Bleeding Kansas

Bleeding Kansas is the term used to describe the period of violence during the settling of the Kansas territory. In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act overturned the Missouri Compromise’s use of latitude as the boundary between slave and free territory and instead, using the principle of popular sovereignty, decreed that the residents would determine whether the area became a free state or a slave state. Proslavery and free-state settlers flooded into Kansas to try to influence the decision. Violence soon erupted as both factions fought for control. Abolitionist John Brown led anti-slavery fighters in Kansas before his famed raid on Harpers Ferry.

Said to have been coined by Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, the label “Bleeding Kansas” was first fixed on that strife-ridden territory by antislavery publicists. The opening of the Kansas and Nebraska territories in 1854 under the principle of popular sovereignty provoked a protracted political crisis in both Kansas and the nation at large. Rival governments had been established in Kansas by late 1855, one backed by proslavery Missourians, the other by antislavery groups.

Although the Pierce and Buchanan administrations recognized the former, Republicans as well as a number of northern Democrats deemed it a fraud imposed by Missouri “border ruffians.” Civil conflict in Kansas accompanied the political polarization. The volatility to be expected of a frontier area was compounded by the activities of parties interested in the slavery issue–both the Missourians and the northerners who reputedly shipped free-state settlers and armaments to the region.

Hostilities between armed bands seemed imminent in late 1855 as well over a thousand Missourians crossed the border and menaced Lawrence, a free-state stronghold. On May 21, 1856, ruffians actually looted that town. In response, John Brown orchestrated the murder several days later of five proslavery settlers along Pottawatomie Creek. Four months of partisan violence and depredation ensued. Small armies ranged over eastern Kansas, clashing at Black Jack, Franklin, Fort Saunders, Hickory Point, Slough Creek, and Osawatomie, where Brown and forty others were routed in late August.

John W. Geary, appointed territorial governor in September, managed to cool the “border war” with the aid of federal troops. But Kansas had hardly ceased bleeding–as became apparent in 1858 with the Marais des Cygnes massacre of five free-state men and pronounced disorder in several counties. Although Kansans in that year once and for all rejected the proslavery Lecompton constitution, such violence continued on a smaller scale into 1861.

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!