Lecompton, Kansas: Birthplace of Civil War, small town has big history

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LECOMPTON, Kan. — Tucked into the Kansas hillside along the Kaw River, Lecompton remains a small but ardent testament to United States history.

Those who live here call it the birthplace of the Civil War.

Lecompton is about an hour west of Kansas City, just a little northwest of Lawrence. The 700-person city has the atmosphere of a normal, small American town. There’s a block-long downtown lined with a few quaint shops, many of them closed on Monday morning. A man rode his lawn mower down the town’s main thoroughfare. A dog padded unchained through the nearby park.

However, the history of Lecompton is anything but ordinary.

Lecompton: Capitol of the Kansas Territory

Founded in 1854, the town of Lecompton, KS was originally named “Bald Eagle” because of the frequent bird sightings along the Kansas river. It’s something that the locals say happens every spring, all the way back to when Kansas was just a territory.

“Earlier this year, there were 25 down along the river,” Paul Bahnmaier, President of the Lecompton Historical Society, said. 

But the town name “Bald Eagle” didn’t stick. In 1855, it was renamed after the chief justice of the Kansas Territorial Supreme Court, Judge Samuel Lecompte.

Serving as the territorial capital of Kansas from 1855-1861, Lecompton was a big deal. It’s Elmore Street was once nicknamed “Wall Street of the West,” Bahnmaier said. Yet as statehood became a reality, Lecompton would soon be known for something much more significant.

Birthplace of the Civil War

In 1857, a convention met in Constitution Hall, which is a building that’s still standing today. The legislators drafted the “Lecompton Constitution.” This pro-slavery document would go on to spark a chain of events that would change U.S. history forever. 

“When the Kansas-Nebraska bill was passed, they hoped Kansas would come in as a slave state and Nebraska would come in as a free state, and that would keep the balance of power equal in the United States Senate. So the Lecompton Constitution went back to Washington, and they got into a fight on the House floor,” Bahnmaier said.  

That fight stirred up more than a few punches. It divided the Democratic National Party. That split gave Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln a clear path to victory, ultimately leading to the Emancipation Proclamation. 

“So without it splitting the Democratic party, Lincoln might not have been elected president in 1860, and who knows what would have happened,” Bahnmaier said.

Although small in square footage and population, Lecompton’s impact on our nation’s history, and the world will never be forgotten. Today, the town is emblazoned with signs that read, “Birthplace of the Civil War, Where Slavery Began to Die.”

“We had a professor from Russia come through one time because he taught history of the United States from Russia. He said he wanted to visit Lecompton because he talks about it in Russia, so I think it’s a place for all Americans to come and visit,” Bahnmaier said.  

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