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William A. Phillips, 1824-1893

Materials relating to William A. Phillips

Photograph of William A. PhillipsBorn in Paisley, Scotland, on January 14, 1824, William Addison Phillips received his early education in his native land before immigrating with his parents to the United States in 1839. The family settled on a farm in Randolph County, Illinois, where Phillips engaged in agricultural pursuits but soon, as editor for the Chester Herald, launched a career in journalism—a career that would soon bring him to prominence in the hotly contest territory of Kansas. While continuing to work as a newspaperman from in the early 1850s, Phillips actively pursued the study of law and was admitted to the bar in 1855.

That same year Phillips decided to travel to Kansas and report upon the state of affairs in the territory. As a special correspondent to Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune newspaper, he penned several articles decrying the evils of slavery and the outrages committed by Missouri border ruffians against the free-state men of Kansas. In the words of an admirer many years later, “His matchless, and . . . flaming pen and burning words, fired the hearts of the millions all over the United States, awakening enthusiasm among the friends of freedom, and antagonism among the friends of slavery.” Those powerful anti-slavery views were fully set forth in an 1856 publication entitled The Conquest of Kansas by Missouri and her Allies that became a popular Republican campaign document in John C. Fremont’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency that autumn. Also in the spring and summer of 1856 Phillips played a key role with a special committee from the U.S. Congress that was dispatched to Leavenworth and the rest of the territory to investigate the various accusations of violence and election fraud. The Howard committee’s findings further enraged the proslavery Kansans and many Missourians determined to make Kansas a slave state

Phillips remained active in the free-state movement, and in the spring of 1858 Phillips—with four associates—founded the town of Salina (They also were instrumental in the establishment of the Salina road, which linked the central part of Kansas Territory back to the commerce-based areas located along the Missouri border.) In late April of that year, Phillips was elected one of three judges on the state supreme court under the newly adopted Leavenworth Constitution.

When war came in 1861, Phillips enlisted in the Union army. Commissioned as a major in the First Indian Home Guards, he later was promoted to the rank of colonel and commanded the Third Indian Home Guards and for a time the First Indian Brigade. While in military service he was wounded three times in battle. After the war he returned to Kansas where he acted for a time as attorney to the Cherokee Indians, served in the state legislature, and won three terms in the the U.S. House of Representatives (March 4, 1873-March 3, 1879). Phillips failed in his bid for a fourth nomination and subsequently retired from political life. He died on Thanksgiving Day, November 30, 1893, at the home of a friend, W.P. Ross, in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma.


“Col. William A Phillips.” Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, 1889-96. 5 (1896): 100-113.

Blackmar, Frank W. Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History. Chicago, IL: Standard Publishing Co., 1912.

Dictionary of American Biography. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934.

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