Abby Huntington Ware

”DISPERSION OF THE TERRITORIAL LEGISLATURE

OF 1856.

Talk given by Abby Huntington Ware,(1) before the State Federation of Women’s Clubs, held in Topeka. May, 1905.

(Note 1.— Miss Ware, the daughter of Eugene F. Ware, of Topeka, was married to Dr. Frederick Harold Nies, of Brooklyn, N. Y., June 20, 1906.)

IN every romance there are two elements, one leading toward the goal, the other away from it; and it is the struggle between these two opposing forces that makes the story and commands our interest and attention. The novelist keeps us carefully in suspense as to which force will be victorious; whether or not the hero will win the heroine, or the knight will kill the dragon. If the goal is reached, we call it a romance; if it is not, we call it tragedy. It is the same in real life, and we wait with breathless interest for the climax of events.

These two opposing forces struggled hard and well in the romantic history of Kansas. They were the pro-slavery and free-state elements of the

territory and nation, and the goal was the winning of the state. The struggle was bitter and to the sword. Within the state and without there was no one who did not feel deeply in the matter. The whole country was watching breathlessly, for here was the beginning of a great conflict which might at any time involve the Union. The pro-slavery element seemed the more powerful. Missourians had come over into the territory and fraudulently carried elections, which resulted in a pro-slavery legislature with stringent pro-slavery laws. The administration at Washington thoroughly sympathized with them, and sent a pro-slavery governor, Wilson Shannon, who would not recognize any opposition to the pro-slavery legislature and laws. The goal of winning the state for slavery seemed near at hand.

The free-state forces, however, had been in the meantime quietly working, and an election was held for a convention to meet in Topeka for the purpose of framing a constitution, preparatory to the admission of Kansas into the Union as a state. Only free-state men participated. In accordance with this constitution the free-state men elected a legislature, which was to convene in Topeka, July 4, 1856. Fearing pro-slavery opposition, some 400 or 500 free-state men gathered in Topeka from various parts of the state for the nominal purpose of ‘seeing the legislature convene,’ but in reality to protect the legislature in case of attack. It was rumored that a large mob of border ruffians from Missouri were coming to forcibly disperse the legislature. The day before the convening, July 3, found the city full of guests. A long line of farm wagons, extending from Fifth to Seventh street, on Jackson, were apparently filled with hay and provisions, but underneath these lay arms and ammunition, to be used should emergency arise. The city presented a gala appearance; but back of the smiling faces and friendly greetings were suppressed excitement and anxious hearts.

Late on that memorable 4th of July morning, a large crowd of Topeka and other Kansas citizens assembled in front of Constitution hall, where the legislature was to meet at twelve, ready, if need be, for our guests. I might add that Constitution hall is still standing, no longer isolated in a sparsely settled part of town, but huddled in between stores, making it appear almost insignificant. It is located almost opposite the post-office, on the west side of Kansas avenue, between Fourth and Fifth streets. The cause of the early gathering of the crowd was to listen to a Fourth of July celebration, and witness the presentation of the silk flags made by the ladies of the town to the two companies of Topeka Guards. They had just finished listening to a solo of the ‘ Star Spangled Banner,’ sung by a young woman who is still a resident of Topeka, when the news spread that Col. E. V. Sumner, afterwards a noted general of the civil war, with orders from President Pierce and Governor Shannon, was coming with a squad of cavalry to disperse the legislature. The colonel’s anger ran high, because he had been informed that the Topeka Guards were armed to resist the United States troops, and that the flag presentation ceremonies were merely a subterfuge.

Colonel Sumner was then in camp on the Shunganunga, just north of Tenth street. With his cavalry he dashed across the open country, now the thickly populated district east of the avenue, and halted his men long enough to place two cannon on the spot where Rowley & Snow’s drug-store now stands, at the corner of Sixth and Kansas avenues. The cannon were pointed down the avenue toward Constitution hall; the gunners were at their posts and the fuse was burning, all ready for firing. With his squad of cavalry, their revolvers in hand, the colonel galloped on to Constitution hall. One division, ordered to ‘file right,’ swept the Topeka Guards to the east, past the present post-office. The other advanced and halted in front of the hall, while Colonel Sumner dismounted and proceeded to the assemblyrooms.

He was given a seat on the platform while the house was called to order, and the members responded to the roll-call. Then he delivered his dispersion message. After a deep pause a member asked: ‘Colonel, are we to understand that the legislature is dispersed at the point of the bayonet ?” Colonel Sumner replied: ‘I shall use all the forces in my command to carry out my orders.’ At this the members dispersed.

Colonel Sumner then proceeded to the senate, which had not yet been called, although the hour had arrived. He ordered them to disperse without even permitting them to convene. One of the senators broke the embarrassing silence with the dignified response: “Colonel Sumner, we are in no condition to resist the United States troops; and if you order us to disperse, of course we must disperse.” This voiced the sentiment of the senate.

As Colonel Sumner mounted his horse to withdraw, three cheers were given for him, and three for John C. Fremont, the then Republican candidate for president of the United States. There also rang into the surprised ears of the departing dragoons three cheers for the Topeka convention and state legislature, and three groans for President Pierce, through whose orders it had been dispersed.

There could be no resistance to the United States army; so the free-state legislature dispersed in a quiet and orderly manner. Had the Missourians come as rumored, a clash of arms would have resulted; but the free-state men could only obey the national government. The pro-slavery adherents half hoped there would be an open conflict with the United States troops; then the free-state men could be treated as in rebellion. But the fortunes of the free-state men were at low enough ebb, and to an observer it would seem that the climax had already passed, and the goal of a pro-slavery state would soon be reached. A free-state historian of that time ends his story here and calls it ‘The Conquest of Kansas.’ But the final untying of the knot in the Kansas drama is not what the onlooker expects. It is not a tragedy that he has been witnessing. A year later, when elections occurred, armed guards at the polls kept the Missourians from voting and the elections were carried by free-state men.  And from then on the free-state citizens with lessening opposition, tended victoriously toward the free-state goal.

Although the dramatic dispersion of the territorial legislature of 1856 may not have been far-reaching in its political or historical results, yet it may be said to mark the climax in the Kansas drama, when it was impossible to tell which opposing force would win.”

Reference Data:

Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, Vol. 9, by Kansas State Historical Society, 1906, pages 540-42


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