Frontier Folklore and Colonial Continuity

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

The proslavery and antislavery movements to take Kansas naturally invite comparison. They contended for the future of the same land. Their struggles look to us like foreshadowing of the war that broke out less than a decade later. They too considered themselves engaged in a critical struggle for the nation’s future. It conjured powerful emotions and occasioned extreme rhetoric. But if we can set aside for the moment our natural desire to cast ourselves as latter-day antislavery partisans and try to view the issue from a more thoroughgoing popular sovereignty position, the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society and its clones and successors look a bit like cheating.

Settling the frontier, one would imagine, should go along a fairly orderly process where thousands of small farmers get in their wagons, hitch up their team, and take all their worldly possessions out on the gamble of their lives. We imagine them as disinterested in great political causes. They move for their own advancement, which comes at great peril and through arduous labor. They somehow wrestle from the land their new fortunes. Who would begrudge them? We call them settlers and pioneers, not businessmen taking on risky ventures. We certainly don’t call them agents of a political movement, except in the broadest patriotic American sense.

The Emigrant Aid Societies going around raising money to send people with the explicit goal of making Kansas free, who will come in groups together for that end don’t have a comfortable place in that story. The expectation of the investors to make a profit off this for themselves fits still worse. This frontier looks nothing like the frontier we remember. Nor might it look much like the one that nineteenth century Americans imagined.

However much we dislike their cause, maybe those Missouri filibusters and border ruffians had a point. The New Englanders did come from afar. They did it not with the sweat of their own brows, but with the subsidy of a wealthy corporation. They came bent on tipping the scales in Kansas to exclude from the territory and future state men like them: decent, hardworking sorts who had every reasonable expectation that when they could legally come to Kansas, they would have it to themselves. The men from Missouri, after all, needed no corporation to fund their trip.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

But our folk memory lets us down here. The Emigrant Aid Societies imagined a colonization scheme and we’ve fallen out of talking about colonization too much as in recent decades it draws uncomfortable attention to the people who got to the hemisphere before our national ancestors and deprived them of it by force. It makes us uncomfortable like slavery does. Corporations made Jamestown, Plymouth, and most of the other colonies we recognize. They began with royal land grants, which the companies used as license to go out and claim the land to develop and sell at a profit. Often that profit did not come but from the very first generation of Englishmen on the East Coast, colonization had taken place under corporate auspices and with an eye toward profit for the company as much and sometimes more than profit for the stockholders.

The Virginia Company and the Emigrant Aid Societies had centuries of time between them, but not much daylight. Nor had company-subsidized colonization fallen off with independence. The utopian communities that flourished briefly and then generally collapsed in the early part of the nineteenth century had a bit of the same vision about them, if usually on a smaller scale. James Gadsden tried to organize a slaveholding colony in southern California as late as 1851. William Walker and other filibusters used colonization schemes as cover for their activities. However much Americans of the time told themselves the story of the individual pioneer, they still lived in a world where said individuals often came to their new lands with plenty of outside help on top of the aid that the United States provided in clearing the land of Indian inhabitants.

If all of this made the antislavery men coming to Kansas into Hessians reborn, then they had plenty of company. Political and religious dissenters founded corporate colonies with an eye to making a buck. Dissenters from the Kansas-Nebraska Act carried on just the latest act of that tradition. They had as much right to the land as anybody from Missouri.

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