Bleeding Kansas

Bleeding Kansas
Part of the prelude to the American Civil War

1856 map showing the slave states (gray), free states (pink), U.S. territories (green), and Kansas in center (white)
LocationKansas and Missouri
Result Free State victory
John Brown
Antonio Benincasa 
William Quantrill
Casualties and losses
unknown, 100 or fewer (30–40 killed) unknown, 80 or fewer (20–30 killed)

Bleeding Kansas, Bloody Kansas or the Border War was a series of violent political confrontations in the United States involving anti-slavery "Free-Staters" and pro-slavery "Border Ruffian", or "southern yankees" elements in Kansas between 1854 and 1861, including "Bleeding Congress". The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 called for "popular sovereignty"—that is, the decision about slavery was to be made by the settlers (rather than outsiders). It would be decided by votes—or more exactly which side had more votes counted by officials. At the heart of the conflict was the question of whether Kansas would allow or outlaw slavery, and thus enter the Union as a slave state or a free state. Pro-slavery forces said every settler had the right to bring his own property, including slaves, into the territory. Anti-slavery "free soil" forces said the rich slaveholders would buy up all the good farmland and work it with black slaves, leaving little or no opportunity for non-slaveholders. As such, Bleeding Kansas was a conflict between anti-slavery forces in the North and pro-slavery forces from the South over the issue of slavery in the United States. The term "Bleeding Kansas" was coined by Republican Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune; its violence indicated that compromise was unlikely, and thus it presaged the Civil War.


Through the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Congress kept a tenuous balance of political power between North and South. In May 1854, the Kansas–Nebraska Act created from unorganized Indian lands the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. This permitted residency by U.S. citizens, who were to determine their state's slavery status and seek admission to the Union. Immigrants supporting both sides of the question arrived in Kansas to establish residency and gain the right to vote. However, Kansas Territory officials were appointed (1854) by the pro-slavery administration of President Franklin Pierce (in office 1853–1857), and thousands of non-resident pro-slavery Missourians entered Kansas with the goal of winning elections. They captured territorial elections, sometimes by fraud and intimidation. In response, Northern abolitionist elements flooded Kansas with "free-soilers." Anti-slavery Kansas residents wrote the first Kansas Constitution (1855) and elected the Free State legislature in Topeka; this stood in opposition to the pro-slavery government in Lecompton. The two Territorial governments increased as well as symbolized the strife of Bleeding Kansas.[1][2]

Meeting of North and South

Among the first immigrants to Kansas Territory were citizens of slave states, notably neighboring Missouri, who came to secure the expansion of slavery. Pro-slavery forces settled towns including Leavenworth and Atchison. At the same time, citizens of the North, many aided by the New England Emigrant Aid Company, moved to Kansas to make it a free state and settled towns including Lawrence, Topeka and Manhattan.[3]

It was rumored in the South that thousands of Northerners were arriving in Kansas. Believing these rumors, in November 1854, thousands of armed pro-slavery men known as "Border Ruffians" or "southern yankees", mostly from Missouri, poured into the Kansas Territory and swayed the vote in the election for a non-voting delegate to Congress in favor of pro-slavery candidate John Whitfield.[4] The following year a Congressional committee investigating the election reported that 1729 fraudulent votes were cast compared to 1114 legal votes. In one location only 20 of the 604 voters were residents of the Kansas Territory. In another 35 were residents and 226 non-residents.[5]

First Territorial Legislature

On March 30, 1855, Kansas Territory held the election for its first Territorial Legislature.[4] Crucially, this legislature would decide whether Kansas Territory would allow slavery.[3] Just as had happened in the election of November 1854, "Border Ruffians" from Missouri again streamed into the territory to vote, and proslavery delegates were elected to 37 of the 39 seats – Martin F. Conway and Samuel D. Houston from Riley County were the only Free-Staters elected.[3] Due to questions about electoral fraud, Territorial Governor Andrew Reeder invalidated the results in five voting districts, and a special election was held on May 22, 1855, to elect replacements.[3] Eight of the eleven delegates elected in the special election were Free-State, but this still left the proslavery camp with an overwhelming 29–10 advantage.[3]

1855 Free-State poster

To help countermand the voting fraud, by the summer of 1855 around 1,200 New England Yankees had emigrated to Kansas Territory.[6] The abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher armed many of them with Sharps rifles, which, it is alleged, became known as "Beecher's Bibles" for their shipment in wooden crates so labeled.

In response to the disputed votes and rising tension, Congress sent a special committee to Kansas Territory in 1856.[3] The committee report concluded that if the election on March 30, 1855, had been limited to "actual settlers" it would have elected a Free-State legislature.[3][7] The report also stated that the legislature actually seated "was an illegally constituted body, and had no power to pass valid laws." [3][7]

Nevertheless, the pro-slavery territorial legislature convened in the newly created Territorial Capital in Pawnee on July 2, 1855. The legislature immediately invalidated the results from the special election in May and seated the pro-slavery delegates elected in March. After only one week in Pawnee, the legislature moved the territorial capital to the Shawnee Mission on the Missouri border, where it reconvened and passed laws favorable to slavery.

In August 1855, antislavery residents met to formally reject the pro-slavery laws. This led to the election of Free State delegates, and the writing of the Topeka Constitution. However, in a message to Congress on January 24, 1856, President Pierce declared the Free-State Topeka government insurrectionist in its stand against pro-slavery Territorial officials.[8]

Open violence

In October 1855, John Brown came to Kansas Territory to fight slavery. On November 21, 1855 the so-called "Wakarusa War" began when a Free-Stater named Charles Dow was shot by a pro-slavery settler. The war had one fatality, when the free stater Thomas Barber was shot and killed near Lawrence on December 6. On May 21, 1856, Missourians invaded Lawrence and burned the Free State Hotel, destroyed two newspaper offices, and ransacked homes and stores.

Preston Brooks attacking Charles Sumner in the U.S. Senate in 1856.

In May 1856, Republican Senator Charles Sumner took to the floor to denounce the threat of slavery in Kansas and humiliate its supporters. He had devoted his enormous energies to the destruction of what Republicans called the Slave Power, that is the efforts of slave owners to take control of the federal government and ensure the survival and expansion of slavery. In the speech (called "The Crime against Kansas") Sumner ridiculed the honor of elderly South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, portraying Butler's pro-slavery agenda towards Kansas with the raping of a virgin and characterizing his affection for it in sexual and revolting terms.[9] The next day Butler's cousin, the South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, nearly killed Sumner on the Senate floor with a heavy cane. The action electrified the nation, brought violence to the floor of the Senate, and deepened the North-South split.[10]

The violence continued to increase. Ohio abolitionist Brown led his sons and other followers to plan the murder of settlers who spoke in favor of slavery. At a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek on the night of May 24, the group seized five pro-slavery men from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords. Brown and his men escaped and began plotting a full-scale slave insurrection to take place at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with financial support from Boston abolitionists.[11]

The pro-slavery Territorial government, serving under President Pierce, had been relocated to Lecompton. In April 1856, a Congressional committee arrived there to investigate voting fraud. The committee found the elections improperly elected by non-residents. President Pierce refused recognition of its findings and continued to authorize the pro-slavery legislature, which the Free State people called the "Bogus Legislature."

On the Fourth of July in 1856, proclamations of President Pierce led to nearly 500 U.S. Army troops arriving in Topeka from Ft. Leavenworth and Ft. Riley. With their cannons pointed at Constitution Hall, and the long fuses lit, Colonel E.V. Sumner, cousin to the senator of the same name beaten on the Senate floor, ordered the dispersal of the Free State Legislature.[12]

In August 1856, thousands of pro-slavery men formed into armies and marched into Kansas. That same month, Brown and several of his followers engaged 400 pro-slavery soldiers in the "Battle of Osawatomie". The hostilities raged for another two months until Brown departed the Kansas Territory, and a new territorial governor, John W. Geary, took office and managed to prevail upon both sides for peace. This was followed by a fragile peace broken by intermittent violent outbreaks for two more years. The last major outbreak of violence was touched off by the Marais des Cygnes massacre in 1858, in which Border Ruffians killed five Free State men. In all, approximately 56 people died in Bleeding Kansas by the time the violence ended in 1859.[13] Following the commencement of the American Civil War in 1861, additional guerrilla violence erupted on the border between Kansas and Missouri.

Constitutional fight

A major confrontation of the Bleeding Kansas era was in the writing of constitutions that would govern the state of Kansas. The first of four such documents was the 1855 Topeka Constitution, written by antislavery forces unified under the Free State Party. This was the basis for the Free State Territorial government that resisted the illegitimate, but federally authorized government elected by non-resident, and thus unqualified Missourians.[14]

In 1857, the second constitutional convention drafted the "Lecompton Constitution", a pro-slavery document. The Lecompton Constitution was promoted by President James Buchanan. Congress instead ordered another election because of voting irregularities uncovered. On Aug. 2, 1858, Kansas voters rejected the document by 11,812 to 1,926.[15]

While the Lecompton Constitution was pending before Congress, a third document, the Leavenworth Constitution, was written and passed by Free State delegates. It was more radical than other Free State proposals in that it would have extended suffrage to "every male citizen", regardless of race. Participation in this ballot on May 18, 1858 was a fraction of the previous and there was some opposition by Free State Democrats. The proposed constitution was forwarded to the U.S. Senate on January 6, 1859 where it was met with a tepid reception and left to die in committee.[16]

The Wyandotte Constitution drafted in 1859 represented the Free State view of the future of Kansas. It was approved in a referendum by a vote of 10,421 to 5,530 on October 4, 1859.[17] With southern states still in control of the Senate, Kansas awaited admission to the Union until January 29, 1861.

Heritage Area

In 2006, federal legislation defined a new Freedom's Frontier National Heritage Area (FFNHA) and was approved by Congress. A task of the heritage area is to interpret Bleeding Kansas stories, which are also called stories of the Missouri/Kansas border war. A theme of the heritage area is the enduring struggle for freedom. FFNHA includes 41 counties, 29 of which are in eastern Kansas and 12 in western Missouri.[18]

In popular culture

The issue of "Bleeding Kansas" is dramatically rendered in Wildwood Boys (William Morrow, New York; 2000), a biographical novel of Bloody Bill Anderson by James Carlos Blake.

The November 8, 2014, episode of Hell on Wheels, titled "Bleeding Kansas", depicted one occurrence of a white family being slain for having slaves, who were then freed, in the name of religion.[19]

Other mentions include:

See also


  1. Thomas Goodrich, War to the Knife: Bleeding Kansas, 1854–1861 (2004) ch 1 iii
  2. Elizabeth R. Varon, Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789–1859 (2007) ch 8
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Olson, Kevin (2012). Frontier Manhattan. University Press of Kansas. ISBN 978-0-7006-1832-3.
  4. 1 2 "Territorial Politics and Government". Territorial Kansas Online. Retrieved June 18, 2014.
  5. Cutler, William G. History of the State of Kansas, A.T. Andreas, (1883), Terratorial History, Part 8,
  6. William Frank Zornow, "Kansas: a history of the Jayhawk State" (1957), pg. 72
  7. 1 2 Report of the special committee appointed to investigate the troubles in Kansas, Cornelius Wendell, 1856, retrieved June 18, 2014
  8. Richardson, James D. "A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 2008-03-18.
  9. Pfau, Michael William (2003). "Time, Tropes, and Textuality: Reading Republicanism in Charles Sumner's 'Crime Against Kansas'". Rhetoric & Public Affairs. 6 (3): 393. doi:10.1353/rap.2003.0070.
  10. Williamjames Hull Hoffer, The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War (2010)
  11. Schraff, Anne E. (2010). John Brown: "We Came to Free the Slaves". Enslow. p. 56. ISBN 978-0-7660-3355-9.
  12. Thomas K. Tate (2013). General Edwin Vose Sumner, USA: A Civil War Biography. McFarland. p. 53. ISBN 9780786472581.
  13. Watts, Dale. "How Bloody Was Bleeding Kansas? Political Killings in Kansas territory, 1854–1861", Kansas History (1995) 18#2 pgs. 116–29
  14. Cutler, William G. History of the State of Kansas, A.T. Andreas, (1883), Terratorial History
  15. Cutler, "Territorial History, Part 55"
  16. Cutler, "Territorial History Part 53
  17. Wyandotte Constitution Approved
  18. Freedom's Frontier National Heritage Area Management Plan Appendices,
  19. Hell on Wheels Season 4 Episode 11 Review: Bleeding Kansas

Further reading

External links

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