By Emerson Hough in 1905
Outlawry of the early border, in days before any pretense at the establishment of a system of law and government, and before the holding of the property had assumed any very stable form, may have retained certain glamour of romance. The loose gold of the mountains, the loose cattle of the plains, before society had fallen into any strict way of living, and while plenty seemed to exist for any and all, made a temptation easily accepted and easily excused. The ruffians of those early days had a largeness in their methods which gives some of them at least a color of interest. If any excuse may be offered for lawlessness, any palliation for acts committed without the countenance of the law, that excuse and palliation may be pleaded for these men if for any. But for the man who is bad and mean as well, who kills for gain, and who adds cruelty and cunning to his acts instead of boldness and courage, little can be said. Such characters afford us horror, but it is horror unmingled with any manner of admiration.
Yet, if we reconcile ourselves to tarry a moment with the cheap and gruesome, the brutal and ignorant side of mere crime, we shall be obliged to take into consideration some of the bloodiest characters ever known in our history; who operated well within the day of established law; who made a trade of robbery, and whose capital consisted of disregard for the life and property of others.
That men like this should live for years at the very door of large cities, in an old settled country, and known familiarly in their actual character to thousands of good citizens, is a strange commentary on the American character; yet such are the facts.
It has been shown that a widely extended war always has the effect of cheapening human life in and out of the ranks of the fighting armies. The early wars of England, in the days of the longbow and buckler, brought on her palmiest days of cutpurses and cutthroats. The days following our own Civil War were fearful ones for the entire country from Montana to Texas; and nowhere more so than along the dividing line between North and South, where feeling far bitterer than soldierly antagonism marked a large population on both sides of that contest. We may further restrict the field by saying that nowhere on any border was animosity so fierce as in western Missouri and eastern Kansas, where jayhawker and border ruffian waged a guerrilla war for years before the nation was arrayed against itself in ordered ranks. If mere blood be a matter of our record here, assuredly, is a field of interest. The deeds of James Lane and John Brown, of William Quantrill and Charles Hamilton, are not surpassed in terror in the history of any land. Osceola, Missouri; Marais du Cygne and Lawrence, Kansas — these names warrant a shudder even today.
This locality — say that part of Kansas and Missouri near the towns of Independence and Westport, and more especially the counties of Jackson and Clay in the latter state — was always turbulent, and had reason to be. Here was the halting-place of the westbound civilization, at the edge of the plains, at the line long dividing the whites from the Indians. Here settled, like the gravel along the cleats of a sluice, the daring men who had pushed west from Kentucky, Tennessee, lower Ohio, eastern Missouri — the Boones, Carsons, Crocketts, and Kentons of their day. Here came the Mormons to found their towns, and later to meet the armed resistance which drove them across the plains. Here, at these very towns, was the outfitting place and departing point of the caravans of the early Santa Fe trade; here the Oregon Trail left for the far Northwest, and here the Forty-niners paused a moment in their mad rush to the golden coast of the Pacific. Here, too, adding the bitterness of fanaticism to the courage of the frontier, came the bold men of the North who insisted that Kansas should be free for the expansion of the northern population and institutions.
This corner of Missouri-Kansas was a focus of recklessness and daring for more than a whole generation. The children born there had an inheritance of indifference to death such as has been surpassed nowhere in our frontier unless that were in the bloody Southwest. The men of this country, at the outbreak of the Civil War, made as high an average in desperate fighting as any that ever lived. Too restless to fight under the ensign of any but their own ilk, they set up a banner of their own. The black flags of Quantrill and of Lane, of border ruffian and jayhawker, were guidons under which quarter was unknown, and mercy a forgotten thing.
Warfare became murder, and murder became assassination. Ambushing, surprise, pillage, and arson went with murder; and women and children were killed as well as fighting men. Is it wonder that in such a school there grew up those figures which a certain class of writers has been wont to call bandit kings; the bank robbers and train robbers of modern days, the James and Younger type of bad men.
The most notorious of these border fighters was the bloody leader, William Quantrill, the leader at the Sacking of Lawrence, and as dangerous a partisan leader as ever threw leg into saddle. He was born in Hagerstown, Maryland, July 20, 1836, and as a boy lived for a time in the Ohio city of Cleveland. At the age of 20, he joined his brother for a trip to California, via the Great Plains. This was in 1856, and Kansas was full of Free Soilers, whose political principles were not always un-tempered by a large-minded willingness to rob. A party of these men surprised the Quantrill party on the Cottonwood River and killed the older brother. William Quantrill swore an undying revenge, and he kept his oath.
It is not necessary to mention in detail the deeds of this border leader. They might have had commendation for their daring had it not been for their brutality and treachery. Quantrill had a band of sworn men, held under solemn oath to stand by each other and to keep their secrets. These men were well armed and well mounted, were all fearless and all good shots, the revolver being their especial arm, as it was of Mosby’s men in the Civil War. The tactics of this force comprised surprise, ambush, and a determined rush, in turn; and time and again they defeated Federal forces many times their number, being thoroughly well acquainted with the country, and scrupling at nothing in the way of treachery, just as they considered little the odds against which they fought. Their victims were sometimes paroled, but not often, and a massacre usually followed a defeat.