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Bleeding Kansas Tombstone

Buffum  gravestoneAn antislavery settler was killed by proslavery supporters in Kansas Territory during the troubles of 1856.  This is his tombstone.

David Buffum and Charles Hays crossed into Kansas Territory in 1854. Buffum arrived after a four-day trip from Massachusetts; Hays' trip from Missouri probably took less than a day. Both came to Kansas because they believed the concept of popular sovereignty could be the catalyst for their individual ideals of freedom. Almost exactly two years later, the men's paths would cross and one would kill for his beliefs while the other became a martyr for his.

Historians estimate that at least 60 and possibly as many as 200 people died for political reasons during the territorial period of Kansas history, also known as "Bleeding Kansas." Both antislavery and proslavery supporters made threats, destroyed property, and committed murder. Pro-slavery people wanted the freedom to continue a slave-based economy, and viewed attacks on slavery as threats to their way of life. Abolitionists wanted to abolish slavery because it was morally and ethically wrong. Free-staters, making up the majority of the population, fell somewhere between these two extremes. They also objected to slavery but for economic reasons, believing it lowered wages for everyone. All these groups came to Kansas because of cheap, plentiful land. The concept of popular sovereignty, written into the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 by Stephen Douglas, was an additional draw for those who wanted to settle the west to further their political ideals.

In broad terms, popular sovereignty means that people are given the ultimate power to determine what is best for them. As applied to Kansas, it meant that the people residing in the territory would vote on whether to be a slave or free state.  Popular sovereignty was not new in 1854 (it dates back to the mid-1600s), but it would be put to a test of extremes in Kansas Territory.

Emigrant Aid Society

Settlers began to flood across the border soon after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The 98,605 emigrants that arrived between 1855 and 1860 settled the territory for reasons as individual as each of them. Some came alone or with their families, while others were part of organized groups having a political agenda. One of the latter, a strongly abolitionist organization, was the Emigrant Aid Society. Eli Thayer incorporated the Society in February of 1854 both to profit economically and to ensure Kansas had enough antislavery voters. Like a modern day travel agency, the Society coordinated the transportation of nearly 700 men, women, and children on six different trips in 1854. David Buffum was with the second party to arrive in Kansas. He paid $25 for transportation, plus meals and board, for the four-day trip from Massachusetts. Emigrants had to commit to purchasing land from the U.S. government at $1.25 an acre.

Proslavery factions also seized the opportunity to determine Kansas' fate. In Platte County, Missouri, meetings held in the summer of 1854 encouraged people not only to take advantage of the inexpensive land but to also stop Kansas from becoming a free state. In August of that year, 500 county residents left their homes to "save" Kansas from the abolitionists (like Buffum) who already had begun to arrive from the East. On August 25, Charles Hays and his father claimed nearly 360 acres of Delaware Trust land in the soon-to-be-named Walnut Township in Atchison County.

The Bloodiest Year

The year of 1856 is reckoned as the bloodiest year of the territorial period; at least 38 deaths occurred because of political motivations. It was during this year that the lives of David Buffum and Charles Hays collided in Kansas Territory. Hays, riding with the Kickapoo Rangers (a well-known proslavery group), encountered Buffum tending his fields near Lawrence. Hays shot Buffum in the stomach because he refused to surrender his horse. Afterwards, Buffum, a known abolitionist, gave his dying statement to then-Governor John Geary and District Judge Sterling Cato. The Governor vowed to bring Buffum's killer to justice but Hays, arrested several times, dodged prosecution for his crime and eventually left Kansas Territory for Colorado.

The epitaph on Buffum's tombstone, although an expression of his devotion to the free-state cause, could be applied to almost anyone who lived and died by their political beliefs in Kansas. It reads, "His death, although a great loss to his friends and the community, has been a great gain to the cause of Freedom. He was devoted to the cause for which he suffered; his last words being 'I am willing to die for the cause of Freedom in Kansas.'"

David Buffum is buried in Pioneer Cemetery in Lawrence, Kansas. This marker, which became separated from the grave many years ago, is in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History.

Entry: Bleeding Kansas Tombstone

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: July 2004

Date Modified: July 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.