Young England Abolitionists

Young England Abolitionists

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At the conference in May 1830, the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery agreed to drop the words "gradual abolition" from its title. It also agreed to support Sarah Wedgwood's plan for a new campaign to bring about immediate abolition. The following year the Anti-Slavery Society presented a petition to the House of Commons calling for the "immediate freeing of newborn children of slaves".

In 1831 Cropper and his son-in-law, Joseph Sturge, formed the Young England Abolitionists, a pressure group within the Society for the Abolition of Slavery, that campaigned for a new act of Parliament. It was distinguished from other anti-slavery groups by its unconditional arguments and vigorous campaigning tactics. Peter Archer has argued that they directed "their activities much more in the direction of forming mass opinion."

Read the Signs – Street Names in Liverpool Connected to the Trade in Enslaved Africans

Liverpool street names have become a contentious issue in recent years due to the fact that many commemorate individuals who prospered from the trade in enslaved people. We may not wish to honour these people today, but should we forget our history? The 'Read The Signs' booklet takes a closer look at the facts behind the naming of places and streets in Liverpool.

The aim was to provide factual information about Liverpool individuals and families involved both in the trade in enslaved people and its abolition, and how it was they came to have places and streets named after them.

International trade shaped Liverpool for centuries. From this trade the sophisticated system of warehousing developed to store cotton, tobacco and other goods imported from the West Indies, North America and elsewhere. Dynasties built on the profits from the trade in enslaved people constructed palatial private houses and mansions.

Whilst streets were not necessarily named after people directly because they were slavers, the trade did often play a big part in building the fortunes and social status of these people.

An exhibition called 'Read the Signs' was held at St George's Hall in 2008, by the Historic Environment of Liverpool Project who created the leaflet. The booklet was also the subject of lunchtime lectures at BBC Liverpool, where debate about the content of the publication continued. The researcher and writer of the pamphlet, Laurence Westgaph, was honoured with a Black Achievers Award for his work raising the profile of the history of Liverpool.

2. Frederick Douglass

In September 1838, 20-year-old slave Frederick Douglass fled his job as a Baltimore ship’s caulker and boarded a train bound for the North. The young bondsman was disguised in a sailor’s uniform provided by his future wife, Anna Murray, and carried a free sailor’s protection pass loaned to him by an accomplice. He desperately hoped the papers would be enough to lead him to freedom, but there was a major obstacle: he bore hardly any resemblance to the man listed in the documents. When the conductor came to collect tickets and check the black passengers’ papers, Douglass was nearly overcome with trepidation. “My whole future depended upon the decision of this conductor,” he later wrote. Luckily for Douglass, the man only gave the phony sailors’ pass a cursory glance before moving on to the next passenger.

Douglass would endure even more close calls as he made his way north by train and ferry. He encountered an old acquaintance on a riverboat, and was nearly spotted by a ship captain he had once worked for. After several tense hours, he arrived in New York, where he hid in the home of an anti-slavery activist and rendezvoused with Murray. The couple later moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Douglass established himself as one of the nation’s leading abolitionists. He remained a fugitive slave under the law until 1846, when supporters helped him purchase his freedom from his former master.

Slavery and Abolition

When the Church was organized in 1830, there were two million slaves in the United States—about one-sixth of the country’s total population. For three centuries, women and men had been kidnapped or taken as war captives in Africa and shipped across the Atlantic, and European Americans came up with various justifications for enslaving them and their posterity. In 1808, the United States banned the transatlantic slave trade, but the status of slaves already in the country and their descendants was a matter of continuing debate.

Slavery was gradually abolished in the Northern States in the late 1700s and early 1800s, including in the early Latter-day Saint centers of New York and Ohio. In the Southern States, including Missouri, slavery and the domestic slave trade continued. Many Americans supported slavery. Of those who opposed it, some focused on limiting the spread of slavery, some hoped to see it gradually end, and some—an outspoken few known as abolitionists—called for a more immediate and unconditional end to slavery. Because the exaggeration of racial differences was common in early American social, scientific, and religious thought, even many abolitionists advocated returning black Americans to Africa rather than integrating them into American society.

Though most early Latter-day Saint converts were from the Northern States and were opposed to slavery, slavery affected Church history in a number of ways. In 1832, Latter-day Saints who had settled in Missouri were attacked by their neighbors, who accused them of “tampering with our slaves, and endeavoring to sow dissentions and raise seditions amongst them.” 1 That winter, Joseph Smith received a revelation that a war would begin over the slave question and that slaves would “rise up against their masters.” 2 The next year, concerns that free black Saints would gather to Missouri was the spark that ignited further violence against the Saints and led to their expulsion from Jackson County. 3

In the mid-1830s, the Saints tried to distance themselves from the controversy over slavery. Missionaries were instructed not to teach enslaved men and women without the permission of their masters. 4 The Church’s newspaper published several articles critical of the growing abolitionist movement. 5 After the Saints had been driven from Missouri and had settled in Illinois, however, Joseph Smith gradually became more outspoken in his opposition to slavery. He asked how the United States could claim that “all men are created equal” while “two or three millions of people are held as slaves for life, because the spirit in them is covered with a darker skin than ours.” 6 As a U.S. presidential candidate in 1844, Joseph called for the federal government to end slavery within six years by raising money to compensate former slaveholders.

By the time the Saints migrated to Utah, there were both free and enslaved black members of the Church. Green Flake, Hark Lay, and Oscar Crosby, members of the vanguard 1847 pioneer company, were enslaved to Mormon families at the time of their pioneer journey. In 1852, Church leaders serving in Utah’s legislature debated what to do about black slavery in Utah Territory. Brigham Young and Orson Spencer spoke in favor of legalizing and regulating slavery, allowing enslaved men and women to be brought to the territory but prohibiting the enslavement of their descendants and requiring their consent before any move. This approach would guarantee the eventual end of slavery in the territory. Apostle Orson Pratt gave an impassioned speech against any compromise with the practice of slavery: “[To] bind the African because he is different from us in color,” he said, “[is] enough to cause the angels in heaven to blush.” 7 Young and Spencer’s position prevailed, and the legislature authorized a form of black slavery that demanded humane treatment and required access to education. 8

During the 1850s, there were about 100 black slaves in Utah. 9 In 1861, the Civil War broke out in the United States over the question of slavery, as Joseph Smith had prophesied. On June 19, 1862, the United States Congress ended slavery in U.S. territories, including Utah. The next year, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that the U.S. government no longer recognized slavery in the rebelling Southern States. After the war, a constitutional amendment prohibited slavery throughout the United States.

“Letter to Oliver Cowdery, circa 9 April 1836,” Historical Introduction, in Brent M. Rogers, Elizabeth A. Kuehn, Christian K. Heimburger, Max H Parkin, Alexander L. Baugh, and Steven C. Harper, eds., Documents, Volume 5: October 1835–January 1838. Vol. 5 of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Ronald K. Esplin, Matthew J. Grow, and Matthew C. Godfrey (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2017), 231–36.

Jonathan A. Stapley and Amy Thiriot, “‘In My Father’s House Are Many Mansions’: Green Flake’s Legacy of Faith,” Pioneers in Every Land series, Feb. 19, 2014, .

“Race and the Priesthood,” Gospel Topics Essays, .

The following publications provide further information about this topic. By referring or linking you to these resources, we do not endorse or guarantee the content or the views of the authors.

David Eltis and David Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

William Mulligan and Maurice Bric, eds., A Global History of Anti-slavery Politics in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

A timeline of the abolition of the British slave trade

It had been decades since the first mention of the issue in Parliament. In 1791, 163 Members of the Commons had voted against abolition. Very few MPs dared to defend the trade on moral grounds, even in the early debates. Instead, they called attention to the many economic and political reasons to continue it.

Those who profited from the trade made up a large vested interest, and everyone knew that an end to the slave trade also jeopardized the entire plantation system. “The property of the West Indians is at stake,” said one MP, “and, though men may be generous with their own property, they should not be so with the property of others.” Abolition of the British trade could also give France an economic and naval advantage.

Before the parliamentary debates, Englishmen like John Locke, Daniel Defoe, John Wesley, and Samuel Johnson had already spoken against slavery and the trade. In a stuffy party at Oxford, Dr. Johnson once offered the toast, “Here’s to the next insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies.’’

Amid such scattered protests, the Quakers were the first group to organize and take action against slavery. Those on both sides of the Atlantic faced expulsion from the Society if they still owned slaves in 1776. In 1783, the British Quakers established the antislavery committee that played a huge role in abolition.

The committee began by distributing pamphlets on the trade to both Parliament and the public. Research became an important aspect of the abolitionist strategy, and Thomas Clarkson’s investigations on slave ships and in the trade’s chief cities provided ammunition for abolition’s leading parliamentary advocate, William Wilberforce.

Leading parliamentary advocate, William Wilberforce.

Mockingly—and sometimes respectfully others called Wilberforce and his friends “the Saints,” for their Evangelical faith and championing of humanitarian causes. The Saints worked to humanize the penal code, advance popular education, improve conditions for laborers, and reform the “manners” or morals of England. Abolition, however, was the “first object” of Wilberforce’s life, and he pursued it both in season and out.

May 12, 1789, was clearly out of season for abolition. Sixty members of the West Indian lobby were present, and the trade’s supporters had already called abolition a “mad, wild, fanatical scheme of enthusiasts.” Wilberforce spoke for more than three hours. Although the House ended by adjourning the matter, the Times reported that both sides thought Wilberforce’s speech was one of the best that Parliament had ever heard.

Wilberforce had concluded with a solemn moral charge: “The nature and all the circumstances of this trade are now laid open to us. We can no longer plead ignorance.” Having failed to obtain a final vote, the abolitionists redoubled their efforts to lay open the facts of the trade before the British people. So far, the public had easily ignored what it could not see, and there had been no slaves in England since 1772. English people saw slave ships loading and unloading only goods, never people. Few knew anything of the horrors of the middle passage from Africa.

Over time, it became more and more difficult for anyone to plead ignorance of this matter. William Cowper’s poem “The Negro’s Complaint” circulated widely and was set to music. Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, by an African man named Ottabah Cugoano, also became popular reading. Thomas Clarkson and others toured the country and helped to establish local antislavery committees.

These committees, in turn, held frequent public meetings, campaigned for a boycott of West Indian sugar in favor of East, and circulated petitions. When, in 1792, Wilberforce again gave notice of motion, 499 petitions poured in. Although few MPs favored immediate abolition, this public outcry was hard to ignore.

An amendment inserting the word “gradual” into the abolition motion eventually carried the day. While in theory a victory of conscience, the bill as it then stood came to nothing. The abolitionist cause endured disappointments and delays each year following until 1804 and each year, British ships continued to carry tens of thousands of Africans into slavery in the Western Hemisphere.

Anxiety about the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution contributed to Parliament’s conservative, gradualist decision in 1792 and the next year brought war with France. Wartime England lost her fervor for the cause. Although Wilberforce stubbornly brought his motion in Parliament each year until 1801, only two very small measures on behalf of the oppressed Africans succeeded in the first decade of the war. Respect for Wilberforce and his ilk turned to annoyance, and many seconded James Boswell’s sentiments:

Go home and preach away at Hull…

Mischief to trade sits on your lip.

Insects will gnaw the noblest ship.

Thou dwarf with big resounding name.

The state of affairs in France also brought abolitionist ideals under suspicion. One earl thundered:

“What does the abolition of the slave trade mean more or less in effect, than liberty and equality? What more or less than the rights of man? And what is liberty and equality and what are the rights of man, but the foolish fundamental principles of this new philosophy?”

Even so, after more than a decade, the war with France began to lose its sense of urgency, however much the future of the world might—and did—hang in the balance. Slowly, public opinion began to reawaken and assert itself against the trade.

Conditions in Parliament also became more favorable. Economic hardship and competition with promising new colonies weakened the position of the old West Indians. In 1806 abolitionists in Parliament managed to secure the West Indian vote on a bill that destroyed three-quarters of the trade that was not with the West Indies. This bill, though in the West Indians’ competitive interest, also did much to pave the way for the 1807 decision.

On the night of the decisive 283-16 vote for the total abolition of the trade in 1807, the House of Commons stood and cheered for the persistent Wilberforce, who for his part hung his head and wept. The bill became law on March 25 and was effective as of January 1, 1808.

At home after the great vote, Wilberforce called gleefully to his friend Henry Thornton, “Well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?” Thornton replied, “The lottery, I think!”—but the more obvious answer was the institution of slavery itself.

For the next century, England fought diplomatic battles on many fronts to reduce the foreign slave trade. British smugglers were stopped in their tracks by the 1811 decision that made slaving punishable by deportation to Botany Bay. Smuggling under various flags threatened to continue the Atlantic trade after other nations had abolished it, and the British African Squadron patrolled the West African coast until after the American Civil War.

In 1833 slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. This radical break was possible partly through an “apprenticeship” system, and a settlement to the planters amounting to 40 percent of the government’s yearly income. The news reached Wilberforce two days before his death. “Thank God that I should have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give 20 million Sterling for the abolition of slavery,” he said.

Sometime before, Wilberforce had said, “that such a system should so long have been suffered to exist in any part of the British Empire will seem to our posterity almost incredible.” He was right. It is bittersweet, 200 years later, to commemorate the end of one of the most atrocious crimes in history. Yet the dismantling of an immensely profitable and iniquitous system, over a relatively short period of time and in spite of many obstacles, is certainly something to commemorate.

Young England Abolitionists - History

Whilst the wealth of British cities such as Liverpool and Bristol was built on the profits of the slave trade, the people of Tyneside offered support and a safe haven to those who abhorred slavery in the United States of America.

William McDonald
The 'fugitive' William McDonald was a slave from the West Indies, who on hearing all men were free in England, stowed away on a ship bound for London.

From London he made his way north, finding work in local pits.

On 25 April 1851, The Sunderland Herald reported on a fatal accident inquest, under the headline "Death of a negro by strangulation". McDonald has died when he was caught up in some rigging.

The Herald describes McDonald as "an industrious man, a member of the Church of England, and much respected by his neighbours. He was 70 years old."

One of the legacies of black presence in Britain is the modern wealth and prosperity of cities, such as Liverpool and Bristol, that were built on the profits of the slave trade.

However, Tyneside played an influential role in the abolition of slavery.

There had been a recent and dramatic experience of English white working class solidarity with the 'black cause' - the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Much has been chronicled about American abolitionists and fugitive slaves who made frequent trips to Tyneside to speak at meetings held by the Gateshead and Newcastle Anti-Slavery Society.

Poster advertising an Anti-slavery meeting

When the workers of the Lancashire cotton mills lent material support to the anti-slavery cause, they found solidarity on Tyneside.

A great effort was launched to collect money and clothing to sustain Lancashire cotton workers.

However, Newcastle magistrates refused a licence to the Tyne Concert Hall for a benefit night in aid of the Lancashire Distress Fund.

This was just one example of the Tyne Concert Hall's long running battle with the Magistrates over 'unbecoming activities'.

Tyneside Against Racism

Racism was evident on Tyneside about this time, but there were a number of liberal journalists, working for the Newcastle Daily Chronicle (today's Evening Chronicle) who spoke out against hostility towards black people.

"We deplore the prejudice against colour, and we are severely censorious towards those who exhibit it."
Newcastle Daily Chronicle, January 1865

In early Victorian times, Britain's black population mainly consisted of African and Arabic sailors and black refugees who had fought for George III in the American Civil War.

The predominantly male, black population integrated and intermarried into poor white urban populations.

Minstrels and Midfielder's

Throughout Victorian Britain, many Black people in were involved in sports and entertainment.

Aboriginal Cricketers Touring 1868-7

In 1868 very first Australian cricket team to visit England was Aboriginal. They played a match at North Shields, enthralling crowds with displays of boomerang throwing as well as cricket.

Earlier, in 1862, an American touring concert party, The Real Blacks, challenged local cricketer's to a match on Newcastle's Town Moor, and won.

The Black Diamond of Seaton Burn

The Black Diamond

A black boxer who lived in the village of Seaton Burn in the eighteen century. Detail taken from WC Irving's painting of 'The Blaydon Races'.

Many black people arrived in Britain out of desperate bids for personal freedom.

The Tyne Concert Hall

The Tyne Concert Hall, Nelson Street, Newcastle was a principle centre for working-class entertainment, and the usual venue for black artists.

In 1861, The Original African Opera Troupe, raised funds for Newcastle Infirmary at a charity benefit, returning in 1862 and sang extracts from Italian operas.

The Tyne Concert Hall, Nelson Street, Newcastle

The Female Christi Minstrels were seven young black women who came to Newcastle in 1860, spicing their act with political jokes.

Black entertainers continued to be engaged on a regular basis at the Tyne Concert Hall right through the 1860's.

The Ohio Minstrels, a group of ex slaves, caused much concern with the local Tories and Whigs who could not stand the Hall's 'radical proprietor'.

Young England Abolitionists - History

What is slavery? How did the Transatlantic Slave Trade develop? What was life like on the plantations? What was the Triangular Trade? How could people argue for such a trade? Why it was finally abolished? Here you can find information on these topics, the development of the abolition movement and the opposition it faced.


The African freedom movement was active from the beginning of chattel slavery. Resistance took many forms. In this section you can find details of four rebellions as well as facts and figures about the resistance of enslaved people on board the ships and on the plantations.


Despite powerful opposition from those profiting from the trade, the abolitionists developed the first ever campaign, in which ordinary people became angry about the treatment and rights of others outside their own community. It also saw the first use of many of the campaign tactics we value today.


Who opposed the Slave Trade? A wide range of different people (black, white, male and female) were influential in this cause. Each had something unique to offer. Find out about some of them here.

Thomas Clarkson

Who was Thomas Clarkson? What role did he play in the abolition movement? In this section you can find out more about the man who was called the ‘moral steam engine’ about his life dedicated to the abolition of slavery and the innovative campaign methods he introduced.


In this section you can find digitised copies of original documents and illustrations relating to the slave trade. These sources have been copyright cleared for you to download and use in lessons. The material dates from 1783 when the abolition movement was just forming to 1879.


In this section you can find lesson plans and ideas tools that can be used to enhance teaching and learning and guidance notes for teachers teaching about the Transatlantic Slave Trade & Abolition.

About this site

This site looks at those who fought for the ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the emancipation of enslaved Africans in the British colonies. The site has been designed to provide background information, lesson ideas and tools for teachers and learners.

James Chappell at Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire by Glory Samjolly

Glory Samjolly's portrait depicts James Chappell, a black servant at Kirby Hall. He entered the service of the Hatton family aged 15, and in 1672 saved Kirby's owner, Christopher Hatton, from the rubble of an explosion on Guernsey. After Christopher's death in 1706, James was presented with pension of £20 a year. A life-changing amount of money at the time, James used it to set up home in the local area with his wife.

Samjolly, who created the social enterprise Black Aristocratic Art in 2019 to 𧷬olonise' the mainstream art history curriculum, says: "There is not enough representation of African Europeans in historical galleries or textbooks, and most often when they are represented it is as slaves, servants or abolitionists.

"I could have painted James Chappell as a servant, but there was not enough information to determine the kind of role he had, except he was favoured a great deal, and became a legend for saving Sir Christopher Hatton. I decided to paint him in the latter years of his life, with a more stoic and integral stance, a kind of man who would look back at his life and be proud."

Painting our Past: The African Diaspora in England runs from 9 June to 5 November 2021.


Abolitionists were among the first to raise their voices in protest against slavery. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, David Walker and other men and women devoted to the abolitionist movement awakened the conscience of the American people to the evils of the enslaved people trade.

When Idealistic New Englanders Moved to Kansas Territory to ‘Put an End to Slavery’

Map of the United States showing the Kansas and Nebraska territories as they appeared following passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

by Kevin G. W. Olson | July 8, 2020

When a Union soldier from upstate New York marched through Manhattan, Kansas, during the dismal Civil War summer of 1862, he was astounded: “All at once, as if by magic, a beautiful village rose around us, with large commodious churches, hotels, stores and [a] schoolhouse. We were surprised and delighted to see, where we supposed at most a few settlers’ cabins, a village combining the neatness, thrift, and comfort of New England, with the freshness and fine natural scenery of the West. Such is Manhattan, standing at the advance guard of civilization, bright prophecy of culture, refinement and progress.”

The idea for Manhattan, Kansas, was born in the turbulent years of the early 1850s, when America was alive with ideas, yet divided as never before—and lurching toward civil war. A call to take direct action to oppose slavery inspired this curious transplanting of architecture and people from New England to the far-flung frontier.

At the time, Southern states were grasping ever more tightly at their insistence that no changes could be made to the compromises that had permitted slavery to persist since the time of the Founding Fathers. An 1852 convention in South Carolina denounced “the fiendish fanaticism of an abolition spirit” and declared the state’s right to secede from the United States if the federal government sought to change existing slave laws.

Meanwhile, New England was percolating with progressive thought. This “American Renaissance” advanced not just the idea of a unique national literature, but larger convictions about racial and gender equality. In 1850, the first National Women’s Rights Convention met in Worcester, Massachusetts, featuring addresses by Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass. And by 1852, the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a sensation, described as the “finest picture yet painted of the abominable horrors of slavery” in a Boston Post review.

It was in this divided atmosphere that the May 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act opened the Kansas and Nebraska territories to settlement and eventual statehood. The assumption was that Nebraska Territory would become a free state, while Kansas, under the sway of its pro-slavery neighbor Missouri, would become a slave state. The Act infuriated Northerners because it undid the Missouri Compromise of 1830 and allowed for the expansion of slavery.

New England Emigrant Aid Company trade sign made of sheet metal, painted black with gold lettering. The sign was most likely used at the Boston headquarters of the New England Emigrant Aid Company. Courtesy of Kansas Memory.

But the assumptions of the Act were disrupted by the social movements and civil rights discussions occurring in New England. An organization called the New England Emigrant Aid Company hatched a bold plan to transport New England settlers to the open hills and plains of Kansas Territory in 1854 and 1855, for the purpose of voting for Kansas to become an anti-slavery “free state.” In line with the ideals of the American Renaissance in New England, the principal founder of the Company, Eli Thayer, wrote that its goal was “to go and put an end to slavery.”

Thayer later wrote that the idea of an organization to support New England emigration to Kansas Territory struck him as divine inspiration, a way to respond with positive action to an intolerable political situation. As the U.S. Senate debated the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Thayer obtained the first corporate charter for his company from the Massachusetts governor.

Thayer was a Yankee reformer who had earlier founded a college for women in Worcester, Massachusetts. It’s not clear where Thayer, the son of a failed Massachusetts shopkeeper, found his zeal for progressive causes, but it fits squarely in line with his purported Unitarian faith and his lifelong appreciation for his education at the Worcester Manual Labor High School, which provided poor children, like him, a quality education in exchange for work on its farm.

By the time the Kansas-Nebraska Act was signed into law on May 30, 1854, the idea of emigration to Kansas Territory was becoming widespread. In a speech, New York Senator William Seward declared: “We will engage in competition for the virgin soil of Kansas, and God give the victory to the side that is stronger in numbers.” Thayer had been the first to propose the idea of organized emigration to Kansas following his lead were the Union Emigration Society in Washington, D.C., and the American Settlement Company in New York City. (Pursuing a somewhat different approach was the Vegetarian Kansas Emigrant Company, founded in 1855.) Because the vote for the Kansas Territorial Legislature was coming in March 1855, Thayer and others wanted to place as many settlers as possible in Kansas by that time.

Throughout 1854, Thayer was extremely active in fundraising, speaking, and organizing parties of settlers. By December, Thayer’s company succeeded in sending off more than 600 New Englanders to Kansas Territory and had established one settlement, Lawrence. But the company needed even more colonists and wanted a second settlement in 1855. Fortunately, Thayer soon found the right man to help him fulfill those plans.

That month, Thayer spoke in Providence, Rhode Island, on the importance of Kansas emigration. “We have seldom listened to a more effective speech on any subject,” the Providence newspaper Freeman wrote of Thayer’s speech. Sitting rapt in the audience, his words captured the attention of a thin, stern Vermont native by the name of Isaac Goodnow. Goodnow was a 40-year-old teacher of Natural Science at an academy in nearby East Greenwich. After hearing Thayer’s speech and holding a private 90-minute conversation with him afterward, Goodnow became determined to support the movement by emigrating to Kansas Territory himself. He would go on to become the driving influence in gathering the group of settlers who would found Manhattan, Kansas—authoring speeches, letters, and newspaper columns supporting the movement. He was the acolyte that Thayer needed to ensure the new settlement’s success.

While Thayer saw the colonization of Kansas as an opportunity to achieve a worthy cause, he also recognized it as a potential moneymaking operation for its investors. On the other hand, Goodnow cared only for the cause. He viewed the settling of Kansas as one of the few ways a New Englander could live by his or her lofty ideals. In January 1855, Goodnow wrote a column in East Greenwich Weekly Pendulum pleading for action: “Kansas is, and may be for years to come the great battle ground of Freedom and Slavery! … While we talk, slave holders act. We have had enough of abstract, easy-chair speculations, it is now time for every man to show his principles by his works…. The only way to save the territory from the curse of human bondage, is for the men of … New England to rouse themselves, and emigrate by hundreds and thousands…. [W]e must be willing to endure hardship and privations. But who would not make sacrifices in one of the most philanthropic enterprizes of this age?”

Isaac Goodnow. Courtesy of Kansas Memory.

Shortly afterward, Goodnow was besieged with letters containing questions about Kansas Territory and requests to join the movement. “I am truly happy when I hear of men of influence who … go on to the ground with companies of men and contest the battles of freedom. Action is what is wanted,” one acquaintance wrote to him. Ultimately, through Goodnow and Thayer’s efforts, hundreds of New Englanders were motivated to make the trip in early 1855.

On an unseasonably warm March 6 afternoon, Goodnow and an advance group of 68 boarded a smoky coal-fired train in Boston to begin the first leg of their journey. It was a “tedious and tiresome” trip that would require more than two weeks of travel by rail, steamboat, and wagon. Crowding, lack of sleep, and dirty drinking water caused many illnesses along the way, some fatal.

The New Englanders had to pass directly through increasingly hostile Missouri to reach Kansas Territory, and the steamboats carrying the 1855 emigrants were sometimes stormed by drunken and armed mobs of pro-slavery Missourians. The pro-slavery newspaper Squatter Sovereign wrote of the New Englanders, “We hope the Quarantine Officers along the borders will forbid the unloading of that kind of Cargo.” The paper added, ominously, that “horrible disease, and one followed by many deaths … may be the consequence if this mass of corruption … is permitted to land and traverse our beautiful country.”

For some New Englanders, the discomfort and threats were too much. Although hundreds began the trip in early 1855, many turned back. Goodnow wrote in his diary that he “had to spend much time almost every day in encouraging the young men & keep[ing] them from going home.” Goodnow optimistically spun the situation, writing that the journey “has been so trying, owing to the dust, wind, and scarcity of provisions and fodder, that we get the wheat, while the chaff of emigration blows away, or does not reach us.”

When the New Englanders finally reached the spot Goodnow had selected for the settlement, many slept on the open prairie, unprepared for the cold early spring nights. Just days after their arrival, more than a dozen armed Missourians, described as “fierce, ignorant partisans,” stormed their camp on horseback, firing guns at their tents, intending to drive them out of Kansas. Ultimately, only about 50 New England settlers remained in Manhattan when it was officially established in April 1855.

But more continued arriving throughout 1855 and 1856, and the combined forces of nature and hostility did not succeed in driving all of the settlers out. The few hundred that remained throughout Kansas Territory from the estimated 2,000 who initially set off with the New England Emigrant Aid Company proved sufficient in number to create the anti-slavery stronghold of Manhattan and to decisively swing Kansas to become a free state.

The victory wasn’t immediate, and it wasn’t easy. When the vote was held for the first Territorial Legislature in March 1855, Manhattan was the only settlement in Kansas to vote for anti-slavery delegates, as pro-slavery men from neighboring Missouri flooded the territory’s other election sites. Things grew even worse in 1856, with bloody violence throughout Kansas Territory as pro-slavery and anti-slavery zealots battled. In August, a band of armed Georgians marched through Manhattan threatening violence, and troops from nearby Fort Riley were promptly dispatched to protect the town. Despite the threats and violence, Manhattan’s settlers remained committed to a peaceful process.

Through it all, Goodnow’s company kept their faith in the future, and in the end, Thayer’s audacious plan for New England Emigrant Aid Company worked.

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Though they could be unrealistic and overly idealistic, the New England founders provided Manhattan with a powerful sense of purpose, as well as amenities that other frontier settlements rarely offered, such as a schoolhouse, a sawmill, and private college, which was converted into Kansas State University in 1863. Fortuitously, a group of 75 settlers arrived by steamboat from Cincinnati in June 1855 and focused on developing commerce in the new village. The combination served the town well. Goodnow later wrote, “The union of the two companies, of the East and of the West, produced a grand practical combination, the best kind of business compound to make the right kind of a town to live in and to educate our children.”

Ultimately, the New Englanders left a lasting imprint. Even 25 years after Manhattan’s founding, during Kansas’s Wild West era, visitors to the town opined that it presented a refined “Eastern” appearance. Beyond its physical aspect, to this day, the city continues to embody ideals and visions that the New Englanders carried to the plains in the 1850s—notably an emphasis on religion and progressive education.

Contemplating the long-term legacy of the New England Emigrant Aid Company settlers, Eli Thayer wrote in 1889: “Justice, though tardy in its work, will yet load with the highest honors the memory of the heroic Kansas pioneers who gave themselves and all they had to the sacred cause of human rights.”

Kevin G. W. Olson was born and raised in Manhattan, Kansas, and now resides in the borough of Manhattan in New York City with his wife and two daughters. He is a senior attorney with IBM and the author of Frontier Manhattan: Yankee Settlement to Kansas Town, 1854-1894.

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