Bleeding Kansas

With slavery legal when it was first a French and later a Spanish colony, Louisiana entered the Union as a slave state in 1812 without controversy. But Missouri’s petition in 1819 for statehood with slavery sparked a debate over the “peculiar institution” in the Louisiana Purchase area. Under the Compromise of 1820, Missouri entered as a slave state, balanced by Maine’s entry as a free state. A line at 36 degrees, 30 minutes latitude (Missouri’s southern boundary) divided the territory, with slavery allowed south of it, and prohibited north of it outside Missouri. But in 1854 the Missouri Compromise was repealed by the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act. Promoted by Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas as part of his scheme for a trans-continental railroad, the Compromise created two new territories, open to the possibility of slavery under the concept of “popular sovereignty.” Allowing residents to vote either for or against slavery sparked a rush to settle Kansas. Settlers from the New England states, sponsored by abolitionist organizations, desired to see Kansas join the Union as a free state, as did many settlers from the Midwestern states, but for more economic reasons. Missouri slaveholders feared the creation of a possible refuge for runaway slaves and resented interference in what they considered to be the natural flow of slavery westward from existing areas. In the absence of laws defining residency, Missourians crossed into Kansas in large numbers, casting enough ballots to ensure that the first legislature in the Kansas Territory favored slavery. Outraged by the voter fraud, “Free Staters” set up a rival government. This was unsuccessful, but they eventually prevailed by sheer numbers, wresting control of the legislature from proslavery advocates, despite continued voter fraud.

These political struggles occurred amid so much violence that Eastern newspapers labeled the territory “Bleeding Kansas.” Political disputes offered opportunities for unscrupulous men to profit. Kansas “Jayhawkers” descended upon Missouri’s western counties, liberating slaves but also stealing horses and looting property. Missouri “Border Ruffians” raided Kansas in turn. An estimated 300 people were killed in the sporadic fighting between 1854 and 1860, with some incidents being particularly notorious. On May 21, 1856, a force of some 800 “Slave Staters” sacked the town of Lawrence, a center of Free State sentiment. Although no lives were lost at Lawrence, abolitionist John Brown led a retaliatory attack, killing five proslavery settlers near Pottawatomie Creek a few days afterwards. Two years later, on May 19, 1858, Missourians led by Charles Hamilton captured eleven Free Staters and opened fire on them in a ravine near the Marais de Cygnes Creek. Five were killed. Civil authorizes, aided by the U.S. Army, eventually brought order to Kansas, which entered the Union as a free state in January 1861. But by that time, civil war loomed over the nation.

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