The Eighteenth District, Part One

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

New readers, I’ve spent the last while digging through the 1856 Howard Report, commissioned by the House of Representatives to find out just what had gone wrong with the Kansas Territory since the KansasNebraska Act opened it to white settlement and, after thirty years of reserving it to freedom, also giving its settlers the chance to make it into a slave territory and thereafter a slave state. Since Kansas sat immediately adjacent to Missouri’s most enslaved region, and the slaveholders there feared that their own state slowly inclined more toward abolition, they took affirmative steps to ensure that actual Kansans did not have a decisive role in guiding their territory’s future. They organized in secret societies and crossed the border in great numbers, armed and ready to fight, to dominate Kansas’ elections. Occasionally they did fight, once to the point of trying to tear down a polling place, but more often terrorist threats and intimidation prevailed…at least so far as the legislative election of March 30, 1855 went.

The Eighteenth District did not benefit from thick white settlement in time for the election. D.H. Baker testified that he knew of only seventeen or eighteen settlers present. But a smaller voting population meant only fewer Missourians needed to fix the election.

Some persons there told me they were from Missouri, looking for claims, and had a camp about two miles off, but I was not in it. They told me there were about sixty of them. All I saw there were armed with shot guns, bowie knives, and pistols. I should think about forty voted. They said they came to hunt claims and vote. Some said they had taken claims, but I do not know as I have seen a man of them since.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

They intended to take claims. I have treated these nonce claims with skepticism in the past. By the letter of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and governor Andrew Reeder’s instructions to the judges of election, a claim did not convey residence. That said, I learned from Nichole Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era that as a practical matter staking a claim usually counted as sufficient evidence of intent to settle and intent justified voting. Had the Missourians made their claims in good faith, they would have had fair reason to cite typical frontier norms in resisting judges who followed Reeder’s instructions and demanded they show actual residence. Of course much relies on their having made the claims in good faith. Few did so.

Baker estimated that forty of the Missourians voted, which more than sufficed to carry an election boasting no more than sixty votes in all. Those numbers made the use of violence or threats unnecessary. Baker saw none. Everyone voted and went off. The presentation of arms, however, could serve as intimidation all the same. The Missourians all came packing and Baker clearly appreciates the unspoken threat. He remarks

A great many who go out on the prairie carry arms, and a good many do not. I came down here without any. All of them [the Missourians] had arms.

The frontier had its dangers and many Americans did go about armed to meet them, or just to give themselves some greater measure of psychological security. But Baker felt comfortable traveling across a considerably more violent Kansas a year after the election unarmed. The incongruity of the armed Missourian band forms a conspicuous contrast.

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