Prior to 1854, much of Kansas was part of the Shawnee Indian reservation. Kansas territory was open for settlement in 1854 and with that pronouncement all the trouble began. The country was embroiled in a debate about whether the future states would be slave or free. The Missouri Compromise had declared that all new territories north of latitude 36°30′. The Kansas Nebraska Act spearheaded by Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois introduced the concept of popular sovereignty. Let the people of the territory decide whether they would be a slave state or a free state. Sounds good and logical, right? Well, in practice it did not turn out that way. The new law set the stage for the conflict we call Bleeding Kansas.
Free-Staters, or those who opposed slavery in the new territories and states, were determined that slavery would not get a foothold in the new Kansas territory. In 1854, the New England Emigrant Aid Society was formed in Massachusetts to help new settlers get to Kansas. The first group of pioneers set off from New England in July 1854 and arrived on August 1, 1854. A second group soon followed. The area for the town was chosen for its beauty. The settlers tried several names including Waukarusa, Yankeetown, Excelsior, and New Boston, but none of them fit. The city was finally named for Amos A Lawrence, a major benefactor of the New England Emigrant Aid Society. The main street was named Massachusetts to honor the origin of most of the settlers. This was one of the few cities in America founded purely for political purposes.
With so many settlers coming in from the east with anti-slavery leanings, Lawrence became the capital of Free State activities. The two newspapers based there, Kansas Pioneer and the Herald of Freedom, were active in promoting the Free State mission. This did not set well with pro-slavery headquarters Lecompton, which was ten miles north of Lawrence. Lecompton was full of “land squatters” from Missouri and they were not pleased have the Free Staters ten miles away. Conflict was bound to happen.
When the first territorial elections took place, so called “border ruffians” poured over the border from Missouri to vote illegally in the election. Because of this, all the positions in the territorial government except one was held by pro-slavery politicians. Everyone was bitter and feelings were running high, but there wasn’t much anyone could do about it. Charles Robinson was elected the leader of the Free State government in opposition, but it was mainly in principle. A group called Free Kansas was set up back east, and riffles and other munitions started flowing into the town in preparation for the bloodshed that was sure to come. The territorial governor appointed Samuel L. Jones as sheriff to keep the peace in Lawrence. He was one of the hated Missouri border ruffians, and It was like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.
The first skirmish was on November 21, 1855 when settler Charles Dow was shot and killed by Franklin Coleman a few miles south of Lawrence. Feeling an attack was imminent, the townsfolk mustered a militia and erected barricades and waited. Sheriff Jones approached with a group of men from Missouri, but a truce was hammered out. There was no attack…this time.
Harassment from Sheriff Jones and other Missouri ruffians was constant, and in 1856 Sheriff Jones was shot trying to arrest some members of the opposition Free State government. On May 21, 1856, Sheriff Jones and 800 other pro-slavery forces attacked the town and burned the Free State Hotel to the ground. The town’s two newspapers had their printing presses thrown in the Waukarusa River. Charles Robinson had his home confiscated by the men and used as their headquarters. The Sacking of Lawrence as it came to be known set off a chain of events that led newspapers in the east to call the territory Bleeding Kansas. Free Staters led by John Brown, of later Harper’s Ferry fame, attacked the pro-slavery settlement of Pottawatomie and five settlers were murdered in a single night. The violence flared from there with the Battle of Black Jack and the Battle of Osawatomie. Many historians argue this was the real beginning of the American Civil War.
After many contested elections, the Free Staters got a government elected in 1858 and Kansas boomed. Kansas became a state January 29,1861 with Lawrence in the running for capital, but was beaten out by Topeka. But trouble was on the horizon again with the coming of the Civil War. Old conflicts flared up as border ruffians once again came across from Missouri with violence. The most famous of these is Quantrill’s Raid.
William Clark Quantrill came with his family to Kansas from Ohio at the age of twenty, and taught school of all things. When war broke out, he quickly became one of the most violent and feared guerrilla leaders. Lawrence inspired a special hatred for those with pro-slavery leanings. On August 21, 1863, Quantrill did something about it. In the predawn hours of that summer day, he attacked and told his men to leave no man alive. For four hours, the men burned and looted the town killing anyone who got in their way. The Leavenworth Daily Conservative described the scene along Massachusetts street as “… one mass of smouldering ruins and crumbling walls…. Only two business houses were left upon the street — one known as the Armory, and the other the old Miller block…. About one hundred and twenty-five houses in all were burned, and only one or two escaped being ransacked, and everything of value carried away or destroyed.”
The people of Lawrence had been expecting an attack, but they thought they would have more warning as they were for 40 miles from the Missouri border. All of the weapons were locked in the armory, and by the time the raiders were on them there was no time to mount a defense. It was a slaughter. Over 150 men were killed and many more wounded. All of the food for the town was gone, and they only survived as word of the raid got out and farmers from land surrounding brought in supplies.
Money and more supplies poured in to help the survivors rebuild as they were bound and determined to stay. Two companies of United States troops were marched in as well and stayed until the end of the war.
Sources available on request