Bleeding Kansas

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 dramatically changed the face of eastern Kansas. Settlers from both northern and southern states flocked to the region, in part to create pro- or anti-slavery groups large enough to shape the statehood process. Although some New Englanders relocated to Kansas, a bulk of the Free-soil settlers, like the emigrant tribes before them, came from the upper Ohio River Valley. The majority of the pro-slavery settlers came from Missouri, Kentucky and the upper South.

As white settlement moved westward, the communities, counties, and states that developed took on the character of the people who arrived. In 1855, a pro-southern territorial legislature, called in Kansas lore the "Bogus Legislature" set up many of the first counties in Kansas. One of these was Linn County, named after Missouri Senator Lewis Linn. Linn had a mixture of northern and southern settlers with a nearly half of the population from the Ohio River states and a quarter from the upper South. These demographics were almost identical to those of Miami County to the north, Bourbon County to the south, and even Bates County across the border in Missouri.

These settlers brought their cultural views with them, including beliefs about the morality of slavery. By the 1850s, slavery had become more than an economic system. It was a symbol for two very different ways of life. A community that considered itself "pro-slavery" was connected culturally to the southern United States. A community that adopted an "anti-slavery" or "Free-soil" tone connected itself to the northern United States. In Linn County, the Free-soil community of Mound City, founded in 1857, became large enough to take the county seat from the pro-slavery town of Paris in 1859. Mound City also supported the county's only newspaper at the time: The Border Sentinel. Trading Post along the Marais des Cygnes was also a Free-soil community.

Potosi township, in the center of Linn County along the Military Road, took its name from the mining activity that had once taken place there. Explorers in the early nineteenth century came across abandoned mining sites along a creek south of Marais des Cygnes. The background of these early miners remains a mystery. However, their presence inspired early residents of the region to name this creek "Mine Creek." Perhaps inspired with visions of future mining wealth, these settlers named the township after Potosi, the famous silver-producing region of Mexico. In reality, farming, not mining, was the mainstay of the area.

With both pro- and anti-slavery sentiments present, the Kansas-Missouri border became especially volatile. Northern settlers, including John Brown and his family, insisted on having Kansas enter the Union as a free state. Other migrants were equally adamant that Kansas should be a slave state. One such migrant was Charles Hamelton, an early resident of Linn County who originally came from Georgia.

The tensions between pro-and anti-slavery forces flared into violence as individuals from one side raided communities of the other. In 1856, John Brown participated in a raid of pro-slavery farmsteads at Potawatomi in Franklin County in which several pro-slavery settlers were hacked to death with corn knives. A few days earlier, a group of Missouri-based "Border Ruffians" sacked Lawrence, a center of "Free-soil" sentiment. By 1858, guerrilla war raged in the counties along the border of Kansas and Missouri. Pro-slavery "Bushwhackers" from Missouri and anti-slavery "Jayhawkers" from Kansas launched raids on both sides of that border.

One such raid took place on May 19, 1858. After Free-soilers pressured Charles Hamelton to leave the region, Hamelton organized a group of 30 men in retaliation. Legend suggests that Hamelton organized the group at a pro-slavery hotel in Fort Scott. Near the community of Trading Post along the Marais des Cygnes, Hamelton's men captured eleven unarmed free-state men, some of whom had once been neighbors. The Free-soilers were lined up in a ravine. Hamelton gave the orders to shoot. Five men died and five were wounded. One escaped harm by pretending to be dead. Hamelton and his group fled back to Missouri.

The incident gained nationwide attention. An outraged John Brown visited the ravine in June and constructed a wooden structure near the where the incident took place. Brown called it a "fort" although the building never saw combat. Meanwhile, Poet John Greenleaf Whittier composed a poem in tribute to the dead, published in the September 1858 edition of Atlantic Monthly (see sidebar).

By this time, the numerical and political advantage in Kansas came to rest with the Free-soil population. The passage of the Wyandotte Constitution on October 4, 1859 proposed banning slavery when Kansas became a state. In 1861, Kansas entered the Union as a free state, just as several southern states declared their secession from that Union. Shortly thereafter, war erupted between those states and those remaining in the Union. The raids that characterized the period of "Bleeding Kansas" continued, this time as pro-Confederate and pro-Union forces crossed the Kansas-Missouri border. For protection, residents of Linn County formed the Militia (Sixth Kansas State Militia) under Lt. Colonel J.D. Snoddy, a Mound City newspaperman.

Life was hard in Potosi township. In addition to the political turmoil of the 1850s and the Civil War of the 1860s, the region also experienced a period of drought and famine from 1859 to 1861. Border fighting had already disrupted agriculture but the drought made the situation far worse. Hundreds left. Those who remained were often too poor to leave or survived with assistance coming from the Northern states. Linn County was still very much on the frontier of settlement. Outside of places such as Mound City, most residents were farmers who lived in log cabins. They had not even had a chance to clear large sections of their lands for farming. The farming that was done consisted mainly of corn, wheat, and subsistence crops. In the years that followed, however the agricultural situation slowly began to improve and families starting moving into the region again.

Potosi Township's demographics fit this pattern. In 1860, depopulation had left the township with around 100 residents. By 1865, the township had grown to over 680. Throughout the early 1860s, nearly 90% of the population was engaged in farming. Nearly half of the adults were from Indiana, Illinois, Ohio. A quarter were from the Southern states. Among these settlers were three families who established farms along the road to Fort Scott. In 1863, the family of William Ragains acquired 160 acres from the federal government that included segments of the north-south Military Road and the east-west road to Mound City. Another family was that of Sarah Lathrop. She originally came from Pennsylvania and lived in Indiana and Missouri before coming to Kansas. By the 1860s she was the head of a household that included six sons, two daughters, and at least two boarders. Lathrop's son, Hiram, received the patent to their 160 acres in Potosi Township. A third family living along the Military Road was that of John Palmer, who had moved to the region from Ohio. When war broke out, all three families had sons and other male relatives serve in Kansas units.

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