Battle of Black Jack: The story behind the ‘first Civil War battle’ in Kansas

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BALDWIN CITY, Kan. – Wednesday marks 165 years since the Battle of Black Jack, or what some would call the first battle of the Civil War, years before fighting began at Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

The debate over Kansas and the events there marked a turning point in the march toward the Civil War.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act opened Kansas Territory in 1854 and allowed people to determine whether Kansas would be a free or slave state.

The territory soon became a battleground between those who supported slavery in the territory and those who opposed it.

“Bleeding Kansas” violence consisted of sackings, massacres, and other events in which a more powerful group quickly overwhelmed smaller unarmed, or non-resisting groups and individuals.

According to the Kansas Historical Society, on May 21, 1856, Sheriff Samuel Jones, who was the first sheriff of Douglas County, and a posse of 750 pro-slavery men raided Lawrence, where they destroyed buildings and newspaper presses..

In retaliation, John Brown and a small group of men—including some of his sons—violently murdered five men living on Pottawatomie Creek on May 24, 1856.

Accompanied by pro-slavery militia, Henry Pate, a 24-year-old Virginia native, set out with his militia to find Brown and captured two of Brown’s sons and held them prisoner.

On June 2, 1856, Brown’s free-state militia attacked Pate’s men encamped on the grounds. About 100 men engaged in a three-hour battle, which led to Pate’s surrender.

Black Jack Battlefield is significant for its association with abolitionist Brown, according to KSHS. Both the battle and the coverage of the battle in the nation’s newspapers introduced Brown, who called for armed insurrection to end slavery.

Brown himself called the action “the first regular battle between free-state and pro-slavery forces in Kansas.”

The battlefield was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2012.

Though the town was abandoned in the 1870s, after the trail traffic was gone, you can still see where the town of Black Jack sat and where the battle took place. 

The town of Black Jack was established in 1857 by local men who surveyed twenty blocks on 40 acres, according to the Santa Fe Trail Historical Society.

The main street rain east and west along the original Santa Fe Trail.

The name Black Jack originated from a grove of Blackjack Oak on a tributary of Captain’s Creek.

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