Back to Top

UWBTS — Chapter 15:


Chapter 15 — Bleeding Kansas, the Emigrant Aid Societies and John Brown — a Story of 1850’s Political Prejudice, Terrorism and Propaganda in America, Pitting the Northern against the Southern Cultures.

By Howard Ray White of N. C., S.I.S.H



Understanding the War Between The States requires knowledge of the competition, between the Northern Culture and the Southern Culture, for political control of Kansas Territory, which began in 1854 – the year of the first Republican parties in the Northern states – and lasted into 1861, the year Republicans completed their takeover of the office of Governor in every Northern state, plus the office of President.  Here also is the important story of terrorist John Brown.  Prior to 9/11, America’s greatest experience with terrorism had occurred in Kansas Territory during the 1850s, fueling political sectionalism and propaganda useful to the rapidly expanding Republican Party of the Northern states.

An Honest Sampling of the History Relevant to the WBTS

At first, Kansas Territory was not to be, suggesting that America might have avoided Bleeding Kansas, because in early 1854, Congress was moving toward authorizing a larger territory composed of the combined lands of present-day Nebraska and Kansas.  The Missouri Compromise of 1820, which was struck to gain admittance of Missouri as a state, had stipulated that afterward bonded African Americans would not be allow to live in any new states north of the Arkansas-Missouri boundary latitude, and Nebraska and Kansas lay north of that boundary.  Had the agreement been broken by admission of California, far south of the boundary?  Southerners said “Yes.”  So, Stephen Douglas, Senator of Illinois and the most powerful Democrat in Congress, drafted a bill dividing this proposed Nebraska into two territories, the northern half to be called Nebraska, the southern half to be called Kansas – vote by settlers would decide yes or no on bonded African Americans.  Douglas’s main political concern was ensuring that his home town Chicago was the hub of westward railroads, for no Senator focused more on railroad deal-making than the North’s most powerful Democrat.  Anyway, Douglas figured the Southern culture would settle Kansas while the Northern culture settled the other territory and his railroad schemes would be the better for it.  On May 29, 1854, Democrat President Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, making it Federal law.  Of his leadership over what would prove to be reckless legislation, Douglas would boast:

“I passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act myself.  I had the authority and power of a dictator throughout the whole controversy in both [the House and the Senate].  The speeches were nothing.  It was the marshalling and directing of men . . .”

That summer, settlers of the Southern culture, mostly of adjacent Missouri and generally comfortable with including African Americans, slave or free, had established 3 towns on the west bank of the Missouri River, named Leavenworth, Kickapoo and Atchison.  But there was no organized effort to fund and encourage rapid settlement by Southerners.

On the other hand, an organized effort to organize and fund settlement from far-away Massachusetts was launched during that summer of 1854 when Eli Thayer convinced the Massachusetts State Legislature to grant him a Charter to establish the “Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company,” with authority to raise up to $5,000,000 to finance the venture.  Thayer reasoned that Kansas settlers from Massachusetts would need organized political, financial and military support to win control of the future Kansas Territory Legislature and thereby empower the Exclusionist cause.  He also hoped to make a lot of money on Kansas land sales and other opportunities.  The stock prospectus promised to sell off all company assets and pay a dividend to stockholders when Kansas became a state.  Christian and Unitarian ministers, the latter a major force in the Massachusetts Abolition Movement, were supportive.  In July, 29 men, aiming to be the Company’s first group of Kansas settlers, were sent off from Boston with much the same fanfare with which heroes are sent off to war.

By the way, in that same month, Cassius Clay, son of a Kentucky slave-holding family and a well-known Abolitionist, denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act before a gathering in Springfield, Illinois, while local lawyer Abe Lincoln lounged on the grass, listening to the denunciations and exhortations.  

When the group of 29 Massachusetts men arrived at St. Louis, they were directed to a town site about 40 miles up the Kansas River, where Company leader Charles Robinson wanted to build the outfit’s first town.  Robinson announced the town’s name would be “Lawrence” in honor of Amos Lawrence, the treasurer of the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company.  Robinson was heaping flattery on the wealthy Lawrence in hopes of even greater financial aid.

Appointed by President Franklin Pierce to be Governor of Kansas Territory, Andrew Reeder of Pennsylvania set up office in October 1854 near Fort Leavenworth, which had been built by the U. S. Army in 1827.  Of Leavenworth town, the February 1855 issue of the Leavenworth Herald said: “Five months ago there was not a building in the place.”

There is insufficient space in this chapter to cover events in 1855, when many settlers of the Southern culture arrived, so we skip forward to the crucial year of 1856.  By that summer, Republican political leaders and Republican newspapermen were intent on winning fall elections in the Northern states.    At stake were Northern state elections not yet in Republican hands (governors, legislators, Congress and President).  And political agitation over Bleeding Kansas was near the forefront of Republican propaganda efforts.  We will examine three happenings that summer which focused on Bleeding Kansas.

First, we look at Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts.  During May 19 and 20, 1856, Sumner stood before the Senate delivering a 120-page thoroughly memorized and preprinted, 120-page speech, demonizing the people of the Southern states and their political leaders. The speech, called “The Crime against Kansas,” was delivered to a packed Senate crowd and printed in many Republican newspapers in the Northern states and as a pamphlet.  In this 120-page memorized speech, Sumner twisted into a “crime” the story of efforts by Southerners to peacefully and lawfully settle in Kansas Territory and to allow African Americans to live there.  In my epic history, Bloodstains, I wrote, “It is amazing that a mind capable of memorizing 120 pages was incapable of recognizing false propaganda, yet, that is the case with Charles Sumner.”  By the way, during the two-day speech, Sumner also defamed the name of fellow Senator Andrew Butler, of South Carolina, prompting his nephew, Representative Preston Brooks, also of South Carolina, to beat the defamer with a walking cane, for Sumner would have refused to duel.  How did Sumner respond?  He pretended to be gravely and permanently injured by the “Southern ruffian,” transforming himself into a well-publicized martyr for the Republican Party over the next 4 years.  Yes, over a span of 4 years he returned to his Senate seat once, then to vote for a higher tariff.  This political episode was called the “Caning of Charles Sumner.”

Secondly, we look at a May 21 attempt by Kansas Territory authorities to arrest a group of Exclusionist terrorists who had been previously indicted by a grand jury, but shielded by Exclusionists in Lawrence, headquarters for the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company and its propaganda newspapers.  Sheriff Jones had attempted to arrest these terrorists in December 1855, but had been shot and wounded by the town’s defenders.  This time arresting authorities were led by Federal Marshall Israel Donelson and supported by a large, well-armed Territory posse and Sheriff Jones.  Unlike the defiant response encountered in December, arresting authorities found that Emigrant Aid Company leader Charles Robinson and most prominent terrorists had fled north to escape arrest.  But the posse could not be restrained from doing a bit of damage about town.  It burned the fortress-like Free State Hotel, demolished the buildings housing two newspapers, the Kansas Free State and the Herald of Freedom, threw their type into the river and, for good measure, burned the vacant house belonging to Charles Robinson.  No Lawrence resident was hurt.  But, Republican newspapers across the Northern states were eager for propaganda that supported allegations that Southern people were violent “ruffians.”  So, the burning of the four vacated buildings in Lawrence was trumpeted as the “Sack of Lawrence,” projecting horrors reminiscent of the “Sack of Rome” by Barbarians over 1,000 years ago. 

Thirdly, we examine the May 24 terrorist murders by the Kansas Territory gang led by John Brown of New York and Ohio, and secretly supported by six well-to-do and influential northeastern Republican Exclusionists.  At this point, Brown’s gang consisted of sons Watson, Oliver and Frederick, his son-in-law Henry Thompson, and gang members James Townsley and Theodore Weiner.  Together, the terrorists headed for the section of Pottawatomie Creek where two German immigrants, Henry and William Sherman, ran a store. There settlers of the Southern culture lived.  “But it’s killing men in cold blood,” Townsley protested.  Brown replied, “It has been ordained by the Almighty God, ordained from eternity, that I should make an example of these men.”  It was about 11:00 pm when the Doyle household, just getting ready to go to bed, was startled by a knock on the door.  Upon entering the house, with the heavily armed gang following, Brown demanded that the father, James Doyle, surrender “in the name of the Army of the North.”  James did the only thing he could do.  He obeyed orders and stepped outside to meet whatever was in store for him, while 2 men of the “Army of the North” stood guard over his family.  After a few minutes of dead silence, Brown came back and ordered two boys, William and Drury, to step outside.  At daybreak Mahala Doyle found, in scattered places her husband, shot dead and pierced in the side, and her two sons dead, their heads split open, their sides pierced, and William’s fingers chopped off.  Also killed in similar fashion that night were Allen Wilkinson, a member of the Kansas Territory Legislature, and William Sherman, “whose skull was split with the brains spilled out but still holding in the waters of Mosquito Creek.”  News of these terrorist murders did not receive attention in Northern newspapers, except for a few that briefly mentioned some attacks blamed on Native Americans.  This was typical, for Republican newspapers were focused on demeaning Southerners and Democrats in general to win fall elections for the sectional Republican Party.  Later, to forget memory of terrorist John Brown, residents of Dutch Henry’s Crossing would rename the place “Lane” in honor of James Henry Lane (Google James Henery Lane of Kansas fame).

In 1859, as political excitement over the upcoming 1860 elections mounted, the terrorist John Brown enlarged his gang and launched a foolish raid on the Federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, near the northern boundary of Virginia.  That is another story, not much more than a doomed criminal assault on a poorly defended Federal facility, but a story that won amazing praise across the Northern states, eventually elevating John Brown to a Christ-like being in the original version of America’s patriotic song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

The sectional Republicans ran a candidate for President in the 1856 elections.  Although their candidate for President, John Fremont, lost, he carried 11 Northern states, Republican strength in Congress would reduce Democrats to 50 percent of House seats and 56 percent of Senate seats.  All 16 Northern states had vigorous Republican parties and, by early 1857, 12 governors were Republicans.  The sectional Republican Party was clearly politically powerful, even though limited to the Northern states.  Furthermore, it was apparent that propaganda over Bleeding Kansas was a potent political tool for gathering additional votes, looking forward to 1860.

After the secession of several Southern states, Republicans, no longer needing Bleeding Kansas propaganda, granted statehood to Kansas.

I have insufficient space for full coverage of Kansas terrorism, the killings, the arson, threats against settlers of the opposite culture.  Southerners did resort to violence in retaliation, but Northerners instigated the vast majority of the incidents.


It was not so much the terrorism taking place in Kansas Territory as the twisted Northern states newspaper coverage.  The terrorists were from the North, but the blame was directed at the settlers from the South.  Kansas Territory and John Brown is a study in political demagoguery – a big word, worthy of looking up – more than any other word, characterizing political sectionalism in the Northern States. 

Topic for Class Discussion

Why should Americans be always searching for the truth, inspecting with questioning minds messages that smell like political deception, political demagoguery, and so forth?

Recommended Reading

  • Bleeding Kansas by Alice Nichols, pub. 1954.
  • The Secret Six, John Brown and the Abolitionist Movement, Otto Scott, pub. 1979.