Massachusetts

Edward Fitch, a Massachusetts Martyr in Bleeding Kansas

During the long struggle to abolish slavery in America, Edward Fitch did not hold political office. Nor did he serve as an officer of the Union Army or in any other position typically honored in connection to the Civil War. But without the commitment, fortitude and sacrifice of men like him, the Northern abolitionist cause might have ended years before the war.

Edward Fitch

The son of a Massachusetts farmer, Edward Fitch joined hundreds of New England abolitionists migrating westward to settle in the Kansas Territory. Promises of opportunity on the American frontier drew them there. But they also uprooted their lives to help ensure that slavery would not spread to Kansas once it entered the Union as a state.

Though Fitch faced many challenges and dangers, he doggedly persisted in his new home.

Bleeding Kansas

For five years after settlement opened, “Bleeding Kansas” suffered through a series of stand-offs and violent clashes over slavery. Its brave settlers also had to bear persistent low-level conflict and banditry, which often resulted in personal ruin. These events were a tragic prelude to the Civil War. During those five years, the Kansas Territory emerged as the most dangerous and volatile region of the United States.

One might say that Edward Fitch had a front-row seat to all of it. But that would imply he merely stood by passively.

In fact, Fitch did far more than watch powerful political and societal changes. An impassioned defender of Black freedom, he ultimately gave his life for it. Edward Fitch died in a Civil War-era civilian slaughter, the last monstrous gasp of Bleeding Kansas. He perished trying to protect not only his beloved wife and children, but the ideal of emancipation that the community he helped build had come to represent. This included a tireless resistance to Southern racists’ incursions upon his community.

He did not die in vain. Even hundreds of deaths could not have crushed such a firmly rooted ideal. Edward had done his part to transmit the spirit of abolitionism through the Lawrence community and amplify it.

To this day, the power to transform nations, right historical wrongs and achieve racial justice still depends on the collective actions of ordinary people like Edward Fitch.

Caption: Kansas Territory and Missouri on a 1855 map. Note the alternate spelling.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act

President Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act on May 30, 1854. Previously, Kansas and Nebraska had belonged to the Indian Territory. Many Native tribes of the Southeast had been forcibly relocated to the Indian Territory after 1830, as they suffered along the Trail of Tears.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act officially created two new American territories on the western frontier. It also opened vast tracts of the Louisiana Purchase to settlement, development and commerce.

The most contentious outcome of the Act was its effective repeal of the Missouri Compromise. The Compromise had blocked the expansion of slavery into the Great Plains since 1820. The Supreme Court would later deem it unconstitutional in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857).

Before the court struck it down, though, Pierce sacrificed the Missouri Compromise to ensure Southern support. Territories could choose to enter the Union as free or slave, depending on the preference of the Americans who settled there. Southern senators justified such a repeal by invoking a form of so-called “popular sovereignty.” To some pro-slavery politicians of the 1850s, this seemed like a noble-sounding term that evoked America’s Revolutionary past. It could, they hoped, help them to find some common ground in a time of intense polarization over slavery. When filtered through reality, popular sovereignty became something closer to a massive feud.

Prior to the Civil War, civilian emigrants fought the battle against slavery in Kansas. Resourceful people, they focused on making a profitable living and providing for their families. However, they did not compromise in their commitment to abolitionism, even in the face of violence. Many came from New England, creating an important historical link between the Northeast and Kansas. The convictions of New Englanders became those of Kansas, and had a long-lasting effect in shaping the state’s identity and culture.

Edward Fitch

March 8, 1832 – Edward Payson Fitch is born in the town of Hopkinton, Mass., on a crowded family farm. A hub of shoe and boot manufacturing through the 19th century, Hopkinton is now recognized as the start of the Boston Marathon.

Hopkinton

Edward Fitch was one of the five sons of John Fitch and Lucy Howe. Not much information about his early years in Hopkinton has survived. But even without precise details, his life story provides enough clues to form a picture of his attitude as a young man. As Edward grew into adulthood, he began to find his surroundings stifling.

Crammed into a Massachusetts farmhouse with four brothers, Edward Fitch would have had hardly any room to expand his horizons. Bringing a wife and children into an already full home was out of the question. Furthermore, available farmland in the Hopkinton area was scarce and expensive. His chances for prospering in his hometown seemed dim. Edward did not have an especially adventurous personality, but he felt the squeeze and he wanted a way out.

At some point around March 1854, Edward caught word of the New England Emigrant Aid Company. It advertised transport to Kansas for potential settlers. The company expected its settlers to vote against the territory entering the Union as a slave state. Founded in Boston by Massachusetts state Rep. Eli Thayer, the company sought to turn a profit from abolitionist sentiment. Though it was an opportunistic enterprise, it was vital in establishing anti-slavery communities in Kansas.

Sign used by the New England Emigrant Aid company at their Boston headquarters. Edward Fitch would have walked by this sign before his departure.

An Abolitionist Is Born

Edward Fitch found the company’s pitch appealing on multiple levels. He would have potentially lucrative access to cheap frontier land for real estate speculation. He would have space to grow a family. And as a citizen of Kansas, Edward could vote against the spread of slavery. Edward’s father, an active community leader involved with state government, had been one of Hopkinton’s earliest supporters of the anti-slavery Liberty Party when Edward was a child. Seeing his father’s activism probably left a strong impression on the young Edward. It may have set a guiding example for his own political literacy as an adult.

While Edward may have initially absorbed his abolitionist beliefs from his parent, he was no less sincere in holding them independently. In his later letters, he railed against President Abraham Lincoln for what he felt was a weak and ineffective response to slavery. He harshly criticized Lincoln’s reluctance to take measures toward  immediate and full abolition.

During the Civil War, Edward even quipped, “I almost wish that the Rebels had after Bull Run advanced and taken Washington and then seen whether there was any spunk in the East or not.” He hoped Maj. Gen. John Frémont, commander of the Western Department in wartime, would succeed the more pragmatic Lincoln as president.

For Edward, the drive to abolish slavery was far from an abstract political imperative. He felt it inseparable from his deepest faith in God and his duty as a Christian. Thus, ending slavery was of the gravest urgency and something worth dying for.

Edward Fitch Makes the Journey

In August 1854, Edward Fitch packed his bags, said goodbye to his family and headed to Boston. Once he arrived, the New England Emigrant Aid Company prepared him for his journey. He left with the company’s third traveling party. His group was presented with a song to sing on its departure. It gave their trip an almost heroic, crusading aura. “’Tis Freedom calls us hither,/For Freedom’s sake we roam;/Mid Western wilds, in Freedom’s cause,/We’ll make our happy home.”

During a stop on the road, Fitch encountered a fellow Northerner. The man told him he “ought to have a straitjacket on” for thinking it a good idea to upend his entire life and resettle in Kansas. Fitch would later criticize his hypocrisy and others who claimed to oppose slavery, but refused to resist it.

When Fitch finally laid eyes upon the newly established village of Lawrence, Kans., his feelings of idealism and optimism deflated. Rather than a hub of industry and commerce, he saw what looked like an army camp. The town, mostly composed of tents, had a few small brick structures covered only with hay. Fitch’s earliest letters to his Massachusetts family from Kansas were tinged with regret and homesickness. He complained that he could not teach school there, due to the demands of keeping a boarding house for the many other emigrant arrivals. (Edward Fitch had taught classes in Hopkinton for a year or two.) With such a lack of infrastructure, the early settler found living hard.

Sketch of early Lawrence, Kans., circa 1854 or 1855

Stay or Go?

Some men shook their heads at the situation, gave up, and left, hoping to find better luck farther out west. Fitch may have nearly joined them, writing to his parents “You need not be surprised if…I have decided to go to California.” But he also recognized the necessity of remaining on his property to protect his claim. He bet that its value would greatly increase as the town developed.

Edward Fitch would later write that other feelings influenced his choice to stay. If he were to turn tail and abandon his claim in Lawrence, he dreaded the thought of Southern slaveholders moving in to fill the void with their plantations. These were places where American Blacks were forced to toil in the most dehumanizing conditions from birth till death, an affront to God and humanity. With this in mind, he was no doubt influenced by a deep personal desire to take part in the political and social situation of Kansas, promote abolitionist values, and make his mark on history. Ultimately, he decided to settle permanently in Lawrence, and he finalized his plans to build a farmhouse on his own lot in September 1855.

Staking a Claim

According to Chad Lawhorn of the current-day Kansas Press Association, it has been said that while most other cities of the world were founded on commerce, Lawrence was instead founded on conviction. Many people came to Lawrence looking to make their fortunes and become wealthy. Edward Fitch belonged to this category. But a shared conviction against slavery thickly permeated the community. As Lawrence grew from a frontier outpost into a real town with its own identity, it quickly gained a reputation as a stronghold of the abolitionist movement.

“Missourians Going to Kansas to Vote” by F.O.C. Darley

Resentful of growing Northern influence in Kansas, Southerners accused Lawrence’s citizens of harboring Free-State guerrilla bandits. Known as jayhawkers, their name endures today through University of Kansas sports teams. Their counterparts, “border ruffians” from nearby Missouri, sought to ensure that Kansas would become a slave state. They attempted to assert white supremacy through violence, intimidation, and voter fraud. (Although voting was officially restricted to those who lived within Kansas, in practice, agitators often flouted that restriction. Lawrence’s respect for the freedom of all races, which Fitch shared, made the town their number-one target.

A Skirmish

About a year after Edward Fitch arrived in Bleeding Kansas, he first witnessed tensions over slavery rise to a boil. He entered the fray. Sometime around August 1855, Fitch joined with a group of white settlers who came to defend a Black freeman. Southern agitators threatened the man, calling him a runaway slave. They meant to abduct him across the border and put him in chains for sale as human property.

The sight of marauding slavers capturing Blacks was a tragically common scene across America during the time of the Fugitive Slave Act. But the citizens of Lawrence refused to allow the law to victimize one of their own. Armed with his prized Sharps rifle, Fitch helped to send the would-be kidnappers in retreat. He embodied the words of the New England abolitionist minister Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher famously said that the Sharps rifle had more more moral power than a hundred Bibles when dealing with slaveholders. Anti-slavery groups often smuggled them into Kansas inside of innocuously labeled boxes. Fitch may have acquired his that way.

Ad for the rifle designed by Christian Sharps, which Fitch owned and used

The “War” Before the War

Lawrence increasingly came under siege from violent Missourians. Whether he was running an errand in town or escorting a lady to her home, Fitch had to be armed with his rifle at almost all times. A recurring refrain appears in his letters to his family from this time. “Send me a good pistol,” he wrote, or “I wish I had a good Colts revolver.” Sometimes he added a more detailed description of his preferred make. Quite understandably, he had begun to fear for his own life and those of others around him. He needed a dependable sidearm for added protection.

The escalating aggression came to a head in November 1855 with a grueling two-week armed standoff. Known as the Wakarusa War, a posse of Free-Staters set it off by rescuing Jacob Branson. Branson had witnessed a murder committed by a pro-slavery man. Instead of arresting the killer, Sheriff Samuel Jones had taken in the Free-Stater Branson on spurious charges of disturbing the peace.

The rescue of Branson

Lawrence did not recognize the county’s corrupt, pro-slavery government as legitimate. Elected largely by border ruffians who had broken the law to vote in Kansas, it was deemed the “bogus” administration. Thus, the people of Lawrence felt their resistance to law enforcement was a righteous response to an enemy’s injustices. In retaliation, Sheriff  Jones, along with former U.S. Sen. David Rice Atchinson, roused a large group of ruffians to attack Lawrence. Notably, they were armed by the official state arsenal of Missouri. Over five years before the Civil War officially began, Fitch already described his service in confronting the South as resembling that of a soldier in a war.

An earthen mud fort of the type used in the Wakarusa War’s siege defenses

Standoff

Wakarusa became the most serious test yet of Fitch’s resolve and courage as an abolitionist. He was now an enlisted man — not in the Union Army, but in the local militia. The Lawrence militia counted around 800 men against 700 to 1500 invaders (accounts vary).

For two tension-filled weeks, he bravely stood ready to fight, even sleeping with his Sharps rifle by his side. Fitch was all too aware that at any moment, a single gunshot could have transformed the stand-off into open warfare and ended his life. Lawrence’s militia had little cover, besides some hastily dug mud-and-dirt fortifications. During the “war,” the abolitionist crusader John Brown and his sons aided Lawrence. Miraculously, a brokered truce ended the stand-off, with no real battle or raid having taken place. The next time would not be so fortunate.

Destruction

On May 21, 1856, Fitch was forced to endure the sacking of Lawrence. The event left the town’s Free State Hotel in ruins, and its anti-slavery newspapers were sabotaged and ransacked. Once again, the raid was led by Samuel Jones, who sought to break Lawrence’s spirit and its ability to fight back. He did not succeed at depriving the Free-Staters of their weapons, but he left the town battered by cannon fire and explosives before it was looted. It likely weighed heavily on Edward Fitch’s soul to know that for all his effort and courage, he had been unable to prevent such devastation. The sheriff’s invading forces had taken the high ground on Mount Oread, and thoroughly surrounded the rest of Lawrence, ensuring that any attempt to stop the sack would have likely been suicide.

Ruins of the Free State Hotel

Even under such circumstances, Fitch managed to successfully mail a letter to Massachusetts five days later. He wanted to confirm to his family that he was alive, and react to this latest, worst injustice against his town. In the aftermath of the sacking, emboldened border ruffians ran fully rampant across Kansas, knowing that they could count on state support. Fitch’s writing took on an ever more hurried and anxious tone, with currents of righteous fury. He recognized that the conflict in Kansas had reached a turning point. He expected that if the Bogus Legislature returned to Lawrence again, their next demand would be for all Free-Staters to “leave the territory or be hung.”

Dodging Hate

Though this prediction did not come to pass, smaller attacks from independent pro-slavery groups continued. Another one of Fitch’s letters included a grim observation: “Men are being found dead [around Lawrence] more or less every little while.” While the circumstances of these killings were often mysterious, the motives behind them were clear.

An example of Edward Fitch’s handwriting

To make matters worse, Edward Fitch now had to contend with a pro-slavery settler whose claim neighbored his own. This “neighbor” despised him as a personal enemy, and was likely inclined to violence. Wishing to avoid becoming another dead body on the road, Fitch began to stay away from his own property. In spite of this intimidation, he was aware of the importance of the events he was living through on the future of his country, especially the fates of over 3 million enslaved Blacks, and he did not shirk from his self-imposed duty.

Fitch’s parents now feared for their son’s life. But when they seemingly all but pleaded for him to leave Lawrence, and to return to the peace and safety of his Massachusetts hometown, he replied, “I could never be satisfied, I don’t think, to come back there to live.” He held his belief even after a failed business venture in Quindaro, Kans. that neutered his ambitions in real estate and finance. (Quindaro became an abandoned ghost town after the Civil War.) Although Edward had yearned to return to New England, he would have wanted such a trip to be short, and devoid of sentimentality or comfort, to “lift his voice up like a trumpet against the administration and slavery…” Even if it killed him, Edward was determined to make Kansas his home forever.

A street in Lawrence, circa 1858 or 1859

Finding Love

In spite of their many doubts, Edward Fitch’s parents would soon find a reason to celebrate their son’s choices. Edward’s time away from his claim transformed his life. He helped to fill his days by frequenting a book and stationery store located on Lawrence’s Massachusetts Street. Otis Wilmarth, a bookseller and bookbinder from Providence, R.I., owned the store. He would eventually employ Fitch.

Fitch aided the Wilmarths through their daily lives and personal crises, such as the illness and death of Otis’s wife Julia. He almost came to be seen as a part of their family. He then made that connection real. During his many visits to their store, Edward fell deeply in love with the family’s daughter, Sarah A. Wilmarth. She completely shared his values and convictions against slavery. The couple would be happily married in early 1857. Their joyous union bloomed all the more brightly amidst the fear and uncertainty of Bleeding Kansas, leading to the births of three Fitch children.

A Fruitful Life

Fitch had finally attained his dream of starting a family on the frontier. Now he could not help but share the joys of fatherhood with his Massachusetts family and friends. Amidst dry talk of legal and financial matters, and hot takes on politics, his boundless love for his wife and children repeatedly found its way into his letters home. He described events like his daughter taking her first steps in glowing terms. Sarah cherished Edward as the most ideal husband she could have wished for. He was practically her “living idol,” as she put it.

In the midst of the chaos of Bleeding Kansas, something else that brought a sense of stability and fulfillment to Edward Fitch’s life was his involvement in remotely organizing a Free-State charity drive in Hopkinton, Mass. This was an especially impressive feat in an age before the telephone or the internet. The treasured relief sent to Lawrence from his childhood home consisted of barrels filled with clothing and other necessities, which Fitch fairly divided up among the poor and needy.

Renewed Hope

The aid recipients included some people who had recently been well-off landowners. But pro-slavery ruffians had robbed or destroyed almost everything they owned. For instance, the abolitionist missionary George Lewis received a new set of clothes from Fitch’s mother, after he had returned home one day to find his entire farm razed. Despite his predicament, his spirits were raised by the Fitch family’s generosity. He later wrote them a letter expressing sincere gratitude, and a renewed hope for the Free-State cause. No one in Lawrence was left untouched by the conflict – their collective struggle was shared every day in large and small ways, and people became each other’s strength.

Even 1,440 miles from his Massachusetts hometown, Edward Fitch always kept a strong connection to his New England family. He frequently wrote to ask about his friends, relatives and acquaintances who still lived in Hopkinton. Though he had not seen them in years since his emigration, he remembered them well, and felt concern for them in his absence. Along with the support of his parents, this sentiment would have greatly aided in maintaining the connections needed for a successful interstate charity drive.

Flyer for a Lawrence Cornet Band concer

Fitch, a hobby musician, enjoyed playing the bass violin at gatherings and belonged to the Lawrence Cornet Band. He was keen to reminisce on the innocent feelings of his boyhood, and he had a surprising sense of humor at times. During a particularly cold winter, Fitch joked that he was considering moving “to Lapland,” where it was surely bound to be warmer. One of his letters humorously recalled an incident where a barrel of hard liquor was joyously paraded through the streets of Lawrence, with even some boys ending up tipsy, much to the consternation of the local Temperance movement.

A Tragic Sacrifice

Aug. 21, 1863 – The Civil War against the breakaway Confederate States of America was in its third year. The “bogus” administration of Kansas was no more, having been replaced by the Free-State Wyandotte Constitution. While the era of “Bleeding Kansas” had ended, all of America now bled profusely from the struggle over slavery.

William Clarke Quantrill

Away from the front lines, daily life still went on for the citizens of Lawrence. They had earned a relative sense of stability after Kansas attained statehood on January 29, 1861. The state constitution had made some painful compromises, denying suffrage to Blacks, Natives and women. But a complete prohibition on slavery was now the settled law of the land. For a time, this appeared to have finally ended the violence around Lawrence. However, the bastion of freedom was about to face the most terrible atrocity ever inflicted on it – the Lawrence Massacre.

Enter Quantrill’s Raiders: a vicious band of irregular, pro-Confederate guerrilla fighters, of the type known as bushwhackers. Their leader was the slave-catching bandit William Quantrill. Among their ignoble ranks: the notorious bank and train robber Jesse James.

In a brazen daylight attack, they invaded Lawrence with such swiftness that they caught the militia by surprise. The raiders slaughtered about 150 mostly unarmed civilians in a horrific frenzy, and burnt the majority of the town to the ground. Among the martyrs to freedom that day was Edward Fitch, just 31 years old.

An artist’s depiction of the Lawrence Massacre

The Death of Edward Fitch

Two weeks after the attack, Edward’s widow Sarah Fitch managed to summon enough courage and strength of will in her condition to write a heartrending letter. It described her late husband’s final sacrifice in full detail.

Before her family had any chance to escape, a drunken raider who appeared to Sarah like a demon from hell entered their house. He then growled that not one of them would leave alive. A second raider convinced the killer to spare the wife and children. But he did not relent in shooting to death the man of the house trying to protect his family.

As with many other buildings all over Lawrence during the raid, the invaders set fire to the Fitch house afterwards. They prevented Sarah from carrying Edward’s body or possessions out of the burning wreckage of their beloved home. Instead, Edward’s charred, cremated bones had to be recovered from the ashes, after the terror of the raid had receded into a quieter grief and agony over its toll.

Ruins of the massacre

Edward Fitch, Singled Out

Sarah believed Quantrill had singled out her family because Edward’s name appeared on a list of local militia members. Quantrill’s gang may have gotten the list. While not known for sure, modern research confirms that, in certain cases, the raiders had indeed planned specific targets for their revenge.

Sarah described a particular “spirit” that seemed to possess the outlaws who destroyed their home. She sensed a ferocity and hatred in them more terrible than the vengeance unleashed onto others.

The Union Army would respond to the massacre with the heavy-handed General Order No. 11. It forced many rural families in Missouri, the origin of the raid, to abandon their homes and farms.

Caption: Sarah (Wilmarth) Fitch. Taken in her later life, many years after the Civil War, this is the only known photograph of her.

The Aftermath

While the widowed Sarah would eventually marry another man, the real love of her life had been stolen from her. Nevertheless, Quantrill and his gang of pro-slavery killers failed to turn the tide of history. Slavery would be defeated. And even though Edward did not live to see it, the Lawrence survivors would rebuild their town from the ashes.

This heroic restoration from fire has been fittingly honored with a phoenix-themed memorial sculpture in Lawrence since the 2000s. In some sense, Edward’s own life continued through his three treasured children: Julia, Charles, and the infant Edward Payson Fitch, Jr., baptized during his father’s funeral.

Edward and Sarah’s children as adults

Edward Fitch’s life as a Kansas emigrant began with dreams of making it big in untapped real estate. But it ended because he took a stand against injustice. He did not need an official declaration of war or an army conscription to tell him to do so. He only needed his own convictions about the evil of slavery, and the commands of his personal faith.

“From the Ashes,” a sculpture near the Lawrence Visitors Center

Despite his parents’ pleas, Fitch refused to back down. He did not flee from the aggression toward Lawrence, even knowing the great danger to his family.

His story shows that New Englanders confronted the forces of slavery head-on in the 19th century. They did so not just on active military duty but as ordinary civilians. And they had reasons for moving west that transcended self-serving individualism or the flawed myth of “manifest destiny.” Though he never wore the fatigues of a Union soldier, Edward Fitch still played a role in emancipating Black Americans.

End Notes

          Eric Pratt, the author of this story, is a volunteer at the Hopkinton Historical Society in Massachusetts (https://hopkhistsoc.org/) with a BA in History. This article is deeply indebted to Chad Lawhorn’s book “Postmarked: Bleeding Kansas.” It includes a collection of Edward and Sarah Fitch’s original letters. It was also aided by the research materials in “Kansas History,” a journal of the Kansas State Historical Society.

 

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