Charles R. Jennison, 1834-1884
The man most often identified with the moniker Kansas “jayhawker,” Charles Ransford Jennison, was born on June 6, 1834, at Antwerp, Jefferson County, New York. There he attended primary school until the family moved to Albany, Wisconsin, in 1846. While at Albany he finished secondary school, studied medicine, and after finishing the latter course of study, practiced for a short time in Wisconsin and later in Minnesota. In the fall of 1857 he decided to continue his migration westward and removed to Kansas Territory, settling first at Osawatomie and then Mound City.
Osawatomie, already identified with abolitionist John Brown, was known for its strong free-state convictions. Jennison quickly became a staunch supporter of Brown and his personal temperament toward the proslavery faction soon proved radical and strident. After moving to Mound City a short time later, Jennison associated with James Montgomery, another ardent abolitionist, and from his new home base Jennision led many a raid against the proslavery settlers and forces on both sides of the Kansas-Missouri border. All too often, indiscriminate plundering characterized these forays. And on at least two different occasions, proslavery men were hung under his direct leadership. In the case of one Russell Hinds, who was “tried” and lynched by Jennison’s posse on November 12, 1860, for capturing and returning escaped slaves to Missouri for the reward, the Kansas jayhawker made no apology. The county, according to Jennison, had “been infested by a band of desperadoes known as Kidnapers” for the past year, and it had “become necessary for us as Anti Slavery Men to take a stand against” these increasingly frequent “offences.” Thus, they publicly announced “that any man found guilty of that crime should pay . . . with his life and accordingly as we had the proof we arrested one Rus Hinds and tried him publickly and Hung him for being Engaged in that unholly business.” Convinced his position was “honorable and just,” Jennison directed his attacks against Judge Joseph Williams’ proslavery court system of the southern judicial district of Kansas Territory at Fort Scott in Bourbon County. After several free-state men had received harsh treatment from that court, Jennison raised a posse to disperse the court and forced the judge and his proslavery supporters to flee the area in dismay.
The outbreak of the Civil War merely helped legitimize Jennison’s conduct, for a short time at least, and caused him to focus his efforts on the pro-secessionist elements of Missouri. Kansas Governor Charles Robinson commissioned him captain of the Mound City Guards on February 19, 1861, and on September 4, 1861, he was commissioned lieutenant colonel of the Seventh Kansas Cavalry Regiment, soon widely known as “Jennison’s Jayhawkers.” Headquartered at Kansas City, Colonel Jennison was assigned to command the western border of Missouri and quickly adopted a “scorched earth” strategy of warfare against his Confederate enemy. He seized from the guerilla-infested territory of western Missouri the materials needed to wage war and destroyed property he could not use.
Jennison resigned his commission on May 1, 1862, and returned temporarily to civilian life, residing in Leavenworth where he owned and operated a freight hauling company. But the following year, in the wake of William Quantrill’s devastating raid on Lawrence, August 21, 1863, Kansas Governor Thomas Carney called on Jennison to raise a regiment of cavalry (later to be known as the Fifteenth) to protect the border. During the summer of 1864, Colonel Jennison made a foray into the Missouri counties of Platte and Clay against guerrillas operating there. When General Sterling Price raided along the Kansas and Missouri border in October 1864, Jennison and the Fifteenth Kansas actively engaged the Confederates at Lexington, the Little Blue, and Westport, and pursued the remnants of Price’s defeated army back into Arkansas.
Immediately thereafter, Jennison was elected to the Leavenworth city council for four years, including two years as president of the council and ex-officio mayor. In addition to various business interests, politics continued to consume much of Jennison’s attention in the post-war years. He was elected to the state house of representatives in 1865 and again in 1867, and to the state senate in 1871; on several other occasions Jennison unsuccessful sought election to the legislature. When he died at Leavenworth on June 21, 1884, it is safe to say not everyone agreed with the Hiawatha World which described “Doc” Jennison as “very brave, bright, generous, whole-souled—the warmest and truest of friends. . . . The helping friend of the needy, always and everywhere.”
Blackmar, Frank W. Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History . 2:27. Chicago, Ill.: Standard Publishing Co., 1912.
The United States Biographical Dictionary. Kansas Volume. Chicago, Ill.: S. Lewis and Co., 1879.
Starr, Stephen Z. Jennison’s Jayhawkers: A Civil War Cavalry Regiment and Its Commander. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1973.