Bleeding Kansas


The term “Bleeding Kansas” refers to the violence and bloodshed that occurred in the Kansas Territory during the 1850s.

John Brown, Abolitionist

Portrait of John Brown, a leading operative in Bleeding Kansas who was hanged in 1859 for leading a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Image Source: Library of Congress.


As the United States expanded west to fulfill its “Manifest Destiny” during the mid-nineteenth century, settlers and entrepreneurs began champing at the bit to occupy the portion of the Louisiana Purchase north of Missouri. By 1850, “Kansas Fever” was rampant. Before white settlers could inhabit the area on a large scale, however, they needed to organize a territorial government to displace the native population, survey the land, and enact regulations for land ownership.

Congress considered petitions to establish a territory west of the Missouri River as early as 1851, but it took no action on the proposals. In 1853, Southern Senators refused to support a measure to organize the territory because it included a ban on slavery as required by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. On January 23, 1854, the U.S. Senate Committee on Territories, chaired by Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, submitted a bill, calling for the organization of two territories separated at the 40th parallel: Nebraska to the north and Kansas to the south. The new measure also stipulated that the section of the Missouri Compromise prohibiting slavery in the Louisiana Purchase north of the southern border of Missouri was “inoperative and void” because it had been “superseded” by the popular sovereignty provisions of the Compromise of 1850.

The Senate debated the revised bill for nearly six weeks. William Seward of New York and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, two unabashed abolitionists, led the opposition to the measure. Beyond their moral objections to extending slavery into the new territories, Seward and Sumner argued that Douglas and his followers had no authority to renege on the Missouri Compromise. The abolition of slavery above the southern border of Missouri, they argued, was the condition to which the South agreed in return for admitting Missouri to the Union as a slave state. Despite their objections, on March 4, 1854, the Senate voted to adopt the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The House approved the measure on May 22. President Franklin Pierce signed the bill into law on May 30, 1854.

Instead of resolving the slavery issue in the West, as Douglas had predicted, the Kansas-Nebraska Act kindled the opposite reaction. As settlers populated the area, land disputes, personal feuds, and politics fueled discord. The most heated political clashes centered on the extension of slavery in the West. Political bickering turned into bloodshed when backers of both sides of the issue hastened to the new territory to influence the future status of slavery in Kansas. Horace Greeley, the publisher of the New York Tribune, reportedly coined the term “Bleeding Kansas” to describe the escalating violence in the Kansas Territory. The turbulence in Bleeding Kansas was relatively short but intense.

Almost immediately after approving the Kansas-Nebraska Act on May 30, 1854, President Pierce nominated Andrew H. Reeder as the first governor of the Territory of Kansas. The United States Senate approved Reeder’s appointment on June 30, 1854, and Reeder took the oath of office in Washington, DC on July 7. Before Reeder reached Leavenworth to assume his post on October 7, two groups of New Englanders, organized by the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society, arrived in Kansas and founded the town of Lawrence. At roughly the same time, pro-slavery settlers, mostly from Missouri, moved into southern Kansas and founded the towns of Leavenworth and Atchison.

Soon after Reeder’s arrival, the territory scheduled an election for November 29, 1854, to choose a non-voting representative to Congress. On election day, hundreds of Missouri Border Ruffians crossed into Kansas to intimidate Free-State voters and illegally stuff the ballot box for pro-slavery candidate John W. Whitfield, who won by a large margin.

Border Ruffians flooded the territory again on March 30, 1855, when voters elected the first territorial legislature. When officials tabulated the results, they discovered that the number of votes for pro-slavery candidates was nearly double the population of the territory. The results were so tainted that many Kansans referred to the elected body as the Bogus Legislature. When Governor Reeder attempted to intervene on behalf of the Free-Staters, President Piece replaced him with former Ohio Governor Wilson Shannon.

When the Bogus Legislature met in August 1855, the members selected the pro-slavery town of Lecompton as the territorial capital. One month later, Free-Staters established a rival government at Topeka and soon framed an anti-slavery constitution. During the next three years, partisans of the opposing governments perpetrated several notorious acts of lawlessness that branded the area as Bleeding Kansas.

Wakarusa War (November 21 to December 9, 1855)

On November 21, 1855, Franklin Coleman, who supported slavery, murdered Charles Dow, who opposed slavery, over a land quarrel several miles south of Lawrence. After Jacob Branson, who owned the property in dispute, discovered Dow’s body, rumors quickly spread that the murder was politically motivated. Fearing that violence might erupt, Douglas County Sheriff Samuel J. Jones, a staunch champion of slavery, led a posse to the area and arrested Branson on November 26, for disturbing the peace. Meanwhile, Sheriff Jones let Dow’s murderer, Coleman, go free.

When word of Sheriff Jones’s action spread, residents formed their own posse, rescued Branson, and took him to the Free-State capital at Lawrence. Jones followed, after inviting Missourians to cross the border and join his posse in the pursuit. He also convinced Governor Shannon to mobilize the territorial militia to help him recover Branson and to arrest his rescuers. As Jones’ posse approached Lawrence, Free-Staters (also known as Jayhawkers), including ardent abolitionist John Brown, rushed to the area and fortified the town.

Tensions heightened when a pro-slavery patrol exchanged gunfire with a band of Jayhawkers on December 6, killing Thomas Barber. Governor Shannon interceded and began a series of independent negotiations with each side. On December 8, cooler heads prevailed, and Shannon mediated a truce that diffused the situation. The accord prevented bloodshed, but it did not settle the issue. The Free-Staters did not deliver up Branson, nor did they acknowledge the legitimacy of the Bogus Legislature.

The Sacking of Lawrence (May 21, 1856)

In April 1856, Sheriff Jones returned to Lawrence, with warrants to arrest the Free-Staters who had taken part in freeing Jacob Branson. On April 23, an unknown assailant shot Jones in the back but did not kill him. After recovering from his wound, the sheriff returned to Lawrence on May 21, backed up by nearly 800 pro-slavery partisans. Jones positioned a canon on Mount Oread overlooking the town and blocked all the roads leading into Lawrence. His men then advanced and sacked the town, destroying the offices of two anti-slavery newspapers, shelling the Free State Hotel, and looting homes and businesses. Astonishingly, only one person died during the onslaught, a pro-slavery advocate killed by falling masonry.

Pottawatomie Massacre (May 24, 1856)

On October 7, 1855, John Brown joined five of his sons, who had settled along the Osawatomie River in Kansas during the previous year. When word reached Brown of the sacking of Lawrence, he sprang into action. Appointing himself captain of anti-slavery forces, Brown led four of his sons and two accomplices on a mission of revenge.

On the night of May 24, 1856, Brown and his followers raided the homes of three families living near Pottawatomie Creek. They dragged five unarmed men and boys, believed to be slavery supporters, from their homes and brutally hacked them to death. It is probable that Brown did not directly engage in the killings. Still, his leadership and participation in the events aroused personal commendation from abolitionists and condemnation from slaveholders. On a broader scale, many Southerners mistook the approval that Brown received for his militant actions as reflective of the beliefs of many Northerners, further escalating sectional discord in the United States.

Battle of Black Jack (June 2, 1856)

In response to the Pottawatomie Massacre, U.S. Deputy Marshal Robert L. Pate organized a posse of nearly fifty men to capture John Brown and his followers. Toward the end of May, Pate’s men arrested two of Brown’s sons (John and Jason) and clapped them in irons. Pate and his men then went on a rampage, raiding the towns of Palmyra and Prairie City. When Brown learned Pate held his sons, he vowed to set them free.

On Monday, June 24, 1856, Brown and roughly twenty-seven men surprised Pate’s band of nearly eighty men, encamped near Black Jack Creek. After firing three volleys, Brown and his men advanced on the camp. During a gun battle that lasted two or three hours, most of Pate’s men escaped. The remaining men, including Pate, raised a flag of truce after Brown’s gunmen pinned them down. Brown ordered a ceasefire but refused any terms other than unconditional surrender. With no hope of escape, Pate and twenty-two members of his band submitted.

Besides his prisoners, Brown captured over twenty horses and several wagonloads of supplies, including arms and ammunition. Some historians consider the Battle of Black Jack to be the first unofficial battle of the American Civil War.

Battle of Franklin (June 4 – 5, 1856)

Following their victory at the Battle of Black Jack, John Brown and his followers set out to recover supplies confiscated by pro-slavery forces during the sacking of Lawrence. On the night of June 4, 1856, Brown led a group of raiders into Franklin, a town where pro-slavery forces often gathered when they crossed into Kansas from Missouri. Brown planned to recover the supplies while pro-slavery forces slept, but the poorly planned mission went awry, and a firefight erupted when residents detected the Free-Staters. During the action, Brown’s men broke into a storehouse and seized a large volume of guns, ammunition, and other provisions. As dawn approached, the Jayhawkers disengaged and departed with their booty. During the brief engagement, four pro-slavery defenders suffered serious injuries, one of whom later died. Only one Free-Stater suffered injuries.

Destruction of Fort Saunders (August 15, 1856)

During the summer of 1856, pro-slavery partisans used a log cabin known as Fort Saunders as a base of operations in Douglas County. On August 15, 1856, James H. Lane led a band of Jayhawkers on a raid against the pro-slavery stronghold in retaliation for the sacking of Lawrence. Pro-slavery forces occupying the structure surrendered without firing a shot. Lane’s men then burned the cabin to the ground.

Destruction of Fort Titus (August 16, 1856)

Another pro-slavery base of operations in Kansas was Fort Titus, about nine miles west of Lawrence, near Lecompton. Colonel Henry Titus owned the structure, which was little more than a fortified cabin. At dawn on August 15, 1856, nearly four hundred Jayhawkers, seeking revenge for the sacking of Lawrence, surrounded the cabin. They then shelled the structure with cannonballs forged from one of the Free-State newspaper presses destroyed at Lawrence. During the encounter, the Jayhawkers killed one man and wounded six others, including Colonel Titus. The destruction of Fort Titus completed the Free-Staters’ goal to rid the area around Lawrence of pro-slavery strongholds.

Battle of Middle Creek (August 28, 1856)

In late August 1856, nearly two hundred Border Ruffians marched into Kansas from Missouri and established a camp on Middle Creek in Anderson County. When a contingent of approximately 150 Free-Staters in the area learned of their presence on August 27, they set off in that direction. On the morning of August 28, the Jayhawkers surprised the Ruffians during breakfast. Following a brief firefight, the Free-Staters routed the Missourians and sent them fleeing to their home state. Arriving back in Missouri, the chagrined Ruffians reported that 10,000 Jayhawkers had attacked them. During the engagement, the Jayhawkers took fifteen prisoners and mortally wounded one man.

Battle of Osawatomie (August 30, 1856)

Following their successful raids on pro-slavery strongholds in eastern Kansas, John Brown and his followers returned to their base of operations at Osawatomie. Seeking retaliation, John W. Reid led several hundred Missouri Border Ruffians into Kansas in late August. As Reid and his men approached Osawatomie on the morning of August 30, 1856, they encountered John Brown’s son Frederick and murdered him.

Alerted to the approaching band of Ruffians, Brown hastily assembled approximately forty of his followers on the south bank of the Marais des Cygnes River. Taking a defensive position in a wooded area, Brown and his men hoped to turn the attention of the Ruffians away from Osawatomie long enough for the residents to escape.

Armed with a cannon, Reid accepted the challenge and ordered his men to strafe the woods with grapeshot. The Free-Staters responded with out-of-range and ineffectual rifle fire. Following a few more rounds of shelling, the Ruffians charged the woods. Running low on ammunition, the Jayhawkers retreated across the river where they reassembled, hoping to draw the Missourians farther away from Osawatomie.

Reid did not take the bait. Instead, he ordered his men to disengage and to enter the town. The Ruffians then pillaged Osawatomie, burning every building other than a few that harbored terrified women and children. When the destruction ended, the looters left town with six prisoners and several wagonloads of personal property stolen from private homes.

The Battle of Osawatomie was the largest armed conflict to take place in Bleeding Kansas. The Ruffians suffered two casualties, and they killed five or six Jayhawkers during the engagement. After Eastern newspapers published accounts of the event, many of John Brown’s supporters began referring to him as “Osawatomie Brown.”

Battle of Slough Creek (September 11, 1856)

On the morning of September 10, 1856, three small companies of Free-Staters commanded by Colonel James A. Harvey established a camp six to eight miles east of Oskaloosa, Kansas. That night, Harvey learned that a band of nearly thirty pro-slavery South Carolinians had bivouacked nearby. Hardy quickly made preparations to advance on the intruders. At approximately 3 a.m. on September 11, Hardy’s men surrounded the South Carolinians. After a brief firefight, the Southerners surrendered. No one perished during the engagement.

Battle of Hickory Point (September 13 – 14, 1856)

During the turbulent summer of 1856, President Franklin Pierce lost confidence in Territorial Governor Wilson Shannon and replaced him with former San Francisco Mayor John W. Geary. Geary arrived at Lecompton on September 10 and issued a ceasefire declaration aimed at curbing the escalating violence in the territory.

On the next day, Free-State partisan James H. Lane learned that a band of approximately one hundred Missouri Border Ruffians and forty South Carolinians commanded by Captain H. A. Lowe had encamped at Hickory Point. Unaware of Governor Geary’s ceasefire decree, Lane’s Jayhawkers attacked the pro-slavery forces.

Unable to dislodge the Ruffians, Lane sent a request to Topeka for reinforcements. Upon receiving Lane’s request, Colonel James A. Harvey struck out for Hickory Point, leading nearly 100 Jayhawkers. In the meantime, Lane learned of Geary’s ceasefire proclamation and headed for Topeka expecting to intercept his reinforcements on the way. The two forces traveled on different routes, however, and bypassed each other.

Harvey’s men arrived at Hickory Point on September 14, with a cannon in tow. They soon began firing on the Southerners, who had taken refuge in log structures in the town. When the cannonade did not dislodge Lowe’s men, Lane tried unsuccessfully to burn them out. Eventually, the Ruffians raised a white flag and negotiated a settlement that required them to leave the area.

During the two-day engagement, the Free-Staters killed one pro-slavery man and injured four others. Several Jayhawkers sustained injuries during the hostilities.

Marais des Cygnes Massacre (May 19, 1858)

By 1858, James Montgomery became a de facto leader of the Free-State partisans in Kansas. In May 1858, he led a band of Jayhawkers into Linn County and forced pro-slave supporter Charles Hamilton to abandon his home in the Marais des Cygnes River Valley and depart for Missouri.

Once he was safe across the border, Hamilton quickly devised a scheme to reap his revenge. After recruiting a band of nearly twenty-five Border Ruffians, Hamilton returned to the village of Trading Post, Kansas on May 19, 1858, and captured eleven men suspected of harboring Free-State sentiments. Hamilton then marched his prisoners to an isolated ravine near the Missouri border. Forcing his unarmed captors to form a line, Hamilton ordered his men to fire on them point-blank. Incredibly, six of the prisoners survived by feigning death; the other five were not as fortunate.

The wife of one victim discovered the dead and wounded soon after the shootings. The word of the massacre spread quickly, and Montgomery led a band of Jayhawkers on an unsuccessful foray into Missouri to capture the murderers. Hamilton, who later served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, escaped punishment for his crime.

Montgomery’s Raid (December 16, 1858)

On December 16, 1858, James Montgomery and a band of Jayhawkers plundered the town of Fort Scott, Kansas. Formerly a U.S. Army installation, the town was a pro-slavery community near the Missouri border. Montgomery’s men set fire to the Western Hotel, looted the general store, and killed a resident named John Little.


Despite the death and destruction that stigmatizes Kansas territorial history, recent research suggests that partisans on both sides of the slavery issue may have exaggerated accounts of the violence to publicize their agendas. Records document 157 homicides in Kansas between 1854 and 1861. Contemporary accounts indicate that slavery-related turmoil provoked only fifty-six of those—approximately eight deaths per year. By comparison, during the 1850s, Los Angeles County, California experienced homicide rates ranging from 110 to 414 deaths per 100,000 people. Much of the hysteria engendered by the turbulence in Kansas was a product of sensationalized reports published by Northern and Southern newspapers intended to foment the passions of pro- and anti-slavery partisans. Consequently, the politicized accounts of violence that occurred in Bleeding Kansas intensified the sectional polarization that eventually spawned the Civil War.