Eli Thayer Goes on the Road: The New England Emigrant Aid Company, Part Two

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

We left Eli Thayer demoted from a leader of his own invention, the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company, to a promoter of the New England Emigrant Aid Company. His signature idea, to subsidize free state settlement in Kansas to keep slavery from the territory’s bound and then try to roll it back elsewhere, whilst turning a handy profit, fell by the wayside. Conservative Whigs with deep pockets took over, dropping Thayer’s business antislavery strategy for a more conventional charitable frame focused entirely on Kansas. This brings us to July 24, 1854.

By this point, the Kansas-Nebraska Act had Franklin Pierce’s signature and the expansion of white settlement had begun. The word in Missouri had it that Thayer’s operation had its five million on hand and twenty thousand impoverished Yankees ready to turn slave stealing Hessian just down the road from Missouri’s plantation belt. Proslavery Missourians organized for self-defense, with future Squatter Sovereign editor John Stringfellow telling St. Joseph

To those having qualms of conscience, as to violating of laws, state or national, the time has come when such impositions must be disregarded, as your lives and property are in danger, and I advise you one and all to enter every election district in Kansas … and vote at the point of a Bowie knife or revolver.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

The endless hosts of Yankee Hessians numbered twenty-nine. They departed Boston on July 17, with Thayer escorting them to Buffalo. He admitted that he had not mustered the legions he hoped, but you had to start somewhere. At Buffalo Thayer parted company with the expedition, but Charles Robinson and Charles Branscomb joined up. They had gone out in advance to scout locations and see about group rates for transportation. That scouting mission determined the site of Lawrence, named after the Emigrant Aid Company benefactor and slayer of business antislavery, Amos Lawrence. The company fronted a newspaper there, George Brown’s Herald of Freedom. Whilst touring to solicit donations, Thayer took care to have stacks of it on hand.

While settlement got going in Kansas, Thayer started on his lecture circuit on earnest. Past efforts had focused on Massachusetts and New York, but he now traveled all over New England. Over the three years from September of 1854, Thayer traveled north of six thousand miles and gave above seven hundred speeches. He and his companions, most often Charles Brancsomb, would arrange promotion in the local papers in advance. Thayer would give his spiel to a mass meeting and set up a Kansas League. It appears the leagues did the main work of finding people willing to go, whilst Thayer focused on exhortation and fundraising.

Thayer had an ambitious pitch, to the point where NEEAC’s leadership asked him to tone it down. They had no mind to carry the fight from Kansas into the slave states, but Thayer sold the enterprise as one which would free Kansas as the first step. Then they would press on to Missouri and Virginia, whilst also pushing out to make more free states in the west. Thayer extravagantly claimed that they could free Kansas in a year and then add a new state on top each year thereafter, and the stock would pay off whatever the directors thought. This required representatives of the company to walk back their spokesman’s remarks and distinguish between his ideas and their own.

Thayer’s boosterism, combined with the usual wild claims of an earthly paradise just aching for you to go settle it, did little to please those who took the plunge. Many emigrants pronounced Kansas a humbug and went home. At the time of Thayer’s first big tour, Lawrence boasted “one log cabin, one shake house, and a conglomeration of hay houses.” All the same, little had yet transpired in Kansas to make for interesting news. Thayer’s traveling show helped keep the territory in the public mind until the real struggle kicked off.

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