Bleeding Kansas describes the period of repeated outbreaks of violent guerrilla warfare between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces following the creation of the new territory of Kansas in 1854. In all, some 55 people were killed between 1855 and 1859. The struggle intensified the ongoing debate over the future of slavery in the United States and served as a key precursor to the Civil War.

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Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act

By early 1854, with the United States expanding rapidly westward, Congress had begun debating a proposed bill to organize the former Louisiana Purchase lands then known as the Nebraska Territory. To get crucial southern votes for the bill, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois proposed an amendment that effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise, which had outlawed the extension of slavery north of the 36º 30’ parallel (Missouri’s southern border) except in Missouri itself.

Passed over fierce opposition in Congress and signed into law in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, and gave each the right to decide whether or not to permit slavery when it joined the Union. Douglas believed that popular sovereignty, as this idea was known, would resolve the ongoing sectional debate between North and South over slavery’s extension into the territories.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act divided Douglas’ Democratic Party and inspired the formation of the Republican Party, which opposed extending slavery into new territory. While Nebraska was so far north that it was virtually guaranteed to become a free state, Kansas bordered the slave state of Missouri. Over the next seven years, Kansas became a battleground over the future of slavery in the United States. 

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Struggle Over Elections

In New England, a group of abolitionists formed the Emigrant Aid Company, which sent anti-slavery settlers to Kansas to ensure it would become a free territory. On the other side, thousands of pro-slavery Missourians flooded into the new territory to illegally vote in Kansas’ first territorial election in November 1854. Pro-slavery candidate John Whitfield easily defeated two Free Soil candidates to become the territory’s delegate to Congress, with only half the ballots cast by registered voters.

In March 1855, when elections took place for the first territorial legislature, thousands of heavily armed “border ruffians” showed up in Kansas again. Through illegal votes and intimidation of anti-slavery voters, they ensured the election of a slate of pro-slavery legislators. 

Northerners and other anti-slavery settlers refused to accept this government, and set up their own. Some of these Free Staters, known as “jayhawkers,” armed themselves in preparation for clashes with pro-slavery forces. As tensions increased within the territory, President Franklin Pierce recognized the pro-slavery legislature as the only legitimate government of Kansas. 

Did you know? During the Civil War, Kansas suffered the highest rate of fatal casualties of any Union state, largely because of its great internal divisions over the issue of slavery.