preaching

The first preaching in Sabetha occurred in 1859, Williams’ store being used for that purpose.  A Methodist circuit rider, by the name of Rawlins, officiated.  The first wedding was that of W.G. Sargent and Fanny Gertrude Whittenhall, united in marriage December 27, 1859.  The first school was taught by Rebecca Hawkins during the summer of 1860, in a log building owned by John J. Goodpasture, and at one time kept as a hotel by Noble H. Rising.  The attendance varied from five to eighteen pupils.

Town Company

The first town company was that of 1859, the incorporators, under a special act of legislature being James Oldfield, Issac Sweetland, and Arthur W. Williams.  No advantage being taken of the act by those interested, an incorporation charter under the general laws of the State, was issued on August 24, 1870, to William B. Slosson, John T. Brady, Thomas B. Collins and Archibald Moorhead of Kansas and three Missouri men, Eldred F. Gray, Benjamin Childs and Jefferson Chandler.  These parties constituted the Sabetha Town Company, with a corporate term of existence of ten years.  They were liable in the sum of $4000 to Arthur W. Williams, who owned the title to the townsite.


The war interfered seriously with the growth of Sabetha and for ten years there was no change of any importance.  The town contained three store buildings:  a blacksmith shop, owned by Captain Philip Rockefeller and two or three dwellings.  The new growth began with the coming of the railroad in 1870.  At this time, a drug store was opened by E.B. Gebhart and T.K. Masheter.  The store was sold to Wright & Behue in 1875, transferred to Masheter & Wright in 1876 and in February 1880 succeeded by McCullough & Glass.

Early Fires

As previously mentioned, Williams’ store building was destroyed by fire in 1860.  In March 1875, the dwelling of John T. Brady was burned, the loss being about $1,500 and in 1877, Masheter’s drug store was burned, entailing a loss of $4,000.  No other fires of importance occurred in the town’s early years.  Its prosperity was remarkable after the arrival of the railroad.  In 1883, its population had increased to about 1,100.


A frame school building was erected in 1866, being first occupied by teacher, Mary Perry.  It was build by the district at a cost of $2,100 and was abandoned only because of the necessity for more room.  This demand was filled in 1871 by the building of a fine frame edifice costing $5,000.  A third building, made of brick and one of the best buildings in northeast Kansas was built later.  It contained four rooms.

The schools were graded in September 1880, by Professor T.W. Cunnick, into primary, intermediate and grammar departments.  In 1882, a High School was established.  After these improvements, the progress of the schools was rapid, the enrollment showing three teachers and 290 pupils during the school term of 1880-81.  This increased to five teachers and 390 pupils in 1881-82.  An additional teacher was hired in 1882-83 to help meet the demands on the 500 pupils enrolled.


Before the year 1874, the town of Sabetha had no government distinct from that of the township.  The condition of the streets and alleys, the preservation of the public peace and the general welfare of the citizens were matters for the County Board of Commissioners and the Township Trustees.    During the summer of 1874, Judge P.L. Hubbard of Atchison, District Judge of the Second Judicial District, responded to a petition of the 600 citizens by issuing an order for the incorporation of Sabetha as a city of the third class.

An election was held on August 15, 1874.   The result of this election was to place in office:  Ira F. Collins, Mayor;   A.E. Cook, Police Judge;  M.E. Mather, Issac Sweetland, John Muxworthy, John T. Brady and G.H. Adams, members of the Council.

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