Partners in Motion: Gender, Migration, and Reform in Antebellum Ohio and Kansas
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Partners in Motion:
Gender, Migration, and Reform in Antebellum Ohio and Kansas

In December 1861, six young women armed with hatchets and axes marched into a saloon in Mound City, Kansas, and proceeded to smash all the bottles and kegs they could find. One of the ringleaders was twenty-four-year-old Sarah Grimké Wattles. While her collaborators, her younger sisters Emma and Mary Ann and the Botkin sisters, kept the bartender busy, Sarah walked out onto the street, where a whisky drummer had stopped his wagon and was standing with a group of onlookers enjoying the show. Sarah calmly strolled around the wagon and opened all the spigots on the barrels, letting the whiskey run onto the street. The drummer accosted Sarah, threatening to strike her down, but Amelia Botkin stepped between them and promised to split his head open with her hatchet if he did not back off. Townspeople intervened and nearly lynched him for even suggesting that he might hit a woman. Sarah, Emma, and Mary Ann, "almost drunk from the whisky fumes," returned home as conquering heroines.1 Everyone agreed that their fledgling frontier town was much better off without the pernicious presence of the saloon. Even the bartender, "By" Hildreth, years later thanked Emma Wattles for turning him from his wicked ways.2

The Wattles girls moved to Kansas in 1855 with their parents, Augustus and Susan Wattles, who had worked for the abolition of slavery since the mid-1830s. Along with Augustus's brother and his wife, John and Esther Wattles, they migrated from New England to Ohio, lived in many places in Ohio and Indiana, and then moved out to Kansas to work for the free-state cause after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Like many abolitionists, both Wattles families embraced other reforms including temperance, diet reform, and women's rights. They passed their progressive views about the need to improve society and to expand opportunities for women on to their children, especially to their daughters. For the Wattles, migration became a necessary means for accomplishing gender reform.

In their mobility, the Wattles family typified Americans of the nineteenth [End Page 102] century. In 1850 nearly half of all heads of household resided in a state not adjacent to the state of their birth. During the decades before the Civil War, Ohio, called the "gateway to the West," had one of the most transient populations in the country.3 As New Englanders, the Wattles would have found much company in Ohio, especially in the Western Reserve in the northeast and around Marietta along the Ohio River. In these areas, the compact communities centered on church and school and governed by participatory local government reflecting the culture of New England. So did the acquisitive nature of the people, eager to "get ahead" materially. Elsewhere in Ohio, settlers arrived from Pennsylvania to establish scattered farms across the middle belt of the territory, while Southerners, many originally from Virginia, relocated to southern areas of the state. In these regions with more dispersed settlement, the county government prevailed so that Ohio came to reflect a blend of cultures.4

Whatever the settlement pattern, however, these newcomers to Ohio, and to the neighboring states of Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, hoped to improve themselves economically. Almost all of them desired land and links with commercial markets, seeking locations offering the potential for easy transportation and communication connections to outside markets. By migrating west, then, the budding entrepreneurs and farmers extended the commercial economy that was flourishing in Eastern urban centers.

Like all migrants, Yankees moved as family groups in a pattern of chain migration, with earlier settlers encouraging others to join them. As historian Susan Gray has suggested, Yankees in particular tended to form various organizations for the purpose of colonization. These emigration societies purchased land and established tight communities with the familiar institutions of school, church, and township government, arrangements that enabled them to negotiate the "dialectic of market and morality." Individualistic commercial capitalism could be very destructive to the cohesion of communities and families. By maintaining traditional institutions that provided the means for social control, transplanted Yankees felt they could embrace...