Dr. Charles Robinson: Kansas Governor

Portrait of Charles Robinson in Belchertown's Town Hall

Portrait of Charles Robinson in Belchertown's Town Hall

Charles Robinson was born in Hardwick, Mass., and studied at academies in Hadley and Amherst, before entering Amherst College.  He left college due to eyesight difficulties and supposedly walked 40 miles to Keene, NH to visit a physician, there, with whom he would eventually study medicine.  His eye problems alleviated, he received his medical degree from Berkshire Medical School in Pittsfield.  He opened a practice in Belchertown in 1843 and two years later joined another Belchertown native Josiah Gilbert Holland in opening an early hospital or sanatorium in Springfield, Mass. 

But by 1849, at the age of 31, he was on his way west.  Writing about himself in the third person, he described the times:  “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, more or less well marked.  Even staid New England did not escape the epidemic.  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.  This party was composed of men of all classes and professions, including trades­men, clerks, manufacturers, mechanics, farmers, and laborers.  It was organized in the form of a military company, with a full list of officers from captain down.    The privates and non-commissioned officers wore gray uniforms, while commissioned officers wore navy-blue.  An assessment was made upon each member, and all property was purchased and controlled by the officers.  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, travelling by railroad and canal to Pittsburg, and thence by steamboat to Kansas City, or Westport Landing…  Some members of the party had seen much of the world, while many were unsophisti­cated and unsuspicious.  These latter, when they paid their assessments, paid tuition in a school of more varied knowledge and experience than can be found in any professed place of education.”

 By May 23rd, the party was not yet at Kansas City, but Robinson wrote on that day:  “Passed a little creek of pure cold water, about twelve M[idday], where we found a newly made grave. Ascended a high bluff near the creek, where I had a most delightful view of the country to a great distance. I was reminded of the view of the Connecticut River valley from Mt. Holyoke. There is this difference, however — while one is circumscribed by hills and forests, the other is illimitable in extent, and stretches from the rising to the setting sun; and while one is striped and checked with corn-fields and meadows like a carpet, the other is capable of being checked as numerously with States and nations.”

His company having fragmented along the way, the Doctor arrived in California in the late summer.  He went to the gold fields first, before finding his way to the nascent town of Sacramento for the rainy season.  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.”

At Sacramento, he became involved in, and a leader of, what became known as the Squatters Riots.  It was a complicated issue, but boiled down, the local authorities were evicting and mistreating people who were living on and working land that some large absentee land-owner or speculator claimed.  This was all done without due process.  The problem stemmed from land claims that had origins with land grants made by the Mexican authorities, often without clear boundaries.  Almost no one had ever seen written documentation of the claims at that time.  John Sutter claimed huge amounts of land this way, but the boundaries were, as Robinson later wrote: “from the Three Peaks, some seventy miles north of Sacramento, to some unknown distance south of town.  It also extended ‘from the rivers to the ends of the earth,’ so far as known, east and west.”  Basically, the deeds were often impossible to plot.  In addition, there were many unscrupulous people taking advantage by forging deeds, or selling the same lands twice.  Apparently, Sutter himself knowingly sold more land than he owned.

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, 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.

The incidents caught the attention of state officials and eventually Robinson was released without standing trial.  He served one term in the legislature, where he was a factor in the debate to keep California from becoming a slave state. 

Dr. Charles Robinson then returned to Massachusetts where he married his second wife, Sara T. D. Lawrence, daughter of prominent attorney Myron Lawrence of Belchertown.  But the Robinsons adventures had only begun.  They were soon leading a party of Free Soilers to Kansas Territory under the auspices of the New England Emigrant Aid Society.  He and Sara were front and center in the fight over slavery in Kansas Territory, known as “Bleeding Kansas.”  He witnessed the burning of Lawrence, Kansas — which he had helped establish — and was elected territorial governor under one of the two disputed Constitutions.  When Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state by the U. S. Congress after the southern states seceded, Robinson was elected the first Governor of Kansas under statehood.  He ran into some political troubles and was impeached, and later acquitted, but he left politics and became a Regent for the University of Kansas for which purpose he bequeathed a portion of his estate. 

His wife, Sara (Lawrence) Robinson, was a popular author in her own right who also described their Kansas experiences.  Upon her death, she left money for the construction of Belchertown’s municipal building, Lawrence Memorial Hall, named in honor of her father, Myron Lawrence.

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One Response to “Dr. Charles Robinson: Kansas Governor”

  1. camcca Says:

    I just learned that three of Charles Robinson’s sisters married (in succession, not at the same time) William Bowman Stone, the brother of Lucy Stone, the women’s rights pioneer and outspoken abolitionist.

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