Forgotten Otis: Founders of Atchison
By Madison Paul Archivist, AEBM
*Reworked from a speech given January 28, 2023
This will be Part One of a series dedicated to Amelia Earhart’s family history. This post will be covering some of the basic information about Amelia Josephine Harres Otis and Alfred Gideon Otis, Amelia Earhart’s maternal grandparents. Besides being able to understand Amelia Earhart better (through her family and upbringing) I hope to show who the Otis’ were as people, and that their contributions helped create the Atchison of the 19th century, as well as the Atchison we see today.
A note on names
In this post, and in the speech, I refer to Amelia Earhart’s grandmother by the name Amelia Harres. I use her maiden name, Harres, to distinguish her from the other Amelia’s in the family.
Amelia Harres was born in Philadelphia on February 1, 1837 to Maria Grace and Gebhard Harres. By the time Amelia Harres was born her father had become one of the most prominent businessmen of Philadelphia. Amelia Harres was one of seven children born into the Harres family (four would survive to adulthood). Here is where she would learn what it took to be part of the upper class, such as the importance of manners, and how to run a household. Her father, Gebhard, was also known for his garden, which is likely where Amelia Harres learned to garden. Her rose garden was famous in Atchison!
Amelia Harres’ sister, Mary Ann Harres married Dr. William L. Challis on August 1, 1850. The couple moved to Atchison between 1854 and 1855, around the same time Alfred Otis did. It is because of this move that Amelia Harres and Alfred Otis met.
But what was Alfred Otis’ life like before he called Atchison home? Alfred Gideon Otis was born in Cortland County, New York on December 13, 1828. His parents, Isaac and Caroline Otis, moved to Michigan sometime after his birth to farm, leaving Alfred in the care of his grandparents. The family would reunite when Alfred was 13 when he joined his parents and siblings on their Michigan farm. By 1852 he had graduated from the University of Michigan, and two years later from Louisville Law School. He spent some time teaching in Mississippi before moving to Atchison in 1855 with the intention of helping Kansas become a free state.
A Little State History
In 1854 the Kansas Territory was established, opening up the United States to the west for settlement while forcing out indigenous peoples and breaking treaties that had been in place for decades. Because Atchison borders Missouri it became one of the first places in the Kansas Territory to be settled. On July 20, 1854, men from Platte City Missouri crossed the Missouri River and staked out the location of a new town, Atchison. On August 30, 1855 Atchison was incorporated as a town by the Territorial Legislature. It officially became a city on February 12 1858. With Kansas granted statehood three years later in 1861. Because of its location on the Missouri River and its access to the West, Atchison became a bustling commercial center with steamboats, trains, and stagecoaches moving throughout the city on a daily basis.
The Atchison Connection
When Alfred moved to Atchison in 1855 he became part of the first wave of settlers, many were young lawyers like himself, and many, like him, moved to the Massasoit House. It was a four floor boarding house/hotel/stagecoach stop located on the corner of Main St and 3rd. (It is now a parking lot but there is a marker commemorating the building). In these first couple years Alfred started his law practice and was a founding member of the Trinity Episcopal Church on S 5th St. In 1857 Alfred signed and notarized the Articles of Association which officially founded the church. Two years later he founded his law firm, partnering with GW Glick, a future Governor of Kansas. In 1859 Alfred was still residing at the Massasoit House. This is the same year Abraham Lincoln visited Atchison to give a speech. While Lincoln was here he stayed at the Massasoit House, placing him and Alfred in the same place at the same time! We don’t know if they met, but it’s possible! Alfred would call the Massasoit House home until 1862 when he moved into his new house with his wife, Amelia Harres.
It is not known exactly when, or how, Alfred and Amelia Harres met. What we do know is that Amelia Harres was visiting her sister Mary Ann Challis and her family here in Atchison around 1860 when she met Alfred. In 1861 Alfred bought the land the house currently sits on (plus a little more) possibly signifying their engagement. And in 1862 the couple would travel to Philadelphia to get married before moving into their new home. This is the Atchison Alfred and Amelia Harres saw, and later helped to build.
Besides actively being a part of the economic and political growth in Atchison they were also close with other prominent members of the community. You have the business relationship between Alfred and GW Glick but you also have people like Amelia Harres’ sister’s brother in law. Luther C Challis’ used his law office here in Atchison to hold the meeting that led to the formal incorporation of the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1860.
The couple also hosted many prominent members of Atchison in their house and financially supported organizations like Trinity Episcopal Church.
Alfred Otis and the Civil War
They were also part of the bigger history of the United States. Shortly after their marriage the Civil War knocked on their door. Alfred joined the Union Army, specifically Company B of the 18th Infantry under Captain Thomas Murphy and Colonel M. Quigg. I haven’t been able to find information about what he may have experienced during the Civil War. However, it is the same company that GW Glick was a part of. Other publications have placed Alfred in the 8th Volunteer Infantry. However, I have not been able to find his name associated with them. Between 1863 and 1872 Amelia Harres and Alfred would welcome seven children into their family. One of which would go on to be the mother of Amelia Earhart. In 1873 Alfred would become a judge for the 2nd judicial district where he would serve for four years before retiring. Solidifying himself as an influential member of Atchison society.
Amelia Harres and Alfred Otis worked hard to make an impact on Atchison. Alfred worked in places that gave him influence while both entertained and connected with other influential leaders. They also helped establish institutions that are still present today. It is these actions that put them in the group of founders of Atchison!
Atchison City Directory and Business Mirror for 1859-1860, 1859, Sutherland and McEvory, 5502, Kansas Historical Society, Kansas Memory, www.kansasmemory.org.
"Background material by Mrs. E and Muriel": Interview questions re: Amelia Earhart (unidentified interviewer) and responses (incomplete) by Amy Otis Earhart, typescript, n.d.; Notes by Amy Otis Earhart on Amelia Earhart's upbringing and family life, manuscript and typescript, n.d.; Family information by Muriel Earhart Morrissey, typescript, n.d.; Miscellaneous lists by Amy Otis Earhart re: her papers, etc.. Papers of Amy Otis Earhart, 1884-1987, MC 398; M-129, 4., Box: 1. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute.
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