At Marais des Cygnes Massacre State Historic Site, the delicate purple flower of a tiny wild orchid peeks through the grass beside a picnic table shaded by a towering old tree. It’s hard to believe that anything more momentous than a family outing ever took place here. But signs scattered around the parklike grounds tell another story: On May 19, 1858 after years of conflict over whether Kansas would enter the union as a slave or free state, proslavers from just across the Missouri line snatched 11 local men from their homes and farms at gunpoint. The men were marched three miles through the countryside, then lined up and shot nearby on the banks of the Marais des Cygnes River. All but one were gravely wounded; five did not survive.
Even amid the tide of hate and violence in the pre-Civil War era that came to be known as “Bleeding Kansas,” the murders horrified the region and the nation and fueled outrage that helped Free Staters prevail. Peace returned, but area residents kept the story alive. When the land along the river was put up for sale in the 1930s, a group of neighbors helped raise the $400 price. Almost everyone in the community contributed something. This history not only explains this site, it transforms the experience.
Marais des Cygnes holds a unique and pivotal role in the state’s and the nation’s history, but other places across eastern Kansas also tell their own compelling parts of the Bleeding Kansas saga. The Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, covering 29 counties from the Kansas City area south to the Oklahoma line and west to Clay County, weaves these stories, giving a wider view of conflicts that raged across this region and the vital role the area played in history.
A sampling of the area's intriguing sites and events:
Mine Creek Battlefield State Historic Site
In October 1864, one of the Civil War’s largest battles west of the Mississippi River raged across this grassy field near Pleasanton (70 miles south of Kansas City). Beneath the prairie lie the remains of the 1800s military road that stretched from Fort Leavenworth near Kansas City to Fort Scott (25 miles south). Union forces charged down from the north on this route, wielding repeating rifles. They overwhelmed ragged Confederate forces, some without boots or proper uniforms and armed with awkward, old-fashioned muzzle-loaders. Some 300 Confederates died, and another 300 were wounded. A few Confederates escaped, but the failing South never recovered. A monument marks the spot where many of the Confederates fell, and a path leads through the woods that have grown up on part of the site. Visitors center displays show artifacts from the battle including long muskets, uniforms and other weapons.
Fort Scott National Historic Site
The fort was established in the 1840s to protect what was then America’s frontier. By the 1850s, though, it had been decommissioned. The historic site recalls the fort’s heyday. More than 20 restored and re-created white buildings, some with wide porches in the French colonial style an early commander favored, look as if troops might arrive at any moment.
And they do at times: Re-enactors dress in authentic soldiers’ uniforms and drill on the parade ground. Even on a quiet day, though, the fort seems like a going concern, with barrels lined up in the storeroom and a table in the officers’ quarters set for a dinner party.
Nearby, the town’s motorized green “Dolly the Trolley” departs for tours. Drivers tell the stories of the historic business district and homes and the town’s 1890s peak. The trolley rumbles east to a National Cemetery, where graves date to before the Civil War.
The University of Kansas’ home grew up and almost perished as a Free Staters’ stronghold. On August 21, 1863, William Quantrill and 400 proslavery raiders galloped into town. The raiders mowed down an army camp on the outskirts and raced downtown. They set fire to homes and businesses and herded men and boys into the streets. After the raid, Lawrence lay in smoky ruins, and 180 men and boys were dead.
A lively shopping and entertainment district now follows shady Massachusetts Street, the route Quantrill and his band charged down. At one end, a bronze plaque tells the story of the elegant red-brick Eldridge Hotel. In 1856, the then Free State Hotel was burned to the ground in the first sack of Lawrence by proslavery raiders. And in 1863, it was torched again, by Quantrill (a former Lawrence school teacher). The KU campus now surrounds Pioneer Cemetery, where many of Quantrill’s victims originally were buried, and peace has settled around stately homes that once were havens for escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad.
Fort Leavenworth and Leavenworth
Founded in 1827 on towering bluffs looking down on the Missouri River, the complex remains the oldest operational military post west of the Mississippi River. In its early years, the fort protected travelers on the Oregon and Santa Fe trails. When the Kansas Territory was formed in 1854, the fort briefly served as a territorial capital. The town of Leavenworth was founded below the fort and tried to stay politically neutral over the issue of slavery. Fort commanders also did their best to stay out of the conflict, but the soldiers were forced into several policing actions, including the task of breaking up an illegal Free State legislature in Topeka on the Fourth of July, 1856.
Many of the post’s limestone buildings and enlisted and officers quarters date from the era, and visitors are welcome (at the gate, you’ll be asked to show your driver’s license). The base also provides some of the best views of the Missouri River. The neighboring town of Leavenworth has grown into an idyllic Kansas City suburb. But the business district offers glimpses of the past including the Corner Pharmacy with an 1874 soda fountain, where patrons sip Green River sodas.
Visitors pouring into Lecompton for the annual Territorial Days celebration in June generate a crescendo of color and energy that recalls a brief period when this sleepy village served as the territorial capital. Then, the nation’s attention focused on this fledgling town along the Kansas River (10 miles east of Topeka) as crowds came to argue whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free or slave state.
The annual celebration centers on Constitution Hall, a National Historic Landmark since 1975. A proslavery constitution was hammered out in the restored white clapboard building. The resulting hue and cry ultimately led to abolishment of the proslavery laws. Lecompton later was “punished,” and territorial business moved to Lawrence.
But for a time, Americans from coast to coast could point out Lecompton on a map. The town was mentioned 55 times in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Historians argue that events in the village fractured political parties, allowing Lincoln to win the presidency and, consequently, the South to secede from the Union.
During Territorial Days, the hall is open for tours. Over at the limestone Territorial Capital Museum on Saturday and Sunday, audiences are encouraged to cheer and jeer as abolitionist John Brown, suffragist Clarina Nichols and other Bleeding Kansas-era figures argue their causes.
More about Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area
The border war was one of the most bitter and important conflicts leading to the Civil War. But it’s just one of the great struggles that unfolded in eastern Kansas. The Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, designated in 2006, recognizes the region’s key role in a parade of events and movements, including the trails and forts that served waves of pioneers and the role in ending school segregation of the Brown v. Board of Education case that started in Topeka. The National Heritage Area includes sites, towns and battlefields that dot 29 Kansas counties and a dozen in Missouri, a 31,021-square-mile area that’s as large as the state of South Carolina.
Organizers want to promote the region’s already abundant attractions, ranging from relatively well-known sites like Fort Scott National Historic Site and Marais des Cygnes Massacre State Historic Site, to lesser-known places like Black Jack Battlefield and Park, southeast of Lawrence near Baldwin City. Signs and brochures help communities tell their stories and from a variety of points of view.
More information: (785) 296-2009; travelks.com 
More information on Freedom's Frontier: (785) 856-5304; freedomsfrontier.org 
More information on eastern Kansas historic sites: (785) 272-8681; kshs.org