Jump to Navigation

Portrait of a Pioneer Staking a Claim

Self-portrait of  Reader staking his claim

Samuel Reader drew this self-portrait of himself staking a claim in Kansas Territory. He came here for land, but stayed for the free-state cause.

The Bleeding Kansas era is infamous for acts of violence. Clashes between anti- and proslavery forces, whether actual or exaggerated, were widely reported in the national press.

From these accounts it may seem that everyone in the territory came here to fight for a cause, but the truth is more complex. While a number of people did come to Kansas to take a stand on the slavery issue, thousands more came to take advantage of the opportunities presented by cheap, plentiful land.

One such individual was Samuel James Reader, who painted this watercolor of himself staking a claim in Kansas. He later described his motivations:

"Rich, cheap farm land was the principal incentive that lured me on from my Illinois home. I had heard and read much concerning the political troubles in the territory; but the question of a free or a slave state, was a secondary consideration with me at that time. In fact I had given little thought to the subject."

Reader was one of a substantial number of settlers who came to Kansas Territory from the Ohio valley, Mid-Atlantic states, and upper South. These immigrants no doubt had opinions on the slavery issue, but they settled here primarily to make a living rather than engage in political debate. Reader and a large majority of his fellow settlers opposed slavery, but not because they believed it to be morally wrong. They feared it would drive down wages for everyone, and did not want any African Americans--slave or free--residing in the state. Kansas should be "free," but for whites only.

Lured by Land

Small towns began appearing in northeastern Kansas within weeks of the territory's opening for settlement (the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law on May 30, 1854). Reader was 19 when he arrived in 1855 with his sister, aunt, and uncle at the hamlet of Indianola, about 2.5 miles northwest of Topeka. "After various halts," he later wrote, "we arrived at Indianola on Tuesday the 5th day of June, and my uncle, J.M. Cole purchased a claim adjoining the town site. A few weeks afterwards, I drove my 'claim stake' on a tract of land just N.W. of the town. Thus the primary object of my coming to Kansas was accomplished."

Staking a claim was only the first step in the difficult process of creating a home on the frontier. To farm his land, Reader first had to break open the prairie sod through hours of strenuous labor behind a plow. He also had to build a shelter without milled lumber. Food was sometimes in limited supply, and the diet was often monotonous. Compounding these typical frontier difficulties was the tense political situation in Kansas Territory. While some settlers tried to remain neutral, the reality was that they often had to choose sides.

Samuel Reader at the age of 18 in 1855

Taking a Stand

Reader, too, decided to take a stand after a short time in Kansas. In an 1861 letter to his half-brother, Frank, he explains his change of heart: "Just before I came to [Kansas] and when I was about your age, there was no class of men I despised or hated more than I did the Abol[itionist]s. I believed them to be a set of hypocritical meddlers and mischief-makers, keeping the nation in an uproar causing hatred between the 2 sections. . . . But after I came to Kan. I examined this subject as much as possible on both sides of the question . . . and have come to the conclusion that it is based on a stupendous wrong to the African race which cannot be excused by any sophistry on Earth. . . . I am not now ashamed nor afraid to be considered a 'Red hot fanatical Abolitionist'."

When a free-state militia was organized in early 1856, Reader enlisted. Under the command of James Lane, this militia engaged a proslavery force at the battle of Hickory Point in 1856. According to Reader, only one Free State man was injured while five or six proslavery men were killed. During the same year, Reader also encountered the famed abolitionist John Brown and documented this experience in a pastel drawing.

The Civil War (1861-1865) followed Kansas' admission to the Union as a free state. Reader was a member of a Topeka militia company which fought against General Sterling Price during the Confederate raid into Kansas. He was captured in the Battle of the Big Blue but managed to escape a few days later. Following these exciting times, Reader lived a quiet life on his Kansas farm. He married, had children, and continued to keep a diary until his death in 1914.

Reader left many drawings documenting his experiences in Kansas Territory and the Civil War, as well as a diary and autobiography. He completed the drawing pictured here in 1908 from a daguerreotype (an early form of photography). The inscription at the bottom includes the words, "A KANSAS PIONEER. 1855. / STAKING HIS 'SQUATTER' CLAIM." It is on display at the Kansas Museum of History.

Learn more about Bleeding Kansas by visiting the online exhibit, Willing to Die For Freedom.

Entry: Portrait of a Pioneer Staking a Claim

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: June 2004

Date Modified: December 2014

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