by Kristen Epps
Today on the blog: An excerpt from Slavery on the Periphery: The Kansas-Missouri Border in the Antebellum and Civil War Eras by Kristen Epps. In her book, Epps focuses on nineteen counties on the Kansas-Missouri border, tracing slavery’s rise and fall from the earliest years of American settlement through the Civil War. This section explores the contours of the debate over slavery’s expansion into the West and the fact that chattel slavery already existed on this geographic periphery.
In July 1855, a thirty-nine-year-old enslaved woman named Lucinda reached her breaking point. Suffering abuse at the hands of her owner, Grafton Thomasson, she escaped and found peace in the hereafter when she drowned in the Missouri River near Atchison, Kansas Territory.(1) After her body washed ashore by the ferry landing, it lay undisturbed for nearly three days, a silent, ominous testament to slavery’s abuses and a warning to both abolitionists and other slaves who might be inclined to resist white authority.(2) The local community of Atchison, a notoriously strong center of proslavery sentiment, buzzed with gossip. Had she taken her own life? Was she mad? What had happened within Thomasson’s household to inspire such a final act of desperation? Perhaps she had been sexually assaulted; as the only enslaved woman in the Thomasson household, she would have been vulnerable to such treatment. Or, maybe she resisted her owner’s will, carving out a limited sense of personal autonomy through resistance that ultimately proved unfruitful. An abolitionist lawyer originally from Cincinnati, J. W. B. Kelly publicly denounced the treatment of her body and hypothesized that Thomasson’s cruelty and alcoholism had led to her demise. In retaliation, Thomasson and other proslavery locals stripped off Kelly’s clothes and whipped him. Kelly was then banished from the territory, never to be heard from again.(3) Lucinda’s apparent suicide, and Kelly’s abuse at the hands of a vigilante mob, acts out in stark relief the fact that slavery existed in Kansas in 1855. But now, unlike earlier generations, slaves and slaveholders here were at the center of a nationwide contest between slavery and freedom. When Kansas bled, enslaved people and white citizens like Kelly found themselves drawn into a conflict that would foreshadow the events of the Civil War.
Americans living in the 1850s were a generation torn by sectional strife. The United States’ recent victory in the Mexican-American War brought over 525,000 square miles of western territory into American hands.(4) This reignited long-standing—though temporarily muted—national debates surrounding slavery’s expansion, federal power, and political liberties. White Southerners, regardless of their status as slaveholders or nonslaveholders, generally desired a West open to slave labor, not only for practical purposes but to protect white Southern interests. White Southerners wanted their fair share of Manifest Destiny’s spoils. White Northerners, by and large, sought a West founded on the principles of free white labor. Black Americans, whether free or enslaved, Northern or Southern, hoped for a nation without slavery altogether, a more ambitious and far-reaching transformation that was not yet in the cards. The Compromise of 1850 addressed these land cessions and brokered a deal to appease both Northerners and Southerners, while not conceding victory to either. For instance, it included California’s admission to the Union as a free state, a concession to Northerners who opposed slavery, but it also included a revised fugitive slave law that made it easier for slaveholders to retrieve their lost “property.” The fragile peace it promised disintegrated almost immediately, and the Second Party system collapsed. Northern distaste for the new fugitive slave law manifested, as one example, in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s publication of the best-selling book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a powerful piece of antislavery propaganda.(5) Many Northern whites harbored intense racial prejudices, considering abolition anathema, but their commitment to a “free soil” ideology grew. Political and social turmoil shaped this decade.
This ideological and political conflict over slavery’s expansion also affected those out west. Residents on the Kansas-Missouri line saw a breakdown of the demographic, cultural, and ideological cohesion that connected those in Indian Territory (soon to be Kansas Territory) with those across the line in Missouri. Slavery had existed here for decades, the residue of an Upper South culture that inscribed slaveholding values on both the physical and metaphorical landscape, shaping the region’s social geography into one based largely on slave labor, not free labor. This was, of course, despite continual action on the part of the enslaved community to challenge the system’s integrity. It had also been a region of racial mixing and diverse peoples who remained resilient through a number of adjustments, including the acquisition of the Platte Purchase, the opening of the Santa Fe, Oregon, and California trails, and the establishment of Indian Territory as a result of the Indian Removal Act. Through it all, slavery had survived, and thrived, albeit in a small-scale form. And yet, deep sectional divides served as a portent that could not be ignored.
In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its advocacy of popular sovereignty magnified the peculiar institution that existed on the border and projected it onto the national stage. It created Kansas and Nebraska territories out of the Louisiana Purchase, opening them to white settlement. Both were the current home to indigenous and Eastern emigrant tribes, since this had been the northern part of Indian Territory. By 1854, however, the commitment to a permanent Indian reserve could no longer resist the push of whites’ westward expansion and continued agitation on the slavery question. This act also superseded the Missouri Compromise, which had prohibited slavery north of the 36° 30ʹ parallel, as a concession to Southerners in Congress.(6) However, it circumvented Congress’s authority over slavery’s expansion by emphasizing local control through popular sovereignty, which left slavery’s existence to the will of the people residing in these territories. Popular sovereignty’s implementation proved a formidable challenge. As Chris Childers has observed, the architect of the act, Stephen Douglas, gave “credence to [two] interpretations—that territorial legislatures could prohibit slavery before statehood or only when a territory drafted a constitution and sought admission to the Union.”(7) The former interpretation remained popular in Northern circles, while Southerners preferred the latter. In practice Kansas’s popular sovereignty was a referendum on whether the nation’s future should be fashioned by free white labor or by coercive labor. This contest devolved into violence, giving Kansas’s territorial period from 1854 to 1861 the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.” This was a contest between political, social, and economic systems that had far-reaching implications for all of nineteenth-century America.
The ensuing flood of emigrants from all parts of the United States (as well as Europe) meant that the line between Missouri and Kansas—a previously liminal space—took on a new form. Even before the territory officially opened for white settlement on May 30, 1854, interested parties throughout the United States hoped to influence Kansas’s future status as either a free or slave state. Southerners believed Kansas was in a strategic location, as evidenced by numerous newspaper articles, pamphlets, and other sources created from Virginia to Louisiana. If it became a slave state, free-soil resistance to slavery in other regions of the West might be curbed. Slaveholders fully understood that Missouri’s propensity for small-scale slaveholding could easily be replicated here. An unidentified newspaper stated that “if Slavery, as indicated by the infallible test of the market-price of slaves, is, to a marked degree, prosperous and profitable in the western Counties of Missouri, it must be equally so in Kansas.”(8) Western identity also played a role. Missourians specifically—in contrast to emigrants from Midwestern states such as Illinois and Indiana—believed that slavery was a normal, even necessary component of Western development. Progress was the cement binding them to the West. As historian Christopher Phillips has noted, Missourians fundamentally “saw Kansas as a gift—to them.”(9) This was a political fault line, certainly, but with such a groundswell of support for slavery in the Upper South, there was no doubt that if slavery could succeed in Kansas it would closely resemble the slave system in Missouri.
Kristen Epps is an assistant professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas. Her work has been published in the edited collection Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border.