Territorial Kansas: An Introduction
The six-year struggle for control of the territory of Kansas, often called Bleeding Kansas, was a prelude to the American Civil War. It was by no means the sole cause of that conflict, but the political turmoil that emerged from the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 caused a sometimes-violent confrontation between pro- and antislavery factions in Kansas and increased sectional tensions nationwide. The story of territorial Kansas is, therefore, a tragedy of national significance. But it is also a piece of America's larger story of continous westward expansion (Manifest Destiny), of settlement and development, of fulfilled and unfulfilled dreams.
This place we now call Kansas was "unorganized" territory prior to 1854. It was the home of numerous Indian peoples including the Plains tribes and less nomadic Indians such as the Kansas, Pawnees, and Osages. As part of "Indian Country," this land was shared after 1830 with about 20 different tribes from east of the Mississippi River, resettled west of Missouri under the federal government's Indian removal policy.
With the ever-increasing desire for further westward expansion, however, the federal government commenced the negotiation of another Indian removal in 1853. The U.S. Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill in May 1854. By the fall of that year, the tide of Euro-American settlement was rolling over the prairies of eastern Kansas -- displacing the native population that was, in large measure, removed to lands in the remaining Indian country which later became Okalahoma.
At mid-century, the sectional division within the nation was becoming more and more pronounced. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise's ban on slavery in the northern portion of the old Louisiana Territory, sought yet another compromise to facilitate expansion. In the name of popular sovereignty, settlers themselves, not the U. S. Congress, were to decide the slave question. To the chagrin of Senator Stephen A. Douglas and other champions of this concept, the "compromise" settled nothing; indeed, it exacerbated an already tense situation by creating a competitive arena focused on the slavery question. Immediately, partisans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line targeted Kansas and the question whether it would be slave or free. As the settlers came, this "Kansas Question" became the centerpiece of an emotionally charged national debate. In the territory soon called "bleeding Kansas," the two sides squared off in a sometimes-violent contest.
A substantial number of the early contestants came from the proslavery state of Missouri. David Rice Atchison, Missouri's senior senator from Platte City, and the brothers Stringfellow, John H. and Benjamin F., "urged their people to resist the abolitionist plot to surround their state with free territory," and helped establish the proslavery town of Atchison. Leavenworth was founded about the same time, and proslavery partisans gained the early advantage. Soon, however, antislavery forces organized to contest the area. The New England Emigrant Aid Company and other groups formed to promote and support free-state settlement. The first organized band of New Englanders arrived in the territory in July 1854 and founded the city of Lawrence. Before the end of the year, Cyrus K. Holliday and company established the present city of Topeka.
Although Kansas has been referred to as a "child of New England," most of Kansas' territorial settlers were not "Yankees." The majority came neither from the "North" or the "South," but from the "border." Nearly 60 percent of Kansas' population hailed from the northern (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, etc.) and southern (Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, etc.) border states. Most of these folks were more concerned about bettering their economic situation than with settling their nation's slavery question.
Likewise, the territory's first governor, Andrew H. Reeder, could be characterized as ambivalent with respect to the issue of slavery. Events would soon force him to throw his lot with free state partisans, but upon his arrival in 1854, he directed his energies toward the business of land speculation and government. By early 1855, the first territorial census revealed a population of 8,500. The governor called a legislative election for March 30. On that day the infamous "Border Ruffians" appeared on the scene, crossing the border from Missouri to "help" the legitimate electorate make the "correct" political choices. The result was the so-called "bogus legislature." The free-staters' belief that this Missouri-dominated government was illegitimate led to the establishment of the Topeka movement, a shadow government that adopted its own constitution and elected its own legislature until its side took control of the federally recognized government in the fall of 1857.
The political turmoil that emerged from the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill caused serious conflict in Kansas. At the national level, the perception about what was going on in the territory was more important than the reality. Eastern newspapers gave sensational attention to "Bleeding Kansas." In fact, Kansas was not nearly so bloody as the appellation implies, notwithstanding the violent exploits of abolitionist John Brown, proslave sheriff Sam Jones, and others. The print media did, however, fan the flames. The Kansas imbroglio changed the complexion of national politics. The Republican Party emerged in 1854 to oppose the expansion of slavery in the territories, and soon replaced the Whig Party as the main opposition to the Democratic Party.
During the course of the Kansas struggles, two events of special significance involving the western territories occurred in 1857. Both had a profound impact on the country's apparent inevitable journey toward civil war. The first was the Dred Scott decision, handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court on March 6. This ignoble ruling held that slaves were not citizens of the United States (residency in a "free" state did not alter their status) and that Congress had no authority to ban slavery in the territories. The Missouri Compromise was therefore unconstitutional. The second 1857 event of note was the controversy surrounding the Lecompton Constitution and Kansas' second constitutional convention. This convention was authorized by the proslavery territorial legislature. It met at Lecompton in the fall of that year. In December, the convention submitted a document to the voters. The vote of the people was to be on a special slavery article only: a choice between "the constitution with slavery" or "the constitution without slavery." Because a vote "for the constitution without slavery" meant Kansans could keep the slaves they already owned, free-staters refused to participate, and the "constitution with slavery" won 6,266 to 559. Months of controversy followed, featuring a bitter national debate that split the Democratic Party.
In the meantime, however, Kansans elected a new free-state legislature on October 5, 1857, ultimately defeated the Lecompton Constitution at the polls, and wrote and ratified the free-state Wyandotte Constituton in the summer and fall of 1859. As a matter of law, because of the Dred Scott decision, slavery remained legal in Kansas Territory until admission to the Union in 1861. By the time delegates assembled in Wyandotte, however, the central issue was all but decided, so the decision to make Kansas "free" was no surprise. To their credit, the delegates did not adopt a clause excluding any racial groups from participation, but they failed to remove "white" from several significant parts of the document. Thus, the new constitution reflected the common prejudices of 19th-century America in a racially "conservative" document. In other areas too, the delegates moved forward cautiously for political and ideological reasons. Women, for example, were not granted equal voting rights, but the Wyandotte Constitution allowed them to partitipate in school district elections, granted them the right to own property, and instructed the legislature to "provide for their equal rights in the possession of their children."
The joy over the adoption of the Wyandotte Constitution and the imminent prospects for statehood were tempered somewhat in late 1859 and 1860 by a severe drought and famine. The big day of admission to the Union, January 29, 1861, was clouded by the prospects of war on the national horizon. The battle for Kansas was finally over, but the conflict, which for the past six years had caused Kansas to bleed, now engulfed an entire nation.