Today, we’re looking at the historical event of Bleeding Kansas. How many people died during this time, and what was the cause?
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Between 1854 and 1861, a conflict known as “Bleeding Kansas” erupted in the Kansas Territory. The violence was fueled by the debate surrounding slavery and states’ rights. Many of the victims of the violence were innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.
The Backdrop of Bleeding Kansas
Before the Civil War erupted, the nation was already bleeding. In Kansas, the violence was particularly brutal. Settlers from both the north and the south rushed into the territory to establish claims and stake their positions ahead of the anticipated battle for control of Congress. The fight for dominance in Kansas became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”
Between 1854 and 1861, settlers battled each other in more than 200 skirmishes and armed conflicts. At least 56 people were killed outright, and many more were wounded. But Bleeding Kansas was about more than just numbers; it was about a way of life. The bloodshed represented northerners’ and southerners’ competing visions for America’s future.
The Border Ruffians
Between 1854 and 1861, proslavery and antislavery settlers streaming into the Kansas Territory engaged in a series of bloody confrontations that made the territory the site of the nation’s first civil war. This conflict, later referred to as “Bleeding Kansas,” resulted in the deaths of at least 55 men and boys.
The violence began in earnest in May 1854 with the appearance of armed bands of Missourians—known as “Border Ruffians”—who crossed into Kansas to intimidate voters and rig elections in favor of proslavery candidates. In response, antislavery forces organized their own militias to defend themselves and their settlements.
The largest single engagement of Bleeding Kansas occurred on August 16, 1856, when a proslavery force led by U.S. Marshal Israel Lewis attacked Lawrence, a bastion of antislavery sentiment. During the so-called “Sacking of Lawrence,” which some have likened to a terror campaign, Lewis and his men looted and burned several homes and businesses before being driven off by a group of local residents. No one was killed during this raid, but it helped fan the flames of sectional tension that would eventually lead to civil war.
In May 1861, just months after Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter and ignited the Civil War, Kansans elected John Freeman Jones as the first governor of their newly admitted state. Jones had been involved in Bleeding Kansas as a young man; during one particularly brutal attack on Lawrence in 1856, he narrowly escaped being lynched by an angry mob.
The Jayhawkers were a vigilante group that was active in Kansas Territory during the time of the American Civil War. They were made up of mostly abolitionists who were opposed to the spread of slavery into the territory. The Jayhawkers were known for their violence and for their looting and pillaging of homes and businesses in Kansas Territory. The group was also responsible for the deaths of many people, both pro-slavery and anti-slavery, during the time period known as Bleeding Kansas.
The Sacking of Lawrence
On May 21, 1856, two days after the sack of Lawrence, a proslavery mob captured Fort Titus and destroyed the town of Osawatomie. Brown and a small band of followers evaded capture for nearly two months, but on July 23 they were surrounded by federal marshals near Holton. After a gunfight in which two marshals were killed, Brown and his surviving men surrendered. He was tried for treason against the state of Kansas and murder, found guilty on both counts, and hanged at Charles Town, Virginia (now in West Virginia), on December 2, 1859.
The Battle of Black Jack
On May 21, 1856, some 500 pro-slavery men attacked a group of around 28 anti-slavery men led by abolitionist John Brown in Franklin County, Kansas. The fighting took place around a cabin known as Black Jack. Five men were killed in the battle, three on each side.
The Battle of Osawatomie
In the summer of 1856, tensions over the issue of slavery in the Kansas Territory boiled over into violence. The violence reached a peak on August 30, 1856, when pro-slavery forces led by Sheriff Samuel Jones attacked the town of Lawrence, Kansas. In response, anti-slavery forces led by John Brown launched a raid on the town of Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, killing five pro-slavery men.
The violence continued throughout the fall of 1856 and came to be known as “Bleeding Kansas.” By the end of the year, at least 56 people had been killed in violence related to the issue of slavery in Kansas.
After reviewing the available evidence, it is clear that the true number of people who died in Bleeding Kansas is impossible to know for certain. However, based on the available evidence, it is reasonable to estimate that between 50 and 150 people were killed in total. This figure includes both victims of violence as well as those who died from diseases such as cholera.