Douglas County History
Charles Lawrence Robinson, the First Governor of Kansas
by Jan Tompkins
Charles Lawrence Robinson
(medical doctor, California legislator, abolitionist, first governor of Kansas)
Charles L Robinson, first governor of Kansas, wasn’t a stodgy old politician. He was a medical doctor who joined the 1849 gold rush to California, got involved in a rebellion there, then practiced medicine back east before becoming involved with abolitionist activists. He had some famous friends, went to Kansas, and got into trouble with the Missouri border ruffians before the Civil War. In his day, politics weren’t stodgy.
Robinson’s story starts out like a Horatio Alger lesson. He was one of 10 children born to Jonathon and Huldah Woodward Robinson. Born July 21, 1818, in Hardwick, MA, Charles was part of a respected but poor family. According to Skyways.lib, “His father was a direct descendant of the John Robinson of Plymouth Rock fame, and was a farmer and a zealous anti-slavery man.” After attending school at Hadley and at Amherst Academy, according to his New York Times obituary (August 18, 1894), young Charles “at the age of seventeen began working to pay his way through college at Amherst by teaching during his vacation. He graduated and took a course in medicine, after which he was associated with Dr G G Holland in managing a hospital at Springfield.”
The Times’ account skips over Robinson’s receiving a medical degree from Berkshire Medical school in Pittsfield and opening a practice in Belchertown in 1843. Charles was 25 when he began his Belchertown practice, but was gone two years later. In 1843, while still at Belchertown, he married Miss Sarah Adams of Brookfield, MA. The couple had two children that died in infancy. By 1845 the little family had moved to Springfield, MA, where Sarah died. Charles himself had health problems, and after these losses, he left Springfield for Fitchburg, MA, where he continued to practice medicine. But then he saw an irresistible opportunity: the gold fields of California.
Robinson’s own journal (written in third person) says: “On the discovery of gold in California in 1848, the whole country was in a blaze of excitement, and men of all classes and conditions had symptoms of the gold fever.... In the winter of 1849 a party of some forty persons was organized in the vicinity of Boston for the purpose of emigration to the land of gold.... Among the number was a physician, by the name of Robinson, who was to be exempt from all duty except the care of the sick. The doctor, desiring rest from an extensive practice, was in pursuit of recreation quite as much as of gold....” The party left Boston in the winter of 1849, traveling by railroad and canal to Pittsburgh, then by steamboat to Kansas City.”
The travel party apparently disintegrated along the way, but Charles Robinson arrived in California in late summer of 1850. He went first to the gold fields there “before finding his way to the nascent town of Sacramento for the rainy season,” according to Camcca.Wordpress. “Observing the high prices for goods and services, he quickly realized that more gold would be procured in Sacramento than on Bear Creek, ‘and a partnership was soon formed and an eating house opened.’” So young Dr. Robinson had become an entrepreneur and a restaurateur at the age of 32.
Soon after arriving in 1850, Charles became a leader of what were later called the Squatters Riots. According to Camcca, land speculators, absentee land owners, and general confusion about land records and Mexican land grants. “So, the miners rebelled against the local authorities, such as they were. There were riots in the streets, organized by Robinson, and at one point the mayor of Sacramento was shot and he later died. The city assessor was killed. The sheriff was killed in another incident. Robinson himself was badly wounded and captured and dragged off to a prison ship to die. When he didn’t die [after eight days], he was brought up on charges of murder, assault with intent to kill, and conspiracy. While awaiting trial, he was elected to the California legislature. The 1850 census enumerates Charles Robinson on a prison brig in Sacramento.”
Eventually Robinson was released without trial. His personal friendship with abolitionist John C Fremont may have helped.
At the beginning of 1851, Dr. Robinson decided to go home to Massachusetts, taking a steamer from California, crossing the isthmus, and then starting by ship to Boston. But somehow his vessel was shipwrecked off Mexico, and Dr. Robinson wound up signing on to be ship surgeon on another boat, this one headed from Panama to Cuba.
On board were a number of sick men who had been involved in the construction of the Panama railroad, says Skyways.
By September 9, 1851, Charles was back in Fitchburg, MA. October 30, 1851, Charles married Miss Sara T D Lawrence as his second wife. He had met and courted her in 1849, before he left for the gold fields. One source says that her parents were less than thrilled with the notion of Charles as a son-in-law because they didn’t think he’d ever amount to much, and Sara was a very well educated woman from a well-off family.
In Massachusetts, Charles resumed the practice of medicine and for a time edited a newspaper. But then came a very big distraction. According to Skyways: “The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill threw the Territory of Kansas open to settlement, and the North and South vied with each other in sending emigrants into the new territory...” The Emigrant Aid Society, formed in Boston, promoted colonizing Kansas with folks opposed to slavery, and as its company agent, Dr. Robinson began his connection with Kansas, leaving for the new territory June 28, 1854. That year, the Massachusetts colonists became the founders of the town of Lawrence.
Lawrence was the center of free-state resistance to the proslavery Missourians who crossed the border. The abolitionist immigrants faced terrific odds in the violent conflicts that followed. It was much easier for Missouri pro-slavery advocates to move to Kansas (or pretend to) than it was for a bunch of New Englanders, who had a much longer journey and fewer volunteers for the cause.
Charles Robinson was one of the founders of the Free State Party, organized in 1855, and was considered a calmer counter-balance to the volatile Jim Lane. Robinson was elected governor of Kansas Territory (1856) under the non-recognized Topeka Constitution. He helped to organize a truce to end the “Wakarusa War” in December, 1855, but was arrested on treason charges in May, 1856, along with several other free-staters because his non-legal election as territorial governor challenged the legitimacy of the pro-slavery government recognized by Franklin Pierce’s administration. Robinson was confined for four months, during which Bleeding Kansas’ most infamous violent incidents happened: the 1856 sack of Lawrence; the Pottawottamie Massacre; the Battles of Black Jack and Osawatomie.
Robinson’s home in Lawrence was burned during the 1856 sacking of the town. This was the home near Mount Oread in Lawrence. This land was later bequeathed by the Robinsons to the University of Kansas and makes up much of the KU campus.
Robinson was held at Lexington, MO, and at Leavenworth, KS, during the period from May 10, 1856, to September, 1856. During that time, Congressman John Sherman of Ohio, who served on a Congressional committee investigating “the Kansas affair,” came to visit Robinson. The treason and conspiracy charges against Robinson were dropped, and he was released.
Charles’ wife, Sara T. D. Robinson, wrote a very popular book detailing the violence and conflicts her family and friends endured, including the actions of pro-slavery folks who were supposedly acting as civil authorities. Historians consider Sara’s book, “Kansas: Its Interior and Exterior Life,” first published in 1856, to be second only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in influencing the country toward civil war.
While the pro-slavery folks had their own version of a constitution for Kansas, in all there were four proposed constitutions before one was deemed acceptable to Congress. Kansas was accepted into the Union in 1861, and Charles Robinson was elected first governor of the state, taking office January 29, 1861. Says Skyways, “The free-state party had ended in the formal organization of the Republican party....” and it was as a Republican that Robinson was elected. He didn’t have an easy job, says Skyways, crediting him with starting the machinery of the state government, mustering and equipping 13 regiments and several battalions, and cheerfully surrendering his office when he term expired.
Skyways skips over Robinson’s impeachment (an event brought about by his old political rival Jim Lane), but Robinson was not convicted. He went on to serve two terms in the state senate (1874, 1876), was a regent of the University of Kansas, became superintendent of Haskell Institute, was president of the State Historical Society, and farmed. He got crossways with the Kansas Republican party and once ran for office as a Populist Democrat, but lost the election.
Charles Robinson lived out his days at Oakridge, the home he built north of Lawrence, across the road from what is now Oakridge School. The house no longer stands, but the land, which now belongs to KU, is used for cross country races. Robinson died in 1894. Sara died at Oakridge November 15, 1911.
Douglas Co. KHHP
This website created Feb. 24, 2012 by Sheryl McClure.
© 2011-2012 Kansas History and Heritage Project