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Bleeding Kansas

As the United States continued its westward expansion, the land in Kansas became more valuable as a route to the West and as a place for settlement. The United States Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. This act gave settlers the right to decide if their territory would become a free or slave state.

The first territorial capitol of Kansas was located at Fort Riley. The first territorial governor was Andrew Reeder, who served from July 1854 to July 1855. Numerous other territorial governors followed him until Kansas became a state in 1861. Isaac Goodnow came to Kansas during this time. He was one of the founders of Manhattan and Kansas State University, and played a major role in the development of the educational system in Kansas.

The first territorial capitol
building at Fort Riley

Most of the white settlers who came to Kansas following the Kansas -Nebraska act were looking for better economic opportunities. Many came from Missouri, as well as the Mid-Atlantic, Ohio River Valley and upper South regions. They found a land with extreme weather conditions and many left after suffering through the hot summers, harsh winters and a drought in 1859-60. Those who remained found themselves involved in the controversy over whether Kansas would become a free or slave state.

The decision by Congress to let the settlers of the territory decide whether Kansas would be a free or slave state created hard feelings between antislavery and proslavery groups in Kansas. There were many bloody clashes between these groups, and the phrase "Bleeding Kansas" was coined for this time in Kansas' history. Antislavery proponents became known as Free Staters. Because Missouri was a slave state, it became a base for raids into Kansas, and proslavery proponents acquired the name Border Ruffians. One of these raids was on the town of Lawrence in 1856, during which part of the town was burned. 

As a result of the attack on Lawrence, John Brown led an antislavery group and attacked the town of Pottawatomie Creek, killing five proslavery men. Brown advocated the complete elimination of slavery in the United States. He had moved to Kansas in 1855 to be near his sons who lived there. He led many raids into Missouri, attacking proslavery homesteads and freeing slaves. He was eventually hanged for murder in Virginia in 1859, after attacking the armory at Harper's Ferry.

Over the next three years, skirmishes escalated between proslavery and antislavery groups. These included an attack on the town of Osawatomie, the home of John Brown and his sons' and daughters' families. The town was ransacked and burned, and Brown and his men were forced to flee.

In 1857, the territorial capitol was located at Lecompton. In an election that was highly suspect, a legislature was formed with a proslavery majority. This legislature passed the Lecompton Constitution, which would have allowed slavery in Kansas once it became a state. Free Staters refused to vote on the constitution and the United States Congress wouldn't approve it. In 1858, five men were murdered near the Marais des Cygnes River and the town of Trading Post by antislavery proponents in what became known as the Marais des Cygnes massacre .

Constitution Hall, Lecompton

In 1859, the Free Staters gained a majority at the state Constitutional Convention and passed the Wyandotte Constitution, which forbade slavery in Kansas. Clarina Nichols was the only woman allowed to be part of the convention. Although she was not allowed to vote, she was influential in obtaining some provisions for women's rights in the new state. On January 19, 1861, Kansas became the 34th state in the union. Charles Robinson of Lawrence was the state's first governor.

Additional Resources

bulletRead a speech by Abraham Lincoln on the consequences of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
bulletFound out more about Territorial Kansas.
bulletRead about the Kansas Territory: Crucible of American Experience
bulletLearn more about Bleeding Kansas.
bulletRead first hand accounts of life in Kansas during this era at the Kansas Collection - Bleeding Kansas.
bulletRead more about events in Kansas leading up to the Civil War.
bulletFind out more about the origins of Kansas State Government.

Study Guide Questions

  1. How did the Kansas-Nebraska act affect the beginning of state government in Kansas?
  2. Where was the first territorial capitol and who was the first territorial governor?
  3. Why was this period known as the "Bleeding Kansas" era?
  4. Who was John Brown?
  5. Why was the Lecompton constitution considered invalid?
  6. What role did Clarina Nichols have at the Constitutional Convention?
  7. When did Kansas become a state and who was the first governor?
  8. Who was allowed to vote in Kansas according to the first state constitution?

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