With New Focus On Kansas City, Kansas, Underground Railroad Site, Here's A Name To Know | KCUR

With New Focus On Kansas City, Kansas, Underground Railroad Site, Here's A Name To Know

Apr 25, 2018

An engraving of Clarina Nichols as it appeared in 'History of Woman Suffrage,' edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage and published between 1887 and 1902.
Credit Wikipedia / Creative Commons

This month has brought renewed attention to the historic Underground Railroad site known as the Quindaro Ruins in Kansas City, Kansas.

After a gathering of community members, historians and scholars sought to raise awareness about the importance of the site last week, Congressman Kevin Yoder has announced that he would introduce legislation to designate Quindaro a National Historic Landmark.

If more people in the Kansas City metro do become interested in the Quindaro site, they’ll quickly learn the name of Clarina Nichols, an early feminist who lived in the mid-19th century. She advocated for women's rights to own property, testify in courts and hold political offices.

Part of the wave of migrants who moved to this area as the Kansas Territory opened up, she is perhaps best known in the state as the editor of the Quindaro Chindowan, an abolitionist newspaper.

Early years

Clarina Nichols was born in 1810 in West Townshend, Vermont, into a prosperous New England family. She married Justin Carpenter when she was 20, but did something unusual when she divorced Carpenter a little more than ten years later.

Nichols suffered emotional and physical abuse in the marriage, according to "Frontier Feminist: Clarina Howard Nichols and the Politics of Motherhood" by Kristen Oertel and Marilyn S. Blackwell.

When she decided to seek a divorce, she had to fight for custody of her children and for her property. These experiences reportedly had a profound impact on Nichols’ political views and inspired her later work as an activist. She became an early suffragette in response to women’s lack of freedom.

After a difficult court battle, her divorce to Carpenter became final in 1843.

At 44, Nichols remarried George Nichols, who was elderly and ill. Almost immediately, she took on his responsibilities as the editor of the progressive Vermont newspaper. In 1854, she joined the New England Emigrant Aid Society, an enterprise aimed at providing financial and material support for anti-slavery activists in Kansas (some of whom, like John Brown, were from the East Coast).

Nichols and her husband soon moved to Douglas County near Lawrence, Kansas, where George Nichols died. Not long after, the widow moved to Quindaro and became associate editor of Quindaro Chindowan, an anti-slavery newspaper that was published in 1857-58 by Methodist Bishop John Morgan Walden. The newspaper was housed in the lower Quindaro Township in Kansas City, Kansas, near the Missouri River.

At the time, Quindaro was an important site on the Underground Railroad. Nichols also was an active abolitionist who helped escaped slaves crossing the river from Missouri to freedom in Kansas.

She is also the subject of a more recent biography, 2016's "Clarina Nichols: Frontier Crusader for Women's Rights," by Kansas City historian Diane Eickhoff.

‘Fuss’ about women's rights

Nichols made a point to publicize her commitment to women’s rights. She spoke at the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention in 1859, where she encountered hostility from most Kansans toward the idea of allowing women or African Americans to vote.

Clarina Nichols died in 1885. Two years after her death, Kansas women gained the right to vote in municipal elections. But it took them another quarter of a century to secure the right to vote in all elections.

According to her letters preserved at the Kansas Historical Society, after Nichols had moved to Kansas, a man reportedly approached her mother, who was still living in Vermont.

The man inquired where Nichols had gone. When her mother explained she’d moved to Kansas, the man said he was glad.

"Why?" asked her mother. "Was she not a good member of society?"

"Well,” the man replied, “she kept the whole community in a fuss about women's rights and temperance."

Anna Yakutenko is an Alfred Friendly Fellow working at KCUR 89.3. Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer.