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The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 made Kansas a recognized territory and promoted popular sovereignty (meaning that settlers in that territory had the right to choose whether or not to allow slavery). This act repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that made it illegal to own slaves north of the 36' 30" boundary line. Now slavery was legal all over the territory, which infuriated Northerners. This territory was about to become "Bleeding Kansas."

Elections were held in November 1854 to elect a congressional delegate. On March 30, 1855, the number of votes cast to elect the state legislature was 6,307. While voter turnout was high, there was a problem. The census that year totaled only 2,905 legal voters. Pro-slavery Missourians, known as "Border Ruffians," flooded over state lines and voted illegally to throw the outcome of both elections.

As a result, the now pro-slavery government passed a series of "Bogus Laws," as the Northerners called them. Severe penalties were now enforced on anyone who aided fugitive slaves or even spoke against the idea of slavery. In response, Northerners created a Free State Legislature in Topeka. Now the Kansas Territory had two operating governments. However, President Pierce only recognized the pro-slavery government.

In the summer of 1855, a group of about 1,200 New England residents traveled to the Kansas Territory to fight for a free state. Henry Ward Beecher, an abolitionist minister, armed the invaders with Sharps rifles, which became known as "Beecher's Bibles."

In 1856, a group of pro-slavery "Bushwackers" burned the Free State Hotel in Lawrence and ransacked homes and stores. In retaliation, zealous abolitionist John Brown led a band of men to Pottawatomie Creek, where they dragged five pro-slavery men out of their homes and hacked them to death with swords. Later, Brown would fight at Osawatomie and would lead the invasion of the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia in 1859. There he was defeated, captured and later hanged.

In 1859, after several versions of a state constitution had been presented, the Wyandotte constitution with its free-state policy was adopted. However, pro-slavery senators stalled the process, and it was not until the Confederate states seceded from the Union in 1861 and the senators traveled to the South that the state's constitution was officially adopted.

John Brown image
Portrait of John Brown
Photo courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society

Kansas was officially a free state, but the violence did not end. It had only begun. In 1863, Confederate guerrilla William Quantrill led a raid on the anti-slavery city of Lawrence and burned it to the ground, looting as he went. Brutal violence continued in the new state as some anti-slavery Kansans called "Jayhawkers" retaliated with the same intensity.