The experiences of Missouri and Kansas residents during the era of the
Border Wars is a window on the issues and circumstances that shattered the
Union during the Civil War. It was on the Missouri-Kansas border that
Americans first grappled with the problem of liberty and slavery face to
face – sometimes even shedding blood in the interest of their cause.
An exploration of this most uncivil of wars also provides insight into the
ways in which societies can be fragmented by ideology and ultimately rebuilt
upon different lines. Only when Missourians and Kansans embraced a common
vision for America – one based on shared agricultural practices, ideas about
economic development, and racial inequality – did Americans on both two
sides of the border reconcile.
Beginning in the years following the War of 1812, settlers from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia flooded into the bottomlands of the Missouri River bringing with them the cultural values of the Upper South. Many also brought their slaves. When the nation’s leaders argued over the future of Missouri slavery in 1820, they did not consult actual Missourians who would have soundly supported their peculiar institution. In 1836, the Americans bought the Platte Purchase from the Sac and Fox tribes and thus forced Native Americans westward off the fertile soil of the Missouri River Valley. Over time the population of the state became increasingly more diverse as German and Irish immigrants and settlers from northern states moved there. Many of the new arrivals had a different vision for Missouri, encouraging early industrial development in the region and promoting new railroad ties to the Northeast and Upper Midwest.
As the nation grew, thousands of people passed through Missouri on the way west on the Santa Fe, California, and Oregon Trails. The Missouri-Kansas border became a bustling crossroads where merchandise, cultures, and beliefs mixed and changed to take on a character of their own. But when the United States Congress opened up settlement across the state line in Kansas in 1854, this cultural and political diversity took on a new resonance. Americans held different visions for the future of the new Kansas Territory depending on their beliefs about “liberty” and “freedom.” Under the concept of popular sovereignty, settlers holding conflicting ideas flocked into the territory: some traveling from nearby Missouri and others from as far away as New England.
Bitter feuding turned into open hostilities on the Missouri-Kansas border well before the firing on Fort Sumter. Violence erupted in Kansas as free soil and pro-slavery settlers vied to stake land claims and elect a new territorial government. The eyes of the nation watched as the citizens of Kansas and Missouri attempted to resolve the question of the extension of slavery that had so long plagued the nation. Eventually, even the halls of Congress were not immune to the forces unleashed on the border.
Free soil settlers eventually won the battle and Kansas joined the Union as a free state in 1861, but the bitter memories of the violent conflict simmering beneath the surface erupted in an even more virulent form during the Civil War. It was now Missouri’s turn to bleed as the growing internal divisions existing before the war and the presence of hostile forces on the western border turned the state into the scene of vicious guerrilla warfare. Missouri civilians – both enslaved and free – were caught in the crossfire as Union and Confederate troops fought for control of the state and Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers ravaged the countryside.