by Diane Eickhoff
As she walked beside the wagon train lumbering west over the Missouri state line on May 2, 1856, Miriam Colt gazed in wonder at the endless rolling prairie. After the long steamboat trip, and the gathering of supplies in Kansas City, the young schoolteacher from New York and her family were anticipating the arrival in their new home.
Miriam looked around at the gaggle of women and children walking beside her — the wagons were too full to carry humans — and declared that they looked “like a band of Mormons bound for Salt Lake City.”
They were actually headed someplace much closer, near present-day Humboldt, Kansas. But these sojourners did have something in common with the saints going to Utah.
Miriam Davis Colt, along with her husband, two children, and about 70 other souls, had come west to form an intentional community, one that was based not on religious belief but a radical idea about eating.
It was called the Kansas Vegetarian and Octagon Colony, and it was one of the most audacious utopian experiments in history.
Today we think of meatless eating as a personal choice, one that’s made for nutritional or ethical reasons. You may even know someone who is even planning on a meatless Thanksgiving. But the original vegetarian movement, which began in the 1840s, was much more radical than that.
The person drawn to vegetarianism back then usually came via the temperance movement. This person fervently believed that without sobriety, the world would never be free of alcohol’s evil offspring — immorality, poverty, and domestic violence.
Vegetarianism was an extension of this thinking, and was sometimes called “ultra-temperance.” Just as alcohol inspired people to violent behavior, eating the flesh of helpless animals was an act of aggression that bred aggression toward others.
For the thoughtful vegetarian, it came down to this: If a person could raise a cow in captivity and kill it for food, could he or she not also justify keeping humans in captivity, or committing murder on the battlefield and the gallows?
In 1856 one of the world’s leading proponents of this philosophy was Henry Clubb, a young and very idealistic reformer from England. Clubb became convinced that a community founded on vegetarian principles would be so successful, inviting, and influential that millions would rush to imitate the lifestyle.
And he wanted it in Kansas, which was a peculiar choice. That spring an illegally elected proslavery government was attempting to put down a rebellion by antislavery settlers. The territory was a dangerous place for anyone in 1856, let alone a group of abolitionist plant eaters. But it also meant that the whole country would be paying attention to Clubb’s vegetarian experiment.
When the Chicago Tribune caught wind of the scheme, it published an editorial urging the settlers to stay home. “Kansas has got enough philosophers, fiddlers, phrenologists, vegetarians, etc., already,” it read. “She needs beef-eating men — men of sinews, who have blood to spare and the pluck to put themselves in places where a loss of it might happen.”
Perhaps the real reason Clubb settled on Kansas was that it offered unlimited cheap land, enough to fulfill his ambitious vision for the township that subscribers would help him build. His highly detailed prospectus included a diagram showing the town laid out in a series of adjoining octagons. House builders had been experimenting with eight-sided buildings, but Clubb designed a whole community this way.
Even now it’s easy to see the brilliance of the octagon colony’s design. Commerce, work, and home were in close yet comfortable proximity, a hub-and-spoke arrangement not unlike the current KCI airport.
Settlers could walk out their front doors and arrive almost immediately at the community hall. Out their back doors, they would see an acre or more of land they could grow vegetables on — or lease out to later arrivals at the colony.
“Hurry you Vegetarians. Hurry, lest you be too late,” Clubb urged in his prospectus. “Hasten, you lovers of carrots, you eaters of unbolted grain! The rich land of Kansas awaits the seed. Hasten, flee beyond the fumes of nicotine, beyond the stench of Rum.”
What Henry Clubb did not spend nearly enough time thinking about was how to get the materials to create his utopian village out to an uninhabited part of Kansas. This failure would prove very costly to Miriam Colt and the other vegetarians.
The settlement was to be built along a stream near the Neosho River that is today called Vegetarian Creek. In theory a boat could get out there carrying not just building supplies but all the comforts of home out East. For instance, the Arabia, which sank to the bottom of the Missouri River later that year, had just about everything on board necessary to build a frontier town.
Clubb had promised a saw mill, a meeting house, and other basics by the time the Colts arrived. None of it did. That summer was a bitter time of hunger, hard field work, Indian troubles, and worst of all, disease. Several colonists died, and after the whole thing collapsed late that summer, Clubb disappeared to Michigan. He had a long and productive career of vegetarian advocacy after that, but never spoke of Kansas again.
Miriam Colt, however, would write a bitter memoir of her experience in 1862. Titled Went To Kansas, the book sold out its print run, and the proceeds allowed her to buy a home, where she lived out her years in upstate New York, far from Kansas.
Diane Eickhoff earned her M.A. in history from UMKC in 2008. Revolutionary Heart, her biography of pioneering feminist Clarina Nichols, was named a Kansas Notable Book. She speaks throughout Missouri and Kansas for the two states’ humanities councils and the Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning. She is at work on a book about the vegetarian colony.