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The passage of the Nebraska bill and the hurried extinction of the Indian title opened nearly fifteen million acres of public lands to settlement and purchase. The whole of this vast area was yet practically tenantless.

In all of Kansas, there were only three military posts, eight or ten missions or schools attached to Indian reservations, and some scores of roving hunters and traders or squatters in the vicinity of a few well-known camping stations on the two principal emigrant and trading routes, one leading southward to New Mexico, the other northward towards Oregon. But such had been the interest created by the political excitement, and so favorable were the newspaper reports of the location, soil, and climate of the new country, that a few months sufficed to change Kansas from a closed and prohibited Indian reserve to the emigrant's land of promise.

Douglas's oracular "stump speech" in the Nebraska bill transferred the struggle for slavery extension from Congress to the newly organized territories. "Come on, then, gentlemen of the slave States," said Seward in a Senate discussion; "since there is no escaping your challenge, I accept it in behalf of Freedom. We will engage in competition for the virgin soil of Kansas, and God gives the victory to the side that is stronger in numbers as it is in right." With fifteen millions in the North against ten millions in the South, the result could not be in doubt.

Feeling secure in this evident advantage, the North, in general, trusted to the ordinary and natural movement of emigration. To the rule, however, there were a few exceptions. Some members of Congress, incensed at the tactics of the Nebraska leaders, formed a Kansas Aid Society in Washington City and contributed money to assist emigrants. [Footnote: Testimony of the Hon. Daniel Mace, page 829, House Report No. 200, 1st Session, 34th Congress. "Howard Report."] Beyond this initiatory step they do not seem to have had any personal participation in it, and its office and working operations were soon transferred to New York. Sundry similar organizations were also formed by private individuals. The most notable of these was a Boston company chartered in April, named "The Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company." The charter was soon abandoned, and the company reorganized June 13th, under private articles of association; [Footnote: E. E. Hale, "Kansas and Nebraska," p. 229. It was once more incorporated February 21, 1855, under the name of "The New England Emigrant Aid Company."] and in this condition, it became virtually the working agency of philanthropic citizens of New England, headed by Eli Thayer. There were several auxiliary societies and a few independent associations. But from what then and afterwards came to light, it appears that Mr. Thayer's society was the only one whose operations reached any degree of success deserving historical notice.

This company gave publicity, through newspaper advertisements and pamphlets, of its willingness to organize emigrants into companies, to send them to Kansas in charge of trustworthy agents, and to obtain transportation for them at reduced rates. It also sent machinery for a few saw-mills, the types and presses for two or three newspapers, and erected a hotel or boarding-house to accommodate newcomers. It purchased and held only the land necessary to locate these business enterprises. It engaged in no speculation, paid no fare of any emigrants, and expressly disavowed the requirement of any oath or pledge of political sentiment or conduct. All these transactions were open, honest, and lawful, carefully avoiding even the implication of moral or political wrong.

Under the auspices of this society, a pioneer company of about thirty persons arrived in Kansas in July 1854 and founded the town of Lawrence. Other parties followed from time to time, sending out offshoots, but mainly increasing the parent settlement, until next to Fort Leavenworth, the principal military post, Lawrence became the leading town of the Territory. The erection of the society hotel, the society saw-mills, and the establishment of a newspaper also gave it leadership in business and politics as well as population. This humane and praiseworthy enterprise has been gravely charged with the origin and responsibility of the political disorders which folio wed in Kansas. Nothing could be further from the truth. Before it had assisted five hundred persons to their new homes, the Territory had by regular and individual immigration, mainly from the Western States, acquired a population of 8601 souls, as disclosed by the official census taken after the first summer's arrivals, and before those of the second had begun. It needs only this statement to refute the political slander so industriously repeated in high places against the Lawrence immigrants.

Deeper causes than the philanthropy or zeal of a few Boston enthusiasts were actively at work. The balance of power between the free and slave states had been destroyed by the admission of California. To restore that balance the South had consummated the repeal of the Missouri Compromise as a first and indispensable step. The second equally indispensable step was to seize the political control of the new Territory.

Kansas lay directly west of the State of Missouri. For a frontier State, the pro-slavery sentiment of Missouri was very pronounced, especially along the Kansas border. The establishment of slavery in this new region had formed the subject of public and local discussion before the Nebraska bill, and Senator Atchison had promised his western Missouri constituents to labor for such a result. From the time the unlooked-for course of Senator Douglas made it a practical possibility, Atchison was all zeal and devotion to this object, which he declared was almost as dear to him as his hope of heaven. When it finally became a question to be decided perhaps by a single frontier election, his zeal and work in that behalf were many times multiplied.

Current reports and subsequent developments leave no doubt that this Senator, being then acting Vice-President of the United States, [Footnote: By virtue of his office as President _pro tempore_ of the United States Senate. The Vice-Presidency was vacant; William R. King, chosen with President Pierce, had died.] immediately after the August adjournment of Congress hurried away to his home in Platte County, Missouri, and from that favorable situation personally organized a vast conspiracy, running through nearly all the counties of his State adjoining the Kansas border, to decide the slavery question for Kansas by Missouri votes. Secret societies under various names, such as "Blue Lodges," "Friends' Society," "Social Band," "Sons of the South," were organized and affiliated, with all the necessary machinery of oaths, grips, signs, passwords, and badges. The plan and object of the movement were in general kept well concealed. Such publicity as could not be avoided served rather to fan the excitement, strengthen the hesitating, and frown down all dissent and opposition. Long before the time for action arrived, the idea that Kansas must be a slave State had grown into a fixed and determined public sentiment.

The fact is not singular if we remember the peculiar situation of that locality. It was before the great expansion of railroads, and western Missouri could only be conveniently approached by the single commercial link of steamboat travel on the turbid and dangerous Missouri River. Covering the rich, alluvial lands along the majestic but erratic stream lay the heavy slave counties of the State, wealthy from the valuable slave products of hemp and tobacco. Slave tenure and slavery traditions in Missouri dated back a full century, to the remote days when the American Bottom opposite St. Louis was one of the chief bread and meat-producing settlements of New France, sending supplies northward to Mackinaw, southward to New Orleans, and eastward to Fort Duquesne. When in 1763 "the Illinois" country passed by treaty under the British flag, the old French colonists, with their slaves, almost in a body crossed the Mississippi into then Spanish territory, and with fresh additions from New Orleans founded St. Louis and its outlying settlements; and these, growing with a steady thrift, extended themselves up the Missouri River.

Slavery was thus identified with the whole history and also with the apparent prosperity of the State; and it had in recent times made many of these Western counties rich. The free State of Iowa lay a hundred miles to the north, and the free State of Illinois two hundred to the east; a wall of Indian tribes guarded the west. Should all this security be swept away, and their runaways find a free route to Canada by simply crossing the county line? Should the price of their personal "chattels" fall one-half for want of a new market? With nearly fifteen million acres of fresh land to choose from for the present outlay of a trifling preemption fee, should not the poor white compel his single "black boy" to follow him a few miles west, and hoe his tobacco for him on the new fat bottom-lands of the Kaw River?

[Speech in Platte County. Wm. Phillips, "Conquest of Kansas," p. 48]

Even such off-hand reasoning was probably confined to the more intelligent. For the greater part, these ignorant but stubborn and strong-willed frontiersmen were moved by a bitter hatred of "abolitionism," because the word had now been used for half a century by partisans high and low--Governors, Senators, Presidents--as a term of opprobrium and a synonym of crime. With these as fathers of the faith and the Vice-President of the United States as an apostle to preach a new crusade, is it astonishing that there was no lack of listeners, converts, and volunteers? Senator Atchison spoke in no ambiguous words. "When you reside in one day's journey of the Territory," said he, "and when your peace, your quiet, and your property depend upon your action, you can without an exertion send five hundred of your young men who will vote in favor of your institutions. Should each county in the State of Missouri only do its duty, the question will be decided quietly and peaceably at the ballot box. If we are defeated, then Missouri and the other Southern States will have shown themselves, recreant, to their interests and will deserve their fate."

Western water transportation found its natural terminus where the Kaw or Kansas River empties into the Missouri. From this circumstance that locality had for years been the starting point for the overland caravans or wagon trains. Fort Leavenworth was the point of rendezvous for those going to California and Oregon; Independence the place of outfit for those destined to Santa Fe. Grouped about these two points were half a dozen heavy slaveholding counties of Missouri,--Platte, Clay, Bay, Jackson, Lafayette, Saline, and others. Platte County, the home of Senator Atchison, was their Western outpost, and lay like an outspread fan in the great bend of the Missouri, commanding from thirty to fifty miles of riverfront. Nearly all of Kansas attainable by the usual water transportation and travel lay immediately opposite. A glance at the map will show how easily local sentiment could influence or dominate commerce and travel on the Missouri River. In this connection, the character of the population must be taken into account. The spirit of intolerance which once pervaded all slaveholding communities, in whatever State of the Union, was here rampant to an unusual degree. The rural inhabitants were marked by the strong characteristics of the frontier,--fondness of adventure, recklessness of exposure or danger to life, a boastful assertion of personal right, privilege, or prowess, a daily and hourly familiarity with the use of fire-arms. These again were heightened by two special influences--the presence of Indian tribes whose reservations lay just across the border, and the advent and preparation of each summer's emigration across the great plains. The "Argonauts of '49" were not all gamblers and cut-throats of border song and story. Generally, however, they were men of decision and will, all mere driftwood in the great current of gold-seekers being soon washed ashore and left behind. Until they finished their last dinner at the Planter's House in St. Louis, the fledgelings of cities, the lawyers, doctors, merchants, and speculators, were in or of civilization. Perhaps they even resisted the contamination of cards and drink, profanity and revolver salutations, while the gilded and tinseled Missouri River steamboat bore them for three days against its muddy current and boiling eddies to meet their company and their outfit.

Image: David R. Atchison, Leader of the Border Ruffians. Source: Wikimedia

 

But once landed at Independence or Leavenworth, they were of the frontier, of the wilderness, of the desert. Here they donned their garments of red flannel and coarse cloth or buckskin, thrust the legs of their trousers inside the tops of their heavy boots, and wore their bowie-knife or revolver in their outside belt. From this departure all were subject to the inexorable equality of the camp. Eating, sleeping, standing guard, tugging at the wheel or defending life and property,--there was no rank between captain and cook, employer and employed, savant and ignoramus, but the distribution of duty and the assignment of responsibility. Toil and exposure, hunger and thirst, wind and storm, danger in camp quarrel or Indian ambush, were the familiar and ordinary vicissitudes of a three months' journey in a caravan of the plains.

All this movement created business for these Missouri River towns. Their few inhabitants drove a brisk trade in shirts and blankets, guns and powder, hard bread and bacon, wagons and livestock. Petty commerce busies itself with the art of gain rather than with the labor of reform. Indian and emigrant traders did not too closely scan their sources of profit. The precepts of the divine and the penalties of the human law sat lightly upon them. As yet many of these frontier towns were small hamlets, without even a pretext of police regulations. Passion, therefore, ran comparatively a free course, and the personal redress of private wrongs was only held in check by the broad and acknowledged right of self-defense. Since 1849 and 1850, when the gold fever was at its height, emigration across the plains had slackened, and the eagerness for a revival of this local traffic undoubtedly exerted its influence in procuring the opening of the territories in 1854. The noise and excitement created by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act awakened the hope of frontier traders and speculators, who now greedily watched all the budding chances of gain. Under such circumstances these opportunities to the shrewd, to the bold, and especially to the unscrupulous, are many. Cheap lands, unlimited town lots, eligible trading sites, the multitude of franchises and privileges within the control of a territorial legislature, the offices to be distributed under party favoritism, offer an abundant lure to enterprise and far more to craft.

It was to such a population and under such a condition of things that Senator Atchison went to his home in Platte County in the summer of 1854 to preach his pro-slavery crusade against Kansas. His personal convictions, his party faith, his senatorial reflection, and his financial fortunes, were all involved in the scheme. With the help of the Stringfellows and other zealous co-workers, the town of Atchison was founded and named in his honor, and the "Squatter Sovereign" newspaper established, which displayed his name as a candidate for the presidency. The goodwill of the Administration was manifested by making one of the editors postmaster at the new town.

President Pierce appointed as Governor of Kansas Territory Andrew H. Keeder, a member of his own party, from the free State of Pennsylvania. He had neither prominent reputation nor conspicuous ability, though under trying circumstances he afterwards showed diligence, judgment, integrity, and more than ordinary firmness and independence. It is to be presumed that his fitness in a partisan light had been thoroughly scrutinized by both President and Senate. Upon the vital point, the investigation was deemed conclusive. "He was appointed," the "Washington Union" naively stated when the matter was first called in question, "under the strongest assurance that he was strictly and honestly a national man. We are able to state further, on very reliable authority, that whilst Governor Reeder was in Washington, at the time of his appointment, he conversed with Southern gentlemen on the subject of slavery, and assured them that he had no more scruples in buying a slave than a horse, and regretted that he had not money to purchase a number to carry with him to Kansas." With him were appointed three Federal judges, a secretary, a marshal, and an attorney for the Territory, all doubtless considered equally trustworthy on the slavery question. The organic act invested the governor with very comprehensive powers to initiate the organization of the new Territory. Until the first legislature should be duly constituted, he had authority to fix election days, define election districts, direct the mode of returns, take a census, locate the temporary seat of government, declare vacancies, order new elections to fill them, besides the usual and permanent powers of an executive.

[Sidenote: Ex-Governor Reeder's Testimony, "Howard Report," pp. 933-985.]

Arriving at Leavenworth in October, 1854, Governor Reeder was not long in discovering the designs of the Missourians. He was urged to order the immediate election of a territorial legislature. The conspirators had already spent some months in organizing their "Blue Lodges," and now desired at once to control the political power of the Territory. But the Governor had too much manliness to become the mere pliant tool they wished to make him. He resented their dictation; he made a tour of inspection through the new settlements; and, acting on his own judgment, on his return issued a proclamation for a simple election of a delegate to Congress. At the appearance of this proclamation, Platte County took alarm, and held a meeting on the Kansas side of the river, to intimidate him with violent speeches and a significant memorial. The Governor retorted in a letter that the meeting was composed of Missourians and that he should resist outside interference from friend, foe, or faction. [Footnote: Governor Reeder to Gwiner and others, Nov. 21, 1854; copied into "National Era," Jan. 4, 1855.] Pocketing this rebuff as best they might, Senator Atchison and his "Blue Lodges" nevertheless held fast to their purpose. Paper proclamations and lectures on abstract rights counted little against the practical measures they had matured. November 29th, the day of election for delegate, finally arrived, and with it a formidable invasion of Missouri voters at more than half the polling places appointed in the Governor's proclamation.

In frontier life it was an everyday experience to make excursions for business or pleasure, singly or in parties, requiring two or three consecutive days, perhaps a night or two of camping out, for which saddle-horses and farm-wagons furnished ready transportation; and nothing was more common than concerted neighborhood efforts for improvement, protection, or amusement. On such occasions neighborly sentiment and comity required every man to drop his axe, or unhitch from the plow in the furrow, to further the real or imaginary weal of the community. In urgent instances, non-compliance was fatal to the peace and comfort and sometimes to the personal safety of the settler. The movement described above had been inactive preparation for weeks, controlled by strong and secret combinations, and many unwilling participants were doubtless swept into it by an excited public opinion they dared not resist.

A day or two before the election the whole Missouri border was astir. Horses were saddled, teams harnessed, wagons loaded with tents, forage, and provisions, bowie-knives buckled on, revolvers and rifles loaded, and flags and inscriptions flung to the breeze by the more demonstrative and daring. Crossing the river-ferries from the upper counties, and passing unobstructed over the State line by the prairie-roads and trails from the lower, many of them camped that night at the nearest polls, while others pushed on fifty or a hundred miles to the sparsely settled election districts of the interior. As they passed along, the more scrupulous went through the empty form of an imaginary settlement, by nailing a card to a tree, driving a stake into the ground, or inscribing their names in a claim register, prepared in haste by the invading party. The indifferent satisfied themselves with mere mental resolves to become settlers. The utterly reckless silenced all scruples in profanity and drunkenness.

On election morning the few real squatters of Kansas, endowed with Douglas's delusive boon of "popular sovereignty," witnessed with mixed indignation and terror acts of summary usurpation. Judges of election were dispossessed and set aside by intimidation or stratagem, and pro-slavery judges substituted without the slightest regard to regularity or law; judges' and voters' oaths were declared unnecessary, or explained away upon newly-invented phrases and absurd subtleties. "Where there's a will, there's a way," in wrong and crime, as well as in honest purpose and deed; and by more dishonest devices than we can stop fully to record the ballot-boxes were filled, through invasion, false swearing, riot, and usurpation, with ballots for Whitfield, the pro-slavery candidate for delegate to Congress, at nine out of the seventeen polling places--showing, upon a careful scrutiny afterwards made by a committee of Congress, an aggregate of 1729 illegal votes, and only 1114 legal ones.

This mockery of an election completed, the valiant Knights of the Blue Lodge, the fraternal members of the Social Band, the philanthropic groups of the Friends' Society, and the chivalric Sons of the South returned to their axe and plow, society lodge and bar-room haunt, to exult in a victory for Missouri and slavery over the "Abolition hordes and nigger thieves of the Emigrant Aid Society." The "Border Ruffians" of Missouri had written their preliminary chapter in the annals of Kansas. The published statements of the Emigrant Aid Society show that up to the date of election it had sent only a few hundred men, women, and children to the Territory. Why such a prodigious effort was deemed necessary to overcome the votes and influence of this paltry handful of "paupers who had sold themselves to Eli Thayer and Co." was never explained.