Robinson, Sara Tappan Doolittle Lawrence

Encyclopedia entry by ,
University of Missouri-Kansas City

Sara Robinson. Image courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society.

Biographical information:

Following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, Sara T.D. Robinson, and her husband, Charles, were two affiliates of the New England Emigrant Aid Company who accepted the challenge of settling in Kansas Territory to counter proslavery efforts and ensure that Kansas entered the Union as a free state. Sara brought her considerable talents as persuasive chronicler to the abolitionist fight and used her pen to document life in the new territory. Observant and articulate, she recorded her experience in Kansas: Its Interior and Exterior Life, published in 1856. The book, as described by Frank Blackmar in his biography of Charles Robinson, was “written on the spot, while the scenes and incidents described were fresh in her mind . . . .” It provides a Free-State view of the “Bleeding Kansas” troubles as seen through the eyes of a woman who lived through them, and at the time, the book was considered second in importance only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in supporting the abolitionist movement.

Sara Tappan Doolittle Lawrence was born in Belchertown, Massachusetts on July 12, 1827. She was blessed to have a father who offered her the same classical education that he offered his sons. In addition to private tutoring she attended the Belchertown Classical School and the New Salem Academy. She could read both German and French and was well schooled in Latin. As a result, Sara was uniquely equipped to support the abolitionist cause as the unofficial historian of the movement in Kansas.

Sara Lawrence first met her future husband, Charles Robinson, in 1843 when she was 16 and he was a practicing physician in Belchertown. Sara injured her spine in a fall down a flight of stairs and Robinson, who at the time was married to his first wife, Sara Adams, was called in to treat her injury. After the first Mrs. Robinson died in 1846, Charles moved to Fitchburg, Massachusetts and opened a medical practice.

Failing in health from overwork, Charles signed on as company physician for a group going overland to California, where he remained until September, 1851. Prior to his departure, he renewed his friendship with Sara Lawrence. They became engaged and upon his return were married in October 1851. They settled in Fitchburg, Massachusetts where Charles resumed his medical practice. Charles also purchased a local weekly newspaper, the Fitchburg News, and Sara helped run the paper after their marriage.

The Robinsons both opposed slavery. Frank Blackmar writes that Charles Robinson “believed in the settlement of Kansas and the conquest of the slave-power by building up homes of free men on a free soil.” Blackmar describes how Robinson, after meeting with Eli Thayer at a New England Emigrant Aid Company meeting, committed himself and Sara to move to Kansas and help in the fight to secure the territory to the Union as a free state. Charles Robinson traveled ahead of his wife to Kansas in July 1854 and helped found Lawrence, which became the nucleus of Free-State activities. Sara followed in 1855.

While some historians indicate that Sara Robinson was unhappy in Kansas, her historical account paints a different picture. She waxes eloquently over the beauty of the Kansas prairie and the charm of the environment and alludes frequently to personal experiences that solicited laughter and joy.

While some historians indicate that Sara Robinson was unhappy in Kansas, her historical account paints a different picture. She waxes eloquently over the beauty of the Kansas prairie and the charm of the environment and alludes frequently to personal experiences that solicited laughter and joy. She was, of course, keenly aware of the privations of pioneer life and was often homesick for friends and family in Massachusetts, but her commitment to the abolitionist cause never wavered.

In addition to Kansas, Robinson recorded her personal recollections of the May 1856 Sacking of Lawrence and William Clarke Quantrill’s 1863 raid on Lawrence, the latter of which soon became infamous for the unprecedented scale of violence enacted against civilians. The Robinson’s first home in Lawrence stood on Mount Oread. It was destroyed by fire in the Sacking of Lawrence at the hands of Missouri border ruffians while the Robinsons were away. Sara writes that in that raid, “all the treasures of my pleasant youth were destroyed . . . all gone and gone likewise the home comforts which we had shared freely with stranger and friend alike.”

The Robinsons’ home was rebuilt and Sara Robinson recounted how it was again threatened on August 21, 1863 when Quantrill and his men raided Lawrence. This time, although Charles Robinson was away, Sara was at home with her housekeeper, Mrs. Gay and Mrs. Leonard, a friend from childhood who was visiting from the East. At 5:15 a.m. the alarm was sounded that “Quantrell is coming!” (The 19th century spellings of Quantrill varied significantly.) The women quickly gathered the things they might need to evacuate the house and waited for events to play out. Robinson relates that she heard W.H. Gregg’s order to “Wheel left, kill every man woman and child.” After three hours, between 160 and 180 residents of Lawrence were dead or dying and Lawrence was engulfed in a “wall of fire.”

In the aftermath of the raid, Robinson also describes the murder of Jake Callew by Lawrence residents. The men thought Callew was a spy for Quantrill, and even after a quickly convened court found him innocent, they hung him and then shot up his body. Nonetheless, Robinson describes the Lawrence men as “reliable, sober peace-loving men” who returned to their homes after the raid with new hope for “a peace that would be lasting, that would come when it should be heralded . . . .that the whole nation was free – slavery being abolished.”

Read the full text of Robinson's Kansas: Its Interior and Exterior Life.After the Civil War, Robinson used her pen to fight those she saw as trying to rewrite Kansas history. With the same energy she used previously to fight proslavery factions, she challenged those whom she believed were attempting to denigrate her husband’s memory and legacy in order to promote the memory of James Lane. Although he was also a Free-Stater, Lane was seen by the Robinson camp as a radical and a charlatan who curried favor with Lincoln for his own aggrandizement. When Charles Robison was implicated in a scandal over state bonds, he believed that Lane perpetrated the event to neutralize him as a political competitor. Additionally, Sara Robinson was concerned that John Brown was being championed in the histories as a hero, whereas she viewed him as a murderer and a stain on Kansas’s reputation. She spent the balance of her life defending her version of early Kansas history and her husband’s reputation.

Sara Robinson died in Lawrence on November 15, 1911. Much of Charles and Sara’s estate was contributed to the University of Kansas, which Charles had helped found at the end of the Civil War.

Suggested Reading: 

Blackmar, Frank W. The Life of Charles Robinson: The First Governor of Kansas. Topeka: Crane & Co., 1902.

Connelley, William E. A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. Vol. 1-5. Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1918. Transcribed by Carolyn Ward, 1998.

Courtwright, Julie. "'A Goblin that Drives her Insane:' Sara Robinson and the History Wars of Kansas, 1894-1911." Kansas History 25 (Summer 2001): 102-123.

Robinson, Sara T.D. "Personal Recollections of Mrs. Sara T.D. Robinson of the Quantrell Raid of August 21, 1863." Special Collections, University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Cite this page: 
Keating, Deborah. "Robinson, Sara Tappan Doolittle Lawrence" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Sep, 26, 2017 at http://www.civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/robinson-sara-tappan-doolittle-lawrence

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