Strangers became housemates for the winter. “Our bill of fare is limited,” wrote Miriam Colt, who arrived that summer “wide-eyed” with hope: “Over and over again hominy, Johnny cake, Graham pudding, some white bread… Disappointment has darkened every brow. We are as much shut out from the world here as though we were on some lonely island in the oceans.”
Diseases festered. Many died from cholera. Huddled in tight quarters, the new Kansans feared they wouldn’t last the winter. And if they did, come spring they faced devastation.
In this environment, gossip became viral. “One thing I learned,” a woman wrote home, “in K.T. [Kansas Territory] four of every five rumors are true.” It was said a person could believe something one minute and the opposite the next.
Allegiances changed with the weather. In the play Bleeding Kansas, five people with diverse beliefs come to the territory. Strangers become neighbors. Then, caught in the cauldron of history, they hurtle to extremes.
“K.T. was already old with conflicts,” writes Jane Smiley, “that was the sharpest lesson.… It was as if a bride and groom turned to one another at the altar, each expecting the other to be new and young and strong and beautiful, and found instead old age, old acquaintance, old battles, old hatreds. Where else in the whole United States had there been no honeymoon at all, no short space of good feeling? Nowhere else but K.T.”
Smiley has an observation that illuminates Walat’s play. In the novel, a woman complains that K.T. had “coarsened” her. The change wasn’t all that bad, replies Lidie Newton. “In my opinion, K.T. made you see the world as it was. Your actions followed that.”
Frank, Thomas, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (Metropolitan Books, 2004).
Goodrich, Thomas, War to the Knife: Bleeding Kansas, 1854–1861 (Stackpole Books, 1998).
Robinson, Sara T.L. Kansas: Its Interior and Exterior Life (Crosby, Nichols, and Company, 1856).
Smiley, Jane, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (Alfred Knopf, 1998).