Kansas: The Prelude to the War for the Union by Leverett Wilson Spring



GEOGRAPHICALLY the capital events of Kansas history in the territorial days covered a narrow space. With Lawrence for a centre, the revolution of a radius thirty miles in length would include them all. Yet the Southeast, embracing Bourbon, Linn, and Miami counties, though contributing little to the ultimate results of the struggle, is not destitute of picturesque and sanguinary exhibitions of border lawlessness.

     At the outset, and for a considerable period, pro-slavery settlers had a comparatively clear field in the Southeast, as it lay off the line of Northern immigration. "It has occurred to our friends," a correspondent of the Kansas Association of South Carolina wrote from Platte City, Missouri, "that it would be better, as a matter of policy, and as being more Southern -- more agreeable to the Southern emigrants -- that a good portion of them would settle south of the Kansas River. By this means we will secure the southern half of the territory before it is filled by abolitionists; the northern half will be saved by Missourians.... I

238          KANSAS

would suggest that you should seek, as far as possible, to induce all who have a small number of slaves to come out. To such, this is a peculiarly desirable country, and they need have no fear of slaves escaping." Fort Scott --- a federal military post from 1842 to 1854 -- was the principal town of the Southeast, and began to have some reputation as a border-ruffian stronghold in 1856. The arrival of armed "settlers" from the South laid the foundation of that reputation which was largely increased afterwards by accessions from Lecompton.

     As abolitionists were not plenty in the Southeast, the Southerners at first found their opportunities for usefulness rather limited. But in August, 1856, the monotony was broken by news of General Reid's intended attack upon Osawatomie. Ambitious to share in the glory of destroying that town, a hundred and fifty men collected at Fort Scott and marched northward. When encamped in Liberty township, eight or ten miles south of Osawatomie, they were surprised by a hundred free-state guerrillas just as they thought of dining. So rude and uncivil an invitation to fight could not be accepted, and the company 'deaf in the greatest confusion, "leaving," as an eyewitness says, "their baggage and most of their horses, boots, coats, vests, hats, and a dinner ready cooked," not to mention a black flag on which was inscribed in red letters "Victory or Death." The

JAYHAWKING.          239

fugitives mostly fled toward Fort Scott, where they arrived in the middle of the night, fully persuaded that the abolitionists were at their heels. The town was roused. Panic-stricken men and women, believing it would be given over to fire and sword, wildly escaped whithersoever chance or instinct might lead. Quite a large company took refuge in a cabin at considerable distance from the village. Soon rumors came that the work of slaughter and pillage had actually begun, and a scene of indescribable confusion followed. Englishmen, harried by Northern pirates, found consolation in the petition, "Good Lord, deliver us from the Danes;" and why should not the aid of Heaven be invoked against Northern abolitionists? A season of prayer was suggested, and the ensuing devotions had no lack of fervor or unanimity. The alarm proved groundless. When day dawned the town was found to be safe, and no abolitionists could be seen.

     During the autumn of 1856 Indian Agent G. W. Clarke, with a picked-up gang of Missourians, overran portions of Finn and Miami counties into which considerable Northern population had sifted. He threw down fences, destroyed crops, seized horses and cattle, burnt a few cabins, and occasionally drove an obnoxious settler out of the country. "Clarke's company," said one of the victims, "took everything they wanted, and I think they took what they did not want, to keep

240          KANSAS.

their hands in -- had ribbons on their hats, side combs in their hair, and other things they did not need." An old soldier gave his impressions of the raid before the Strickler Commission: `'I was in the Black Hawk War, and have fought in the wars of the United States, and have received two land-warrants from Washington City for my services, but I never saw anything so bad and mean in my life as I saw under General Clarke."

     Free-state men in the Southeast, comparatively isolated, having little communication with Lawrence, and consequently almost wholly without check, developed a successful if not very praiseworthy system of retaliation. Confederated at first for defense against pro-slavery outrages, but ultimately falling more or less completely into the vocation of robbers and assassins, they have received the name --- whatever its origin may be -- of jayhawkers. 1

JAYHAWKING.          241

     The best known leader in the jayhawking episode is James Montgomery. Born in Ohio, a resident of Kentucky and Missouri for seventeen years, he reached Linn County in August, 1854, and thenceforth was a prominent figure in the affairs of the Southeast. He was courageous, an effective talker -- a qualification that served him to good purpose -- not devoid of craft and stratagem, but without large mental or executive force.

     Montgomery's tactics after Clarke's raid were characteristic. To obtain a list of the men concerned in it he visited Missouri in the disguise of a teacher searching for a school, which he succeeded in obtaining and actually taught for two weeks -- long enough to get the information he wished. That secured, the school suddenly closed, and the school-master soon reappeared transformed into a guerrilla chief. Twenty of the ex-raiders were captured and pretty thoroughly spoiled of money, weapons, and horses.

     Though months of disorder followed, yet, with the exception of the Marais des Cygnes massacre, Clarke's raid was the last considerable dash from Missouri into the territory until the outbreak of the war for the Union. In these aggressions jayhawkers seem to have taken the lead, and they established a freebooting reputation that fairly intimidated pro-slavery adherents. The accounts of marauding incursions from Missouri, which appeared in contemporary prints, were mostly

242          KANSAS.

canards circulated by jayhawkers as an excuse for their own depredations. They occasionally dispatched a messenger to Lawrence with a budget of exaggerated or manufactured pro-slavery outrages, to keep alive their reputation as struggling, self-denying, afflicted patriots.

     Disturbances continued intermittently until December, 1857, when claim difficulties of more than ordinary consequence occurred. A delegation representing the jayhawking interest had been in Lawrence to enlist Lane in their cause, but he was absorbed with agitations against the Lecompton constitution, and could give them no personal assistance. However, a small company from the vicinity of Lawrence, led by Captain J. B. Abbott, returned with the messengers, for the purpose of investigating affairs and of lending any assistance to free-state men that might be possible or advisable. Soon after their arrival in the vicinity of Fort Scott some land dispute came to a crisis. A Missourian was charged with "jumping" the claim of a free-state settler. Whether that was actually the case, or whether an enterprising jayhawker wished to drive him out of the territory as a step preparatory to seizing his property, is not wholly clear. At all events, the Missourian was arrested and arraigned before an impromptu squatters' court, the officers of which were mostly drawn from the Lawrence party. None of the usual judicial appurtenances -- judge, counsel, sheriff, jury -- were omitted.

JAYHAWKING.          243

     Intelligence of the proceedings of this unconventional court came to the ears of Federal Marshal Little at Fort Scott, and he sallied forth with a small armed escort on a reconnaissance. The court, hearing of his approach, suddenly abandoned its judicial functions and prepared to fight. When the marshal appeared and asked for explanations he was assured, with all the gravity of truth-telling, that the legislature then in session had repealed the entire code framed at Shawnee Mission, that a provisional committee had been appointed to conduct the government of the territory until a new code could be framed, and that there was, consequently, nothing for him to enforce.

     The court successfully threw dust in the marshal's eyes, and he returned to Fort Scott. Soon discovering that he bad been duped, Little gathered a second and larger expedition, and set out again, determined effectually to disbar the insolent attorneys. On his return there was a suitable preamble of parley. "Gentleman," he said in a very black mood, "you will understand that you are dealing with the United States, and not with border ruffians. You will learn that there is a difference between them. I order you to surrender and prepare to accompany me to Fort Scott." The court scouted the idea. Half an hour was allowed for reflection, with an intimation from Little that if the period of grace brought forth

244          KANSAS.

no works meet for repentance he would "blow them all to hell." At the expiration of thirty minutes -- no signs of surrender appearing -- the marshal ordered a charge upon the recent judiciary, members of which were partly intrenched in a log cabin, and partly posted behind neighboring trees. A dozen Sharps rifles responded to the charge, and that spoiled all the fun in a twinkling. Numerous loungers and roughs, who accompanied the expedition as a fine lark, disliked the appearance of things, and the road toward Fort Scott smoked with the precipitation of their return. Rumors of the encounter blew about the territory with various exaggerations. Reinforcements hurried down from Lawrence. Marshal Little's force was considerably increased, but belligerents finally drew off, and there was no more fighting.

     In the spring of 1858 Captain Charles A. Hamilton surpassed all preceding guerrilla exploits by a deed "which the ibis and crocodile trembled at." Hamilton was a Georgian, of excellent family and reared in wealth. Restless and fond of adventure, his ear was caught by the Kansas crusade proclaimed in Georgia in 1856. He settled in Linn County and built a substantial log-house, which served as political headquarters for the vicinity. But Hamilton hardly maintained himself against the superior prowess of the jayhawkers, and with the decline of the pro-slavery

JAYHAWKING.          245

cause in the territory soured into desperation. He resolved that the victors should pay heavily for their success, and compiled a list of obnoxious men in his neighborhood whom he planned to seize and execute. This death catalogue in some way fell into Montgomery's hands, who immediately took measures to kill the compiler. He caught him in his log-house, to which he laid siege, but was driven off by federal troops before he could effect his purpose.

     Then a lull followed, the opinion became general that Hamilton would not push his schemes of assassination, precautions were relaxed, and vigilance grew weary; but it was a fatal calm, --

"Like the dread stillness of condensing storms."

     Hamilton suddenly appeared in the neighbor hood of Trading Post May 19th, 1858, with a gang of Missourians, and began to scour the region for his enemies, political and personal. He was particularly anxious to capture a certain resolute, saucy, belligerent blacksmith -- Captain Eli Snyder -- with whom he had an altercation not long before. Snyder, armed with a shot-gun "loaded with sixteen buckshot," encountered Hamilton and one or two companions near Trading Post. A spirited colloquy followed. "Where are you going?" Hamilton demanded. "You are going to Trading Post" "If you know better than I do why do you ask?" "If you don't look out,

246          KANSAS.

I'll blow you through," growled the Georgian. Snyder leveled his shot-gun -- "If you don't leave I '11 tumble you from your horse." The interview concluded abruptly. "I afterwards mentioned the affair to Old John Brown," said Snyder, "and he remarked -- 'If you had killed Hamilton what a mangling up it would have saved! The Dutch Henry business was at the right time!'"

     Hamilton, with a small detachment of his gang, gave personal attention to the capture of Blacksmith Snyder whom he found at work in his shop. One of the visitors entered and made the colorless announcement -- "A man wants to see you." Snyder appeared -- "Good morning, Mr. Hamilton" "I 've got you," hissed the cut-throat. "Yes -- what do you want?" retorted the blacksmith, striking one of the horses which were crowding around him a smart blow that threw all the pistols out of range, and enabled him to regain the shop, and secure his gun. Though severely wounded, Snyder managed to reach his cabin a few rods distant. His young son covered his retreat with a double-barreled shot-gun. "Burn the devils," he shouted, as the boy opened fire; "cut away at them with the other barrel." The party retired in discomfiture.

     Elsewhere the desperadoes met with better success. Out of a considerable number of prisoners eleven were selected, marched off to a neighboring gulch, and drawn up in line before their captors.

JAYHAWKING.          247

     "Gentlemen," said one of the eleven, among whom there was no flinching or parleying, "if you are going to shoot, take good aim." "Ready," Hamilton shouted, but before he could speak the word "Fire," a repenting ruffian turned away, and said, with an oath -- "I '11 have nothing to do with such a piece of business as this." Hamilton discharged his own pistol, and a general volley followed. The entire line of prisoners went down -- five of them killed outright, five wounded, and one unharmed.

     The shocking affair produced a tremendous excitement far and wide. There was a hot, clattering, idle pursuit of the assassins. Justice overtook but one of them, and that after a delay of five I years.

     The authorities at Lecompton did not lay the responsibility for a state of things that culminated in the Marais des Cygnes assassinations wholly or I chiefly at the door of pro-slavery men. At all events, soon after receiving intelligence of them, Governor Denver placed warrants in the hands of Deputy Marshal, Captain Samuel Walker for the arrest of Montgomery. When Walker reached Raysville, ten or fifteen miles northwest of Fort Scott, he found a large convention in session. "What are you after?" asked an acquaintance under his breath. "I 've come down to take I Montgomery." "You can't do it. That thing's out of the question." The marshal concluded that it would be wise to keep his writs out of sight.

248          KANSAS.

"I don't know Montgomery," he said, "and I don't wish to have him pointed out. If he is, I shall have to make an effort to take him."

The speaking, inflamed by the recent massacre, proceeded with furious energy. Nothing less than the extinction of Fort Scott -- an infamous nest of border ruffianism which was at that moment sheltering some of the Marais des Cygnes murderers -- would pacify the convention. The authorities sent down sheriffs to arrest free-state men, but they shunned that vile robbers' den. The sneer brought Walker to his feet. He volunteered to serve any warrants in Fort Scott with which he might be furnished, and the proposal touched a popular chord. An unexpected difficulty threatened to frustrate the whole enterprise. Nobody could be found authorized to issue the necessary papers. "Get a common justice's writ," said Walker, "and I 'll go, though as a federal officer I have no business to serve it."

Walker, escorted by Montgomery incognito, reached Fort Scott on the 30th, and proceeded at once to the house of G. W. Clarke, who, as leader of the Linn County raid in 1856 as well as for other reasons, had incurred great unpopularity in free-state quarters. The marshal vainly pounded upon the door with his fist, and then tried the butt of his pistol without eliciting any response. But the town was astir. The street swarmed with Clarke's friends armed to the teeth, while

JAYHAWKING.          249

Montgomery and his band were fully prepared for anything that might happen. Walker, having procured some heavy iron implement from a government wagon standing near, was about to renew his attack on the door when Clarke thrust his head from a window, and offered to surrender. In a few moments the door swung open, and he emerged in a curious guise. His wife clung to one arm, and his daughter to the other, while in his hands there was an old-fashioned cavalry carbine. Very properly Clarke wished to examine the marshal's papers, which that gentleman declined to exhibit, since legally they were of no more account than a handful of pages plucked from the life of Jack the Giant Killer. "I'll give you two minutes to surrender," thundered the marshal, drawing his pistol. "I heard the click of rifles about me," Walker relates, "as I covered Clarke with my revolver. There was a silence like death. Nobody said a word. Major Williams held his watch to count the time. I saw nothing except the ruffian before me. I was told that pro-slavery rifles were pointed at me while my escort aimed at Clarke. It was a mighty solemn state of affairs. The two minutes, I think, must have almost expired when Clarke, white as a sheet, handed me his carbine." Walker afterwards arrested Montgomery himself, but all the prisoners managed to escape, and he returned to Lecompton empty-handed.

250          KANSAS.

     The escort retired in a soured, disappointed frame of mind. A dramatic tableau which dissolved and left no rack of vengeance behind -- whatever may be said of it from a scenical point of view -- failed to satisfy the matter-of-fact jayhawkers. They projected a second expedition, hoping to retrieve thereby the inconsequence of the first. On the night of June 6th, Montgomery made a descent upon the town. Quietly securing the sentinels before they could raise an alarm, he applied the torch to some of the public buildings and retreated to a neighboring ravine. An alarm was shortly raised, and citizens hurriedly collected to extinguish the conflagration, when the marauders skulking in the ravine opened fire. Never was a crowd taken more completely by surprise or dispersed more precipitately, though replying to the attack, when some covert had been reached, with an irregular, spluttering fusillade. The attempted incendiarism did not prosper. It accomplished nothing beyond a little blackening and charring. A lively scare, houses fire-stained and bullet-marked, an interesting exhibition of helter-skelter -- such is the summary of results.

     Finally, Governor Denver, accompanied by Governor Robinson, made a tour through the Southeast, with a view to composing, by personal intervention, the difficulties which had so long distracted it. They visited different points and were kindly received. On the 14th of June the

JAYHAWKING.          251

trip reached a sort of climax at Fort Scott, where there was a large mass-meeting and full service of speeches. Governor Denver made a conciliatory address. "I shall treat actual settlers," he said, "without regard to former differences. I do not propose to dig up or review the past. Both parties, I believe, have done wrong and are worthy of censure, but I shall let all that go. My mission is to secure peace for the future." The governor suggested the election of new county officers, the patrolling of the border by federal troops, delay in the execution of old writs until they should pass the ordeal of competent judicial tribunals, and the dispersion of all guerrilla bands. These measures received general approval, and introduced a few weeks of comparative repose.

     Shortly after Governor Denver's peace-making tour Old John Brown, absent for some months, reappeared in Kansas -- a very disquieting event. Treachery on the part of a confidant led to postponement of the contemplated Virginia campaign, and his return was a feint to throw the public off the scent. During his absence in the East Brown was able, with the assistance of friends, to put his family, which remained at North Elba, New York, on a more comfortable footing than had been their fortune.

     "For one thousand dollars cash," be wrote Mr. Lawrence from New Haven, Conn., March 19th, 1857, "I am offered an improved piece of land, which,... might

252          KANSAS.

enable my family, consisting of a wife and five minor children (the youngest not yet three years old), to procure a subsistence should I never return to them; my wife being a good economist and a real old-fashioned business woman. She has gone through the two past winters in our open, cold house; unfinished outside and not plastered.... I have never hinted to any one else that I thought of asking for any help to provide in any such way for my family.... If you feel at all inclined to encourage me in the measure I have proposed I shall be grateful to get a line from you.... Is my appeal right?"

     John Brown's final visit to Kansas lasted about six months. That interval he spent mainly in the Southeast. On his way thither he stopped in Lawrence and had a talk with Governor Robinson "You have succeeded," he said, "in what you undertook. You aimed to make of Kansas a free state, and your plans were skillfully laid for that purpose. But I had another object in view. I meant to strike a blow at slavery."

     In the Southeast Brown attempted nothing of importance, except an expedition across the Missouri line in December, which resulted in the destruction of considerable property, the liberation of eleven slaves, and the death of a slave-owner. The raid caused great excitement, especially in Missouri, and resulted in legislative action, which brought the territorial jayhawking era substantially to a close. During the autumn Governor

JAYHAWKING.          253

Stewart, of Missouri, opened correspondence with Governor Denver and with President Buchanan in regard to the troubles. He informed Denver that it might be "necessary to station an armed force along the border, in Missouri, for purposes of protection." Governor Denver promised to leave nothing undone to suppress the outrages, but hoped that it might not be necessary for Missouri to put an armed force into the field. August 9th Governor Stewart wrote President Buchanan that he had ordered a body of militia into Cass and Bates counties, because they "have been subjected to the repeated depredations of one or more marauding parties from the territory of Kansas, in consequence of which there is no security for either life or property. Citizens of Missouri have been driven from their homes, their property taken or destroyed, and their farms laid waste; and without the protection of an armed force our citizens have not dared to return to their homes to reside." These measures allayed the disorders, and there was no further serious trouble until Brown's raid. January 6th, 1809, Governor Stewart sent a message to the Missouri legislature, asking that steps be taken for redressing the outrage. He also transmitted memorials from thirty-five citizens of Bates and Vernon counties to the effect that there is "a regularly organized band of thieves, robbers, and midnight assassins upon the western border of our county,"

254          KANSAS.

begging him to take into consideration the accompanying affidavits of citizens ... who have been robbed and outraged at their homes by a band of lawless men from the territory of Kansas, supposed to be headed by the notorious Brown and Montgomery; and also the terrible situation of the family of the late and lamented David Cruise, who has been foully murdered in the bosom of his family by these desperadoes." A bill was introduced into the state senate authorizing the employment of a military force to patrol the border, but referred to the committee on federal relations, who made a singularly dispassionate and sensible report covering the whole subject of border difficulties.

     "We doubt not," said the committee, "that at least ninety-nine out of every hundred of the citizens of Kansas deplore the events under consideration.... The people of Kansas and Missouri are most intimately connected, not only by geographical lines, but by the tender cords of kindred. We are the same people, impelled by the same interest, and bound for the same manifest destiny.... Even if this difficulty be winked at by Kansas ... we would earnestly recommend the trial of every honorable means of reconciliation before a resort to extreme measures.... We would act with great caution and consideration.... If ... an army be stationed along the line of our frontier for the avowed purpose of protecting our border from incursions from a neighboring territory, it will do a greater injury to the

JAYHAWKING.          255

cause of liberal principles and confederated government than almost any other conceivable calamity.... This bill ... provides that these troops are to be raised alone from the counties on the border; taken from the midst of a people already exasperated by the murder and robbing of their kindred and neighbors. Companies formed out of such material would be hard to restrain from acts of summary punishment, should any of these desperadoes fall into their hands; and it would likewise be difficult to teach such troops the line of our jurisdiction, and in the excitement of inflicting a merited punishment on some offender it would be hard for them to comprehend the deplorable evils attending an armed invasion of a sister territory by the militia of a state." "[We] are not insensible of the obligations of the state to protect all her citizens ... [but] we are most unwilling that the state should run wild in the remedies applied. We have evidence of the most satisfactory character that outrages almost without a parallel in America, at least, have been perpetrated upon the persons and property of unoffending citizens of Bates and Vernon counties -- their houses plundered and then burned -- their negroes kidnapped in droves -- citizens wounded and murdered in cold blood."

     The committee did not recommend the use of a military force to disperse the outlaws "that have congregated in the southern portion of the territory of Kansas for the last two years." They advise that rewards should be offered for the arrest of jayhawking leaders, and that circuit judges should hold special terms in the disturbed districts

256          KANSAS.

at which grievances might be investigated and redressed -- rational suggestions, smoking with far less passion than might have been anticipated, which the legislature wisely adopted. Governor Stewart put a price of three thousand dollars on Old John Brown's head, but to no purpose. He successfully piloted the eleven liberated bond men northward, and saw Kansas no more.

     During the summer of 1859 better days fairly began in the lawless, turbulent, freebooting Southeast. It could not be expected that long-established guerrilla habits would instantly lose their charm and power. In spite of all repressive influences -- federal, territorial, Missourian -- their decline was gradual. While it may be rash to speak with confidence on a matter where so much confusion, blur, and conflict of testimony still exists, yet the conclusion seems to be forced that in comparison with the Missourians, whose sins are black enough, jayhawkers were the superior devils. But in 1859 out of subsiding anarchy there rose a crude, rudimental order. At all events, the people so far believed in the actual establishment of peace that they devoted the 4th of July to its celebration. Ancient enemies then took vows of amity at Fort Scott, and promised to raze out of memory all belligerent records and begin anew.

    1 In Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms jayhawker is said to be a corruption of "Gay Yorker," a phrase applied to an eminent exemplar of the business, Colonel Jennison. A more plausible derivation traces the word to a dare-devil Irishman, by the name of Pat Devlin. One morning in the summer of 1856 a neighbor is said to have met him returning from a foraging expedition, laden with spoils. "Where have you been, Pat?" "Jayhawking," was the reply. "Jayhawking? What's that?" "Well," continued the philological bush-ranger, "in the old country we have a bird called the jayhawk, which kind o' worries its prey. It seemed to me as I was riding home that this was what I had been doing." As the evidence now stands, whatever linguistic honors accrue from the word "jayhawking" belong to Pat. Return.

Previous chapter     Next chapter     Return to Table of Contents