On Sept. 11, 1855, Hannah Ropes, a 46-year-old single parent, stepped onto a train in Boston and headed to the ‘Far-Off Land’ of Kansas to fight slavery.
She was with her daughter Alice and about 25 other people, including men, women and 10 children. They were part of the exodus of abolitionists from New England to establish a strong anti-slavery presence in the Kansas Territory.
When the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law on May 30, 1854, it allowed the residents of each territory to vote on whether they’d be free or slave when they qualified for statehood. The territories were then flooded with pro- and anti-abolitionists.
During that arduous journey to Kansas, Hannah Ropes’ party encountered slavery supporters on a steamboat. The two sides then got into an argument. “There is not a good spirit shown on either side,” she wrote.
That was an understatement.
She was born Hannah Anderson in New Gloucester, Maine, on June 13, 1809, to a family of prominent lawyers. She grew up deeply religious and passionately opposed to slavery. At 25, she married William Ropes, an educator, and they moved to Waltham, Mass. They had four children, two of whom lived to adulthood.
The marriage failed and her husband abandoned her. When her son Edward turned 18 in 1855, he left to claim a homestead in Kansas and to help build the Free Soil presence. He built a small cabin outside of Lawrence.
Hannah Ropes and her daughter Alice then decided to join him. The New England Emigrant Aid Company may have sponsored them.
It started out in April 1854 as the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company in Worcester, Mass. The first party, of about 1,250 people, arrived in Kansas on Aug. 1, 1854. By the spring of 1855, 13 parties of similar size came to Kansas.
The company advertised in newspapers. Lucy Larcom wrote Call to Kansas, and John Greenleaf Whittier wrote The Kansas Emigrants, poems widely published in newspapers to promote the cause.
Eventually the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company merged with another to form the New England Emigrant Aid Company. It founded Lawrence, Kan., named after the company secretary, Amos Adams Lawrence. It also founded Manhattan, Kan., and was instrumental in Topeka and Osawatomie. The company built gristmills and sawmills in Lawrence, Topeka, Manhattan, Osawatomie, Burlington, Wabaunsee, Atchison, Batcheller (now Milford) and Mapleton.
The founders hoped the company would send 20,000 emigrants to Kansas a year, but that dream was never realized. What did happen was that Border Ruffians from Missouri moved to Kansas to tip the balance toward slavery.
Hannah Ropes and her daughter left New England with a party. They boarded a train in Boston on Sept. 11, 1855 and traveled to Albany, N.Y., where they all spent the night together in one room that lacked a bed. They continued by train through Ontario and past Detroit, arriving in Alton, Ill. There they boarded a steamer for St. Louis. From there she boarded a steamboat to Kansas City via the Missouri River. From Kansas City, Ropes and nine others traveled by covered wagon to Lawrence, arriving on Friday, Sept. 23.
She got there just as ‘Bleeding Kansas’ was earning its nickname. Newspapers were reporting on the rape of several Northern women – including a mother and daughter – by pro-slavery ruffians in Kansas.
For the next six months she tended to sick people in Lawrence ‘with loaded pistol and a Bowie knife on my table at night.’
Conditions in Kansas
In November she wrote a letter to Sen. Charles Sumner describing conditions in Kansas. “There is not, there has not been, a single cabin safe from outrage anywhere in the territory for the two past weeks,” she wrote. “Without the slightest provocation, men are cut down, leaving families in lone places without any protection; our cattle are taken; teams of freight stopped on the public way, and all the merchandize handled over, to see what it contains.”
She described how marauders stole ammunition from wagoners and sent back with apples, potatoes and flour unsold. When “gentlemen” rode their carriages from Kansas City, half-drunk Missourians seize their horses’ heads, demand their business and make them pledge they won’t tell Lawrence people how near armed men camp around them.”
She then described how “a strong and noble specimen of a man” passed by her cabin. “I heard his cheerful voice, and the slow tramp of his horse, as though he did not wish to disturb our sleep, but only to assure us of safety. To-day, while off of duty, he is cut down as a butcher would an ox.”
She told Sumner their houses are no protection. “Long before this reaches you, other victims will sleep their last sleep,” she concluded. “There is hardly a cabin which a strong man could not tear down.”
In February, she was staying at the Free State Hotel, originally built as a fort. She wrote to her mother about the mice: “There is no space of this room which they have not measured with their rapid feet, and no secret hiding place they have not peered into.
Ultimately, Hannah Ropes couldn’t stand the threat of violence and the unsanitary living conditions that caused disease to spread. She returned to New England after six months. Her fears of violence proved correct. Pro-slavery people sacked the town of Lawrence a few months after she left. Eight hundred border ruffians looted the town after bombarding the Free State Hotel, destroying the printing presses and burning down the governor’s house.
Hannah Ropes made the most of the experience: She published a book, Six Months in Kansas: By A Lady, a collection of letters she wrote to her mother. She dedicated it to her own mother and blamed the conflict in Kansas on that ‘most unmitigated calamity Heaven ever suffered upon the earth–Franklin Pierce.’
Years later she took her Kansas nursing experience to Washington, D.C., where she volunteered as a Civil War nurse with Louisa May Alcott. She then caught typhoid pneumonia in the hospital and died on Jan. 20, 1863, at the age of 53.
With thanks to Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes. This story was updated in 2022.