Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Miriam Davis Colt: Went to Kansas


Miriam Davis Colt (1817-1905), about 1880
when she was in her early sixties

When the Civil War began in April, 1861 New Yorker Miriam Davis Colt was suffering physically, emotionally and financially. She'd been a widow for five years, raising daughter Miriam Louise (Mema), about 14. Miriam lost her husband William and her son Willie to malaria in an ill-fated trip to live out a futuristic dream in Kansas in 1856.

Five years later she was home in northern New York, trying to manage a little real estate and a farm but times were difficult. She could not afford to pay for her cow's pasturage or a hired "lad's" work when  produce prices were depressed. 

"Every thread of hope was cut off," she wrote a friend, "Leaving no way for us to obtain a livelihood. ...It is but little sewing I can do, for here in the country people generally do their own sewing."

Memories of teaching, sewing and quilting as a young woman.

Site of the Vegetarian Colony long abandoned in this later
 Allen County, Kansas map

Miriam and her husband had been caught up in the mid-1850s mania for communal living, selling their land to buy stock in a colony based on a vegetarian diet and octagonal-shaped buildings. She, her husband and his parents were duped by two charismatic figures, both what we might call "high-pressure salesmen," who assured followers of profit as well as purity. The first was publisher Orson Squire Fowler who popularized the fashion for phrenology, a psychological theory that cast human personalities, abilities and fates to the shape of one's skull. 

Phrenology was one aspect of white supremacist propaganda popular in the era of the Know-Nothings and anti-immigrant politics. The skulls of those descended from English emigrants were indicative of their superiority in everything from "friendship" to "benevolence"---certainly superior to people from Africa or Ireland.

Henry S. Clubb (1827 – 1921)

Newspaper writer Henry Clubb enthusiastically embraced Fowler's crusades, which also included an obsession with the octagonal shape and a vegetarian diet. Clubb determined to make theory tangible by organizing a vegetarian/octagon-based communal society in the west. Why not Kansas, which was in the news daily due to violence between anti- and pro-slavery partisans settling there? He published his plan in the Water Cure Journal for home for vegetarians who would "adopt a system of diet so highly conducive to their happiness and wellbeing," and avoid "sinking into flesh-eating habits." He advertised: “Hasten you lovers of carrots, you eaters of unbolted grain!”

Orson Fowler, obsessed with the octagon, built his octagonal mansion in
Fishkill, New York. Eventually it became a boarding house where tenants
 contracted typhoid due to his poor planning for drainage.

Miriam's husband and his parents Mary Smith and John Gardner Colt invested in Clubb's company and made ready to leave home in the spring of 1855. 
"We are making every necessary preparation for our journey....My husband has sold his farm, purchased shares in the company, sent his money as directed by H.S. Clubb.....Have had two sewing bees, one for the old ladies, and one for the young---'united pleasure with business'----my friends have visited me for the last time---also have helped me along with my sewing."

Plan for an octagonal house
Fowler's octagon mania inspired hundreds of octagonal houses,
"far better, in every way, and several hundred percent cheaper,
 than any other." Spherical was more beautiful than angular, a
"defect in the usual shape of houses."

By May the Colts arrived at the octagon colony on the banks of the Neosho River (near where Humboldt, Kansas is today.) The land was actually not legal for settlement as it belonged to the Osage. But investors were promised a lumber mill, grain mill, a large octagonal communal building and supplies to build homes with abundant vegetables to nourish them while they established the town, planned as a four-square mile octagon with eight equal sides.

Miriam recorded their arrival anticipating a celebration:
 "Looking for an escort to welcome us into the embryo city. If the booming of cannon is not heard at our approach, shall expect a salute from the firing of Sharp's rifles, certainly."


"No escort is seen! no salute heard!.... Not a house to be seen.... The ladies tell us they are sorry to see us come to this place; which plainly shows that all is not right."
J. Henry Holmes (1833–1907) visited the colonists: 
"Owing to a Stormy spring when they arrived ... & to an unfortunate locality in the bottoms when the river swollen by long rains overflowed upon them... many of the settlers were taken sick with fever & with fever & ague..... Add to this before leaving their Eastern homes, their expectation had been too highly colored."
The Neosho River in a recent flood
"The directors after receiving our money to build mills, have not fulfilled the trust reposed in them." Miriam Colt

Sleeping on the floor of the one "shaky-floored" rectangular structure Miriam was surrounded by colonists in make-shift beds.

Miriam was miserable yet wise enough to realize their expectations had been "too highly colored." They'd been duped if not swindled. Things grew worse, much worse. The "ague" was malaria, carried by the abundant mosquitos on Vegetarian Creek.

Most colonists left but William Colt's father stubbornly refused to leave (we wonder if this whole "ill-fated" idea wasn't his in the first place.) 

As William and their son grew sicker the younger couple defied him and set off for the east, landing in Boonville, Missouri where William and Willie became too ill to travel. Both died in Boonville in September, five months after leaving New York.

William's father John died by Vegetarian Creek in September. His mother and sister Lydia, 27 years old, arrived home in the fall but both succumbed by the new year. 

Miriam who had gone to the "fairy land" of Kansas with 6 family members was back in St. Lawrence, County, New York with only 1 remaining.

What assets did Miriam have? Land, other property worth $85, a heart-rending tale and her diaries of the fateful journey.

Miriam wrote it all up and in 1862 published Went to Kansas with Mr. Lotus Ingalls (1818-1897) of Watertown, New York, editor of the temperance paper The Watertown Daily Reformer. The book sold out in its first printing and we'd guess Miriam received some profits but very little mention of her "thrilling account" is found in the newspapers during the war. Kansas Troubles were old news.

Went to Kansas : being a thrilling account of an ill-fated expedition
 to that fairy land, and its sad results together with a sketch 
of the life of the author, and how the world goes with her.
First (and perhaps only) 19th-century editions are rare.

Parishville, New York, about the time Miriam Davis Colt died there.

Some accounts tell us she made enough royalties to build a house in Parishville, about 30 miles south of the Canadian border.

 Miriam in white with cousins in New Hampshire towards the end of the century.
From her Find a Grave site.

Both Miriams, mother & daughter, were probably never robustly healthy after their year of malaria and related diseases. Mema married Dr. Isaac Drake after the Civil War but died of a "lung fever" in 1878 at the age of 28. Yet, her mother lived to be 87 dying in 1905.

Miriam in her mid 80s from Nancy's
post on her Find a Grave site.

Is there a villain or two or three in the story of the colony's failure? Was Henry Clubb, its major publicist, the Steve Bannon of his day, pocketing a fortune for building projects never built? Most accuse Clubb only of incompetence. Watson Stewart, a fellow investor recalled that he lacked "practical ability."

Stewart's grandson and editor had an opinion too: "Although some mis-management seems to have occurred, charges of dishonesty against the promoters cannot be entirely substantiated. It appears that money collected for the purpose of starting the settlement was not invested properly."
Donald W. Stewart, ed., "Memoirs of Watson Stewart: 1855-1860, Kansas Historical Quarterly, v. 18 (November, 1950) pp. 376-404.
Today Henry Clubb and several converts to the whole ill-fated vegetarian colony might be diagnosed by a psychologist as having an eating disorder called Orthorexia. 
"Although being aware of and concerned with the nutritional quality of the food you eat isn’t a problem in and of itself, people with orthorexia become so fixated on so-called ‘healthy eating’ that they actually damage their own well-being."

And I would add "And that of their families," recalling the malnourished Louisa May Alcott family whose father Bronson Alcott insisted the girls eat nothing but apples and water.

Orthorexia or just plain monetary greed?

Miriam Davis Colt gets the last (if ambiguous) words in 1862:
"The directors after receiving our money to build mills, have not fulfilled the trust reposed in them." 

Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the whole mid-century mania was the boom for building octagonal houses, although the obsession against square corners is a little puzzling. Here's a beauty in New York.


viridian said...

What a sad story. But, a lovely octagon house at the end of your post.

QuiltGranma said...

In the early 1970's there was again a boom for odd shaped houses. A Geodesic Dome home was built on a property next to ours.