The Founding of Lawrence, Kansas

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Kansas City Public Library

The Featured Document Blog places the past in your grasp by introducing a compelling item from our digital collection.

Lawrence and “Bleeding Kansas”

From its founding by settlers of the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society in the summer and fall of 1854, through the “Bleeding Kansas” period and the Civil War, the town of Lawrence earned a reputation as the home of some of Kansas’s most fervent antislavery activists. In such violent instances as the 1855 “Wakarusa War” and the 1856 sacking of Lawrence by proslavery Missourians, the town found itself at the heart of the dispute over Kansas Territory’s future status as a slave or free state.

Ultimately, of course, Kansas entered the Union as a free state in 1861 as the nation embarked on the Civil War. But Lawrence was not immune to the violence of the war, as its citizens discovered on August 21, 1863, when William Clarke Quantrill’s Raiders sacked the city and killed an unprecedented portion of its male civilian population, between 160 and 190 men and boys in all. While ultimately the conclusion of the Civil War brought an end to slavery, and the population of Lawrence had seen its political goals realized, the cost was high and paid with blood.

Document: Diary of Lewis Timothy Litchfield

This diary, housed at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas, takes modern readers several steps back to the first few months of Lawrence’s settlement. The first-hand account offers up detailed descriptions of the settlers’ religious motivations, their long journey to Kansas which included stops in Kansas City and Westport, the author’s first view of the future town site on the Kansas or “Kaw” River, disputes with Missouri “border ruffians,” the materials and methods the settlers used to construct buildings, and a few surprises along the way.

From sources besides this diary, we know that the first party of representatives from the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society surveyed the area in July 1854. They were led by Dr. Charles Robinson and Charles H. Branscomb, who selected a site west of the confluence of the Kansas and Wakarusa Rivers on August 1, 1854, which they believed to be the best in Kansas Territory for a new settlement.

Lewis Timothy Litchfield’s diary begins by describing the second party, which according to the diary was led by Charles Robinson and Samuel C. Pomeroy and left Boston on August 29, 1854, arrived at the future site of Lawrence on September 9, and immediately began to establish the as-yet-unnamed town. Most of the diary appears to have been written retrospectively some months or years after the events described, which means that it is well-organized (even labeled with six “chapters”), but it is sometimes difficult to know the exact dates of the events described.

The party rode a train through Syracuse, Buffalo, and Detroit, and Litchfield likened “this scene to the one of our forefathers crossing the Broad Atlantic to make their home in the new world.” The party continued by rail through Chicago to St. Louis and then traveled on the Missouri River to Kansas City, where they disembarked at the city’s well-known landing, purchased supplies, and rested for three days. Their last stop prior to entering Kansas was at Westport, Missouri, which Litchfield described as “a flourishing town composed mostly of men of little or no principle who boast on their staunch proslavery principles.”

Upon receiving a rifle from the citizens of Leominster, Massachusetts, Litchfield wrote, “Of this I shall say nothing, as I intend that the rifle is to become a part of my person as much as an arm or hand, and so long as the warm blood runs through my veins, it shall never be ... by the touch of a slaveholder.”No summary of the rest of the document would do it justice, as the linked transcription is quite readable, but among other events, Litchfield describes the naming of the town and the construction of the first makeshift building in Lawrence, which ultimately served as a sort of boarding house and hotel, operated by Litchfield and his wife, for new migrants to Kansas. Litchfield recounted armed standoffs with Missouri border ruffians who challenged the Kansas settler’s claims to the site and backed down only when the settlers “cool[ed] their ardor a little ... with shotguns, rifles[,] pistols, and every kind of firearms.”

No blood is shed in this diary, but a small amount of background research unveils a gloomier story. In the document, Litchfield made it clear that he believed it was his God-given duty to be willing to use force, if necessary, to fight against slavery. At the beginning of the Civil War, Litchfield was a member of the Kansas Rifles militia, which had become known as “the Stubbs” for its men’s short stature and history of fighting Missouri border ruffians.

“The Stubbs” were mustered into the First Regiment of the Kansas Volunteer Infantry as Company D and soon fought at the pivotal Battle of Wilson’s Creek outside Springfield, Missouri, on August 10, 1861. In that battle, Nathaniel Lyon became the first Union general to die in the Civil War, and the early tide of the war in Missouri temporarily shifted in the favor of the South. For his part, it is documented in the resources listed below that Lewis Timothy Litchfield suffered the same fate as General Lyon at Wilson’s Creek.

Additional Resources

Cutler, William G., A.T. Andreas, and Thelma Carpenter. History of the State of Kansas, containing a full account of its growth from an uninhabited territory to a wealthy and important State... Also, a supplementary history and description of its counties, cities, towns, and villages.... Chicago: A.T. Andreas, 1883.

Eldridge, Shalor Winchell. Publications of the Kansas State Historical Society: Embracing Recollections of the Early Days in Kansas, Volume II. Topeka, KS: Kansas State Printing Plant, 1920.

Piston, William Garrett and Richard W. Hatcher III. Wilson's Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

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