Bleeding Kansas & the Missouri Border War

The First Territorial Capital 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. Kathy Weiser, February, 2006. Click for prints & products.

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 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.

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.

John Brown, 1850s

John Brown, 1850s. Click for prints & products.

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.

They may kill me, but they cannot kill the principles I fight for. If they take Lawrence, they must do it over my dead body.

–G.W. Bell, Douglas County Clerk

Though the man never even drew his weapon, he was shot in cold blood by the pro-slavery faction. His body was returned to Lawrence where the entire citizenry followed it to its burial, in the presence of his young wife and children, in Pioneer Cemetery. This event, more than any other, hardened the Free-Staters to the realization that they had come, not simply for an election to determine whether Kansas would be a free or slave state, but to fight a war over the issue.

Anti-slavery Jayhawkers clashed with Bushwhackers from neighboring Missouri as the two sides were provoked to bitter and often bloody struggles in Kansas Territory to sway popular decision to their own favor.

Missouri Border Ruffians

Missouri Border Ruffians

Both sides were abetted by desperadoes and opportunists where people were tarred and feathered, kidnapped, and killed. Confrontation and deadly skirmishes over the issue of slavery would continue in the Kansas Territory for the next five years in an era to be forever known as “Bleeding Kansas”.

The word Jayhawker came from a mythical bird that cannot be caught. At first, the term was applied to both the pro-slavery and abolitionist rebel bands. But, before long it stuck to the anti-slavery side only.  Those that favored the Confederacy soon earned the name of Bushwhackers, because they primarily lived in the “bush,” or country, and their legs “whacked” the bushes as they rode. Both sides would eventually include semi-legitimate soldiers, and even grudgingly acknowledged by the Union and Confederate forces. However, other members of these two groups were simply bandits who had a quasi-military excuse for ambush, robbery, murder, arson and plunder.

In 1856 the proslavery territorial capital was “officially” moved to Lecompton, Kansas. In April of that year a three-man congressional investigating committee arrived in Lecompton to look into the Kansas  troubles. The majority report of the committee found the elections to be fraudulent, and said that the Free-State government represented the will of the majority. The federal government refused to follow its recommendations, however, and continued to recognize the proslavery legislature as the legitimate government of Kansas .

On May 21, 1856, a motley group of more than 500 armed pro slavery enthusiasts raided Lawrence, the stronghold of the abolitionist movement. They burned the Free-State Hotel (now the Eldridge Hotel), smashed the presses of two Lawrence newspapers, ransacked homes and stores and killed one man.

Not only was violence erupting in Kansas, but also in Congress itself.  On May 22, 1856, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was beaten unconscious by Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina. Sumner had, just three days previously, made a fiery speech called “The Crime Against Kansas,” in which he accused proslavery senators, particularly Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina of cavorting with “the harlot, Slavery.” Preston Brooks, the nephew of Andrew Butler, believing that Sumner had insulted his uncle, walked into Sumner’s chambers where he slammed a metal-topped cane onto his head time and time again. His injuries stopped Sumner from attending the Senate for the next three years.

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