Colonel James A. Coffey

Coffeyville's Namesake - James A. Coffey

1827 - 1879

While Coffeyville was named for Colonel James A. Coffey, he only stayed long enough to help lay out the town and its foundation. Not being one to stay in one place for too long, Coffey made many stops in his 51 years, helped lay out two towns - Coffeyville and Humboldt - fought slavery and set up several trading posts.

Colonel Coffey came to the present Coffeyville with huge wagon trains of merchandise and developed a prosperous business in what was later designated “old Town.” Colonel Coffey was the principal merchant; N B. Blanton kept the hotel; Peter Wheeler, an accomplished young physician, administered to the ills of the people; E Y. Kent presided at the blacksmith’s forge; and S B. Hickman kept a little store and handled the United States mail.”

Coffey's Trading Post

Coffeyville was laid out around Coffey’s trading post which was previously established for the purpose of trading with the Black Dog band of Osage Indians. The new town was named Coffeyville in honor of its primary founder. The trading post was situated between 13th and 14th Streets on what is now South Walnut Street.

According to “The Coffey Clan” from 1690 by Frank R. Moore, Coffey’s grandson, Coffey was born November 18, 1827, in Tallatin County, Illinois. He was the third of 12 children.

A letter in the book written by Moore’s mother, Coffey’s daughter, said, “He was reared on a farm, and in the year 1848, he bought some land in Gallatin County and began farming and soon after married. “My mother’s maiden name was Louisa Adelade Ferris Long Carnahan, she was born in Wayne County, Kentucky and her father was a Methodist minister. Coffey did not care for farming and soon after he was married, he and his wife moved to Harrisburg, Illinois, where four children were born.” The letter said two of the children died in infancy.

Moore wrote that in early 1854, “it became news that President Pierce had held council with many Indian tribes and accordingly they ceded millions of their acres in Kansas which could be filed on and five years to pay at $1.25 an acre. This set grandfather Coffey to thinking this would be good “store country” and a location on one of several trails would be good business in this new country; southern Illinois was swampy and there was much sickness. Grandmother learned that a colony of New Englanders had founded the town of Lawrence and she felt there would be good schools, social gatherings and preaching.

“So they loaded the three wagons, one with merchandise for the new store and the other two with family effects including slips and plants for a garden and a crate of chickens. Uncle Sales, grandfather’s bachelor brother, went along to help drive, and Mary and Ebby (the Coffey children) took turns riding the pony and with the help of the family dog they herded the loose livestock.”

Free State or Slave State

While in the Lawrence area, Coffey became involved in the battle over whether Kansas would be a free or slave state. During the election for a Legislature after Andrew Reeder had been appointed governor of the territory of Kansas, Coffey worked as an election judge. With Missourians crossing the line and stuffing the ballot boxes 36 “pro slavers” and three “free-staters” were elected, according to Moore. Also during that election, Coffey was shoved out of his job as election judge.

According to a newspaper story, written by C. C. Drake, commemorating Coffey’s 108th birthday, Coffey “was opposed to the introduction of slavery in the Kansas territory and was with James H. Lane and John Brown in the capture of Washington Creek Fort and at the engagement of Lecompton, part of the time as commissary.” A copy of the article appears in Moore’s Coffey family history. The article said Coffey “was twice taken prisoner by pro-slavery parties” but does not give any details of those incidents.

Following the slavery battles, Coffey made his way south working as a commissariat for Lane, who had become a United States senator. Lane had made good on an earlier promise of making Kansas a free state.

In that position, Moore wrote, “grandfather had gained valuable experience merchandising, and this opportunity as a promoter was soon in evidence.” Moore writes that Coffey built a store in Humboldt for his brother to operate, a nice home for the family and a church for his father, the Rev. Achilles Coffey.

“Grandfather did not operate any store or spend any time farming. He hired help to do that. This new country offered so many opportunities that besides looking after elections, his restless soul did not let him stay at any one place very long. Government officials recognized grandfather as a very capable man and gave him license to travel the Indian reservations as he pleased.”

According to the Drake article, Coffey learned to fluently speak two Indian languages. Drake wrote that Coffey and a partner, Oliver Marsh, established trading posts on the Neosho, Verdigris and Arkansas Rivers, “the latter post where Wichita now stands.” It was in 1857 the firm laid out the town of Humboldt, according to Drake.

Coffey Opens Additional Trading Posts

Coffey and Marsh sold their business in 1865 and moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where they began a wholesale grocery business. The partnership dissolved in 1868 and Coffey went to Westport landing where he sold merchandise.

Following a stop in Chetopa, according to Drake, Coffey “pre-empted land on the west side of the Verdigris River and almost opposite Parker. There he built a store and house and erected a sawmill and a grain mill. He also did some farming north of Coffeyville, but mostly his business was trading with the Osage Indians, a trade he maintained until 1875.”

Coffey moved to Dodge City in the spring of 1878 and died there at the age of 51. Moore’s book contains a copy of Coffey’s obituary as it appeared January 19, 1879, in the Topeka Commonwealth:

“Dodge City Times - James A. Coffey of the firm of Coffey and Marsh, died in this city Monday morning last of pneumonia (sic) after an illness of eight days. He was an old resident of Kansas. He resided in Dodge City but three months. He came to Kansas in the year 1854 and passed through the memorable and exciting struggle in the state during its early years. He was founder of Coffeyville, Kansas, a thriving town which was named for him. Colonel Coffey was well known in Kansas and news of his death will be sad tidings for his many friends. His family has the sympathy in this sad bereavement.”

Information from Coffeyville’s Legacy, story written by Roger Huff.