John Brown and Bleeding Kansas

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Prologue to War

John Brown and

Bleeding Kansas

By 1855 several of John Brown’s sons were living with their families in the Kansas Territory. He received letters from them in which they detailed the situation in the territory. Kansas had become a battleground of pro-and ant-slavery forces. The aim of the pro-slavery forces was to bring the Kansas Territory into the Union as a slave state.

John_Brown_daguerreotype_c1856Brown determined to journey to Kansas and begin the militant phase of his abolitionist career. Along the way he stopped in Albany, New York at an anti-slavery convention in June 1855. Brown found financial supporters at the convention despite his call for violent means to abolish slavery. He found additional financial support in his former home in Ohio, the Western Reserve.

In late 1855-early 1856 it became apparent to Brown that the pro-slavery forces in the Kansas Territory were willing to use any means legal or illegal to achieve their aim of Kansas becoming a slave state. The pro-slavery forces were known as “Border Ruffians” who had crossed the border from Missouri.

Most “Border Ruffians” were too poor to own slaves. Their main motivations were their hatred of “Yankees” and abolitionists. They were violently opposed to having free blacks living in a free-state of Kansas.

They were driven by the fiery rhetoric of men like David Rice Atchison, a Missouri state senator, who called free-staters “negro thieves” and “anti-slavery tyrants”. He called for the pro-slavery forces to defend the institution “with the bayonet and with blood” and, if necessary, “to kill every God-damned abolitionist in the district.”

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was the main motivator for each side. The act left the question of Kansas Territory’s status as a slave state or a free state up to the voters of the territory. The pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” poured across the borders of the territory posing as settlers and swayed the outcomes of several key elections.

The pro-slavery party was instrumental in electing a pro-slavery territorial representative to Congress on November 29, 1854. On March 30, 1855,Kansas Territory a pro-slavery territorial legislature was elected with their assistance. They were also involved in the vote for the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution that allowed slavery in the territory. The constitutional convention that wrote the constitution was elected by somewhat dubious means and met in September 1857. The Free State supporters boycotted the convention.

By 1855 Kansas Territory had begun the “Bleeding Kansas” period of its history. The initial violence took place in the Wakarusa Valley near Lawrence, Kansas. On November 21, 1855 a Free State settler named Charles Dow was shot and killed by a pro-slavery supporter. This murder led to a series of reprisals known as the Wakarusa War.

Samuel J. JonesFinally, on December 1, 1855, a small army of Missourians led by Douglas County, Kansas Sheriff Samuel J. Jones laid siege to Lawrence. The invaders number about 1,500 and were armed with a wide range of weaponry, some of which they had stolen from the United States Arsenal in Liberty, Missouri.

Opposing them was a force led by John Brown and James Lane. They had barricaded the entry streets into Lawrence. The pro-slavery force never attacked and a treaty of peace was negotiated. One Free State settler was killed.

Lawrence, Kansas had been founded in 1854 and it was a center of anti-slavery settlement in Kansas. Many of the settlers were helped by the New England Immigrant Aid Company. This organization had a goal of helping 20,000 settlers per year to move to Kansas. Although they never achieved this level of emigrants they did create a reaction from the pro-slavery forces in Missouri and Kansas.

On April 23, 1856 Sheriff Samuel Jones was shot while attempting to arrest some anti-slavery settlers in Lawrence. The settlers then drove him out of Lawrence. Federal Marshal J.B. Donaldson declared that the settlers had interfered with the serving of warrants against the extra-legal Free State legislature.

A grand jury also reached a finding that the Free State Hotel was actually built as a fort. Sheriff Jones organized a force of some 750 pro-slavery southerners. His intention was to enter Lawrence, disarm its citizens, and destroy the hotel and the anti-slavery printing presses.

On May 21st the small army which by now at grown to 800 surrounded the town and blocked all of the routes out of Lawrence. They were accompanied by an artillery gun which was stationed on high ground just outside of town. Two printing offices were attacked and the presses wereRuins of the Free State Hotel in Lawrence destroyed.

They attempted to destroy the Free State Hotel with cannon fire but this didn’t work satisfactorily. After some 50 shots the building remained standing. An attempt to blow it up with kegs of gunpowder was also unsuccessful. Finally, the hotel was set on fire and that did the job. The raiders also burned the home of Charles Robinson, the first Governor of Kansas. Sporadic fighting and looting continued through the night. The raiders departed the following day having suffered one fatality from falling masonry.

Meanwhile, the anti-slavery forces who were known as Jayhawkers, Redlegs and Redleggers responded with their own forms of violence against their pro-slavery opponents. On May 24-25, 1856 John Brown and a force of Jayhawkers in response to the Sacking of Lawrence descended on the home of James P. Doyle near Pottawatomie Creek in Franklin County, Kansas.

Doyle was a pro-slavery settler who had once been a slave catcher. Two of his adult sons also slave catchers lived with the family. All three were removed from the house and hacked to death with broadswords by Owen Brown and one of his brothers. John Brown Sr. shot the mortally wounded James Doyle in the head to complete the killings.

Henry PateThey then proceeded to the home of Allen Wilkinson where he was ordered out of his home and slashed to death. Crossing the creek they did the same to William Sherman who was visiting the home of James Harris. Collectively, this became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre.

A force of Missourians led by Captain Henry Pate (also known as “Dutch” Henry) captured John Brown Jr. and his brother Jason and burned the Brown family homestead. On June 2nd Brown and about 29 others successfully defended the Free State settlement of Palmyra against Pate and his followers (known as the Battle of Black Jack). Pate and 22 of his men were taken prisoner and were forced to sign a treaty exchanging his group for Brown’s sons. Brown released Pate into the custody of U.S. Army Col. Edwin Sumner but his sons were not released until September.

In August a force of some 300 Missourians led by Maj. Gen. John W. Reid crossed into Kansas with the goal of attacking the Jayhawker settlements in the area of Osawatomie. They then planned on a march to Topeka and Lawrence to spread further destruction. On the morning of August 30, 1856 they shot and killed Brown’s son Frederick and a neighbor.

Brown with a small group of 38 followers attempted to hold the raiders off by using the area’s natural defenses. During the battle they killed 20 and wounded 40 but the raiders scattered them. Brown’s force suffered one killed and four captured. While they hid in the woods the Missouri raiders plundered and burned the settlement. Despite his defeat Brown’s defense of Osawatomie became famous throughout the country and he became known as “Osawatomie” Brown.

In September the new territorial governor John Geary negotiated a truce between the warring factions. John Brown and left Kansas with three of his sons to raise money, collect weapons and plan for further anti-slavery activities. He was never to return to Kansas.

Series Navigation<< John Brown’s Early LifeThe Spark that lit the Flame: John Brown’s Raid >>

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  1. Pingback: The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1820 - North Against SouthNorth Against South

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