The View from the Missouri Frontier

William Tecumseh Sherman

William Tecumseh Sherman

People in western Missouri wanted Kansas for themselves. To some of them, that meant also wanting it for slavery. To others, having it meant that slavery would come and they could live with that. To a third set, it meant keeping out interloping Yankees. But to all of these it meant taking what rightly belonged to them.

The Missouri river separates only a small part of Kansas from Missouri. The rest comes down, then and now, to a surveyor’s line. By 1854, the edge of the world might run down that surveyor’s line. But that line formed no flaming chasm or iron curtain to stop those living on the frontier from stepping across. If the law prohibited you from doing much across that surveyor’s line in the Indian Country, its officers rarely made the restriction stick. You could get rich with a plantation. You could get rich selling supplies to the emigrant trains moving on to California or Oregon. Both of those options kept you inside the law, more or less. But you could also get rich by laying down markers across the line so you would have fist claim to any new land opened for settlement.

An obscure, if well-connected, military man who missed out on the fighting in Mexico, William Tecumseh Sherman, passed through the area

in the spring of 1852 I had occasion to visit Fort Leavenworth on duty, partly to inspect a lot of cattle which a Mr. Gordon, of Cass County, had contracted to deliver in New Mexico, to enable Colonel Sumner to attempt his scheme of making the soldiers in New Mexico self-supporting


I found Fort Leavenworth then, as now, a most beautiful spot, but in the midst of a wild Indian country. There were no whites settled in what is now the State of Kansas. Weston, in Missouri, was the great town, and speculation in town-lots there and thereabout burnt the fingers of some of the army-officers, who wanted to plant their scanty dollars in fruitful soil.

I don’t know what edition of Sherman’s memoirs Allen Nevins worked from, but mine had this on page 117 to his 89. As a result I read a bit more than I planned, including Sherman’s similar account of land speculation in California. He even surveyed some land for a claimed “New York on the Pacific” that never panned out. Americans on the frontier just did that. Get in early, stake a claim, buy it cheap and wild, then resell it to the next wave of white settlers. Sherman himself did some of it and reported his profits in his memoirs.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

While Missourians could not legally settle in Kansas before the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed, they’d been there, by the hundreds before the bill became a law, and wasted no time scouting out and then staking out claims, law or no law. Less speculative, but no less land-hungry, many would have had an eye on expanding their existing holdings rather than reselling. Some would even have fit the standard image of a family leaving one state entirely to move to a new one for good. Likely which category each settled into depended as much on market forces as initial intentions.

Kansas might not have money just coming out of the ground like California did, but its ground was money. A bunch of rich Yankees with their Emigrant Aid Society planned to come buy it all up before an honest Missourian could get a chance at it? To give to a bunch of dirty Irish thugs and slave-stealing abolitionists? One did not need to have a large, personal investment in slaves or slavery to see a threat in that. The big chance had arrived, only for a big company to try taking it all out of their hands. Worse still, everybody knew that only so much of Kansas had any real value. The rest, part of the great American desert, could never support a farm and would never amount to much. Only the eastern third had any potential.

With so much at stake and so little of Kansas to go around, small wonder Atchison could find plenty of men prepared to sign on and do violence for his cause if it meant helping along their own. They had their American dreams at stake.

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