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Kansas' violent past beckons visitors

A historic plaque marks the entrance to the Eldridge Hotel in Lawrence, Kan. The hotel was destroyed in 1856 and again in 1863. As Kansas celebrates its sesquicentennial, the region is promoting battlefields, the former haunts of abolitionist John Brown and other historic sites from the era.
A historic plaque marks the entrance to the Eldridge Hotel in Lawrence, Kan. The hotel was destroyed in 1856 and again in 1863. As Kansas celebrates its sesquicentennial, the region is promoting battlefields, the former haunts of abolitionist John Brown and other historic sites from the era.Orlin Wagner / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

One-hundred and fifty years ago, the nation was on the verge of the Civil War and transfixed by the bloody fighting in Kansas over whether the territory would enter the Union as a free or slave state.

Now as Kansas celebrates its sesquicentennial, the region is promoting its ties to the era — the battlefields, the former haunts of fiery abolitionist John Brown and other scattered historic sites.

Visitors can stay at a hotel, The Eldridge, in the former abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence that stands on the site of one destroyed in 1856 and again in 1863 by pro-slavery forces. About 180 men and boys were killed by William Quantrill and his men in the second attack.

They can stop at the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka and see the tombstone for an anti-slavery settler killed in the territorial fighting. The man seems to speak from the grave, the tombstone reading, "I am willing to die for the cause of freedom in Kansas."

Battle over slavery
Christopher Phillips, who writes and lectures about the period, took students on field trips of some of his favorite sites during the seven years he taught at Emporia State University. His message to his students was that "ultimately the Civil War was more about the West than it was about either the North or the South because they are fighting about the future of their institution as the nation grows."

The fighting, as he explained to his students, broke out after Congress decided in 1854 to let settlers in the Kansas and Nebraska territories decide whether to allow slavery. Residents of the slave state of Missouri crossed into the neighboring Kansas Territory in droves to cast illegal votes for pro-slavery lawmakers. Anti-slavery Easterners sent settlers, money and weapons.

Visitors can still walk through the Shawnee Indian Mission in the Kansas City area where the pro-slavery territorial legislature met briefly and approved what anti-slavery activists dubbed the "bogus laws." They mandated prison times for crimes such as speaking out against slavery.

One of Phillips' first stops was Lecompton, where delegates to a constitutional convention approved a pro-slavery document that was narrowly rejected by Congress. Historians say the fighting over it helped divide the Democratic Party and pave the way for Abraham Lincoln's election.

Southern states were beginning to pull their statesmen from Washington when Kansas finally entered the Union as a free state on Jan. 29, 1861. Less than three months later, on April 12, 1861, Union and Confederate forces battled at Fort Sumter, in South Carolina, as the war officially began.

"To the people out here, the war had been going on for seven years," said Tim Rues, the site administrator of Constitution Hall in Lecompton, the simple, wood-frame building where the territorial legislators — first pro-slavery and briefly anti-slavery — met.

Phillips marvels that the building still stands; anti-slavery forces twice set out to burn it.

"It's this really distasteful part of Kansas' memory of itself," said Phillips, who now teaches at the University of Cincinnati. "At that moment, Kansas nearly went the other way, and those pro-slavery people did all they could to make it go the other way. And what would have happened had they done that at that moment? It's always been fascinating to me."

Historical sites
Because of the bitterness over what happened in Lecompton, Kansans moved the capital to Topeka. Most of Lecompton's 5,000 residents left, and a partially completed Statehouse was abandoned. The building that eventually was completed on its foundation was used first as a college and later a high school. Now, the town of about 600 operates it as a museum, using it to house items such as one of the desks used by the territorial lawmakers.

The Statehouse that replaced the one in Lecompton is another important site. Across from the governor's office, a John Steuart Curry mural depicts a larger-than-life John Brown standing with his arms outstretched, holding a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other. Phillips described the image as "a combination of Moses and Arnold Schwarzenegger" and tells his students that it represents how Kansans see Brown.

Brown would cement himself in the history books when he led a failed slave revolt at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., in 1859. But he first made a name for himself in Kansas, and figured heavily in the fighting that occurred at some of the Kansas battlefields visitors still tour today.

Some consider the Battle of Black Jack, where a Brown-led militia fought against proslavery forces on June 2, 1856, the first clash of the Civil War. The pro-slavery militia surrendered to Brown before anyone died. But there were about a half-dozen deaths in August of that year when between 250 to 400 pro-slavery "border ruffians" killed one of Brown's sons, fought with Brown and about 40 other anti-slavery activists and then burned and looted the town of Osawatomie.

The site of the Osawatomie battle, a popular destination for Phillips' students, also is home to the log cabin where Brown sometimes stayed. Brown's former saddle and a hat given to Brown by the leader of the Ottawa Nation are among the items displayed in the cabin and the building that surrounds it.

Grady Atwater, the administrator of the site, said the hat has always struck him as an important remnant of Brown's belief that skin color didn't matter. He said Brown was friends with the American Indian leader and even stayed with him.

"The idea that John Brown was crazy came because he believed in the equality of African-Americans and whites at a time when most European-Americans thought they were subhuman," Atwater said.

He said he sometimes envisions Brown riding through the countryside on horseback as he drives through the region. So rich is the area's history that he said he could put a historic marker in nearly every yard.

Near Osawatomie is the site of the "Pottawatomie Massacre," where Brown oversaw the killing of five pro-slavery supporters in May of 1856 in retaliation for the first attack on Lawrence. Although the killings occurred on what today is private property, visitors can pull over near a bridge in the small town of Lane and look out over the area.

In a delayed act of retaliation, pro-slavery forces killed five anti-slavery settlers and wounded five others in the Marais des Cygne Massacre in May of 1858. Phillips said his students looked at the ravine where the killings happened, their mouths agape.

A final stop for Phillips' students was Fort Scott, where visitors can wander among reconstructed and renovated buildings that predate Kansas' statehood, including two that became competing hotels after the military abandoned the installation. One hotel served pro-slavery guests; the other served those opposed to slavery.

Phillips described the tour as transformative.

"Suddenly," he said, "'Bleeding Kansas' became more than just a slogan."