Bleeding Kansas & the Missouri Border War


John Brown

John Brown



Evacuation of Missouri Counties under General Order No. 11, painting  by George Caleb Bingham, 1870.

Martial Law in Missouri by George Caleb Bingham, 1870.



“Come on, then, gentlemen of the slave states. Since there is no escaping your challenge, we accept it in the name of freedom. We will engage in competition for the virgin soil of Kansas, and God give the victory to the side which is stronger in numbers, as it is in right.

— Senator William Seward, on the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, May 1854

1856 map showing slave states in gray, free states in pink, U.S. territories in green, and Kansas in white.

1856 map showing slave states in gray, free states in pink, U.S. territories in green, and Kansas in white.

Bleeding Kansas or the Kansas-Missouri Border War was a series of violent civil confrontations between the people of Kansas and Missouri that occurred immediately after the signing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. The border war began seven years before the Civil War officially began and continued into the war. The issue was whether or not Kansas would become a Free-State or a pro-slavery state, which resulted in years of electoral fraud, raids, assaults, and retributive murders carried out by pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” in Missouri and anti-slavery “Jayhawkers” and “Redlegs” in Kansas.

On May 30, 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was signed, which opened the two territories to white settlement primarily so that a railroad could be built across the vast plains to the Rockies. Though the area was reserved for the Indians, the treaty was disregarded with the coming of the steam engine. Little did those long ago legislators realize the chain of events they had set in motion that would end in the Civil War and usher in an era of violence that would plague the plains for the rest of the century.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act also repealed the Missouri Compromise and reopened the issue of extending slavery north, allowing the two territories to decide the matter for themselves. As a result, settlement of the state was spurred, not so much by westward expansion, as by the determination of both pro-slavery and abolitionist factions to achieve a majority population in the territory.

Prologue to the Civil War

Prologue to the Civil War

With congressional power in the grip of the Southerners, the federal government placed the volatile issue of slavery into the hands of those settling the new territories. Abolitionists, especially strong in New England, were pitted against Southerners, who realized that if Kansas became a Free-State; their strength in the Congress would be eroded. To the South, this tip in congressional power was a threat to their political, economic and cultural existence.

Soon, New England abolitionists began organizing emigrant aid societies to encourage like-minded citizens to settle in the new territory. One of the men who joined the New England Emigrant Society and settled in Kansas for several years was Horace Tabor before he moved on to LeadvilleColorado to later become known as the famous “Silver King.”

Pro-slavery interests in and throughout the South took counteraction. Towns were established by each faction – Lawrence and Topeka by the Free-Staters and Leavenworth and Atchison by the pro-slavery settlers.

On August 1, 1854, 29 northern emigrants, mostly from Massachusetts and Vermont, were the first to arrive in Lawrence, Kansas, named for Amos A. Lawrence, a promoter of the Emigrant Aid Society.  A second party of 200 men, women and children arrived in September. Soon all the tasks required to organize a new territory for statehood would become secondary to the single issue of slavery.

The First Territorial Capitol at Pawnee, Kansas was only used for one session, before moving to Lecompton, Kansas when the pro-slavery advocates were in control of the state. By Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

On October 16, 1854, the first anti-slavery newspaper was established to voice the sentiments of the New England Emigrant Society. The newspaper called the Kansas Pioneer further enraged the pro-slavery supporters.

Pro-slavery Missourians flooded the state to vote at the first election in November 1854, where armed pro-slavery advocates intimidated voters and stuffed ballot boxes. Andrew H. Reeder was elected as the first territorial governor of Kansas.

Another election was held in March 1855 for the first territorial legislature. With the pro-slavery advocates winning again, the members ousted all Free-State members, secured the removal of Governor Andrew Reeder, adopted proslavery statutes, and began to hold their sessions at Lecompton, Kansas about twelve miles from Lawrence. Severe penalties were leveled against anyone who spoke or wrote against slaveholding and those who assisted fugitives could be put to death or sentenced to ten years of hard labor.

In July 1855, the first territorial capitol of Kansas was completed of native stone at the now-extinct town of Pawnee on the Fort Riley reservation. However, due to its distance from Missouri and the pro-slavery faction that controlled the Kansas legislature, its use was short-lived.

John Brown, 1850s

John Brown, 1850s.

Though the pro-slavery tickets had won the earlier elections in 1854 and 1855, the results were not accepted by free-soilers and a rival government was set up at Topeka in October 1855. Southern sympathizers – not only from Missouri but from as far away as Alabama – began to form paramilitary bands to destroy the abolitionist power in Kansas.

On October 7, 1855, John Brown arrived in Osawatomie, Kansas joining his five sons who had become engaged in the fight of the Free-State cause. At first, Brown was reluctant to join his sons due to his age, 55, an old man in those days. But, a letter from his son, John Jr., requesting arms changed his mind. Packing a wagon, he headed west gathering weapons along the way and declaring, “I’m going to Kansas to make it a Free-State.”

On December 1, 1855, a small army of Missourians, acting under the command of “Sheriff” Jones, laid siege to Lawrence in the opening stages of what would later become known as “The Wakarusa War.” The intervention of the new governor, Wilson Shannon, kept the proslavery men from attacking Lawrence.

But, later when a young man, who had come to the aid of the Free-Staters, rode off to his home about six miles west of Lawrence, he was met on the way by a group of pro-slavery men from Lecompton.

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