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Border Disputes and Warfare

     The U.S. Congress established Kansas Territory in 1854. Many people who settled in Kansas had strong opinions about slavery. Some supported the use of slaves in the new territory. Others opposed the idea. Some were abolitionists who wanted to end slavery wherever it existed. These differences of opinion led to heated debates and even battles in Kansas Territory. The conflicts in Kansas and how they were reported in eastern newspapers contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War.

     The first election held in Kansas Territory took place on November 29, 1854, to elect a delegate to Congress. The election, however, was contested because large numbers of pro-slavery Missourians had crossed the border to vote. It has been estimated that 1,729 out of 2,833 votes were cast illegally. The same "influx" of voters occurred during the election of members for the first territorial legislature held March 30, 1855. Andrew Reeder, the territorial governor, declared the results void only in the six districts that filed protests, but in the process he alienated proslavery inhabitants as well as the more extreme free staters.

     In July 1855, President Franklin Pierce dismissed Reeder as governor and replaced him with Wilson Shannon. Shannon's term was marked by much of the violence that occurred during the territorial period, although some violence including incidents of "tarring and feathering" had occurred under Reeder. The first major incident during Shannon's tenure was the "Wakarusa War" that began on November 21, 1855, when Charles W. Dow, a free stater, was killed by Franklin Coleman, a proslavery supporter. When a friend of Dow's, Jacob Branson, was arrested for attending a free state meeting, a group of antislavery supporters rescued him and took him to Lawrence. The proslavery Sheriff Samuel Jones of Douglas County asked Governor Shannon for assistance in dealing with this "lawless action." Free state militia arrived to defend Lawrence while proslavery forces gathered east of the city. After a week long siege, a truce was negotiated and the forces disbanded.

     On May 21, 1856, the "sack of Lawrence" took place. Sheriff Jones destroyed two Lawrence newspaper offices and the Free State Hotel, acting on the authority of a proslavery grand jury indictment that declared them nuisances that might be removed. He also broke into several stores and burned the home of Charles and Sara Robinson.

     John Brown, a radical abolitionist, made his presence in Kansas known a few days later when he led four of his sons and three others in killing five proslavery men near Dutch Henry's crossing on Pottawatomie Creek in Franklin County. Brown, who had come to Kansas in 1855, used religious and moral reasons to justify his actions. By 1859 Brown had left Kansas, but in the meantime, he had taken part in the Battle of Black Jack on June 2, 1856, and led free staters in defending the town of Osawatomie from a proslavery attack in August 1856.

     The Pottawatomie Massacre, as the Brown killings were known, aroused emotions and distrust on both sides. It was denounced by Southern and even some Northern newspapers. Unable to stabilize the situation, Shannon resigned as governor in August 1856.

     Meanwhile, Congress, concerned over events in Kansas, appointed a three-member commission (two free staters and one pro-slavery supporter) to investigate the Kansas troubles and to gather evidence relating to election fraud. The group was in the territory during the spring of 1856 and listened to testimony from over three hundred witnesses in Lecompton, Lawrence, Leavenworth, and Tecumseh. The committee presented its 1,338-page report in July, with the proslavery member filing a minority report disputing the majority's claims of fraudulent elections.

     John W. Geary, who arrived in the territory in September of 1856, replaced Shannon as territorial governor. He found relatively chaotic conditions with armed bands traveling around the countryside and running settlers out of their cabins. He also found a number of free state prisoners under arrest in Lecompton. Geary was determined to restore order and sought to disband the various militia groups, including a sizable free state force under James H. Lane at Lawrence. In addition, he issued a proclamation calling for all free male citizens between eighteen and forty-five to enroll in the territorial militia instead of in the unofficial units. When the militias failed to disband, Geary called upon U.S. troops to persuade both factions to do so. Though Geary was able to alleviate tensions, he met with hostility when he tried to reform the court system. His life was threatened, and he was unable to get backing from Washington. These events convinced Geary to resign in March 1857.

     The last major violent incident, known as the Marais des Cygnes Massacre, occurred on May 19, 1858. Proslavery Missourians abducted eleven free state supporters and shot them in a ravine approximately four miles northeast of Trading Post in Linn County. Five were killed, five were wounded, and one escaped injury by acting dead. Free state forces followed the attackers into Missouri but were unable to capture them. The incident received a great deal of attention in the eastern press and served to increase tensions at the national level. In Kansas, however, even the proslavery newspapers condemned the massacre. Hopes for peace were furthered when another confrontation, known as the Battle of the Spurs, occurred near Holton but ended without violence. John Brown was involved, and this "battle" marked his last efforts in Kansas. Brown and some of his supporters made a raid into Missouri and freed ten slaves. They were taking the slaves to Canada when a posse from Missouri pursued them. The posse caught up with the fugitives near Holton. Amid confusion, no shots were fired and the posse quickly retreated.

     By 1859 the tensions between pro- and antislavery forces had diminished. Some residents were involved in efforts to draft the Wyandotte Constitution, under which Kansas entered the Union in 1861. Many settlers, however, just worked to improve their farms and build communities.


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