Bleeding Kansas, Bloody Kansas or the Border War was a series of violent civil confrontations in the United States between 1854 and 1861 which emerged from a political and ideological debate over the legality of slavery in the proposed state of Kansas. The conflict was characterized by years of electoral fraud, raids, assaults and retributive murders carried out by rival factions of anti-slavery "Free-Staters" and pro-slavery "Border Ruffians" in Kansas and neighboring Missouri.
At the heart of the conflict was the question of whether the Kansas Territory would allow or outlaw slavery, and thus enter the Union as a slave state or a free state. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 called for "popular sovereignty", requiring that the decision about slavery be made by the territory's settlers (rather than outsiders) and decided by a popular vote. Ongoing sectional tensions surrounding slavery quickly found focus in Kansas, with the pro-slavery element arguing that every settler had the right to bring his own property, including slaves, into the territory; anti-slavery "free soil" proponents argued not only that slavery was unethical, but that permitting slavery in Kansas would allow rich slaveholders to control the land to the exclusion of non-slaveholders. Missouri, a slave state since 1821, was populated by a large number of settlers with Southern sympathies and pro-slavery attitudes, many of whom tried to influence the decision in Kansas. The conflict was fought politically as well as between civilians, where it eventually degenerated into brutal gang violence and paramilitary guerrilla warfare. The term "Bleeding Kansas" was popularized by Horace Greeley's New York Tribune.
Bleeding Kansas was demonstrative of the gravity of the era's most pressing social issues, from the matter of slavery to the class conflicts emerging on the American frontier. Its severity made national headlines that suggested to the American people that the sectional disputes were unlikely to reach compromise without bloodshed; in that way, many argue that it directly presaged the American Civil War. Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state in January 1861, but partisan violence continued along the Kansas-Missouri border for most of the war. The episode is commemorated with numerous memorials and designated historic sites.
As abolitionism became increasingly popular in the United States and tensions between its supporters and detractors grew, the U.S. Congress maintained a tenuous balance of political power between Northern and Southern representatives. In May 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act created from unorganized Indian lands the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska for settlement by U.S. citizens. Though the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had explicitly forbidden the practice of slavery in all U.S. territory north of 36°30' latitude and west of the Mississippi River, except for the state of Missouri, the 1854 act directly contradicted this agreement by permitting settlers of Kansas and Nebraska to determine their state's slavery status by popular vote.
Immediately, immigrants supporting both sides of the slavery question arrived in the Kansas Territory to establish residency and gain the right to vote. Among the first settlers of Kansas were citizens of slave states, especially Missouri, many of whom strongly supported Southern ideologies and emigrated specifically to secure the expansion of slavery. Pro-slavery immigrants settled towns including Leavenworth and Atchison. The administration of President Franklin Pierce appointed territorial officials in Kansas aligned with its own pro-slavery views and, heeding rumors that the frontier was being overwhelmed by Northerners, thousands of non-resident slavery proponents soon entered Kansas with the goal of influencing local politics. Pro-slavery factions thereby captured many early territorial elections, often by fraud and intimidation. In November 1854, thousands of armed pro-slavery men known as "Border Ruffians" or "Southern Yankees", mostly from Missouri, poured into the Kansas Territory and swayed the vote in the election for a non-voting delegate to Congress in favor of pro-slavery Democratic candidate John Wilkins Whitfield. The following year, a congressional committee investigating the election reported that 1,729 fraudulent votes were cast compared to 1,114 legal votes. In one location, only 20 of the 604 voters were residents of the Kansas Territory; in another, 35 were residents and 226 non-residents.
At the same time, Northern abolitionists encouraged their own supporters to move to Kansas in the effort to secure the territory as a free state, flooding Kansas with so-called "free-soilers" or "Free-Staters". Many citizens of Northern states arrived with assistance from benevolent societies such as the Boston-based New England Emigrant Aid Company, which was founded shortly before passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act with the specific intention of transporting anti-slavery immigrants to the Kansas Territory. Efforts like these were directly responsible for the establishment of towns which later became strongholds of Republican and abolitionist sentiment, including Lawrence, Topeka and Manhattan.
On March 30, 1855, Kansas Territory held the election for its first Territorial Legislature. Crucially, this legislature would decide whether the territory would allow slavery. Just as had happened in the election of November 1854, "Border Ruffians" from Missouri again streamed into the territory to vote, and pro-slavery delegates were elected to 37 of the 39 seats - Martin F. Conway and Samuel D. Houston from Riley County were the only Free-Staters elected. Due to questions about electoral fraud, Territorial Governor Andrew Reeder invalidated the results in five voting districts, and a special election was held on May 22, 1855, to elect replacements. Eight of the eleven delegates elected in the special election were Free-Staters, but this still left the pro-slavery camp with an overwhelming 29-10 advantage.
To help countermand the voting fraud, around 1,200 New England Yankees emigrated to the Kansas Territory by the summer of 1855. The abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher armed many of them with Sharps rifles, which allegedly became known as "Beecher's Bibles" for their shipment in wooden crates so labeled.
In response to the disputed votes and rising tension, Congress sent a special committee to the Kansas Territory in 1856. The committee report concluded that if the election on March 30, 1855, had been limited to "actual settlers" it would have elected a Free-State legislature. The report also stated that the legislature actually seated "was an illegally constituted body, and had no power to pass valid laws". Nevertheless, the pro-slavery territorial legislature convened in the newly created territorial capital in Pawnee on July 2, 1855. The legislature immediately invalidated the results from the special election in May and seated the pro-slavery delegates elected in March. After only one week in Pawnee, the legislature moved the territorial capital to the Shawnee Mission on the Missouri border, where it reconvened and began passing laws favorable to slaveholders.
In August, anti-slavery residents met to formally reject the pro-slavery laws. They quickly elected their own Free-State delegates to a separate legislature based in Topeka, which stood in opposition to the pro-slavery government operating in Lecompton, and drafted the first territorial constitution, the Topeka Constitution. In a message to Congress on January 24, 1856, President Pierce declared the Free-State Topeka government insurrectionist in its stand against pro-slavery territorial officials. The presence of dual governments was symbolic of the strife brewing in the territory and further provoked supporters of both sides of the conflict.
In October 1855, outspoken abolitionist John Brown arrived in the Kansas Territory to fight slavery. On November 21, the so-called Wakarusa War began when a Free-Stater named Charles Dow was shot by a pro-slavery settler. The resulting conflict had one fatality, when Free-Stater Thomas Barber was shot and killed near Lawrence on December 6.
On May 21, 1856, Missourians invaded Lawrence and burned the Free State Hotel, destroyed two newspaper offices, and ransacked homes and stores. A cannon used during the Mexican-American War, called the Old Kickapoo or Kickapoo Cannon, was stolen and used on that day by a pro-slavery group of people, including the Kickapoo Rangers of the Kansas Territorial Militia.[a]
In May 1856, Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts took to the floor to denounce the threat of slavery in Kansas and humiliate its supporters. He had devoted his enormous energies to the destruction of what Republicans called the Slave Power, that is the efforts of slave owners to take control of the federal government and ensure the survival and expansion of slavery. In the speech (called "The Crime against Kansas") Sumner ridiculed the honor of elderly South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, portraying Butler's pro-slavery agenda towards Kansas with the raping of a virgin and characterizing his affection for it in sexual and revolting terms. The next day, Butler's cousin, the South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, nearly killed Sumner on the Senate floor with a heavy cane. The action electrified the nation, brought violence to the floor of the Senate, and deepened the North-South split.
The violence continued to increase. John Brown led his sons and other followers to plan the murder of settlers who spoke in favor of slavery. At a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek on the night of May 24, the group seized five pro-slavery men from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords. Brown and his men escaped and began plotting a full-scale slave insurrection to take place at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with financial support from Boston abolitionists.
The pro-slavery Territorial government, serving under President Pierce, had been relocated to Lecompton. In April 1856, a Congressional committee arrived there to investigate voting fraud. The committee found the elections improperly elected by non-residents. President Pierce refused recognition of its findings and continued to authorize the pro-slavery legislature, which the Free State people called the "Bogus Legislature."
On July 4, 1856, proclamations of President Pierce led to nearly 500 U.S. Army troops arriving in Topeka from Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley. With their cannons pointed at Constitution Hall and the long fuses lit, Colonel E.V. Sumner, cousin to the senator of the same name beaten on the Senate floor, ordered the dispersal of the Free State Legislature.
In August 1856, thousands of pro-slavery men formed into armies and marched into Kansas. That same month, Brown and several of his followers engaged 400 pro-slavery soldiers in the Battle of Osawatomie. The hostilities raged for another two months until Brown departed the Kansas Territory, and a new territorial governor, John W. Geary, took office and managed to prevail upon both sides for peace. This was followed by a fragile peace broken by intermittent violent outbreaks for two more years. The last major outbreak of violence was touched off by the Marais des Cygnes massacre in 1858, in which Border Ruffians killed five Free State men. In all, approximately 56 people died in Bleeding Kansas by the time the violence ended in 1859. Following the commencement of the American Civil War in 1861, additional guerrilla violence erupted on the border between Kansas and Missouri.
A major confrontation of the Bleeding Kansas era was in the writing of constitutions that would govern the state of Kansas. The first of four such documents was the 1855 Topeka Constitution, written by antislavery forces unified under the Free State Party. This was the basis for the Free State Territorial government that resisted the illegitimate, but federally authorized government elected by non-resident, and thus unqualified Missourians.
In 1857, the second constitutional convention drafted the Lecompton Constitution, a pro-slavery document promoted by President James Buchanan. Congress instead ordered another election because of voting irregularities uncovered. On August 2, 1858, Kansas voters rejected the document by 11,812 to 1,926.
While the Lecompton Constitution was pending before Congress, a third document, the Leavenworth Constitution, was written and passed by Free-State delegates. It was more radical than other Free-State proposals in that it would have extended suffrage to "every male citizen", regardless of race. Participation in this ballot on May 18, 1858, was a fraction of the previous and there was some opposition by Free-State Democrats. The proposed constitution was forwarded to the U.S. Senate on January 6, 1859, where it was met with a tepid reception and left to die in committee.
The Wyandotte Constitution drafted in 1859 represented the Free-State view of the future of Kansas. It was approved in a referendum by a vote of 10,421 to 5,530 on October 4, 1859. With southern states still in control of the Senate, Kansas awaited admission to the Union until January 29, 1861.
In 2006, federal legislation defined a new Freedom's Frontier National Heritage Area (FFNHA) and was approved by Congress. A task of the heritage area is to interpret Bleeding Kansas stories, which are also called stories of the Kansas-Missouri border war. A theme of the heritage area is the enduring struggle for freedom. FFNHA includes 41 counties, 29 of which are in eastern Kansas and 12 in western Missouri.
The "Bleeding Kansas" episode has been dramatically rendered in countless works of American popular culture, including literature, theater, film, and television. Its many depictions and mentions include: