Eli Thayer, 1819–99, American
abolitionist, b. Medon, Mass. He was a Free-Soiler in the Massachusetts
legislature (1853–54), organized the
New England Emigrant Aid Company for sending antislavery settlers to Kansas, and was a Republican member of the House of Representatives (1857–61). He wrote A History of the Kansas Crusade (1889).
The Kansas-Nebraska act became law on May 30, 1854. The opening of these areas to white settlement had long been a controversial subject in congress as the North and South fought to keep a balance of representation in Washington. As a compromise the doctrine of popular sovereignty was included in the act, which meant that residents of the territories should be allowed to choose for themselves whether slavery would be permitted when he time for statehood arrived.
There was little question that Nebraska would prohibit slavery for presumably she was too far north for the institution to survive. The South on the other hand assumed that Kansas was destined for slavery. However, the early activities of Northern abolitionists, who were determined not to let Kansas go by default, spurred both the North and South to send in every settler they could.
In the North one of the organizations created to encourage abolitionist settlement of Kansas was The Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company. Incorporated under the guidance of Eli Thayer of Worcester in April, 1854, the company was a venture designed both for benevolence and moneymaking.Emigrant Aid Company, organization formed in 1854 to promote organized antislavery immigration to the Kansas territory from the Northeast. Eli Thayer conceived the plan as early as Feb., 1854, even before the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law, and in April, Massachusetts chartered the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company.
Its aims were:
1.To secure reduced transportation
fares to the West for emigrants traveling in companies organized and directed
by the company.
2.To provide temporary accommodations in the form of boarding or receiving houses while settlers located and built their own homes.
3.To build or buy steam saw and grist mills "and such other machines as shall be of constant service in a new settlement" to aid settlers in building homes and feeding families.
4.To establish a weekly newspaper in Kansas to act as the voice of the company and be an "index of the love of freedom and of good morals, which it is hoped may characterize the state now to be formed."
In February, 1855, a new charter changing the name to the New England Emigrant Aid Company and making organizational improvements was secured. In March the company was reorganized and business began in earnest as mills were established in Lawrence, Topeka, Manhattan, Osawatomie, Burlington, Wabaunsee, Atchison, Batcheller (now Milford) and Mapleton. In Kansas City the Gillis House was purchased and renamed the American Hotel. Many other Kansas aid societies were subsequently formed throughout the North (e.g., the Kansas Emigrant Aid Society of Northern Ohio and the New York Kansas League), but the New England group was preeminent in the field and the name Emigrant Aid Company is associated exclusively with it. Amos A. Lawrence served as treasurer of the company, which, despite its earnest soliciting of the support of clergymen throughout New England, remained in bad financial condition until Nov., 1855, when a notably successful campaign to raise money was launched.
For Thayer, who was vice president of the
company, the venture was not only philanthropic but profitable.
The company planned to make a profit on its investments by purchasing the land upon which its hotels and mills stood and, when settlement had increased and land values correspondingly elevated, selling to the eventual benefit of the stockholders. As stock subscription agent he received 10% of all the money he collected, provided he gathered $20,000 or more. Thayer easily exceeded that figure, for by May, 1856, the company had received over $100,000.
The first party sent to Kansas left Massachusetts even before the company had been completely organized. This pioneer party arrived at the site of Lawrence on August 1, 1854. That summer and fall five other parties arrived in Kansas, bringing the total of aid company settlers to about 450. The following spring seven more groups brought about 800 persons. All told, the company sent out an aggregate of 1,250 settlers under agents such as Charles Robinson, who founded Lawrence and other towns in Kansas. Southerners, at first confident that Kansas was safe for slavery, were moved to organize similar, though proslavery, societies of their own. However, such ill-advised actions by the proslavery societies as the sacking (May 21, 1856) of the town of Lawrence only stimulated the Kansas aid movement further.
Once the territory of Kansas was admitted as a free state the directors were to dispose of all the company's interests and declare a dividend to the stockholders. Then the company was to choose a new area of operation and commence the program again, until another free state had been admitted to the Union.
The backers of the company hoped to raise $5,000,000 and send 20,000 settlers into Kansas. The plan received wide publicity in the newspapers of Horace Greeley, William Cullen Bryant, Thurlow Weed, and others. The company itself issued descriptive pamphlets and its advocates toured New England lecturing on the benefits to be derived.
For years it served as the unofficial rendezvous of Free Staters in the area and was the jumping-off place for settlers bound for the Kansas plains. Hotels in Atchison, Osawatomie, Topeka and Manhattan received financial aid from the company and in Lawrence it built temporary straw-rent hotels while a three-story , stone building, called the Free-State Hotel, was under construction. Just as the hostelry was about to open, it was destroyed by a Pro-slave "posse" which raided Lawrence on May 21, 1856.
In addition to establishing Lawrence, the company aided in the founding of Topeka, Manhattan, Osawatomie, and other Free-State towns. The Lawrence Herald of Freedom was financed by a loan from the company and became a voice of the firm in Kansas. The German language Kansas Zeitung was published at Atchison through company aid. Schools and churches were built and practically given to local communities. Libraries and colleges were founded through efforts of individuals connected with the firm.
As the company's influence waned some of its agents remained to continue their active roles in Kansas territorial and early state history. Prominent among them were Charles Robinson, who became the state's first governor; Samuel C. Pomeroy, one of her two initial United States senators; and Martin F. Conway, her first representative in congress.
In spite of the company's initial spurt of activity there is some question as to its total contribution toward the settling of Kansas. After June, 1855, company emigrant parties became smaller and less frequent. Instead of the $5,000,000 it hoped to have the company actually accumulated only about $190,000. In terms of persons relocated in Kansas it has been estimated that the company was directly responsible for only about 2,000 of whom perhaps a third returned to the East.
Delegates from 12 states and Kansas convened at Buffalo, N.Y., in July, 1856, and formed a National Kansas Committee. Its goal of establishing Kansas aid committees in every state, county, and town throughout the North was never realized. For one thing the national committee was divided; one group, in which Amos Lawrence was most conspicuous, advocated peaceful protest against proslavery excesses in Kansas and financial help to the Free Staters, while the other, led by extreme abolitionists such as Gerrit Smith and the Rev. Thomas W. Higginson, urged the creation of state military forces to be used against Union troops in Kansas if necessary. This group also proposed disunion at a convention in Worcester in Jan., 1857.
Kansas was admitted to the Union in January, 1861, and the following year the stockholders of the New England Emigrant Aid Company ordered that all its properties in Kansas and Missouri be sold. When this was eventually accomplished the company realized a total of $16,150, which was just about enough to pay outstanding debts.
After 1861 the company transferred its activities to other areas. In 1864 and 1865 it promoted the migration of working women to Oregon and from 1866 to 1868 it was active in locating Northerners in Florida. By 1870, however, the company had fallen idle and never again was active in emigrant aid. No more meetings of the stockholders were held until 1897 when an extension of the charter was requested and granted. That year the company presented its single asset, a claim against the United States government for loss of the Free-State Hotel at Lawrence in 1856, to the University of Kansas and for all practical purposes ceased to exist. The extended charter expired on February 19, 1907, and the company was no more.
In spite of its financial failure the principal stockholders seemed well pleased with the results of its operations. Under its influence several important towns were founded, schools were established, churches were built and the cause of freedom served. Indeed, there is some evidence that investors purchased stock knowing full well they would never see their money again. Amos A. Lawrence, a principal stockholder and treasurer of the company, had advised his associates not to invest any more than they felt they could afford to lose.