Kansas Territory Elections 1855: Let ’em vote or they’ll tear the house down

Even if there hadn’t been local point men pushing slavery or county captains dashing it, Jefferson County could not have dodged the turmoil of Bleeding Kansas. Its location in Kansas Territory guaranteed it would grapple with the question dividing the nation.

Eastern Kansas Territory was pocked by clashes between free-staters (“no” to slavery in Kansas) and pro-slavers (expand slavery to more states, Kansas in particular). The contestants had been campaigning since late 1854, the year the Kansas-Nebraska Act
handed the slavery decision to settlers in the soon-to-be states.

Partisans on opposing sides of slavery moved in on Kansas Territory, along with settlers  less interested in slavery, and went about staking claims to land they hoped to buy at low government prices. Settlers would do the voting that would decide the slavery question for Kansas.

If you want to know what fraudulent elections look like, consider Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, on March 30, 1855. The elections of that year brought  brazen voting fraud across Kansas Territory, fueling dissension and violence all through the following year.

Missouri, Kansas’ eastern border neighbor, was a slave state. Along with their allies  from southern states, proslavery Missourians wanted Kansas to join them in sanctioning human bondage. Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, was just 17 miles west of the Missouri River border, close enough among the Kansas Territory counties for Missourians to tote their illegal votes into Kansas elections.

Portion of Gunn & Mitchell’s New Map of Kansas and the Gold Mines, 1862. Missouri on the right.

Besides lying within easy reach of Missouri travelers, Jefferson County also was wedged between the titan, slavery battleground counties of Kansas Territory: Leavenworth and Atchison counties on the east and north and Douglas and Shawnee counties across the Kansas River to the south. The civil disobedience, theft, arson, intimidation and murder that would bring the name “Bleeding Kansas” to the nation in 1856 had a lot to do with those counties and the 1855 elections.

To prepare for the March 30, 1855, election in Kansas Territory, census-takers worked in January and February 1855 to obtain the number of legal residents eligible to vote in March. (That and other information about the election comes from an 1856 congressional investigation by the Howard Committee.[1])  Jefferson County’s main voting district was District 13, and voters would choose men to serve in the territory’s legislature.  That was important because the legislators would write laws for the territory and start the work for a constitution that would include slavery or prohibit it.

The census identified 96 qualified voters in Jefferson County’s District 13.  Twelve of them voted on March 30 at the designated polling place, Hickory Point.[2]  But the total number of votes cast that day was 239.  It sounds like the kind of riddle a math teacher would drop on high school students on a sleepy Friday afternoon.

Number of qualified voters in Jefferson Co., KT, March 30, 1855, election: ..….  96

Number of qualified voters who voted that day: ……………..………………….……. 12

Number of men who voted that day: ………………………….………………………   239


J.B. Ross, H. C. Cora or Cory and James Atkinson had been appointed by Gov. Andrew H. Reeder to judge the District 13 election. They were to open the voting on March 30, and ensure that men were qualified to vote, tally the votes, turn them in. The 13th District Hickory Point polling place was the home of Samuel J. Hard, Hart or Hardt for whom Hartville or Hardtville was named (It was about the same spot as Hickory Point.). His name, as well as the town’s name, was spelled differently across many documents, and he usually was referred to as “Charles” or Charley Hart.

And who was qualified to vote?  A qualified voter was a white[3] male U.S. citizen, 21 or older, who on election day was an “inhabitant” of Kansas Territory and “an actual resident” who intended to make this residency permanent, to the exclusion of any other home. The voter had to vote in the specific district in which he resided.

Election Judge Ross testified at Leavenworth a year later for the Howard congressional committee. He launched his testimony with the startling statement that he did not act as judge at the March 30 election.  Instead, after opening the voting at the cabin window that day, he quickly resigned after rejecting at least one vote.

“I gave up the polls because I was told I had to receive such votes as were offered, or give up the polls, or have the house torn down,” Ross said. “I was told this repeatedly by the crowd generally around the window. The majority of the crowd were strangers to me.”

Ross, who knew the district and the people who lived in it, said he saw only 30 to 40 district residents at the election that day. And he saw another 250 to 300 non-residents, many of them from Platte City, Missouri.

“Some of these men were armed with guns, some with knives and revolvers in their belts.  It was repeated frequently about tearing the house down, and they appeared to be very positive about it.”

Ross took the poll book and left his post, filing a protest with the governor a few days later.  As soon as Ross had stepped out of the polling house, another set of judges “chosen by the people” (elected on the spot) stepped in. They were Richard Chandler, Napoleon Bonaparte Hopewell and William M. Gardner, and they took the votes offered and, apparently, left Mr. Hardt’s house standing.

Dr. James Noble was at the election, too, he told the investigating committee the following year. Noble had a log cabin[4] on the east side of (now) Oskaloosa where he and others were developing the unsuccessful proslavery town of Jacksonville. Noble came to Kansas Territory in 1854, he said, having lived in Missouri for about 40 years before that.  The last two years of his Missouri residency were lived in Platte County, just across the Missouri River.

Noble, replying to committee questions, proceeded to name all the Missourians he saw at Hickory Point that election day. He said he believed the men still lived in Missouri, although they might have made claims in Kansas Territory.

Name after name after name, he recited. No, he did not see the Missourians vote but those Missouri “chums” told him they voted.

“It appeared to me a good deal as if I was now home in Missouri surrounded by my acquaintances and friends,” Dr. Noble said of his election day visit to Hickory Point.  He also reported he had understood that by the time the March 30 election was conducted, the free-state (antislavery) party had become the majority party in District 13, Jefferson County.

Not so, argued Richard Chandler, one of the “people’s choice” judges who stepped in after Ross left. He and others would tell the Howard Committee that the proslavery party held a five-to-one or a three-to-one hold over the free-staters.

The election results, as you might have guessed, were overwhelmingly proslavery. Only a few free-staters ended up voting at all.

Charles Hardt, the free-stater whose house was used for the election, saw trouble ahead and left the election early. Hardt was on the ballot for a territory House of Representatives spot, although he said he really had not wanted to be a candidate.  He secured three votes and his opponent, W. H. Tebbs,[5] got 237.

“There was a vote handed in [to Ross and the other governor’s appointed judges] which they refused to take, and then the row commenced, so I understood,” Hardt said.

“After the excitement in the morning, the election went on very quietly, as there was but one side to it,” Hardt told the panel.

Some of the proslavery leaders and candidates said they believed the number of eligible voters for the election in District 13 was 200 to 300 (the official number from the census was 96).

G.M. Dyer, a merchant with his brother in Osawkee (now Ozawkie), attended the election and said he never heard why the three judges resigned. But he did know that those judges refused to accept the vote of one of his relatives.

Dyer and others who offered their versions of events spent a lot of time asserting that James Noble and Charles Hardt weren’t known for their truthfulness.

“… am pretty well acquainted with Charles Hardh’s general reputation for truth and veracity, and it is pretty bad,” Dyer said. “I do not think he would tell the truth if he could find a lie to tell, but I do not think he would swear to a lie.”

The proslavery men used nearly the same phrasing, which included “reputation” for truth-telling, and they alleged that Dr. Noble was the worst of them. Asked by committee members to identify people who claimed Hardt and Noble were liars, the proslavery men declined to name names.

Excerpt copy from the Poll Book of Slough Creek [Oskaloosa] Township, Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, Oct. 5, 1857. This is what the local election official would turn over to the state to record election results. The “Council” (like a senate) and representatives candidate columns are for the Kansas Territory legislature, followed by a local coroner. From the Kansas State Historical Society archives. Copy and reuse restrictions apply.
As to qualifications for voting, Noble said his understanding was that men couldn’t vote in Kansas Territory until they moved there with their goods and chattels. O. B. Tebbs said that the governor’s judges had rejected a vote because a man who had lived in Kansas Territory for seven years had not moved his family over from Missouri, an election rejection which Dyer considered to be wrong.

His brother, the newly elected W. H. Tebbs, proslavery, explained what he considered a qualified voting “resident” to be:

“I consider a man a resident of this Territory when he has made a claim here, and made a demonstration that indicated that he is going to settle here; is upon his claim and declared that he intended to be and remain a resident, whether he had his family with him or not.  I think that three-fourths of those who voted in the Territory and who are now residents, with no families with them at the time of the election, because they had no accommodations for their families.”

Missouri had swung that election for the pro-slavers and Kansas Territory had a proslavery legislature in place to write laws and steer Kansas Territory to slave-holding statehood. They failed at the latter, but the illegally elected legislature, called the Bogus Legislature by free-state slavery opponents who refused to recognize its authority, had time to enact crazy harsh laws about slavery in the meantime.

[1] All material regarding the March 30, 1855 election is from the U.S. Congressional Report of the Special Committee Appointed to Investigate the Troubles in Kansas; with the Views of the Minority of Said Committee. Published in 1856 by the 34th Congress, the report details in 1,200 pages the work of a three-member panel led by U.S. Rep. William A. Howard. The Howard Committee gathered testimony in Kansas Territory in 1856 in its investigation of voting irregularities and violence between proslavery and antislavery advocates.

[2] Hickory Point was an inhabited trading post spot in north-central Jefferson County. It was located on the Fort Riley to Fort Leavenworth military and freighting road that crossed Jefferson County east to west.

[3] There was more to that “white” definition. The qualifications document said that “white” meant “pure unmixed white blood.” And just to be perfectly, crazily clear, it said,” The man who has any mixture from the darker races, however small the proportion, is not regarded as a white man.”  And a big, “so there” followed: “This has been repeatedly decided, and may be regarded as settled.”

[4] This was the same cabin that Jesse Newell, one of Oskaloosa’s two founders, moved into in 1856.

[5] Dr. William H. Tebbs, a proslavery leader in Jefferson County.

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