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Willing to Die for Freedom - Part 3

A Look Back at Kansas Territory, 1854-1861

Proslavery raiders used this cannon in an attack on the antislavery town of Lawrence, 1856.


Kansas Territory quickly became known as Bleeding Kansas because of violence carried out by both sides. Antislavery as well as proslavery supporters made threats, destroyed property, and committed murder.

Bleeding Kansas is as much about terror--the threat of death--as it is about spilled blood. Much of the violence was exaggerated by the press, with both Northern and Southern newspapers playing up acts of aggression. Most of the events referred to as "battles" were little more than skirmishes, and the "forts" nothing more than reinforced log cabins. Nevertheless, the nation believed all of Kansas to be a bloody battleground.

How bloody was it?
Historians disagree on how many died in Kansas Territory:

Proslavery men set Pardee Butler adrift on the Missouri River, expecting him to drown.  This banner flew on the raft.

Most Kansans never experienced violence themselves, but all lived with the fear of it. Some slept with guns by their bedsides. Others sent their families away. Citizens formed militias and built defenses in their towns.

People on all sides of the Kansas conflict were willing to die for freedom, however they defined it. Proslavery supporters fought for the right to extend slavery into new territories and maintain the Southern way of life. Opposing them were the freestaters, a group that comprised both abolitionists (opposing slavery on moral grounds) and the more moderate antislavery advocates (objecting to slavery's economic consequences).

Jayhawkers & Border Ruffians

Missourians and Kansans committed crimes against each other. Robbery, threats, and beatings occurred on both sides of the border. Each side stereotyped the other.

Border Ruffians

Proslavery settler

"Their chief occupation is loafing around whisky shops . . . and pilfering from Free-State men. They generally carry a huge bowie knife and [talk about] their exploits in Kansas among the d---d Abolitionists."
--New York Tribune, 1857

Kansans called Missourians border ruffians because they crossed the state line to vote illegally and steal property. The Missourians who crossed the border to cast fraudulent votes added greatly to the tensions between anti- and proslavery settlers. Although most did not own slaves themselves, they viewed Kansas as an extension of that slave state and supported slavery in the new territory.  George Clarke was one prominent proslavery man who engaged in acts of violence along the border.



"I never lie down without taking the precaution to fasten my door. . . . I have my rifle, revolver, and old home-stocked pistol where I can lay my hand on them in an instant, besides a hatchet & axe. I take this precaution to guard against the midnight attacks of the Abolitionists."
--Axalla Hoole, Lecompton, 1856

Missourians referred to Kansans as Jayhawkers, named for a mythical bird that survives by stealing from other birds. The Jayhawkers raided both Union and Confederate supporters. One of the best known was Charles R. "Doc" Jennison. He raised troops at the outbreak of the Civil War, forming a part of the Seventh Kansas Cavalry, and earning the nickname "Jennison's Jayhawkers."

An Eye for an Eye

Many acts of violence took place in the territory. These three captured the nation's attention.

Southern Rights flag carried by South Carolinians in the attack on Lawrence.

Sack of Lawrence, 1856

Lawrence was a well-known antislavery town. Its newspapers constantly criticized the proslavery territorial government. As a result, a proslavery grand jury stated that the newspapers and the Free State Hotel were nuisances and could be "removed." Shortly thereafter, a proslavery mob attacked Lawrence, looting homes and destroying businesses.

The Free State Hotel was destroyed because it was the headquarters for free-state leadership and a symbol of the antislavery cause. The newspaper Herald of Freedom was a major anti-slavery voice in Kansas; its presses were destroyed and dumped in the Kansas River.

Three months after the sack of Lawrence, free-state men retaliated by attacking Fort Titus, a nearby proslavery cabin. There they forced proslavery leader Colonel Henry Titus to surrender his sword.

John Brown used this  surveyor's compass to spy on the movements of proslavery forces in  Kansas.

Pottawatomie Massacre, 1856

"The crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood."
--John Brown, Virginia, 1859

John Brown is the symbol of Bleeding Kansas--a hero to many, a madman to others. Taught that slavery was a sin, Brown came to believe that only through violence would the institution be stopped. While in Kansas he:

  • liberated slaves,
  • raised funds for his activities, and
  • fought in skirmishes against proslavery forces.

Angered by the sack of Lawrence, Brown sought to "strike terror in the hearts of the pro-slavery people." Brown and a small group of men--including some of his sons--violently murdered five men living on Pottawatomie Creek. These proslavery men had not been involved in the sack of Lawrence. While some justified Brown's actions, others found the brutality appalling, and the murders hurt the free-state cause as much as they helped.

Marais des Cygnes massacre.

Marais des Cygnes Massacre, 1858

In one of the last major acts of violence, 11 free-state men were taken from their homes in Linn County, lined up in a ravine, and shot. Five died, five were wounded, and one escaped injury by pretending to be dead. The attack was led by Charles Hamilton, a proslavery man previously run out of Kansas by free-state raiders.

In January 1859 John Brown sat at a friend's desk to write what became known as "The Parallels." This letter, published widely in newspapers, pointed out that while posses were being organized to find John Brown, nothing was being done to prosecute Charles Hamilton.

Brown left Kansas shortly after writing "The Parallels." He spent much of 1859 raising funds and planning a slave insurrection that would begin at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with an attack on the federal arsenal. Brown armed the rebelling slaves with pikes he had purchased from a Connecticut blacksmith. The attack failed, and Brown was hanged for treason in December, 1859.

Willing to Die for Freedom is an online exhibit developed by the Kansas Museum of History to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Kansas Territory.

  1. Flashpoint - Kansas was the flashpoint for the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
  2. Politics - Many Americans believed Kansas would determine the future of slavery.
  3. Violence - The territory quickly became known as Bleeding Kansas.
  4. Opportunity - People came here to buy cheap land and influence national politics.
  5. Survival - Making a home in Kansas often was difficult.
  6. Freedom - The name "Kansas" meant freedom to many African Americans.
  7. Legacy  - The territorial era set the stage for both good and bad in Kansas history.
  8. Timeline - Outline of important events in Kansas history, with links to learn more.
  9. Constitutions - Kansas had four constitutions, more than any other territory.
  10. Voting game - Test your knowledge about who could vote legally in Kansas Territory.