Invasion of the Border Ruffians – Guerrilla gang muscles into Kansas territory, foreshadowing Civil War

Mary Kemper

Staff Writer


  In this day and age of “trigger warnings” and “speech is violence,” there is no doubt our nation is deeply polarized between the competing ideologies of social engineering versus common sense. People are punished by an entire segment of society merely by having the “wrong” opinions.

  It’s a good thing we don’t live in the Kansas and Missouri of the mid-1800s. Back then, in the runup to the Civil War, “trigger warnings” involved actual triggers. And knives, clubs, fists and torches.

  Most of the political polarization back then revolved around slavery — whether to allow it or not in territories headed for statehood.

  Various presidents and Congressmen of the time sought to achieve compromises year after year, but everyone knew they were just temporary band-aids. Slaveowners were determined to keep their labor supply, and abolitionists were just as determined to stop the practice.

  Things reached a flash point when it was the turn of Kansas and Nebraska territories to be made states. The balance of power in the legislature was at stake.

   Fiery speeches weren’t good enough. Desperate times called for desperate measures. It was time to take off the gloves.


The blurring of lines


  By the mid-1800s, everyone knew which states were slave-holding and which were not. The Southern states, with their economy based on labor-intensive crops like sugar and cotton, relied on slaves to keep the engine running. Northern states were more diversified, with their economies a mixture of industrialization and agriculture. Without a need for vast numbers of laborers, Northerners were able to object to the human wrongs being done without any consequences to themselves.

  The Mason-Dixon Line (originally stemming from a landholder dispute with King Charles) more or less separated the two halves of the country. But the loyalties of the people in the states along its border were not as unified as states further up or down.

  But the division of loyalties came into very sharp focus in the new territories.

  It’s one thing to grumble about your state being either slave or free, but you can’t really do much about it once it’s the law. If you can get in on the ground floor, however, before a territory becomes a state, you’ve got a chance to make sure your way becomes the law.

  This was the way things stood when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854.


Putting beliefs into action


  After defeating the numerous Plains Indian tribes (including the lethal and skillful Cheyenne, Comanche and Sioux offshoots like the Lakota) and forcing them out of the Kansas and Nebraska territories, the region was opened up for settlement.

  Immediately, thousands of people from both pro- and anti-slavery beliefs hurried to move in, hoping that force of numbers would win the day when the statehood elections were held.

  When elections finally came — to under a cloud of corruption to become a slave state — all hell broke loose.

  On this March 30, 1855, a band of pro-slavery Missourians invaded Kansas. Their aim was nothing less than voter intimidation by whatever means necessary, and it worked. Even though the election was clearly rigged, the legislature reluctantly signed off on pro-slavery status.

  Slave-state settlers, dubbed “Border Ruffians,” and free-staters, dubbed “jayhawkers,” attacked each other with a vengeance, destroying farmhouses, crops and machinery, businesses, and even entire towns alike.

  (The term “jayhawkers” came from founding father John Jay, who was one of the earliest abolitionists.)

  One of the most famous jayhawker leaders was preacher John Brown, whose career ended in infamy just four years later at the rebellion of Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. The man of God was an enthusiastic believer in an eye for an eye, personally killing five pro-slavery men at Potawatomie, Kansas.

  The slave-state gangs, on the other hand, did not have a defined leadership. They were united only in the wish to keep Black Americans out of their communities. The moniker “Border Ruffians” encompassed them all in a loose unit.

  Thus the Border Ruffian and jayhawker guerrilla gangs were born. Their five-year, mini version of the bigger war to come caused 56 known deaths, though some historians say it was closer to 200. Untold sums of property and assets were destroyed.

  And some of their “alumni” would go down in American criminal history for all time.


Ruffians become raiders


  It was John Brown’s rebellion in Harper’s Ferry in 1859 that sparked the flame of open national warfare. For five years, Brown’s jayhawkers had battled the Border Ruffians.

  The Civil War then claimed most of the Border Ruffians and Free-Staters into the ranks of the armies both North and South.

  But that wasn’t the end of the guerrilla fighting in Kansas.

  Two young leaders emerged from the ranks of Border Ruffians and their sympathizers to carry on the partisan fighting in the region. They would achieve a level of fame in their own right, and in the case of one, a disciple who would become enshrined in the legends of the Wild West.

  William Quantrill, originally from Ohio, was a member of a group of bounty hunters who captured escaped slaves before joining the Confederate army. His band of partisan rangers became known as Quantrill’s Raiders, who quickly developed a reputation for brutality. They eventually deserted the army and headed to Texas — taking with them one Jesse James, his brother Frank, and others who would earn criminal notoriety.


Raiders become gangsters


  In Texas, one of Quantrill’s lieutenants was William “Bloody Bill” Anderson, originally a horse thief. 

  Anderson, possibly falsely, implicated Quantrill in a murder, leading to the latter’s arrest (and subsequent release) by Confederate authorities. Anderson then returned to Missouri as the leader of his own group of raiders and became the most feared guerrilla in the state, robbing, raping and killing a large number of Union soldiers and civilian sympathizers. The James brothers went back up north with him.

  Both bands of guerrillas cut a terrible swath of destruction, if on a smaller scale than the main armies at war.

  They robbed and killed passengers on stagecoaches and trains, looted and pillaged whole towns, killed soldiers, and massacred unarmed soldiers and civilians alike. In just two years, they were responsible for an estimated death toll in the thousands.


Criminal legacy


  Both Quantrill’s and Anderson’s guerrillas were relentlessly hunted by Union forces.

  The federals caught up with Quantrill in an ambush in southwestern Kentucky. He was shot and paralyzed from the waist down, and transported to a military prison in Louisville, where he died. He was just 27.

  Thanks to a tipoff, Anderson was tracked down in Albany, Missouri, where Union troops shot and killed him in a firefight with his band. He was 24.

  It’s easy to see where Jesse James, his brother Frank, the Younger brothers and other lesser known ex-guerrillas earned their criminal stripes. Honed in the crucible of avoiding entire battalions, eluding law enforcement was an easy task. Indeed, most of the biggest bank robbers and murderers of the Wild West weren’t brought down by lawmen, but by betrayal of comrades, as was the case with Jesse James.

  Something of the romance of the Wild West desperadoes clung to the notorious criminals of the 1920s and ‘30s, men like John Dillinger, Al Capone and other charismatic figures — most of whom had their own private gangs.

  It was not until the lawmen themselves, the Pinkerton detectives and later the FBI, became romanticized that the cult of the Border Ruffians was finally laid to rest.


Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons – Two unidentified pro-slavery “border ruffians” pose for a photograph with swords in Clinton, Iowa, before heading to Kansas to confront anti-slavery “free-staters,” circa mid 1850s.