Michael J. Malone
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This Month in Legal History

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This page contains the "This Month in Legal History" column as published in the current Michael J. Malone Douglas County Law Library E-Mail Newsletter. The column features a different event from the history of law and jurisprudence of Douglas County, Kansas, that occurred during the month. It is published monthly in the Michael J. Malone Douglas County Law Library E-Mail Newsletter and on the Home page of this website.

Archived entries from this and previous years can be accessed by visiting the This Month in Legal History Archive page on this website.

February 17, 1897 - The New England Emigrant Aid Company transfers its claim for the destruction of the Free State Hotel to the University of Kansas.

On January 4, 1854, a bill to create the territories of Kansas and Nebraska was reported to the main body of the United States Senate. The bill, that came to be known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, had been introduced by the senior senator from Illinois, Stephen A. Douglas. There was a significant amount of pressure coming from proponents of slavery to end restrictions on slavery in new territories. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had set the line of latitude of the southern border of Missouri as the northern boundary for new slave states to form in the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase, and the proslavery powers were pushing to end this. Douglas knew he would need support from southern senators to get his bill passed, so he included the concept of "popular sovereignty" in it. Popular sovereignty meant that the residents of a territory could vote on whether it would come into the Union as a slave or free state, in effect, throwing out the Missouri Compromise. As the winter of 1854 turned to spring, the word out of Washington was that the bill would likely pass. Eastern abolitionists began to plan on how to respond to this dramatic change in the prospects for the future of slavery in the country. In April the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company was formed under the guidance of Eli Thayer of Worcester, Massachusetts. It was established as both a benevolent and moneymaking venture, and its initial aims were to secure reduced transportation fares to the west for Free State emigrants traveling in companies organized and directed by the company, to provide temporary accommodations for settlers, to build or buy steam saw and grist mills, and to establish a weekly newspaper in Kansas to act as the voice of the company. The company planned to make a profit on investments by purchasing the land upon which its hotels and mills stood, and when land values increased, sell for the benefit of the stockholders. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed by Congress and was signed into law by President Franklin Pierce on May 30, 1854. The first party of Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company settlers arrived at the future site of Lawrence, Kansas Territory, on August 1, 1854. That summer and fall, five other parties arrived bringing a total of around 450 settlers. In February 1855, a new charter of the company was written, changing the name of the company to the New England Emigrant Aid Company. The company established other towns in Kansas, but Lawrence became the headquarters of the Free State movement in the territory, and the focus of anti-abolitionist hatred from the proponents of slavery both in and outside Kansas. That spring, seven more company parties brought out another 800 Free State settlers. Work was begun on a hotel in Lawrence to house new settlers that arrived in town until houses could be built for them. George W. Hunt, who had lead one of the company's settler parties to Kansas, joined with another man to be the contractors for the building of the hotel, destined to be named the Free State. The hotel was also intended to serve as the headquarters for the New England Emigrant Aid Company in Kansas. It was a very substantial three-story structure made of stone. Proslavery partisans, including many territorial officials, accused it of being built as a fortress for the Free State men in Lawrence to illegally resist the lawful authorities. The Free State Hotel opened in April 1856, just before the violence between pro and antislavery factions in the territory, which had led to it becoming known as "Bleeding Kansas," dramatically escalated. In May, United States Marshal Israel B. Donaldson(1) was issued warrants for the arrest of several Lawrence residents for their supposed activities against the government. He began to assemble a posse of proslavery men to help him inforce the warrant. They camped a few miles west of the town while the men assembled. On the morning of May 21, 1856, the proslavery posse ate breakfast, and then was drawn up into a hollow square formation. Marshal Donaldson was introduced, and gave his orders for the day to his men, to march into Lawrence and enforce his warrants. Next to speak was David Rice Atchison. Atchison was a United States Senator for Missouri. He had served as President pro tempore of the United States Senate for six years, and had requested that Senator Stephen Douglas introduce the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Atchison was strongly in favor of Kansas becoming as slave state, and bitterly opposed the Free State men in Lawrence. He made a fiery speech to the assembled proslavery posse, excoriating the town, and telling the posse to crush out "the last sign of damned abolitionism in the territory of Kansas." Donaldson then led the posse into Lawrence, took over the town, and began serving his warrants. When he was finished, the Marshal left Lawrence. The proslavery sheriff of Douglas County, Sam Jones, took command of the proslavery posse. Jones had had several previous run-ins with citizens of Lawrence, and blamed the town for the attempt on his life when he had been shot there by an unknown gunman the month before. Jones claimed that he was a deputy United States marshal and had a warrant from the federal court in the territory to suppress what he said was an insurrection against the government. He led the posse as they proceeded to sack and burn the town. They had brought a cannon with them, and they fired several rounds at the Free State Hotel. It was so well built that the shot did little structural damage, but instead only knocked off pieces of the stone exterior. One piece of the stone landed on a proslavery man and killed him. They gave up trying to destroy the hotel with the cannon and instead lit it on fire. The hotel was gutted, leaving only smoking ruins of the stone walls standing when the proslavery posse left town. The violence in the territory continued to be intense for the rest of the summer of 1856, but slowly decreased in later years as the Free State cause became ascendant, with Kansas being admitted to the Union as a Free State on January 29, 1861. The following year, the stockholders of the New England Emigrant Aid Company ordered that all of its properties in Kansas and Missouri be sold. When this was completed, the company realized sufficient funds to just about pay its outstanding debts. Early on, the stockholders had been advised to not invest more money than they could afford to lose, so despite the lack of a profit, they were pleased with the results of its operations. After Kansas became a state, 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 bringing Northerners to Florida. By 1870, the company had ceased activities, and held no more stockholders' meetings until 1897, when it requested and was granted an extension to its charter. On February 17, 1897, the stockholders transferred to the University of Kansas its only asset, a claim against the United States government for the loss of the Free State Hotel when it was destroyed on May 21, 1856. The University filed a claim with the United States Court of Claims in 1903 seeking damages for the loss. On January 28, 1907, the court denied the claim, finding that when Sheriff Jones and his posse destroyed the hotel, "it does not appear that the said Sheriff had any official connection with the United States." It was true, the court said, that Jones had announced that he was a deputy United States marshal, that he was acting under an order of the "United States Court for Douglas County," and that he had a writ from the court, but all those announcements were untrue. Less than a month later, on February 19, 1907, the extended charter for the New England Emigrant Aid Company expired, and the company ceased to exist. Not satisfied with the ruling from the claims court, the University continued to seek legislative relief for their claim off and on until 1934, when it finally abandoned the effort.

(1) There is a question about the spelling of the Marshal's last name. Although most if not all secondary sources that discuss the Marshal's activities in Kansas spell his name as "Donaldson", there is strong evidence that he may have spelled it "Donalson". Not having access to any primary material that was signed by him limits the ability to determine which spelling is correct, so in effect, the two spellings of the Marshal's name are interchangeable.

From: Kansas-Nebraska Act, Wikipedia website; New England Emigrant Aid Company Papers , Kansas Historical Society website; Proceedings of the Fitchburg Historical Society and Papers Relating to the History of the Town Read by Some of the Members, Volume II, Fitchburg, Mass., The Historical Society, 1897, pp. 290-292; Massachusetts Street: Monuments and Milestones, The Eldridge Hotel, Watkins Museum of History website; Speech, David R. Atchison to Pro-Slavery "Soldiers", May 21, 1856, Territorial Kansas On-Line website; The University of Kansas and the Sack of Lawrence: A Problem of Intellectual Honesty, by C. S. Griffin, Kansas Historical Quarterly, Winter 1968 (Vol. XXXIV. No. 4), pp. 409-426; and, Letter from the assistant clerk of the court of claims transmitting a copy of the findings of the court in the case of the regents of the University of Kansas against the United States, 59th Congress, 2nd Session, Senate, Document 274, Unites States Congressional Serial Set, Issue 5072, [pp. 75-80].

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Created: November 27, 2006; Revised: February 9, 2015