New Haven’s Free-Soil Settlers

June 5, 2020

In 1854, the western frontiers were opening up as the commercial competition for the first intercontinental railroad line was taking off. The United States was in possession of vast unorganized territories of formerly Native American land that the proposed railroads would need to cross. The territories of what would become the states of Kansas and Nebraska required the settlement of white Americans to eventually enter the Union as states. The battle over slavery came into question as the United States at the time had a tenuous balance of congressional representation between states that supported slavery and those that didn’t. The representation fell along the lines of North and South, in correlation with the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that banned slavery north of the 36-30 latitude parallel and did not extend slavery west of the Mississippi River (excluding the state of Missouri) into territories originally acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. That all changed on May 22, 1854 when Stephen A. Douglas succeeded in pushing through a new law that was based on popular sovereignty, which was the idea that a majority of residents in the territories would decide whether Kansas and Nebraska would be a free-soil or slave state when admitted to the Union.


Citizens of New Haven were outraged at the passing of the new law, and within weeks rallied abolitionist support against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In September 1854, Eli Thayer, the President of the New England Emigrant Aid Society, came from Massachusetts to speak and urge the founding of a local chapter of the society in New Haven. The talk was endorsed by Professor Benjamin Silliman of Yale and Leonard Bacon, who was an avid abolitionist and the pastor of what is now Center Church on the Green. (Bacon’s writings at the time would go on to open Abraham Lincoln’s eyes and heavily influence his positions on slavery.) The society sought to send and support the colonization of anti-slavery settlers from New England to the Kansas territory. These New England emigrants would boost the anti-slave population election numbers over the threshold required to allow Kansas to enter the U.S. as a free state, and they would do so by both successfully farming the land and fighting a guerilla war with settlers from Missouri and the South.

On March 20, 1856, a group of New Haven men, women and children made way for the open frontier of the west. Their departure was blessed by the prominent New England abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, who was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The group was fully equipped with “plows, bibles and rifles.” The group settled in Waubonsse, a small community approximately 70 miles from Lawrence, which was the center of the Free-Soilers. The arrival of the New Haven contingent coincided with a heavy attack on Lawrence by pro slavery “Border Ruffians.” Days later the radical abolitionist John Brown, from Torrington, Connecticut, led a counter attack that claimed the lives of 5 pro-slavery settlers and plunged the territory into the border war known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

Over the course of the next 5 years provisions and equipment were sent from New Haven to the settlers. These shipments often contained Sharpe’s rifles packaged in crates labeled books or tools, and turned the tide over the practice of slavery in the area. Kansas would be admitted to the United States as a slavery-free state in 1861, just as 6 states in the South were seceding from the Union. The New Haven group of pioneers had helped turn the tide in Kansas, but these years came to be seen as the forerunner of the ultimate battle over slavery in the U.S., the American Civil War.

Jason Bischoff-Wurstle
Director of Photo Archives, New Haven Museum

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