King Belk – “The Double Life of a Brown County Pioneer”

Note: James King Belk and his wife Charity (Palmer) were prominent Liberal residents present since the formation of the town. King had a first marriage, mentioned in J. P. Moore’s book on Liberal, which caused something of a scandal as his first wife had purportedly believed him to be dead, whereas he was very much alive and had remarried to a Charity Palmer and moved to Liberal. Steve Richardson of the Cawker City Hesperian Historical Society wrote asking if I had heard of him and was able to say that I had. His interest was due connections between Cawker and Liberal. A George W. Chapman is one citizen of Cawker who was alert to Liberal in the early 1880s and was prepared to donate his collection of geological specimens to the academy there if the citizens of Cawker did not provide a suitable building for it and a public library. Another resident of Cawker with a tie to Liberal was William Belk, a brother of King Belk. Thus this series, Steve having sent me several articles published on it in 1920-1921. All related posts will be found under the tag “Belk”.

The Hiawatha Daily News published a story in 1920 about King Belk of Liberal that appears to attempt to preserve anonymity for all concerned, but contrives cover names so close to the original that one wonders why the bother.

Each published version of the King Belk story provides a slightly different account, and however slight those small differences are interesting in causing one to wonder what the whole truth of the matter was. In the account below, Olive Hallett (Hellett), King’s first wife, was aware he had returned to Brown County, a detail that other accounts leave out. Also mentioned is that their marriage was not doing to well when Belk left.

Not only was Olive aware her husband had returned to Brown County–more significantly, King Belk’s sister, here given as Agnes, is stated in the article to have known about the first wife and two sons.

In the below article, King Belk is Curtis Belknap. The second husband of the first Mrs. Belk, Olive Hallett, who was Mr. Rogers, is given as Duffy. Rich, Mo., I gather is supposed to be Liberal, but there are some off dates on the years as Liberal was not platted until 1880, and the Belks moved there in 1881 with its formation. The article gives King Belk as going to “Rich” in the 1870s.

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The Double Life of a Brown County Pioneer
October 28-29, 1920

Mr. and Mrs. Curtis Belknap, like many Brown county early settlers, knew what it meant to pioneer in Kansas in the early 60s. Belknap wooed and won his bride in Brown county, not far from Hiawatha. They went to Judge Brandon some 20 miles away and the marriage ceremony was performed. They did not have to go before a probate judge and become the targets for court house clerks and others who might happen to be around when a prospective groom calls and asks for a marriage license. In those days there were no probate judges; Kansas was a territory and not doing business as it does today. The waving buffalo grass on the prairies of Brown county and the desolation apparent everywhere were the things that made the Belknaps restless. They had heard of California and its gold. “This land in Brown county will never amount to anything,” Belknap may have mused. “Let’s go to California, where we can get rich,” he said to his wife. Mrs. Belknap did not care much about having a good time. She did not know anything about society and such like, so she did not know how to feel lonely on that account. But true and loyal to her husband, and a desire to do the things she thout might make them prosper more than they thout they had prospered here, she acceded to do his wishes and it was decided to drive thru to California with oxen. How about their 160 acres of land here? Belknap said nobody could steal it and they would not get much if they could. So the Belknaps set about making preparations for their journey to the far west. Just what happened on that trip across the plains, over mountains and thru deserts, beset day and night by dangers, can not be told in the story. Vicious animals roamed at will thru the uncivilized lands and the treacherous Indian was another danger, but the Belknaps made their start. It was slow progress over unbroken roads. They had no Pikes Peak route or other well known trail to aid them. It required 9 months time for them to make the trip, but the arrived unharmed. As far as the few persons here knew, the Belknaps were as happy as a bride and groom could be. No one here suspected that there were not getting along famously as lovers and newlyweds generally do, and no one knows why Curtis Belknap left California and came back to Brown county–alone. He came to the home of his sister, who still resides in this county. He had little to say about Agnes, his wife. There appeared to be a marked indifference, the sister noticed. There were 2 little Belknaps in California–2 sons. Belknap said little about them, altho the sister often remarked that she thot he ought to go back to his California home. He stayed around Hiawatha a few months. One day he went away–perhaps like he did when he left California. He said little about his going, where he was going, and what his plans were.

Out in California, Mrs. Belknap and her 2 boys got along as best they could. The children went to school, and as time passed by they became bread winners for the mother. The boys knew little about their father. They were told by the mother that he has returned to Hiawatha, Brown county, Kansas, and perhaps some day would come back. But he never did. One day there came a letter from a man named Black, written in Montana. It was a death letter, telling how Curtis Belknap was killed by Indians. A man named Duffy had admired Mrs. Belknap and her 2 boys and his admiration for Mrs. Belknap eventually ripened into love. After a brief courtship they were married. Duffy, while not wealthy, prospered and did well by his wife and children. He helped the children in securing good education and they were graduated from an accredited high school. Duffy fell ill and died in a few days, leaving a small estate. One of the Belknap boys became an authority in promotion of big motor car industry affairs and his services and advice were sought by rich men in Ohio. He is so smart he looks like a college professor with high degrees. He is so modest about his smartness people invariably like him.

(Continued Tomorrow)

(Continued from Yesterday)

At Rich, Mo., a stranger appeared in the village and said he was there for the purpose of “looking around,” and if he liked the country he might decide to buy land and stay there permanently. Exact date of this particular mans appearance at Rich is not known, but it was about 50 years ago. He said he liked Rich, and in turn the villagers said they liked him. So he decided to stay there and cast his lot with them. Yes, he was the same Curtis Belknap who once lived in Brown county, drove his oxen to California and was “killed by Indians in Montana.” Belknap did not try to deceive anyone at Rich as to his real name, not even Mrs. Bessie Wright, who was estranged from her husband. Their divorce suit was pending in a Kansas court. Belknap proposed to Mrs. Wright, their marriage to take place as soon as she got her divorce decree. Mrs. Wright accepted. The couple journed to a Kansas town. Records on file in a certain Kansas county show that a marriage license was granted to Curtis Belknap and Mrs. Bessie Wright one day before Mrs. Wright was granted a divorce. The following day the couple were married. They returned to Rich, where they were received by the villagers like newlyweds used to be welcomed home from their wedding trip. Belknap was a worker. He always prospered, even in Brown county, where he said the land would never be worth anything and not even worth a good mans time in improving it. As time passed by, Curtis Belknap became on of the most influential citizens in his county. His advice and opinions were sought on matters pertaining to public question. Perhaps people told visitors who were introducing new enterprises that they had better see Curtis Belknap first, and if he said it was O.K. they would subscribe for the cause and give it their support. In the early 70s the stork paid an official visit to the Belknap home and left a daughter, whose name will be known as Jennie. Jennie grew to womanhood, became accomplished in music and was popular with the young set. Did Curtis Belknap tell his Missouri wife and daughter about his previous marriage and the 2 sons he left in California? The writer of this story can not say that he did. This feature of the story perhaps will be told in court. But it is a fact that Belknap made no effort to find out about what became of his California children, even if he believed that Mrs. Belknap N. 1 was dead or had secured a divorce from him on the grounds of desertion. Belknap grew immensely rich in lands. He became ill about 3 years ago. He evidently felt that the Grim Reaper was getting reading to cut him down, because he began disposing of farms and other property, converting them into cash, which he divided between Mrs. Belknap No. 2 and the daughter. When he passed away he left no estate, but the wife and daughter had about $150,000. The funeral of Curtis Belknap was one of the largest ever seen at Rich. People paid high tributes to his memory. In a short time, Mrs. Belknap No. 3 had a monument dealer erect a stone at her husbands grave that was the finest at the Rich cemetery. It cost $3,000.

(Continued Tomorrow)

(Continued from Yesterday)

Frank Belknap knew so little about his father and was a lad of only a few summers when the father went away he took tha name of Duffy after his mother married. Down deep there was a keen desire by Frank to find out more about his father, Curtis Belknap, whom he believed was killed by Indians. That story was accepted by his mother as true. Never did she question it. For many years Frank Belknap had known that his father had lived in some Northeast Kansas county. In the month of April 1920, he was called from his California home to a big Ohio city, there to meet with officers and promoters of a motor car industry. Upon reaching Kansas City, Frank found that he had 3 or 4 days to spare before the business session, and he bot a ticket to Troy, Kans. Approaching a lawyer in Troy, Frank said: “Did you ever know or hear of people in this county in early days by the name of … ?” The lawyer studied a moment and answered, “They did not live here, but I believe some of the family or relatives live in Sabetha.” Satisfied that he was in the wrong county, Frank left immediately for the Grand Island depot, arriving there just in time to catch the train for Sabetha. While a passenger on that train, and within a short distance of Sabetha, he struck up a conversation with 2 men who live in Brown county. “Do you fellows know of anybody around here who is related to a man named Belknap, who once lived in this part of the state?” Frank asked. “Belknap” one of the men said. “John Winters, who lives in Hiawatha, knows all about the Belknaps,” one of them volunteered: “I believe that Curtis Belknap was an uncle of Johns.” Without waiting to investigate the Sabetha relationship, Frank Belknap returned to Hiawath to see about his unseen and unheard of relations. Arriving at the Hiawatha depot Frank Belknap saw Hugh Crawford standing around looking for jitney business. “Can you tell me where I might find John Winters?” Frank asked Crawford. “Why, I saw him here a few minutes ago: I think he came in his car to meet the train you came in on. Yea, there he is now.” Stepping up to Winters Frank asked: “Are you John Winters?” John replied that he was. Without trying to deceive or have a little amusement with his newly discovered relative, he said: “I am trying to find out something about Curtis Belknap who lived in Brown county in the 60s, and went to California. While returning from that state Belknap was killed by the Indians. That man is my father. I understand that he lived around here.” John Winters was dazed. “Curtis Belknap was your father?” he interrogated. “Yes, sir, that is the truth.” “A few minutes ago you told me your name was Duffy,” said Winters. That was soon explained. Then Winters began telling Frank Belknap something about the hidden life of his own father. “Uncle Curtis died 3 years ago at Rich, Mo,” he said, “and at his death he left an estate worth about $150,000, which he gave to Aunt Bessie and Cousin Jennie.”

(Continued Tomorrow)

(Continued from Saturday)

Frank Belknap was mystified. At last he had discovered the spot where his own father and mother had resided before he was born. The thot that his father had lived more than 40 years and Frank did not know it seemed almost unbelievable. Frank asked his cousin, John Winters, several times if it really was a fact that Curtis Belknap had re-married and had lived at Rich, Mo., where he accumulated a fortune. No doubt was left in the California mans mind that the story was correct. “Why,” Frank said, “mother got a letter from Wm. Black, telling us all about how father was killed my (sic) Indians while he was returning to Hiawatha. Perhaps she has that letter yet.” Mr. Winters insisted upon his newly discovered cousin going to his home for several days stay, but Frank told him of his important business appointment at Akron. “I can stay over night,” he added. They went to the Winters home where Frank met more blood reelatives for the first time. They sat up very late that night, talking about Franks father, his second marriage and his family affairs in Missouri.

The Winters family album was introduced. There were pictures of Franks father, also Mrs. Belknap number 2 and her daughter, Jennie. Yes, there was another picture that the son did not expect to see: it was a photograph of the costly monument Mrs. Belknap number 2 had erected at the grave of her husband at Rich, Mo. There he saw the letters “B-e-l-k-n-a-p” chiseled in marble. Frank studied that picture more than any other; perhaps it may have been looked upon by the son as conclusive proof that his father was not killed by Indians and had lived for more than 40 years after his death was reported. John Winters told his cousin Frank about the farm Uncle Curtis owned in Brown county. Yes, it was the same farm the father and mother had left in the early 60s because they thot the land would not amount to anything. Buffalo grass marked the farm in those days as a deselate place and it was no wonder that the Belknaps became discourage and went to California, where people dug gold and lived among flowers and honey. John Winters took Frank in his automobile and they drove into the country, out past the Belknap farm, recorded in the name of Bessie Belknap, of Rich, Mo. Perhaps Frank could imagine how his father and mother struggled on this farm to make ends meet. Frank was urged to stay longer but he told the Winters that he would have to hurry to Akron and would return to Hiawatha again in a few weeks. The first visit was in April 1920. Before leaving, however, Frank said he intended to see that his mother got her rights. As for himself, he said he did not care, “but mother must have what belongs to her,” he added.

It was late in the summer of 1920 when 2 strangers appeared in the village of Rich, Mo. They arrived there late one evening. The inquired where they might find the “best restaurant in town.” It was pointed out to them and they proceeded to the place and asked to have supper prepared. It was after regular meal times and both men were hungry. The ordered what they called a “square meal.” While it was being prepared the strangers began asking questions of the restaurant proprietor. “Who are some of the old timers around here?” one of the strangers queried. As the restauranteur went about his work in fixing supper he answered questions in a casual manner like anyone would with strangers. Referring to old timers, he said: “Well, you know this town is pretty well owned by 2 old women–Mrs. Belknap and Mrs. Johnson. Yes, they own about everything here.” Again Frank Belknap was almost startled. The man at his side in the little lunch room at Rich was a Kansas City detective, whom he had employed to assist him in getting the true story of his fathers double life. That night they went to the only hotel in Rich. Again the detective asked questions about “early settlers,” etc., and again they were told of Mrs. Belknaps wealth. Just what other information Frank Belknap and the detective may have secured at Rich can not be made public at this time. Among other places visited by Frank was the Rich cemetery. Before leaving Frank had a picture taken of himself standing at his fathers grave.

(Continued Tomorrow)

(Continued from Yesterday)

Satisfied that he had clearly established the fact that his father had lived more than 40 years after his death was reported, and had accumulated a fortune, Frank Belknap returned to Hiawatha to continue his investigations and consult lawyers. There was a strange coincident in connection with Franks visit to Rich. While he was there, Mrs. Belknap number 2 and her daughter, Jennie, were in Hiawatha. They had heard that a strange man, claiming to be a son of Curtis Belknap, had been in Hiawatha and told relatives that he was a son of Belknap. By the time Frank returned to Hiawatha Mrs. Belknap and her daughter had gone back to Rish. The Winters family had always been cordial to Mrs. Belknap number 2. The hospitality of their home is equal to that of any home in Hiawatha. John Winers had begun to realize that affairs were getting rather complicated. John had “played politics” in county affairs, was regarded as a good politician by local candidates, and his friends had often mentioned that he should be rewarded by being named postmaster because of his fairness and the hard work he had done for his party. This is mentioned to show that John Winters played the game on the square and never “double crossed” a friend. But the Belknap drama that bordered on being a tragedy, worried him. On one side was arrayed the original wife and children of Curtis Belknap: the other, a woman who had lived for almost a half century with his own uncle and married without being divorced. But the complex situation did not influence Winters in being fair and honorable with Mrs. Belknap number 2. She and her daughter were received at the Winters home just like they were many times before Uncle Curtis died. Mrs. Belknap referred to Frank Belknap as “that man with a Van Dyke beard.” She had not been in the Winters home long until she began asking questions about “that man.” Not once did she call him Frank Belknap. “Did you entertain him in your home?” Mrs. Belknap asked John Winters. “Yes, we did, Aunt Bessie,” was the quick answer. “Well,” she said, “do you make it a practice of entertaining everybody that comes along?” Mrs. Belknap was beginning to show her displeasure over the appearance of “that man with a Vany Dyke beard.” Looking into John Winters face, the woman said, “Don’t you know that man is an imposter?” Winters knew that the time had arrived when he must be honorable an show where he stood. Without the least show of anger he said: “No, Aunt Bessie, he is a real son of Uncle Curtis and is not an imposter as you think he is. I am sure that he can establish his identity and prove that all he claims is true.” John Winters went with Mrs. Belknap number 2 and her daughter to a Hiawatha lawyer and introduced them. Then he left the lawyers office, saying he did not wish to hear what was said, fearing that she might think he would later disclose features of the case to Frank Belknap. Mrs. Belknap number 2 and the daughter were desirous of getting certain affidavits to aid them when the case comes up in court. These affidavits were secured from Brown county men. Curtis Belknap had also consulted lawyers, 2 in Hiawatha and another in a Missouri city.

In concluding “The Double Life of a Brown County Pioneer,” the writer has refrained from introducing features of the case that might have a tendency to influence the reader. The entire story essentially is correct. Many readers have expressed the belief that Curtis Belknap was an unhappy man thru nearly all of the years of his second marriage, in spite of his wealth. Maybe he suffered mental anguish more than anyone knows concerning the hidden part of his life. That indescribable thing that makes men and women do wrong and desert one another and their children asserted itself and perhaps at an unsuspecting time when Curtis Belknap had no intention of marrying again, he became enamored to the Missouri woman and that Master thing, love, caused him to forget his wife and children in California, struggling there alone fighting hte battles of life. On the other hand, the original Mrs. Belknap had a love affair after receiving a letter that she thot was genuine, telling her that her husband had fallen victim to a deadly bullet fired by an Indian. Her second marriage was short, as related in a previous chapter. And now after many years in blindness as to the fate of her husband she knows the truth, and her sons declare that the wrong done her must be righted, at least as far as the fathers property is concerned. But there is a great moral law that can never be righted in any court of land.

(The End.)

Note: Thank you to Steve Richardson for the above article.

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