Ballot Prank Backfires
Susanna Madora “Dora” Salter (née Kinsey) was 27 years old in 1887. She lived in Argonia, Kansas with her husband, Lewis Salter. She had four children with one on the way. Her interests outside of the home included attending Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) meetings and organizing a new church in the community. You’d imagine her life in Argonia, a township of about 500 people, would have been rather bucolic and mundane, but she found herself the news of the nation by being the victim of a prank. However, “victim” isn’t the best descriptor of how the prank played out. Let’s change it to “victor.” The antics and assumptions of some of Mrs. Salter’s fellow townspeople extraordinarily backfired, giving her a rather prestigious distinction as the first female mayor ever elected in the United States.
Dora Salter was no average farmer’s daughter. Born on 2 March 1860 in Belmont County, Ohio, she had moved with her family to Kansas around age 12, settling just outside of Silver Lake. She entered Kansas State Agricultural College as a sophomore in 1878, but just prior to graduation she had to drop out due to illness. Majoring in dressmaking, Dora was known for being an excellent seamstress who made, not only her own clothes, but all the clothes for her family. She had been an active participant in college life, having been a member of the debate club and benefitting from the culture of higher education. She married Lewis Salter, son of former Lieutenant Governor of Kansas, Melville Salter, in Silver Lake on 1 September 1880.
On 1 January 1881, Kansas’ prohibition law went into effect, barring the manufacture and sale of “intoxicating liquors.” This law had been ratified by the people of Kansas as a political, social, and moral issue. However, the law only made infraction of the law a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine. As a result, bars and saloons continued their operations by accepting a fine and carrying on with business as usual. It was a precursor to what would happen during national prohibition, in that scarcity (or threat of it) would create demand.
In 1882, the young Salter family moved to Argonia, Kansas, and Dora’s parents soon joined them to manage a hardware store. In 1885, Oliver Kinsey, Dora’s father, became the first mayor. Lewis Salter served as City Clerk, writing various ordinances for the newly incorporated town to have on the books for general town operations. Lewis also shifted his career toward becoming a lawyer.
A chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was organized in Argonia in 1883. At this point in history, the WCTU represented not only the idea of temperance to promote health and purity of body and mind, but also women’s suffrage. Pairing suffrage with the temperance movement was something of a problem because the issues became linked together, and the wealthy alcohol industry became a powerful opponent. Dora Salter was an officer of the Argonia chapter, which is what led her to becoming the butt of a political joke.
In 1887, Kansas awarded municipal voting rights to women. This expansion of voting rights, paired with the Argonia WCTU putting forth a list of preferred candidates (all male), inspired a group of men to secretly change the ballot the night before the mayoral and city council election. Their rationale was that only the 20 WCTU members would vote for Mrs. Salter, resulting in not only her loss, but also humiliation. It was hoped that the women would then be curtailed in any future political aspirations by such an embarrassing result. Dora Salter was chosen as the candidate, because she was the only WCTU officer who lived within the incorporated limits of town. These men were quite opposed to the temperance movement and were known as the “wets.” Some of the wets had their name on the ballot for various city positions, as well. At least two of them had shown up to heckle a WCTU meeting and Mrs. Salter was reportedly the one who called them out and managed the disorderly conduct.
On the morning of 4 April 1887, Dora was doing the family laundry when a delegation from the local Republican party came calling. They brought the news that her name was on the ballot for the town’s mayoral election, which was being held that day. Clearly, she was surprised. When posed with the question of whether she would accept the role if elected, she confirmed that she would. The Kansas Republican party of the day was rather progressive, and they agreed to support her in the election and spread the word amongst the townspeople.
One could suppose the people of Argonia, Kansas did not have a problem electing Mrs. Salter to be their mayor, because after all, she came from a family with a background in leadership and she was college-educated. She won two-thirds of the votes and was accordingly installed as mayor of Argonia. This turn of events garnered national attention and was even noted in international newspapers. The New York Sun sent a reporter to portray Mrs. Salter from an up-close perspective, and this article was reprinted widely. The reporter noted, “She was clothed in all the dignity of her office, and thus a view was had of her in all of the capacities she fills as wife, mother, citizen, and official.” It was also reported that her “followers” spoke highly of her, and those who were silent or spoke harshly were opposed to “petticoat rule.”
It’s not clear what people thought was going to happen when Mrs. Salter won the mayoral seat, but it seems that most of the men were all wary of the dreaded “petticoat rule.” At its most innocuous, the concept seems to imply that men would be beholden to the whims of a petty child, or perhaps having to abide the instruction of an unliked school marm; at its most nefarious, it indicates something far more misogynistic in keeping with women being treated as incompetent, unintelligent, and unworthy of leadership or any political involvement.
On the first day of meeting with the new council members, Mrs. Salter set the tone of her one year of mayoral service by stating, “Gentlemen, what is your pleasure? You are the duly elected officials of this town. I am merely your presiding officer.” This surprised the councilmen who had believed they were in for a feminist challenge. Although she had to keep the peace at some meetings, it was a rather uneventful year in Argonia. Her least popular proposal was for there to be sidewalks installed, which was denied due to cost. And true to the WCTU platform, there were no alcohol sales in Argonia during her mayoral tenure.
Mrs. Salter collected $1 for her service as mayor (about $30 compared to today), and she then returned to her usual life taking care of her home and family. Her skill at diplomacy served her well, and she was an excellent “normalizer” for future political involvement for the American women who would follow in her footsteps.
Susanna Madora Salter lived to be 101, passing away on 17 March 1961. She is buried in Argonia, Kansas, with her husband, whom she outlived by 45 years.
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Kansas Trails of History
Ancestors in search of land and opportunity traveled along the migration trails and roads, many of which terminated, began or went through the area that was or would later become Kansas. Understanding migration routes of our ancestors can lead to great rewards, as following the potential routes can help to narrow down possible locations for tracing the family back and identifying prior generations. The historic routes, many of which passed in some manner through Kansas, were integral to westward expansion and the movement of large numbers of people, livestock and goods.
The Abilene Trail was a cattle trail which began near Henrietta, Texas, making its way through the Indian Territory, and terminating in Abilene, Kansas. The initial cattle herd was driven on the trail in 1866 and over the next few years a tremendous number of cattle were moved along this trail. In fact, from 1867 - 1871 it is estimated that over 1.1 million head of cattle were driven from Texas to Kansas on this trail.
The California Trail was an approximately 2,000 miles wagon trail, which began in western Missouri and led to the gold fields of northern California. Predominantly used in the 1840s through the 1860s, it took approximately four to six months for the adventurous pioneers to make the journey over the Rocky Mountains. A quarter of a million people, more than any other emigration trail in America, traversed this trail before the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869.The California Trail overlapped portions of the Mormon Trail as well as the Oregon Trail.
The Cherokee Trail began in Salina, Oklahoma and continued for about 900 miles, making its way through Kansas, Colorado and finally terminating at Fort Bridger in Wyoming. A gold seeker on his way to California discovered gold at Ralston Creek, located just north of Denver. This discovery led to the 1859 Colorado Gold Rush.
The Chisholm Trail was used throughout the latter half of the 19th century. The starting point is debated by historians as either the Rio Grande in Texas or San Antonio. Over the years, the trail ended at different points in Kansas, and a branch of the trail was sometimes used by settlers in their movements into Colorado and Cheyenne, Wyoming, joining the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails.
The Great Western Cattle Trail, also known as the Western Trail, the Dodge City Trail or the Old Texas Trail, was primarily used for moving cattle from the East to market. It ran parallel to the Chisholm trail and terminated at Dodge City, Kansas.
The Jones and Plummer Trail was a short-lived route 168 miles long, reaching from the Texas Panhandle, north of Booker, through the Oklahoma Panhandle, ending in Dodge City. Though not a long trail it was popular, possibly due to shorter spans between water than most trails, and moved a considerable amount of people and goods for about 20 years in the latter part of the 19th century.
The Leavenworth Pike’s Peak Express was established in 1859 as an express route from the Missouri River to the gold fields of Colorado, crossing through northern Kansas on its way.
The Mormon Trail took the persecuted members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, referred to as Mormons at the time, from their settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois in 1846 to their final destination in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1847. The group stopped near the area that would later become Omaha, Nebraska for the winter season. Wagon trains continued to make the four-month journey on the trail for the next 22 years. By the time the transcontinental railroad was completed, approximately 70,000 pioneers had ridden or walked the trail.
The Oregon Trail was predominantly used during the 1840s through the 1860s and reached from western Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon. The oxen-pulled wagons brought approximately 100,000 adventurous pioneers who traversed the 2,000-mile overland trail, with the journey taking about six months and passing over the Rocky Mountains. About 80 percent settled in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, while the remainder continued into what would later become the state of Washington.
The Santa Fe Trail was not only a migration route for pioneers, it was also a military road and an international trade route between the United States and Mexico, linking two other significant trade routes, the Old Spanish Trail and the Camino Real, which had existed since the 16th century. The Santa Fe Trail was used to carry trade goods between Franklin, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico beginning in 1821. It was later used during the Mexican-American War by the United States Army to invade New Mexico. The trail was even utilized by some of the gold seekers on their journey to reach the goldfields of California. The wagon trail remained in use until about 1880, when it was replaced by the railways.
The Smoky Hill Trail followed the Smoky Hill River across western Kansas and came into use after the discovery of gold in Colorado. This trail was the most expedient route to the gold fields near Denver. The Butterfield Overland Dispatch stage line carried freight and passengers along this route, where relay stations were established every 12 miles, from Atchison, Kansas to Denver from 1865 to 1870.
The Texas Trail, also known as the Shawnee Trail, was first used by Native Americans and later became a cattle route, where droves of Texas longhorn cattle were driven northward before and after the American Civil War. The main stem passed through the Texas cities of Austin, Waco and Dallas before crossing the Red River and moving north across the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations, in what would become Oklahoma, and into Kansas. It remained the main cattle trail from Texas to Kansas until the Chisholm Trail was established after the Civil War.
Some of the most obvious records to check for clues to points of origin, or even possible stops along the routes, are census records. Birth locations of husband, wife and children can be very telling by detailing a timeline of geographic movement. In addition, you may find clues in cemetery records, church records, military records, land records, probate records and published works, such as newspapers or county historical atlases which include biographical details of some of the citizens. For the latter, even if your ancestor was not mentioned specifically, you may find information about where others of the same time period had come from.
People often traveled in groups, so don’t forget to look at neighbors, family members or known associates in records. It is not uncommon to locate family groups migrating together continually over generations.
Lastly, study route maps and historical mass migrations to gain a better understanding of what may have motivated your antecedents. May these historic trails take you on a journey of discovery!
Monroe Billington, “Susanna Madora Salter First Woman Mayor,” Kansas Historical Quarterly, (Autumn 1954), p. 173-183; e-journal, (https://www.kshs.org/p/kansas-historical-quarterly-susanna-madora-salter/13106 : accessed 12 November 2021).
Adam Chamberlain, Alixandra B. Yanus, Nicholas Pyeatt, “The Connections Between the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Prohibition Party,” SAGE Open, (1 December 2016), e-journal, (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2158244016684373 : accessed 14 November 2021).
History.com (https://www.history.com : accessed 13 November 2021), “Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.”
Kansapedia (https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia : Accessed 13 November 2021), “Prohibition,” rev. August 2019.
League of Women Voters of Kansas (https://lwvk.org : accessed 14 November 2021), “LWVK History.”
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : 16 November 2021), digital image from original 1 print: wood engraving, “The Ohio whiskey war – the ladies of Logan singing hymns in front of barrooms in aid of the temperance movement,” 1874, digital ID: cph 3b36893.
“Mayor Susanna Salter,” The Sun (New York, New York), 31 July 1887, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 15 November 2021), citing print edition, p. 5, col. 5-6.
“Nation’s 1st Woman Mayor Dead at 101,” The Norman Transcript (Norman, Oklahoma), 17 Mar 1961, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 15 November 2021), citing print edition, p.1, col. 3-7.
Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Susanna_Madora_Salter.jpg : accessed 16 November 2021), digital image photograph, 1887, “Susanna Madora Salter;” image uploaded by user Gobonobo.
FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org), "Kansas, United States Genealogy," rev. 12:24, 8 June 2021.
Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Train of covered wagons on the Santa Fe Trail.jpg : accessed 18 November 2021), digital image of an original b&w photograph of Photograph of a train of covered wagons on the Santa Fe Trail, between 1860 and 1960, “File:Train of covered wagons on the Santa Fe Trail.jpg;” image uploaded by user Themudmom1; digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; California Historical Society Collection, 1860-1960, Title Insurance and Trust, and C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, 1860-1960, Miss Annette Glick Collection.