Composed of a series of violent political confrontations, pitting pro-slavery “Border Ruffian” and anti-slavery Free-Staters, the border war known as “Bleeding Kansas” took place between Kansas and Missouri from 1854 to 1861. Horace Greeley, writer for the New York Tribune, coined the term “Bleeding Kansas,” regarding the events which foreshadowed the American Civil War and would play a role in the future relationship between Missouri and Kansas.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 supported “popular sovereignty” which stated the settlers of a state would hold the decision-making power regarding slavery in the state, not outsiders. This Act negated the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which dictated that any new state either in the West or north of Missouri’s lower state line would enter the Union as a free state.
The foundation question of the conflict was the manner in which Kansas would enter the Union - as a slave or free state. Those on the pro-slavery side of the equation declared each settler who came to Kansas was free to bring all his property with him, which included slaves. On the flip side, the anti-slavery “free soil” individuals felt those rich enough to own slaves would quickly buy up all the good farmland Kansas offered and have it worked by slaves. This would leave little opportunity for those of meager means to purchase their own piece of land to farm. As a result, Bleeding Kansas became a proxy war of such between the North’s anti-slavery forces and those from the South who supported those of the pro-slavery persuasion.
The Missouri Compromise served to keep the balance between slave and free states when Missouri entered the Union. Missouri’s desire to enter as a slave state had to be balanced by a free state; thus Maine was admitted at the same time to create that stability. The Kansas-Nebraska Act created the two new states from unorganized Indian lands to allow US citizens to migrate into the territory. Once settled, these individuals would have the power to determine whether the states would be slave or free.
As the migration to Kansas began, individuals on both sides of the slavery issue arrived. Kansas Territory officials, who had been appointed by President Pierce’s pro-slavery administration, were joined by thousands of Missourians, also with the pro-slavery mindset. They settled in Kansas with the all-important goal of winning elections. Success was gained on a number of occasions, sometimes with the use of intimidation and fraud. The majority of the pro-slavery forces soon made their homes in towns such as Atchison and Leavenworth.
Not to be left out of the picture, Northern abolitionists also flooded into Kansas. Aided by the New England Emigrant Aid Company, they successfully wrote Kansas’s first constitution, along with electing a free-state legislature in Topeka. The election and constitution stood in direct opposition to the government established in Lecompton by the pro-slavery supporters. These individuals settled in areas such as Topeka and Lawrence. As the two sides increased in size and determination, they served to symbolize the strife which was now Bleeding Kansas.
Rumors quickly began to spread in the South regarding the arrival of thousands of northerners into Kansas. Thus, in November 1854, armed, pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” poured into Kansas by the thousands, mostly from Missouri, in an effort to sway an election for a delegate to Congress. It was soon discovered than less than 50% of the votes cast were from actual Kansas residents, with one location having only 20 residents among the 600 votes cast. In actuality, Kansas at that time had approximately 1,500 qualified voters; however, the number of votes cast surpassed 6,000. On March 30, 1855, the Border Ruffians were back at it as they repeated the influx in response to the election for the first Territorial Legislature. The voting result was in favor of slavery.
Determination to countermand the voting fraud increased and by the summer of 1855, upwards of 1,200 additional Yankees from New England had become Kansas residents. Abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher began to arm the Yankees with Sharps rifles, commonly referred to as “Beecher’s Bibles” due to the label placed on the wooden crates in which they were shipped.
On July 2, 1855, Kansas’s pro-slavery territorial legislature met in Pawnee for the first time, though elected fraudulently. One week later, they adjourned and relocated to the Shawnee Mission near the Missouri border. Here they passed several laws supporting slavery.
The following month, the anti-slavery residents had their turn. Meeting in August 1855, these residents sought to overturn the pro-slavery laws and elected Free State delegates, in addition to writing the Topeka Constitution. Their actions were met head-on by President Franklin Pierce, who addressed Congress on January 24, 1856. He labeled those of the Free-State Topeka government as insurrectionists due to the stand they had taken against the Territorial officials who were pro-slavery.
In October 1855, Ohio abolitionist John Brown arrived in the Kansas Territory with his sons in an effort to support the fight against slavery. What was known as the “Wakarusa War” began on November 21, 1855 when Charles Dow, a free-stater, was shot by slavery-supporting settler Franklin Coleman. There would be one other fatality to this war, Thomas Barber, a free-stater who was killed on December 6 near Lawrence by Pottawatomi Indian Agent George W. Clarke.
On May 21, 1856, as tempers continued to flare, numerous Missourians invaded Lawrence and quickly set fire to the Free State Hotel, in addition to destroying two newspaper offices and ransacking a number of stores and homes. Five pro-slavery men were pulled from their homes by John Brown and his band of ruffians on the night of May 24th at the Pottawatomie Creek settlement. After hacking the men to death with broadswords, Brown and his henchmen escaped. They now began to plot a full-scale insurrection by slaves at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.
While all this was taking place in Kansas, tempers flared in Washington as well. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner denounced from the Senate floor Kansas’s slavery threat and proceeded to humiliate anyone who supported what the Republicans referred to as “Slave Power”; efforts by slave owners to gain control of the federal government so as to ensure the expansion and survival of slavery.
In his speech, The Crime against Kansas, Senator Sumner labeled South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler “a pimp for slavery.” The comment did not bode well with Butler’s relative, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks. Following Sumner’s crude remark, Brooks arrived on the Senate floor with cane in hand and bludgeoned Sumner, almost killing the senator with the intense blows Brooks inflicted upon him. News of the caning quickly electrified the entire nation and resulted in violence on the floor of the Senate, in addition to deepening the split between North and South.
President Pierce continued to maintain his stance as the pro-slavery Territorial government was relocated to Lecompton. A Congressional committee arrived in April 1856 in an effort to investigate fraudulent voting. They discovered the elections had been improperly handled, with numerous votes by non-residents. President Pierce, however, refused to honor the findings and maintained the authority of the pro-slavery legislature; referred to by the Free State supporters as the “Bogus Legislature”.
On July 4, 1856, President Pierce now sent approximately 500 US Army troops from Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley to Topeka; there to point cannons at Constitution Hall. As the long fuses were lit, Colonel E. V. Sumner ordered the Free State Legislature to vacate the premises.
Conflicts continued in August as thousands of pro-slavery individuals began to march into Kansas, along with John Brown and his followers. 400 pro-slavery soldiers met Brown in the “Battle of Osawatomie,” which perpetuated hostilities until Brown left the Kansas Territory two months later.
In October 1856, John W. Geary took over as the new territorial governor. Through his efforts, he was able to broker a fragile peace between both sides. This peace, however, would be broken on several occasions due to intermittent violence for the next two years.
The final major outbreak erupted due to the Marais des Cygnes Massacre of 1858. This occurred when Border Ruffians murdered five Free State men. By the time the violence ended in 1859, approximately 56 people had died in Bleeding Kansas. With the advent of the American Civil War in 1861, the border between Missouri and Kansas continued to experience guerrilla violence.
Drafted in 1859, the Wyandotte Constitution represented the Free State view of the future of Kansas. Though approved by a margin of 2–1 by the electorate, with southern states still in control of the Senate, Kansas was forced to await its admission to the Union until January 29, 1861.