Bleeding Kansas: Border Ruffians Bloody Fight for Slavery

| | January 29, 2021

Bleeding Kansas in Context

The outbreak of the violence that dominates the Kansas territory in 1856 comes less than two years after you ventured west. 

With nothing for you back in Ohio, you and your family had loaded up and headed into the unknown, past Mississippi and north of Missouri. 

It was a long and gruelling journey in your homemade wagon — one that cost everything you had. It forced you to follow roads you could barely see, cross swift and dangerous rivers, and ration what little food you carried just to make it through. 

Despite the land’s relentless attempts to kill you, your search was rewarded. A cherished piece of land, a home built strong and sturdy with your blood and sweat within its foundation. 

Your first small crop of corn, wheat, and potatoes, along with the milk from the two remaining cows, gets you through the harsh plain’s winter and fills you with hope for the coming spring. 

This life — it’s not much, but it works. And it’s the life you were seeking when you packed up and left everything you knew.

You’ve watched as a few more families moved into the area. You enjoyed the peace and quiet you’d had before their arrival, but these are public lands, and they’re well within their rights to start their own new lives. 

Soon after they’d set up, they came ‘round to your home asking about the upcoming elections for the territorial legislature. They mentioned a few names, some you didn’t recognize and a few you already knew. The question of slavery came up, and you responded as you always do, trying your hardest to keep a level tone of voice: 

“No. In fact, I will not be voting to elect a pro-slavery legislature. Slaves bring slaveholders, and those bring plantations — meaning all the good land will go to one wealthy man only looking to make himself wealthier, instead of us good folk trying to make a simple livin’.”

This response garnered a glare from your visitors and they made an excuse as to why they needed to leave right away. 

This position is not one you take lightly. You aren’t anti-slavery because you care about Negroes. In fact, they repulse you. But there is nothing you hate more than a slave plantation. It takes up all the land and denies honest work to honest men. Typically, you try to stay out of politics, but this is far too serious. You aren’t going to just stay quiet and let them intimidate you. 

You rise with the sun the next morning, full of pride and hope. But as you step into the morning air, those feelings are shattered in an instant. 

Within the small paddock, you spent the entire month fencing, your cows lie dead —  blood seeping into the ground from the wound carved through their throats. Beyond them, in the far-field, your knee-high corn crop has been kicked down to the ground. 

The endless hours of work you and your family had put into this land — this life — was finally starting to pay off. That dream you’d carried was on the horizon, getting closer every day, just out of reach. And now… it’s being ripped away.

But the violence doesn’t end.

Over the following weeks, you hear that the daughter of your neighbor to the south was harassed and threatened while collecting water; your new neighbors to the east had their own livestock — pigs this time — slaughtered while they slept; and worst of all, word of violent deaths at the hands of those God-forsaken pro-slavery Border Ruffians reaches you, only serving to spark more fear through your fragile community. 

The anti-slavery ‘Free Staters’ and their own militias respond with more violence, and now Kansas is bleeding.

The Roots of Bloody Kansas

Most settlers in Kansas Territory at the time 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.

Bleeding Kansas — also known as Bloody Kansas, or the Border War — much like the American Civil War, was really about slavery. Three distinct political groups occupied the Kansas territory: pro-slavery, free-staters and abolitionists. During “Bleeding Kansas”, murder, mayhem, destruction and psychological warfare became a code of conduct in Eastern Kansas territory and Western Missouri. But, at the same time, it was also about the fight for political control in the federal government, between the North and the South. The term “Bleeding Kansas” was popularized by Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune.

These two issues — slavery and control over the federal government — dominated many of the tensest conflicts that occurred in the 19th century during the period known as the Antebellum Era, with Antebellum meaning “before the war.” These conflicts, which were resolved by various compromises that did little more than kick the issue to a later moment in history, helped set the stage for the violence that would first take place during the event known as Bleeding Kansas but that also escalated to epic proportions during the American Civil War — the bloodiest conflict in US history.  Although not a direct cause of the Civil War, Bleeding Kansas represented a critical event in the coming of the Civil War.

To understand how Bleeding Kansas happened, it’s important to understand the conflicts that occurred because of the slavery question, as well as the compromises created to resolve them.

Missouri Compromise

The first of these conflicts came about in 1820 when Missouri applied to be admitted to the Union as a slave state. Northern Democrats objected to this not so much because they saw slavery as a terrible assault on all morality and humanity, but rather because it would have given the South an advantage in the Senate. It would have allowed Southern Democrats to control more of the government and enact policies that would benefit the South way more than the North — such as free trade (which was great for Southern cash crop exports) and slavery, which kept land out of the hands of regular people and gave it to disproportionately rich plantation owners 

So, Northern Democrats opposed the admission of Missouri, unless it committed to banning slavery. This caused some serious outrage (the South looked at Missouri and saw their chance to gain an edge over their Yankee counterparts, and became very committed to its cause to become a state). Those on each side became bitter opponents, divided and riled up by political vitriol. 

Both saw the issue of slavery as a symbol for their view of America. The North saw the institution’s containment as necessary for the growth of the country. Specifically the future prosperity of the free White man, free labor, and industrialization. And the South viewed its growth as the only way to protect the Dixie way of life and maintain their place of power. 

In the end, the Missouri Compromise admitted Missouri as a slave state. But, it also admitted Maine as a free state so as to keep the balance of power between North and South in the Senate. Furthermore, a line was to be drawn at the 36º 30’ parallel. Above it, slavery would not be permitted, but below it, legal slavery was to be allowed.

The Missouri Compromise diffused tensions for some time, but the core issue of slavery’s role in the future of the U.S. did not, by any means, get resolved. It would flare up again towards the middle of the century, eventually leading to the bloodshed known as Bleeding Kansas.

Compromise of 1850: Introducing Popular Sovereignty

By 1848, the US was on the brink of winning a war. And when it did, it would acquire a large swath of territory that had once belonged to Spain, and then, later, to independent Mexico — mainly that of New Mexico, Utah, and California.

READ MORE: An Introduction to New Spain and the Antlantic World

When debating a bill for funding needed to negotiate with Mexico after the Mexican-American war, David Wilmot, a representative from Pennsylvania, attached an amendment to it that conveniently banned slavery in all the territory acquired from Mexico.

The amendment, known as the Wilmot Proviso, didn’t pass the three times it was added to other bills, first in 1847 and again later, in 1848 and 1849. But it did cause a firestorm in American politics; it forced Democrats to take a stance on the issue of slavery in order to pass a standard funding bill, one that normally would have passed without delay.

Many Northern Democrats, especially those from states such as New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania — where abolitionist sentiment was growing — had to respond to a large part of their base that wanted to see slavery stopped. Which meant that they needed to vote against their Southern counterparts, fracturing the Democratic Party in two. 

This issue about how to deal with slavery in the new territories appeared once again in 1849, when California applied to be admitted to the Union as a state. The South had been hoping to extend the Missouri Compromise line west so that it would split California, allowing slavery in its southern half. This was rejected, though, by none other than the Californians themselves when they approved a constitution in 1849 that expressly banned slavery.

In the Compromise of 1850, Texas gave up claims to New Mexico in exchange for help in paying their debts, the slave trade abolished in Washington, D.C., and, perhaps most importantly, the newly-organized New Mexico and Utah territories would determine their own slavery fates using a concept known as “popular sovereignty.”

Popular Sovereignty: a Solution to the Slavery Question?

Essentially, popular sovereignty was the idea that the people settling a territory should be the ones to determine the fate of slavery in that area. And the two new territories organized from Mexican Cession (the term used for the large area of land that Mexico ceded to the United States, after losing the war and signing the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848) — Utah and New Mexico — were to use this new and popular sovereignty policy to decide.

Abolitionists generally viewed the Compromise of 1850 as a failure since it fell short of banning slavery in the new territory, but the general attitude at the time was that this approach may solve the problem once and for all. Returning this complicated, moral issue to the states seemed like the right thing to do, as it basically excused most people from ever having to really think about it.

That the Compromise of 1850 was able to do this is important, because before it was reached, Southern slave states were starting to grumble, and begin discussing the possibility of seceding from the Union. Meaning leaving the United States, and creating their own nation. 

Tensions cooled after the compromise and secession didn’t actually occur until 1861, but that this rhetoric was being thrown around shows how delicate peace was in 1850.

Over the next few years, the issue went dormant, but the death of Henry Clay — known as the Great Compromiser — as well as that of Daniel Webster, shrank the size of the caucus in Congress willing to work across sectional lines. This set the stage for more intense battles in Congress, and as was the case with Bleeding Kansas, real battles fought with real guns.


The History Guns in American Culture

The History of Guns

As a result, the Compromise of 1850 did not, as many had hoped it would solve the slavery question. It merely delayed the conflict another decade, allowing anger to bubble and the appetite for the civil war to grow.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act: Entrenching Popular Sovereignty and Inspiring Violence

Although neither the North nor the South were particularly pleased with the Compromise of 1850 (didn’t their mothers tell them that in a compromise no one really wins?), most seemed prepared to accept the concept of popular sovereignty, calming tensions for a time.  

Then came Stephen Douglas in 1854. Seeking to help the United States achieve its “Manifest Destiny” (its divine right to control and “civilize” as much land as it possibly could) through the westward expansion. Douglas decided it was time to build a transcontinental railroad, an idea that had already been tossed around in Congress for several decades.  

But being from the North, Douglas wanted this railroad to follow a Northern route and wanted Chicago, not St. Louis, as its main hub. This posed a challenge, as it would mean having to organize the territory that came from the Louisiana Purchase — involving the removal of Native Americans (that ever-pesky thorn in the side of expansionist Americans), establishing towns and military infrastructure, and preparing the territory to be admitted as a state.

Which meant electing a territorial legislature to write a state constitution.

Which meant bringing up that big question, once again: Would it have slavery or not?

Knowing Southern Democrats would be incredibly displeased with his plan to run the railroad through the North, Douglas attempted to appease Southern Democrats and win the votes he needed for his bill. And he planned to do this by including in his bill— known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act — the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the establishment of popular sovereignty as the means for answering the slavery question in these new territories.

This was huge.

The idea that slavery was now open in what the Missouri Compromise deemed a Northern territory was a huge win for the South. But, it wasn’t a guarantee — these new states would need to choose to have slavery. The Kansas territory, which was just north of slave-owning Missouri, presented an excellent opportunity for the South to gain ground in the fight between slave-owning and free states, as well as aid to secure the expansion of their precious, yet absolutely horrible, institution.

The bill was eventually passed, and this not only fractured the Democratic party beyond repair — leaving the South on the outside of American politics — it also set the stage for the first real fighting between the North and the South. The Kansas–Nebraska Act divided the nation and pointed it toward civil war. Congressional Democrats suffered huge losses in the mid-term elections of 1854, as voters provided support to a wide array of new parties opposed to the Democrats and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

However, the Kansas-Nebraska Act in itself was a pro-southern piece of legislation because it repealed the Missouri Compromise, thus opening up the potential for slavery to exist in the unorganized territories of the Louisiana Purchase, which was impossible under the Missouri Compromise.

Did either side know that the desire to build a railroad would thrust the nation towards the unstoppable forces of a civil war? More than likely not; they were simply trying to connect the two cross-continent coasts. But, as always, things didn’t work out that way.

Settling Kansas: Free Soil or Slave Power

After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, activists on both sides of the slavery debate more or less had the same idea: flood these new territories with people sympathetic to their side. 

Of the two territories, Nebraska was further north, and therefore more difficult for the South to influence. As a result, both sides decided to focus their efforts on the Kansas territory, something that quickly became violent and thus led to Bleeding Kansas. 

Border Ruffians vs. Free-Staters

In 1854, the South got off to a quick lead in this race to win Kansas, and during that year, a pro-slavery territorial legislature was elected. But, about only half of the people who voted in this election were actually registered voters. The North claimed this was the result of fraud — i.e. people crossing the border from Missouri to illegally vote in the election.

But in 1855, when the elections were held again, the number of registered voters who supported a pro-slavery government went up considerably. Seeing this as a sign that Kansas might be headed towards voting to keep slavery, abolitionists in the North began to more aggressively promote the settlement of Kansas. Organizations such as the New England Emigrant Aid Company helped thousands of New Englanders resettle in the Kansas territory and fill it with a population that wanted to ban slavery and protect free labor.

These Northern settlers in the Kansas territory became known as Free-Staters. Their main opposing force, the Border Ruffians, were made up primarily of pro-slavery groups crossing the border from Missouri into Kansas.

After the 1855 election, the territorial government in Kansas began passing laws that mimicked those of other slaveholding states. The North called these the “Bogus Laws” as they thought both the laws, and the government who made them, were… well… bogus

The Free Soilers

Much of the early confrontation of the Bleeding Kansas era centered formally on the creation of a constitution for the future state of Kansas. The first of four such documents was the Topeka Constitution, written by anti-slavery forces unified under the Free-Soil Party in December 1855.

A big part of the abolitionist effort in the North was driven by the Free Soil movement, which had its own political party. Free soilers sought free soil (get it?) in the new territories. They were anti-slavery, as it was morally wrong and undemocratic — but not because of what slavery did to the slaves. No, instead, the Free Soilers believed slavery denied free White men access to land which they could use to establish an independently run farm. Something they viewed as a pinnacle to the (White) democracy functioning in America at the time.

Free Soilers essentially had the one issue: abolishing slavery. But they also sought the passage of the Homestead Act, which would essentially make it much easier for independent farmers to acquire land from the federal government for next to nothing, a policy the Southern slave states vehemently opposed — because, don’t forget, they wanted to reserve those open lands for slaveholding plantation owners.

But despite the Free Soilers’ focus on abolishing slavery, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking these folks were “woke.” Their racism was just as strong as that of the pro-slavery South. It was just a bit different.

For example, in 1856, ‘Free Staters’ lost the election once again and the territorial legislature remained in power. Republicans used Bleeding Kansas as a powerful rhetorical weapon in the 1856 Election to garner support among northerners by arguing that the Democrats clearly sided with the pro-slavery forces perpetrating this violence. In reality, both sides engaged in acts of violence—neither party was innocent.

One of their first orders of business was to ban all Blacks, both slave and free alike, from from the Kansas territory so as to leave the land open and free for White men… because, you know, they really needed every advantage they could get.

This was hardly a more progressive position than the one taken by Southern slavery advocates. 

All of this meant that, by 1856, there were two governments in Kansas, although the federal government only recognized the pro-slavery one. President Franklin Pierce sent federal troops to demonstrate this position, but throughout that year, violence would dominate life in Kansas, giving rise to the bloody name.  

Bleeding Kansas Begins: Sack of Lawrence

On May 21, 1856, a group of Border Ruffians entered Lawrence, Kansas — a strong free state center — during the night. They burned the Free State Hotel and they destroyed newspaper offices, looting and vandalizing homes and stores. 

This attack became known as the Sack of Lawrence, and, although no one died, this violent outburst on the part slavery advocates from Missouri, Kansas, and the rest of the pro-slavery South, crossed a line.

In response, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner gave an infamous speech on Bleeding Kansas at the Capitol, titled “The Crime Against Kansas.” In it, he blamed Democrats, specifically Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina, for the violence, mocking Butler the entire way through. And the next day, a group of several Southern Democrats, led by Representative Preston Brooks — who totally by chance happened to be Butler’s cousin — beat him to within an inch of his life with a cane.

Things were pretty obviously heating up.

Pottawatomie Massacre

Shortly after the Sacking of Lawrence and the attack on Sumner in Washington, avid abolitionist John Brown — who later gained fame for his attempted slave revolt launched out of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia — was furious.

John Brown was an American abolitionist leader. Brown felt that speeches, sermons, petitions, and moral persuasion were ineffective in the cause for abolishing slavery in the United States. An intensely religious man, Brown believed he was raised up by God to strike the death blow to American slavery. John Brown felt that violence was necessary to end it. He also believed that “in all ages of the world God had created certain men to perform special work in some direction far in advance of their countrymen, even at the cost of their lives”.

He’d been marching into the Kansas territory with the Pottawatomie Company, an abolitionist militia operating in Kansas at the time, towards Lawrence to protect it from the Border Ruffians. They did not arrive in time, and Brown decided to retaliate by attacking pro-slavery families living alongside the Pottawatomie Creek on the night of May 24, 1856.

In total, Brown and his sons attacked three separate pro-slavery families, killing five people. This event became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre, and it only helped to intensify the conflict further by sparking fear and rage in the local population. Brown’s actions precipitated a new wave of violence; Kansas soon became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

After Brown’s assault, many people living in Kansas at the time chose to flee, running in fear of the violence to come. But the conflicts actually stayed relatively contained, in that both sides targeted specific individuals who had committed crimes against the other. Despite this wholly reassuring fact, the guerrilla tactics used by both sides probably still made Kansas during the summer of 1856 a scary place to be.

In October 1859, John Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia), intending to start a slave liberation movement that would spread south through the mountainous regions of Virginia and North Carolina; he had prepared a Provisional Constitution for the revised, slavery-free United States he hoped to bring about.

John Brown seized the armory, but seven people were killed, and ten or more were injured. Brown intended to arm slaves with weapons from the armory, but very few slaves joined his revolt. Within 36 hours, those of John Brown’s men who had not fled were killed or captured by local militia and U.S. Marines.

The latter led by Robert E. Lee. Brown was hastily tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five men, and inciting a slave insurrection. He was found guilty of all counts and was hanged on December 2, 1859. John Brown became the first person executed for treason in the history of the United States.

Two years later, the country erupted into Civil War. A famous marching song from the early 1850s called “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” incorporated Brown’s legacy into new lyrics to the army tune. The Union soldiers declared:

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave. His soul is marching on!

Even religious leaders began to condone violence. Among them was Henry Ward Beecher, a former resident of Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1854, Beecher sent rifles to anti-slavery forces participating in “Bleeding Kansas.” These guns became known as “Beecher’s bibles,” because they arrived in Kansas in crates marked “bibles.”

The Battle of Black Jack

The next major altercation occurred less than a week after the Pottawatomie Massacre, on June 2, 1856. Many historians consider this round of fighting to be the first battle of the American Civil War, although the actual civil war would not start for another five years. 

In response to John Brown’s attack, U.S. Marshall John C. Pate — who was also a key Border Ruffian — gathered pro-slavery men and managed to kidnap one of Brown’s sons. Brown then marched in search of Pate and his forces which he found just outside Baldwin, Kansas, and the two sides then engaged in a day-long battle. 

Brown fought with only 30 men, and Pate had him outnumbered. But, because Brown’s forces were able to hide in the trees and gullies made by the nearby Santa Fe road (the road that travelled all the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico), Pate was unable to gain an advantage. Eventually, he signalled that he wanted to meet, and Brown forced him to surrender, taking 22 men prisoner. 

Later, these prisoners were set free in exchange for Pate turning over Brown’s son, as well as any other prisoners he had taken. The battle did very little to improve the situation in Kansas at the time. But, it did help catch Washington’s attention and spark a reaction that eventually led to some reduction in violence.

The Defense of Osawatomie

Throughout the summer, more fighting took place as people from all over the country made their way to Kansas to try and influence its position on slavery. Brown, who was one of the leaders of the Free State movement in Kansas, had made his base the town of Osawatomie — not far from Pottawatomie, where he and his sons had killed five pro-slavery settlers just a few weeks prior.

Seeking to eliminate Brown from the picture, the Ruffians from Missouri gathered together to form a force of around 250 strong, and they crossed into Kansas on August 30, 1856, to attack Osawatomie. Brown was caught off guard, as he had been expecting the attack to come from a different direction, and he was forced to retreat soon after the Border Ruffians arrived. Several of his sons died in the fight, and although Brown was able to retreat and survive, his days as a free state fighter in Kansas were officially numbered.

Kansas Stops the Bleeding

Throughout 1856, both the Border Ruffians and the Free-Staters recruited more men to their “armies,” and violence continued throughout the summer until a new territorial governor, appointed by Congress, arrived in Kansas and began using federal troops to stop the fighting. There were sporadic conflicts afterwards, but Kansas mainly stopped bleeding by the beginning of 1857.

In total, 55 people died in this series of disputes known as Bleeding Kansas, or Bloody Kansas. 

As the violence died down, the state turned more and more free state, and in 1859, the territorial legislature — in preparation for becoming a state — passed a state constitution that was anti-slavery. But it was not approved by Congress until 1861 after the Southern states had decided to jump ship and secede.

Bleeding Kansas demonstrated that armed conflict over slavery was unavoidable. Its severity made national headlines, which suggested to the American people that the sectional disputes were unlikely to be resolved without bloodshed, and it therefore directly anticipated the American Civil War.

Bleeding Kansas in Perspective

Bleeding Kansas, while rather dramatic sounding, didn’t do much to resolve the conflict between the North and South. In fact, if anything, it merely showed that the two sides were so far apart that armed conflict may have been the only way to reconcile their differences.

This only became even more apparent after both Minnesota and Oregon joined the Union as anti-slavery states, tipping the scales decidedly in favor of the North, and Abraham Lincoln got elected without winning a single Southern state. 

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 the Kansas territory wanted it to be free from, not only the institution of slavery, but from “Negros” entirely. 

As a result, Bleeding Kansas, which demonstrated the expanse of the divide between North and South, can best be understood as a warm-up act for the brutal American Civil War which would begin just five years after the first shots were fired between Border Ruffians and ‘Free-Staters’. Bleeding Kansas foreshadowed the violence that would ensue over the future of slavery during the Civil War.

During the Civil War, hundreds of slaves fled Missouri for freedom in the Union state of Kansas.  After 1861 formerly enslaved blacks continued to make their way across the border in even larger numbers.

In 2006, federal legislation defined a new Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area (FFNHA) and was approved by Congress. A task of the heritage area is to interpret Bleeding Kansas stories, which are also called stories of the Kansas–Missouri border war. A theme of the heritage area is the enduring struggle for freedom. FFNHA includes 41 counties, 29 of which are in the eastern Kansas territory and 12 in western Missouri.

READ MORE: The Three-Fifths Compromise

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1 thought on “Bleeding Kansas: Border Ruffians Bloody Fight for Slavery”

  1. Wonderful read. It’s funny how these pre-war stories seem to have slipped through the cracks of modern American understanding. The beginning certainly helps place the reader into a frame of mind for what follows.


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