Anarchy in KansasPosted: June 5, 2014
The men of the Missouri frontier desperately wanted Kansas, some for land, some for slavery, and some for a mix of both. Congress threw open the doors and invited everybody in with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but no civilian government waited on the ground to see to an orderly settlement. This could only invite trouble, but to further complicate things no survey of the available lands yet existed. The government in Washington or a future government in Kansas couldn’t tell the land-hungry settlers from either section just what lands they could have. Some territory still belonged to the Indians, at least for a time. Some did not. Where did one end and the other begin?
In the absence of the land survey and clear boundaries to the remaining reservations, not an inch of Kansas stood open to legal purchase. The way things ought to work, those surveys would find their way to a federal land office somewhere in the territory. People would go out and look around, decide what land they wanted, and either file a claim for it via preemption or buy it outright. Preemption worked a bit like homesteading. One went to the land and improved it, increasing its value and the value of adjacent land. If a citizen or somewhere in the process of becoming one, the settler thus earned the right to buy the land at a set minimum price. Poorer settlers could thus establish their claims and then work the land to help meet the subsidized price.
With no legal means to resolve their disputes over prized land, settlers would naturally resort to deciding things by who had the most friends or shot the straightest. No other means existed until the land office received the first surveys in January, 1855. Even without slavery inflaming sectional tensions and inspiring partisan bands to contend over the territory, this just asked for trouble. Land disputes invited settlers to court powerful friends, whether well-heeled Yankees or a United States Senator.
The United States Senator in question, David Rice Atchison, saw himself as just the man to resolve matters. He had helped make Kansas open for slavery. He and his cohorts founded the Platte County Self-Defense Association, of late embarrassments. If anybody could take charge and serve at least as the figurehead for proslavery settlers and slavery-indifferent but anti-Yankee settlers alike, he could.
Anyone in Kansas who got on the wrong side of one of Atchison’s clients would naturally incline toward the Emigrant Aid Society’s patronage, whether they cared much for Eli Thayer’s antislavery politics or not. If one can’t blame the Missouri men for feeling a bit betrayed and overwhelmed by conniving outsiders with their deep pockets, then one can hardly blame their opposites for increasingly aligning otherwise. Atchison gave them plenty of reasons. His lieutenant, B.F. Stringfellow threatened violence and lawlessness. One might think a senator above such things, especially if he intended to participate himself, but Atchison had no such scruples. According to the testimony of Dr. G. A. Cutler to the House committee appointed to investigate Kansas affairs, Atchison appeared in Kansas in March of 1855. He came with eighty well-armed men and gave a brief speech including these words:
We came to vote, and we are going to vote, or kill every God-damned abolitionist in the district.