Kendall, George (1809-1867)
George Kendall (1809-1867)
An Easterner Goes West . George Kendall was a native New Englander, but he made his mark as an editor and adventurer in the American Southwest, founding the New Orleans Picayune, promoting Texas independence, traveling to Santa Fe, suffering in Mexican jails, and reporting on the Mexican War. Though Kendall’s adventures set him apart from most journalists, his achievements and ambitions nevertheless illustrate the ways that many nineteenth-century American newspapermen saw themselves and defined their paper’s nationalist mission.
Youth . Born in 1809 to an old Massachusetts family, Kendall was a restless young man eager to make his way in the world. His education was haphazard, but he had a quick mind and enjoyed reading, music, painting, and theater. However, none of these were as meaningful to him as the world of action, a fact soon confirmed by his journeys west and south.
Apprenticeship . At age fifteen Kendall went to work as an apprentice in the print shop of his cousin’s univer-salist newspaper, the Amherst Herald. Though the paper failed a few months later, Kendall liked the work and declared his intention to become a printer, a decision some family members discouraged. Kendall was undeterred and soon persuaded an uncle to take him to Boston, where he became an apprentice at the Boston Statesman. Within a year Kendall set his sights higher, moving to New York. He failed to find a job, however, and soon took a boat to Albany, where another uncle gave him fifty dollars, enough for him to head west in search of experience and adventure; he was seventeen.
Tramping About . Kendall traveled across New York to the Old Northwest, where he worked as a farmer, a traveling actor, and, sometimes, as a printer. He made his way as far west as Wisconsin and then tramped south through Tennessee to Natchez and on to New Orleans. New York beckoned, so he headed north, stopping off in North Carolina to work on a stage line. By 1832, when Kendall was twenty-three years old, he was making the rounds in New York again, seasoned by his travels and eager to succeed in journalism.
New Orleans . Success was to come in New Orleans. Kendall left New York in late 1833 for Washington, where he found a job at the National Intelligencer working next to a man named F. A. Lumsden. Kendall and Lumsden hit it off, and by 1835 both men turned up in New Orleans, working for rival papers. New Orleans in the mid 1830s was a bustling place filled with the adventurous spirit of the era. Eight new banks were chartered in 1836, and buildings, roads, canals, and railroads were under construction. An editor from Nile’ Weekly Register wrote in late 1836 that he was “astonished to witness the great number of large and splendid edifices which were under way” in New Orleans. Carpenters and laborers poured into the city as it grew into a major Western entrepot.
Founding the New Orleans Picayune. By early 1837 Kendall and Lumsden were ready to launch their own paper, the New Orleans Picayune, named after a small Spanish coin and representing the paper’s popular appeal. The Picayune was the first “penny press” paper in the South, and the paper’s columns were filled with jokes, puns, and gossip as well as news from around the city. The penny press was designed to appeal to the common man with breezy, entertaining news and commentary. Thus the fatal outcome of a duel was fair game in the Picayune: “A duel took place yesterday afternoon which resulted in the death of the principals, each firing through the other’s body. This is pretty sharp shooting, and, we think, very fair play—at least neither can say it was otherwise.”
The Penny Press . Another feature of the penny press was its news-gathering enterprise. James Gordon Bennett became famous and rich in New York for aggressively searching for news. Unlike an earlier generation of newsmen, penny press editors were not content to wait on travelers and mail deliveries for the news; they began to search for stories, sending reporters to the police station, courthouse, and other places where interesting stories were likely to happen. In time Kendall and the Picayune became famous for their enterprise, especially in far-flung reports from the Southwest and Mexico.
Expansionist Politics . The Picayune had an expansionist view early on. About a year after the paper’s founding, Kendall and Lumsden were successful enough to start a weekly edition aimed at Texas, newly independent from Mexico, but served only by a handful of papers. In the late 1830s and early 1840s the Picayune ran a popular series called “Prairie Sketches,” stories widely reprinted in the Midwest and East. These articles, written by the brother of a Picayune staffer, included reports on a trip to Santa Fe and later to the headwaters of the Yellowstone. Kendall’s interest in Western expansion was both personal and professional. The West represented adventure and opportunity, forces Kendall could not resist. Besides, general interest in the West in the 1840s was growing. More and more immigrants were traveling across the Great Plains to Santa Fe and California. The Picayune was eager to report Western news, promoting the nation’s destiny and making a handsome profit along the way.
Travel to Santa Fe . In June 1841 Kendall joined an official Texas expedition to Santa Fe, a trip designed to secure the region as part of Texas and open a trade route between the Gulf of Mexico and Mexican territory in the West. Not surprising, Mexican officials viewed the Texans as a threat. To make matters worse, the expedition was poorly organized and equipped. Wagons overturned; supplies ran short; and the military escorts, some of them teenagers, were undisciplined. For the first six weeks of the journey Kendall rode in a wagon, unable to mount a horse because of a broken ankle suffered days before the trip began. “The worthy editor grumbles excessively, as well he might, over his annoyances and misfortunes,” the Picayune told its readers.
Trouble in Texas . When Kendall and an advance party of about one hundred Texans finally reached Mexican territory, they were soon disarmed and arrested by Mexican soldiers who promptly executed two Texas officials. The remainder of the expedition eventually turned up in Mexican territory, beaten and hungry. Confronted by Mexican troops, they surrendered. The Texans’ move on Santa Fe had been a fiasco. Rumors of the failure slowly drifted back to the press, but the Picayune remained optimistic that Kendall would prevail. In October, Kendall and other prisoners were ordered to Mexico City to meet Mexican president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The march to El Paso was difficult. Some prisoners died of exhaustion; others were killed by guards. The trip south from El Paso was easier, but smallpox and other illnesses broke out among the men. By early 1842 the prisoners were near Mexico City, but Kendall’s partner at the Picayune, Lumsden, arranged for Kendall’s release. By the time he was free Kendall had been imprisoned for months, some of the time in a leper hospital, other times in leg irons. The ordeal caused Kendall to hate Mexicans and the Mexican government, a fact that became clear in his coverage of the Mexican War.
Rising Success . The Texas prisoner controversy and the continuing dispute between Texas and Mexico reverberated in American papers. Kendall’s imprisonment and reports of the prisoners’ hardships led to editorial condemnation of Mexico and helped stir up public opinion against Santa Anna and the Mexicans. The Picayune prospered as a result of these conflicts. Kendall’s captivity had become a public issue in New Orleans, inspiring more news-gathering activity in the West. As a major port and transportation hub, New Orleans was ideally situated as a news center for the Southwest and Mexico, a fact the Picayune exploited. Kendall placed correspondents in major Texas towns and in Mexican ports, and the reporters worked the wharves and hotels of New Orleans gathering the latest intelligence. Not surprising, stories from the Picayune were widely reprinted in the Eastern papers, sometimes well in advance of diplomatic dispatches.
Popularity . The reputation grew with the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846. Kendall became more famous than ever. He reported on the successful attack on Monterrey, reports that helped propel Zachary Taylor to hero status and later to the presidency. The news carried across northern Mexico by riders and then by boat to New Orleans in eight days. This was no accident, the Picayune reports boasted, “but was due entirely to the foresight and prudence of our associate, now with the Army. Appreciating the vast importance of news.... Mr. Kendall determined to forward the despatches of our correspondents by express, cost what it would.” Little wonder, then, that the Picayune was widely sought by the Eastern papers, which had the paper carried by boat, rider, and rail across the Southeast. With luck, copies of the Picayune were in Baltimore, New York, and Boston in ten days. Kendall’s reports from the Mexican front contributed to the popularity of the paper; compositors worked overtime to produce extras to meet the public demand.
Postwar Life . After the Mexican War the restless Kendall traveled to Europe, visiting the great cities and finding a wife and beginning a family. He was always writing letters, filling the pages of the Picayune with news from England and the Continent. Eventually he established his family on a ranch in his beloved Texas, raising sheep and a variety of crops. Always the optimist, he continued his letters to the Picayune and Eastern papers, praising the climate and the many opportunities of central Texas. Kendall died in Texas in 1867. His dream of owning a great and prosperous ranch never came true, but he remained an unabashed American expansionist who knew how to use a newspaper to advance his own causes.
Fayette Copeland, Kendall of the Picayune (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1943).