Bleeding Kansas: From the Kansas-Nebraska Act to Harpers Ferry

An essay by ,
Ball State University

John Brown in "The Tragic Prelude," displayed at the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka. Painted by John Steuart Curry, ca. 1938-1940. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

In 1859, John Brown, a settler from Kansas Territory, invaded the state of Virginia with plans to raid the Harpers Ferry arsenal and incite a slave rebellion. Among his small band of insurgents were several young men who had also carried out vigilante violence in Kansas in hopes of abolishing slavery in that territory. The raid itself failed, and those who did not escape or die in the raid were later executed, including Brown himself.

In a political sense, however, the raid successfully fulfilled Brown's larger goals by igniting national divisions and helping to spark the American Civil War. The start of violence in Kansas Territory thereby led to one of the most important chapters of American history.

America's Sectional Divide

The Harpers Ferry raid sent shockwaves through the nation's political landscape, influencing the outcome of the presidential election of 1860. Northerners were reminded of the horrors of a slave system that provoked men to such drastic violence, while Southerners insisted there was no difference between radical violent abolitionists such as John Brown and more mainstream Republican candidates like Abraham Lincoln. Americans noted how Brown’s experience in Kansas had driven him to this attack.


Northerners believed proslavery harassment of Brown and other antislavery settlers, including the murder of Brown’s son, Frederick, motivated his attack on Harpers Ferry. Meanwhile, Southerners emphasized Free-Soil settlers’ violent resistance to the proslavery Kansas territorial government, connecting the Harpers Ferry raid to it as another instance of antislavery lawlessness. As abolitionist Lydia Maria Child observed, the wind sowed in Kansas, reaped a whirlwind in Virginia.

Senator Salmon P. Chase condemned the Kansas-Nebraska bill as “an atrocious plot” to claim the territory for “masters and slaves.” Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas never intended such a result. Douglas chaired the Senate’s committee on territories and was well aware by the early 1850s that westward expansion had stalled at the Missouri River. Under the provisions of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, the northern half of the Louisiana Purchase, west of Iowa and Missouri, was free territory. Southerners in Congress, therefore, had no interest in organizing territories there that would become free states, and legislation authorizing those territories failed. In 1854, Douglas revised the latest version of the bill, creating the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and replacing the prohibition on slavery with popular sovereignty – the right of the people, through their territorial legislatures, to decide whether to have slavery.

Popular sovereignty had a long pedigree in American politics. In 1848, Democratic presidential candidate Lewis Cass adopted popular sovereignty as his policy for dealing with slavery in the lands acquired from Mexico. Congress passed the Compromise of 1850 to settle the question of the Mexican Cession and, in his Kansas-Nebraska bill, Douglas claimed that the Utah and New Mexico provisions of that compromise were essentially precedents for popular sovereignty. By replacing the Missouri Compromise’s prohibition on slavery with popular sovereignty, he was merely repeating what Congress had done in 1850.

Many in Congress, including many of Douglas’s fellow Democrats, disagreed. Senators Salmon P. Chase and Charles Sumner were the signatories to “The Appeal of the Independent Democrats,” condemning the Kansas-Nebraska bill as “an atrocious plot” to claim the territory for “masters and slaves.” A coalition of anti-Nebraska Democrats, former Whig Party members, and anti-immigrant "Know Nothings" (of the nativist American Party) formed a fusion movement that evolved into the Republican Party, a formidable new opponent to the dominant Democrats. The Republicans opposed slavery’s expansion into the Kansas and Nebraska territories. The Kansas-Nebraska Act passed in 1854, paving the way for settlement of those territories.

Kansas Territory's "Bogus Legislature"

Events in Kansas Territory contributed to the Republican Party's growth and exacerbated the sectional conflict. Iowans crossed the border into Nebraska and voted in territorial elections, but their numbers were small and Nebraska was expected to be a free state. In Kansas, a small civil war broke out between proslavery Missourians and settlers from the free states, rooted in the flawed implementation of popular sovereignty.

Problems appeared in the first territorial election, for a delegate to Congress, in November 1854. But the disturbances that caught the nation’s attention occurred during the March 1855 election of a territorial legislature. Missourians crossed the river to vote in the territory. At polls throughout the territory, armed Missourians threatened voters and election officials from the free states. Although a territorial census had shown that there were 2,905 eligible voters in the territory, proslavery candidates were elected to the so-called "Bogus Legislature" with majorities of over 5,000 votes.

The New Englanders had embarked for the territory singing songs about making the west “the homestead of the free.”

Many of the Missourians who crossed the state line to vote did later settle in the territory. Many Northern settlers who felt deprived of their political rights abandoned Kansas, overcome by frontier hardships. Nonetheless, the proslavery victory seemed to many a blatant violation of the polls.

The newly elected territorial legislature passed a slave code for Kansas. But although Benjamin Stringfellow, publisher of a proslavery newspaper, boasted that Kansas now had slave laws as solid as any in the country, resistance was building. The small number of New Englanders in Kansas now combined with the much larger number of Midwestern settlers to form a Free-State movement. Many of the New Englanders had embarked for the territory singing songs about making the West “the homestead of the free.”

The Midwesterners, however, were represented by former Indiana Congressman James H. Lane, who arrived in the territory, saying that he “would as soon buy a negro as a mule.” Despite their differing beliefs about race and slavery, all of the Northern settlers were united in their outrage at being denied a fair vote at the polls, which was promised them by popular sovereignty. In September 1855, they assembled at Topeka and wrote a constitution for a free state of Kansas. They elected New Englander Charles Robinson as governor and petitioned Congress for admission.

Sara Robinson's book, <em>Kansas: Its Interior and Exterior Life</em>, portrayed Free-State sufferings under proslavery rule. Image courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society.


Although many Northerners backed this Topeka movement, it was extra-legal and lacked legitimacy with the federal government. For the next several years, the Free-Staters carried out a precarious balancing act. They refused to obey the territorial or “bogus” legislature and proceeded to arm, often with state-of-the-art Sharps rifles.

The Free-Staters engaged in a propaganda war. Charles Robinson’s wife, Sara, became even more famous than her husband for her book, Kansas: Its Interior and Exterior Life, which portrayed Free-State sufferings under proslavery, or "Border Ruffian," rule. But fear of retaliation from the federal government, which called the Free-Staters traitors and recognized the proslavery territorial legislature as the legal government of Kansas Territory, restrained Free-Staters from going too far.

Violence Erupts

In opposition to the Free-State movement, proslavery men in the territory formed the “Law and Order Party." Led by territorial officials such as surveyor John Calhoun, a migrant from Illinois, the Law and Order movement seized on lawlessness in the territory to justify acting to suppress the Free-Soil movement in the territory.

Events during the winter of 1855-56 gave the Law and Order movement its chance. In an altercation over a land claim, a Missourian killed a Free-State settler. While the murderer fled back to Missouri, Free-Staters terrorized the neighborhood, warning out settlers and burning houses. Sheriff Samuel Jones arrested the dead man’s friend, but an armed band of Free-Staters liberated his prisoner and took him into the abolitionist New England Emigrant Aid Company settlement of Lawrence. Jones called for help, and territorial governor Wilson Shannon, a tippling Democrat from Ohio, called out the militia. Soon Lawrence was surrounded by proslavery forces in what came to be called the Wakarusa War.

Free-State women, including Lois Brown and Margaret Wood, smuggled arms into the besieged town under their petticoats.

Inside Lawrence, Jim Lane drilled Free-State forces while like-minded women, including Lois Brown and Margaret Wood, smuggled arms into the besieged town under their petticoats. Militia officer George Clarke shot and killed northern settler Thomas Barber when Barber, returning to his farm outside Lawrence, refused to go into the militia’s custody. Barber’s death helped spur a settlement of the dispute. Shannon was anxious to disperse the militia, which seemed increasingly uncontrollable, and a nasty cold spell helped persuade the encamped proslavery men to disband.

But the Free-Staters had neither acknowledged the territorial legislature’s authority nor surrendered the sheriff’s prisoner. In the spring, Sheriff Jones returned to Lawrence, this time to arrest the men who had liberated his prisoner. Free-Staters did not cooperate and Jones was unable to make arrests. Someone shot into Jones’s tent outside town, further inflaming tensions.

When Jones, who had not been seriously injured, released his posse, these proslavery men ransacked Lawrence, destroying the Free State Hotel and throwing the newspaper press, The Herald of Freedom, into the Kansas River. The only casualty was a Missourian, killed by falling masonry from the hotel, but Republican newspapers hailed this as the “Sack of Lawrence.”

Shortly after the Pottawatomie Massacre, Eastern abolitionists seeking to distance Brown from it denied his presence there. However, an 1879 testimony by James Townsley, an abolitionist friend of Brown, indicates that Brown personally led the massacre.

John Brown, a Free-State settler, was on his way to Lawrence with a party of other settlers from southeastern Kansas when they heard that they were too late to protect the town. That night, May 24, Brown led a small party, including his four sons, his son-in-law, and two other men that murdered five proslavery settlers along Pottawatomie Creek.

None of the victims owned slaves, of which there were only a couple hundred in Kansas Territory, but all had connections to the proslavery movement. One, Allen Wilkinson, was a member of the territorial legislature. Another victim named James Doyle, murdered with his two oldest sons, was an officer of the territorial court, and victim William Sherman’s brother ran a store patronized by settlers from Georgia.


Suggested Reading: 

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

Oertel, Kristen Tegtmeier. Bleeding Borders: Race, Gender, and Violence in Pre–Civil War Kansas. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009.

Cite this page: 
Etcheson, Nicole. "Bleeding Kansas: From the Kansas-Nebraska Act to Harpers Ferry" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Jun, 20, 2019 at


I am impressed. As a recently

I am impressed. As a recently-retired history teacher with 35 years experience with high school, college, and junior college students in Kansas City, Topeka, and at KU, I value an article like this one because it goes beyond the short Wikipedia-length entry yet is more concise than book-length treatments, which Professor Etcheson has listed for those who wish to read more.

Nicole Etcheson's article

Nicole Etcheson's article provides a very clear and concise account of the key events and actors that placed the nation on a path to war on the western border. Students and researchers would do well to start with this article in order to gain an initial understanding of conditions in Kansas in the 1850's. Most states, at the time, had a role to play in the relationship that would be established between Missouri and Kansas for generations to come. Thank you for this brief contribution to the literature.

This is a wonderful article.

This is a wonderful article. My daughter is working on a PP presentation for her 8th grade class and this is the most informative essay, in addition to Matthew Pinsker's writing about the Underground Railroad, we have come across so far connecting the dots on the beginnings of the Civil War. We also really appreciate the APA citation!

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