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Bleeding Kansas

Some of the early settlers in Kansas Territory were involved in the politics and guerrilla warfare concerning whether or not Kansas should enter the Union as a free or slave state.  However, many of the people who settled in Kansas Territory came for land and business opportunities.  All settlers in Kansas Territory endured the hardships found on any frontier.  They raised crops to feed themselves and their livestock.  They built houses and stores and established schools and churches.  The weather was often a factor, and a large number of settlers left the territory after the bitter winter of 1856.

However, because Kansas Territory became a place for guerrilla warfare as the debate over the expansion of slavery led to violence in Kansas, the settlers involved in this debate receive the most attention.  Events in Kansas and along the Kansas-Missouri border were part of the national conflict that ultimately led to the Civil War.  Between 1854 and 1861, 56 people on both sides of the slavery question were killed in various conflicts.

Even though the Kansas Nebraska Act "opened" Kansas Territory for settlement in 1854, a number of people already lived in the area.  This included several tribes of Native Americans.  Plains Indian tribes--the Kansas, Pawnees, and Osages--lived in and moved across Kansas, depending on the season.  After 1830, about twenty tribes who lived east of the Mississippi River were resettled west of Missouri under the federal government's Indian removal policy.  In 1853, the government began negotiations to move these tribes again.  By the end of 1854, the various tribes had ceded much of the land in the Kansas and Nebraska territories to the federal government through various treaties and they were relocated to the area that became Oklahoma.

Even before Kansas Territory was opened for settlement by non-Indians in the spring of 1854, groups with varied political interests had formed to encourage settlement. The New England Emigrant Aid Society (later Company) and other groups formed to promote and support free state settlement, while Missourians with an immediate stake in the outcome poured across their border with Kansas.  The first organized group of New Englanders arrived in the territory in July 1854 and founded the city of Lawrence, making it the focal point of abolitionist activity.  Before the end of the year Cyrus K. Holliday and others established the city of Topeka as another free state community.

There was also activity by pro-slavery supporters.  David Rice Atchison, Missouri's senior senator from Platte City, and brothers John H. and Benjamin F. Stringfellow, "urged their people to resist the abolitionist plot to surround their state with free territory." These men helped establish the proslavery town of Atchison.  Proslavery Missourians founded Leavenworth about the same time.

It is safe to say, despite the attention paid to the political tumult and violence known as Bleeding Kansas, that most of the people who came to Kansas Territory sought land and opportunity.  Because of long held prejudices against African Americans, it is believed that a majority of those settling in Kansas wanted it to be free from, not only the institution of slavery, but from "Negros" entirely. These settlers sought free-soil for whites only. Some Missourians may have been as concerned about preventing the establishment of a safe haven for run-away slaves on their western border as they were about having Kansas become a slave state.

In reality of course, most settlers in Kansas Territory were from states east of Kansas Territory, not New England.  The Kansas population (1860), in terms of the place of birth of residents, received its greatest contributions from Ohio (11,617), Missouri (11,356), Indiana (9,945), and Illinois (9,367), followed by Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and New York (all three over 6,000).  The territory's foreign-born population stood at roughly 12 percent, most of whom hailed from the British Isles or Germany. Racially, of course, the population was overwhelmingly white.  The 1860 census takers found only two slaves in Kansas Territory and 625 "Free Colored" residents. One hundred and eighty-nine Indians were listed in the census, 141 of whom resided in Wyandotte County.  The population was overwhelmingly rural.  The territory had only two communities that the U.S. Census Bureau classified as cities: Leavenworth with 5,000 inhabitants, which had the only telegraphic service in Kansas at the time of admission, and Atchison with 2,500 residents.  Lawrence had a substantial population (2,000) and seven other towns had over 500 inhabitants. 

The Northern states--New England, northern tier states west of New England, and Iowa--contributed 16 percent of the territory's 1860 population of 107,209, while the "lower South" contributed only 13.5 percent.  Settlers from the border states populated the territory of Kansas: northern border states, 35.3 percent; southern border states (including Missouri), 24.1; the total border state contribution was 59.4 percent.

The number of slaves in the Kansas territory was never large, but the number of "free" blacks in Kansas grew steadily.   During the territorial period, some passed through on the "Underground Railroad" though the number of slaves assisted by this secret, rather ill defined network is impossible to determine.  Regardless of the railroad's overall impact, however, a number of Kansans were involved; according to one "conductor," commenting on April 4, 1859, "nearly three hundred fugitives" had "passed through and received assistance from the abolitionists here at Lawrence" during the previous four years.  During the Civil War, hundreds of slaves fled Missouri for freedom in the Union state of Kansas.  After 1861 enslaved blacks continued to make their way across the border in even larger numbers. 

As indicated, many of the people settling in territorial Kansas came primarily for real and perceived economic opportunity.  They acquired land for farms or for businesses and homes in the new towns being established.  Most of the farm land acquired by the first settlers in Kansas Territory was claimed under the provisions of the Pre-emption Act of 1841. An individual could claim up to 160 acres of land and pay $1.25 per acre once the public land survey was completed.  After that, public land was sold through auctions until the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862.

However, bad weather, bad crops, and destruction of crops and property by the opposing forces often offset this sense of prosperity.  Several Kansas organizations and a number of groups in Northern states, such as the National Kansas Committee, sponsored efforts to raise funds and collect clothing and supplies for free state settlers.  Food and clothing were then distributed to needy settlers.

By the time Kansas entered the Union in January 1861, most settlers were focusing on making a living and raising families in their new home.

Documents and other primary sources related to the political controversy and the fighting that occurred during the territorial period are available on the following web sites:

Territorial Kansas Online (a cooperative project of the Kansas Historical Society and the Kansas Collection at the University of Kansas)

Kansas Memory, Bleeding Kansas 1854-1861, the Kansas Historical Society's digital portal.

Entry: Bleeding Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: April 2010

Date Modified: September 2011

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.