The Sacking of Lawrence, May 21, 1856 – 6 The Wakarusa War

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Samuel J. Jones

Samuel J. Jones

David Potter suggests that much of the discord between Kansans and Missourians was less about slavery and more about land claims.(i) The territory had not yet completed land surveys even six months after it opened for settlement so people squatted on land they wanted. Disputes over those claims, largely between Missourian and new Kansan settlers, sparked the events that culminated in the 1856 raid on Lawrence.

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Samuel N. Woods

It began with a killing. A pro-slavery man named Franklin N. Coleman killed in 1855 a Free-Soiler named Charles W. Dow south of Lawrence, Kansas in a land-claim dispute. [An account of the killing by Isaac T. Goodnow can be read here.] Because Coleman claimed self-defense, he was not arrested. In retaliation, a group of Free-Soil men threatened Coleman and his corroborators and burned their property. (ii) Douglas County sheriff Samuel J. Jones was sent to arrest the aggressors but was prevented from doing so by armed Free-Soil men lead by Samuel N. Wood.

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Wilson Shannon

Jones accepted the aid of an army of Missouri “Border Ruffians” who converged outside of Lawrence near the Wakarusa River with the intent of enforcing “Law and order in Kansas.” (iii) Then Kansas Territory governor Wilson Shannon averted violence through negotiation (President Pierce refused him Federal troops) and the band dispersed, albeit reluctantly. Because the threat of violence was so great, the episode became known as the Wakarusa War.

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Wakarusa River near Lawrence, Kansas - Source: KansasExploring > Larry Hornbaker > Events > Blanton's Crossing

This post continues the series, “The Sacking of Lawrence May 21, 1856.” Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, and Part 5 here.

the-impending-crisis(i) David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1976), 206.

(ii) Ibid., 207.

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The Sacking of Lawrence, May 21, 1856 – 3

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The Honorable Eli Thayer, Massachusetts Source: Library of Congress, Brady-Handy Photograph Collection

Eli Thayer of Massachusetts, who had been “aroused very early in the course of the battle in Congress,” incorporated the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company with the intent of assisting emigrants who were willing to move west.(i) Details of his “Plan of Operation” found their way into “Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune where, despite the fact that they presented more dreams than facts, managed to be published and to alarm men in western Missouri.(i)

“…It conjured up in their minds the picture of a vast, wealthy, and overpowering abolitionist organization ready to hurl 20,000 hirelings upon their borders.”(i)

On July 29th, Missourians met in Weston, Missouri and formed the “Platte County Self-Defensive Association” “asserting their readiness to go to Kansas ‘to assist in removing any and all emigrants who go there under the auspices of Northern Emigrant Aid Societies.’”(i)  Organization of secret societies followed “including the ‘Blue Lodges,’ and ‘Platte County Regulators.’”(i)

(i) David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1976), 199 – 201.

This post continues the series, “The Sacking of Lawrence May 21, 1856.” Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

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The Sacking of Lawrence, May 21, 1856 – 1

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Ruins of the Free State Hotel, Lawrence, Kansas. From a Daguerreotype. (The Kansas State Historical Society)

One of the most surprising things I learned from reading Michael F. Holt’s exceptional book, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s, was that the “Sacking of Lawrence” was not the murderous affair I had always thought it was. It led to further research on my part and the realization that I was guilty of combining the stories surrounding the raid on Lawrence with other violent events occurring in the region, an area in which I am a resident. As is often the case with history, I had developed a mythical sense of the day, one that went well beyond the simple destruction of property. This new post series summarizes the findings of my search for the truth about the events of May 21, 1856. Its writing helped to crystallize my understanding of why the Kansas and Missouri borderland became such a focal point for politics in the 1850s. It also revealed that there has been much liberty with the facts and that even today, historians do not agree on all of the specifics.