Ever wonder why we shop on Massachusetts Street in Lawrence rather than Main Street?
In 1854, a group of Massachusetts businessmen joined together to form an abolitionist group called the New England Emigrant Aid Company, to help anti-slavery Northerners settle the new territory of Kansas.
The company helped about 1,300 anti-slavery pioneers — including Daniel Anthony, brother of legendary women’s suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony — leave the comforts of New England for Kansas to face furious slave-state neighbors and brutal prairie conditions to fill the territory with like-minded voters in the name of freedom. They settled in what is now Lawrence — and brought their home state’s name to their widest, central road.
“They decided on Lawrence because it was a beautiful area with the hill and the prairie flowers,” local historian Judy Sweets said. “It was also near a river, and you need water for settling, and it wasn’t that far from Missouri, so they thought it was a good location.”
The free-state emigrants’ voices echoed against the towering Mount Oread when they arrived, as they sang their spirited abolition lyrics to the tune of Auld Lang Syne:
We cross the prairie as of old,
the pilgrims crossed the sea,
to make the West, as they the East,
the homestead of the free!
We go to rear a wall of men,
on Freedom’s southern line,
and plant beside the cotton-tree,
the rugged Northern pine!
The company built stores and businesses such as the Free State Hotel — now known as the Eldridge Hotel — to entice abolitionist New Englanders to stake claim in the new land. Sweets says you can still see touches of the northern style around Lawrence today.
“They laid out Lawrence like a New England town,” Sweets said. “They made a map of where the common would be, which is South Park.”
Still, the new Kansas frontier was no Massachusetts. Sweets says settlers gave up many comforts for their cause.
“They had really nice homes back east and they had to leave all that to come here and live in tents or sod homes,” Sweets said. “It was a sacrifice on their part, but they felt so strongly about slavery that they wanted to make this a free-state town.”
Those sacrifices became clear the following March, when Kansas elected its first state legislature to decide the slavery status of the territory. On that 1855 election day, current Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s recent crusade against voter fraud might have been helpful to the pioneers of Lawrence.
Thousands of southern sympathizers hopped the border to swing the election and then slipped back to their home states. In all, 6,307 individual votes were cast — but the population of Kansas was just 2,905. In Lawrence alone, only 232 of the 1,034 total votes counted were legal.
Settlers who had left their lives, moved their families and braved the 2,000-mile journey to inhabit the Kansas Territory were infuriated. Watkins Community Museum executive director Steve Nowak says this tension in Lawrence would be a grim foreshadowing of the nation’s future as it headed toward war between the states.
“It pitted both sides against each other, and they battled it out here in a way that had not been seen before,” Nowak said. “It anticipated what the nation would be going through come 1861 at the beginning of the Civil War.”