Little Time-Share on the Prairie

Horace Greeley always denied telling a generation of young men to “Go West” to seek their fortune, but he did convince quite a few to head for Kansas when he gave what must have been a barn-burner of a speech at Apollonian Hall in Pittsburgh late in 1855.  Greeley sincerely hoped to pack the young territory with abolitionist settlers who would vote to make it a free state.  However, his speech was, at least in part, the pioneer equivalent of a pitch for a vacation package or a little time-share on the prairie.

Some of the earliest settlers in the valley of the Black Vermillion in Marshall County, Kansas Territory, were Quakers, who were dyed-in-the-wool abolitionists.  Their plain costumes and flat-brimmed hats may have struck their neighbors as quaint, but some of their ideas were downright progressive.  They believed not only in racial equality but gender equality, positions many Americans still struggle with.  Marshall County pioneer A. G. Barrett arrived in 1854 with fellow members of the Ohio Town Company, a group of Quakers who were weary of trying to coax a crop out of the mountainous region of eastern Ohio.  The speeches of Horace Greeley and other spokesmen, provided the Quakers with a new batch of neighbors in 1856, among them, the Lovewell and Davis families.

Corporations like the Ohio Town Company or Charles Robinson's Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company at Lawrence, did their best to wrap up emigration to Kansas in one neat, painless package.  The companies' investors purchased large tracts of farmland and struck bargains with competing steamboat lines to provide cheap transportation to the territory.  Printed brochures painted a glowing picture of the new home that awaited them.  Public speakers talked up the opportunities that bold young adventurers would find in the Garden of the West.  Land was offered to the newcomers for only a token fee.  The companies constructed hospitality stations to welcome new arrivals, and sawmills to provide them with lumber for building their homes.  

There was truly a measure of altruism to the plan.  The emigrant aid companies vowed to retain only the land where their sawmills and hotels stood, though they did hope to sell all of it at a healthy profit when the region was fully settled and prosperous and bustling with industry.  The company would then declare a dividend to its investors before setting its sights on another region ripe for settlement.

If it all sounded like pie in the sky, it was.  The emigrant companies themselves suspected as much, warning their benefactors to invest no more than they could afford to lose.  They never persuaded as many potential settlers as they hoped to, and the majority of those who did come to Kansas, would stay for only a short while.  Within a year of arriving, Daniel Davis and his wife Duranda buried two children on the prairie and left the territory.  Daniel's parents also departed, along with Lyman Lovewell, who may have returned to Michigan in hope of enlisting new recruits.  It would not be an easy sell.  Kansas was just then entering a period of drought, and fell far short of the rosy advertisements.  

If news of bloodletting by pro-slavery and anti-slavery zealots did not dim prospects for further settlement, then the reports of discovery of gold at Pikes Peak probably did.  Like Thomas Lovewell, many of those who made the detour to Denver would discover that they had fallen for another sales pitch.    

© Dale Switzer 2023