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Border War Timeline, 1854 - 1861: "Bleeding Kansas"

Legacies of the Civil War.

Border War Timeline, 1854 - 1861: "Bleeding Kansas"

On one side of the border lay Missouri, a slave state "island" in a sea of Free states. On the other side was the Kansas frontier, an official territory open to settlement. Laws regarding slavery in this new land left its legality up to popular sovereignty. Pro-slavery citizens and abolitionists turn the Kansas Territory into a battleground, wanting to force the issue of slavery's spread beyond the intense debate occurring in the east. This "Border War" became so hostile that New York Tribune newspaperman Horace Greeley dubbed the newly formed territory "Bleeding Kansas." The violence here captured the Nation’s attention and became one of the significant catalysts of the Civil War.


May 30: President Franklin Pierce signs the Kansas-Nebraska Act leaving the legality of slavery to the will of the people in Kansas Territory. 

July-August: Assuming that pro-slavery Missourians and Southerners would flock there, Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society sends over 200 anti-slavery "Free-Staters" to Kansas Territory. The city of Lawrence is founded as the center of anti-slavery sentiment.

October 7: First Territorial Governor Andrew Reeder, an appointee of President Franklin Pierce, arrives in Leavenworth and soon schedules elections.

Election tampering was rampant during 1854 and 1855 in Kansas Territory. Pro-slavery Missourians crossed state lines to intimidate citizens and fraudulently cast votes. As a result a pro-slavery legislature (known as the "Bogus Legislature") was elected, who promptly removed Free-State politicians, and even Gov. Reeder, from office.


March-July: After writing slavery into the constitution, the Bogus Legislature moves the Kansas Territorial Capital closer to Missouri, first to Lecompton and then to the Shawnee Methodist Mission in Fairway, where they have an ally in Rev. Thomas Johnson.

September 5: In defiance of the Bogus Legislature, anti-slavery citizens form the Free-State Party, electing delegates and Charles Robinson as Governor.

Historian Jeremy Neely discusses the Free-Staters and the Bogus Legislature (1:53)

October 23: Free-state delegates meet in Topeka to draft the first Kansas state constitution, which prohibits slavery in the Kansas Territory.

Refusing to acknowledge the opposing side's governance, violence soon begins between so-called Free-Staters and Border Ruffians.

November 21: A pro-slavery supporter kills Free-Stater Charles Dow, who is considered the first casualty of the Border War.

December 6: A pro-slavery supporter kills Free-Stater Thomas W. Barber.


April: A three-man congressional committee finds previous Kansas elections to be fraudulent, pronouncing that the Free-State government represents the will of the majority. Despite this, the pro-slavery legislature remains in power with tacit approval from President Pierce who considers the Free-State legislature to be illegitimate.

May 10: Free-state party Governor Charles Robinson is arrested in Lexington, Missouri for undermining the sovereignty of the pro-slavery government.

May 21: Douglas County, Kansas Sheriff Samuel Jones and a group of 700-1,500 Missourians and Kansas pro-slavery supporters attack Lawrence, destroying the Free-State Hotel, two newspaper print shops, and killing one man.

Independent historian Katie Armitage talks about the sack of Lawrence (3:38)

May 22: Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts is beaten on U.S. Senate floor in retribution for his scathing "Crime Against Kansas" speech. Sumner and his attacker, Preston Brooks of South Carolina, are hailed as heroes by their respective sides.

May 24: A group led by John Brown kills five pro-slavery settlers along Pottawatomie Creek near Osawatomie, an event known as the "Pottawatomie Massacre."

June 2: John Brown leads a Free-State militia attack on a pro-slavery militia led by Henry Clay Pate encamped along the Santa Fe Trail near Baldwin City. The Battle of Black Jack becomes the first proper battle of the Border War, pitting two equal sides against one another.

June 4-5: A loose-knit group, including John Brown's party, attempts to repossess supplies taken during the Sack of Lawrence. The Battle of Franklin ensues and the Free-Staters manage to escape with arms and other items.

Jeremy Neely on John Brown (1:56)

July 4: The U.S. Army moves in to disperse the Free-State legislature, which is meeting in Topeka.

August 11: A pro-slavery supporter kills reportedly unarmed Free-Stater, David Starr Hoyt, enraging his allies.

August 16:  Fifty Free-Staters led by Captain Samuel Walker overtake 34 defenders at the Battle of Fort Titus near Lecompton, taking supplies and freeing slaves.

August 30: Between 250-400 pro-slavery Missourians led by John Reid clash with 40 Free-Staters led by John Brown at the Battle of Osawatomie on the banks of the Marais des Cygnes River. The town is captured, looted, and burned.

Brown's bravery and military shrewdness in the face of overwhelming odds brings national attention and the nickname "Osawatomie Brown" is given to him.


September: The Territorial Legislature returns to Lecompton and drafts a second pro-slavery constitution with Missourian John Calhoun presiding. 

October 5-6: Free-Staters elected to Territorial Legislature.

December 21: The pro-slavery Lecompton constitution is approved with Free-Staters abstaining.


January 4: The pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution is rejected in a second vote, with Free-Staters participating.

March-April: President Buchanan supports Lecompton Constitution which passes 33 to 25 in U.S. Senate, but defeated 120-112 in U.S. House of Representatives.

March-May: Free Staters draft an anti-slavery constitution that is ratified by Kansas voters but rejected by the U.S. Congress.

May 19: A Pro-slavery militia from Bates County, Missouri round up and kill five citizens at the Marais des Cygnes Massacre in Linn County Kansas.

August 2: The pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution is rejected in a third vote with Free-Staters again participating. The majority is substantial: 1,788 in favor and 11,300 against.

December 20: John Brown leads a raid into Missouri, freeing eleven slaves and escorting them north on the Underground Railroad to Kansas.


January 25: Father and son John and Charles Doy are arrested in Kansas and taken to Weston, Missouri for trial. Doy is sentenced to 5 years in prison for "negro stealing." Kansans break Doy out of a St. Joseph jail later in the year.

January 31: A Federal posse reach John Brown and slaves he is leading to freedom near Holton, Kansas, but flee when confronted. This episode garners the tongue-in-cheek name, "Battle of the Spurs" since no weapons were discharged.  

February: John Brown leaves Kansas.

July: The legislature writes the last of four state constitutions, which allows Kansas to enter the union as a free state. Kansas voters ratify the Wyandotte Constitution by nearly a 2 to 1 margin -10,421 to 5,530 later in October.

October 16 – 18: John Brown attempts to seize the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia in hopes of instigating an uprising by slaves.

December 1: A campaigning Abraham Lincoln visits Kansas for a week.

December 2: John Brown is hanged for treason at Charlestown, Virginia for initiating the Harpers Ferry raid.

Winter: Joseph Shelby assembles the Lafayette County cavalry to protect Missourians from Kansas militias.


November 6: Abraham Lincoln is elected 16th President of the United States.

December 10: William Quantrill joins with five abolitionists to free slaves from the Morgan Walker farm in Jackson County, Missouri. During the raid, Quantrill switches sides and allows his cohorts to be ambushed and killed.

December 20: South Carolina is first of seven states to secede from the Union by Feb. 1861.


January 29: Kansas admitted to the Union as a Free State.

March 26: The first state legislature convenes in Topeka.

April 12: The Civil War begins. 

Watch UMKC History professor Diane Mutti-Burke discuss commemoration of the Border War.

Franklin Pierce.

President Franklin Pierce, who signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-68949.

Samuel Reeder.

Artist's depiction of Governor Samuel Reeder dressed as a woodcutter so that he could pass unnoticed into safe territory., Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Lecompton Hall.

Lecompton Hall, pictured here in 1903. The Bogus Legislature established this site as Territorial Capitol for a time, where they went about the business of making slavery permissable in Kansas., Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Samuel Jones.

Samuel Jones, sherrif of Douglas County, helped orchestrate the sacking of Lawrence in 1856., Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Sack of Lawrence.

Artist's rendering of pro-slavery fighters attacking the Free State Hotel during the sack of Lawrence., Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner decried the sack of Lawrence in his speech 'The Crime Against Kansas" and was savagely beaten on the floor of the U.S. Senate for it., Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

John Brown.

Portrait of John Brown, taken while active in Kansas, 1856-57., Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Marais des Cygnes massacre.

Drawing of the Marais des Cygnes massacre which received national notoriety for the brutal slaying of five free state men., Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Title page of Reign of Terror.

Title page of a Free-State publication, which excoriates President Pierce and proslavery factions for terrorizing citizens of the Territory., Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Survivors of sack of Lawrence.

Photograph of the remaining survivors of the sack of Lawrence, taken between 1890 and 1900., Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

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