Stringfellow, Benjamin Franklin

Encyclopedia entry by ,
University of Missouri-Kansas City
Benjamin Stringfellow. Photograph courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society.

Biographical information:

  • Date of birth: September 3, 1816
  • Place of birth: Fredericksburg, Virginia
  • Claim to fame: Proslavery proponent of the Platte County Self-Defensive Association; investor in the Atchison and St. Joseph Railroad
  • Political affiliations: Democratic Party during the “Bleeding Kansas” controversy; Republican Party by the end of the Civil War
  • Date of death: April 26, 1891
  • Place of death: His daughter’s home in Chicago, Illinois

Benjamin F. Stringfellow was a Missouri lawyer, civic organizer, and proslavery advocate. He was a key figure in the Platte County Self-Defensive Association, a proslavery organization that argued the expansion of slavery into Kansas was an essential requirement to maintain the “peculiar institution” in Missouri and throughout the South. Along with Senator David Rice Atchison, Stringfellow traveled the nation to advocate for Southern investment in Kansas. He insisted that Southerners stop trying to justify slavery as a political or economic necessity, but instead advocate for slavery as a positive moral good on the grounds that the institution was beneficial for whites (slave owner or not) and blacks. In spite of his fevered defense of slavery during the “Bleeding Kansas” troubles, the Civil War later compelled Stringfellow to accept the reality that Kansas entered the Union as a free state, and he went on to support the Union and his own financial interests during the Civil War.

Stringfellow was born into the planter class. Raised in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and trained by a tutor for a legal career, he began a legal practice in Keytesville, Missouri, in the 1840s. The county seat of Chariton County, Keytesville was the northernmost town in Central Missouri’s “Little Dixie” region, an area known for its Southern sympathies and hemp plantations. Stringfellow was elected to the state legislature as a Democrat in 1844 and went on to serve as Missouri’s attorney general from 1845-1849. In 1853, Stringfellow moved to Weston, Missouri, a thriving river town on Missouri’s border with Kansas.

Should Kansas be free, the lure of freedom for runaway slaves would be right across the river.

Despite owning few slaves himself, Stringfellow was a staunch advocate for “Southern rights,” and upon his arrival in Weston he began agitating for the creation of a civic organization tasked with protecting slavery in western Missouri. The first meeting of the Platte County Self-Defensive Association took place on July 20, 1854. Named after Weston’s home county, the Self-Defensive Association opposed abolitionism, which it claimed had a pernicious effect on slavery in Weston. The Kansas-Nebraska Act’s “popular sovereignty” provisions meant that Kansas Territory could enter the Union as a free state, a possibility that Stringfellow and the Self-Defensive Association rejected as incompatible with the continuation of slavery in Missouri. Should Kansas be free, the lure of freedom for runaway slaves would be right across the river. Due to Platte County’s western border along the Missouri River, which also served as the border between Missouri and Kansas, the Association could directly influence events in Kansas.

The Platte County Self-Defensive Association took strong measures to prevent the spread of abolitionism, including going on the offensive against abolitionists and Free-Soil Kansans. The Association assumed vigilante trial powers to punish abolitionists, in some cases merely ordering them out of the county, but in other cases escorting them north to the Iowa border. In 1854, Stringfellow and the Association pursued a particularly heated case against a Presbyterian Preacher, Frederick Starr, accusing him of teaching slaves to read and assisting a black man to buy his freedom. Though the charges were dismissed in this case, the Association’s harassment had its intended effect; Starr returned to New York.

Read about two broadsides published in a public dispute between Benjamin F. Stringfellow and H. Miles Moore, an antislavery advocate.

Along with their intimidation campaigns against individual abolitionists, Stringfellow and the Self-Defensive Association worked to facilitate massive voter fraud in Kansas territorial elections. Stringfellow, a lawyer, publicized his own interpretation of Governor Andrew Reeder’s election proclamation that was meant to restrict voting rights to Kansas residents only. Although Reeder clearly intended to prevent Missourians from voting in Kansas elections, Stringfellow held that anyone present in Kansas on the day of the election was legally eligible to vote. Stringfellow promoted this interpretation at speeches to Missourians in St. Joseph and Weston, along with exhortations to travel to Kansas and help elect a state legislature that would support slavery. Though it is impossible to parse out exactly how many followed Stringfellow’s advice, it is clear that Missourians played a key role in electing the first Kansas territorial legislature. Free-Staters derided the body as the “Bogus Legislature.”

David Rice Atchison personally led Missouri "border ruffians" in their often-violent efforts to secure Kansas as a slave state, including an attack on Lawrence, Kansas in 1856. Photograph by Matthew Brady. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Stringfellow was not afraid to advocate for slavery outside of Missouri. In 1854 he toured the Eastern seaboard with David Rice Atchison, trying to convince proslavery forces to move their slaves to Kansas to compete directly with Northerners and abolitionists. Despite their stake in slavery’s wellbeing, Stringfellow found that Southern slave owners were hesitant to move themselves and their chattel property away from the bastion of the South into the uncertainty of Kansas. The few groups that Stringfellow and Atchison were able to convince to migrate to Kansas had a negligible effect on the territory’s political future.

Stringfellow would not let title and privilege get in the way of honor. In June 1855, he went to Kansas Territorial Governor Andrew Reeder’s office because he had heard that Reeder called him a “border ruffian.” There are contested accounts of what was said between the two men, but it is clear that Stringfellow tackled Reeder to the ground and that the two politicians rose with pistols drawn on each other. The situation was only diffused when members of Reeder’s staff intervened by restraining Stringfellow.

Despite his Fire-Eating past, Stringfellow capitulated to Kansas’s entry as a free state in 1859, and he favored the Union in the Civil War. Stringfellow was never a large-scale slave owner as an adult, and once Kansas entered the Union he invested heavily in railroads. From his new home in Atchison, Kansas, Stringfellow purchased a stake in the Atchison and St. Joseph Railroad. This business interest would eventually merge with other railroads to form the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. Stringfellow served as the company’s attorney, joining into business ties with Kansas Republican Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy and former Free-State supporter Cyrus K. Holiday. This career shift represented a remarkable turnaround for Stringfellow, who was born a Democratic planter and ended up a Republican railroad tycoon.

Suggested Reading: 

Baltimore, Lester B. "Benjamin F. Stringfellow: The Fight for Slavery on the Missouri Border." Missouri Historical Review 62 (October 1967): 14-29.

Barker, William I. "The Prelude to the Civil War, 1854–1860." Master's thesis, University of Missouri-Kansas City, 1947.

Etcheson, Nicole. Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.

Cite this page: 
Reeves, Matthew. "Stringfellow, Benjamin Franklin " Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Aug, 16, 2017 at http://www.civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/stringfellow-benjamin-franklin

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