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The Sacking of Lawrence, May 21, 1856 – 7 The Deed

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Sacking of Lawrence, 1856

This post completes 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, Part 6 here.

Free-State men wounded Douglas County sheriff Samuel J. Jones when he returned to Lawrence to serve arrest warrants in the spring of 1856, despite the presence of Federal troops. The Grand Jury of Douglas County met and “returned indictments against three free-state leaders, against two newspapers at Lawrence – the Herald of Freedom and the Kansas Free State – and against the Free State Hotel at Lawrence, which, it said, was in fact a fortress, “regularly parapeted and portholed for use of small cannon and arms.” (Potter, 208) There is good evidence that the hotel was, in fact, designed with a mind toward defense with filled portholes that could be knocked out with a rifle butt. But it is curious that indictments of treason were levied toward an inanimate building.

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Isreal B. Donaldson, United States Marshall [Source: The Kansas Historical Quarterly, www.kancoll.org

To serve the indictments and associated arrests, United States Marshal Israel B. Donaldson raised a posse inclusive of Missourians. But he left them outside of town as he arrested, along with a deputy, several minor players, others having fled. (Potter, 208) He then attempted to disband the posse but Sheriff Samuel J.Jones, healed of his wounds, rallied the men and rode into Lawrence as a mob force “alleging the need of aid in making arrests and abating nuisances under authority of the grand jury.” (Malin)

Samuel J. Jones

Samuel J. Jones

Michael Holt describes the events of May 21, 1856 as the work of a posse sent by the Lecompton government “to arrest several free state leaders in Lawrence.” (Holt, 194) That posse, “which included Missourians, burned some buildings and destroyed two printing presses but killed no one in the town.” (Holt, 194.) Put in that way, it sounds relatively benign but was pounced on by the Republicans as evidence that the Pierce-backed Kansas territorial government was supporting and condoning atrocities.

“The War Actually Begun,” “Triumph of the Border Ruffians,” “Lawrence in Ruins – Several Persons Slaughtered,” “Freedom Bloodily Subdued,” hyperbolized the Eastern Republican press.” (Holt, 194.) “Kansas was bleeding because lawless slaveholders were butchering defenseless northern settlers in their effort to force slavery on the territory.” (Holt, 194.)

The raid targeted the Free-State Hotel, a building constructed and owned by the New England Emigrant Aid Company. Griffin confirms that Douglas County Sheriff Samuel J. Jones led the posse. He and his men “bombarded the [Free-State] hotel with cannon and then gutted the building with gunpowder and flame. The razing of the hotel, together with the burning of Charles Robinson’s house, the wrecking of the equipment of two newspapers, the Herald of Freedom and the Kansas Free State, and a certain amount of looting and vandalism, became known as the ‘sack of Lawrence.’” (Griffin)

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"Old Sacramento Cannon" captured by U.S. during the Mexican-American War in 1847 and taken to the Liberty Arsenal. The cannon was seized by pro-slavery forces in 1856 and fired during the Sacking of Lawrence. The cannon was damaged in 1896 when it was loaded with clay and straw and fired. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Griffin further claims that proslavery men in the territory justified the action by claiming Jones and his men “were simply executing an indictment of the grand jury of the United States district court at Lecompton and the orders of the presiding judge, Samuel D. Lecompte.” (Griffin)

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Samuel D. Lecompte

“Free-State men were quick to agree with their enemies, but contended that judge, jury, and Jones had acted illegally and without cause. Newspaper editors sympathetic to the Free-State cause gave the affair enormous publicity — much of it merely falsehoods — and labored to convince their readers that the sack of Lawrence was yet another manifestation of Proslavery barbarism. Before a month was out, Kansas mythology was immensely richer.” (Griffin)

As a final note, both Malin, Griffin, and Holt contend that no one was killed in the raid on Lawrence. But Potter points out that one man, a slave, was killed from falling debris as the Free State Hotel was demolished. (Potter, 209) Clearly it was violent event amidst growing episodes of violence between Free-State and proslavery factions along the border between Kansas and Missouri.

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Ruins of the Free State Hotel, after the Sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, 1856

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C. S. Griffin, “Kansas Historical QuarterlyThe University of Kansas and the Sack of Lawrence: A Problem of Intellectual Honesty,” Kansas Historical Quarterly, Winter, 1968 (Vol. XXXIV. No. 4), pages 409 to 426. Accessed online, February 14, 2009.
Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s, (New York:  W. W. Norton and Company, 1983).
James C. Malin, “Judge Lecompte and the ‘Sack of Lawrence,’ May 21, 1856, ” Kansas Historical Quarterly, August 1953 (Vol. 20, No. 7), pages 465 to 494. Accessed online,  February 14, 2009.
David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1976).

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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