By Emerson Hough
The history of the border wars on the American frontier, where the fighting was more like a battle than murder, and where the extent of the crimes against law became too large for the law to ever to undertake any settlement, would make a long series of bloody volumes. These wars of the frontier were sometimes political, as the Kansas anti-slavery warfare; or, again, they were fights over townsites, one armed band against another, and both against the law. Wars over cows, as of the cattlemen against the rustlers and “little fellows,” often took on the phase of large armed bodies of men meeting in a bloody encounter; though the bloodiest of these wars are those least known, and the opera bouffe wars those most widely advertised.
The state of Kansas, now so calm and peaceful, is difficult to picture as the scene of general bloodshed; yet wherever you scratch Kansas history you find a fight. No territory of equal size has had so much war over so many different causes. Her story in Indian fighting, gambler fighting, outlaw fighting, townsite fighting, and political fighting is one not approached by any other portion of the West; and if at times it was marked with fanaticism or with sordidness, it was none the less bitter and notable.
The border wars of Kansas and Missouri at the time immediately preceding the Civil War would be famed in song and story, had not the greater conflict between North and South wiped all that out of memory. Even the North was divided over the great question of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Alabama, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia gave a whole or a majority vote for this repeal of the Compromise. Against the repeal were Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin. Illinois and New Jersey voted a tie vote. Ohio cast four votes for the repeal measure, seventeen against it.
This vote brought the territories of Kansas and Nebraska into the Union with the option open on whether or not they should have slavery: “it being the true intent and meaning of this act not to legislate slavery into any territory, nor to exclude it therefrom, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their own domestic institutions in their own way.”
That was very well; but who were “the people” of these debated grounds? Hundreds of abolitionists of the North thought it their duty to flock to Kansas and take up arms. Hundreds of the inhabitants of Missouri thought it incumbent upon them to run across the line and vote in Kansas on the “domestic institutions”; and to shoot in Kansas and to burn and ravage in Kansas. They were met by the anti-slavery legions along the wide frontier, and brother slew brother for years, one series of more or less ignoble and dastardly outrages following another in big or little, murders and arson in big or little, until the whole country, at last, was drawn into this matter of the domestic institutions of “Bleeding Kansas.”
The animosities formed in those days were bitter and enduring ones, and the more prominent figures on both sides were men marked for later slaughter. The Civil War and the slavery question were fought out all over the West for ten years, even 20 years after the war was over. Some large figures came up out of this internecine strife, and there were many deeds of courage and many romantic adventures; but on the whole, although the result of all this was for the best, and added another state to the list unalterably opposed to human slavery, the story in detail is not a pleasant one, and adds no great glory to either side. It is a chapter of American history which is very well let alone.
When the railroads came across the Western plains, they brought a man who has been present on the American frontier ever since the revolutionary war, — the land boomer. He was in Kentucky in time to rob poor old Daniel Boone of all the lands he thought he owned. He founded Marietta on the Ohio River, on a land steal; and thence, westward, laid out one town after another.
The early settler who came down the Ohio Valley in the first and second decades of the past century passed the ruins of abandoned towns far back to the east even in that day. The townsite shark passed across the Mississippi River and the Missouri River, and everywhere his record was the same. He was the pioneer of avarice in very many cases, and often he inaugurated strife where he purported to be establishing law. Each town thought itself the garden spot and center of the universe — one knows not how many Kansas towns, for instance, contended over the absurd honor of being exactly at the center of the United States! — and local pride was such that each citizen must unite with others even in arms, if need be, to uphold the merits of his own “city.”
This peculiar phase of frontier nature usually came most into evidence over the questions of county seats. Hardly a frontier county seat was ever established without a fight of some kind, and often a bloody one. It has chanced that the author has been in and around a few of these clashes between rival towns, and he may say that the vehemence of the antagonism of such encounters would have been humorous, had it not been so deadly. Two “cities,” composed each of a few frame shanties and a set of blueprint maps, one just as barren of delight as the other, and neither worth fighting over at the time, do not seem typical of any great moral purpose; yet at times their citizens fought as stubbornly as did the men who fought for and against slavery in Kansas. One instance of this sort of thing will do — the Stevens County War, one of the most desperate and bloody, as well as one of the most recent feuds of local politicians.
For some reason, perhaps that of the remoteness of time, the wars of the cowmen of the range seem to have had a bolder, a less sordid and more romantic interest if these terms were allowable. When the cowman began to fence up the free-range, to shut up God’s out-of-doors, he entrenched upon more than local or a political pride. He was now infringing upon the great principle of personal freedom. He was throttling the West itself, which had always been a land of freedom. One does not know whether all one’s readers have known it, that unspeakable feeling of freedom, of independence, of rebellion at restraint, which came when one could ride or drive for days across the empire of the plains and never meet a fence to hinder, nor need a road to show the way. To meet one of these new far-flung fences of the rich men who began to take up the West was at that time only to cut it and ride on. The free men of the West would not be fenced in. The range was theirs, so they blindly and lovingly thought. Let those blame them who love this day more than that.