John Greenleaf Whittier was probably best known for his book-length poem Snowbound, but as a Quaker he was also an ardent abolitionist, even taking an active hand in political lobbying for the cause at one point.
When the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 plunged the entire nation into a debate on slavery and the respective roles of state and Federal governments in regulating the practice, it was not possible that Whittier could overlook such critical events. People on all sides of the question felt that Kansas would be the testing ground for their respective philosophies.
Whittier, therefore, took up his pen and contributed a series of poems on events in Kansas which have been collected and preserved at KanColl, a volunteer-based website dedicated to archiving the primary sources of Kansas.
The first poem is “The Kansas Emigrants,” also known as “The Song of the Kansas Emigrant.” These lyrics, originally sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne,” were written to inspire the abolitionist pioneers who were moving to make Kansas a free state.
The second is “The Burial of Barbour,” written after the death of Thomas Barber on December 6, 1855. Earlier that year, the murder of an abolitionist settler led to a series of retaliations, culminating within a proslavery posse besieging the Free State stronghold of Lawrence. Barber had been among the defenders of the city, but was returning home briefly to check on his own affairs before returning to Lawrence. He was stopped and shot by the besiegers after refusing to join their side. Barber was considered the first Free State martyr of Kansas by many, and Whitter’s poem became a rallying cry for the abolitionist cause.
The third poem is “Le Marais du Cygne.” It commemorated the Marais des Cygnes Massacre of May 19, 1858. A group of Missourians captured 11 unarmed Free State men, marched them into a ravine, and opened fire. Five of the victims were killed and five severely wounded. A shaky truce between the two factions was formed shortly after the massacre. Although matters still appeared to be precarious, the men on each side concentrating around their strongholds, Marais des Cygnes proved to be the last major act of violence in Kansas prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.
The fourth and final poem is “John Brown of Ossawatomie,” written upon the notorious abolitionist guerrilla leader’s execution. John Brown had left his base of operations in Osawatomie, Kansas, in late 1856 to raise funds and followers back East. Meanwhile, he developed an idea of ending slavery by leading a large-scale slave revolt, culminating in the creation of a new free state, complete with a constitution written by Brown himself. The first major act in the revolution was the failed raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in October 1859, for which Brown was hanged.
These four poems provide an interesting look into the minds of the Northern abolitionists of the 1850s. Whittier eloquently encapsulated the sentiments of the antislavery cause with regard to Kansas, leaving us a poignant record to enjoy and ponder.