Famine in Kansas

Atchison, Kansas Territory, Dec. 9, 1860

Street in Atchison, Kansas.

They converged from far and wide on the dusty border town: grim-faced men and women driving teams of staggering oxen; children whose bare and filthy feet were blistered by the hard-baked earth. Not long before, these same trails and same oxen had brought the settlers westward into new lives, new lands, the promise of plenty. Now misery and starvation drove them back, exiles retracing their steps east – fleeing, in the words of a New York Times writer, “as if Death were in the rear.”

A Chicago Tribune correspondent, freshly arrived in Atchison that day, found dozens lined up with their wagons along the Missouri River levees, awaiting handouts of free foodstuffs. “Such a scene!” he wrote. “Great, stalwart men, gaunt, lean, hungry, looking weary, sad, tired, and dispirited; poorly clad, and in all respects filling one with the conviction of suffering patiently borne and long repressed – men, some of whom I recognized, and all of whom bore the unmistakable character of sturdy industry and independence common to our western pioneers.”

An appeal from the Chicago Tribune.

Spotting the stranger’s notebook, the Kansans crowded around to share their stories. A settler from Butler County, G.T. Donaldson, told of crops devoured by grasshoppers, cattle felled by disease, and relentless drought that sealed the overall ruin. A “small, keen eyed” farmer named A.V. Saunders had driven his ox teams more than 200 miles to fetch provisions for his beleaguered rural community; after a week of waiting, he had finally been issued just 12 sacks of meal and eight sacks of potatoes for the 400 inhabitants. Another “forlorn looking man” made a particular impression on the curious journalist:

He was literally clothed in rags. Such a tatterdemalion one can scarcely conceive of. His garments, originally home-spun, had been patched with so many different materials, mostly varieties of bed-ticking and sacking, that the feeble threads would no longer hold together, and the shreds were flopping about him as he walked. His face was haggard and hunger-worn; cheek-bones protruded; flesh had shrunk away, and his eyes were hollow and eager, and had the terrible starved look in them which I saw once in a famine-stricken party of Irish, in ’47, and which I shall never forget. I will tell his story, as near as may be, in his own words:

‘My name is Abraham Huck. I’m from Ilenoy. Came to Kansas last March, and hired a place on Deer Creek, Anderson County…. I’ve got a wife and eight children. Left home last Sunday (six days before). Wife and one of the children’s with me. Left seven at home, with some turnips and a peck of meal.’

‘What,’ I said, ‘a peck of meal for seven?’

‘That’s all, Sir, and we’ve had nothing to eat on the road for three days, except the little I’ve begged. … I planted fifty-five acres [this year], and harvested five bushels of wormy corn.’

The reporter added, by way of comparison, that a peck of meal represented a week’s rations for a single slave in the cotton South.

Kansas seemed cursed by both nature and man. Beginning in 1854, the nation had watched in horror as struggles between pro-slavery and free-soil pioneers devolved into a nightmare of torched and looted towns, murdered civilians and anarchy cloaked in the false trappings of justice. The nation’s leaders, cynically viewing the territory as nothing but a square in the political chess match between North and South, had conspired in its ruin. “The game must be played boldly,” urged the town of Atchison’s namesake, a senator from neighboring Missouri. “If we win we carry slavery to the Pacific Ocean.” In another letter, to his Senate colleague Jefferson Davis, he wrote: “We will be compelled to shoot, burn & hang, but the thing will soon be over.”

There had indeed been shooting, burning and hanging – but the thing had not ended as quickly as Senator David Rice Atchison had anticipated. Nor had the pro-slavery forces won the game. In October 1859, a popular referendum finally declared the ravaged territory to be free soil, and a bill for statehood began making its way through Congress. At last peace came – along with settlers by the thousands.

And then the elements themselves conspired against the land. Like a modern-day version of plague-ridden Egypt, “Bleeding Kansas” became Starving Kansas. Rains ceased; from the spring through the autumn of 1860, barely enough fell to dampen the surface of the soil. Temperatures reached 105 degrees in the shade. “The hot wind sweeps over the land blinding one with the dust or blistering the skin,” one settler wrote. “The poor squatter looks to his withered crops and sits down in despair.” Another Kansan described the conditions as “only fit for a Hottentot, accustomed to the ardors of the Sahara.” As many as a third of the territory’s 100,000 white inhabitants packed up their scanty belongings and trudged back toward the eastern states whence they had come.

Some blamed politicians for these latest calamities, scarcely less than for the bloodshed of years past. “The ills which Kansas endures are very largely derived from the misgovernment of [James Buchanan’s] administration,” declared an editorial in The Times. “Drought is not a visitation of Presidents but of Providence; but the poverty which preceded the bad harvest, and which renders the people wholly unable to support the deficiency of breadstuffs, is well known to have originated chiefly in the … savage and vindictive mismanagement [that] the affairs of the Territory have been deliberately subjected to.” Other critics charged that Republicans shared the guilt: party leaders had initially downplayed the emergency’s severity, allegedly because they did not want to undercut political fundraising while the presidential election hung in the balance. (Campaigning in Lawrence at the end of September, William H. Seward declared sanguinely that he had “carefully examined the condition of … the river bottoms and the prairies” and concluded that “there will be no famine in Kansas.”)

In the weeks after Abraham Lincoln’s election, as the chill of impending winter began gripping the heartland, Americans had finally begun paying attention to the disaster in the Midwest. (Savvy Kansans whipped up interest by sounding the alarm that pro-slavery raiders – known as “pukes” – were once again preparing to invade.) From New York, Chicago and other cities, donations poured into Atchison, the western terminus of the railway and designated base of the relief efforts. On Dec. 12, at the urging of such leading antislavery Republicans as Horace Greeley and William Cullen Bryant, citizens held a rally at the Cooper Union in Manhattan and raised the respectable sum of $1,200 toward the cause. Even President Buchanan closed his annual message by turning his attention from the secession crisis and asking Congress to aid the Kansas sufferers, “if any constitutional measure for their relief can be devised.”

The grim headlines from Atchison, side-by-side with those from secession-mad Charleston, fueled Americans’ forebodings that their nation had entered its end times – perhaps even that God was meting out a terrible judgment for their sins, just as he had done to Pharaoh and the slaveholding Egyptians. The image of free American citizens emaciated and in rags – apparently fed and clothed even worse than Southern slaves – was terrible to contemplate.

“The men whom I see waiting here for their scanty supplies, are the bone and sinew of the West,” wrote the Tribune correspondent. “They are men who are blazing the way of the American people across this Continent, and are laying broad and deep the foundations of free institutions. It is a question for Americans to consider whether these men shall be sustained in this their hour of dire misfortune.” If they could not be, what hope was there for those free institutions themselves?

Sources: Chicago Tribune, Dec. 13, 1860; New York Times, Oct. 3, Nov. 1, Nov. 19, Dec. 10 and Dec. 13, 1860; Craig Miner, “Kansas: The History of the Sunflower State, 1854-2000”; Joseph G. Gambone, “Starving Kansas: The Great Drought and Famine of 1859-60” (American West, July 1971); James McPherson, “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era”; Lynda Lasswell Crist, ed., “The Papers of Jefferson Davis, 1853-1855”; Jay Monaghan, “Civil War on the Western Border, 1854-1865”; Sheffield Ingalls, “History of Atchison County, Kansas”; George W. Glick, “The Drought of 1860” (Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, 1905-1906); Thaddeus Hyatt, “The Prayer of Thaddeus Hyatt to James Buchanan, President of the United States, in Behalf of Kansas”; William H. Seward, speech at Lawrence, Kans., Sept. 26, 1860; James Buchanan, Annual Message to Congress, Dec. 3, 1860.

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.

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Full article and photos: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/08/famine-in-kansas/