I felt an immediate affinity for my guest this month, Linda S. Johnston. Not only are we the eastern stronghold of Women Writing the West, but we have both lived in Great Britain and have both moved house an inordinate amount of times. While I beat Linda in years spent in the U.K., she certainly outdoes me in moves—more than fifteen, including places as diverse as Margate, England; Seattle, Washington; and Roswell, New Mexico. But it was when she landed in Kansas in 1986 and began reading pioneer diaries that she felt a connection to the emigrants; she knew the emotions of packing up and moving on, leaving familiar places and faces for the unknown. As a writer, artist and naturalist, she combines history, art and nature in her writing as is evident in her first book, Hope Amid Hardship: Pioneer Voices from Kansas Territory.
After extensive research to bring the personal writings of these settlers to others, and share the happier side of pioneer life, Linda is quite an expert on the role of newspapers in Kansas Territory. I’m delighted for her to be here to share her thoughts with you. *********************************************************************** “The Press, Watson, is a most valuable institution, if you only know how to use it.” –Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of the Six Napoleons/ The Adventure of the Crooked Man
Indeed, people did know how to use the press in regards to Kansas Territory. Perhaps not exactly the way Arthur Conan Doyle meant, but between 1855 and 1860 over 98,000 people settled in Kansas Territory and in some way, newspapers touched them all.
Newspapers served a number of roles in the new territory, carved out of the Louisiana Purchase by the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. For the prospective pioneer, eastern newspapers offered various types of information on the frontier – travel advice, encouragement (“The man who comes here self-reliant will do well”), and news that consisted mainly of debate on the slavery issue. When Kansas Territory was established, it was left to the citizens to decide whether the future state would enter the union as a slave state or free state. Newspapers of both persuasions were up and running early in Leavenworth, Lawrence, and Topeka, the first towns to be settled. Once the emigrants had arrived in their adopted communities, local newspapers provided national and world news as well as information on entertainment, business, and agriculture. Feature articles covered holidays, social events, and the virtues of women. And lest readers become discouraged with their new life, papers such as the Herald of Freedom and Kansas Tribune, offered words of hope.
Eastern cities kept up with events in Kansas through reporters, families of settlers, and subscribers who traveled west, becoming pioneer correspondents.
Julia Louisa Lovejoy settled in Kansas in 1855 with her husband and children. Two weeks after arriving, despite being heartbroken after the death of her young daughter, Julia began reporting to her “New England friends” on the pages of her hometown Concord, New Hampshire, Independent Democrat.
Mouth of the Big Blue River, K.
May 22d, 1855
We arrived at our intended home about two weeks ago, and, notwithstanding the Vacant spot in the home circle, and our own desolate hearts, we must pronounce this the most charming country our eyes ever beheld. . . It seems to us impossible that any spot on earth, uncultivated by art, can be more inviting in appearance than this country.
Editors kept the spotlight on Kansas with not only political news, but also geographic, demographic, and economic coverage. On December 25, 1858, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper devoted its front page to the “Cities of Kansas” featuring Lawrence, Leavenworth, and Topeka. Horace Greeley, influential editor of the New York Tribune ran stories from young reporter, James Redpath, who went west in 1856 and reported on the volatile atmosphere in the Territory, keeping Northern readers informed of the struggles between slavery and anti-slavery factions.
New Kansans kept up with elections, conventions, and territorial constitutions by reading the latest edition of their local paper. The presses themselves made news
when the offices of the Herald of Freedom and the Kansas Free State were looted and equipment destroyed during the sack of Lawrence in May 1856.
Kansas newspapers brought national and world news to their readers, often juxtaposed with feature articles. In 1855, the Lawrence Herald of Freedom reported on the annexation of the Sandwich Islands to the United States as well as the fall of Sevastopol during the Crimean War. In May 1857, the article “Ocean Telegraph” provided an update on the laying of wire in the Atlantic. Just below that article, a piece entirely devoted to “Female Delicacy” touted the many features of the female character but pointed out that “delicacy stands foremost within the province of good taste.” In addition, newspapers often provided helpful hints, such as how to preserve flowers and the many uses of cotton cloth, one being as roofing material.
In the growing, and sometimes struggling, new communities of Kansas, newspapers offered encouragement to new citizens, sometimes in the form of poetry. “Try Again” appeared in the June 9, 1855 edition of the Lawrence Herald of Freedom:
How oft has disappointment marred
Some cherished plan of mine,
And bid winter clouds appear
Where summer’s sun should shine;
Yet as they darker grew,
I’ve seen some wondrous pen
Upon the very blackest write
The sentence, “Try again.”
Many early settlers in Kansas went for just that reason – to try again. Eager to establish a better life for their families, trades people of all kinds arrived. Advertisements for new businesses, including ones for an ice cream store and a bookbinder, filled columns in local papers. There seemed to be an ad for each segment of the growing population, including those feeling under the weather: “To Invalids: Cornstarch, tapioca, arrow root, and rice for sale.” For those in need of feathers, they were available “by the pound for feather bolsters and pillows.” And to farmers, interested in setting up housekeeping, this ad: “To Farmers: Corn shucks and oat straw wanted in exchange for furniture.”
Also for farmers, newspapers offered information on crops. “How to” articles appeared on planting Osage Orange trees as hedges and sowing turnip seed. Pumpkins, buckwheat, and sorghum made headlines as bumper crops were harvested. For farmers and shopkeeper alike, social activities meant time to visit with friends and neighbors. From the arrival of Mabie’s Circus to the meeting of the Lawrence Sewing Circle, community gatherings were important events and reported accordingly.
Lastly, newspapers provided a link between family and friends – a way to exchange information from hometown to prairie and back again. For a homesick son or daughter, a hometown paper was a welcome and cherished gift to be read over and over. For a parent or friend in the East, news from the Territory kept them informed about the place their loved one had chosen to begin a new life.
Linda has very kindly offered to give one print copy of Hope Amid Hardship: Pioneer Voices from Kansas Territory to one person leaving a comment. The lucky individual will be announced on or about 23rd April.
Despite the challenges of loneliness, drought, and political turmoil Kansas pioneers faced, many found and wrote about joy and beauty in their adopted communities. Letters and diaries describe the times that gave them reason to sing, dance, and celebrate – moments when their burdens were lighter. This beautifully illustrated volume brings together reflections of sixty individuals of different ages, backgrounds, and outlooks who helped shape the identity of the Sunflower State.
Linda Johnston can be found at www.lindasjohnston.com and https://www.facebook.com/pages/Linda-S-Johnston-Author/123981281119230
Hope Amid Hardship can be purchased at http://www.amazon.com/Hope-Amid-Hardship-Pioneer-Territory/dp/0762784865/