John W. Geary

John W. Geary was born near Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, in 1819. Early on, his father proved to be a tremendous part of his life. Richard Geary was an intelligent man with an insatiable love of learning, and it was this love more than anything else that he desired to see his son cultivate. John Geary’s education began at home. After amassing considerable debt in failed business ventures, however, the elder Geary started a school in an effort to pay off what he owed. Much of John Geary’s preparation for life occurred there.

Young John Geary headed off to Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, to study law and civil engineering when he was only 14. However, the death of his father made him the man of the household. Geary bravely took on his father’s debts, provided for his family, and still managed to earn enough money to graduate from college. The many trades at which he worked to accomplish these three purposes and to find his calling are too many to describe in detail here, but they ranged from surveying to land speculation to practicing law to construction engineering.

It was Geary’s interest in military history that first brought him to the public eye. He joined the Pennsylvania militia and quickly earned distinction. When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, Geary raised part of the 2nd Pennsylvania Infantry and received a commission as its lieutenant colonel (he eventually reached the rank of colonel). He led this regiment in the grueling Battle of Chapultepec, assisting to take the castle of Mexico’s capital city. Mexican snipers picked off American officers as quickly as they could. Geary himself was wounded five times during the battle, but he survived despite the fact that his stature of 6′ 6″ made him an obvious target. When Mexico City fell to the American forces, Geary became the commandant of the city.

President James Knox Polk sent him to San Francisco as postmaster in January 1849. Geary’s duties were to establish post offices on the Pacific Coast, appoint local postmasters, and lay out the mail routes. While in San Francisco, he was also unanimously elected as the last alcalde of the city on January 8, 1850. Not surprisingly, he also became the first mayor under American rule on May 1, 1850. After serving a term as the youngest mayor in San Francisco history, Geary next became president of the Board of Commissioners of the Funded Debt, where he was instrumental in completely paying off San Francisco’s debt.

Geary returned to his native Pennsylvania in 1852 due to his wife’s poor health, donating his land to the city of San Francisco. After the death of Margaret Ann Geary in February 1853, President Franklin Pierce unsuccessfully tried to enlist the former mayor’s services as governor of Utah Territory. However, the appeal to Geary’s patriotism and respect for the president proved to be too great to resist when President Pierce next appointed him as governor of Kansas Territory in July 1856. The recent dispersal of the Topeka legislature under the orders of Governor Wilson Shannon had amply stocked the fledgling Republican Party with talking points in favor of their presidential candidate, John C. Frémont. Perhaps Geary, with his impeccably distinguished record and his connections with the free state of California, could quell the violence in Bleeding Kansas and save the cause of the Democratic candidate, James Buchanan.

Time in Office

John W. Geary
Geary as mayor of San Francisco

The new governor of the territory took office on September 9, 1856, at Fort Leavenworth. His first official act was to disband the warring militias that had caused Bleeding Kansas so much trouble. He then organized a new militia, sanctioned by the territorial government, to maintain order and uphold the laws, not to promote partisan causes. While some Free State men were concerned that the new militia would become a tool of the Bogus Legislature, under Governor Geary’s watch representatives of both sides of the question enlisted.

But Governor Geary still had federal resources at his disposal, and that very month he was called upon to use them. On September 13, the governor received word that a party of Border Ruffians was marching toward Lawrence. Geary accompanied the dragoons to the scene to prevent the proposed attack, much to the surprise of the proslavery men. But Geary had promised evenhanded justice to both sides, and this was precisely what he delivered. At the same time, news came of a band of Free State militants under Jim Lane attacking the town of Hickory Point. The governor sent troops to this conflict, as well, and managed to obtain a cease-fire.

Governor Geary consistently pursued peace in the territory during his time in office, effectively robbing the Republicans of their most powerful campaign issue and securing the victory of James Buchanan in the presidential election that year. Unfortunately, now that Geary had accomplished his purpose as far as President Pierce was concerned, the administration could gradually withdraw its support of his nonpartisan policies and promote a course more palatable to the proslavery element of the Democratic Party. When Geary requested a new marshal, attorney general, and secretary of state, not to mention a few new federal judges, on the grounds that the existing territorial officials were largely either incompetent or actively working to undermine his efforts to maintain peace and justice, the president refused to comply. Furthermore, President Pierce removed Geary’s authority to call out federal troops and had some important appropriations withdrawn, leaving the territorial governor to pay for some of the expenses of the judicial system out of his own pocket.

From that point on, Governor Geary attracted the disfavor of both factions in Kansas. He angered the Free State side by refusing aid from Vermont to assist struggling Kansans hard hit by the fierce winter of 1856 and 1857. Then he angered the proslavery side by supporting the admission of Kansas to the Union under the Topeka Constitution. In February 1857, Geary further incurred the wrath of the territorial legislature by refusing to fall in with its plan to commission William Sherrard, a rough and rowdy proslavery man, as sheriff of Douglas County. Sherrard responded by spitting in the governor’s face in an unsuccessful attempt to provoke him to a fight, then by opening fire on his opponents at a meeting in the legislature. Sherrard was shot and killed, but Governor Geary realized that he was still far from safe when the Border Ruffians next attacked his personal secretary.

Governor Geary wrote to James Buchanan before he took office, hoping for support to bolster his authority, but received little encouragement. The governor resigned on March 4, 1857, the day of the new president’s inauguration, feeling that he could no longer be of use in Kansas Territory and that to stay would be to risk his life unnecessarily. Geary made a farewell address, warning Kansans that it was up to them to keep the peace from then on, before fleeing the territory at night on March 21. But Geary did not abandon either Kansas or his troubled nation—after addressing many public meetings on the tumultuous situation in the territory, he went on to fight for the Union in the Civil War, earning the rank of major general.


John W. Geary
Geary and staff during Civil War
  • Became the youngest territorial governor of Kansas.
  • Disbanded the partisan militias.
  • Organized an official territorial militia composed of Kansas residents of both factions.
  • Prevented a second sack of Lawrence.
  • Secured President James Buchanan’s victory in the 1856 election.
  • Became the namesake of Geary County (previously Davis County after Jefferson Davis) in 1889.

In His Own Words

John W. Geary
  • Bleeding Kansas: “I have learned more of the depravity of my fellow man than I ever before knew. I have thought my California experience was strong, but I believe my Kansas experience cannot be beaten.”
  • Cause of Kansas troubles: “…Most of the troubles which lately agitated the territory, were occasioned by men who had no especial interest in its welfare…. The great body of the actual citizens are conservative, law-abiding and peace-loving men, disposed rather to make sacrifices for conciliation and consequent peace, than to insist for their entire rights should the general body thereby be caused to suffer.”
  • Factions in Kansas: “I desire to know no party, no section, no North, no South, no East, no West; nothing but Kansas and my county.”
  • Disbanding of partisan militias: “The presence of additional government troops will exert a moral influence that cannot be obtained by any militia that can here be called in requisition.”
  • 1856 presidential election: “I can assure you [Buchanan] that no man in the country felt more solicitous for this auspicious result than myself, and as the establishment of tranquility in Kansas, previous to the election, was supposed to favor you, I labored with intense energy to accomplish that object.”
  • Refusal of aid from Vermont: “[There is] doubtless some suffering…consequent upon the past disturbances and the present extremely cold weather; but probably no more than exists in other territories or in either of the states of the Union.”
  • Resignation: “Without said support [from the Buchanan administration], my usefulness here must be materially diminished, and the sooner I am relieved, the better will I be satisfied.”

Complete Series

Kansas Governors

Kansas Governors