Born in Ohio, he moved to Illinois with his parents. At 16 years of age, he traveled to Kansas and participated in the "Bleeding Kansas" slavery-related border conflict on the side of the abolitionists; there, he served under James H. Lane and John Brown. Taken prisoner by pro-slavery forces, he was sentenced to be hanged but escaped. After the end of the Kansas hostilities, he spent some time with the Omaha, even accompanying them in a conflict with the Sioux. He was later active, among other things, as a Methodist preacher in the frontier territory before turning to journalism.