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Willing to Die for Freedom - Part 6

A Look Back at Kansas Territory, 1854-1861

Tintype of African  American woman ca. 1860


"Freedom has been sweet."
-- Henry Clay Bruce, Washington, D.C., 1895

While the story of territorial Kansas often focuses on the struggles and politics of White settlers, African Americans also were an important group--although a small one.

The name "Kansas" meant freedom to many African Americans. They truly perceived it as a land of opportunity.

African American

In reality, though, Kansas was something of a paradox for Blacks. Most people in the territory opposed slavery, but not on moral grounds. Freestaters believed slavery limited economic opportunities for Whites. They did not want to compete with slaveholders for land, and feared slavery would drive down wages for everyone. Some even favored excluding Blacks from the territory entirely.

Despite these attitudes, both slaves and free Blacks lived in Kansas Territory. In the early years escaped slaves passed through on their way to freedom in Canada. Later, many decided to stay in Kansas instead of fleeing north. Like the Whites who moved here, they hoped to be successful either as farmers or businessmen.

Slaves in Kansas Territory

There weren't as many slaves here as in neighboring Missouri, and certainly not as many as in Southern states with large plantations. Also, the slave population undoubtedly fluctuated during the seven years of the territorial period (1854-1861). It was higher in the early years when the slavery issue was still unresolved, and proslavery settlers were moving here with their slaves. In later years, though, there were fewer slaves because it had become clear Kansas would enter the Union as a"free" state.

How many slaves do you think lived here?

Slave bill of sale

Most slaves in Kansas Territory were brought here from Missouri during the early years, 1854-1856. Life was different for most Missouri and Kansas slaves than for those in the Deep South. There were fewer slaves per household--often just one--and they tended to work alongside their owners in the fields and kitchen. Some slaveholders hired out their slaves to work at businesses miles from home. These slaves had more independence than those not hired out. A few even saved money and bought their freedom.

Still, slavery deprived all slaves of basic human rights. They were not U.S. citizens. They could not legally be married. They could not own property. And--especially disturbing--they had no control over what happened to themselves or their families.

Read about a slave auction that happened in the proslavery town of Iowa Point.

John Brown sat on this chair in a station on the Kansas Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad

"Every slave for a hundred miles knew the way, knew the stations, and knew their friends."
-- Rev. Richard Cordley, Lawrence, 1903

Although estimates vary, hundreds of people may have passed through Kansas Territory via the Underground Railroad (a secret system of people who helped slaves escape and used railroad terms to disguise what they were doing). There were Underground Railroad routes all over the country.

Escaping slaves crossed over the Missouri border into Kansas in increasing numbers after 1857. They came here hoping to start new lives in freedom. But even in Kansas, they were never completely safe. Bounties were offered for their return, as in an 1860 reward poster for two escapees heading for "K.T." (Kansas Territory).

People who helped escaping slaves also were in danger. In Kansas Territory, the 1855 legislature passed a law that anyone aiding a fugitive could be put to death. Even the federal government punished people for helping slaves escape. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 imposed a prison term of six months and a $1,000 fine.

Slave shackle

Despite these penalties, many people who opposed slavery on moral grounds were willing to help fugitives escape bondage. This slave shackle (right) is an example. In 1860 a Missouri blacksmith was asked by a neighbor to help rescue an abused slave. Together they cut the shackle from the slave's leg so he could escape, probably to Kansas.

Free But Penniless

"They were free but penniless in the land which they had made rich."
--Henry Clay Bruce, Washington, D.C., 1895

Why did fugitive slaves come to Kansas? Because they believed Kansas to be a land of opportunity. They had heard slaveholders curse John Brown, the residents of Lawrence, and other abolitionists in Kansas. These activities were widely known throughout the nation. One Kansan even called Lawrence "the best advertised anti-slavery town in the world." Blacks all over the South came to equate Kansas with freedom.

Once here, though, they found that living free required adjustments. People struggled to find jobs, get food and clothing, and set up homes. Although some slaves had acquired skills while managing their owner's affairs, most didn't know how to read or write. They'd never had to look for work, find a place to live, or manage money. The reality was that many Blacks struggled with their new lives, at least at first.

Henry Clay Bruce was one escaped slave who found refuge in Kansas. In 1895 Bruce published an autobiography, The New Man: Twenty-Nine Years a Slave, Twenty-Nine Years a Free Man in which he explained his situation:

"For the first few weeks I was well pleased with the pay I received, and thought I would soon have plenty of money, but now I had a new problem to solve, which was to support and clothe myself and a wife and pay doctors' bills, which was something new to me. I had never been trained in the school of economy, where I could learn the art of self-support, as my master had always attended to that little matter from my earliest recollections. . . . I had lived to be twenty-eight years old, and had never been placed in a position where I had occasion to give this matter a single thought."

African American child standing outside Leavenworth's first house.


The city of Leavenworth, on the Missouri River, was a major destination for fleeing slaves. Although originally settled by proslavery people, Leavenworth had become predominantly free-state by the late 1850s. The town also had a large African American population by this time.

Blacks were attracted to the town by the military protection provided by the Union Army at Fort Leavenworth, particularly after the start of the Civil War.

The Civil War

"When the Union army came close enough I ran away from home and joined."
--Bill Simms, Missouri, 1936

After decades of failed compromises, the issue of slavery couldn't be solved short of war. When Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election in late 1860, Southern states began seceding from the Union. With the absence of Southern representatives to block its admission, Congress voted to admit Kansas as a free state. Kansas entered the Union on January 29, 1861, and the first shots of the Civil War struck Fort Sumter on April 12.

Kansas' African American troops fought under this flag in the Civil War.

Missouri slaves had crossed into Kansas for years, but once the Civil War started they poured over the border. Many settled in the anti-slavery towns of Lawrence, Leavenworth and Fort Scott. Union army forts at the latter two towns offered protection for escaped slaves. They also offered opportunities for employment.

More than 2,000 Black soldiers enlisted in Kansas, joining the first African American regiments organized in the North for the Union army. They believed in the free-state cause, and the military offered them a way to make a living and support their families, even though they received less pay than Whites.

Other escaped slaves didn't enlist, but worked for the army. They also worked in cities and rural areas as barbers, cooks, farmhands, and domestics. Some started businesses of their own--all while they were still legally slaves.

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