WHEREAS, the practice of Vegetarian diet is best adapted to the development of the highest and noblest of human nature, and the use of the flesh of animals as food tends to the physical, moral, and intellectual injury of mankind, and it is desirable that those persons who believe in the Vegetarian principle should have every opportunity to live in accordance therewith, and should unite in the formation of a company for the permanent establishment in some portion of this country, of a home where the slaughter of animals for food shall be prohibited, and where the principle of the Vegetarian diet can be fairly and fully tested, so as to more fully demonstrate its advantages; therefore, RESOLVED, That we, the undersigned, do hereby agree to form ourselves into a Vegetarian Settlement Company.
With these words the Vegetarian Settlement Company was organized and formed in 1855. What followed was a short-lived pioneering experiment that was correlated with some of the most unusual ideas gaining momentum during the mid-1800s. This communal attempt grabbed my attention because of my combined interests in Kansas history, vegetarianism, communalism, and Christianity. It makes for one of the most interesting facets of Kansas history.
The settlement company's main grounds for vegetarianism appear to be based on heathful living, which suggests a stronger relation to Graham. Henry Clubb, the leader of the Vegetarian Settlement Company, contended that vegetarianism promoted health, longevity, and that it was capable of promoting immunity from diseases. But aside from this basic point, there were also a variety of health practices that were similar to Graham's. Many of the settlers, for instance, espoused the water cure practice for curing sicknesses. This treatment, also known as hydropathy, involved the application of hot and cold water in place of medicine, on grounds that returning to nature was the best way to look for cures to illnesses. John Hadley, a Quaker from Indiana and one-time prospective settler who later turned against vegetarianism, indicates in his letters that he held a belief in the water cure system when considered joining the settlement. Additionally, Clubb was known to write articles for the Water Cure Journal, and a water cure physician was one of the members that signed the group's constitution. Some of the colony's propaganda also claims that a hydropathic institution was to be established in the settlement, which shows widespread acceptance among the settlement's subscribers.
There also appear to have been ties between the Vegetarian Settlement and the study of phrenology, a science involving the discernment of human traits based on shapes and curves in the cranium. O.S. Fowler, whose architectual theories gave the octagonal design the settlement was to use, was a reputed expert in this study. Hadley's letters mentions this as a topic he highly valued, and Colt's diary Went to Kansas refers to a lecture she attended by O.S. Fowler on phrenology. These scattered references suggest that a belief in this science was prevalent among members and prospective members of the colony.
In terms of religious doctrine, the vegetarian philosophy of Henry Clubb, who was officially designated as secretary of the Settlement Company, used Christianity as the chief support. Clubb contended that first century Christians originally practiced vegetarianism, but that the notion had been corrupted by Constantine. He also claimed that the vegetarian diet was used in paradise. While the writings of other settlers do not specifically show agreement or disagreement with these doctrines, they do show a similar Christian system of belief and practice among the settlers. Colt's diary included records of weekly worship services at the settlement, which were led by Henry Clubb. (Incidentally, Clubb went on to serve as an ordained minister at a Bible Church in Philadelphia.) One of the remaining primary documents from the settlement is a handwritten letter by Clubb to the American Missionary Society, requesting financial assistance and assignment of a missionary to the colony. Clubb wrote: Seeing the necessity and feeling the want of religious services I have commenced holding them regularly every Sunday. During the summer we do very well with a congregation under the shade of the trees on the beautiful hill I have selected for my homestead, but unless some provision be made for winter we may be compelled to discontinue our meetings in want of a Church as none of us are likely to have rooms large enough for the Congregation... The neighbors round for 10 miles are arranging to come if we can only succeed in establishing a Church and Sunday School... We should also be glad of the occasional if not the permanent aid of your missionaries & would assure them a good congregation... I have never really felt the value of a Hymn book or a Bible so much as I do now where they are so scarce that a large Congregation has to do with one or two.
Clubb never indicated a denominational preference in this letter, possibly because he was writing to a non-denominational organization. Miriam Colt casually mentioned that most of the settlers came from a Presbyterian background, although other traditions were represented. Milton Hadley was a strong Quaker and abolitionist, while Watson Stewart had acquired Unitarian beliefs along with his ideals on vegetarianism and hydropathy. This suggests that no particular denominational view was dominant. The settler's main goals, for the most part, were centered on isolating themselves in a community of other persons who shared their values, and promoting these values through the settlement.
The promises of prosperity for the new Vegetarian colony, though of good intent, were either never realized or failed on their implementation. One such idea was the plan to build the city in the shape of an octagon. It stemmed from the architectural theories of O.S. Fowler, who advocated octagonally-shaped houses for reasons of building efficiency. In Fowler's 1854 book A Home for All he presented his agenda for octagonal building, claiming that octagonal houses contained more interior space with less circumference than square ones and hence made for less expensive building costs. Fowler also argued that the octagon, because of its rounded shape, was more closely accorded with nature (since nature produces round shapes like apples, eggs, beans, and such), and that architecture would be better off following nature's example.
This architectual principle was taken to a new realm by Henry Clubb when he made plans for an octagonal shape for the entire city. Clubb drew up plans for four octagonal villages placed together in a quadriplex comprising sixteen total square miles. An agricultural college would be established in the center of the quadriplex to educate settlers on farming techniques. Each octagon village was to be subdivided into eight triangular sections which would hold two thirteen-acre plots, to be owned and operated communally. At the tip of each triangle two farmhouses would be constructed facing the centre octagon house, which would eventually serve as a multipurpose building and would house church services, a community dry goods store, and community meetings and debates. Clubb claimed that this design would enhance the intellectual activity of the community by allowing the social interaction of city-life with easy access to community debates on various issues. It also would provide farmers with a convenient location by placing them close to their fields and allowing them to be in a city at the same time. Thus, it appears that the main reason for the octagonal shape was to facilitate social interaction. This plan was not one of their most emphasized ideas, but it made the settlement unusual, which is probably why it has grabbed so much attention in other historical accounts of the colony, and hence been given the name "Octagon City".
With the root interests being vegetarianism, octagonalism, and Christianity, the Vegetarian Settlement Company was created in New York in 1855 with the goal of establishing a permanent home for vegetarians away from the contamination of a meat-eating society. An office was set up at No. 308 Broadway, New York, and the first organizational meeting was held on May 16; Charles H. DeWolfe of Philadelphia was elected president of the company, with Dr. John McLauren serving as treasurer, and Henry Clubb as secretary. At this meeting 47 people signed an agreement to make the emigration, and 26 others indicated they also would go with family and friends. Other preliminary organizational plans were drawn by the three elected officers and other investing shareholders at this meeting.
Despite having three elected positions with seemingly important titles, only one of these men played a significant role: Henry Clubb. Through time he became the primary leader, making almost all the important decisions, particularly financial decisions. His importance to the company was not unearned, however, as he was one of the leading vegetarians of the day. He was an Englishman by birth, originally from Salford, England, and had been a leading lecturer on vegetarianism in the Manchester area before emigrating to the United States in 1850. Upon his arrival he was made secretary of the American Vegetarian Society, and was employed as a reporter for the New York Tribune. He was a very well-known vegetarian activist.
His position with the newspaper gave him leeway in terms of acquiring advertising for the Vegetarian Settlement Company, and many prospective settlers were recruited through advertisements in the Tribune. Watson Stewart wrote that he and his brother heard about settlement plans through promotions in the Tribune and also in the Phrenology Journal. Eventually they became shareholders and joined in the emigration to Kansas. Records also indicate that the settlement company received publicity from the Water Cure Journal. Most of the promotions came from the Tribune, though, which is hardly surprising since Horace Greeley, its well-known editor, held Fourierist ideals on communalism, was opposed to slavery, and spoke highly of Kansas and western settlement in general.
Promotions were so successful that the company attracted the attention some non-vegetarians as well. Most of these people were interested in joining an isolated community where temperance and similar values were espoused, but were not willing to become vegetarians in order to become members. Regular members of the Vegetarian Settlement Company were required to sign this pledge in order to become shareholders: I ____________ do voluntarily agree to abstain from all intoxicating liquors as beverages, from tobacco in every form, and from the flesh of animals; promote social, moral, and political freedom; to maintain the observance of all good and righteous laws, and to otherwise conform to the rules adopted by a majority of the Vegetarian Settlement Company. Non-vegetarian members espoused all of the above except the vegetarian principle. To accomodate them Henry Clubb created the Octagon Settlement Company as a sister organization to the Vegetarian Settlement Company. It was identical in format except members were not required to pledge to abstain from meat. Interest in this company apparently grew too, although its shareholding membership never outgrew that of the vegetarian company. By February of 1856 enough settlers had purchased shares in the Octagon Settlement Company to make up one octagonal village, to be set on the opposite side of the river from the four vegetarian octagonal villages.
Henry Clubb made economic plans for the five villages, based on communal division of profits with private ownership and profit-making. Initially Clubb created an investment system involving shareholding in the company. After paying an entrance fee of one dollar, settlers could buy between twenty and 240 shares in the settlement company. Each share was priced at five dollars, but Clubb only required that a ten-cent installment be paid on each share. Funds accrued were to be placed in a common fund for the settlement's general expenses, including the establishment of mining, manufacturing, and agricultural enterprises. Shareholders collectively would decide how to spend this money; every share was worth one vote. (This applied only with finances; on other issues each settler had only one vote.)
Though the thirteen-acre triangular sections of the octagonal villages were to be owned communally, plans were made for sixteen additional 102-acre farms to be made available for each village. These could be farmed and profited privately. Profits from the community-owned enterprises, however, were to be distributed to the settlers in accordance with the number of shares they held. Labor on communally-owned enterprises, including farms, was to be encouraged and members would be paid in "scrip". This community currency could be used to purchase lumber, dry goods, and other miscellaneous items from the community businesses. Farming equipment would also be owned and shared communally. Clubb supported this because it gave the farmers without funds for equipment access to it, thus giving them a chance at economic success.
The reactions of shareholders were as gleeful as could be expected. John Hadley wrote that the territory was "as nearly the equal of Palestine as any." His reaction appears to be typical for the prospective settlers; most all of them seem to have been expecting a new promised land flowing with milk and honey.
Full of enthusiasm, company members sold their businesses and homes and prepared to travel west to establish their vegetarian Utopia. Most came from the east coast, particularly New York, and in total about 100 people traveled to settle the new Kansas colony, called Neosho City. (The name "Octagon City" has been given as a description rather than an actual historical title.) Generally settlers traveled with their families on several different dates in the late spring of 1856, but some came in large groups. Most traveled by rail out of their homes in the east and detrained in St. Louis, and then boarded steamers to travel to river towns in western Missouri. At this point most settlers purchased covered wagons, and traveled through Fort Scott to the settlement. This pattern was common for frontier settlers who came to Kansas in the 1800s.
The arrival at the settlement was largely a moment of disappointment. They had been given big promises of arriving to a bustling colony with sawmills operating, house makers building, and a beautiful centre octagon building serving as a boarding house. Instead, the only constructed building was a crude log cabin which was called the "centre octagon" and most of the settlers were staying in tents and makeshift shacks made of logs and bark. Miriam Colt described her feelings upon arriving to these conditions: Can anyone imagine our disappointment this morning, on learning from this and that member, that no mills have been built; that the directors, after receiving our money to build mills, have not fulfilled the trust reposed in them, and that in consequence, some families have already left the settlement. Now we have all come! have brought [sic] our fathers, our mothers, and our little ones, and find no shelter sufficient to shield them from the furious prairie winds, and the terrific storms of the climate! For a moment let me contrast the two pictures- the one we had made provision for, and had reason to believe would be presented to us, with the one that meets our eyes: Expected a saw-mill would be in operation, a grist-mill building, and a temporary boarding-house erected to receive families as they should come into the settlement, until their own houses could be built... As it is, we find the families, some living in tents of cloth, some of cloth and green bark, stuck up on the damp ground, without floors or fire. Only two stoves in the company. These intelligent, but too confiding, families have come from the North, East, South and West, to this farther West, to make pleasant homes; and now are determined to turn right about, start again on a journey- some not know where! Others have invested their all in the company. Now come lost means and blighted hopes.
For most members this initial disappointment was enough to make them leave the settlement immediately. Miriam Colt arrived with her family on May 12, 1856, and her diary reports that on May 17th a "greater number of the company" departed. Most headed in the direction of Kansas City, with many not knowing where to go after there. Some returned empty-handed to friends and relatives in northern states.
Those remaining had to endure a rugged agricultural frontier lifestyle, which they were largely unprepared for with their northern middle-class backgrounds. The men began planting crops, working mainly with corn but also other garden vegetables and fruits like squashes and melons. The women did a variety of farm chores, like tending and watering the oxen, preparing bread and other foods, and washing clothes. The meals that were served were very simple, as could be expected. They consisted of hominy, cornbread (called "johnny-cakes"), white bread, and Graham pudding, with an occasional serving of rice, or a stewed apple. Clubb made somewhat regular trips to Fort Scott (which took about one day's travel) to pick up supplies and mail, but all supplies purchased were both basic and scant because of a lack of general funds.
All work efforts were hampered by this drastic lack of supplies, including many farming necessities. There was no soap for the settlers to clean or wash their clothes with, and there were only two stoves for preparing food. There was only one plow, and it had to be shared between 10 farmers; this meant that farm work to be done both day and night.
More troubles developed with the breeding mosquitoes that came with the late spring weather. Not only did these pesky critters make living conditions unbearable, particularly at night, they also transmitted a feverish sickness which the settlers referred to as "ague", possibly a form of malaria. This was the biggest problem they faced, and with the lack of medicine many settlers died.
The colony's isolation multiplied the settlers problems when the fever and chills struck, as no doctor was nearby to treat them and no one was well enough to make the trip to Fort Scott for treatment, if any was even available there. Fort Scott was a small settlement itself, and Kansas City was the only city of significance close to the settlement. Most colonists were afraid to travel there anyway, for fear of harassment by pro-slavery border ruffians who occasionally had stolen horses and other goods from them. (This was probably related to their opposition to slavery).
The fever outbreak also compromised the farming situation. Those who did not die were suffering and had to remain in bed, which prevented them from doing farm work and diminished possibilities for a good crop supply. Even worse, the crops that were already planted suffered from the summer drought, which dried up the Neosho River, leaving only scattered pools of water for drinking. A large portion of the corn particularly failed for lack of rain. Additionally, a portion of the good crops were taken by neighboring bands of Osage Indians, with whom the settlers had poor relations. The "lost means and blighted hopes" eventually came to pass for the settlers that had stuck through.
After three months of living in Kansas with few improvements in living conditions and many lost lives from the fever, most remaining company members decided to leave, including Henry Clubb. By the end of August almost all of the original settlers were gone. A few families remained, including Watson and Samuel Stewart and their families; these men remained in Allen County for many years afterwards. In fact, there is now a lake about four miles south of Humboldt called "Stewart Lake", named after Watson Stewart.
Henry Clubb returned back East and continued to advocate colonized vegetarianism for the rest of his life. He eventually became president of the American Vegetarian Society, and was editor of a publication entitled Vegetarian Magazine. Most of the other settlers either died from the ague or went north to places like Wisconsin and Michigan, starting farmsteads there. This brought an end to the Vegetarian Settlement Company.