LITTLE BALKANS CHRONICLES — Cato: Little town with a big history

J.T. Knoll
Cato cabin believed to be that of Robert and Minerva Fowler.

The following narrative was written my cousin — local historian, preservationist and photographer, Katharine Stelle Spigarelli. We pride ourselves in being great, great grandchildren of two of the earliest Cato settlers, Robert and Minerva Fowler. — J.T.K.

Cato, Kansas is today just a little blip in the road that some reading this might never have heard of. Or if they have, couldn’t find it without consulting a map. But this little community — located between Fort Scott and Pittsburg, two miles west and one mile north of US Highway 69 at the Arcadia turnoff — was instrumental in the settlement of Southeast Kansas.

Cato was the first settlement in what is today Crawford County, Kansas. John Rogers, who established a general store there, founded it in 1854. When Rogers and other settlers first arrived in Cato, the area was mostly prairie with little timber, except along the creeks. Cato was a prime location because of its location along the stagecoach route that went from St. Joseph, Missouri to Texas. In 1858, E.J. Boring established a post office in Cato, the first post office south of Fort Scott.

Settlers came looking for new beginnings and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 enhanced the appeal. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed settlers to decide if they wanted slavery or not. Kansas became the prize of a tug-of-war contest. Settlers in Cato fell on both sides of this battle and some of the early residents of Cato owned slaves. According to the Handbook on Frontier Days of Southeast Kansas: Kansas Centennial 1861-1961, the 1850s have been recorded as the bloodiest in the making of a state.

Cato was not a calm and peaceful place to settle in the 1850s and 60s. Besides the controversy of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, there was the fact that Cato was located within the Cherokee Neutral Lands. This was an area first described in a treaty with the Osage Indians in 1825 and was intended to serve as a barrier between the Osage Indians and the white settlers. Neither group was supposed to settle on it. In 1835, another treaty designated this area because of concern that not enough land was accommodated for the Cherokee Indians traveling on the “Trail of Tears.”

And then came the Civil War. Because of Cato’s proximity to Missouri, the continual animosity between the “Bushwhackers” and “Jayhawkers” contributed to a constant sense of unease.

Last but not least, there was the issue with property and the railroad. The settlers, who believed they had been promised the right to purchase their land, were up against a man named James Joy, from Detroit. Joy made a deal to purchase all of the acreage of the Cherokee Neutral Lands with the purpose of building a railroad through the area. A group of settlers joined together to prevent this from happening. They were called Land Leaguers. Just as with the issue of owning slaves, the settlers were pitted one against the other. Many residents of Cato highly resisted the railroad and, because of this resistance, the railroad ended up being built several miles to the west. This probably was the demise of Cato’s development.

Cato was the site of many firsts for Crawford County — the first general store, the first post office, the first blacksmith shop, and the first mill south of Fort Scott. It was a grist and saw mill and, at times, nearly 100 farmers would be waiting in wagons for days to have their grain ground. In the 1870s, Cato was the location of the first Crawford County fair and coal mining operation.

The stories of Cato’s families are rich and varied. John Rogers, who founded Cato, became a captain in the 6th Kansas Cavalry. Bushwhackers killed him in 1864 while home on furlough from the Civil War. Many of the settlers served in the Civil War. Most were Union, but some joined the Confederacy. As with many families, the Civil War caused divisions and Cato was no different. Three of Woolery Coonrod’s (one of Cato’s oldest settlers) sons joined the 6th Kansas Cavalry, and while in training in Fort Scott, two of them defected and joined the 8th Regiment of the Missouri Infantry.

Another Cato resident turned Civil War soldier, Samuel Clay Simons, was home on leave sitting on the porch with his young daughter when band of bushwhackers rode up and shot them both. Samuel died that day and Cynthia died two years later. The bullet could not be removed and it is said she died of lead poisoning. Both were buried on the home site, just east of Cato.

— Katharine Stelle Spigarelli

Note: Next week’s column continues the story of Cato and reveals more interesting details about its early settlers.

If you have a remembrance and/or photo to share, send it — along with your name, address and phone number — by email to jtknoll@swbell.net or by land mail to 401 W. Euclid, Pittsburg, Kansas 66762. You can phone and text photos to 620-704-1309. — J.T. Knoll