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Bleeding Kansas

“Bleeding Kansas” was a term used by Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune to describe the violent hostilities between pro and antislavery forces in the Kansas territory during the mid and late 1850s.

For many years the Great Plains area was labeled the Great American Desert, implying that the lands offered little in the way of economic benefits. The federal government relocated a number of Native American tribes to the Plains as further testimony to the area’s lack of appeal to white settlers.

Attitudes began to change as people traveled westward across the Santa Fe Trail and discovered the area’s richness. However, the most important factor that brought Kansas into the national consciousness was the strife that occurred following the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Under the terms of the act, two territories were to be formed, Kansas and Nebraska. One would presumably become a slave state and the other a free state. Popular sovereignty would prevail and it was assumed that slave-owning Southerners would occupy Kansas and make it a slave state, while free state advocates would settle Nebraska. Things worked out as anticipated in Nebraska, but not in Kansas.

Influential outsiders decided to make an example of Kansas. Abolitionists in the North organized and funded several thousand settlers to move to Kansas and presumably vote later to make it a free state. The most notable of these organizations was the Emigrant Aid Company of Massachusetts, which helped to establish antislavery settlements in Topeka and Lawrence.

John Greenleaf Whittier composed a poem, The Kansas Emigrants, which hailed those from the North who went to settle in Kansas. Its last stanza read

We'll tread the prairie as of old
Our fathers sailed the sea
And make the West, as they the East,
The homestead of the free!

The abolitionist preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, collected funds to arm like-minded settlers (the precision rifles were known as “Beecher’s Bibles”). Fewer Southerners showed interest in settling in Kansas, but proslavery communities were formed at Leavenworth and Atchison.

Territorial elections were held in 1854 and 1855, in which the proslavery forces won, largely through the violence and intimidation of the so-called “Border Ruffians.” These were Missourans sympathetic to slavery who crossed the border into Kansas to stuff the ballot boxes. In some districts the number of ballots counted was twice the number of registered voters.

Few of the Border Ruffians actually owned slaves since they were too poor. However, they hated the Yankees and abolitionists and were unhappy with the prospect of free blacks living in neighboring areas.

Following the elections, a territorial legislature convened and promptly expelled all of the antislavery delegates, then enacted a series of proslavery laws. Meanwhile, an opposition government was created by free-soil forces in Topeka in late 1855. President Franklin Pierce recognized the proslavery government and ignored the one in Topeka.

The free-soil settlers were not necessarily abolitionists. Most were farmers who opposed slavery because the institution brought with it the plantation system. A replication of the cotton belt economy in Kansas would drive out the small homesteaders. The free-soilers loved their lands more than they cared about the plight of the slaves.

Hoping to induce the citizens of slaveholding states to emigrate to Kansas, the Lafayette (Missouri) Emigration Society appealed to their sense of Southern loyalty:

Up to this time, the border counties of Missouri have upheld and maintained the rights and interest of the South in this struggle, unassisted and unsuccessfully. But the Abolitionists, staking their all upon the Kansas issue, and hesitating at no means, fair or foul, are moving heaven and earth to render that beautiful territory not only a free state, so-calloed, but a den of Negro thieves and "higher law" incendiaries.
This tense situation erupted into violence through two dramatic events that are often regarded as the opening shots of the Civil War:
  • The Raid on Lawrence, Kansas. In May 1856, a band of Border Ruffians crossed the border from Missouri and attacked the free-soil community of Lawrence, looting and burning a number of buildings. Only one person was killed (one of the Ruffians), but the door to violence had been breached.
  • The Pottawatomie Creek Massacre. A few days later, in retaliation for the Lawrence raid, abolitionist forces under the zealot John Brown attacked a small proslavery settlement on Pottawatomie Creek. On Brown’s orders, five men were executed with a scythe.
The so-called "Border War" lasted for another four months until a new governor, John W. Geary, managed to prevail upon the Missourans to return home in late 1856. A fragile peace followed, but violent outbreaks continued intermittently for several more years. National reaction to the events in Kansas demonstrated how deeply divided the country had become. The Border Ruffians were widely applauded in the South, even though their actions had cost the lives of numerous people. In the North the murders committed by Brown and his followers were ignored by most and lauded by a few.

In May of that same year, ardent abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts delivered a two-day speech titled The Crime Against Kansas in which he described excesses that occurred there and the South’s complicity in them. As a result, Sumner was severely beaten incapacitating him for more than three years before returning to the Senate, in what later came to be called the Sumner-Brooks Affair.

In 1857, a Kansas constitutional convention was convened, which drafted a pro-slavery document. Antislavery forces boycotted the ratification vote because it failed to offer them a means to vote against slavery.

The dubious approval of the Lecompton Constitution did not deter President James Buchanan, who urged acceptance and statehood. Congress balked and ordered another election. This time the proslavery forces boycotted the process, allowing the antislavery forces to claim victory by defeating the document.

Both sides had resorted to fraud and violence, but it was clear the prevailing sentiment in Kansas was antislavery. In mid-1859, a new constitution was drafted which reflected that view and was approved by the electorate by a 2-to-1 margin. Kansas entered the Union as a free state in January 1861.