When settlers first headed west to establish the city of Lawrence in 1854, they already had a strong sense of purpose. According to "popular sovereignty," settlers could decide whether to allow slave holding in their territory. Abolitionists from the New England Emigrant Aid Company, who hoped to keep Kansas from entering the Union as a slave state, founded Lawrence.
Lawrence's role as the "Free State Capital" fueled many conflicts. Anti-slavery Jayhawkers from Kansas and pro-slavery Bushwhackers from Missouri battled incessantly, earning Kansas the nickname "Bleeding Kansas." These Jayhawker-Bushwhacker conflicts over slavery set the stage for the Civil War.
Lawrence was committed to ending slavery, and acted as a major center for the Underground Railroad. Many prominent Lawrence citizens were "conductors," secretly hiding runaway slaves until they could go north to freedom. One Lawrence man, Captain John E. Stewart, led many raids into Missouri to bring back fugitive slaves and help them reach freedom.
When Kansas entered the Union as a free state in 1861, conflict on the Kansas-Missouri border only intensified. On August 21, 1863, Lawrence suffered what some historians have called the greatest atrocity of the Civil War: Quantrill's Raid.
While Lawrence slept, pro-slavery guerrilla William Quantrill and nearly 400 men from Missouri prepared their attack. Shortly after five in the morning, they rode into the city. One witness recounted: "The attack was perfectly planned. Every man knew his place. They flowed into every street... The order was to burn every house and kill every man." They killed only men and young boys; women and children were robbed but not harmed. The raiders killed approximately 200 men that day, leaving slews of widows and fatherless children. Fires devastated Lawrence's commercial district; only a few buildings remained. As many as 185 homes were burned during the four-hour raid.
The resilient citizens of Lawrence buried the dead and banded together on the road to recovery. Within days, makeshift stores re-opened and rebuilding began. By the following spring, new stores, two newspapers and telegraph wires were established. The first bridge across the Kansas River at Lawrence was also finished. Only months later, the railroad came through. Lawrence had survived and would adopt the city motto: "From Ashes to Immortality."
Today's Lawrence is very different from the frontier city raided by Quantrill, but much of its Civil War history remains. Many of the buildings constructed following the raid are still in use today, as are several of the buildings that aided the Underground Railroad.
"Lawrence: Free State Fortress", a film about Lawrence's founding and early history, is shown Saturdays and Sundays, on the hour, at the Lawrence Visitor Information Center, North Second and Locust streets, or during the week by request. Pick up the award-winning self-guided tour brochure describing Quantrill's fiery path of destruction at the Visitor Information Center. Or, visit Watkins Community Museum, 1047 Massachusetts St., which features exhibits on Lawrence's settlement and Civil War history.