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New England Emigrant Aid Company sign

A group of Massachusetts businessmen helped keep slavery out of the Kansas constitution.

New England Emigrant Aid Society sign.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act opened these lands for settlement in 1854. Under the new law, residents of the territories could decide if their state constitutions permitted slavery. The concept allowing voters to choose what is right for themselves is called popular sovereignty.

While Congress debated the Kansas-Nebraska Act, many Northerners feared that proslavery Missourians would cross the border into Kansas and tip the balance in favor of the "peculiar institution." On the opposing side, Missourians and Southerners believed a free Kansas would threaten slave property in Missouri.

Preventing the Spread of Slavery

As tension mounted across the country, Eli Thayer of Massachusetts devised a plan to prevent slavery from spreading to Kansas. He believed that if enough antislavery supporters settled in the territory, they could capture the vote and make Kansas a free state. One month before the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law, Thayer and other prestigious New England businessmen incorporated the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company. One year later it reorganized as the New England Emigrant Aid Company (NEEAC).

Eli Thayer, 1870sThe company's goals were profit-driven as well as politically motivated. It wanted to secure low-cost transportation for emigrants, build mills, and provide temporary housing for settlers when they reached Kansas Territory. A newspaper would promote the good morals the company wished to spread throughout the territory.

These morals did not include supporting slavery. NEEAC secretary Thomas Webb wrote in an 1855 pamphlet that although individuals in the emigrant parties were not required to vote against slavery in Kansas Territory, it was assumed they would.

Antislavery Settlers

NEEAC sent its first group of settlers to Kansas Territory in 1854. The party of 29 men reached Kansas City, Missouri, on July 29, 1854. From there they traveled to a site on the Wakarusa River where they founded the first of several towns for the company.  The residents eventually settled on the name of Lawrence, after NEEAC's treasurer, Amos Lawrence.  It became the company's base of operations in the new territory. 

Other parties of emigrants joined the first group over the next few years and were instrumental in founding Topeka, Osawatomie, and Manhattan. These towns became centers for antislavery activity. NEEAC agents later assumed powerful positions when Kansas gained statehood in 1861. Charles Robinson became the first state governor, Samuel Pomeroy served as one of the first U.S. Senators, and Martin Conway represented Kansas for the first time in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The company kept territorial events before the national press during a very dynamic time in history. Its activities lead to a major setback that provided a great deal of publicity for both the company and the free-state cause. In 1856, a proslavery mob attacked Lawrence and destroyed the company's Free State Hotel and other NEEAC property. This event, plus news of escalating violence in the territory, aroused northern sympathy and led to the formation of other aid societies providing assistance to the territory.

NEEAC never made money for its stockholders, and less than 2,000 settlers came to Kansas as a direct result of its activities, however, the company was important in settling Kansas and making it a free state.

This sign probably was used at the Boston headquarters of the New England Emigrant Aid Company. It is in the collections of the Society's Kansas Museum of History.

Entry: New England Emigrant Aid Company sign

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: October 2004

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.