James Atkins was born in St. Clair County, Michigan, in 1844, a son of Alexander and Eliza (Lewis) Atkins. His father was a native of Scotland and his mother of Connecticut, and he was one of their eleven children. Mr. Atkins grew up on a farm in Michigan, attended the common schools, and was only seventeen years of age when the war broke out. At the age of twenty he enlisted in Company A of the First Michigan Cavalry, and served with that noted organization during the remainder of the war. After the close of actual hostilities between the armies of the North and South he was sent West and took part in a campaign against hostile Indians in Colorado and Utah. He was granted his honorable discharge and was mustered out at Salt Lake City, Utah, March 10, 1866.
Mr. Atkins was twenty-two years of age when he left the army, was full of vigor, hope and ambition, and ready for participation in any phase of the hard and dangerous life of the West. After leaving the army he went to Helena, Montana, then the center of a newly developed mining district, and was there from April to August, 1866. On starting back to the States he traveled on a flatboat down the Missouri River from Fort Benton to Omaha. For about a year he was in the employ of the Union Pacific Railway, and in 1867 he arrived in El Dorado, Kansas.
He began life in Southern Kansas with a quarter section of land in El Dorado Township. That quarter he still owned, but it is only the nucleus of the extensive holdings he had since developed. He had upwards of 1,000 acres in Butler County and also had extensive interests in the oil districts. His first home on his homestead claim was a dugout. From that rude shelter he directed his operations as a cattleman, also engaged in general farming, and while he had experienced the vicissitudes common to other Kansas pioneers his career on the whole had been one of unusual success and prosperity.
He was in Butler County when its lands were sparsely populated, and chiefly by cattle men, before there were railroads, and his most available point to buy supplies was Lawrence, though soon afterwards he began trading at Emporia. The first cattle he marketed he drove across the country to Kansas City. He drove several herds of cattle over the noted cattle trails from Baxter Springs. He had been a witness of much that is part of the historic record of Butler County. He was living in the county when the cyclone devastated El Dorado. He was also there when the big June flood of 1869 occurred, in which several lives were lost along the west branch of the Walnut River. From his personal recollection he was also able to recall some of the other able pioneers of Butler County living in the county in 1867. These included Henry Martin, Archibald Ellis, Mrs. Cowley, Jerry Connor, Nathaniel Thompson and men named Croft, Hobbs and Donaldson. Thus Mr. Atkins had a part in the “winning of the west” and for years had been an important factor in the forward progress of the county. Besides his interest in several improved farms in the county he and his family have one of the finest modern homes in El Dorado. He is now past the age of three score and ten, but finds business to occupy his attention and is enjoying the simple but happy life, had the friendship as well as the esteem of the older as well as the younger set of Butler County citizens, and while rejoicing in the wonders of the twentieth century he recalls without regret the primitive circumstances and the hardships of early times.