The event known as “Bleeding Kansas” was a period of guerilla warfare, in what was then known as the Kansas Territory, which started in 1854 and lasted until 1859. The violence was sporadic, mostly small-scale and unorganized, but led to mass terror erupting within the Kansas Territory. The conflict arose after passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the question of legalizing slavery in the proposed state of Kansas. Liberal Republicans used the violence in Kansas to gain support from northerners, arguing that Conservative Democrats clearly sided with pro-slavery forces responsible for the events of Bleeding Kansas. However, both pro-slavery and abolitionist forces alike participated in the brutality.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 formally organized the lands west of Missouri and Iowa into the Kansas and Nebraska territories. This act allowed settlers to move further west and decide through popular referendum or general election whether or not to formally incorporate the Kansas-Nebraska territories as either free or slave states. The Kansas-Nebraska Act opened up the potential of slavery into western territories previously prohibited by the Missouri Compromise. Nebraska was spared the bulk of the violence experienced in Kansas because it sought to be a non-slave state. The first settlers to arrive in Kansas were small midwestern farmers and non-slave owners from the Upper South, with neither group being interested in slavery. Few settlers in Kansas were slave owners; yet, pro-slavery advocates were determined to make Kansas a slave state.
Election Fraud in Kansas
On March 30th, 1855, hundreds of heavily armed Missouri residents crossed the Kansas border to exploit a legal loophole in Kansas residency law. The Missourians then proceeded to vote illegally in the first territorial election, stuffing ballot boxes with hundreds of fake ballots. Their efforts resulted in the successful election of a majority pro-slavery legislature. This pro-slavery legislature immediately passed several harsh anti-abolitionist laws, the most notable being a capital offense for the possession of anti-slavery literature. A group of abolitionists formed their own government in Lawrence, Kansas, and was denounced by U.S. President Franklin Pierce who called it an illegitimate, outlaw regime.
The Sacking of Lawrence
On May 21st, 1856, 800 southerners crossed into Lawrence, setting fires to various buildings and destroying an abolitionist newspaper. There were no deaths reported in this attack, which the Republican press labeled the “Sacking of Lawrence.” This violent attack from pro-slavery forces officially started the proxy guerilla war between North and South.
Canning on the Senate Floor
On May 19th & 20th 1856, Senator Charles Sumner (Republican-Massachusetts) gave a speech entitled “The Crimes against Kansas.” In this speech, Sumner criticized co-authors of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, senators Stephen Douglas (Democrat-Illinois) and Andrew Picken Butler (Democrat- South Carolina), stating that they were responsible for the severity of the violence in Kansas. On May 22nd, 1856, Butler’s cousin, Representative Preston Brooks (Democrat-South Carolina), beat Sumner with a cane, rendering Sumner unconscious for the remarks made against Butler.
Pottawatomie Creek Massacre
The most horrific incident to occur during Bleeding Kansas happened on the night of May 24th-25th 1856. John Brown, well-known and god-fearing anti-slavery fanatic, along with his five sons, drug five slavery-supporting southerners out of their houses along Pottawatomie Creek in eastern Kansas, cutting them down in the night.
The Pottawatomie Rifles was a militia group of about a hundred abolitionist led by John Brown’s son John Brown Jr. The other four of Brown’s sons were also a part of the group. John Brown himself did not claim to be apart of the Pottawatomie Rifles. None of the people that were apart of the Pottawatomie Rifles were Native American.
Editors , Battlefields.org. “Bleeding Kansas.” American Battlefield Trust, March 25, 2021. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/bleeding-kansas.
Reece, Richard. Bleeding Kansas. Minneapolis, MN: ABDO Pub. Co., 2012.