Map of the Kansas and Nebraska Territories, National Archives

On January 29th, Kansas celebrates its 160th anniversary of statehood. The story of Kansas’s path to becoming a state is a dramatic and important one in our nation’s history.

All eyes were on Kansas in the 1850s. Kansas was the flashpoint for two events that changed our nation forever–the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Just after Kansas Territory was formed in 1854, it quickly became the center of attention. The whole nation knew that when Kansas became a state, it would alter the balance of power between North and South. The territory became known as Bleeding Kansas because of violent clashes between anti- and proslavery supporters.

Kansas Territory was created on May 30, 1854. People seeking new opportunities immediately began immigrating here. Some came for land, some came to fight for a cause, and some came for both reasons. Farmers, land speculators, and railroad promoters looked westward for opportunity in the 1850s. The Indian country, though, lay in the way of their view of progress. Many Americans believed Kansas would determine the future of slavery. Willing to risk their lives and fortunes, people on all sides of the slavery issue flocked here in the 1850s.

Draft of the Kansas Nebraska Act, National Archives

To become a state, Kansas needed a constitution. The document voters chose would either prohibit or allow slavery. People came to Kansas especially to vote (to cast a legal ballot, they had to live here), but they couldn’t agree on a constitution because of their differences on slavery. Kansas had four different constitutional conventions because delegates could not write a document that satisfied both the people of the territory and the U.S. Congress. Fraudulent elections, threats of violence, and congressional disagreements all prolonged the conflict.

Missourians crossed the border in great numbers to vote illegally. They were successful at first, electing several proslavery officials. Voting fraud was so serious in 1854 and 1855 that Congress ordered a special commission to investigate. One incident in the committee’s report involved proslavery Sheriff Samuel Jones. He entered a polling place and gave the election judges five minutes to leave or be killed.

Kansas Territory quickly became known as Bleeding Kansas because of violence carried out by both sides. Antislavery as well as proslavery supporters made threats, destroyed property, and committed murder. Bleeding Kansas is as much about terror–the threat of death–as it is about spilled blood. Much of the violence was exaggerated by the press, with both Northern and Southern newspapers playing up acts of aggression. Nevertheless, the nation believed all of Kansas to be a bloody battleground. Most Kansans never experienced violence themselves, but all lived with the fear of it.

Lawrence was a well-known antislavery town. Its newspapers constantly criticized the proslavery territorial government. As a result, a proslavery grand jury stated that the newspapers and the Free State Hotel were nuisances and could be “removed.” Shortly thereafter, a proslavery mob attacked Lawrence, looting homes and destroying businesses. Three months after the sack of Lawrence, free-state men retaliated by attacking Fort Titus, a nearby proslavery cabin. There they forced proslavery leader Colonel Henry Titus to surrender his sword.

John Brown is the symbol of Bleeding Kansas–a hero to many, a madman to others. Taught that slavery was a sin, Brown came to believe that only through violence would the institution be stopped. While in Kansas, he liberated slaves, raised funds for his activities, and fought in skirmishes against proslavery forces. Angered by the sack of Lawrence, Brown sought to “strike terror in the hearts of the pro-slavery people.” Brown and a small group of men–including some of his sons–violently murdered five men living on Pottawatomie Creek. These proslavery men had not been involved in the sack of Lawrence. While some justified Brown’s actions, others found the brutality appalling, and the murders hurt the free-state cause as much as they helped. Brown left Kansas in 1859, and soon after, he planned a slave insurrection that would begin at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with an attack on the federal arsenal. Brown armed the rebelling slaves with pikes he had purchased from a Connecticut blacksmith. The attack failed, and Brown was hanged for treason in December 1859.

Kansas meant opportunity to most people. Although settlers came here for cheap land, some also came to fight for a cause. Only people living here could determine whether slavery would exist in Kansas. The outcome of this debate would influence national policy. The majority of people came to Kansas Territory from nearby states. Most Missourians were proslavery but did not own slaves themselves. They supported slavery in Kansas because they viewed it as an extension of their own slave state. On the other hand, settlers from Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio were predominantly free-state. They opposed slavery on economic (rather than moral) grounds.

A diverse mix of people lived here before 1854. Indians native to the region were forced to make way for nearly 30 additional tribes moved here from the East by the U.S. government in the 1830s and 1840s. Agents, soldiers, missionaries, trappers, and traders were in the territory, too. Anyone without prior approval of the government was here illegally. Whites, a handful of Blacks (primarily slaves), mixed-bloods, and full-blood Indians co-mingled, often with competing views about the best use of the land. Several tribes were moved to smaller reservations to make way for settlers. Thousands of people flooded into the new Kansas Territory even before these treaties were finalized in 1854. Whites knowingly settled on Indian lands, assuming they would eventually get title to the property.

Obviously, the opening of the territory did not always hold the same economic and political opportunities for Indians as it did for Whites. Some people believed Indians needed to give up their traditional practices to live peaceably among Whites. Many churches sent missionaries here before 1854 to educate and convert Indians. Tribal members assumed that missionaries had their best interests in mind, but speculators and government agents often bribed missionaries to obtain treaties giving up Indian land to Whites.

Kansas Territory became a magnet for people opposed to slavery. The most politically active settlers came from New England. The New England Emigrant Aid Company is a well-known antislavery group that brought settlers to Kansas. Formed in April 1854, it had two goals: to settle antislavery families in Kansas and to make a profit from land speculation. The company paid some of the emigrants’ costs and organized their settlement at the site of Lawrence. These settlers established homes, businesses, and churches as well as spread the antislavery cause.

Kansas Constitution Adopted at Wyandot, 1859, Kansas City, Kansas Public Library

Kansas had four different constitutional conventions between 1854 and 1861. The territory had ten different governors, the capital moved to five different towns, and two separate legislatures existed at the same time–one antislavery and the other proslavery. Fraudulent elections, threats of violence, and congressional disagreements all prolonged the conflict. Writing and approval of the constitution took several years because delegates could not write a document that satisfied both the people of the territory and the U.S. Congress. Finally, in 1859 the Wyandotte constitution was drafted. Less radical than previous draft constitutions, this document provided voting rights for White males only–not Blacks or Indians. Although it was easily approved by Kansas voters, the constitution didn’t gain congressional approval until Southern states began seceding from the Union. The balance of power in the U.S. Senate then shifted to free-state, and Kansas entered the Union on January 29, 1861, the 34th star on the flag.

Bill to Admit Kansas as a State, 1860, Kansas City, Kansas Public Library

This text has been condensed from a history published by the Kansas State Historical Society. You can learn more about Kansas’s journey to statehood and view the full online exhibit here.