Early in the pre-dawn hours of June 2, l856, a group of Kansas free-staters, led by the controversial abolitionist John Brown, moved quietly across the prairie a few miles east of present-day Baldwin City, Kansas. Within a few hours they would be engaged in a pitched battle with Missouri pro-slavery men led by Captain Henry Clay Pate.
This confrontation had its roots in recent events which had raised tensions in the area to the breaking point. Sheriff Jones and his pro-slavery forces had sacked the town of Lawrence less than two weeks earlier, destroying the Free State Hotel and dumping the newspapers’ presses into the river.
Just three days later, five people in Franklin County were dragged from their homes and brutally murdered in the
Pottawatomie Massacre. John Brown and his sons were implicated in the killing, and Henry Clay Pate set out to find him.
Pate, traveling west, camped at Black Jack Springs, a popular campground along the Santa Fe trail, and it was here that he was surprised by the attack of Brown’s men in the early morning light of June 2.
Each side sought cover behind creek banks on separate branches of Captain's Creek. The firing went on for approximately three hours. Pate, hoping to buy time, and fearing that free-state reinforcements were on their way from Lawrence, presented Brown with a flag of truce. Brown took Pate prisoner under the flag of truce which Pate argued was a violation of the rules of warfare. Brown refused to honor the flag, thus ending the Battle of Black Jack.
The Battle of Black Jack was the first armed action in which forces of comparable strength fought over the issue of slavery, and a growing number of historians agree that it was here that the Civil War began.