The Sack of Lawrence How the fight for slavery shaped the history of the town

The town of Lawrence, KS is well-known around the state as the home of K-States biggest collegiate rival, the Jayhawks. However, what some people may or may not know is that Lawrence was the center of the anti-slavery movement in Kansas back in the late 1850's. By this time, two territorial governments had been established; a pro-slavery government and an anti-slavery government. Unfortunately, only the pro-slavery government was recognized by President Franklin Pierce, and tensions were reaching a boiling point between the two parties that would eventually lead to the event known as Bleeding Kansas.

On May 21st, 1856 Sheriff Samuel Jones, along with roughly 800 anti-slavery supporters, entered Lawrence with orders from Judge Samuel Lecompte to arrest the anti-slavery leaders for treason.

Sheriff Samuel Jones

Upon arrival, Jones placed himself in front of Free-State Hotel, headquarters of free-state government, and demanded that the free-state leaders surrender their weapons. The free-state leaders, attempting to avoid violence, surrendered their arms to Jones and his men. Despite this act, the anti-slavery posse was not satisfied.

Free-State Hotel, home of the free-state government, now known as the historical Eldridge Hotel.

Jones and his men understood that the free-state government had a heavy influence in the area, due in no small part to two anti-slavery newspapers located in the town. Because of this, the newspaper offices of the Free State Newspaper and the Herald of Freedom were the first scenes of attack on this day.

The pro-slavery posse destroyed the printing presses of both newspapers and proceeded to toss the remains in the local river. The books and papers located within were also subsequently piled in the street and were burned as a public display to all free-state supporters.

After the destruction of the printing presses and the newspaper offices, Jones and his men turned their attention to the Free State Hotel. After ransacking it of all its furniture, Jones aimed four cannons at the building and attempted to blast it to the ground. Thomas H. Gladstone, and traveling Englishman, bore witness to the demolition of the hotel. He states that the initial attempt to destroy the building via cannon-fire was unsuccessful due to some shots not hitting their mark and others that did little damage to the exterior. "They then placed kegs of gunpowder in the lower parts of the building and attempted to blow it up." This too was unsuccessful, resulting in just some broken windows. Flustered by their lack of success, Jones ordered his men to set fire to the building instead.

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By the time the smoke settled, the Free-State Hotel was nothing more than a smoking ruins. By the end of the day, Jones and his men had not only destroyed the hotel and the newspapers, but had burned and looted private homes of some of the towns residents.

The Sack of Lawrence is considered to be the first violent conflict of the Civil War that wouldn't officially be declared until 5 years later. And the violence wasn't limited to Kansas. One day after the Sack of Lawrence, Charles Sumner was beaten by Preston Brooks with a cane in the halls of Congress. Sumner had given a speech just two days before the Sack and had thrown his support behind the free-state government of the territory, claiming that pro-slavers were attempting to expand the "harlot" of slavery into Kansas territory.

The Caning of Charles Sumner in the Halls of Congress.

The Sack of Lawrence was just the beginning for the event that would later become known as "Bleeding Kansas". Many politicians used the Sack as a means of furthering their own political ideals, stating that it was not just an act of destruction on a single town, but an act of violence towards the ideals of anti-slavery. This event spurred the efforts of abolitionist John Brown and many other anti-slavery supporters. Originally hoping that the issue could be solved with nonviolence, the Sack of Lawrence and the beating of Charles Sumner made it clear to men like Brown that nonviolence was no longer an option. In order to further their own ideals, they would have to fight fire with fire, aggression with aggression. What followed is considered to be the bloodiest and most violent portion of Kansas history that would lead directly into the American Civil War.

Works Cited

Reece, Richard. Bleeding Kansas. Minneapolis, MN: ABDO Pulbishing co. 2012. Print.

"Sack of Lawrence." U.S. History Online Textbook. Independence Hall Association. Accessed on December 5th, 2016. Web.

"The Sack of Lawence, Kansas, 1856" EyeWitness to History, (2008).

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