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John P. St. John

John St. JohnPolitician, governor. Prohibition Party. Born: February 25, 1833, Brooksville, Indiana. Died: August 31, 1916, Olathe, Kansas. Served as eighth governor of Kansas: January 13, 1879, to January 8, 1883.

John P. St. John was born at Brooksville, Indiana, in 1833. Soon after moving to Kansas in 1869 he became involved in the crusade to rid the state of liquor and was elected governor on a prohibitionist platform in 1878. During his administration, voters approved an amendment making Kansas a "dry" state. St. John transferred his efforts to the national stage in 1884 when he ran for president as the candidate of the national Prohibition Party. The former governor died at his Olathe home on August 31, 1916. The community of St. John, Kansas, in Stafford County is named for him.

John P. St. John was born on a farm on February 25, 1833, in Franklin County, Indiana, to Samuel and Sophia Snell St. John. He grew up with one brother and one half-brother. His parents originated from New York State where their parents and grandparents had lived and farmed for many years. For much of his boyhood he was educated in public schools with limited resources. In 1848 he moved with his parents to Olney, Illinois; soon afterward his parents died. His father was an alcoholic; his mother suffered from severe anxiety and depression. At the age of 19 he crossed the plains to California, and there he mined, chopped wood, clerked in a general store, and other ways to pay his living expenses.

In 1852 he married Mary Jane Brewer; they had one son and divorced in 1859. From 1853 to 1854 he fought in the Indian Wars in northern California and southern Oregon; he was twice wounded. St. John’s greatest ambition was to study and practice law. After a day’s work he read law books, which he had bought with his meager funds, at night by the flickering light of a candle. He was adventurous and traveled extensively to Mexico, South America, and the Sandwich Islands (present Hawaii). In 1859 St. John returned to Illinois a poor man but rich in experience and knowledge of culture and the world. He finished his law studies in the offices of law firm Starkweather and McLain, in Charleston, Illinois. In Charleston he married his second wife, Susan J. Parker, in March 1860; they had two children.

St. John enlisted in the army in April 1862, and served as captain of Company C, 68th Illinois Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. He later recruited, organized, and commanded the 143rd Regiment, Illinois Volunteer Infantry, as a lieutenant colonel. At the end of the war, unscathed by battle, he moved to Independence, Missouri, to practice law. Four years later he relocated permanently to Olathe, Kansas.

A Republican in heart and mind, St. John stood firmly on what he believed to be morally right. In 1872 he was elected to the Kansas State Senate by popular vote. In 1876 the Prohibition Party nominated him for governor of Kansas, but he immediately declined the offer. However, when the affairs of state became frustrating enough to earn his attention, he ran and was elected to that office two years later by the Republican Party and his vast and growing constituency in Kansas. He had an appealing warmth of generosity and political style. 

John was the first governor to have a formal inauguration ceremony held on the steps of the newly-completed east wing of the Kansas State Capitol; the event was eloquently described in the February 8, 1879, issue of the nationally distributed Harper’s Weekly. After a long day’s work and often quite late in the evening, Governor St. John would retire to his cozy residence at the Tefft House. In the subsequent 1880 race for governor, St. John defeated U. S. Senator Edmund G. Ross, who was a former Republican running as a Democrat.

In 1879 Governor St. John’s first order of business was to push the legislature to provide for the building of the west wing of the statehouse and a new state reform school in Topeka. Being a staunch politician of temperance, the governor’s agenda included new legislation to amend the constitution of Kansas prohibiting within the state of Kansas the “manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors,” with exception for medical or scientific purposes. The people voted in favor of prohibition and the amendment was adopted at the general election of 1880; in 1881 the legislature passed the Prohibitory Law making Kansas the second state in the Union, behind Maine, to pass such a statute.

The governor often spoke sentimentally and from the heart on the issue of temperance, most likely inspired by his father’s alcoholism. St. John never used a prepared speech but delivered his message extemporaneously and ensured no doubt that his agenda was on religious and moral grounds as well being a political statement. “Our covenant touching this matter is with the Lord,” he said, “and we propose to complete the good work.” It was St. John who started what became known as the gubernatorial “water banquettes” where only water was served in lieu of alcohol.

One of the greatest results of the Civil War was the thousands of former slaves in the postwar Reconstructed South that were, to a large extent, denied human respect, independence, and the opportunity to work in that region. A huge opportunity for St. John to mark his place in history came during the “exodus” movements toward Kansas that began in 1875 and raised issues for the state. The 1876 presidential election that put Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House, by very close margin, came with conditions: an agreement with the Democrats that the Republicans would discontinue federal troop occupation in the South and allow the advancement of radical Reconstruction policy promoting African American voting rights, employment, and equality in accommodations. Not surprisingly, the latter was never realized. By 1878 the mass migration of former slaves westward, largely from an existing state of oppression and despair in the South, had begun. Governor St. John stood firmly on moral grounds that to accommodate these brethren, when many other states east of Kansas denied them homes, was the right thing to do and was in the tradition of Kansas that would later prove beneficial.

Governor St. John formed the Freedman’s State Central Association and he became the chairman of its board of directors. A Quaker woman, Elizabeth Comstock from Chicago, was given its managerial charge, and henceforth much was accomplished in relief for these displaced persons. Many black immigrants settled on tiny patches of land throughout Kansas. The most prominent was the large settlement of Nicodemus in Graham County, established by Benjamin “Pap” Singleton from Tennessee, with the aid of W. R. Hill, a white minister and land speculator. Two smaller but poor black colonies were established in Hodgeman County. One former slave there became a prosperous farmer who began by breaking an acre of prairie for wheat with a single spade. His annual harvest grew exponentially to be shipped to and stored in Topeka. F. W. Giles was a well-known resident and historian of Topeka. Giles estimated that more than 7,000 formerly enslaved people had migrated to Topeka by August 1879. He estimated the population of Topeka was close to 30 per cent African American, all congregated in a section of town called Tenneseetown. Giles wrote, “many had a vague knowledge, since the mid 1850s, that somewhere on this earth was a place known as Kansas, and they fancied that in some way the question of their emancipation was connected with it.”

The state legislature of 1879 posed a huge but delicate question to governor St. John: What is Kansas to do with them? Given the complexity of accommodating their vast numbers, Kansans, principally, rejected any notion of turning these people away. The governor believed that the migration could be well managed if the immigrants were distributed evenly around the state. However, many problems ensued in the distribution, the biggest being prejudice. A proclamation made public by the mayor of Wyandotte (now part of Kansas City) threatened legal action against anyone bringing black migrants into the town. The town councils of Atchison and Leavenworth turned a blind eye to those destitute being unloaded from the steamboats. When the relief association sent a group of blacks to Wichita, the city council returned them to Topeka on unproven official grounds that they might be diseased. Governor St. John made it publicly clear that Kansas would have no sentinel at her portals as to birthplace, race, condition, color, politics or religion for condition to enter its borders, however difficult the numbers. The Topeka Commonwealth wrote in support of St. John’s policy, “the question of the exodus is not one of business merely, as shallow thinkers and flippant writers would have us believe. A large portion of the American people will ignore the humanitarian side, but Kansas cannot afford to do so by measure of principle in the right to freedom.” Kansas had indeed become the promised land for those who suffered from America’s worse national disgrace toward humanity.

St. John believed that state institutions should be self-supporting, and not dependent on state or federal funding, so he opened a coal mine at the State Penitentiary at Lansing to provide jobs for inmates.

The threat of Indian raids along the Oklahoma-Kansas border prompted Governor St. John to post a militia guard along the southern border. However, his fear was cautioned on the grounds that an armed militia would perpetuate the violence; therefore he vacillated on the issue of a massive army permanently keeping watch on the border.

The 1869 treaty with the Osage that resulted in the sale of more than 8 million acres of Indian land to the Leavenworth, Lawrence and Galveston Railroad Company eventually gave way to public scrutiny. Plans to expand the railroads northwest inflamed fear because the settlers worried that they could lose their homes in the deal. In 1874 a lawsuit pursued on the validity of the patents issued to the railroad companies for the Osage lands led to seven years of litigation. St. John publicly argued for the settlers and the courts finally decided in their favor in 1881.

Governor St. John’s administration was highly praised for its honesty and integrity of leadership. The governor’s moral ground and rigid standards of honor for life and liberty gave way to a trusted citizenry and his two-term administration was not blemished with a single questionable act.

He was defeated for a third term in 1882 by George W. Glick. St. John’s defeat did not dampen his ambition for higher public office. The Prohibition Party of the day was a force of power that was not going away, and the party ultimately nominated St. John for president of the United States in 1884. His stature as a candidate caused his campaign to attract national attention, and he tallied 15 times more votes than any previous prohibition candidate. The votes he received in New York alone were so voluminous that they cut the Republican Party’s tally greatly and cost James G. Blaine that state and the presidency, making Grover Cleveland the first Democratic president since the Civil War.

Although St. John didn’t get the presidency, his righteous enthusiasm for morality and prohibition continued; he traveled in excess of 350,000 miles across the country advocating its just cause until his death in 1916.

His religious preference was Congregational, but he later converted to Christian Science. St. John died on August 31, 1916, in Olathe from the effects of his extensive public speaking crusade on behalf of prohibition; he is buried in Olathe Cemetery.

Entry: St. John, John P.

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2011

Date Modified: March 2022

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.