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Bleeding Kansas: Kansas was next in line to join the Union, but would it enter free or slave? The violence that broke out there was a preview of the greater civil war to come.

In the fall of 1854, Andrew H. Reeder arrived in Kansas to take office as the territory's first Governor. Until then, there hadn't been much to govern. The whole territory held little more than 1,000 white people, along with its Indian population. But this vast prairie was fast becoming the most hotly fought-over land in North America.

That summer, bands of proslavery settlers from Missouri had crossed into Kansas to declare the territory a slave state. They were followed by "flee-soil" pioneers. Many came by wagon train from New England, determined to ban slavery in their new home.

As the opposing sides settled in, they prepared for battle. The resulting conflict would give the territory the name "Bleeding Kansas," leave dozens dead, and bring the entire country one step closer to civil war.


Early in the existence of the United States, the slave states of the South and the free states of the North found ways to get along. The big problem was what to do when new states joined the Union.

In 1820, Congress worked out the Missouri Compromise. The agreement allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state. In all future states, slavery would be prohibited north of latitude 36[degrees] 30', Missouri's southern border. New states that lay south of the line would become slave states.

The Compromise of 1850 settled another squabble over land the U.S. received after the Mexican War. It allowed California to enter as a free state. But the bigger fight loomed.

Then, in 1853, Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois introduced legislation in Congress to organize the large Nebraska Territory. Douglas also had another motive. The country was planning to build a transcontinental railroad to California. Douglas wanted a northern route and an eastern terminus (end point) in the city of Chicago. A lot of money was at stake.

To secure this deal, Douglas needed the support of a powerful group of Southern Senators. These men were set against a free-soil Nebraska. Senator David R. Atchison from proslavery Missouri said he would defend slavery "with the bayonet and with blood."

Douglas's deal with the Southerners was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The act repealed (did away with) the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and established popular sovereignty--a principle that allowed states and territories to decide whether to permit slavery. The act also divided Nebraska into two parts. The southern part, lying next to Missouri, was to be called Kansas. (See map, p. 23.)

Northerners howled in protest. "The crime is committed," wrote the Evening Journal of Albany, New York. "The work of [James] Monroe and [James] Madison and [Thomas] Jefferson is undone.... Slavery crawls, like a slimy reptile over the ruins...." Douglas didn't care about the howling. He and his allies had their votes, and the act passed Congress on May 30, 1854.


In Kansas, the race was on to get the most settlers in place. Northern abortionists (those opposing slavery) organized the New England Emigrant Aid Society, which promised to send 20,000 free-soil settlers to Kansas every year. But Missourians were closer--and no less determined.

"We are playing for a mighty stake," said Senator Atchison. He and his followers were prepared to play dirty. In March 1855, Kansans went to the polls to elect delegates to a territorial legislature. The Missourians offered "free ferry, a dollar a day, and liquor" to anyone who would cross the border and vote illegally.

The night before the election, a ragged assortment of men crossed the Missouri River. Armed with guns and knives, these "border ruffians" pushed aside judges at the polls and elected 36 proslavery legislators out of a total of 39.

"ALL HAIL! Proslavery Party Victorious!" announced the proslavery Herald of Leavenworth, Kansas. "Come on, Southern men! Bring your slaves, and fill up the Territory."

Governor Reeder, who had once sympathized with the proslavery forces, was disgusted. He ordered new elections. Free-soilers, who actually outnumbered proslavery settlers, won most of the seats. But the territorial legislature refused to recognize them. When Reeder protested to President Franklin Pierce, the President simply replaced him as Governor.


The legislature quickly passed harsh laws making it a crime to even speak out against slavery. Outraged, free-soilers formed a separate government. Then they armed for a fight, importing dozens of Sharps rifles from New England in boxes marked "books."

The fight came soon enough. On May 21, 1856, a proslavery federal marshal assembled a posse of about 800, which stormed the free-soil town of Lawrence. The men looted stores, destroyed two newspaper offices, and burned the Free State Hotel to the ground, hacking 300 books to pieces for good measure.

A fanatical abolitionist named John Brown estimated that five free-soilers had been murdered by proslavery forces. He swore an eye-for-an-eye revenge. On the night of May 24, Brown gathered together a raiding party that included four of his sons. The group stole into a proslavery settlement on Pottawatomie Creek, dragged five settlers from their cabins, and killed them in cold blood.

The Pottawatomie Massacre, as it was called, unleashed a bloody civil war in Kansas. Raiding parties on both sides burned homes, stole cattle, and murdered enemies. Farmers started working the fields in armed groups. When strangers met they asked each other: "Free-soil or Slave?" More than 50 people were killed in the months to come.

Around the country, in newspapers and speeches--and in nervous and angry households--"Bleeding Kansas" became a symbol of the nation's own wounds.


President Pierce, seeking to stop the bloodshed in Kansas, appointed a new Governor, John W. Geary. But the Governor had no success against the proslavery legislature. Nor did his replacement, Robert J. Walker. The legislature blocked Walker's efforts to hold a public referendum (vote) on the state constitution. In February 1858, Kansas sent a proslavery constitution to Washington, D.C., for approval. The debate in Congress ended in a brawl, with 50 legislators swinging at each other in the aisles. Finally, the House rejected the constitution by eight votes.

"All things here," observed Georgia Congressman Alexander H. Stephens, "are tending my mind to the conclusion that the Union cannot and will not last long."

Stephens was on the right track. Kansas finally became a free state on January 29, 1861. By then, Abraham Lincoln had been elected President, and six Southern states had already seceded (withdrawn). On April 12, Southern troops in South Carolina opened fire on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter, and the entire country followed Kansas into civil war.

1803 The U.S. purchases the Louisiana Territory from France, which
 includes the future Nebraska Territory.

1818 Missouri petitions for entrance to the Union as a slave state.

1820 Congress passes the Missouri Compromise, marking a border
 between future slave and free states.

1848 The U.S. wins the Mexican War, adding most of the American
 Southwest to the country.

1850 The Compromise of 1850 allows a future popular vote over
 slavery in the New Mexico and Utah territories.

1854 The Kansas-Nebraska Act becomes law, repealing the Missouri
 Compromise of 1820.

1856 Proslavery forces plunder Lawrence, Kansas. John Brown's
 revenge helps spur "Bleeding Kansas."

1858 Congress rejects the first Kansas state constitution, which is
 proslavery. The following year, after three more tries, Kansas
 adopts a free-state constitution.

1861 Kansas is admitted to the Union as a free state on January 29.
 On April 12, the Civil War begins.

Your Turn


1. secede A. do away with
2. terminus B. one who opposed slavery
3. repeal C. end point
4. abolitionist D. vote
5. referendum E. withdraw


Suggest ways that the pro- and antislavery settlers in
Kansas could have resolved their differences peacefully.



Students should understand

* the issue during the 1850s of whether to allow slavery in Kansas led to violent conflict that anticipated the American Civil War.


Ask students: "What do you think was the political impact of slavery in the U.S. in the years before the Civil War?"


Many of the Northerners who settled in Kansas were not abolitionists. These "free-soilers" demanded territory for white people. They opposed slavery not so much out of concern for enslaved people, but because the plantation system of the South took over large tracts of land that prevented small farmers from growing their own crops.


COMPREHENSION: Why did Stephen A. Douglas negotiate the Kansas-Nebraska Act? (Douglas wanted to organize Nebraska Territory largely to secure a profitable railroad venture for Illinois. Achieving this required striking a deal with powerful Southern Senators.)

NOTING DETAILS: How was the federal government ineffective in dealing with the conflict in Kansas? (President Pierce replaced Andrew H. Reeder as Governor after Reeder tried to overturn the fraudulent vote that elected a proslavery legislature in Kansas. None of the President's future appointees to the post managed to settle the slavery issue. As Congress discussed Kansas's proslavery constitution in February 1858, the debate grew so heated that a brawl broke out among the legislators.)


BLOODY DAYS: Instruct students to create fictional journal entries of someone living in Kansas during the 1850s. Students can choose to write from the point of view of a flee-soil or a proslavery settler.



* Culture: How slavery was a critical political, economic, and social concern in the U.S. during the westward expansion of the 1850s.

* Individuals, groups, and institutions: How free-soilers, proslavery forces, and abolitionists struggled in the 1850s to determine whether Kansas would become a slave or free state.



* Zeinert, Karen, Tragic Prelude: Bleeding Kansas (Shoe String Press, 2001. Grades 6-8.

* McMullan, Kate, For This Land: Meg's Prairie Diary (Scholastic, 2003). Grades 5-8.


* Fort Scott National Historic Site

* Africans in America--Judgment Day

Word Match, p. 23

1. E

2. C

3. A

4. B

5. D
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Title Annotation:American History
Author:Olson, Tod
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Geographic Code:1U4KS
Date:Jan 24, 2005
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