Manhattan: The beginnings

James Sherow

By A Contributor

FRONTIER MANHATTAN. Yankee Settlement to Kansas Town, 1854-1894. Kevin W. Olson. University Press of Kansas. 2012. $29.95.

Isaac and Ellen Goodnow lived during remarkable times.  They came to a sparsely occupied river valley in the heart of the tallgrass prairies of the Flint Hills to fight the spreading blight of slavery.  Isaac, who preceded his wife, arrived at the Junction of the Blue and Kaw Rivers in March 1855.  A stern New Englander, a social reformer at heart, Isaac, along with the four other men who accompanied him, resolved to make Kansas Territory a free state.  They set up their tents, and began laboring to build what would become the city of Manhattan, Kansas.

Kevin Olson has fashioned an exceptionally thorough account of the first decades of Manhattan, Kansas—-the Little Apple.  In a significant way, Olson chronicles the development of the city through the lives of Isaac and Ellen.  With excellent research and clear writing, Olson gives a fascinating, detailed picture of life in Manhattan from its founding as an anti-slavery stronghold called Boston to its social and economic transformation into a quiet Midwestern college town, one governed by political moderates.

Goodnow found inspiration in the proselytizing work of the New England Emigrant Aid Company.  Unapologetically anti-slavery in its mission, the company encouraged and supported people such as the Goodnows to take up residence in Kansas.  The social reforming impulse that guided folks like the Goodnows encompassed far more than ending slavery.  They embraced women’s rights, prohibition and publicly supported higher education.  While commonplace to us today, these were revolutionary ideas at the time, and they found fertile ground and flourished in Manhattan.  The Goodnows and like-minded souls eagerly sought to use the power of the state to accomplish their goals.  As Olson astutely posits it: “Three principles underlay the founding of Manhattan: (1) abolitionism, (2) Protestantism and (3) public education.” 

Others less idealistically motivated individuals arrived early on to play an important role in the founding of the city, and Olson follows their lives as well.  Particularly important to Olson was the activities of Judge John Pipher.  Pipher arrived on the steamboat Hartford.  Pipher, and people like him, looked more for economic opportunity than they did for implementing social reform.  Olson finds that in understanding the intersection of these powerful currents of the Yankee reform impulse and capitalism one will comprehend the very nature of the city.

Olson provides an interesting account of the nearly improbable origins of Manhattan.  Prior to the Goodnows’ arrival, Samuel Dyer operated a crossing where the Military Road leading from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Riley crossed the Blue River.  There he also staked out the town of Juniata, if one could call the crudely constructed buildings a town.  By November 1854, near the junction of Wildcat Creek and the Kaw River, entrepreneur George Park, along with early arrival Seth Child, and the abolitionist reverend Charles Blood, built a cabin and proclaimed the site Polistra.  In the same month, Samuel Houston, an ardent abolitionist, built a cabin at the foot of Bluemont Hill, and named his fledgling townsite Canton.  In April 1855, through the efforts of Goodnow, he consolidated the three townsites into one called Boston, and the united all the developers into one company called the Boston Town Association.  In June of the same year, the steamboat Hartford struggled upstream in the Kaw River, grounding off and on sandbars as its captain attempted to reach the junction of the Republican and Smoky Hill Rivers.  On the fourth grounding, just to the west of where the Blue and Kaw Rivers meet, the passengers onboard decided that they had reached their destination.  Judge Pipher and Andrew J. Mead met with Goodnow and others, and together they merged the Cincinnati and Kansas Land Company with the Boston Town Association to form the new town of Manhattan, Kansas on June 4, 1855.

From that point on, Yankee reforming zeal marked the early years Manhattan.  The free state movement, and its absorption into the newly formed Republican Party, would mark the political nature of the city.  Most of Olson’s next chapters charts how the residents of the early Manhattan struggled to build their community in the midst of “Bleeding Kansas.”  While not engaged in the violence that rocked the eastern portion of the territory, Manhattanites played significant roles in the struggle to make Kansas free.  Particularly, Olson gives some detail to the political efforts of Samuel Houston.  By 1859 the Free Soilers clearly prevailed in the territory, and those reformers turned their attention to other aspects of town building.

  Olson gives particular attention to the creation of Bluemont College, and its eventual conversion into Kansas State Agricultural College, the first functioning land grant college operating under the provisions of the Morrill Act of 1862.  Again, Isaac and Ellen Goodnow figure prominently in this story, but so do others such as Reverend Charles and Mary Blood, Washington Marlatt, and Joseph Denison.  Yet even that initiative faced opposition from businessmen such as Judge Pipher and Andrew Mead, who feared that their business fortunes would wane on Poyntz Avenue with the college located on high hill a mile to the west of downtown.

Olson’s work shows a small, nondescript town struggling to survive during the Civil War.  Yankee refinement was hardly the order of the day with prostitution, saloon life, and occasional violence marking the day to day life of the city.  But the post war years brought about a return to Yankee sensibilities, and social reform.  Railroads, business creation, the development of Kansas State Agricultural College, abolitionism, women’s rights and the arrival of African-American exodusters all gave the city a new breath of life.  By the time Isaac died in 1894, Manhattan had taken on the traits of what Olson calls “a quiet Midwestern college town . . . characterized by political moderates.”  Its citizens, having won the abolitionist fight, turn their attention to Protestantism and public education.  Little by little, reforming idealism waned while the pursuit of economic prosperity grew.

    Certainly, anyone interested in the origins and enduring character traits of Manhattan will find Olson’s work an invaluable read.  But is Manhattan still the rather humdrum community of 1900 that Olson depicts, or is there still something left of social idealism in this city’s DNA?  I think there still remains a spark of practical idealism in this community, one that all of us can derive inspiration from the lives of people such as Isaac and Ellen Goodnow.  Olson shows us how those people lived out their lives guided by those principles of equality, and has made Manhattan what it is today.

The writer is a professor of Kansas history at Kansas State and the current mayor of Manhattan.

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