Parent Category: Kansas State History Articles
Category: Territorial Kansas
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The Severe Winter of 1855-'56 

The Wakarusa War closed in December, 1855. This second winter proved to be an exceedingly severe one, and many of the settlers were not sufficiently protected against the sudden and intense cold. Most of the houses were hastily constructed, one-room log buildings, many of them with dirt floors, and windows and doors of cotton cloth. The storms drifted into these cabins through numberless chinks and cracks in roof and walls. One of the pioneers, writing of that winter, says: "At times, when the winds were bleakest, we went to bed as the only escape from freezing. More than once we awoke in the morning to find six inches of snow in the cabin. To get up, to make one's toilet under such circumstances, was not a very comfortable performance. Often we had little to eat; the wolf was never far from our door during that hard winter of 1855-'56."


Preparations for Hostilities 

The struggle of the pioneers with the hardships of winter closed hostilities for a while, but it soon became evident that the Missourians were preparing more extensively than ever to invade Kansas, destroy Lawrence, and drive the free-state people from the Territory, or force them to recognize the proslavery Territorial Government. The free-state people began to gather stores and ammunition and to send calls to the northern states for men and money to meet the situation.

The Sacking of Lawrence, May 21, 1856 

A number of minor conflicts occurred. Sheriff Jones was wounded, a young free-state man named Barber was killed, and then came the long feared attack upon Lawrence. From the beginning the policy of the free-state people had been to avoid conflict wherever possible. On this occasion they made every attempt to conciliate and to pacify the attacking force, but in vain. As the proslavery leaders rode through the town they were invited to dinner by Mr. Eldridge, the proprietor of the new $20,000 hotel built by the Emigrant Aid Company. They accepted the invitation, and in the afternoon the mob completely demolished the hotel. They threw the two printing presses of the town into the river, ransacked stores and houses, taking whatever they wanted, and before leaving town burned Governor Robinson's home. The financial loss to Lawrence and the surrounding country was heavy. Though the people had been oppressed and outraged they had not been conquered. By offering no resistance they had robbed the affair of any possible justification in the eyes of the world.

John Brown 

There was one who bitterly opposed this policy of nonresistance, who believed that the way to meet the situation was to fight. This was John Brown, a tall, giant, grizzled old man who had come to Kansas a few weeks before the sacking of Lawrence. Five sons had preceded him and had settled near Osawatomie. John Brown came, not to aid his sons in their pioneer struggles, nor to make a home for himself, but because it seemed to him an opportunity to strike a blow at slavery. He hated slavery with an intensity that knew no bounds, and he gave all of his mind and energy to warfare against it.

The Pottawatomie Massacre, May 24, 1856 

The sacking of Lawrence roused him to a high pitch of excitement. He believed that this outrage should be avenged, and determined to strike a blow, to return violence for violence. With a party of seven or eight men, including four of his sons, he made a night trip down Pottawatomie Creek where a number of pro-slavery settlers lived. Five of these settlers were called out of their houses and killed.

Beginning of Four Months of Violence 

This kind of warfare was not in accordance with the plans or purposes of the leaders of the free-state movement, and was not approved by them. News of the awful affair spread rapidly through the Territory and created wild excitement. The Pottawatomie massacre was followed by a period of nearly four months of violence on both sides.

Both Sides Arm for War 

A band of border ruffians gathered to wreak vengeance on those who had taken the lives of the proslavery settlers of Pottawatomie Creek. The battle of Black Jack resulted, in which the border ruffians were defeated by John Brown and his men. The Missouri border hurriedly gathered more forces and marched a well-armed body of men into Kansas. The free-state men had been busy, too, and on June 5 the Missourians were met by a band of armed free-state Kansas settlers.

Armies Dispersed by the Governor 

This alarming state of affairs aroused Governor Shannon and he at once ordered both sides to disperse. The free-state army disbanded, but the Missourians obeyed sullenly, and on their way back to Missouri they committed a number of depredations, and pillaged Osawatomie, which they hated because it was the home of John Brown.

Free-state Help from Northern States 

The North was deeply stirred by the calamities endured by the free-state people in Kansas. Although practically all of the free state newspapers here had been closed or destroyed, the papers in the northern and eastern states were filled with narrations of the hardships, robberies, and murders that had befallen antislavery settlers in the Territory. The Kansas troubles were discussed from the pulpit, and the great preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, advised sending rifles to Kansas and pledged his church for a definite number. The men thus sent out armed with Bibles and rifles were sometimes called "The Rifle Christians." Public meetings were addressed by men fresh from Kansas, among them ex-Governor Reeder, S. N. Wood, and James H. Lane. Much sympathy was aroused for the suffering free-state settlers. Large sums of money were raised, and companies of men were organized to take part in the Territorial contest. The movement swept over the states from Boston to the Northwest.(1) "Societies of semi-military cast, no less willing to furnish guns than groceries, sprang up as if by magic, and overshadowed the earlier, more pacific organizations." As a result of these agitations a stream of migration moved toward Kansas during the spring and summer of 1856. Every party came prepared for defense, and many brought with them a goodly stock of provisions. One writer says of the immigrants, "There were fewer women and children, less house-luggage, fewer agricultural implements; more men, more arms, more ammunition."

Missouri River Closed to Free-state Immigration

These activities of the North were viewed with alarm by the proslavery leaders. They believed that this inflow of free-state settlers must be checked or it would end all hope of making Kansas a slave state. One of the most important of the measures they adopted for this purpose was the closing of the Missouri River to free-state immigration. They overhauled the steamboats and seized merchandise and arms that were being sent to free-state people, and they arrested and turned back all travelers whom they believed to be unfriendly to the South. All overland immigrants received similar treatment as soon as they touched Missouri soil.

New Route to Kansas 

Although this policy occasioned the northern people considerable loss and much inconvenience, it did not check the movement toward Kansas. It simply meant that the immigrants came through Iowa and Nebraska, entering Kansas from the north. The Southerners also appealed to their people and money was raised and men were sent to Kansas, but the response was not to be compared with that of the North.

A Condition of Lawlessness 

While these things were going on, Kansas was becoming more and more lawless. It would be hard to say which side surpassed the other in misdeeds. A number of free-state leaders, including Dr. Robinson, were held at Lecompton during the summer as prisoners on a charge of treason. The free-state people were irritated by the loss of money, supplies, and mail, through the Missouri blockade. Bands of armed proslavery men guarded the roads out of Topeka and Lawrence, so that these towns were really in a state of siege. These guards lived on supplies taken from the surrounding settlers, and cut off supplies sent to the towns so that food became very scarce, especially at Lawrence, where the chief article of diet for some time was ground oats. Meanwhile, supplies were reaching the proslavery towns, Tecumseh, Lecompton, and Franklin, without hindrance. It was evident to the free-state people that their enemies expected to starve them out of the Territory, and they were stin'ed to retaliate. The free-state guerrillas again began their work of seizing the supplies of proslavery settlers and merchants. This was kept up until many of the proslavery people were completely impoverished.

The "Army of the North." 

About the first of August a report that Lane was coming with the "Army of the North" spread over the Territory. James H, Lane was one of the free-state men who had been in the northern states, addressing meetings and raising men and money. He was a very eloquent speaker and had influenced many to come to Kansas. The "Army of the North" consisted of several hundred men, women, and children, most of whom had come to make homes for themselves. This army was a combination of several parties that had united to come into Kansas over the new route through Iowa and Nebraska. Lane was with the party, but only a small number were armed or had been gathered by him.

A Proslavery Army Gathers 

The proslavery leaders began to rally their men along the border. The following sentences are taken from one of the calls they published: "Lane's men have arrived! Civil war is begun! And we call on all who are not prepared to see their friends butchered, to be themselves driven from their homes, to rally to the rescue." A large number of men soon gathered on the border, anxiously awaiting permission to move into Kansas; but as Governor Shannon had dispersed the Missouri army a few weeks earlier, he now refused to issue orders for the new army to move into the Territory. Governor Shannon Resigns. About this time Governor Shannon resigned. He had so displeased the proslavery people that he was compelled to flee for his life under cover of night. Daniel Woodson, Secretary of the Territory, now became Acting Governor until the new Governor should arrive. As he was in full sympathy with proslavery interests he opened the Territory to the Missouri invasion. Woodson's power lasted only three weeks, but they were the darkest days that Kansas had experienced.

The Burning of Osawatomie 

The proslavery army moved into Kansas. The Pottawatomie massacre had not been forgotten, and when this army reached Osawatomie, "the headquarters of old Brown," they attacked the town. John Brown had only forty-one men, and so thoroughly did the enemy do their work this time that only four cabins escaped burning.

Arrival of Governor Geary, September, 1856 

At this time the new Territorial Governor, John W. Geary, arrived. Governor Geary described the situation that he found on his arrival in the following words: "I reached Kansas and entered upon the discharge of my official duties in the most gloomy hour of her history. Desolation and ruin reigned on every hand; homes and firesides were deserted; the smoke of burning dwellings darkened the atmosphere; women and children, driven from their habitations, wandered over the prairies and among the woodlands, or sought refuge even among the Indian tribes. The highways were infested with numerous predatory bands, and the towns were fortified and garrisoned by armies of conflicting partisans, each excited almost to frenzy, and determined upon mutual extermination. Such was, without exaggeration, the condition of the Territory at the period of my arrival."

Conditions in the Territory 

In the meantime the big body of armed Missourians was moving forward and the proslavery settlers were gathering in answer to a call that closed with these words: "Then let every man who can bear arms be off to the war again. Let it be the third and last time. Let the watchword be, 'Extermination, total and complete.'" The free-state people were scattered, unorganized, and but scantily supplied with arms and provisions, and were therefore in no condition to meet such a force. Fortunately, the new Governor, whose policy was that of fair play, at once ordered all bodies of armed men to disband.

Preparations for the Defense of Lawrence 

The Missourians, however, continued to move toward Lawrence. The Governor then took some United States troops and went to Lawrence, which he found in an almost defenseless condition. The town was poorly fortified, with few provisions and not more than ten rounds of ammunition. Even the women and children were armed. There were not more than three hundred people, but there seemed to be no thought of surrender. They would either repulse the enemy or perish in the attempt. The arrival of the Governor with United States soldiers brought unexpected relief.

End of the Reign of Violence, September, 1856 

On the morning of September 15, Governor Geary marched out to the Missouri army encamped about three miles from Lawrence, held a conference with the leaders, and insisted that his orders for disbanding be obeyed. The Missourians consented, and the force of twenty-seven hundred well-equipped men went home. Thus ended the four months' reign of violence^ that had begun with the sacking of Lawrence in May. The threatened attack on Lawrence was the last organized effort of the Missourians to take Kansas by force. Both sides soon gave up their plundering expeditions, travel became safer and property more secure. For a time peace settled down over the Territory, and Governor Geary, believing that order was entirely restored to Kansas, appointed November 20 "as a day of general praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God.'' With the close of the period of violence a little less than two and a half years had passed since the organization of Kansas as a territory in the spring of 1854.


Hostilities were renewed in the spring of 1856. The Missourians prepared for invasion, and the free-state people for defense. Several minor conflicts were followed by the sacking of Lawrence, to which the free-state people offered no resistance. This policy was not approved by John Brown. He counseled revenge and the Pottawatomie massacre followed. Then began a four months' "reign of terror." Several conflicts followed, among them the battle of Black Jack. An army was hurriedly gathered by each side, but Governor Shannon ordered them to disperse. The sympathy of the whole North was aroused, and men and money poured into Kansas. This led to the closing of Missouri to free-state travel, and the newcomers entered Kansas through Nebraska. During this time both sides were committing many outrages and there was a constant condition of lawlessness. The coming of the "Army of the North" resulted in the gathering of a large army from Missouri called "the 2700." Governor Shannon resigned, and Acting Governor Woodson permitted this army to enter Kansas, and it marched toward Lawrence, pillaging Osawatomie as it passed. While Lawrence was awaiting attack, Geary, the new Governor, arrived and ordered the army disbanded. This ended the period of violence.


Prentis, History of Kansas, pp. 93-108. 

Spring, Kansas. 

Robinson, The Kansas Conflict. _ •;

Mrs. Robinson, Kansas — Its Interior and Exterior Life.' 

Blackmar, The Life of Charles Robinson. 

Connelly, James Henry Lane, the Grim Chieftain of Kansas.

Connelley, John Brown. 

Andreas, History of Kansas, pp. 120-125.

Ingalls, Writings, pp. 76-92, 228-262.

McCarter, A Wall of Men. (A novel.)


1. When did the Wakarusa War close? 

2. Describe the winter of 1855-'56. 

3. What conditions came with the spring? 

4. Give an account of the sacking of Lawrence. 

5. Who was John Brown? Why did he come to Kansas? What was the Pottawatomie massacre? What do you know of John Brown other than what is given in this book? 

6. Give an account of the battle of Black Jack, the gathering of armies, and the pillaging of Osawatomie. 

7. What free-state assistance was given by the North? 

8. What measure did this lead Missouri to take? 

9. What was the "Army of the North"? 

10. What was "the 2700"? Who permitted this force to enter Kansas? 

11. Give an account of the second attack on Osawatomie. 

12. Name the Territorial Governors up to this time. 

13. Who was the new Governor? How did he describe the conditions that he found in Kansas? 

14. How was Lawrence threatened? What became of the army? 

15. When did the period of violence close? 

16. What condition followed? 

17. How long was this after the organization of the Territory?


1. Ingalls said of this period: "No time was ever so minutely and so indelibly photographed upon the public retina. The name of no State was ever on so many friendly and so many hostile tongues. It was pronounced in every political speech, and inserted in every political platform. No region was ever so advertised, and the impression then produced has never passed away." This period has given rise to the expression "bleeding Kansas."


Source: A History of Kansas / Anna E. Arnold. pp.83-93


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