Border Ruffians

views updated


BORDER RUFFIANS, citizens of western Missouri who endeavored to establish slavery in Kansas Territory. Following passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which allowed local voters to decide whether Kansas would be a free or a slave state, pro-and antislavery groups battled for control of Kansas Territory. The term "border ruffians" originated in 1855 with Gen. B. F. String fellow's assault upon A. H. Reeder, governor of the territory, and was first used by the New York Tribune. Missourians readily adopted the name, and border ruffian stores, hotels, and riverboats capitalized upon it. Antislavery presses and orators soon expanded the term to include all proslavery southerners in Kansas, from carousing criminals to elite individuals like Senator David R. Atchison. Some slavery opponents even used the term to raise contributions for antislavery emigrant aid societies. Border ruffians voted illegally in Kansas elections, stole horses, and raided several towns including Lawrence on 21 May 1856. Anti-slavery Kansans responded in kind, most famously in John Brown's massacre of five proslavery settlers on Pottawatomie Creek. A spirit of lawlessness prompted both groups to use extreme measures, and conflicts between border ruffians and their antislavery foes soon prompted the name "Bleeding Kansas" for the territory. Violence between various groups did not decline until 1859, and tensions remained high through the outbreak of the Civil War. During that conflict, Missourians used the terms "border ruffians" and "bushwackers" interchangeably.


Johannsen, Robert W. The Frontier, the Union, and Stephen A. Douglas. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Morrison, Michael A. Slavery and the American West. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Rawley, James. Race & Politics: "Bleeding Kansas" and the Coming of the Civil War. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969.

Wendell H.Stephenson/f. h.

See alsoBorder War ; Emigrant Aid Movement ; Harpers Ferry Raid ; Jayhawkers ; Kansas-Nebraska Act ; Lawrence, Sack of .