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Friday, October 3, 2014

The Great Lecompton Shootout

Western author John D. McCall will soon have a new release titled South of Rising Sun with US Marshal Alistair Taggart paying a visit to Lecompton, Kansas Territory.
Lecompton, Kansas Territory (Kansas Historical Society Image)
When using a historical setting as the backdrop for a novel, a certain amount of accuracy is important to the believability of the story. Unless you're already an expert on the location and time you've chosen, some thorough research can keep you from looking foolish to your readers, some of whom are bound to catch your mistakes.  One of the fun things which can happen when you put in your due diligence is learning an interesting tidbit of information about your setting you were previously unaware of. This has happened to me many times over when researching the location of my new western novel, set in Kansas. Being a Kansas native for fifty-eight years, one would think I had already learned everything there is to know historically about the state I live in. But once I started researching the setting for my tale, I found out how completely lacking my Kansas history education had been in elementary and secondary school. 

Even if they are not into westerns, nearly everyone over the age of forty has heard of the Gunfight at the OK Corral. They might even know of the Hickock-Tutt Gunfight in Springfield, Missouri or the Hyde Park Gunfight in Newton, Kansas. But few people have heard of one of the largest gunfights ever to take place in the West, a politically motivated shootout in the now tiny city of Lecompton in Douglas County, Kansas. Lecompton was the first official territorial capital in Kansas’s long and often bloody struggle to determine whether it would enter the Union as a free state or a slave state in the latter half of the 1850s. This thriving city of almost five-thousand was the seat of the pro-slavery (at that time) territorial government and was expected to become the capital once statehood was conferred upon the Kansas territory.
John W. Geary
In 1857, John W. Geary had the dubious honor of being the governor of territorial Kansas, one of six men to hold the title during its seven year history of existence.  During Geary’s tenure, the self-appointed sheriff of Douglas County, Samuel J. Jones, resigned his post, and the Douglas County board of commissioners appointed one William T. Sherrard as the new sheriff under somewhat questionable legal authority. Governor Geary was to have signed papers granting Sherrard his commission but stalled, apparently feeling Sherrard’s pro-slavery leanings would conflict with his own free-state inclinations, despite Sherrard’s declaration he would “see that the laws were faithfully executed.” Geary continued to stall, then eventually refused outright, claiming several acquaintances had reported Sherrard was of dubious character and had been involved in several drunken altercations. 

Constitution Hall as it now stands. Kansas Historical Society
For over a month, Sherrard went to great lengths to secure his commission by legal means, but each avenue led to disappointment. Thwarted in all his efforts, he apparently had enough, and an armed Sherrard confronted Geary in Constitution Hall as he left a legislative meeting. The exact words exchanged are not agreed upon by historians, but the story goes that Sherrard chastised Geary for assailing his character and then spat on him, hoping to provoke the governor into an altercation so he would have reason to shoot Geary. Geary wisely refused to take the bait, but his supporters did not let the matter drop. They introduced resolutions in the house legislature condemning Sherrard's actions and nine days, later held a town meeting on the matter.

At one point during the meeting, Sherrard was given the floor to rebut the resolutions and declared that "Any man who imputes anything dishonorable to me in that affair, is a liar and a coward, and I stand ready at all times to back up my words." After Sherrard left the podium, he returned to his place among the crowd and was immediately bombarded with hostile questions and comments. One member of the gathering, Joseph Sheppard, may have remarked that the resolutions were just and moved toward Sherrard. Sherrard responded to the alleged statement by yelling, "You are a G**—damned liar, a coward and a scoundrel," after which he drew his pistol and began firing. Sheppard pulled his own pistol and fired back, but not before being wounded. When Sheppard's three rounds missed, he tried to club Sherrard with the butt of his pistol before the mayor and ex-sheriff Jones separated the two. By then, many in the crowd had drawn their own weapons and commenced shooting, with upwards of fifty shots being fired. Casualties from the melee might have been great had not several in the crowd retained the presence of mind to use their canes to whack the gun hands of many of the combatants when they attempted to shoot.

As it was, Sherrard, having exhausted the rounds in one pistol, drew another and moved in the direction of Geary's secretary, John A. W. Jones, who drew his own pistol in true Western fashion and plugged Sherrard squarely between the eyes. He collapsed and died two days later. Remarkably, Sherrard was the single fatality to result from the shootout, and Sheppard and a merchant from Lawrence, Kansas were the only other two known to have sustained wounds, barring the few sore wrists on some unlucky shooters. 

It has been suggested that the whole affair was orchestrated so that Geary could prove the existence of a pro-slavery conspiracy to do him violence, and that he purposefully failed to use available military personnel to ensure altercations did not take place during the meeting. Any violence which did erupt was to have been proof of such a conspiracy. Unfortunately for Geary, his reputation was irreparably harmed by the circumstances surrounding Sherrard's death, and President Buchanan fired him on March 12th of that year, making him the final casualty of the "Great Shootout at Lecompton."


  1. Rebecca, I love the pics you added to my post. Thanks for letting me share this interesting story.

  2. This is a fabulous article, JD. So much interesting information that I, for one, never knew before. The page looks great, too!

    1. Vicki,
      Thanks for reading. I had selected Lecompton as the backdrop for my book before I knew of it being much more than the territorial capital of Kansas. There was much more to the town's history than I imagined. Thanks, Rebecca added the pictures and did the layout.

  3. Well dang, I am just speechless after reading about that shootout in a meeting of all things. I am amazed I haven't heard of this huge altercation. I liked the men who used their canes to whack the guns from the hands of those who attempted to join the fray. Can you imagine what it would be like if things like this took place in congress or state legislatures today. Well, then again, maybe they would get something done, or die trying. I truly enjoyed this bit of history, and I like the way you told it.

    1. Sarah,
      A lot of what I have learned about Lecompton has surprised me. My cousin grew up there. and her great grandfather was one of the original settlers (all the way from Germany, and I even included him as a minor character in my new book). I visited her father's farm near Lecompton (my uncle by marriage) many times growing up but never knew any of these things I uncovered while researching my book. The city does a lot to promote its role in both the state's and the U. S.'s history, but this is one of the things they don't do much promotion of in their re-enactments. I'm glad you enjoyed the article.


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