Personal Recollections of Life in Territorial Kansas in Border Ruffian Days
Perhaps, in all the history of those turbulent times, there was no single event fraught with more suffering to the individuals concerned, and more anxiety to the free state party, than this capture and imprisonment of ninety or a hundred men by Uncle Sam. They were taken before Judge Cato [U.S. Judge Sterling Cato in Lecompton], who was himself of that border-ruffian army, who so recently had been desirous of sacking Lawrence, and he committed them for murder. They were tried during the fall term of court and a portion of them held in confinement in Lecompton till the following spring, when, I think, they were pardoned by Governor Geary.
Sketch of the Lecompton area in the late 1850s. View of Lecompton (in Douglas County, pro-slavery capital of Kansas Territory) from north of Rising Sun in Jefferson County across the Kaw River. Image courtesy of Jefferson County Historical Society.
Let me here pause and give a brief history of the political situation prevailing in 1856.
In 1855, by fraud of the most outrageous character, came into existence a body of men, purporting to be the “Territorial Legislature of Kansas.” This “Bogus” legislature was recognized by the pro-slavery administration at Washington, and it proceeded to formulate a code of laws, firmly establishing slavery in the territory, and virtually shutting out from any official political influence every free state man.
Here is a section of the act to punish offenses against slave property:
“If any free person, by speaking or writing, assert or maintain that persons have not the right to hold slaves in this territory; written, printed, published or circulate in this territory, any book, paper, magazine, pamphlet, or circular, containing any denial of the right of persons to hold slaves in this territory, such person shall be deemed guilty of felony, and punished by imprisonment at hard labor for a term of not less than two years.”
This is a single section of a slave code, which the notorious Gen. Stringfellow asserted was more efficient to protect slaver property than the code of any slave state in the Union. [B.F. Stringfellow also was the publisher of the pro-slavery Atchison Squatter Sovereign newspaper.] When we learn that this was the pretended law for a territory forever dedicated to freemen, and that it was intended to be rigorously enforced, is it any wonder that freedom for a while stood aghast at such purposes, and then determined to resist even to a bloody issue?
Every office was now filled with a pro-slavery incumbent, appointed by this “bogus” legislature or by some of its creatures, and provision was made that in the election of a new legislature in the fall of 1856, no one could be eligible to office except he took an oath to support the fugitive slave law.
On September 5, 1855, the free state party met in convention at Big Springs. The following resolution, one of a dozen or more, will show the temper of the party:
“Resolved: That we owe no allegiance to the tyrannical enactments of this spurious legislature—that their laws have no validity or binding force upon the people of Kansas, and that every free man is at full liberty, consistent with all his obligations as a citizen and a man, to resist them if he chooses to do so.”
The free state party now took measures to establish a government for the territory. Elections were held for the purpose of forming a state constitution, and a legislature was also elected, afterwards known as the Topeka legislature, but which never existed as a de facto body, and which was finally dispersed by Col. [Edwin V.] Sumner, July 4, 1856.
The free state party contended that there could be no legal existence of slavery in the territories, that the “ordinance of 1787,” which forever prohibited slavery in Northwest territory, was still in force, and that the “Missouri Compromise” still held good, until a territory came to adopt a state constitution, when, under the “Kansas-Nebraska bill,” the people could vote it up or down. Afterward, it is true, (March 6, 1857) the questions in controversy were settled, in the supreme court decision of the “Dred Scott case.” This decision declared both the “ordinance of 1787,” and the “Missouri Compromise” unconstitutional, and denied the right of congress or the people of a territory to prohibit slavery within its limits.
To recapitulate: This is the political condition in the fall of 1856. Proslavery resident population a minority – all offices filled by this minority – illegal officers under illegal statutes constantly serving illegal writs in a violent and illegal manner against a legally helpless majority, and all remedy for the majority cut off, by illegal enactments, practically prohibiting them any peaceful method of redress. Shall we censure the descendants of those who resisted, politically, the assumption of British prerogatives, and had the nerve to back it up at Lexington and Bunker Hill, and through eight years of war, for refusing their allegiance to this illegitimate legislature, and for resisting their unlawful methods of procedure?
I think I can now see that the “great civil conflict” was not first promulgated by the shot at Sumter. It, and what followed, were only the legitimate results of the “Kansas-Nebraska bill” and the iniquitous interpretations of our constitution, contrary to the voice and conscience of freedom in this country. To the free state men and women of Kansas in 1855 to 1861 belong the honor of the first successful resistance to the slave power, and if I should be asked to specify just where this resistance was born, and what particular spot was more sacred and glorious than others, I would point to the lovely valley with its now thriving city nestling close to Mt. Oread, crowned in the days of long ago, with its little fort of protective stones, but now glorious upon its crest, fit dwelling place, for the training of the descendants of the sires and dames that once protected and saved their state to freedom, vis: the city of Lawrence.
These articles are from a series written by Thomas Gay in 1894 for the Chariton (Iowa) Herald newspaper. Mr. Gay lived in Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, for a few years beginning in May 1856. Copies of his articles were obtained from the Lucas County Genealogical Society (Iowa) and from the Kansas State Historical Society Biographical Scrapbooks, volume 55. Mr. Gay, born in Canada, served in the Civil War in an Illinois regiment, and soon after the war lived in Iowa the rest of his life. Some readers might recognize parts of later installments because a few snippets were used in the book, “Ozawkie on the Delaware, 1854-1876,” by Erma L. Steffey.
This story appeared in "Yesteryears" in October 2015.