In 1854, one ill-advised bill turned the Great Plains into a war zone.
To understand why, we’ll need to wind back the clock. Thirty-four years earlier, America’s government had decided that—with the exception of what’s now Missouri—slavery wouldn’t be allowed in the Louisiana Territory above the 36° 30’ latitude line. But everything changed when Congress voted in favor of the divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act, which enabled territories to decide for themselves if they’d legalize slavery upon entering the Union as states. This meant that slave states might soon outnumber free ones. So, in order to tip the scales, citizens of all stripes started getting mobilized—and fast.
On the pro-slavery front, activists called “Border Ruffians” crossed into Kansas by the hundreds. This group’s voting presence would theoretically ensure that America’s peculiar institution carried the day there. “If Kansas is not made a slave state,” declared a sympathetic magazine, “it requires no sage to foretell that there will never be another slave state.”
Meanwhile, their opponents were also busily moving in. Enter Eli Thayer of Massachusetts. A politician/businessman, Thayer had vocally opposed slavery while serving in Congress. Naturally, the idea of a Kansas overrun by its practitioners appalled him. But Thayer lived and worked over 1600 miles away. What could he possibly do?
Thayer soon convinced the Bay State’s House of Representatives to grant a special charter for the creation of what eventually became known as the New England Emigrant Aid Company. Headquartered in Boston, this organization offered financial aid to help anti-slavery northeasterners pack up and begin new lives in Kansas. Those who purchased tickets from the NEEAC would see a 15 to 25 percent reduction in travel costs. Upon arriving, newly-built hotels and sawmills would be waiting for them.
Effective advertising was among the initiative’s strongest assets. Skip ahead to 1:45 in this video, and you’ll hear the winner of an 1855 NEEAC poem-writing contest—“A Call to Kansas” by Lucy Larcom:
On June 29, 1854—less than a month after the Kansas-Nebraska act passed—the first wave of transplants arrived in Kansas City, Missouri. After entering Kansas proper, they established the picturesque city of Lawrence, named in honor of NEEAC treasurer Amos A. Lawrence. New Kansans relocated by the company would also help found Topeka, Manhattan, and Osawatomie. Come July 1855, more than 1500 ex-New Englanders had taken residence there.
As you might expect, Border Ruffians didn’t take kindly to these Yankees. Lawrence was famously besieged by pro-slavery forces in 1856, a raid that destroyed two printing establishments and an NEEAC-operated hotel. So-called “Bleeding Kansas” grew so thoroughly divided that both sides wound up establishing their own, competing governments—the abolitionists operated from Topeka whilst their rivals set up shop in Pawnee.
After many dark years marred by confusion, sectionalism, and guerilla warfare, Kansas was finally admitted to the Union on January 29, 1861. Thanks in no small part to Thayer and the NEEAC, she came in as a free state.