The Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society

The Report of the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society was written by the Company's founder and president, Eli Thayer, in 1854. It was published along with the Company charter and selected letters from Dr. Charles Robinson, an early Company agent and founder of Lawrence, Kansas. While the entire document contains the same kind of vivid pastoral imagery examined by Henry Nash Smith in his book Virgin Land, the Report and its supplementary documents are particularly striking in that they intertwine the idea of a farmer's paradise with the moral challenge of keeping slavery out of Kansas.

The Report begins by presenting the bargain that awaits those hardy souls who decide to set out for the West: "the fertility of our western regions, and the cheapness of the public lands" (5) would seem to imply that the venture would be a promising one for all who made the attempt. The myth of the Garden is further described in a later passage, with emphasis to its abundance in natural resources:

"It is to be remembered that the region of Kansas is the most desirable part of America now open to the emigrant. It is accessible in four days of continuous travel from Boston. Its crops are very bountiful, its soil being well adapted to the staples of Virginia and Kentucky and especially to the growing of hemp. In its eastern section, woodland and prarie-land intermix in proportions very well adapted for the purposes of the settler. Its mineral reources, especially its coal, in the central and Western parts, are inexhaustible." (9)

A letter from Charles Robinson, pubished with the Report, infuses the Gardern with the even more alluring quality of transcendental splendor:

"The scenery that most attracts such men is found nearer, in the eastern portion of this territory, where the deep virgin soil of the rolling prairie invites the plough and spade. . . The prairie seems to be an endless succession of rolls, with a smooth, green surface, dotted all over with most beautiful flowers. The soil is of the most rich and fertile character, with no waste land. The feelings that come over a person, as he first views this immense ocean of land, are indescribable. As far as the eye can reach, he sees nothing but a beautiful green carpet, save here and there perhaps a cluster of trees; he hears nothing but the feathered songsters of the air, and he feels nothing but a solemn awe in view of this infinite display of creative power." (14)

A description of Nebraska that was taken from from the Newburyport, MA Herald and included in the publication provides images of both the immense scope of the term 'Garden of the World' and the destined link between Nature and the new farmer:

"For two hundred miles west of Missouri, what constitutes the valley of the territory, the soil is a deep black loam, in richness equalling any portion of the United States, and capable of supporting a great population. For a grain country the lands Ohio and Michigan are as far behind this as New England behind them; and within twenty years flour will come down the Missouri river for exportation to all parts of the world, in such quantities as we have never dreamed of. Nature has been ages garnering up her fertilizing properties there, and from one period to another, through untold times, gathering strength that she might pour abundance into the barns of the first settlers." (25)

Despite this paradise, "the critical position of the Western territories" (5) threatened the resolve of most all potential settlers, especially those from Europe. The incorporation of popular sovereignity in the Kansas-Nebraska Act made the territory's residents-- and not the Federal government-- responsible for the question of slavery in their own backyard. The proximity of Kansas to slave-owning Missouri, along with the lack of any natural border between the two regions, prompted pro-slavery individuals to flood into the new territory when it was opened up for settlement. The opposite effect took place in the North. The possibility of harrassment by pro-slavery forces both during the trip and upon arrival, along with the chance that the whole area could one day be organized into a pro-slavery region, was decreasing the flow of settlers from the Northern states. However, the Emigrant Aid Company offered to protect the travelers by sending them in organized groups to Lawerence, where the Company had built reception facilities-- which doubled as fortifications should the Border Ruffians attack. The fostering of anti-slavery communities in the territory would then inevitably produce "those social influences which radiate from the church, the school, and the press," (6) which could be further exercised at the ballot box.

The moral imperative of outlawing slavery in the future states of Kansas and Nebraska was supported by the economic benefits that awaited them and their self-proclaimed patriarchs in the New England states. A slave state based on feudal plantation society offered less advantages to an emerging industrial community than the consumer-oriented settlers from the North, as the following passage implies:

"Again, the enterprise opens commercial advantages to the commercial States, just in proportion to the population which it creates, of free men who furnish a market to our manufactures and imports. Whether the new line of States shall be Free States or Slave States, is a question deeply interesting to those who are to provide the manufactures for their consumption. Especially it will prove an advantage to Massachusetts, if she create the new state by her foresight-- supply the first necessities to its inhabitants-- and open, in the outset, communications between their homes and her ports and factories." (8)

Thus for both the settler and the investor, there was profit in a Free Kansas. The territory would have the benevolent acoutrements of industry, and exclude the relatively self-sufficient plantation economy.

Despite its commercial overtones,the Massachusetts Emmigrant Aid Society saw the settlement of Kansas and Nebraska to be first and foremost a mission for "the propogation of liberty, as an offset to the counter propagandism of Slavery by the slave States" (30). This undertaking would have been impossible were it not for the myth of the Garden that was so aggressively promoted in their publication. Although the Company was only successful in sending a few thousand settlers to the territories, those who did go indubitably assisted in voting the pro-slavery factions out of power. Theirs was a crusade for freedom, carried out through the occupation of virgin land.


The Report of the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society is available from the University of Kansas.

Return to the introductory essay

Return to the table of contents