How Much Blood for Kansas?

Pardee Butler

Pardee Butler

Bleeding Kansas, at least into November of 1855, has turned out less sanguine than advertised. Its first election, back in November of 1854, produced only violent threats.  The second, to populate the Assembly, managed rather better but still passed without fatalities. Many of the fistfights might have shed some blood and the attacks on William Phillips and Pardee Butler could have turned into deadly altercations, but neither did. Cole McRea, a free soiler, killed proslavery man Malcolm Clark back in the spring but their dispute involved competing property claims at least as much as political differences. Disputes over land that resolved themselves through the death of one party left the person just as dead as any fight over slavery, but they also happened all across the frontier. They speak more to Kansas’ unsettled state and weak governance than to its specific political turmoil.

We should not discount the impact of non-fatal attacks upon one’s peace of mind, and certainly not upon the general increase of tensions that they both indicate and facilitate. People who know themselves liable to attack take precautions. They go about more often with friends. They arm themselves more heavily. They develop an interest in having a violent reputation to deter attackers. All of this comes with a great deal of fear and paranoia, adding a constant psychological strain. All these facts press toward further escalation. If the other party has friends, you need friends. If you don’t have any, then the best way to get them might involve declaring for a cause. They have knives; you need knives. If they have guns, then you must as well. The other side can see the same. Defensive decisions become new provocations. Something must give.

The tension finally boiled over while the free state men convened at Topeka to write their constitution. On October 25, Samuel Collins fell to the ground on the streets of Doniphan in the first clear case of political murder in Kansas. Depending on who one asks, he had as many as two hundred or as few as fifty fellows. This past weekend I read Dale E. Watts 1995 article (PDF) on the body count, which discusses the difficulty of arriving at a precise number. He offers fifty-six clear cases. This is rather less than contemporaries on either side would have us believe, but he rightly points out that both sides had every reason to exaggerate:

Both sides tended to overestimate the level of carnage, sometimes to gain sympathy because of their losses, sometimes to convince themselves and the world that they were destroying their enemies in great numbers and thus were winning the contest. One proslavery Atchison newspaper reported that fifteen proslavery men had been killed at the Battle of Black Jack in Douglas County in June 1856. In reality no one on either side was killed during the battle. The antislavery papers were not any more accurate in their reporting. The Lawrence Herald of Freedom took the proslavery newspapers to task for exaggerating free-state losses at the Battle of Osawatomie in Lykins (Miami) county in August 1856, but in the same article the Herald made the wild claim that thirty or forty dead proslavery men were hauled from the battlefield. Only two of these proslavery casualties can be documented.

Even if one could get around the exaggerations, and the incomplete record in general, what motivated a killing comes down to a question of interpretation. People can do things for multiple reasons, so when we have evidence of multiple motives we must weigh them and decide which ultimately prevailed. With the Collins-Laughlin fray, we have witnesses who told us clearly that the men worked together until Laughlin betrayed the Kansas Legion. Collins confronted Laughlin and demanded he recant what he had published about the group. Laughlin refused and the guns came out. The Clark-McCrea killing doesn’t provide such a clear record, though Watts considers it the second documented political killing in the territory. He counts the first as the killing of an unidentified black man stealing himself from slavery.

Where does one draw the line, though? Until I saw Malcolm Clark in Watts’ roster, I had written his death off as only incidentally political and more about land. I had missed reference to the absconding slave entirely. Thus I considered Collins the first confirmed political death, which I have cause to now reconsider.

If we have trouble including slavery as a causative factor, then we can have similar trouble excluding it. Must agitation over slavery form the dominant reason for violence in order for us to consider the violence an extension of politics or can we also consider it as a necessary, but possibly not alone sufficient, cause for violence? Watts explores this tension in the case of a later murder, allowing that the parties did differ over slavery as well as land claims. He places slavery in a secondary role, while allowing that it may have made peaceful resolution more difficult. In that situation, I would take politics as an especially relevant contributing factor to the death. Would the men have come to blows without politics separating them? We can’t know.

Ultimately, Watts says

A careful search of representative sources reveals a total of 157 violent deaths during the territorial period. Of these, fifty-six may be attributed with some confidence to the political conflict or the slavery issue. The remaining 101 killings i fifty-two resulting from personal conflicts such as fights or brawls, seventeen stemming directly from land disputes, eleven from lynchings, and five occurring during robberies. In sixteen cases information is insufficient to determine a primary motivation. Of these 101 slayings, twenty-five may have had politics or slavery as a significant contributing cause, but primarily they were the result of other factors.

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