Kansas is thought of as that big flat place of sunflowers between Colorado and Missouri–a long, boring drive on I-70 from Denver to Kansas City, Missouri. And of course, the location of Dodge City, a lawless Western town tamed by fictional Marshal Matt Dillion on radio and television’s Gunsmoke.
Most folks know or surmise that Kansas is the geographic center of the United States (or at least of the lower 48 states). Who knew how central Kansas was not only geographically but historically to the social development of the United States? Well, just about anyone who recalls the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 from their school days. (Have you seen Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?). That’s not meant to insult anybody–in the last few days as I’ve researched in Kansas sources, I’ve been reminded of the importance of Kansas and learned a number of new things myself.
The American social history of Kansas began with the Missouri Compromise of 1820. This was a deal struck between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces in the Congress that banned slavery in the former Louisiana Territory except in the proposed state of Missouri and admitted Maine as a free state. The result was that slavery was banned in the area that became the Territory of Kansas adjacent to Missouri. But then, in 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act that for practical purposes invalidated the Missouri Compromise legislation. The Kansas-Nebraska Act organized the Territories of Kansas and Nebraska, opening new lands for settlement. However, the law allowed the new settlers to decide for themselves the issue of slavery.
The Kansas Territory extended from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains (including Denver). Upon the enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, hundreds, if not thousands, of pro-slavery Missourians flooded across the river into Kansas. At the same time, abolitionists organized companies of anti-slavery emigrants from Northern states to travel to Kansas. The ultimate result, political discord, election fraud, and outright violence, presaged the Civil War.
Slaves ran away from Missouri to Kansas; free blacks were kidnapped from Kansas and taken into bondage in Missouri. As the “Free-Staters” struggled with “Border Ruffians,” the territory became known as “Bleeding Kansas.” Such historical figures as Henry Ward Beecher and John Brown rose to national attention in Kansas. The violence actually spread from Kansas to Washington, DC. On the floor of the Senate in 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts delivered an angry speech called “The Crime Against Kansas” in which he verbally attacked southern senators, including Sen. Andrew Brooks of South Carolina, calling them “hirelings picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization.” He accused them of “cavorting with the harlot, Slavery.” In retaliation, Sen. Brooks’ nephew, Rep. Preston Brooks, went to the Senate and beat Sumner unconscious with a cane. Sumner was unable to return to the Senate for more than three years.
Ironically, the outbreak of the Civil War eased the tensions in Kansas and it became a free state in January 1861.
One more significant battle was fought in Kansas a century after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court unanimously decided the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the most important case for people of my generation. Fifty years later, on May 17, 2004, I was privileged to stand with the President of the United States, the Governor of Kansas, and members of the Brown family, at Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, to commemorate this event.
There’s an old saying in political science that “where you stand depends on where you sit.” When you find where your Kansas ancestors were sitting in the 1850’s, you may have some clue as to where they stood on the issues central to the history of that state and America itself.
Kansas is rich in historical and genealogical resources. Check these out:
- Kansas Historical Society
- Kansas State Library
- Midwest Historical and Genealogical Society Library
- The Kansas Collection at the Kansas City Kansas Public Library
- Kansas Pioneer Project
- Kansas State Census Collection, 1855-1915
- Kansas Settlers 1854-1879
- Kansas Voter Registration 1854-1856
Important Databases at Ancestry.com:
April 4, 2007 Wednesday at 5:24 pm