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Cool Things - Old Kickapoo Cannon

Old Kickapoo cannonThis cannon has a storied past, having been used by both anti- and proslavery forces in Kansas Territory.

Lawrence was a well-known antislavery town in Kansas Territory. Its newspapers constantly criticized the proslavery territorial government.

As a result, a proslavery grand jury stated that two newspapers and the Free State Hotel were nuisances and could be "removed."

A proslavery mob made its way to Lawrence on May 21, 1856, to bring the free-staters to submission. Among the crowd—mostly made up of Missourians—were the Kickapoo Rangers (a proslavery group), a division of the territorial militia, and David Rice Atchison, a United States Senator.

Atchison proclaimed:

"Boys, this day I am a Kickapoo Ranger, by God! This day we have entered Lawrence with Southern Rights inscribed upon our banner, and not one damned abolitionist dared to fire a gun. . . And now boys, we will go in again, with our highly honorable [Sheriff Samuel] Jones, and test the strength of that damned Free-State Hotel, and teach the Emigrant Aid Society that Kansas shall be ours. . . If one man or woman dare stand before you, blow them to hell with a chunk of cold lead."

The Kickapoo Rangers had brought with them this cannon, which they intended to use against the Free State Hotel (headquarters for free-state leadership). Atchison, president of the U.S. Senate only a few years earlier, was given the honor of firing the first shot, which sailed over the hotel. Repeated shots were unable to inflict much damage to the imposing building, which was then set on fire. Before leaving the town, the proslavery mob looted homes and destroyed businesses.

The cannon, known as "Old Kickapoo," already had a long history before its appearance in Lawrence. A U.S. Model 1841 six-pounder field gun, it was used by both sides in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), but neither found it to be particularly effective. (American forces captured it at the Battle of Sacramento, where another cannon, known as "Old Sacramento," was also taken. That cannon is in the collections of the Watkins Community Museum in Lawrence.)

Old Kickapoo next found its way to Weston, Missouri, where it was used in public celebrations until the opening of the Kansas Territory in 1854. Proslavery men in the town of Kickapoo--just north of Leavenworth--asked if they could borrow the cannon to defend themselves against free-staters, but Weston's leaders denied the request. The Kickapoo Rangers crossed the Missouri River under cover of nightfall and took the cannon anyway.

Following the 1856 attack on Lawrence, the Rangers used the cannon on other occasions. It appeared at a polling place on January 4, 1858, during an election to approve the proslavery Lecompton Constitution, where its mere presence was designed to sway voters. Days later, having decided enough was enough, some free-state men captured the cannon at Kickapoo and placed it in hiding in Leavenworth.

Close-up of Old Kickapoo's blown barrel When Kansas became a state on January 29, 1861, the citizens of Leavenworth pointed Old Kickapoo towards Missouri and loaded the barrel with copies of the proslavery laws that had been enacted a few years before at the first territorial capitol. The documents were sent flying across the Missouri River.

Old Kickapoo's last use was somewhat inglorious. While being used to clear a coal mine shaft at Leavenworth, the barrel was overcharged and a section was blown out of it. No longer of use, the cannon was literally purchased from the scrapyard in 1884 by the Kansas Historical Society. It is in the collections of the Society's Kansas Museum of History.

To learn more about Bleeding Kansas, see the online exhibit, Willing to Die For Freedom.

Entry: Cool Things - Old Kickapoo Cannon

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2004

Date Modified: December 2012

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.