Woodson, Daniel

Encyclopedia entry by ,
University of Cincinnati

Biographical Information:

Portrait of Daniel Woodson. Courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society.

  • Date of birth: May 24, 1824
  • Place of birth: Ablemarle County, Virginia
  • Claim to fame: Proslavery newspaper editor, Kansas Territory secretary, and five-time Kansas Territory governor
  • Political affiliations: Democratic Party
  • Date of death: October 5, 1894
  • Place of death: Claremore, Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma)

Daniel Woodson was a proslavery newspaper editor, secretary of Kansas Territory, and a five-time acting territorial governor of Kansas during the late 1850s.

Woodson was born on May 24, 1824, in Ablemarle County, Virginia, a staunchly proslavery area. He was orphaned at age seven and was raised on a farm with limited formal education. Woodson apprenticed as a printer as an adolescent, eventually working for eight years as printer then coeditor of the Lynchburg Republican, a Democratic newspaper. In 1851 he moved to Richmond and became editor of another Democratic paper, the Republican-Advocate. Woodson’s editorial skills soon drew notice outside of the Old Dominion. His proslavery political reputation growing, Woodson was appointed secretary of Kansas Territory by President Franklin Pierce on June 29, 1854.

He arrived in Leavenworth that October, and his political influence grew quickly. In fact, Woodson County, Kansas, was already named in his honor in 1855. Woodson served several terms as acting governor of Kansas Territory between 1855 and 1858. He first became acting territorial governor in the summer of 1855 when President Pierce removed Kansas’s first governor, Democrat Andrew H. Reeder, from office for his accusations of voter fraud by proslavery forces in Kansas, an incident which left a proslavery government in power that the Free-Staters called the “Bogus Legislature”. Stepping in for Reeder, Woodson signed some of the first territorial legislation, which was predictably protested by antislavery settlers.

Woodson County, KS, would be the only county named for a Kansas territorial official until 1889.

Woodson stepped down when Pierce commissioned Ohio Democrat Wilson Shannon on August 10, 1855. Woodson joined the Law and Order party, a group dedicated to opposing what they deemed Free-State “anarchy” and “treason.” Political violence only increased during Shannon’s tenure. John Brown’s infamous Pottawatomie Massacre of May 1856, in which Brown’s abolitionists killed five proslavery men, marked the high point of conflict that spring. Amid escalating bloodshed in the territory, Woodson served as acting governor again after Shannon ingloriously left for St. Louis in August 1856. Historian Nicole Etcheson describes Woodson’s attitude that summer as one of indifference toward Free-State complaints. Earning his “Law and Order” reputation, he attempted to enlist the military by ordering Colonel Edwin Sumner to suppress the Free-State legislature at Topeka in July.

John W. Geary replaced the disgraced Shannon on July 31, 1856. A Pennsylvania Democrat (and future Republican and Union general), Geary met strong opposition from Kansas’s proslavery forces, who would have preferred the proslavery Woodson as governor. Violence continued to reign during Geary’s tenure. Most notably, the Battle of Osawatomie on August 30, 1856, involved several hundred proslavery Border Ruffians who attacked, burned, and looted the town that was defended by antislavery men, with the militant abolitionist John Brown leading the defenders. Falling more in line with Kansas’s Free-State camp, and fearing for his personal safety, Geary retired from office amid swirling violence in the spring of 1857, and Woodson acted as governor again from March 12 to April 16. Maintaining his law and order proslavery approach, Woodson struggled to distinguish peaceable citizens from guerrillas. He eventually declared the territory to be in a state of rebellion, leading antislavery opponents to term this period “Woodson’s Reign of Terror.” Relations between Woodson and the military gradually broke down, deepening the pattern of violence that had plagued his predecessors.

He... declared the [Kansas] territory to be in a state of rebellion, leading antislavery opponents to term this period “Woodson’s Reign of Terror.”

Woodson was appointed receiver of the Delaware Land Office (on April 1) during this final tenure as acting governor, but he continued to hold the office until the arrival of Frederick Perry Stanton, another Virginia Democrat who would serve as territorial governor from April through December 1857. In sum, Woodson served as the chief executive of Kansas for a total of about five months and lived up to his reputation as a proslavery ally at critical junctures in the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict. On the other hand, he earned a reputation as a hardworking and meticulous official, which he reinforced while in the Land Office.

Woodson became a farmer and newspaper publisher in his post-territorial official life, settling down first in Leavenworth County. After farming for over a decade, he saw financial opportunity and helped found Parker, Kansas, where he fell back on his old trade and established a newspaper. When a proposed railroad bypassed Parker, Woodson moved again to Coffeyville, where he published the Coffeyville Journal. Woodson fell ill and died on October 5, 1894, while convalescing in Claremore, Indian Territory, in present-day Oklahoma. 

Suggested Reading: 

Etcheson, Nicole. Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.

Cite this page: 
Stanley, Matthew. "Woodson, Daniel" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Jun, 24, 2019 at http://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/woodson-daniel

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