Kansas: The Prelude to the War for the Union by Leverett Wilson Spring



WESTERN Missouri, containing in 1854 fifty thousand slaves, worth at a moderate valuation twenty-five millions of dollars, was fully awake to the momentous social and political perils that lurked in the compromise of 1820. Throughout that region an uneasy, apprehensive, feverish state of affairs existed. The declaration of a large and representative pro-slavery convention at Lexington, Missouri, in July, 1855, that "the enforcement of the restriction in the settlement of Kansas was virtually the abolition of slavery in Missouri," gave formal expression to convictions which had gradually become general.

     Leadership in these graver exigencies fell mainly upon David R. Atchison, senator from Missouri during the years 1843-55, a man of commanding presence, social, generous, passionate, a stump orator of no mean order. "Senator Atchison ... may be considered the exponent of Southern opinion," said "Lynceus" in "Letters for the People on the Present Crisis," writing at St. Louis, September 7, 1853. "In speeches he has been making in various portions of the State


he is reported as taking the ground ... that he will fight the admission of Nebraska unless it ... shall come in as a slave territory, or, at least, with the question left open and all done to foster slavery that is possible. "Atchison denounced the restriction, and painted with a heavy brush the calamities that would follow if abolitionists should get a footing in Kansas. On this point the Lexington convention faithfully echoed his sentiments" a horde of our western savages with avowed purposes of destruction would be less formidable neighbors." Atchison thought that the interests of Missouri required nothing beyond formal repeal of the offensive legislation which laid restrictions upon slavery. In that event Missouri would be able to take care of herself, and of Kansas also.

     The Missouri border abounded in igneous and explosive materials. Typical Southern folk of the better grade, intelligent, hospitable, courteous, high-minded, were not wanting. Yet other sorts of humanity had large representation: numerous and unhappy varieties of "white trash," demoralized veterans of the Mexican war, adventurers graduated from the plains or the mountains of Colorado or the mining camps of the Pacific coast, thoughtless, passionate, whiskey-guzzling, guffawing unconventional men

"Who meeting Caesar's self, would slap his back,
Call him' Old horse' ad challenge to a drink."

26          KANSAS.

     The border experienced a boisterous revival of pro-slaveryism, and the reputation of abolitionists, never very high thereabouts, sank into utter discredit.

     No sooner had President Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska bill than companies of Missourians pushed into Kansas and seized upon extensive tracts of the best lands, not waiting, in some cases, for the Indians to get out of the way. A convenient simplicity marked their proceedings. The laws of preemption, literally interpreted, required the erection of cabins and periods of actual residence: but exigencies are unfriendly to restrictive and dilatory technicalities. At all events, they must not be allowed to imperil great public interests. That the squatter should simply notch a few trees in evidence of occupancy, or arrange half-a-dozen rails upon the ground and call it a cabin, or post a scrawl claiming proprietorship and threatening to shoot intermeddlers at sight, seems to have been all that was considered absolutely essential. These energetic first-comers were mostly amateur immigrants, men who bestirred themselves in the interest of slavery rather than at the solicitation of personal concerns, who proposed to reside in Missouri, but to vote and fight in Kansas should necessity arise for such duality.

     On the 10th of June, 1854, more than six weeks before the arrival of the earliest New England colony, though disquieting rumors of invasion


from the East had begun to be rife, there was a convention of pro-slavery men at Salt Creek Valley to discuss territorial affairs. The sentiments of this initial Kansas convention, forerunner of an enormous brood of partisan meetings, sentiments loudly chorused by the whole pack of border newspapers, took form in a series of twelve resolutions which, in addition to considerable frank advice for the benefit of abolitionists, announced that slavery already existed in Kansas, and urged its friends to lose no time in strengthening and extending it to the utmost.

     Missouri leaders perceived the necessity and the expediency of immediately flooding Kansas with slaves. They believed at that time and still believe, that this strategy, courageously and persistently prosecuted, would have won the day. During the winter of 1854-55, B. F. Stringfellow visited Washington in the interest of an extensive slave-colonization. He unfolded the project in a conference of prominent Southern congressmen, and showed that servile labor could not be less successful in Kansas than in Missouri, a notably prosperous commonwealth; that the territorial crisis called as loudly for negroes as for voters "TWO thousand slaves," urged Stringfellow, "actually lodged in Kansas will make a slave state out of it. Once fairly there, nobody will disturb them." This not unpromising scheme elicited ample pledges of cooperation, none of which were ever redeemed.

28          KANSAS.

     Several pro-slavery towns sprang up in the territory, situated principally on the Missouri River between Kansas City and the Nebraska line: Kickapoo, a savage, implacable little burg, containing in its palmiest days twenty-five or thirty cabins, now utterly collapsed; Atchison, christened in honor of the Missouri senator, second only to Kickapoo in political venom, but unlike that almost expunged hamlet surviving its early mistakes and growing into the most important town in northeastern Kansas; Leavenworth, ruled mainly though not wholly by Southern sentiment, which more than once maddened into deeds of brutal violence, surpassing all Kansas rivals, during the first quarter century of its history, in population and commercial importance; Lecompton, somewhat inland, political headquarters of the pro-slavery party, blighted in its downfall, rudely awakened from brilliant dreams to the realities of a ragged, straggling frontier village.

     Early in the summer of 1854, rumors that powerful capitalized societies were forming in New England for the purpose of sending anti-slavery colonies to Kansas alarmed the people of western Missouri, and suggested doubts whether the repeal of the old restrictive compromise legislation would eventually prove as fortunate for their interests as they dreamed. They had looked upon Kansas as an easy, inevitable prey, a likelihood almost universally conceded throughout the Northern


States. "The fate of Kansas was sealed," said "The Liberator" of July 13th, 1855, "the very moment the Missouri Compromise was repealed."

     In the midst of general despondency it occurred to Eli Thayer, of Worcester, Massachusetts, that the public had misread the situation; that apparent disasters were only successes disguised; that the calamities befallen the anti-slavery cause in Congress might be retrieved by tactics of organized emigration, -- a contest in which the Southern oligarchy, cumbered with the incubus of their domestic system, would be at a serious disadvantage. While the congressional struggle was in progress, before the fate of the Kansas-Nebraska bill had been settled, he wrote out a constitution for the "Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company" and procured a legislative charter. Thayer originally contemplated a formidable corporation, with a capital of five millions of dollars, by which he expected to control migration -- the vast westering flux of natives as well as foreigners -- in the interest of liberty; to marshal it against the aggressions of the South; to secure the territories in the first place, and then turn his revolutionizing agencies upon the slave states themselves.

     The public declined to embark in this wholesale and magnificent project. Abolitionists repudiated expedients of colonization as "false in principle," and able to compass at best only "a transplanted Massachusetts," a futile and unworthy consummation,

30          KANSAS

since even "the original Massachusetts has been tried and found wanting,"-- while the general skepticism took practical and disastrous shape in failure of contributions. The enterprise was verging toward financial collapse when Amos A. Lawrence, of Boston, came to the rescue and advanced out of his own pocket the funds necessary to put life into it.

     No organization was ever effected under the first charter. It saddled objectionable monetary liabilities upon the individuals who might associate under it, and was abandoned. The whole business then passed into the hands of Thayer, Lawrence, and J. M. S. Williams, who were constituted trustees, and managed affairs in a half personal fashion until February, 1855, when a second charter was obtained and an association formed early in March with slightly rephrased title -- "The New England Emigrant Aid Company" -- and with John Carter Brown, of Providence, Rhode Island, as president. In the conduct of the company, the trustees who bridged the interval between the first and second charters continued to be a chief directive and inspirational force. Mr. Thayer preached the gospel of organized emigration with tireless and successful enthusiasm, while Mr. Lawrence discharged the burdensome but all-important duties of treasurer. Among the twenty original directors were Dr. Samuel Cabot, Jr., John Lowell, and William B. Spooner, Boston; J. P.


Williston, Northampton; Charles H. Bigelow, Lawrence, and Nathan Durfee, Fall River. The list of directors was subsequently enlarged to thirty-eight, and included the additional names of Dr. S. G. Howe, Rev. Edward Everett Hale, Boston; George L. Stearns, Medford; Horace Bushnell, Hartford, Connecticut; Prof. Benj. Silliman, Sr., New Haven, Connecticut; and Moses H. Grinnell, New York. The company in its reorganized shape receded, at least temporarily, from all whole-sale projects, and devoted itself to the problem of planting free-labor towns in Kansas.

     The facilities offered by the Boston organization, in addition to the obvious advantages of associated effort, were reduction in cost of transportation, oversight by competent conductors, investments of capital in mills, hotels, and other improvements which would mitigate and abbreviate the hardships of pioneering. Though the design of the organization was frankly avowed, yet anybody, whether in sympathy with its mission or not, might freely avail himself of its advantages. The obligations of the emigrants who went to Kansas under its wing were wholly implied and informal. Assuredly it offered no premium for extremer types of anti-slavery men. On the contrary, a Hunkerish strain of conservatism prevailed among the colonists which naturally provoked criticism. "The Liberator" of June 1st, 1855, speaking of the personnel of the companies already sent

32          KANSAS

on to Kansas, remarked that "hardly a single abolitionist can be found among all who have migrated to that country.... Before they emigrated they gave little or no countenance to the anti-slavery cause at home.... If they had no pluck here what could rationally be expected of them in the immediate presence of the demoniacal spirit of slavery? ... To place any reliance on their anti-slavery zeal or courage is to lean upon a broken staff."

     The number of colonists who reached Kansas over tile lines of the Emigrant Aid Company was not large. During the summer and autumn of 1854 five companies were dispatched, which comprised a total of seven hundred and fifty souls. From the opening of navigation on the Missouri River in 1855 until July as many more companies were fitted out, though the numbers fell off to six hundred and thirty-five. About one hundred and seventy thousand dollars were expended first and last in prosecution of Kansas colonization.

     But the work of the Boston organization cannot be adequately exhibited by arithmetical computations. A vital, capital part of it lay in spheres where mathematics are ineffectual -- lay in its alighting upon a feasible method, which was copied far and wide of dealing with a grave political emergency, and in the backing of social and monetary prestige that it secured for the unknown pioneers at the front.


If volume and bitterness of criticism afford any trustworthy standard by which its efficiency may be tested, the Emigrant Aid Company played no subordinate part in the Kansas struggle. Douglas declared that popular sovereignty was struck down "by unholy combinations in New England." In the opinion of Senator J. A. Bayard, of Delaware, "whatever evil or loss or suffering or injury may result to Kansas, or to the United States at large, is attributable as a primary cause to the action of the Emigrant Aid Society of Massachusetts." Senator Green, of Missouri, said in 1861, long after the Kansas question had been practically settled, that "but for the hot-bed products that have been planted in Kansas through the instrumentality of the Emigrant Aid Society, Kansas would have been with Missouri this day."

     The principal representative of the Massachusetts corporation in Kansas -- the man who sustained toward it the most intimate and confidential relations, and who mainly shaped its politico" financial policy in the territory -- was Dr. Charles Robinson, of Fitchburg, Massachusetts. To him Kansas was not wholly an unknown region when the Emigrant Aid Company commissioned him as its agent. In 1849 he passed across it on an overland trip to California, and was favorably impressed with the possibilities of the country. He participated rather prominently in the stormy experiences through which California passed in

34          KANSAS

1849-51 -- experiences which Kansas subsequently repeated in many of their salient features. Both contests sprang up on the border, abounded in anomalies and expedients for which little precedent could be cited, and exhibited all the lawless, blustering, gasconading peculiarities that distinguish such events. Not only were the types and sorts of humanity involved substantially identical, but also, in a degree worthy of passing notice, there was repetition among the actors. Missourians in particular returned betimes from the Pacific coast to mingle in a fray nearer home. Robinson learned an effective lesson in the California school for the Kansas epoch.

     The Emigrant Aid Company planted a handful of towns in the territory -- Hampden, which disappeared after a little, Wabaunsee, Osawatomie, Manhattan, Topeka, and Lawrence. Of these anti-slavery villages the oldest, and for a time the chief, was Lawrence. Upon the first day of August, 1854, the pioneer party, twenty-nine in number, sent out by the Boston society, reached the spot where that town was afterwards built. The directions given to C. H. Branscomb, conductor of the company, were, "proceed through the Shawnee Reservation and select the first eligible site on the south side of the Kansas River." Six weeks later a second expedition of one hundred and fourteen members arrived. In its earliest and rudimentary stage the village was merely


a little collection of tents. Then followed, in due time, queer, grass-thatched huts, copied apparently from African kraal village models, and rude, squat, mud-plastered log-cabins, beyond which the line of territorial architecture advanced slowly and with difficulty.

     What the new village should be called was a matter of some discussion. For a while it had various names -- Wakarusa, New Boston, Yankee Town. Citizens of Worcester, Massachusetts, offered a library if it should be christened Worcester. The name Lawrence was finally agreed upon in honor of the treasurer of the Emigrant Aid Company. "I think I was the first to suggest your name for the city," Dr. Robinson wrote Mr. Lawrence October 16th, 1854; "though I have never urged it at all, as I wished every person to be satisfied in his own mind.... Most of our people are very much attached to it, and after I explained your course in connection with the enterprise there was much enthusiasm manifested.... A committee has been chosen to give a formal notice of the naming of the city."

     It was unavoidable that a portion of the immigrants fetched from New England to the outposts of civilization, set down amidst the privations and discomforts of pioneering and in the neighborhood of powerful pro-slavery communities -- mutterings of great social disturbances singing in the upper air and threatening to add unknown elements of

36          KANSAS.

peril to the hardships of the wilderness -- should give way to homesickness and despair. They had dipped their hopes in the magic dyes of the imagination, had pictured to themselves some restored paradise on the wonderland plains of Kansas; and when the raw, crude, belligerent reality dawned upon them, they shook the dust of the territory from their feet and returned, disgusted with the border, to their old homes. But the great majority of colonists, not only from New England but also from other Northern States, men and women little given to irresolution, cowardice, or panic, ruled by exacter, less romantic ideas, were not unprepared to meet the trials of the wilderness and the inevitable hostility of Missouri.

Previous chapter     Next chapter     Return to Table of Contents