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Anti-slavery activist ignited border wars

  • Published Monday, Oct. 12, 2009, at 12:07 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, Oct. 12, 2009, at 7:10 a.m.

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: “To the stars through difficulties.”

Although he was a minister and schoolteacher, James Montgomery was a bad dude by most people’s standards.

He believed in taking extreme measures against the people who opposed him — mostly anyone whom he perceived to be a pro-slavery supporter.

In territorial Kansas, this Jayhawker robbed, harassed and provoked fights with pro-slavery settlements along the Kansas and Missouri line. He organized the Self-Protective Company near Mound City along the eastern edge of Kansas and used it to his advantage.

Kansas territorial governor John W. Denver wrote: “If the officers of the law will arrest Montgomery and his menæ.æ.æ. we will have no trouble in keeping the peace among our people in this region.”

Life in Kansas from 1854 to 1861 was turbulent, earning the territory the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.”

Although the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 established the boundaries of the region, it allowed residents to choose by popular vote whether the state would be free or slave.

In 1858, Montgomery did not hesitate to shoot and kill people.

Witness the despair and anger of John Little’s fiancee, Sene Campbell, who wrote Montgomery a letter reprimanding him for the death of Little, a pro-slavery advocate shot and killed by Montgomery and his men:

Fort Scott January 4, 1859

Montgomery: Listen to me. Today I heard that you said in a speech a few days ago that you were not sorry you had killed John Little. That he was not killed too soon. Can you before God say so? Oh, the anguish you have caused. He was one of the noblest men ever created, brave and true to his country and to his word. You can’t prove that he ever injured an innocent person. A few days more and we were to have been married, then go south to trouble you no more. But through your influence, he was killed. He was sent to another world without even time to pray or to say goodbye to his friends. But thanks to God, though you did kill his body, you can’t touch his soul. No. No, it is in the spirit land . . . But remember this. I am a girl, but I can fire a pistol. And if ever the time comes, I will send some of you to the place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. You, a minister of God? You mean a minister of the devil, and a very superior one too . . . Sene Campbell

Not only did Montgomery help fuel the Missouri-Kansas border wars during the state’s territorial years, but later, when Kansas became a state and the Civil War had ignited, he became part of the 3rd Kansas Infantry, known for its Jayhawker-style raids into Missouri.

In January 1863, Montgomery raised a regiment of African-American infantry. In 1863 and 1864, Montgomery continued to practice the Jayhawker-style raids along the coast in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

When Montgomery led a raid on the town of Darien, Ga., where he ordered the town looted and burned, the action prompted Col. Robert Gould Shaw to condemn him.

The looting and burning is portrayed in a scene from the 1989 movie, “Glory,” starring Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington.

In September 1864, Montgomery resigned his commission and returned to Kansas. He died Dec. 6, 1871.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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