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Bleeding Kansas

An excerpt from Lydia Maria Child’s dramatic retelling of the attack on Lawrence, Kansas.

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On the 21st of May, 1856, Lawrence was “wiped out.” Companies of Ruffians encamped around it; a furious tipsy crew, in motley garments. One band carried a banner with a tiger ready to spring; the motto, “You Yankees tremble! and abolitionists fall?” Another carried a flag marked, “South Carolina,” with a crimson star in the centre the motto, “Southern Rights.” Over Mount Oread floated a blood-red pirate flag, fit emblem of the Border Ruffians; and by its side, a suitable companion for it now, floated the United States flag. What cared New England that her six stars were there, in shameful “Union” with that blood-red flag?
President Pierce issued a proclamation, which made it treason for the citizens to defend themselves. The best and truest men were arrested and imprisoned as traitors, because they had no respect for the laws passed upon them by a Missouri rabble, with bowie-knives and revolvers.
The printing-press was broken in pieces; the types scattered; the Free State Hotel demolished; General Robinson’s house, with its valuable library, burned to the ground; and many of the cabins set on fire. No time was allowed to remove any thing from the dwellings. Trunks and bureaus were ransacked; daguerreotypes and pictures of dear home friends were cut and smashed; and letters scattered and trampled in the mud. The women and children had been ordered out, at the commencement of these outrages. Mothers were weeping, as they fled across the prairies, and the poor bewildered little ones were screaming and crying in every direction.
What cared New England that her six stars were looking down upon the scene, in shameful “Union” with that blood-red flag?
Above the noise of tumbling stones, and crackling roofs, and screaming children, rose that horrid yell of the Border Ruffians. “Damn the Yankees!” “Give ’em hell!”
A figure, tall as Ajax, loomed up above the savage crowd, calling out, “I’m down on all sich fixens. Allers tole yer ’twas darned mean to come over into the Territory an vote for these fellers. I’m pro-slave myself. I’d like to see him that dar’d to call me an abolitionist; but I tell yer what, boys, this ere’s cuttin up a little too high.” He was interrupted with shouts of, “Hold your jaw!” “Shut up! you damned ole fool!” Still he remonstrated: “This is a breakin down the rights o’ American citizens. You might jist as well smash my ole woman’s bureau. Them ar traps are personal property. I’m down on all sich fixens.”
“Pitch into him!” cried the rabble; and they did “pitch into him,” amid yells and laughter. Tom Thorpe was silenced. He learned the uselessness of trying to moderate slavery, or ameliorate murder.
Katie’s first care had been to consign little Johnny to her brother; and the next was to place the helpless Alice in her mother’s arms, to be conveyed to a hut half a mile off. Then she held a hurried conference with her husband about a suitable place to conceal some fire-arms for future use; and snatching up a box of letters and small valuables, she fled with Flora, pistol in hand. When Alice had been cared for, as well as the exigencies of the moment would permit, she ran back to aid some of her sickly neighbours, who were breaking down with the weight of their clinging children. Then, swift as an ostrich, the daring woman ran back to Lawrence, to pick up some of the scattered clothes and bedding, which her husband and his neighbours carried off as fast as she could heap it on their shoulders. The Ruffians were so busy with the printing-press and the Hotel, and she watched opportunities so cautiously, that she had rescued many things from the wreck, before they noticed her. They drove her off with oaths and ribald jests. She stood within sight of her blazing home, and her hand was on her pistol. The temptation was strong. But she remembered the oft-repeated words of General Robinson: “Act only on the defensive. Make no aggressions. Keep the cause of Kansas sacred.” She only turned upon her pursuers to say, “You think you have silenced the Herald of Freedom, because you have demolished the printing-press; but you are mistaken. That trumpet will sound across the prairies yet.”
“What a hell of a woman!” exclaimed one of the mob; and they laughed aloud in their drunken mirth, while the lurid flame of blazing homes lighted her across the prairies.
What cared New England that her six stars were looking down upon the scene, in shameful “Union” with that blood-red flag?

Excerpt from Lydia Maria Child, “The Kansas Emigrants,” Autumnal Leaves: Tales and Sketches in Prose and Rhyme (New York: C.S. Francis and Co., 1857).

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Background

In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This allowed the residents of Kansas to vote on whether they would allow slavery in their territory. Pro- and anti-slavery activists from all over the United States tried to influence the vote in Kansas. The political fighting soon turned into all-out gang violence, with pro- and anti-slavery settlers killing each other to try to drive one another out of the territory. The New-York Tribune newspaper coined the term “Bleeding Kansas” to describe the situation.

On May 21, 1856, a gang of pro-slavery settlers destroyed the anti-slavery settlement of Lawrence, Kansas. When Senator Charles Sumner spoke out against the violence and the spread of slavery, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks nearly killed him on the floor of the Senate. Meanwhile, on May 24, John Brown led his followers in a night raid against pro-slavery settlers in Kansas, killing five people. Kansas was in a state of unofficial war.

That summer, federal troops were brought in to quell the situation, and a fragile peace was established. For the next five years, Kansas continued to experience outbreaks of violence. Kansas was ultimately admitted to the Union as a free state after the secession of the Southern states in 1861.

About the Document

Celebrated abolitionist, activist, and author Lydia Maria Child was horrified by the violence in Kansas. She channeled her rage into a short story called “The Kansas Emigrants.” Her story dramatized the attack on Lawrence, Kansas. Lydia’s account is biased in favor of the anti-slavery settlers. Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Tribune, felt her story was so important that he interrupted the publication of a Charles Dickens novel to run it in the newspaper in October 1856. Thousands of people across the North read it, which contributed to a rise in anti-slavery sentiment.

Vocabulary

  • abolitionist: A person or group that wanted to end the practice of slavery.
  • allers: Always.
  • ameliorate: Improve.
  • Border Ruffians: Vigilante groups from Missouri who wanted slavery to be legalized in Kansas.
  • bureau: Dresser.
  • Charles Dickens: Author of Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, and other English literature classics.
  • commencement: Beginning.
  • consign: Give.
  • daguerreotype: An early form of photography.
  • dar’d: Dared.
  • emigrant: A person who leaves their country to settle in a new one.
  • ere’s: Here is.
  • exigencies: Demands.
  • fellers: Fellows.
  • jist: Just.
  • John Brown: An abolitionist who tried to start an armed slave uprising in 1859.
  • lurid: Vivid.
  • motley: Mismatched.
  • oft: Often.
  • ole: Old.
  • President Pierce: Franklin Pierce, the 14th U.S. president (1853–1857).
  • remonstrated: Protested.
  • ribald jests: Inappropriate jokes.
  • sich fixens: Such actions.
  • Them ar traps: That stuff there.
  • tipsy: Drunk.
  • ‘twas: It was.
  • types: Individual letter pieces for a printing press.
  • yer: You.

Discussion Questions

  • Why does Lydia Maria Child follow the actions of a woman in her account of the attack on Lawrence?
  • How does Lydia Maria Child characterize the pro-slavery people in this passage?
  • Why did Horace Greeley think this story was so important?
  • How does this story make you feel? How do you think it affected readers in 1856?
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Themes

ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE

Source Notes
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