Law and politics seemed to be in Wilson Shannon’s blood from a young age. He was born in Ohio on February 24, 1802. His father froze to death while on a hunting expedition when he was only one year old. However, Shannon’s older brothers were dedicated to his success and helped him to enter law school.
After studying in both Ohio and Kentucky, Shannon had set up his legal practice by 1830. His entry into politics came soon afterward when in 1832 he ran for Congress as a Democrat, losing only by the tightest of margins in a traditionally Whig district.
But Shannon’s political career was just beginning. After becoming attorney of Belmont County, Ohio, in 1833 and state prosecuting attorney in 1835, Shannon was elected governor in 1838, setting a record as the first governor of Ohio to actually be born in the state. He was defeated in his campaign for reelection two years later as the Whig Party gained a foothold across the nation, but became governor of Ohio once again in 1842.
Shannon resigned as Ohio governor in 1844 to become minister to Mexico. This was a delicate position in those days immediately prior to the Mexican–American War, but Shannon nevertheless managed to negotiate with Santa Anna for the release of 120 prisoners from Texas.
However, America’s diplomatic relations with Mexico continued to deteriorate as war approached. Shannon’s task over, he resumed his law practice for the next few years, interrupted by a little (mostly unsuccessful) prospecting in California. He returned to politics in 1852 as a representative. While in Congress, he confirmed his loyalty to the Democratic Party by voting for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It was only natural that he be appointed governor of Kansas Territory by President Franklin Pierce in August 1855.
Time in Office
Shannon took office as the second governor of Kansas Territory on September 7, 1855. His first two months in office were largely peaceful, but the ill will that already existed between the Free State and proslavery sides was still simmering, waiting to boil over. Shannon himself may have contributed to bringing matters to a head when he presided over a meeting in Leavenworth on November 14 to organize the Law and Order Party. This party was created to uphold the authority of the proslavery legislature, and it accordingly adopted resolutions denouncing the creation of a separate Free State legislature as treason. Unfortunately, members of the Law and Order Party often behaved in a lawless fashion, using the acts of the Free State men as a pretext for pillage and murder.
It was a land dispute terminating in a fatal shooting that finally sparked the armed conflict. A cycle of reprisals on both sides climaxed at the beginning of December when proslavery men under the infamous Douglas County Sheriff Samuel Jones besieged the Free State stronghold of Lawrence, armed with weapons stolen from Liberty Arsenal in Missouri, in a conflict known as the Wakarusa War. Governor Shannon anxiously wrote to Colonel Edwin Sumner for military assistance, rightly admitting that the Border Ruffians “are beyond my powers, or at least soon will be.” When the colonel refused to come to the rescue without orders from the Pierce administration, Shannon went to the scene of the conflict in person.
Governor Shannon met with abolitionist leaders Jim Lane and Charles Robinson, the first a radical guerilla leader and the second the illegal governor of the Free State government (territorial governors were to be chosen by the President of the United States). After careful negotiations, Shannon managed to convince both sides to disband—no small diplomatic feat in that political climate. After the Wakarusa episode, President Pierce fortified Shannon’s authority with the right to call out federal troops when necessary to secure the peace.
But during the spring of 1856, Sheriff Jones returned to Lawrence to arrest abolitionists involved in prelude to the Wakarusa War, only to be shot in the back while preparing for bed in his tent. While the wound was not fatal, it did not improve the sheriff’s temper. He returned yet again on May 21, 1856, with a posse that sacked Lawrence. It was this attack that drew John Brown to the forefront as an abolitionist guerilla leader. He retaliated by killing five proslavery settlers in an event known as the Pottawatomie Massacre.
Matters in Kansas were clearly out of control. On June 4, Governor Shannon demanded that all armed bodies of men resisting the laws disband at once, but with little effect. The governor left for St. Louis on June 23, ostensibly on official business, but probably in dread of an assassination attempt. However, he did leave orders for Colonel Edwin Sumner to break up the Free State legislature when it met in July, orders that Colonel Sumner and acting Governor Daniel Woodson duly carried out.
On his return, Governor Shannon’s diplomacy skills once again served him well. In August, Jim Lane returned to Kansas, blazing a trail for abolitionist settlers that avoided dangerous Missouri towns. With him, however, he brought a wagon train of guns and ammunition and his Army of the North, composed of like-minded men. Lane was doubtless bent on further revenge, but Shannon managed to placate him and avoid bloodshed.
But Shannon had enough. He submitted his resignation on August 18 and fled Kansas concealed in a wagon. Shannon never again sought political office, but instead resumed his much quieter legal practice.
- Served the longest continuous term of any Kansas territorial governor (9-1/2 months).
- Served through the beginning of the Bleeding Kansas era.
- Oversaw the organization of the Law and Order Party.
- Negotiated a peaceable resolution to the Wakarusa War.
- Arranged for the dispersal of the Free State legislature.
- Forestalled a raid by Jim Lane.
In His Own Words
- Bleeding Kansas: “Govern Kansas in 1855 and ’56! You might as well attempt to govern the devil….”
- Wakarusa War: “In my arrangement with those citizens my great object was to secure the supremacy of the law and bring about if possible a more friendly feeling between the two contending parties. To secure a lasting peace and friendly relations I knew that the object would be defeated by insisting on any terms that would be humiliating to the parties and I was desirous to extend to the citizens assembled in Lawrence every opportunity of placing themselves in what I deemed a correct position in reference to the execution of the laws.”
- Resignation: “…Finding myself here without the moral power which my official station confers, and being destitute of any adequate military force to preserve the peace of the country, I feel it due to myself, as well as to the government, to notify you that I am unwilling to perform the duties of government of this territory any longer.”