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Douglas County, Kansas

During the Bleeding Kansas years of Kansas Territory Douglas County was at the center of violence. Several events in 1856, like the Sack of Lawrence and the Battle of Black Jack occurred within its borders. Violent acts continued into the Civil War with Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence. This vigilante act by Southern sympathizers resulted in the murder of 150 residents. One of the nation’s premier tribal-based universities was established here in 1884 with a different focus.

Douglas County, Kansas, established in 1855 as one of the original 33 counties, was named for U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois. Douglas was author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which made Kansas a territory opened for settlement. This last was previously part of the Shawnee Indian Reservation.

Once land was opened settlers quickly arrived to stake their claims at the land office in Lecompton. Freestaters and proslavery supporters clashed on their views for the direction of the county. Squatter organizations formed to set political objectives and attract sympathetic settlers.

The New England Emigrant Aid Society of Massachusetts founded the town of Lawrence. On May 21, 1856, the town was sacked when Sheriff Samuel Jones and his proslavery forces directed their might toward free-state businesses. They shot a cannon toward the town’s hotel, burned the house of the free-state leader, and destroyed the local newspaper office. Weeks later an encounter between John Brown’s men and proslavery forces occurred in the county. This Battle of Black Jack on June 2, which resulted in no deaths, has been called the first battle of the Civil War. Near present-day Baldwin City along a Santa Fe Trail campsite, Brown’s abolitionists defeated Henry C. Pate’s forces. The site is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark.

Lecompton was the territorial capital of Kansas. Here the territorial legislature held session and delegates met at a constitutional convention in 1857 to establish state government. The proslavery delegates passed the Lecompton Constitution, which allowed slavery. Voters passed the constitution and sent it on to the U.S. Congress. After months of controversy the constitution was ultimately rejected. Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1861. Constitution Hall, which drew national attention as delegates met, was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Violence returned in 1863 when William Clarke Quantrill and his band of guerillas terrorized eastern Kansas. Reports of a planned attack made their way to Lawrence and the city began to prepare. The city had experienced false alarms before and military forces departed, leaving residents unprotected when the attack came on August 21, 1863. Quantrill and his forces were ruthless in their attack. After a four-hour siege the city was destroyed, and businesses and homes were looted. Men and boys who were captured were marched into town and executed in front of their families.

Lawrence competed against Emporia for the honor of hosting a state university. The University of Kansas opened on September 12, 1866, with both male and female students. It was among the first state institutions in the nation to accept both men and women.

Haskell Institute was established in Douglas County in 1884, one of 100 boarding schools in the nation to civilize American Indian students. Haskell’s first class graduated in 1896. The institute gained a name for its varsity sports program. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 helped transition Haskell’s curriculum. Haskell Indian Nations University became a four-year facility in 1993. It operates as a tribal based university serving Native American and Alaska native populations

Numerous properties in the county are listed in the National Register of Historic Places including Beni Israel Cemetery, associated with a Jewish community in Douglas County. Lane University in Lecompton later merged with another institution and expanded to other communities. Parmenter Memorial Hall, part of Baker University in Baldwin City, is the oldest four-year college in Kansas with a charter in 1858. Abraham Lincoln donated fund toward its construction. In addition, the University of Kansas Historic District; Eldridge House; Haskell Institute; and Douglas County Courthouse are also listed properties.

Individuals of note with connections to Douglas County include Kansas territorial governors, Wilson Shannon, John W. Geary, Frederick P. Stanton, James W. Denver, Hugh S. Walsh, and George Beebe; state Governors George Docking, Charles Robinson, Walter Stubbs, and Edward W. Hock; numerous U. S. senators, U.S. congressmen, and members of the Kansas Supreme Court. Activist Erin Brokovich and educator Nanon Lee Herren are also from the county.

For more information see the Douglas County website. Watkins Community Museum, Lawrence; Kansas Collection, University of Kansas; Watson Library, University of Kansas; Lawrence Public Library; Max Kade Center for German-American Studies, Lawrence; Douglas County Genealogical Society, Lawrence Public Library; and government documents, civil and criminal records, and records of births and deaths are all available in the Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.

Entry: Douglas County, Kansas

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: February 2010

Date Modified: August 2022

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