Bleeding Kansas was a series of violent political confrontations in the United States involving anti-slavery Free-Staters and pro-slavery “Border Ruffian” elements, that took place in the Kansas Territory and the neighboring towns of the state of Missouri between 1854 and 1861.
The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 called for “popular sovereignty”—that is, the decision about slavery was to be made by the settlers (rather than outsiders). Anti-slavery “free soil” forces said the rich slaveholders would buy up all the good farmland and work them with black slaves, leaving little or no opportunity for non-slaveholders.
As such, Bleeding Kansas was a proxy war between anti-slavery forces in the North and pro-slavery forces from the South over the issue of slavery in the United States. In May 1854, the Kansas–Nebraska Act created from unorganized Indian lands the territories of Kansas and Nebraska.
This permitted residency by U.S. citizens, who were to determine their state’s slavery status and seek admission to the Union. Immigrants supporting both sides of the question arrived in Kansas to establish residency and gain the right to vote.
However, Kansas Territory officials were appointed (1854) by the pro-slavery administration of President Franklin Pierce (in office 1853–1857), and thousands of non-resident pro-slavery Missourians entered Kansas with the goal of winning elections. They captured territorial elections, sometimes by fraud and intimidation.
It was rumored in the south that thousands of northerners were arriving in Kansas.
Believing these rumors, in November 1854, thousands of armed pro-slavery men known as “Border Ruffians”, mostly from Missouri, poured into the Kansas Territory and swayed the vote in the election for a non-voting delegate to Congress in favor of pro-slavery candidate John Whitfield.
The following year a Congressional committee investigating the election reported that 1729 fraudulent votes were cast compared to 1114 legal votes. Nevertheless, the pro-slavery territorial legislature convened in the newly created Territorial Capital in Pawnee on July 2, 1855.
The legislature immediately invalidated the results from the special election in May and seated the pro-slavery delegates elected in March.
After only one week in Pawnee, the legislature moved the territorial capital to the Shawnee Mission on the Missouri border, where it reconvened and passed laws favorable to slavery.
Hostilities between armed bands seemed imminent in late 1855 as well over a thousand Missourians crossed the border and menaced Lawrence, a free-state stronghold. On May 21, 1856, ruffians actually looted that town.
In response, John Brown orchestrated the murder several days later of five proslavery settlers along Pottawatomie Creek. Four months of partisan violence and depredation ensued.
Small armies ranged over eastern Kansas, clashing at Black Jack, Franklin, Fort Saunders, Hickory Point, Slough Creek, and Osawatomie, where Brown and forty others were routed in late August.
Several attempts were made to draft a constitution which Kansas could use to apply for statehood. Some versions were proslavery, others Free State. Finally, a fourth convention met at Wyandotte in July 1859, and adopted a Free State constitution.
Kansas applied for admittance to the Union. However, the proslavery forces in the Senate strongly opposed its Free State status, and stalled its admission.