THIS STRANGE TOWN–LIBERAL MISSOURI
A HISTORY OF THE EARLY YEARS
1880 – 1910
BY J. P. MOORE
Freelove and Common-law Marriage
Since there have been stories and accusations that Freelove was practiced some in early Liberal as being consistent with the spirit of Freethought-Liberalism, no history of the town would be complete without some comment on the subject.
There seems good reason to conclude that there really were some persons here in the very early days that did believe in the principles of Freelove. (Read the Recollections of an Early Resident, also Mr. Braden’s Pamphlet. sic) But there is no evidence that the few individuals of the cult ever succeeded in indulging in more than a very limited practice of it here. There were, apparently, some persons attracted to Liberal in the mistaken belief that “Freethought” meant “Free everything.” There may yet be some who confuse common-law marriage with Freelove.
So at the outset of any comment on this subject there should be a clear understanding of the difference between Freelove and common-law marriage.
Freelove is the promiscuous intermingling of the sexes without any marital restrictions–basically without any form of marriage–every woman every man’s wife and every man every woman’s husband. This is the primitive law of the herd.
Common-law marriage is without either clergy or statutory civil ceremony. It is the coming together of a man and a woman, living together as husband and wife, and acknowledging themselves before the public to be such–and marital fidelity to be observed as in any other form of marriage. In old England it was accepted as the unwritten law, based upon immemorial usage. (See your encyclopedia.) Not so long ago this form of marriage was recognized as being legal in nearly every state in the union, and is still held to be so in several states. It was legal in the state of Missouri until as recently as 1921, when it was outlaws by legislative act.
In pioneer days there were many remote localities where no minister was available and any court of record was far away. In these regions common-law marriages were frequent. In such marriages it was not unusual for the parties involved to invite in a group of relatives and friends to witness the acknowledgement of the contracting parties of their assuming the status of husband and wife. The new couple occupied a position of respect in the community, with no stigma or mark of disgrace, whatever.
In common-law marriage any offspring was and is held to be legitimate, and laws of inheritance apply to both wife and children, the same as in any statutory or ecclesiastical marriage. The wife took the name of the husband, and divorce was recognized.
In early Liberal there was a prominent couple whose marital status was said by some to have been common-law. They were an honorable and highly respected couple, and useful citizens. They were of the character that would have abhored any thought of Freelove: although there were some persons uncharitable enough to say that they had been, in theory if not in practice, votaries of that cult. That couple was Mr. and Mrs. J. K. Belk. There may have been other couples in early Liberal whose marital status was common-law, and by the law of averages there probably were; and there may have been some since.
It is known of the Belks that whatever the form of their marriage, ecclesiastical, civil or common-law, they were united as husband and wife in far northwestern Kansas in the very early 1870s’s, when that region was remote and sparsely settled. They were Freethinkers, and because of that belief they were attracted to Liberal. They came in 1881, among the town’s pioneers. Mr. Belk was influential in civic matters. In this respect he served two terms as postmaster. He was financially well to do. He did some building and invested in considerable real estate. Also he was a lender of money in a period when Liberal had no bank. Mrs. Belk was a leader in the Spiritual Science Association, and in her younger days was prominent in social events, as also was their daughter, Myrtle.
Encyclopedia Britannica–1957, and possibly later editions–will tell you that ecclesiastical marriages once were illegal in some New England states.
It might correctly be said that aside from the founder, no one had more to do with creating the early history of Liberal than did the Belks–so their story should be treated as a “must”.
I violate no confidence, and I believe I reveal no secret in telling the story, in respect to the form of marriage. I heard it soon after coming to Liberal, and in research for this history have heard it corroborated. Some have been inclined to refer to the status as Freelove–far from the fact, though, that such interpretations may be and really is.
In any case, it is known that Mr. Belk had two sons by a previous wife. Some facts concerning this became known many years ago. This when Mrs. Mary A. Burgess made a trip to California, as the story has been told to this writer by an old resident: There Mrs. Burgess met a woman with two sons by the name of Belk. As one will, Mrs. Burgess casually asked if they might be relatives of King Belk, whom she knew in Liberal. They told her that was the name of the husband and father in their case. They said Mr. Belk had been a frontiersman and a stage coach driver; and they thought he had been killed in an Indian massacre. At any rate he had not returned home from a trip, and they had not previously heard either from or of him. His peregrinations after his disappearance had been wholly unknown to them.
This story was corroborated by one of these sons, who came here after his father’s death in 1917, on behalf of himself, his brother and their mother, and demanded a share in the father’s estate. He found that title to the real property had been transferred to the daughter. Bu he did receive a substantial cash settlement. In proof, this son, who was a frequent visitor in my office while here, exhibited to this writer a check and a bank draft, totalling $20,000, that had been given to him by Mrs. Belk to satisfy his claim without litigation. If there was to be more, he did not say.
As noted, the Belks were wealthy. But, notwithstanding their wealth, they lived rigidly frugal–the while their wealth accumulating. Through the daughter, Mrs. Lillian Mrytle Branson-Sibley, a generous portion of this wealth was bequeathed to the Liberal school district and the city. The balance was given to relatives and friends. The money received by the city and the school district went for permanent improvements of which some future historian may write.
It must be seen that Liberal should be grateful to the Belks, as the community so profited by their frugality and eccentricities. Stories of recognition of the Belks, by the founding of Belk Day, may be found in the files of the Liberal News, particularly in issues of September and October, 1957. And what should stand for centuries to the memory of the Belks, there is in the Liberal City Cemetery a tall and imposing monument of granite, marking their burial place.
As Bryant said in his great poem, Thanatopsis, “All that breathe shall share thy (their) destiny.”
And with Omar Khayyam:
“When you and I behind the Veil are past,
Oh, but the long, long while the World shall last,
Which of our Coming and Departure heeds
As the sea’s self should heed a pebble-cast.”
In presenting the foregoing story, I mean no disrespect for the Belk family. On the contrary, I feel that I am contributing to the clearing and preservation of their good name. From the time I came to Liberal in 1899, until the death of the last member of the family, I heard stories of their marital status, household squabbles and their excessively frugal practices. The semi-recluse way of life lived by them in their later years provided fertile soil for the sprouting and flourishing of calumnies. So it should not be surprising that there were such.
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Now, based on what we’ve learned from Moore, follow me on my little research journey as I seek to add to the above with what I can learn from the census.
We have the Belks in 1910 in Missouri, of course:
1910 Liberal Ward 1, Barton, Missouri
110/114 Belk James K. 72 married 32 years b. KY father b. VA mother b. KY
Charity 60 md. 37 years 1 child still living b. IN father b. IN mother b. KY
From the 1900 Ozark, Barton, Missouri (Liberal) census:
110/111 Belk James K. b. August 1837, 62, married 27 years, b. KY, father b. VA, mother b. KY, farmer
Charity wife wife b. 1849 Sept, age 50, 1 child, b. IN, father b. IN, mother b. KY
Branson, Lilian M. daughter b. 1875 July, 24, married 1 year, b. KS, father b. KY mother b. IN
Harvan M. son-in-law b. Oct 1874, 25
1880 Lincoln, Smith, Kansas:
232/232 Belk, James K. 43 b. VA mother b. KY
Charity 30 wife b. IN
Lylian M. 4 daughter b. KS father b. KY mother b. IN
1875 March 1st Kansas census, Smith, Lincoln:
J. K. Belk 37 farmer 340$ b. KY from MO
C. Belk 25 b. IN from Iowa
J. Metcalf 24 b. IL from IL a cooper
G. W. Metcalf 21 farmer
A. J. Metcalf 26 cooper
A history of Smith County, Kansas states that among the first settlers was J. K. Belk.
1870 Irwin, Brown, Kansas census:
14/15 Belk, John 58 farmer 9700? 2152 KY farmer b. KY father
Wood, James 23 farmer IN
Augustua 19 Mecklinburg
Delinham, Elain 16 IN
Ashcorf, Homer 24 NY
Ludia 28 IN
Belk, King 34 KY
1860 Irving, Brown, Kansas:
57/52 John Belk 49 farmer 4020? 1000 b. NY
Caroline 42 1000 100
Sidney 20 laborer b. MON
James K. 22? ” ” b. MO
Jno. C. ? 14 ” ” b. NY
1850 Marion, Buchanan, Missouri
796/796 John Belk 38 $1200 KY
John 7 b. MO
Digging further, I find in 1870 two Belk brothers living in the Hellett family. It seems sensible these could be the children of James King Belk by his first wife.
1870 Janesville, Lassen, California:
64/65 Hellett J. 55 b. ME
E. B. 47 b. VT
S. 20 b. OH
Belk Charles 7 AR
George 5 CA
Now I find in Southern Pacific Bulletin, Volumes 9-10, 1920 the following story that mentions King Belk and his first wife:
Pioneer Poetess Attends Veterans’ Reunion
In attendance at the Veterans’ banquet and reunion at the Palace Hotel, May 10th, was Mrs. O. R. Belk-Rogers of San Jose, California, author of the poems “Give Honor to Whom it is Due” and the “Song of the Iron Horse.” The first-named, written in 1872, gives recognition to the builders of the Central Pacific Railroad and the second, written in 1869, appeared in the Sacramento “Daily Record” in a special edition, dated May 8, 1869, which was printed on a press mounted on a truck–one of the floats in the parade at the celebration of the driving of the golden spike May 10, 1869.
Mrs. Belk-Rogers was a noted literary woman of San Francisco during the 70s and she was especially deputized by the “Golden Era,” the pioneer literary journal of California, in 1878 to make a trip by buckboard and muleback across Arizona for the purpose of contributing a series of articles anent the proposed building of the Southern Pacific Lines through that territory.
With her husband, James King Belk, and her nursing baby, she “crossed the plains” in 1862. Suffering all the hardships of the pioneers’ nine-month trip, it is no wonder her gifted pen rendered grateful acknowledgments to the accomplishments of the pioneer railroad builders.
Her son, George, who was formerly a railway agent and telegrapher on the Southern Pacific Lines, at the banquet read the poem “Give Honor to Whom it is Due.” Another son, Charles, is now connected with the B> & B. Department of the Coast Division.
The poem, “The Song of the Iron Horse,” is printed below:
Harness me quickly with Iron bands, I am Impatient with long delays;
I fain would speed to distant lands. That bask far oft In the sun’s first rays!
Harness me quickly; feed me with fire, Give me steam for breath, a mind to control;
Who steps In my way with vengeance dire.
My iron hoof shall his requiem toil
Harness me quickly! With solemn roar Pacific moans, “My waves are too slow
For the army of progress that seek … shore—
So I bid thee haste in thy glorious strength.
And bring them safe to my golden door.”
This tide of empire no power can stay.
Its volume is swifter than ever before! Then harness me quickly and let me away.
I will safely compass the burning sands,
And the stormy mountain’s drifting snow;
I will bring the wealth of distant lands.
And a blessing prove where’er I go; My neigh is thunder, my breath Is flame.
From a heart of steam my pulses
I people the waste, and the wild reclaim,
Along the track of my flying feet.
With awe the nations watch my course. As I compass the land from sea to sea
And exclaim, “The wonderful Iron horse
Is a power, Indeed, with a people free!”
Then let me away, my mission to fill;
Behold! along my shining course. The deserts brighten, and strong hearts thrill
In gratitude to the Iron Horse.
So, now we have the name O. R. Belk-Rogers as the name King’s first wife later went under. What can I find for Rogers?
The 1880 census shows the Charles and George Belk brothers of 1870 are now Charles and George Rogers and living in Pajaro, Santa Cruz with their grandparents.
453/454 Thompson, Manley 57 b. Maine parents b. ME
Elizabeth B. 58 b. KS father b. VT parents b. NY
453/455 Rogers Charles 17 grandson b. KS father b. NY mother b. OH
George 15 grandson b. CA father b. NY mother b. OH
Amy Z. 5 granddaughter b. CA father b. NY mother b. OH
This would be the same Manley Thompson in the 1850 Embden, Somerset, Maine census, 26.
It seems odd that Mrs. O. R. Belk-Rogers traveled across the plains with her husband, but in 1860, Manly Thompson was already a 35 year old rancher living in Honey Lake Valley, Plumas, California, worth valued at 3000 and 2500, b. Maine, the only other person in the household a herdsman from OH named William Rantz. Where were his wife and children?
Returning to the 1870 census I realize that the household above J. and E. B. Hellett, was that of this Manley Thompson. He was 45 and given as a M. Thompson, a farmer, worth 8000 and 5000, from Maine. Living with him were two laborers by the names of J. Smith and J. Towers. Then it occurred to me that E. B. Hellett, the 47 year old wife of J. Hellett, in whose household the Belk boys were living, was the Elizabeth Thompson who was Manley’s wife in 1880.
And bingo, now we can find the name of King’s first wife.
She was Olive R. Hallet.
The 1850 Montgomery, Marion, Ohio census shows:
18/18 Jesse Hallet 34 carpenter ME
Elizabeth 27 VT
Olive R. 8 OH
Zenas F. 5
In 1860 they were living in Walnut, Brown, Kansas Territory:
J. Hallett 46
O. R. 18
Jesse Isaac Hallett of Maine was married to Elizabeth Hesseltine.
I find Olive in 1900 in Alameda, Alameda, California with her sons, daughter, her son-in-law, and her mother:
47/47 Rogers Olie head July 1842 3 children with 3 surviving, widowed, b. OH, father b. ME mother b. NH artist drawings
Charles son Dec 1862 b. CA father b. NY mother b. OH machinist RR?
George K. son May 1868 b. CA father b. NY mother b. OH Com. Trader?
Allen Amy daughter March 1872 28 b. CA father b. NY mother b. OH
Edward son-in-law May 1862 38 b. NY parents b. NY owner gold mine
Thompson Elizabeth mother May 1822 78 widowed 2 children with 2 surviving b. VT with parents b. VT
I can’t find Olive in the 1870 and 1880 censuses. She is, however, mentioned in 1886 book, After Death, the Disembodiment of Man: the World of Spirits, its Location, Extent, Appearance; the Route Thither; Inhabitants; Customs; Societies; Also Sex and its Uses There etc. etc. by Paschal Beverly Randolph.
…Olive Belk, of Janesville, Honey Lake Valley, California, was the peerless and redeeming spirit of that town,–a gentle, tender, affectionate, and loving soul,–qualities expressed in the higher phonetics by the sounds ZOI-LI-VI-LA; hence her most beautiful name will be ZOLIVIA.
Isn’t that an interesting find?
Wikipedia credits Paschal with being not only a medical doctor, occultist and spiritualist, but also the first person to “introduce the principles of sex magic to North America”, and established the earliest known Rosicrucian order in the U.S.
If Olive Belk was highly praised by Paschal then I would imagine she, too, was a freethinker and a spiritualist, like King and King’s second wife. It’s impossible to speculate on her life but she seems to have led likely a very interesting one as a poet and artist. Whether or not she “married” again we don’t know, but she must have had a daughter by a man named Rogers, and her sons took that name as well as shown on the census. But in her public and professional life she appears to have continued to be known as Belk, or Belk-Rogers. I wish we knew more about her.
Follow the Belk tags for more info. Will be publishing a series of articles.