Jump to Navigation

Willing to Die for Freedom - Part 4

A Look Back at Kansas Territory, 1854-1861

Before 1861, most Kansas settlers came from these states.


"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. . . . I had given little thought to the subject."
--Samuel Reader, Indianola, 1856

Kansas meant opportunity to most people.

Although settlers came here for cheap land, some also came to fight for a cause. Only people living here could determine whether slavery would exist in Kansas. The outcome of this debate would influence national policy.

Land Rush

Farmers, land speculators, and railroad promoters looked westward for opportunity in the 1850s. Settlers crossed into Kansas to stake claims as soon as the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law in 1854. Most emigrants came to farm or buy land to resell later at a higher price. Squabbles over land and slavery sometimes sparked violence between these new neighbors.

Self-portrait of a Kansas pioneer.

The majority of people came to Kansas Territory from Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, and nearby states. Most Missourians were proslavery but did not own slaves themselves. They supported slavery in Kansas because they viewed it as an extension of their own slave state. On the other hand, settlers from Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio were predominantly free-state. They opposed slavery on economic (rather than moral) grounds.

Foreign-born immigrants, such as Germans, also came to Kansas for new opportunities. The first Germans arrived in 1857 and quickly made up the largest emigrant group in Kansas. Theodore Weichselbaum ran a successful store in Ogden and later opened a brewery, supplying beer to the soldiers at Fort Riley.


American Indian

Who Was Already Living Here?

A diverse mix of people lived here before 1854. Indians native to the region were forced to make way for nearly 30 additional tribes moved here from the East by the U.S. government in the 1830s and 1840s. Agents, soldiers, missionaries, trappers, and traders were in the territory, too. Anyone without prior approval of the government was here illegally.

Whites, a handful of Blacks (primarily slaves), mixed-bloods, and full-blood Indians co-mingled, often with competing views about the best use of the land. Several tribes were moved to smaller reservations to make way for settlers. Thousands of people flooded into the new Kansas Territory even before these treaties were finalized in 1854. Whites knowingly settled on Indian lands, assuming they would eventually get title to the property.

Globe used to teach American Indian children at Delaware Baptist Mission.

Obviously, the opening of the territory did not always hold the same economic and political opportunities for Indians as it did for Whites. Some people believed Indians needed to give up their traditional practices to live peaceably among Whites. Many churches sent missionaries here before 1854 to educate and convert Indians. Tribal members assumed that missionaries had their best interests in mind, but speculators and government agents often bribed missionaries to obtain treaties giving up Indian land to Whites.

Proslavery settler

Proslavery Settlers

"Here is your cheapest and surest chance to do something for Kansas."
--Major Jefferson Buford, Alabama, 1855

Some of the first Whites to enter Kansas Territory were proslavery settlers from the neighboring slave state, Missouri. They soon discovered the battle over slavery could not be won without help. But Southerners did not come to Kansas in great numbers. There were risks in moving here:

  • they weren't convinced Southern crops like tobacco and cotton would succeed in the Kansas climate, and
  • they feared losing their slaves if Kansas became a free state.

Proslavery flag from Fort Saunders.

Both pro- and antislavery supporters came here to fight for a cause, but also to make money. One Southern example is Major Jefferson Buford of Alabama. He sold some of his own slaves and raised other funds to bring 400 Southerners to Kansas. The venture failed despite Buford's efforts. Most of the men came without families--roving the countryside, harassing people, and plundering property. Eventually, even their friends encouraged them to leave because their behavior hurt the South's cause.

Axalla Hoole was one Southerner who may have been influenced by newspapers accounts of Buford's expedition. Hoole and his wife left South Carolina in 1856 to settle in Lecompton, a proslavery town. He observed in letters home that "some of Buford's men were acting rascally--robbing and plundering and not always confining themselves to Abolitionists."


Anti-slavery Settlers

Kansas Territory became a magnet for people opposed to slavery. The most politcally active settlers came from New England. Although they traveled a great distance to get here, they came in larger numbers than slaveholders because:

  • they were well organized and had financial backing from the East,
  • they believed slavery was morally wrong, and
  • they wanted to build towns and make money.

New England Emigrant Aid Company sign.

The New England Emigrant Aid Company is a well-known antislavery group that brought settlers to Kansas. Formed in April 1854, it had two goals: to settle antislavery families in Kansas, and to make a profit from land speculation. The company paid some of the emigrants' costs and organized their settlement at the site of Lawrence. These settlers established homes, businesses, and churches as well as spread the antislavery cause. The sign pictured here came from the company's Boston headquarters.

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