The Kansas - Nebraska Bill of 1854 -
The Border Wars Begin

By Michael Schnebly

The trouble began with
the Kansas-Nebraska bill of 1854...

This piece of legislation was the brain child of Stephan A. Douglas and allowed the people of the territories to votes on whether the territories would allow slavery. The Southern Democrates voted for the bill because the figured Nebraska would be a free state and Kansas would naturally be a slave state to balance the equation. Missouri slave owners didn't want Kansas to become a free state because there would be free states on three sides thus making it easier for abolitionists to free slaves and slaves to escape on their own. At the time almost all current citizens of Kansas were for slavery because they were of Southern descent and also wanted less competition for what few jobs there were. It looked like Kansas would be a slave state but northern abolitionists had other plans.

Eli Thayer's New England Emigrant Aide Company was the most prominent of the eastern abolitionists emigration societies. They helped raise money to assist those who wished to settle in the new Kansas territory. Thayer was determined to destroy slavery and belived this was the way to do it by "...convincing every poor white man from the south of the superiority of free labor."

In the summer of 1854, the Emigrant Aide Company sponsored six parties totaling seven hundred people. People from other parts of the country started showing up as well. Some came to participate in the strugle over slavery, while the majority were motivated by the economic opportunity and the availability of land. The first of Thayer's parties left Kansas City on July 28th and followed the Santa Fe trail. There were only twenty-nine in the party including Daniel Anthony, future mayor of Leavenworth and brother to Susan B. The party headed for a location on the Kansas river that was scouted earlier by an advance agent, Dr. Charles Robinson, future first governor of Kansas. The location the party selected would be the future location of Lawrence, Kansas, named after Amos A. Lawrence, Boston financier and benefactor of the New England Emigrant Aide Company.

On November 29, 1854, the first elections for delegates to congress for the Kansas territories were held. Thousands of proslavery Missourians crossed the border to vote. These men felt they has as much right to vote as the newly arrived New Englanders who they believed had been hired to emigrate for the sole porpose of voting. Ballot stuffing wasn't new to America, this had happened most recently in Iowa. Ironically this was probably not needed because a majority of the voters were of southern descent. Predictably, pro-slavery candidates swept the field. Only one man was killed at the polls--he was proslavery.

In the spring of 1855 Emigrants poured into Kansas from the Mid-Atlantic, New England, and the South. On election day, March 30, 1855, thousands of Missourians again traveled to Kansas to vote in the territorial legislature election. Missouri newspapers urged their readers to cross the line to vote or pay someone else to do it for them. Charles Robinson wrote to Eli Thayer, "It looks very much like war, and I am ready for it and so are our people."He appended a request for "200 Sharpes rifles" and "a couple of field pieces," promising that they, "will be well used."The company duly sent a shipment of rifles in boxes labeled 'machinery.' In New York, the Reverand Henry Ward Beecher raised so much money for them that some called his congregation " The church of the Holy Bibles."The weapons became known in Kansas as "Beechers Bibles."

Missourians formed secret brotherhoods known variously as the Blue Lodge, the Social Band, Sons of the South, and the Defensives. Their purpous was to extend slavery into Kansas and expel the abolitionists. Missourians settled towns in Kansas where free staters were not welcome: Fort Scott, Lecompton, Leavenworth, and Atchison.

Blue Lodge members in Kansas could spot each other by the small piece of hemp rope they wore in their buttonholes. Hemp was good for making nooses and they loved the idea of nooses around the necks of no-good Yankee abolitionists with their 'Beechers Bibles.'

The freestaters had their own societies known as the Kansas Regulators or Kansas Legion. Members also held secret meetings and could recognize each other by secret signals. The thumb placed under the chin while the forefinger scratched the nose. The countersign was given by rubbing the lower lip with the left thumb and forefinger. The organizations for both sides were armed and ready.

Missouri senator, David Atchison, with revolver and knife in his belt, led 800 Missourians from St. Joseph to Lawrence to make sure only pro-slavery men were voted in as the first representatives in the new Kansas territorial legislature.

The ferries on the Missouri River at Lawrence were so full that other boats were pressed into service to get everyone across. They went to every district and threatened voters, election officials, and stole ballot boxes. The ballot boxes were returned stuffed with fraudulent ballots. It was not uncommon to have more votes cast than number of people living there. The Missourians won.

A census showed there were 2,905 Kansas residents eligible to vote. The final tally was 6,307 ballots cast, more than double the number of legal voters. Thirty-nine legislators were elected with thirty-six being proslavery. The newly elected proslavery legislators first met in Pawnee, then Shawnee Mission before choosing Lecompton as the first capitol. Among the first pieces of legislation passed was an "act to punish offenses against slave property."Under the act any person convicted of, " freeing negroes, raising a rebellion of slaves, aiding, assisting, furnishing arms, furtherance or insurrection of a rebellion by slaves in any book, paper, magazine, pamplet or cicular shall be put to death."During this time Kansas was more slavery friendly than any of the states in the Deep South. All this for a territory with only a handful of actual slave owners.

The free staters of Kansas refused to recognise the new legislature so they formed their own government with Dr. Charles Robinson as the governor. The men of Lawrence requested more rifles from supporters in the East and surrounded the town with trenches and forts. Missouri Senator David Atchison was furious that his rigged election was being challenged but managed to get his legislators seated. Proslavery leaders selected Wilson Shannon as governor.

By summer of 1855 the Kansas population doubled to 15,000. Among the new arrivals was John Brown and five of his sons. Brown was a stubborn, arrogant, failed businessman who dedicated his life to destroying slavery. For years he had dreamed of fighting a guerilla war against slave owners, hoping to recruit "the most reckless and daring" of slaves to join the fight.

Another emigrant to Kansas was James Henry Lane, " the grim cheiftain of Kansas" as he came to be called.

Lane was a former lieutenant governor of Indiana who served as a colonel in the Mexican War. He voted in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska act which earned disapproval of his Indiana constituents, so he moved to Kansas looking for new opportunities. He found his best opportunity would be to join the freestaters party in Lawrence. In 1856 he would lead several pillage and burn raids into missouri. He freed several slaves believing this was the quickest way to destroy the south. Ironically he advocated the passage of the 'Black Laws' which denied Kansas residency to all negroes. Lane was a big Lincoln supporter in 1860 and when hostilities broke out in April 1861 Lane sent a handpicked company of Kansans known as the "Frontier Guard" to escort Lincoln from Illinois to Washington D.C. for his inauguration.

On November 21, 1855, Charles Dow was murdered by Franklin Coleman of Hickory Point , about 10 miles south of Lawrence. Dow was a freestater and Coleman a proslaver. The dispute was over a land claim not politics. Coleman immediatly turned himself in to the Douglas County sheriff, Samuel J Jones.

Jones, a proslavery Missourian, promptly released Coleman on bail. A few nights after Dows burial, the Kansas Regulators vowed to bring the murderer to justice and burned the cabins of Coleman and several other proslavers. Sheriff Jones arrested Jacob Branson, leader of the Kansas Regulators, but before he could get him to the jail in Lecompton a posse from Lawrence took the prisoner by force. Sheriff Jones then retreated to Franklin Kansas, a proslavery stronghold. Since the Missourians believed the posse that saved Branson was from Lawrence they vowed to wipe Lawrence off the map. A 1200 man posse of Border Ruffians headed by Senator Atchison headed for Lawrence. The Missourians brought with them two wagons of guns as well as seven cannons from the federal arsenal at Liberty Missouri. In Lawrence 1000 men gathered to defend Lawrence against the expected retaliation. John Brown and his sons came to Lawrence to help out.

Jim Lane supervised the construction of four circular earthwork forts 75 feet in diameter with five feet high walls. These were connected with earthen entrenchments and rifle pits. Women helped to make cartridges.

On December 3rd the Missourians made camp along the Wakarusa River, six miles southeast of Lawrence. Senator Atchison demanded that Bransons rescuers and the towns Sharps rifles be surrendered. Charles Robinson, elected " major general" of the militia, swore that none of the men were in Lawrence and that the Sharps rifles were private property and the town couldn't ask that they be turned over. Both were untrue.

When Robinson refused to turn the rifles or men over to Atchison, the newspapers across the country predicted a civil war in Kansas. Undecided about whether to attack, the Missourians waited by the river bank for a week. Senator Atchison felt the need for legal justification. Finally Kansas Governor Wilson Shannon drew up an agreement promising that the Kansas Regulators will not interfere in the enforcement of the law. The Missourians wanted to raze Lawrence but Atchison cautioned them to wait because "You cannot now destroy these people without losing more than you would gain."The Missourians left frustrated but were consoled by the thought that there would be another chance in the future to burn Lawrence to the ground.

In the next months, emigration to Kansas increased drastically. In the South, David Atchison's appeals brought record numbers of proslavery settlers into Kansas. Thousands of dollars were raised by southern towns to support turning Kansas into a slave state. No sacrifice was too great in the struggle to perserve their way of life.

The North was equally fanatical about their crusade to keep Kansas free. Preachers from the North and South were handing out bibles along with rifles and pistols. Not all those who went to Kansas from the North were abolitionists. They may have been opposed to slavery but they were still prejudiced against negroes. They came to Kansas to aquire low cost land and to start life over in the new land. The proslavery men were worried about the influx of northerners because the presence of so many Yankees with weapons will lead to violence.

The violence started in the early months of 1856 near Leavenworth when E.P. Brown was attacked by a bunch of half-drunk proslavery men. They drug him back to his cabin half alive. When his wife opened the door they tossed him on the ground and said, " here's Brown."E.P. Brown died from his wounds and Mrs Brown spent the rest of her life in a lunatic asylum suffering from grief.

In April 1856, Sam Jones the Missouri sheriff, came back to Lawrence again looking for the men that took his prisoner the previous fall. The sight of him made people angry and one man grabbed him by the collar and punched him in the face. Jones left town fast and complained to governor Shannon. Shannon sent a squad of ten soldiers with Jones to Lawrence as backup. Jones wasn't in Lawrence long before a bullet whizzed past his head. Jones made the remark "I believe that was intended for me."Another shot rang out and Jones found a hole in his pants. Jones yelled, "That was intended for me!" He took shelter in a tent and was there wounded by a third shot.

Rumor spread that Jones was dead. This fired up the Missourians again and they were ready to go to Lawrence. This time they will do it legally. The Missourians hastily convened a grand jury and indicted Charles Robinson and other free-state leaders with treason. They also indicted the newspapers in Lawrence and the Freestate Hotel because it had parapets and portholes from which weapons could be fired. Armed with warrants, the Missourians and the Kansas territorial marshal, who was a Missourian, headed for Lawrence again. David Atchison and hundreds of Missourians crossed the border on May 21st carrying banners with 'Southern rights' and 'Supremacy of the white race' on them. They even brought artillery. The people of Lawrence offered no opposition because there were too many Missourians who had both the law on their side and artillery overlooking the town.

The two newspaper offices were ransacked and their equipment was dumped into the river. The files were thrown into the streets. Three cannons were brought to Massachusetts street and placed in front of the Freestate Hotel.

The owner begged for time to remove the furniture and was granted two hours. Some of the Missourians helped remove the furniture, but most helped to clear the wine cellar in record time. After two hours Atchisons army gathered around the Hotel and Atchison claimed the honor of the first shot. Atchison then said "This day we have entered Lawrence with Southern rights inscribed upon our banner...If one man or woman dare stand before you, blow them to hell with a chunk of cold lead."With that he aimed the cannon at the Freestate Hotel and fired. Atchison was so drunk that the cannonball flew completely over the tree story tall and eighty foot wide building. The cannonball landed in the faraway hillside. It was reported later in 1880 that a connonball was found imbedded in the ground during construction of Illinois street.

The Missourians shot at the building at least thirty times before giving up. The walls had repelled all hits. The Missourians then rolled two kegs of powder into the lobby and lit the fuses. After the smoke from the explosion cleared, the hotel looked pretty much the same. Next the Missourians returned to the newspaper offices and gathered up all the files and books and put them in the hotel and lit them on fire. This finally brought the hotel down.

The Missourians then embarked on a looting spree. They also burned the home of Charles Robinson down including his large collection of books. The ruffians camped out that night on Mount Oread. The next morning Atchison, who was now calling himself General Atchison, request permission to parade his men down Main street. Nobody dared object. The people of Lawrence watched as what looked like a funeral procession march down Massachusets street and to the river.

In the next three days two things happened,the brutality of which shocked the nation.

Just after midday on May 22, congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Charles Sumner of Massachusetts almost to death on the U.S. Senate chamber. The reason for the attack was that Sumner offended Brooks' cousin and the South in his latest speech in the house.

Three days before, Sumner started his "Crime against Kansas" speech, which lasted two days. He made a remark about the Southern people calling them, "Drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization."He also made remarks about South Carolina Senator Andrew Pickens Butler, cousin to Preston Brooks. Brooks waited for the senate floor to start thinning out before caning Sumner. Brooks used a heavy walking stick with a gold head. Sumner slipped on his blood while trying to get away, but was unable to escape the blows. It was three years before he was able to return to work.

Brooks was arrested but released on $500 bail. He was later only fined $300. Brooks made the comment that he wore his cane out but he saved the gold head. Brooks was a hero in the South. Dozens of people sent him new canes. One from Charleston was inscribed with, "Hit him again."South Carolina's governor arranged a list of admirers to buy Brooks a commemorative silver pitcher and goblet. Students at the University of Virginia sent him a stick with a replica of a cracked head with the inscription, "Every Southern man sustains me."Brooks resigned as a matter of honor and went home. Later he was re-elected by overwhelming majority.

News of this reached south Lawrence and a 56 year old abolitionist who saw himself, "as Gods messenger on Earth. His name was John Brown.

On May 24th John Brown heard about the caning and went berserk. Ranting to his four sons and three other men, "Something must be done to show these barbarians that we, too, have rights."He was determined to create an example the world would not soon forget. He picked five pro-slavery neighbors that lived along the Pottawatomie Creek to use as examples.

Just after 11:00 pm, "Old Brown", as he was called, went to James Doyle's cabin to ask for directions. Mr. Doyle opened the door and John shoved his way in, followed by his sons and followers. Brown dragged James Doyle and his three sons out of the cabin and into the night. They were taken outside in their night clothes and not even allowed to put their boots on. Mrs. Doyle begged John to spare her youngest son and he agreed. Doyle and his other sons were led about a hundred yards down the road and hacked to death. Body parts cut off and heads split open.

The next home visited was that of Allen Wilkinson, who was up late nursing his wife who had the measles. Allen was dragged outdoors in his stocking feet and found the next day by one of his neighbors. His throat was slit and body mutilated. His wife and daughters had cried all night knowing they would never see him alive again.

It was after midnight and Sunday now but the sabbath didn't stop John Brown. The final victim was William Sherman who wasn't on Brown's list. He happened to be a guest of James Harris. William had picked the wrong house on the wrong night to ask for hospitality. Sherman and other guests were taken outside and questioned. All but Sherman gave the right answers. Brown's group led Sherman to Pottawatomie Creek and bashed his skull in, rinsed their swords off and went home. When John Brown returned home he asked God for his blessing on his nights work. John Brown said these men deserved to die because they had, "committed murder in their hearts already, according to the big book."If there was a chance for peace in Kansas it was gone after the bloody night. John Brown's killing spree would be known as the ' Pottawatomie Massacre.'

End of Part One

Next in 'The Borderwars Erupt!'...

'Civil War' breaks out in Kansas and Missouri as both sides seek revenge in an ever increasing spiral of violence.

James Montgomery, Charles R. Jennison and others begin to return the favor and raid Missouri. Massacres on both sides continue as Kansas moves closer to statehood.