Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Smuggling Arms into “Bleeding Kansas”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on October 28, 2013

Some folks here will be familiar with Arabia, a Missouri riverboat that was snagged and sunk near present-day Parkville, Missouri in September 1856. In the late 1980s, treasure hunters located the wreck under a farmer’s field and hauled out most of the boat’s cargo. Although they didn’t find the treasure they sought, it did lead to the creation of a museum in Kansas City that has a genuinely remarkable collection of materials, all originally headed upriver for the frontier. If you’re traveling through KC, set aside a couple of hours for a visit.

While looking for an article about the sinking, I came across this story, from the Macon Weekly Telegraph of 1 April 1856, that reveals another aspect of Arabia‘s history that I’d never heard of. The Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society (or Company) was a group that encouraged slavery opponents to move into Kansas and Nebraska to help support those territories’ admission to the Union as free states. In 1856, Sharp’s rifles were modern, high-caliber weapons that would be particularly dangerous in the hands of guerrillas, and it was John Brown’s weapon of choice during his 1856 campaign in Kansas.


Macon Weekly Telegraph 1 April 1856 copy


I wonder whatever happened to those arms, and who exactly “Start” was.



3 Responses

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  1. Bob Nelson said, on October 28, 2013 at 2:04 pm

    Here’s another very interesting “weapons” story. During his post-Viet Nam career in the U.S. Army, my good friend and personal CW battlefield guide Pete Taylor (Lee and Jackson CW Club) was stationed at Fort Snelling in Minnesota. He was in charge of “mapping” the buildings and found one where the main floor was something like 20′ x 20′ larger than the basement. When they broke through the newer “wall” in the basement, they found an arms cache which included cases and cases of Sharps carbines still in cosmoline (or the 19th century version of cosmoline), cases of revolvers (probably Colt Single Action Armies) and several brand new never-fired Gatling guns dating from the 1880s. What a find! To this day he still doesn’t know what happened to all that mint-condition ordinance.

  2. Bob Nelson said, on October 28, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    Here’s another “Pete” story from Fort Snelling. As the mortar/cement in the basement of another building gradually deteriorated, they came across the “noses” of artillery rounds in the basement walls. Apparently when the building was constructed, Army personnel in the late 1800s had stacked old artillery shells in the “wall” and poured cement around them. Unfortunately, they had not bothered to remove the powder. They were live shells. So the Army had to remove enough cement to uncover the shells, then carefully drill a hole in each one and flush the powder out with some special solution. Amazing.

  3. corkingiron said, on October 30, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    Brown and many of his family were already in Kansas in 1856. 1856 was also the year of the attack on Lawrence, Kansas, and the Pottawatomie Massacre. Apparently the New England Emigrant Aid Society had close ties (through noted abolitionists and co-conspirators of Brown, Eli Thayer and Samuel Gridley Howe) with the Massachusetts Kansas Committee, which raised money for weapons. Brown returned to them in the Winter of 1857, and received another shipment of Sharp’s Rifles. The Massachusetts Kansas Committee had over 200 of them stored for use in Kansas.

    Apparently, after burning out much of downtown Lawrence, including the Free State Hotel, the Lecompton Union editorialized that “Thus fell the abolitionist fortress. We hope that this will teach the [New England] Emigrant Aid Society a good lesson for the future.” Clearly, the role of the Aid Society in arming anti-slavery forces was not a particularly well-kept secret.

    Since Brown was intimately involved in free state militia activities, I would not be the least bit surprised that “START” was someone involved with him.

    (David Reynolds biography of Brown, “John Brown, Abolitionist” is a good source for this stuff.)

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