Dateline: 1854, Washington DC The Kansas-Nebraska Act passes Congress and President Pierce signs it into law giving states – particularly Kansas and Nebraska – the right to determine the question of slavery for the state by popular vote thereby nullifying the Missouri Compromise of 1851.
Viewed as a travesty by the North and a victory by the South, this landmark legislation allowing the citizens of Kansas to vote on the question of slavery set in motion a series of events – most likely unforseen – by the Legislature.
No sooner had the ink dried on the legislation than Missourians just across the border drove to acquire land in Kansas. Their aims were not so much political but financial. They were among the many of the era speculating in land.
These actions and the fear that proslavery Missourians would beat anti-slavery minded New Englanders to Kansas and sway the vote on slavery unfavorably created the urgency needed to act and act swiftly.
The New England Emigrant Aid Company
Long before the Kansas-Nebraska Act, abolitionist-minded individuals in New England were working to limit and reverse the spread of slavery. Numerous organization sprang up to aid in the migration to Kansas of anti-slavery settlers. Some organizations survived; some failed, but all had in mind the goal of ensuring Kansas joins the Union as a free-state. Their experiences laid the foundation for the New England Emigrant Aid Company, which was the largest and most successful organization of its kind.
Eli Thayer, a well-known educator and politician from Massachusetts, founded the New England Emigrant Aid Company with a unique for-profit vision. The Company would sell shares with a goal of raising $5 million in capital. The money served to promote settlement and buy property in Kansas. You might assume that the property would be sold to the setters and a profit realized for the Company. The reality was more along the lines of investments in capital improvements for the new settlements. The Company built saw and grist (for grain) mills, schools, boarding houses and other critical components to support the settlers and provide a foundation for new communities. Their plan was to in time sell the mills and other buildings at a profit and create a nice return for their investors. Not all participants in the Company were supportive of the for-profit vision. Amos Lawrence, of note, was much more of the mind that this should be a charitable venture without hopes of seeing a positive financial return on the investment.
The Company’s primary objective was to promote migration to Kansas and assist setters in their journey much the same way a travel agent would operate today. Eli Thayer preached from town to town the “land of milk & honey” that awaited new settlers in Kansas. He made more than 700 speeches traversing more than 6,000 miles in his three years of activism for the Company.
The Company purchased blocks of steamboat and rail passes at a discount and offered these same discounted tickets to their Kansas settlers as further inducement to move West. Agents – tour guides of a sort – would travel West with each party to shepherd their migration and assist in finding and settling in the “promised land.” One of these agents was Cyrus Holliday, who would later become the first president of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad.
The Company formed migration parties of just a few men at first, but more over time, and slowly began to settle Kansas throughout 1854 and 1855 sending a half dozen migration parties per year. They settled the towns of Topeka, Lawrence, Osawatamie , Burlington, Wabansee, Atchison, Batcheller (Milford), and Claflin (Mapleton). Lawrence and Topeka became the focal points and strongholds of the free-state movement.
Missourians On the March
Word quickly spread of a much exaggerated movement in the East of a $5 million dollar capitalized group with a horde of 20,000 paupers with plans of settling Kansas. Panic ensued. David Atchison became the self-appointed spokesperson of the Missouri movement. He rallied the men to take up arms and vote. “as your lives and property are in danger, I advise you one and all to enter every election district in Kansas…and vote at the point of a Bowie knife or revolver.”
The Missourians had an economic interest in the retention of slavery and the extension of it into Kansas. With 50,000 slaves representing a $25 million dollar investment in Western Missouri, the slave owners didn’t need a free-state on their border to challenge their investment. Unlike the Deep South surrounded by slave-holding states making escape or theft geographically prohibitive, if Missouri had a free-state – Kansas – next door the threat to their investment would be real and tangible. Further there were two major gateways to freedom – the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers – which made for easy egress out of slavery. And as we saw in the famous Dred Scott case, Missourians held dear the right to take their slaves anywhere they chose without fear of recrimination. Finally they felt that the admission of a new free-state would generally threaten the institution of slavery and their very way of life.
The First Vote
The first Kansas election was held on March 30, 1855. A mob of 5,000 armed Missourians had been told by Atchison not to obey the law and to “vote early and often.” Of the 6,318 votes that were cast that day 4,903 were illegal and supportive of slavery. Though contested, the vote stood.
New Englanders React
Not wanting to be perceived as arming the settlers, the New England Company was hesitant to sent ammunitions. Nonetheless, they were concerned for their safety in the wake of the Missouri migration and finally sent weapons. Spurred on by the outcome of the election and the increasing hostilities, the Company called a Convention in Lawrence and drew up a free-state constitution. Elections were set for the following January.
The Conflict Becomes Bloody and the Onset of War
The tensions were high, when a pro-slavery squatter shot and killed a free-state settler. The Wakrusa War ensued when between 1,200 and 1,500 Missourians prepared to attack Lawrence with 600 men defending. In the end, the battle was averted because of the threat of repeating rifles held by the settlers.
Fast forward to the sack of Lawrence when a mob of a few hundred Missourians attacked, destroyed the newspaper presses and burned homes.
The stage was set for “Bleeding Kansas” and the onset of the Civil War, where this dispute over slavery unfortunately would be settled through the loss of thousands of lives.
New England Emigrant Aid Company
What is the legacy of this high-minded emigrant aid company? The Company perpetually struggled with finances. Although it had hoped to raise $5,000,000. The truth is it raised a mere $140,000. As a result, they were never able to achieve the goals they had hoped to in reaching migration to Kansas in scale. Although the numbers vary, only a mere 2-3,000 settlers came West directly because of the efforts of the Company. The 1860 Census reveals that there were only 4,280 persons of New England birth out of a total population of 107,000.
Although their impact may have seemed small at the time, their true legacy can still be seen today. They established towns, communities that still thrive today. One of their leading goals was the establishment of schools. They founded the State School for Agriculture in Manhattan – now Kansas State – and they founded a School for the Education of Boys in Lawrence – now Kansas University with a donation of $10,000 from Amos Lawrence.
When Kansas became a state in 1861, Charles Robinson was elected governor, Samuel Pomeroy, a US Senator, and Martin Conway a US Representative – all Company agents.
One of our favorite subjects in genealogy is that of migration. Where did persons go? Why? Were they “pushed” there by unpleasant circumstances at home, or were they “pulled” to the new lands for better living or in this case to support their vision of an America with or without slavery. When we’re looking at migration patterns especially for Kansas or Missouri in our own family trees, look at the history of the times. It may reveal a story you’d never expected.