Bleeding kansas

October 2004


One of the primary goals of the Kansas State Historical Society is to ensure that the heritage and culture of Kansas are preserved and shared with generations to come. In addition to the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka, the KSHS maintains sixteen historic sites throughout the state. These sites can provide Kansas students an excellent opportunity to learn about Kansas history in person. In the next couple of issues of Tales Out of School, we will provide an overview of these sites.

Kansas was an important staging ground for what some people argue were the first battles of the Civil War, because it was in Kansas in the 1850s that the anti-slavery and pro-slavery supporters met. A brief look at a Kansas time line for the 1850s illustrates how this occurred. Because this was such a critical time in Kansas history, there are several historic sites maintained by the Kansas State Historical Society that help tell the story of “Bleeding Kansas.” In this issue of Tales Out of School we will provide a brief description of these historic sites, a time line for “Bleeding Kansas,” and some terms that you might work into your classroom activities. If your school is located close enough to any of the sites, you might consider scheduling a class trip to provide your students with a close-up view of Kansas history.

The "squatter's sovereignty" policy, which was advocated by Stephen A. Douglas, was a policy that said: “We'll decide whether Kansas is going to be slave or free, when the people who settle in Kansas vote on this question.” With that policy in effect it became very important as to who settled in Kansas. So from Missouri the pro-slavery element tried to get settlers who favored slavery to move into Kansas. Meanwhile, from New York and New England the anti-slavery element was trying to get people who favored Kansas as a free state to move into Kansas. Literally, the forces of slavery and the forces of anti-slavery met in Kansas. And as a result in 1854, 1855, and 1856, we have what is called "Bleeding Kansas." Thus, the war between slavery and anti-slavery factions in the Kansas Territory was a precursor of the Civil War that would begin in 1861.

Time Line–“Bleeding Kansas”

1850–Congress passed the Compromise of 1850. The majority of Americans believed that it offered a workable solution to the slavery question in the United States. It required citizens to assist in the recovery of fugitive slaves. Texas would relinquish some disputed land, but, in compensation, be given 10 million dollars–money it would use to pay off its debt to Mexico. Also, the territories of New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah would be organized without mention of slavery. California would be admitted as a free state.

December 1853–Augustus C. Dodge of Iowa introduced legislation organizing the Nebraska Territory which includes the area that would be Kansas. The legislation is referred to the Committee of Territories, chaired by Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois.

May 30, 1854–Final form of the bill was a compromise crafted by Douglas that provided that the slavery question in Kansas and Nebraska would be decided by popular sovereignty. The legislation was signed into law by President Franklin Pierce. Abolitionists from New England made plans to settle in Kansas to fight against slavery.

November 1854–Believing that large numbers of Northerners had moved to Kansas to vote as abolitionists, thousands of Southerners, many from Missouri, crossed into Kansas to vote for a pro-slavery slate. Pro-slavery forces won the election.

May, 30, 1855–There was an election to choose members of the territorial legislature. Again, Missourians, or “Border Ruffians” as they were often called, came into the state. Of the 6307 ballots cast, only 791 were votes against slavery. The territorial legislature enacted a law making it illegal to speak out against slavery. Shortly thereafter the Northerners set up their own Free State Legislature. President Pierce recognized only the pro-slavery legislature.

1856–Pro-slavery capital moved to Lecompton.

May 21, 1856–A pro-slavery group burned Free State Hotel, destroyed printing presses, and looted homes in Lawrence. Abolitionist John Brown retaliated by attacking and killing five at Pottawatomi Creek. Violence and confrontations continued to escalate.

September 1856–New territorial governor John W. Geary arrived in the state and began to restore order. He promised that Missouri militia in the state would be disbanded. In November James Buchanan was elected President.

1857–Robert Walker was appointed Territorial Governor. For the next three years a series of territorial governors struggled to bring order to Kansas Territory. They were Hugh S. Walsh (1858), James W. Denver (1858), Samuel Medary (1858-60), and George M. Beebe (1860-61).

July 1859–After three previous attempts the 4th Constitutional Convention adopted a free state constitution. Kansas applied for admittance to the Union.

January 1861–Because of strong opposition from southern states, Kansas was not admitted to the Union until 1861, after the South had seceded.

Historic Kansas Sites–“Bleeding Kansas”

First Territorial Capitol–The First Territorial Capitol is located in Ft. Riley, Kansas. It is a stone building located on an early military trail. Andrew H. Reeder was the governor of Kansas Territory when the first territorial legislature met in July 1855 in the town of Pawnee, adjacent to Fort Riley. When legislators arrived, they found a building not ready for occupancy. According to one member, “It had neither floor nor roof.” Most of the legislators who came to that legislative session were sympathetic to the pro-slavery cause. However, the election results were suspect because many Missourians had crossed the line to vote in the election. The building was not used long as the Capitol. Most of the legislators were from border towns and they wanted the Capitol located in the eastern part of the territory. Over the governor’s veto, they voted to establish a temporary capital at the Shawnee Methodist Mission.

Today’s visitors to the First Territorial Capitol will see a lovely stone building. In 1928 the building was restored by the Union Pacific Railroad. There is also a Kaw River Nature Trail where visitors can enjoy a scenic view of the Kansas River.

For specific information about visiting the site, visit the web page for the Kansas State Historical Society at

Constitution Hall–Constitution Hall is located off of I-70 and Highway 40 at 319 Elmore in Lecompton, Kansas. It was the site of historic debates between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces prior to the Civil War. In 1857 this building was one of the busiest in the territory, as thousands of settlers and land speculators filed claims in the U.S. land office on the first floor. On the second floor the district court met to try to enforce territorial laws. In January 1857 the second territorial legislative assembly met on the second floor. In the fall 1857 the Lecompton Constitutional Convention met there to draft a constitution so that Kansas could become a state. Because of the strong opinions on both sides of the issue, no compromise on the slavery question was possible and the Lecompton Constitution was defeated. After the October 1857 election, in which free-state forces gained control, the new territorial legislature met again in Lecompton. They began the process of reforming Kansas laws to reflect their own anti-slavery beliefs.

Visitors to the site today can visit the land claims office, see the Lecompton Constitution, and learn more about the issue of slavery in Kansas Territory.

For specific information about visiting the site see the Kansas State Historical Society web page at

John Brown State Historic Site–The John Brown State Historic Site is located at 10th & Main Street in Osawatomie, Kansas. The site preserves a glimpse of the struggle to survive that settlers fought when they came to Kansas. Samuel and Florella Adair moved to Kansas from Ohio. Samuel Adair was a Congregational minister who struggled to start a church that would become the first in Osawatomie and the third of its denomination in Kansas. The couple set up housekeeping in a log cabin. Five of John Brown’s sons followed the Adairs to Kansas. They came with their families with hopes of a better life. John Brown came to Kansas to help his sons. The tense atmosphere in Kansas was an ideal place for a rabid abolitionist, which John Brown was, to act on his ideas.

For specific information about visiting the site see the Kansas State Historical Society web page at

Marais des Cygnes Massacre State Historic Site–In May 1858 a group of about thirty pro-slavery men, led by Charles Hamilton, crossed into Kansas. After being seen at the Trading Post in the morning, they started back toward Missouri. Along the way they captured eleven unarmed free-state men who had no idea that Hamilton and his group meant them harm. However, he and his men forced the free-staters into a ravine and Hamilton ordered his men to fire. Five of the free-state men were killed. Hamilton and his group departed quickly for Missouri. Only one, William Griffith, was punished for the crime. This massacre became a pivotal event in the prelude to the Civil War. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem on the murder, “Le Marais du Cygne,” which appeared in the September 1858 Atlantic Monthly.

For specific information about visiting the site see the Kansas State Historical Society web page at