Jayhawkers, Border Ruffians, and Bleeding Kansas — quite the adventure


My goal for this column is to interest a few folks who, like me, have previously ignored the compelling adventure that comprises the history of the Kansas Territory.

“Bleeding Kansas” evokes an attention-grabbing mental image, to be sure! So how is it that every time this aspect of our national history has been presented to me, my eyes have glazed over and I’ve drifted off in search of more interesting topics?

Upon closer examination, and a couple of site visits, I’m now convinced that the stories of the Kansas Territory between 1854 and its admission as a state in 1861, as well as its role during the Civil War itself, provide more raw material for drama, adventure, tragedy, comedy, heroism and cowardice, loyalty and betrayal, vast right wing and left wing conspiracies and biased media reporting than could ever be adequately tapped by John Ford and William Shakespeare, much less today’s storytellers!

Basic Boring Facts:
• Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allows KS Territory to decide whether it’s a free or slave state, under theory of “popular sovereignty.”
• Pro and anti slavery settlers vie for majority, with competing proposed state governments, constitutions and Capitals (Lecompton and Topeka).
• Town of Lawrence, KS, where most of the anti-slavery “Free Staters,” also known as “Jayhawkers,” live, gets raided by pro-slavery forces.
• Kansas is eventually admitted as a free state in January 1861, concurrent with secession of first seven Confederate states.

OK, that part’s pretty dry. But the actual day-to-day events of this saga, in both the Kansas Territory and in Washington, D.C., should be mandatory classroom material because not a person between the ages of 8 and 80 could fail to be interested.

Jayhawkers vs. Border Ruffians (aka “Pukes”). When it comes to team names, the anti-slavery folks clearly won the PR contest. The anti-slavery Jayhawkers were largely emigrants in search of free land, from New England and the mid-west, financed by abolitionist associations determined to prevail in the contest set up by the Kansas-Nebraska Act repeal of the ban on slavery in this northern part of the country from the “Missouri Compromise” of 1820. Countervailing pro-slavery Southern interests had less organizing to do, rallying their rough and tumble sympathizers from the slave state of Missouri to simply move across the invisible survey line into the Kansas Territory, and declare themselves “residents.”

Ballot Boxes, Whiskey, and Guns — what could possibly go wrong? By their own admission, the “Pukes” consumed considerable amounts of whiskey, and carried arsenals of “second amendment remedies” with them when riding a few miles west to cast their ballots for a pro slavery legislature and constitution. Not to be outdone, the “Free Staters” appealed to New England for humanitarian and spiritual aid, in the form of “Beecher’s Bibles.” Named for one of their famous abolitionist benefactors, Henry Ward Beecher, these “Bibles” were actually several hundred Sharps Rifles, which were used to help reunite the Border Ruffians with their Creator, or at least provide a deterrent to continued drunken voter fraud.

Two Governments? Based on an assumption of voter fraud (it was, indeed extensive and flagrant in 1855, but perhaps didn’t impact the actual outcome), the Jayhawkers decided to create their own governmental structure, thus opening them up to a legitimate legal vulnerability used for law enforcement purposes by the pro-slavery judicial and legislative officials in Lecompton, KS.

Legislative Tyranny. When the pro-slavery folks convened as the officially elected legislative body, they went slightly overboard with their exercise of power, enacting a series of laws (over the Governor’s veto) making it a capital offense to assist a fugitive slave, and a felony to question the legitimacy of slavery in Kansas. And for good measure, they kicked the anti-slavery legislators elected in a special election out of the legislature, and intimidated the first and second Territorial Governors into resigning.

Chief Justice Lecompte of Lecompton, and Sheriff Jones, both pro-slavery officials, decided in the Spring of 1856, with the help of a hand picked grand jury, that they should indict and arrest a number of anti-slavery Jayhawk leaders, as well as well as two anti slavery newspapers (Herald of Freedom and Kansas Free State), and one anti-slavery fort in Lawrence, masquerading as the Free State Hotel.

Three Days in May, 1856. On May 21, 1856, recovering from having been shot the last time he attempted to enter the town of Lawrence, Sheriff Jones enlisted several hundred Border Ruffians as a posse to go back for more, resulting in the supposed “Sack of Lawrence,” including no anti-slavery fatalities, but they did accomplish the first of three torchings of the Free State Hotel.

On May 22, 1100 miles to the East, South Carolina U.S. Congressman Preston Brooks snuck up behind Massachusetts U.S. Senator Charles Sumner and proceeded to beat him senseless with a gold-headed cane while Sumner was trapped sitting at his desk. Brooks’ caning of Sumner was precipitated by insulting remarks Sumner had recently made about Brooks’ relative, U.S. Senator Andrew Butler, also of South Carolina in a speech about “Bleeding Kansas.”

On May 23, back in Kansas, two years before his final act at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, the somewhat volatile abolitionist John Brown took seven friends and family members with him on a late night raid during which they brutally murdered five unarmed pro-slavery men, apparently in retaliation for the raid on Lawrence. This senseless and horrible Pottawatomie Massacre was condemned by local anti-slavery forces in Kansas, but nonetheless simultaneously denied and distorted in abolitionist news coverage. To this day, there are arguments as to whether John Brown actually participated.

Governor Geary imposes an uneasy peace. The third Territorial Governor, John Geary, managed to impose a period of relative peacefulness by promising to strictly and harshly respond to violence, and by disbanding the warring militias. Geary’s incredible career included being the first (and to this day, the youngest) Mayor of San Francisco, as well as a Union officer in the Civil War who was wounded ten times, and other notable public service, but he is best remembered for his brief role as a peacemaker in Kansas.

President Buchanan. Widely and deservedly regarded as the worst President in U.S. history, President James Buchanan is apparently still highly regarded in Lecompton, Kansas, where his portrait hangs on the wall in “Constitution Hall.” That’s the location where the pro-slavery convention delegates drafted the Constitution which Buchanan then recommended be accepted in order to grant statehood to Kansas. Buchanan’s recommendation, intended to placate southern allies, was so outrageous that even his handpicked pro-slavery Kansas Territorial Governor, Robert Walker, and pro-slavery Illinois U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas opposed him.

Kansas was finally admitted as a free state in 1861, amidst the secession of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas, during the period between Abraham Lincoln’s election and inauguration as President. Kansas would remain prominent during the Civil War, including the notorious massacre of 125 men and boys near Lawrence by a group of Quantrill’s Raiders. This band of Confederate guerillas was of course the same group that included Frank and Jesse James.

In fairness, I need to close this column by disclosing that there are credible alternative versions of the stories above which put the Jayhawker/Free Staters in a much less favorable light than I have done. But in any case, the history of the Kansas Territory is truly compelling, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the University of Missouri does not use the “Pukes” or the “Border Ruffians” as its team name and mascot, whereas the Jayhawks reign supreme in Lawrence, Kansas to this day.

Patrick Teegarden, a legislative liaison for a state government department, has been writing articles for The Statesman on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Last year his series of columns won a second place award in the Colorado Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest.
He can be reached at Patrick@coloradostatesman.com.

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