It sounded like such a good idea. Popular Sovereignty. It has a democratic ring to it. But those words meant only trouble for the Kansas Territory in the 1850s, and they sparked a Civil War years before shots were fired at Fort Sumter.
The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act defined the borders of the new territories, opened them to settlement and allowed those new settlers to decide for themselves whether to form a free-state or pro-slavery government.
This “popular sovereignty” doctrine was corrupted in the first Kansas territorial election. Pro-slavery Missouri citizens crossed the border to vote, resulting in the election of a pro-slavery Territorial government. That, in turn, triggered great numbers of “Free Soilers” to flood into the territory from Northern states.
Neighbors and towns were divided by the controversy. Radicals on both sides armed themselves, resulting in violence that spread throughout eastern Kansas and western Missouri.
Radical abolitionist John Brown, later of Harpers Ferry fame, entered the picture. Viewed by some as a freedom fighter and others as a terrorist, Brown and his close supporters added another layer of tension in May 1856. Reacting to the sacking of Lawrence and other incidents, Brown and his band killed five members of a pro-slavery family at Pottawatomie Creek.
The violence and political turmoil continued throughout the 1850s until Kansas finally entered the Union as a free state in January 1861.
But statehood didn’t settle the hard feelings in Kansas — or the violence. Guerrilla bands from both sides continued to terrorize the Kansas-Missouri border throughout the war. Lawrence, a free-state base in the 1850s, was burned and more than 150 men and boys were killed by a pro-Southern irregular force under William Quantrill in 1863.
Finally, one of the last battles west of the Mississippi was fought at Mine Creek during the last gasp of Confederate Gen. Sterling Price’s Missouri Raid in 1864.
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