Amid the contentious and sometimes violent territorial elections, held to determine whether Kansas would elect Free-State or proslavery state politicians and legislatures, many proslavery Missourians living along the border staked claims in Kansas Territory, while others organized secret societies that helped transport and pay proslavery families to migrate and vote in the upcoming Kansas election. Still others crossed the state line to vote on election days under the questionable pretense that as long as they were in the territory, with no date set to return or move on, they were residents and legal voters. Those proslavery Missourians who voted and participated in Kansas’s territorial politics legally, extralegally, illegally, and often with threats and violence were the first to be called “border ruffians.”
In the first two Kansas territorial elections, one in November 1854 and the second in March 1855, thousands of citizens along Missouri’s western border flooded across the state line into Kansas to throw the popular vote into the hands of the proslavery Kansans. By intimidating and harassing Free-State settlers at the polling places, they suppressed the Free-State vote. Some counties recorded more proslavery votes than the total number of residents. A territorial census taken at the beginning of March 1855, for example, counted 2,905 voters, and yet the election 30 days later tallied over 6,000 votes. The proslavery faction won the territorial elections by overwhelming majorities, and the abolitionists and antislavery partisans were further incensed by the election’s irregularities.
Infuriated by the tactics of violence, coercion, and fraud used by the proslavery side to win the first Kansas Territorial elections, abolitionists and New England newspaper editors clamored for new elections. Writers, such as newspaper editor Horace Greeley, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, and Senator Charles Sumner, used the power of the press and skilled oratory to create a narrative of “Bleeding Kansas.” A portion of this narrative dehumanized western Missourians in the eyes of the nation by labeling them as “slaveocrats” (an elite ruling class of slaveholders), “pukes” (poor, uneducated, subsistence farmers who were the minions of the slaveocrats), and the freshly coined term, border ruffians.
Whether they deserved it or not, all Missourians living along the border became associated with the name and the image of a border ruffian.
One Eastern journalist described a border ruffian as a man of nefarious adventures who had “tobacco trickling from his mouth,” wore a “bowie knife tucked in his boottop, outfitted himself in jean pants, a ‘sky-blue blanket overcoat’ and a six shooter.” Despite the colorful description, few eastern journalists actually met Missourians living on the border. Whether they deserved it or not, all Missourians living along the border became associated with the name and the image of a border ruffian. This popular view of all Missourians as less-than-human later became significant as it shaped the opinions of Union soldiers who occupied the area when western Missouri fell under martial law during the Civil War.
With no voice equal to that of the Eastern press and the growing antislavery sentiment of the nation, proslavery Missourians along the border could do little but seethe with anger and increasingly attack and harass the growing number of Free-State settlers moving through and settling in the border region. To defend against attacks, thefts, and harassment on Free-State settlers, men such as James Henry Lane, James Montgomery, and Charles R. Jennison organized forces that struck back at proslavery families and communities. These armed groups called themselves “jayhawkers.”
The term border ruffian, at first intended as insult, became a mark of distinction to some Missourians.
The term border ruffian, at first intended as insult, became a mark of distinction to some Missourians. One of Kansas City’s founding fathers and a Republican Unionist, Robert T. Van Horn, introduced himself to the 1856 Democratic National Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio as a border ruffian from Missouri. Before the Civil War began, some Missourians turned the insulting sobriquet of border ruffian into a badge of honor by defiantly embracing the image and even naming a riverboat and a few dogs, “border ruffian.”
When the war that began over “Bleeding Kansas” finally ignited across the rest of the nation, the chaos and tumult created by the border ruffians and their antislavery counterparts, the jayhawkers, rivaled the bloodshed and violence of the larger Civil War. The border ruffians joined the Confederate Army or the “bushwhackers” while their jayhawker enemies formed units in the Union Army. The unsettled scores and political and social differences between the two sides would be resolved only by the imposition of Order No. 11, which led to the displacement of much of the population of northwestern Missouri.
Etcheson, Nicole. Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.
Fellman, Michael. Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the Civil War. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Neely, Jeremy. The Border Between Them: Violence and Reconciliation on the Kansas-Missouri Line. Columbia London: University of Missouri Press, 2007.