The town of Lawrence was founded on August 1, 1854, by settlers sent by the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company. They were the first of 1,000 settlers sent to populate Kansas Territory with abolitionists. The Company was funded by a group of Boston abolitionists spurred to action by the new Kansas-Nebraska Act enacted only two months earlier. By making it possible for any new territory to choose whether to come into the United States as a slave or free state, the Act completely upset the mandated balance between the number of slave and non-slave states. The Company provided the pioneers with everything they needed to establish a new town: money for housing, sawmills, and tools. And they provided arms.

Dinsdale blog

The founders named their new town after one of their funders, Boston merchant Amos Lawrence. He chose to outfit the new settlers with Connecticut-made Sharps rifles—the AR-15 of the day. The weapons were much faster to load, more accurate, and far more reliable than the common muzzle-loaders. One group of settlers sent from Massachusetts even flaunted their Sharps rifles to a group of pro-slavery men on a steamboat traversing the state of Missouri in September 1854.

Dinsdale blog

In the spring of 1855, the first election for the Kansas Territorial Legislature was held. A thousand pro-slavery Missourians stuffed the ballot boxes and rendered the election a fraud. The leaders of Lawrence, including Charles Robinson, entreated their funders in New England to send more weapons: “[Military] companies are being formed in other places, and we want arms.”

The Company responded swiftly, spending considerable sums to purchase and ship additional Sharps rifles in boxes labeled “books.” Firing mechanisms were detached and shipped separately, rendering the weapons useless if intercepted. The first 100 rifles arrived in May 1855.

By mid-summer, Robinson ordered 100 additional rifles.

Dinsdale blog Sharps rifle

Pro-slavery factions managed to acquire weapons by force or by edict from armories in Missouri and Kansas.

By October 1855, Frederick Law Olmsted, an abolitionist and landscape architect, raised enough money to purchase a small cannon and ship it to Lawrence. This was two years before Olmsted won the contract to design Central Park in New York City. The cannon was used by both sides as it was captured by Missouri militias during the sack of Lawrence on May 21, 1856, and recaptured by abolitionists in Lecompton on August 16, 1856, then used by Lawrence’s James Lane to destroy the town of Osceola, Missouri in 1861. It now rests in the Kansas State Historical Society.

Dinsdale Blog Olmsted

In the spring of 1856, another dramatic confrontation played out on the steamship Arabia as it chugged up the Missouri River. On board was David S. Hoyt, a Massachusetts abolitionist bound for Lawrence with a shipment of several hundred rifles packed in barrels labeled “hardware.” Unbeknownst to Hoyt, his letter to his mother describing the secret shipment he was safeguarding was pilfered from the ship’s mailbag, read by some ne’er-do-well, and given to the captain. The captain read the letter aloud to all the passengers onboard, and a mob threatened to throw Hoyt into the river. The captain finally intervened, offloading Hoyt and his cargo into the care of a thousand armed men in Lexington, Missouri. They kept the guns but released Hoyt. That fall, however, both the steamboat Arabia and David Hoyt met tragic ends. Hoyt was killed by pro-slavery men near present-day Lone Star, and the steamboat Arabia hit an underwater snag and sank near Kansas City.

dinsdale blog

In March 1856, a contingent of 250 men in Hartford, Connecticut, organized to move to Kansas. At a service at Hartford’s Old North Church, prominent clergyman Henry Ward Beecher advocated for arming the people of Kansas: “(Slaveholders) have a supreme respect for the logic that is embodied in a Sharp’s rifle.” Beecher then pledged 25 rifles to the cause and encouraged the congregation to do likewise. An additional 27 rifles were donated, including one sponsored by the senior class of Yale College. It was at this meeting that the rifles earned the moniker “Beecher Bibles.”

More rifles and people power for the free state effort came from the good citizens of Iowa. In the summer of 1856, a plea for rifles was sent to Governor James W. Grimes. Two hundred fifty rifles were procured along with 400 new settlers. Shalor Eldridge escorted the new residents and weaponry to Lawrence. Soon Eldridge acquired the site of the Free State Hotel, which had recently been burned by a mob. Eldridge rebuilt and added another floor to demonstrate his resolve.

The outbreaks of violence in Kansas over the issue of slavery signaled the nation what was coming. These were the first temblors of the Civil War. The arms race in Kansas foreshadowed a theme that would play out five years later during the Civil War.

Northern abolitionists had access to advanced weaponry produced by Connecticut gun manufacturers, and they used this escalated firepower to their advantage.

The Watkins Museum hosts exhibits and programs exploring the cultural heritage of Douglas County from its settlement in the "Bleeding Kansas" period through the Civil War, reconstruction, westward expansion, and Civil Rights eras. Presentations,...


Joseph Savage’s Recollections of 1854


Isley, W.H.

American Historical Review

Vol. 12 No. 3 (Apr. 1907), pp546566


Account of David Starr Hoyt. James C. Pratt Greenfield Gazette And Courier May 11, 1868