The Battle of Black Jack

Today the Black Jack Battlefield was designated a National Historic Landmark. It’s a big step for a little known piece of history with national significance. Situated along the Sante Fe Trail in Eastern Kansas, the battlefield played host to one of the first organized armed conflicts between opposing forces over the issue of slavery. While some historians suggest it could be considered one of the first battles of the Civil War, most point to it as a pivotal point in the escalation of Bleeding Kansas.

The battle featured several prominent Bleeding Kansas figures including Henry Clay Pate and John Brown. The two opposing leaders met at the Black Jack townsite (founded a year earlier) to settle the score from two earlier conflicts. About a month earlier pro-slavery forces sacked Lawrence, a bastion of the abolitionist movement. The abolitionists (or free-staters), led by John Brown,  responded on May 24th with the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre, killing 5 pro-slavery settlers. Not long after the massacre, however, two of John Brown’s sons were taken captive by pro-slavery forces.

As the raids continued, Pate and a group of about 7o men sought to avenge the deaths of Pottawatomie Creek. The men were camped at Black Jack on the night of June 1st as they moved toward strategic free-state strongholds in Douglas County. Brown soon discovered where the Pate and his men were, and before dawn on June 2, 1856 attacked in hopes of quelling their advances and freeing his sons. Although he was outnumbered (Brown only had 25 men), he used the shelter of trees and a creek band to deceive his opponent. The shooting lasted for several hours after the surprise attack before Pate, thinking he was outnumbered, surrendered. Despite the hours of shooting, the only causalities of the battle were two horses. The battle ended with Pate and several of his men taken prisoner.

While Black Jack is only one of many skirmishes within the larger bleeding Kansas conflict, it was the first armed conflict between two organized militias over the issue of slavery. Its predecessors were largely one-sided terror attacks and raids rather than militia versus militia conflicts. Indeed, John Brown himself described the battle as “the first regular battle between Free-State and proslavery forces in Kansas.”

Preservation of the battlefield began in earnest with the establishment of the Black Jack Battlefield Trust in 2003. Since then, the Trust has been working to develop the site and preserve its history. The park site includes the battlefield as well as the Robert Hall Pearson Farmstead (one of the men who fought in the conflict and later purchased the land) and the Ivan Boyd Prairie Preserve. It’s bittersweet to see the national designation finally come as the preservation story has personal connections and meaning to me.

I earned my undergraduate degree at Baker University located three miles west of the Black Jack battlefield. The university was founded two years after the battle by pioneering Methodists. Since its birth, Baker has maintained its territorial roots and connection to local history. Within this context I took classes in local and Kansas history while completing a history major. As you might expect, one of my most influential mentors at Baker, Brenda Day, was intimately involved with the preservation process. She served as University archivist, curator, and taught a few classes. Black Jack was her pet project.

I got to know Brenda quite well during my time researching in the Baker and Kansas Methodist Archives. She took me under her wing as I completed several project related to University and local history. I became something of an archives rat during these year and we often talked about her experiences developing the project, its history, and all of the events she organized to spread and share its history. The summer after my junior year I interned for her in the archives and was exposed the to hands-on, real life practice of public history. I acquired, organized, and inventoried our collections, and eventually ran day-to-day operations when family deaths and flooding prevented her from coming to work. We also hosted Kansas Humanities Council’s Famous Kansans Chautauqua and conducted a local oral history project with the help of StoryCorps.

It was during this summer that I truly discovered what history really is. Over the course of several conversations with Brenda and other mentors, I decided to abandoned my second major in education and focus solely on history as a future career. I continued working in the archives my senior year, aiding students in research and lightening the load for Brenda. I was one of the few students she trusted with my own set of keys and who knew where things were in the hodgepodge collections and disorganization of the primitive archive. I also had encyclopedic knowledge of Baker University history because of my various research projects.

By winter of my senior year, Brenda told me that her cancer was back. She had survived an intense battle several years earlier, but seemed much more worried and somber this time. That spring when I didn’t get into graduate school, I took a position as an assistant track coach but promised her that I’d stick around and take care of the archives too. I played an essentially interim role keeping the doors open and running day-to-day operations for students and staff.

Throughout this time Brenda was incredible encouraging. At times, she believed in me more than I believed in myself. She was the first person to encourage my research into sports history. When I struggled to find graduate programs, she told me not to settle. I remember her telling me that I’ll write my own-ticket someday and my career will be bigger than the archives. She was an incredibly positive influence on my career.

Brenda Day died on April 24, 2009. In May I quit my coaching job and matriculated to graduate school. Because of her encouragement I dedicated my master’s thesis to her as a testament of her guiding influence in my historical training and the direction of my career. The designation of the Black Jack Battlefield site as a National Historic Landmark is yet another tribute to her selfless dedication to preserving and sharing history. To me, the national designation memorializes her work and brings a national audience to both it and the battlefield.

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