In 1855 abolitionists Ellen Goodnow and her husband Isaac moved to Kansas Territory. Ellen exchanged letters with her sister-in-law in Maine, telling about conditions in the territory. She encouraged her sister-in-law Harriet, who was married to Isaac’s brother, William Goodnow, to join her family on the Kansas frontier.
After the Goodnows moved from their native Massachusetts to Rhode Island in 1848, Isaac became involved with the New England Emigrant Aid Society. This organization of abolitionists wanted to ensure that Kansas entered the Union as a free state. Isaac, his brother William, and Ellen’s brother, Joseph Denison, led a colony to Kansas Territory in March 1855; Ellen joined her husband in July.
Written within weeks of arriving at her home on Wild Cat Creek, Ellen’s letter to Harriet described the new land and its opportunities as a free state. “. . . one hundred and thirty miles of the most beautiful road…it is equal to any macadamized in the world,” Ellen wrote. The wagon trains passed by her house heading farther west “to show that we are far from the jumping off place, or from a land deserted by all but Indians. . . two [sic] good for bondage, or for the oppressors rod ever to be raised over it. . . if Satan influences the Missourians to do their best, God will eventually bring their counsels to naught by giving this land to the free.”
By May 1856 Ellen’s letter to Harriet recounted “many vexations that we never had before . . . I find my washing and some of my work a full match for me,” she wrote. “I can say truly that I enjoy life as well here as I ever did any where.” She said the violence along the Kansas-Missouri border shouldn’t concern Harriet, “. . . for we are to [sic] far from Missouri and to near Ft Rily [sic] to suit their taste. . . I think it will be settled without much bloodshed.”
Ellen also wrote to Isaac when he returned to New England to raise funds for the new settlement. Dated between 1857 and 1859, she provided news and updates on the health status of friends and family members and requests for flannel fabric, woolen socks, a microscope, clock, a bonnet for fall and spring, “one pound of calico pieces at the factory. . . and good shoes ginghams or calicos.” Heavy rains in July 1858 produced “2 inches in the rain gauge…six nights in succession…No mails arrived here for more than a week, all the bridges carried off between here and Leavenworth.”
While Isaac was traveling, Ellen oversaw much of the construction work on a new house in Manhattan (now Goodnow House State Historic Site), along with the new Bluemont Central College (later Kansas State University), which they founded. “The spirit that is in the carpenters is, how much am I going to make out of you,” she wrote. “Give me an honest man that wants to earn every cent of his money or not have any.”
Ellen and Isaac had no children of their own but adopted Harriet Parkerson, the daughter of Isaac’s deceased sister, and cared for several other nieces and nephews. Parkerson donated her papers and a number of Ellen’s letters to the Historical Society's research collections around 1940. These are a few samples from Kansas Memory:
Entry: Goodnow, Ellen
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: November 2013
Date Modified: October 2015
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.