Stealing the Leavenworth County Seat, Part One

William Phillips

William Phillips

The proslavery friends of law and order had their preliminary meeting at Leavenworth on October 3, 1855. That city occupied an odd place in Kansas politics. According to William Phillips’ The Conquest of Kansas, the people of Leavenworth largely preferred the free state party. However, the city also accepted the rule of the territorial legislature, laws and all, in order to enjoy a charter from the Kansas Assembly. Phillips relates that this position arose “partly by business considerations, and partly by timidity.” This may have made it the ideal place for a notionally slavery-agnostic movement that opposed the free state men to gather. It also made the city into a target for proslavery men who had less tolerance for the soft sell.

The Assembly failed to name the seats of each county in Kansas, which left some of them up to the citizens to decide. The men of the county went to the polls on the subject in early October:

Three points contended for the honor. Leavenworth, the largest, and now the largest city in the territory, felt sure of it; so sure that no very special effort was made. Kickapoo was another contestant. Kickapoo is a river town, being some ten miles up the Missouri river from Leavenworth. It is a cotton-wood town of the “great futurity” school, and does a heavy business in the whiskey-retailing line. The other point, Delaware, is also a river town, eight miles below. This latter place has an admirable faculty for making a great place, there being scarcely anything of it now.

Kickapoo had a strong proslavery contingent, which prevented the free state delegate election polls from operating. I’ve also seen references to a proslavery militia called the Kickapoo Rangers. It had to look like a better prospect for county seat than the questionable Leavenworth, even if the latter sat just across the river from Platte County and had proslavery men committed enough to lynch William Phillips and brag about it back in the spring. As Phillips had it:

Previous elections had taught them a lesson, and furnished a valuable precedent. Western Missouri is just over the river from Kickapoo, and many of the citizens of the former place have an interest in the latter. So it is with Delaware; many of the most deeply interested speculators in this yet-to-be-Babylon live in Clay and Platte Counties, Missouri. Under these circumstances it is not wonderful that it was not difficult to arouse an interest in this election in Missouri. Another thing against Leavenworth-it was reputed to be an “abolition hole.”

All of this reminds me a bit of the argument in John McNamara’s account of Phillips’ mobbing. He argued that the papers in Missouri condemned Leavenworth as soft on slavery and the town’s proslavery men took Phillips on in part to prove them wrong. Leavenworth’s business-minded timidity on slavery could come across, especially from Missouri, as simultaneously making it a threat and a good place to win an easy victory. Add into this the issue of Missouri men having considerable money invested in its much smaller population -Phillips insists that Kickapoo and Delaware added together and doubled wouldn’t have matched Leavenworth’s numbers- and one has a convenient and relatively compelling case to steal yet another election.

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