Jump to Navigation

Willing to Die for Freedom - Part 5

A Look Back at Kansas Territory, 1854-1861

Starving family at Black Jack.


Making a home in Kansas Territory wasn't easy. People dealt with extreme weather, illness, and the threat of violence. These issues affected all people, whether White, Black, Indian, proslavery, free-state, or neutral.

Most settlers brought limited food, clothing, and furnishings with them on their journey to Kansas. Although supplies could be purchased, they were in short supply and prices tended to be inflated.

Drought combined with harsh winters meant suffering and even starvation. Settlers cared for each other as best they could despite the burdens this added to their already limited resources. Some Kansans were reduced to begging for aid from their families and home communities, and likely would have perished without such help.

Violin brought to Kansas in 1855.

Housing in Kansas was rough. Lack of wood, sawmills, and building expertise often led to the construction of poor quality cabins. During rainstorms, the mud chinking between the logs sometimes dissolved and blew across the room, covering everything inside. Wind and snow passed through these same cracks. Blankets, not glass windows, kept out bugs and the weather. Some emigrants lived in tents before building permanent homes. In Lawrence, members of the New England Emigrant Aid Company were expected to live in tents provided by the company until they had their own cabins built. It was understood that the first emigrants would move out of the tents when the next wave of emigrants arrived. It seldom worked out this way, though, and as a result, there were severe housing shortages.

Settlers often complained about their boring diet:

"For breakfast, dinner, and supper we had fried pork, and very poor bread, biscuit, and cornbread, a little miserable butter, and molasses."
-- Thomas Wells, Manhattan, 1855

Corn was a staple and was prepared as corn bread, parched corn, hominy, and mush. Without cash, families could not afford foodstuffs in the stores due to inflated prices.

Straddling the Fence

Heavily armed settlers near Lawrence, 1856.

Most people came here to start new lives and seek new opportunities. Issues such as slavery and what to do with Indian lands were constantly debated. While some tried to remain neutral, the reality was they often had to choose sides. Individuals who stuck to their beliefs often became targets of violence.

Here are the stories of two families who took a stand in Kansas.

The Adairs

Even people who believed slavery was morally wrong disagreed on how to fight it. Samuel and Florella Adair were relatives of the famed abolitionist John Brown, but didn't share his extreme views.

Florella Adair, John Brown's half-sister.

The Adairs came to Kansas as missionaries. Florella was uneasy about the move but felt compelled to bring freedom to Kansas. The Adairs were among a handful of abolitionists who believed Blacks were equal to Whites (most free-state settlers did not view Blacks as equals and did not want them living in Kansas).

Florella's health suffered as she struggled to make Kansas her home. Only three of her seven children survived early childhood. Strapped for cash, she took in laundry to help the family finances--a fact that would have embarrassed her friends and family back East.

Samuel had difficulty establishing a congregation in Osawatomie. Parishioners were often sick or unable to travel due to poor road conditions. The Adair cabin frequently served as a place of worship.

Florella was John Brown's half-sister. His bold actions often placed her family in danger. Although the Adairs opposed slavery, they disagreed with Brown's violent methods. This included the murder of proslavery men at Pottawatomie Creek where Brown and some of his sons hacked five men to death with swords in 1856. The Browns became hunted men, while their wives and children sought refuge in the Adairs' cabin--putting them all at risk for retaliation.

"You endanger our lives. You are a vile murderer, a marked man."
--Samuel Adair to his nephew, Owen Brown, Osawatomie, 1856

The Stinsons

Money belt from Stinson's Uniontown trading post.

Friends and neighbors could be on opposing sides of the slavery issue. Thomas and Julia Stinson were slaveholders who also had prominent free-state friends.

Thomas Stinson's business relationships in Kansas Territory date back to the 1840s when he operated a trading post at Uniontown. His accounts include both Indian and White customers.

In 1850 Thomas, a white man, married Julia Bushman, a woman of Shawnee and French heritage. They purchased a 26-year-old slave named Moses from Julia's brother. The Stinsons eventually had at least one other slave.

Andrew Reeder disguised as a woodcutter to escape a proslavery mob.

They resettled east of Topeka, founding the town of Tecumseh in the mid-1850s. Tecumseh became a proslavery stronghold, attracting several prominent southern families. Thomas continued to work as a trader and also established a ferry on the Kansas River. To stay successful, the Stinsons did business with everyone--proslavery, antislavery, Native American.

One frequent visitor to the Stinson home was Andrew Reeder, the first territorial governor and a man with free-state leanings. When Reeder was threatened by a proslavery grand jury, the Stinsons came to his aid. Julia and Reeder were playing chess at the Stinson home when a proslavery mob demanded the governor come out of the house. Julia convinced the drunken men to wait until morning. While they slept she dressed Reeder in women's clothing and sneaked him out the back door. Reeder later disguised himself as a woodcutter (as depicted in this painting) and escaped from the territory.

The Stinsons eventually were forced to take a stand on political issues in the territory. Two weeks after the Civil War began, a Kansas newspaper reported that Thomas Stinson, ex-slave owner, flew the American flag:

"We learned that a Union flag staff was raised in Tecumseh on Tuesday last. Col. Stinson declared himself a firm supporter of the Union, and his purpose to shoot any man who interferred with the raising of the pole."
--Kansas State Record, April 27, 1861

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.

Contact us at KSHS.KansasMuseum@ks.gov