Editor’s Note: The following article, published to coincide with the observance of Manhattan Day on Saturday, is an excerpt from Kevin Olson’s book, “Frontier Manhat-tan,” „ 2012 by the University Press of Kansas. It comes from the chapter, “Spring 1855, Becoming Manhattan,” and tracks the settlers’ acquisition and journey of the steamer Hartford and the agreements that led to the establishment of Manhattan.
When Isaac Goodnow and the other settlers established Boston, Kansas Territory, in April 1855, it was literally on the U.S. frontier. Even though the small settlement was located in the eastern part of Kansas Territory, there was little to be found west of Boston but Fort Riley and vast plains stretching to the Rockies, the bison hunting grounds for Native American tribes. To the south of Boston were camps of Osage traders and, beyond that, Indian territory extending south to the border of Texas.
When the Territorial Legis-lature established thirty-three original counties in Kansas Territory in August 1855, Boston’s county — named Riley County — was on the westernmost edge of organized lands. Vividly demonstrating its frontier location, Riley County originally had attached to it for administrative purposes all land stretching west from its border across Kansas Territory, deep into present-day Colorado…
Although the U.S. government had removed most native tribes from eastern Kansas, Native Americans yet remained in frontier areas such as Boston. One settler observed in 1855 that “various tribes of roving Indians are scattered about us.” In one typical story, Yankee settler Josiah Pillsbury recorded in July 1855 that when 500 mounted Native Americans passed near his cabin on the way to a hunt, “some five or six rode down to our cabin, but did not come in — talked and laughed and looked in at the windows.” ...
In June 1855 the population instantly doubled in and around Boston when a group of seventy-five settlers arrived on a 144-ton paddlewheel steamboat named the Hartford. The group was part of the Cincinnati and Kansas Land Company, which planned to establish a town in Kansas Territory and name it Manhattan. Unfortunately, surviving evidence provides no record of why they chose the name Manhattan, although it certainly had something to do with the fact that the name was reportedly selected by one of the leaders of the company, Andrew J. Mead, who was born in New York City on the island of Manhattan.
The Cincinnati Enquirer de-scribed the company as “an association of gentlemen comprising some of our worthiest citizens” One of its leaders, Judge John Pipher, wrote in turn, “We are not rich, yet we are sober and industrious, and hope we have energy and perseverance enough to eventually build up a thriving town and an important business place.” Many of the members of the Cincinnati company were in-fused with the strong Free-State interests present in Cincinnati, which had already led Cincin-natian Charles Boynton to travel to Kansas in 1854 and write A “Journey through Kansas.”
A good deal of planning went into the company’s venture before they set out for Kansas, but it is not clear when plans for the Cincinnati and Kansas Land Company venture were originally proposed. The company apparently was not officially formed until articles of association were signed on April 25, 1855, the day before the group boarded its boat to Kansas. But prior to that, in mid-April 1855, the principals were already actively seeking to purchase a riverboat for the trip. On April 20, 1855, the Daily Cincinnati Gazette announced that the company had purchased a steamboat, the Louisville, and planned to set out within the week to establish a town “near Fort Riley, to be called Manhattan” (This was the first time, it should be remarked, that the name of Manhattan, Kansas, appears in print.) The deal to purchase the Louisville promptly fell through, but the company’s leaders immediately found a replacement steamboat to purchase: the Hartford. On April 22, 1855, the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer began running daily advertisements for the Hartford’s trip to Kansas, writing on the morning of the twenty-fourth, “This is the first and best opportunity that has or will offer for adventurers to seek the new country about which so much is said.” The following morning, another advertisement for the trip in the Daily Enquirer added Manhattan to the list of destinations for the Hartford, even though, of course, no settlement by that name yet existed in Kansas Territory.
After a delay for late-arriving passengers, the Hartford set out for Kansas on the evening of April 26, 1855, leaving from a dusty landing at the base of Cincinnati’s Main Street on an overcast and warm night. The steamship was loaded with travelers and tons of cargo: parts for prefabricated buildings, a printing press, a steam engine, a small gristmill, cooking stoves, seeds and agricultural implements, personal effects, and 153 barrels of whiskey. The Cincin-nati Daily Enquirer reported the next morning: “The Hartford left last evening for Kansas, literally crowded. We know there will be a good time on board.”
Decades later, one passenger, Amanda Arnold — a girl of seventeen at the time of the trip — recalled some good moments: “There were a variety of entertainments on board ship. It might be a prayer meeting one evening and a dance another.” Yet the trip was not consistently enjoyable. Delay piled upon delay as the Hartford traveled down the Ohio River to the Mississippi River, west from St. Louis on the Missouri River to Kansas City, and then finally up the Kansas River…
Tragically, seven passengers on the boat reportedly died of cholera during the trip and were buried along the riverbanks. No matter how settlers made the journey, getting to Kansas Territory in 1855 was not easy.
The Hartford arrived in St. Louis on May 1, 1855. The town’s Missouri Democrat announced the next day, “The Hartford, recently purchased for the Kansas River trade, arrived yesterday morning with some freight and several families and their plunder.” Two days later, the boat steamed away from St. Louis and up the Missouri River. The Hartford was fortunate that it was not detained longer in St. Louis. Riverboat captains seeking to keep a monopoly on Missouri River trade were holding many boats there. Other vessels were quarantined in St. Louis as a precaution against cholera, a common practice during outbreaks. Cholera was the most dreaded disease in the Western world at the time — literally sending people fleeing from locations where it appeared — and because its causes remained a complete mystery in 1855, the only treatments were quarantining and unproven elixirs…
Following the departure from St. Louis on May 3, the pace of travel slowed significantly: the steamer did not arrive in Kansas City until two o’clock in the afternoon on May 11.” The creeping pace across Missouri was caused by low water on the Missouri River and questionable piloting.” Taunts and threats from Missouri-ans during this leg of the trip also added to the Hartford passengers’ misery; the atmosphere in Missouri had poisoned further since the disputed election in Kansas Territory on March 30. Many Free-State immigrants would soon avoid Missouri completely.
Unfortunately for the Cincin-nati company, the water was even lower on the Kansas River, so that once the Hartford reached Kansas City, Missouri, the boat and its passengers were forced to tie up outside the town from May 12 to May 20, waiting for the river to rise. For some time it looked uncertain whether the Hartford would ever make it into Kansas Territory, and several passengers abandoned the boat to take wagons into Kansas. Those who remained on the steamboat were charged one dollar a day rent. Meanwhile, proslavery newspapers attempted to inflame passions by reporting that the Hartford’s passengers were “all anti-slavery.” By the time the boat was able to leave Kansas City, the remaining passengers were more than ready to depart. One passenger groused after leaving: “Kansas City, Missouri, is the worst enemy that Kansas Ter-ritory has. There you will get no encouragement from any one.”
Luckily, on May 20, 1855, the water level rose enough for the Hartford to resume its journey. By one o’clock the next afternoon the steamer was docked at the far friendlier Free-State town of Lawrence. From Lawrence, the Cincinnati and Kansas Land Company planned to steam farther into Kansas Territory, beyond the Boston settlement, to the headwaters of the Kansas River at the junction of the Smoky Hill and Republican rivers. In fact, a small forward group from the company, including Judge Pipher and Andrew J. Mead, was already at the head of the Kansas River, staking out a town and awaiting the arrival of the Hartford. But the boat would never reach that location.
Although the Hartford unloaded a sizable amount of goods in St. Louis, a Lawrence newspaper described the boat as still “heavily loaded with passengers and freight.” This was a bad omen on the low river. Not surprisingly, only a few miles past Lawrence the paddleboat snagged on a sandbar. It took one day for the craft to shake loose from this bar, and then it spent the next nine days moving slowly up the Kansas River, repeating the cumbersome process of grounding and working loose from obstructions. On June 1, 1855, the Hartford again ran aground, half a mile below Boston. It eventually shook loose but then stuck fast on June 3, just past the mouth of the Big Blue River, where the boat was destined to remain high and dry for a month. One Hartford passenger wrote a letter to Cincinnati at this time observing it was “not our destination” but almost certainly “the end of our journey.”
Sensing an opportunity, the Boston Town Association acted quickly, voting on June 2 “that members of the Cincinnati and Kansas Land Company be invited to come up from the boat and hold a consultation with us in reference to locating at this place. During these consultations, the BTA offered the Cincinnati company the southern half of its town site as incentive to settle there. The BTA also agreed to a power-sharing arrangement and consented to rename their settlement Man-hattan if the Hartford passengers joined. Any desire for exclusive New England control over the settlement at this point was overcome by the recognition that the little village needed actual settlers.
The Hartford passengers had rejected invitations to join other settlements along the Kansas River, including Lawrence, To-peka, and Lecompton. But when Pipher and Mead ventured down from the intended settlement site to the stranded boat, the Cincinnati group took a hard look at the low river and their dwindling supplies of food and whiskey and promptly agreed to join the Bostonians. On June 4, 1855, the leaders of the Cincin-nati and Boston companies signed a letter of agreement. Then on June 29, the BTA was reorganized as the Manhattan Town Association, and a new constitution officially established the town of Manhattan where Boston had stood.
Although it was not their intended destination, the Cincinnati settlers were happy with their new home. One Hart-ford passenger, William Hoon, raved that the location had “all that is necessary to make a large town.” In a letter to the Daily Cincinnati Gazette he wrote: “The site selected is on a most beautiful one for a city. It is on the point of the Big Blue and Kansas rivers. We have good landings on both sides of us.” Hoon continued: “We have, also, in the neighborhood plenty of good farming land. And then, again, we have the best water to drink — both spring and river water. The water of the Big Blue is clear as crystal.”
As promised, the town’s land, as well as responsibility for its governance, was divided equally between the two private corporations. The two groups also informally divided spheres of interest in the new town: the New Englanders focused on matters of public education and morality, while the Cincinnati transplants concentrated on developing commerce. With different visions for the community, the two groups disputed many issues, reaching into nearly every aspect of life in early Manhattan. One resident later observed that early Manhattan-ites “were divided into cliques, the leaders of which gave to the pleasant task of thwarting each other’s schemes the time and energy that should have been de-voted to laboring for the general weal.” Nonetheless, the town ultimately thrived. As (Isaac) Goodnow later rhapsodized, “The union of the two companies, of the East and of the West, produced a grand practical combination, the best kind of business compound to make the right kind of a town to live in and to educate our children.”
Immediately after the reorganization, Goodnow reported enthusiastically to a Rhode Island newspaper: “Our city Manhattan, changed from Boston, is growing. We have united with a fine energetic company from Cincinnati.” By the end of June many of the ten prefabricated buildings that the Hartford carried to Manhat-tan were already assembled. The frontiersman Samuel D. Houston, who had been almost alone on the prairie with his wife, Tabitha, and his family just a year and a half earlier, wrote that the addition of the Hartford settlers and their houses “gave the place, in a short time, the appearance of a small village at the Junction of the Blue and the Kansas rivers. And the town seemed to be established.”
As for the name change for Polistra/Canton/Boston/Manhat-tan, one Juniata resident observed in June 1855, “The City of many names… is now permanently named Manhattan.”