American History Lesson: Bleeding Kansas

When the Fight Over Enslavement Became Violent

Kansas Massacre

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Bleeding Kansas refers to the time between 1854 and 1859 when the Kansas territory was the site of much violence over whether the territory would be free or allow enslavement. This time period was also known as Bloody Kansas or the Border War.

A small and bloody civil war over enslavement, Bleeding Kansas made its mark on American history by setting the scene for the American Civil War around 5 years later. During the Civil War, Kansas had the highest rate of casualties of all Union states due to its pre-existing division of enslavement. 

The Beginning

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 led to Bleeding Kansas as it allowed the territory of Kansas to decide for itself whether it would be free or allow enslavement, a situation known as popular sovereignty. With the passage of the act, thousands of pro- and anti-enslavement supporters flooded the state. Free-state proponents from the North came into Kansas to sway the decision, while "border ruffians" crossed over from the South to advocate for the pro-enslavement side. Each side organized into associations and armed guerilla bands. Violent clashes soon occurred.

Wakarusa War

The Wakarusa War occurred in 1855 and was galvanized when free-state advocate Charles Dow was murdered by pro-enslavement settler Franklin N. Coleman. Tensions escalated, which led to pro-enslavement forces besieging Lawrence, a known staunch free-state town. The governor was able to prevent an attack by negotiating peace treaties. The only casualty was when anti-enslavement Thomas Barber advocate was killed while defending Lawrence. 

Sack of Lawrence

The Sack of Lawrence took place on May 21, 1856, when pro-enslavement groups ransacked Lawrence, Kansas. Pro-enslavement border ruffians wreaked havoc and burned a hotel, the governor's home, and two North American 19th-century Black activist newspaper offices in order to quench activism in this town.

The Sack of Lawrence even led to violence in Congress. One of the most publicized events that occurred in Bleeding Kansas was when one day after the Sack of Lawrence, violence occurred on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina attacked Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a cane after Sumner spoke out against Southerners responsible for violence in Kansas.

Pottawatomie Massacre

The Pottawatomie Massacre occurred on May 25, 1856, in retaliation of the Sack of Lawrence. An anti-enslavement group led by John Brown killed five men associated with the Franklin County Court in a pro-enslavement settlement by Pottawatomie Creek. 

Brown's controversial actions sparked retaliatory attacks and thus counter-attacks, causing the bloodiest period of Bleeding Kansas.


Several constitutions for the future state of Kansas were created, some pro- and some anti-enslavement. The Lecompton Constitution was the most important pro-enslavement Constitution. President James Buchanan actually wanted it to be ratified. However, the Constitution died. Kansas eventually entered the Union in 1861 as a free state.

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Your Citation
Kelly, Martin. "American History Lesson: Bleeding Kansas." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Kelly, Martin. (2020, August 27). American History Lesson: Bleeding Kansas. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "American History Lesson: Bleeding Kansas." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 12, 2021).