Sacred Red Rock Project
About Charles Robinson
by Tai Edwards
Two plaques in Robinson park tell us Charles Robinson was the “first governor of Kansas” and one of the “the second party of one hundred fourteen left Boston August 29, 1854 and arrived September 15, 1854.” However, Charles Robinson’s life is not easily characterized by one or two events.
In 1818, Charles Robinson was born into a family of Massachusetts farmers that had lived in the region since the seventeenth century. In 1843 he was granted a medical degree and commenced practicing as a physician. That same year he married his first wife Sarah Adams. They had two children who died in infancy and Sarah also passed away in 1846. He moved and continued practicing medicine until suffering a physical breakdown. In 1849 he joined a group of men seeking their fortunes in the California gold rush. En route to the west coast, he passed through what would become Kansas and noted in his diary the richness of the soil and the beauty of this “immense ocean of land.”
Once in California, Robinson only mined for gold briefly and then opened a restaurant in Sacramento. However, it was his activism related to squatter’s rights that made him locally famous. The treaty that ended the Mexican American war and made California officially part of the U.S. included provisions maintaining Mexican residents’ land ownership. But this undermined the squatter’s rights Americans were used to, also known as preemption. In 1841, Congress legalized squatting through the Preemption Act which gave first right to buy a piece of land to the person residing upon it and “improving” it. This emboldened Americans to increasingly invade Indigenous land knowing that they would eventually be able to gain title to it. By 1850, Robinson was president of a settler association in California that sought to protect squatter’s rights. This caused conflict with those owning California land grants and violence ensued, leaving Robinson injured and jailed. Once released, he edited a squatter newspaper and, in the fall of 1850, he was elected to the state legislature. Robinson opposed African American enslavement in California, however, it is not clear how he felt about the enslavement of Indigenous people passed by the California legislature the previous spring. Under the “Act for the Government and Protection of Indians,” clearly a misnomer, Indigenous Californian’s were forced into labor for the vague charges of loitering and vagrancy and white people could take control of Indigenous children. Many miners had already commenced killing Indigenous people seeking gold on their land. Violence continued under this legislation, often now involving killing adults in order to enslave their children.
By the summer of 1851 Robinson had returned to Massachusetts where he again practiced medicine and edited a newspaper. That fall he married a former patient, Sara Lawrence, the daughter of a prominent lawyer and distant relative of the well-known Boston industrialist heir Amos A. Lawrence. In March 1853 – more than a year before Kansas territory was officially created – a congressional Indian appropriations bill included authorization for the president to commence removal of Indigenous nations in modern day Kansas and Nebraska in order to make way for American settlers. As a result, settlers started invading Indigenous land in Kansas. In spring 1854, Robinson attended an antislavery meeting and met Eli Thayer, a local state representative who was interested in forming a corporation to organize emigration to Kansas. Thayer, Amos A. Lawrence, and Charles Francis Adams (son of former president John Quincy Adams), became the largest investors in the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company chartered in April 1854 and later renamed the New England Emigrant Aid Company in 1855. The purpose of the company was to buy land and build temporary boarding houses, sawmills, and gristmills with the goal of creating towns that would consequently increase property values and allow the company to sell (or rent) the mills and land at an increased property value, profiting investors. This would make it easier for families to move west, it would create a market for eastern products in western locations, and this would ensure Kansas was open to further free settlement. Thayer’s main goal was profit, while Lawrence’s was a political effort to prevent Kansas from becoming a slave state. The leaders of the aid company were not abolitionists in the popular sense, rather they were anti-slavery supporters who wanted to ensure western land would be available to white men who could acquire it to improve their socio-economic status. Lawrence in particular was directly involved in the manufacture and sale of cotton textiles. In other words, his wealth was a direct product of enslaved laborers’ cotton cultivation.
Prior to Congress passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act in May 1854, Kansas – along with modern-day Oklahoma and Nebraska – was known as “Indian Territory.” In 1830, Congress had passed the Indian Removal Act which facilitated the expulsion of all Indigenous nations east of the Mississippi river into the lands of Indigenous nations west of the river. This policy functioned as ethnic cleansing, opening up significant amounts of Indigenous land to American settlers. Some of the “removed” Indigenous groups, such as the Wyandot, Delaware (Lenape), and Shawnee were forced to settle in the homelands of other Indigenous nations such as the Kanza (Kaw). The Delaware reservation was north of the Kansas river, the Shawnee reservation was to the south. The Wyandot reserve was within the Delaware on the eastern edge, within modern-day Wyandotte county. In the Wyandot removal treaty, 35 Wyandot men were allowed to individually own 640 acres of land of their choosing in the new territory. These were known as “Wyandot floats” because they were not tied to a specific piece of land. As settlers invaded Kansas in 1853 and 1854, there was increased pressure to eliminate Indigenous people from the territory. A plethora of schemes were deployed across the region to dispossess Indigenous people, many quickly approved by Congress regardless of fraud. As a result, the federal government was finally interested in determining the exact locations of the Wyandot floats in order to resell the land. For squatters and speculators, aligning one’s claim with a Wyandot float improved one’s chances of gaining ownership. Lecompton, Topeka, Lawrence, Manhattan, Emporia, Burlington, Kansas City, and Doniphan were all town sites located on Wyandot floats. Much of the valuable river bottom land and other valuable properties in Atchison, Johnson, Douglas, and Shawnee counties also came from the floats.
In the summer of 1854 Robinson, serving as the New England Emigrant Aid Company’s general agent in Kansas, traveled with Charles H. Branscomb to select possible settlement sites before heading back to Boston. While on this scouting mission, the company’s first settlers traveled to Kansas to establish a new town, now Lawrence, and Robinson joined them while traveling with the second group, denoted on the plaque in Robinson park. Reminiscent of his California days, some squatters had already claimed the Lawrence town site for agricultural purposes. Apparently abandoning his former support of such claims, Robinson – on behalf of the company – bought out one of the squatters. Unfortunately, squatters, town companies, and Wyandot floats were all competing to have their boundaries recognized by the federal government at the same time. Consequently, some town companies would work with a Wyandot float owner to have its location registered as part of their townsite, promptly purchase the float, and thus the boundaries of both were simultaneously determined. From the Wyandot perspective, cooperating with town companies was one way to ensure they actually received some income from the floats, before all of the valuable land was possessed by squatters. Of course, squatters also worked in groups to buy floats, including the remaining two that were part of the Lawrence townsite. Not until 1860 were the town’s land disputes legally resolved.
At the time of the townsite surveys, federal law only allowed three hundred and twenty acres for town purposes. To get around this, company officials assigned different parts of the town site to individual men, like Robinson who held claim to a quarter section (160 acres) near the Kansas river. Robinson was also named president of the town company, Lawrence Association, named in honor of the emigrant aid company’s investor, Amos. A. Lawrence. By the end of 1854, nearly 7,500 settlers lived in the vicinity of Lawrence. Most were from Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, but Robinson also led another group from Boston in 1855, including his wife Sara.
The New England Emigrant Aid Company facilitated the migration of intact middle-class families that its members believed would create a “civilized eastern society” in Kansas. Many members believed enslavement assaulted the humanity of enslaved people and Robinson called slavery “an unmitigated curse to all connected with it, intellectually, morally, physically, pecuniarily (monetarily), socially, and politically,” which relegated enslaved people to “a hell on earth.” In an 1855 speech, Robinson claimed slavery had led the South down a path of “indolence, ignorance, vice, and whiskey.” Calling Kansas “the Eden of the world,” he challenged his listeners to mirror Northern society with “enterprise, intelligence, skill, morality, sobriety, and universal thrift.” For the company’s members, a free-state was imperative for moral and economic progress and thus antislavery – rather than radical abolitionists’ demands for equal rights for African Americans – was the goal. A free Kansas, with family farms and growing towns, provided the best scenario for corporate and individual economic success, including for Robinson. A March 1855 election established a pro-slavery Kansas territorial legislature through a significant amount of voter fraud by Missourians hoping to ensure Kansas allowed enslavement. Robinson became a leader in uniting free-state supporters in Kansas, most of whom were not abolitionists and many were in fact “anti-Negro,” meaning they opposed free or enslaved African Americans in the state. By the end of 1855, free-staters had set up a second territorial government they deemed legitimate – though President Pierce did not, and Robinson was elected as its governor. Free-state voters also passed a “Black Law” that barred “all Negroes, bond or free” from the territory. Political rivalry between these two governments and their supporters launched the era known as “Bleeding Kansas,” when violence between these competing factions continued for years.
In addition to Lawrence, Robinson was also involved in the town company that founded Quindaro, a free-state port on the Missouri river that initially grew very fast, but was hard hit by the Panic of 1857 (economic downturn) and eventually outstripped by Wyandotte City, which was named the county seat. Robinson had hoped to use Quindaro as a railroad hub, but its decline meant Robinson lost his investments and did not profit from this venture. Hence Robinson turned his railroad dreams toward Lawrence. This required elimination of Indigenous people in Kansas. The Delaware had faced on-going settler invasion and pressure to give up their Kansas lands. Like many Kansas tribes, beginning in 1854 they were forced to give up some of their Kansas holdings and confined to a “diminished reservation,” but it too was popular with squatters. Robinson along with other railroad investors and promoters successfully lobbied Congress to divide up the Delaware land into 80-acre individual allotments, and then the remaining “surplus” land was sold to the Leavenworth, Pawnee and Western Railroad in which these men were invested.
Robinson also amassed a personal fortune in land. In the 1861 Delaware treaty – a classic example of the land schemes used to expel Indigenous people from Kansas, Robinson personally acquired valuable farmland that the Delaware had cultivated for the three decades they lived in Kansas. A Delaware “Big House,” used for multi-day ritual prayer, dancing, and singing, was a roofed structure made of wood and bark that also sat on Robinson’s newly acquired land. Robinson dismantled it to build his barn and outhouse. Robinson, like many prominent men at the time, speculated in Kansas land with great success. The Robinsons named their primary residence Oakridge, which was four miles north of Lawrence and consisted of 1,600 acres of Kansas river valley farm land where he grew wheat, corn and other crops in abundance – with the help of numerous hired hands and tenant farmers. By the 1880s Robinson had amassed over 2,100 acres and he was considered one of the richest men in the state, all directly attributable to his involvement in dispossessing Indigenous people.
Loss of their Kansas lands had monumental consequences for the Delaware. Despite their loyal military service for the Union in the Civil War, Delaware people who did not wish to take allotments were forced in 1867 to move to Cherokee land in Indian Territory, relinquish their tribal organization, and become – at least legally – Cherokee. Legal battles throughout the twentieth century attempted to clarify the Delaware-Cherokee relationship. Finally, in 2009 the Delaware nation regained federal recognition. But they are considered a “landless” nation because none of their land is held “in trust” by the federal government, like reservations are for other Indigenous nations. In 2013 the tribe purchased land in Douglas county, just north of the Kansas turnpike – which they hold as private property, not in trust – that was part of their final reservation and that once belonged to Charles Robinson. 
In October 1859, voters in Kansas territory ratified a state constitution and in December Robinson, running as a Republican, was elected governor under this government. Congress failed to admit Kansas as a state until January 29, 1861, but Robinson remained governor at that time and this is why he is considered the first governor of Kansas. During the 1850s and 1860s, Robinson and James H. Lane were bitter political rivals and this boiled over into an impeachment scandal related to state bond sales that tarnished Robinson’s gubernatorial record and led him to not run for re-election in 1862.
After leaving office, Robinson remained politically active. By 1866, he was president of the Lawrence Impartial Suffrage Association which advocated for women’s and African American’s voting rights. Unfortunately, in an 1867 election, both suffrage efforts were defeated, woman suffrage by the higher margin. In 1872, he was elected to the state legislature as an independent. In 1874 he was a co-founder of the Independent Reform political party that, in response to the Panic of 1873, advocated for repeal of national banking regulations, reduction of tariffs, state regulation of railroads to make them serve the public rather than corporations, and direct election of the president, vice-president, and senators. By 1878, this party was absorbed into the Greenback party, which shared many of the same legislative priorities, but was especially focused on increasing the amount of money in circulation by making “greenbacks” legal tender, replacing bank notes. Robinson was also a leader in the National and Kansas Liberal League that advocated for separation of church and state, including opposing use of the Bible in public schools or public observance of religious holidays. Robinson was also central to the founding of the Kansas state historical society. He chaired a local history committee beginning in 1860 and he publicly appealed to the legislature to charter and finance a state organization. The legislature complied in 1875 and appropriated funding in 1877. One of the biggest reform issues in Kansas at the time was the temperance or prohibition movement.
Robinson was a vocal anti-prohibitionist, even though he personally abstained from alcohol, because he thought it impossible to enforce. Nevertheless, voters supported prohibition in 1880 and the state went dry in 1881. In 1882 the Greenback party and the new Union Labor party combined to form the National Labor Greenback party and Robinson served as their gubernatorial candidate, an election he lost. By 1884, the Kansas Democratic party embraced many of these reform movements and Robinson ran for state senate as a Democrat. He lost this election as well. In 1886 he ran as a Democrat for Congress and also lost.
Robinson is also well-known in Kansas history for his relationship to education. Robinson spent years, including time during his term as governor, maneuvering to have a state university located in Lawrence. The New England Emigrant Aid Company had promoted the “advantages of education” in their promotional materials to attract settlers, and Robinson was committed to making this happen. Using whatever political manipulation possible, Robinson eventually was successful in having a state university located in Lawrence. In 1863 he and his wife exchanged land (for land elsewhere and cash) they had claimed as part of the original town settlement for a university campus and Amos A. Lawrence supported with funds as did many individuals, including Robinson. In 1864 the legislature chartered the University of Kansas and Charles Robinson was named to the first Board of Regents, where he served for twelve years. He strongly opposed creation of separate branches for men’s and women’s education, and co-education prevailed.
In 1871 the state legislature established a “Negro school” called Quindaro State Normal School. It was located in the town where Robinson’s earlier investments had failed, but thereafter it became home to African American families and a freedmen’s school. Robinson served on the Board of Directors in 1872 and 1873. After a devastating year of grasshoppers, the state budget no longer provided funding and the school closed in 1874. Robinson was also an incorporator and member of the Board of Directors for the private Lawrence Business College and Academy of English and Classics that provided training to those who wanted to go beyond public school but did not want to attend university.
Though Robinson lost the 1886 election for Congress, he had supported the Democratic candidate for president, Grover Cleveland, who won. Cleveland then appointed Robinson as superintendent at Haskell Institute in Lawrence. Robinson had lobbied for the position of Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1860, but was denied by President-Elect Lincoln. The Haskell appointment was at least a partial fulfilment of that previous ambition. Haskell was created as part of the federal government’s policy to eliminate Indigenous people through cultural genocide. As Richard Henry Pratt, founder of Carlisle, the model of this program, argued: the goal was to “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” Thus children were separated from their parents, often forcibly or through coercion, in order to indoctrinate them in American cultural norms. Schooling was militaristic, highly regimented, and deadly – as the Haskell Cemetery demonstrates even today. The school’s namesake, Congressman Dudley C. Haskell, was from Lawrence and served as chairman of the House Committee on Indian Affairs. His influence along with Lawrence’s New England roots, home to the state university, and close proximity to railways and Indian territory solidified its selection as a school site. In 1883 Lawrence citizens raised money and Colonel Oscar E. Learnard (who would become superintendent after Robinson) donated 280 acres of land – that a generation before was entirely Indigenous-owned – for the boarding school, which opened in the fall of 1884. Children from many Indigenous communities, including Ponca, Ottawa, Pawnee, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Osage, filled the early classrooms. The harsh conditions, inadequate food and medical care, and separation from loved ones resulted in ten student deaths just the first year.
On January 1, 1887, Robinson commenced his tenure at Haskell. The first president, a former minister and KU chancellor, Dr. James Marvin had resigned in July 1885 because of ill-health. The school had faced Congressional funding shortages right from the start, leaving facilities inadequate, such as the lack of heat in the first fall. Many students developed respiratory infections, pneumonia, and diphtheria. Marvin blamed student illness, deaths, and frequent runaways on the students themselves. Predictably, enrollments declined. The next superintendent, Colonel Arthur Grabowskii, increased punishments, built a school prison, and reorganized the student body into a battalion of five companies, organized by age, gender, and designed to separate students from others of their tribal nation. Enrollments continued to dwindle and he lost the support of local white Lawrencians too. Robinson improved relations with the local community, tribal leaders in Oklahoma, and more effectively recruited students, leading to increasing enrollments. Students generally preferred Robinson to his predecessor and some viewed him as “kind”. He reduced harsh punishments, but much of the school remained unchanged. He maintained Grabowskii’s battalion organization, which continued for decades thereafter. And Robinson initiated the “court-martial system” where students basically surveilled one another to ensure proper behavior. This too continued for decades. A growing student body led to overcrowding and poor health. Seventeen students died in Robinson’s first year, many from pneumonia and tuberculosis. During Robinson’s term, students were allowed to socialize two evenings a week, the library opened, the band was formed, and numerous new buildings constructed – notably for shop classes. Robinson also started Haskell’s outing program, which placed students in low-wage work with local families over the summer so they could learn American “civilization.” In reality the students performed farm hand or domestic service and could experience abuse or mistreatment.
Haskell functioned thanks to unpaid student labor. In his 1888 report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Robinson wrote: “No white or colored labor is employed in any department, except for mason-work. All the buildings have been completed in the year, with this exception, by the pupils, under the supervision of white employees…The work in the farm and garden has all been done by the pupils…Meals have been provided for 360 pupils three times a day, with but one white employee in the dining-room and kitchen. Housework in the dormitory-buildings is done with but one white person in charge of each building. Laundry work has but one white person to supervise it. All assistants and workers are Indian pupils. The same is true of the hospital, sewing, tailoring, and mending room; each have but one white employee.” While students conducted the physical labor, Robinson struggled to operate within federal regulations, especially concerning purchasing. He was reprimanded multiple times and was even forced to pay back some purchases to the government after his retirement. It is unclear if this or other matters convinced him to resign in September 1888. And he officially left the superintendency of Haskell on December 31, 1888.
Returning to politics, Robinson ran for governor in 1890 as a Democrat, but was defeated. Next, he turned to writing his own account of the Kansas territorial period. His book, The Kansas Conflict, was less focused on historical record and more on clarifying his own role while implying the actions of James Lane – his old political rival – and John Brown were detrimental to the Kansas free-state cause. These were somewhat controversial views as Lane and Brown were widely viewed as state heroes. However, Robinson expertly ensured his book would be widely read by giving away free copies to public libraries. By the summer of 1894, Robinson was suffering from chronic bladder and stomach problems and he passed away on August 17, 1894. His funeral was held at Plymouth Congregational Church in Lawrence and he was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery. Nearly every Kansas newspaper carried news of his death, as did national publications including the New York Times. Controversy around his recent book increased after his death, and his wife spent the rest of her life commissioning biographies and publicly chastising those she viewed as tarnishing his memory. Since Charles and Sara never had children, upon her death, the Robinson estate, including their home of Oakridge, was bequeathed to the University of Kansas.
Robinson certainly was a central figure in the state’s early history and his actions impacted everything from federal Indian policy, to politics, to railroads, to education, to reform movements, and beyond. The park in Lawrence was renamed for him in 1929, marking the 75th anniversary of the city’s founding. Should this park be named for Charles Robinson? Please join us in imagining this park’s future.