Saturday, August 7, 2010

Random Shots from "Bleeding Kansas"

Its difficult to believe that it has been a week since I returned from the "Sunflower State." Other than not finding the time to stop at the Steamboat Arabia Museum and the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, I felt I did quite well in achieving my sightseeing goals for the trip. On the day before the National Underground Railroad conference started I got out and experienced a good deal of the Kansas countryside. Most of the sites I wanted to see are in what are still very rural areas and it took quite a bit of driving to get to them. I had always heard that Kansas was flat and treeless, but I found the geography of east Kansas to be quite varied, and there were certainly many more trees than I expected. The constant heat and humidity reminded me of Kentucky.

After visiting the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka, my first stop was to Lecompton, which is just northeast of Topeka and not too far off of I-70. Lecompton was one the four capitals during the territorial period. I drove up to the building which was originally supposed to be the territorial capital, but it had not been finished when the capital moved. The building was finally finished in the 1880s and was used to house what became Lane University, which is no longer in existence. The building now holds the Territorial Capital Museum. The gentleman that greeted me (unfortunately I forgot his name) was very friendly and a fount of knowledge about the history of Lecompton.

After looking around the museum a while this kind gentleman offered to drive me over to the Constitution Hall State Historic Site (pictured above). This building was erected in 1856 and in the fall of 1857 held the the Kansas constitutional convention where a pro-slavery constitution was drafted and submitted. Although it was accepted by President Buchanan it was defeated in the U.S. House of Representatives. The building has been restored to its mid-nineteenth century appearance and has a number of great panel exhibits and artifacts on display.
To say that Kansas had political troubles during this era is an understatement. From 1854 to 1861 Kansas voted on four separate constitutions. They voted on one constitution three times. The territorial capital moved to five towns, and at one time there were two separate legislatures, one pro-slavery and one free state. It finally took five years to ratify a constitution and two more years before Congress to accept it.

While in Lecompton I also visited the first Kansas Democratic Headquarters. This small stone building, which used to also have a log cabin attached to the side of it served as meeting place of the democratic party in Kansas. Since Lecompton was the center of Democratic Kansas, this little building served an important purpose in the "Bleeding Kansas" years as a place to plan political strategy, hash out issues, and make important decisions. The building was originally built in the early 1850s and possibly served as the residence of the Simmons family who operated a ferry on the Kaw, now Kansas, River, which is just down the hill. It is great to see a community such as Lecompton preserving so much of its rich and interesting history for future generations.

After leaving Lecompton I drove south around Lawrence and then east to Baldwin City, where with the help of roadside markers, I found the Black Jack Battlefield. It was here on June 2, 1856 that John Brown and a handful of men fought and defeated the pro-slavery forces under Henry Clay Pate in what came to be known as the Battle of Black Jack. It was called Black Jack because of a grove of Black Jack oak trees that grew near a spring and creek that ran nearby. Although there were some casualties in the three hours or so of fighting, no one was killed. The battle, really more a skirmish, came shortly after the pro-slavery forces had sacked Lawrence on May 21 and then John Brown and company retaliated by killing five pro-slavery settlers on Pottawatomie Creek on May 24-25. Pate and his men camped at Black Jack Springs where Brown found him on June 2. While out in Kansas I heard several people claim that this was truly the first battle of the Civil War, and I think they have as good a claim to it as any.

A Kansas highway historical marker on the main road that describes the "battle."

Black Jack Springs was on the Santa Fe Trail, and I was told, only about three miles from where the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails spit. The spring and creek, which I was also told, never went dry, even in the worst of droughts, was an important place to water beasts of burden heading out on the trails. The stories that these few acres must hold!

Part of the Black Jack battlefield is pictured above. Wagon wheel ruts from a historic road can be seen in the middle of the picture leading to the Black Jack creek. The Black Jack battlefield was saved in 2003 from possible development by a grassroots community effort, the Black Jack Battlefield Trust.

Next on the agenda was a trip to Osawatomie. A little pre-trip scouting told me that the John Brown cabin (really the Adair cabin) was there in John Brown Memorial Park, where Brown's outnumbered forces were soundly defeated on August 30, 1856. The pro-slavery forces intent on destroying free state and abolitionist influence in Kansas attacked the town of Osawatomie after meeting and then killing Brown's son Frederick on his way to Lawrence. Brown's half-sister Flora and her husband Rev. Samuel Adair, both graduates of Oberlin College, owned a cabin near Osawatomie that was a station on the Underground Railroad, where Brown often slept and made plans. The pro-slavery forces burned the town of Osawatomie, but the Adair Cabin fortunately survived.

A sign at the entrance of the park.

The stone building in the background was built around the Adair cabin in effort to to protect it.
Curiously, the cabin survived the burring of Osawatomie in 1856, but was damaged a few years ago when an arsonist tried to burn it in the stone building. The cabin today is a museum that contains a number of interesting Brown artifacts and great information about the territorial war years.

I was able to learn so much about "Bleeding Kansas" and its role in America's history by going to these important historic sites. Thankfully the people of the state of Kansas have a great appreciation for their history and have worked hard to preserve its story.

1 comment:

  1. John Brown–from business failure to terrorist and media hero

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