Michael J. Malone
Douglas County Law Library

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Lawrence, Kansas 66044
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This Month in Legal History

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This page contains the "This Month in Legal History" column as published in the current Michael J. Malone Douglas County Law Library E-Mail Newsletter. The column features a different event from the history of law and jurisprudence of Douglas County, Kansas, that occurred during the month. It is published monthly in the Michael J. Malone Douglas County Law Library E-Mail Newsletter and on the Home page of this website.

Archived entries from this and previous years can be accessed by visiting the This Month in Legal History Archive page on this website.

May 2, 1857 - Robert Carey is murdered on Washington Creek.

With the signing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act by President Franklin Pierce on May 30, 1854, Kansas Territory was opened up for white settlement. The Act left the question of whether Kansas would come into the Union as a state that allowed slavery up to a vote of the residents of the Territory. Men poured into Kansas, many with opposing views on the controversial issue, and violence between them soon broke out, so much violence that the Territory came to be known as "Bleeding Kansas". Though much of the violence in Kansas could be directly attributed to the division over slavery, some of it was the result of other disputes between settlers. One of these incidents was the killing of Charles Dow, a Free State man, by his neighbor Charles Coleman, a proslavery man, in November 1855 over a land dispute. Although the murder was not over slavery, the fact that it involved men on either side of the issue resulted in a significant escalation of tensions that nearly lead to a shooting war in Kansas Territory. Another such incident involved a man known as Robert Carey. Very little is known of Carey, his age, where he was from, his family ties, when he came to Kansas, etc. What is known is that by 1856, he had a land claim near Washington Creek in southwestern Douglas County, Kansas Territory. That spring and summer proved to be the most violent time in the struggle over slavery in Kansas, and the Washington Creek area did not escape that violence, evidenced by the Fort Saunders/Hoyt incident. Early that summer, a group of proslavery men had constructed a large, well-built log cabin in the Washington Creek area on land owned by a man named Saunders. Known both as Fort Saunders and Camp Saunders, the building became a major threat to Free State settlers in the surrounding area when word supposedly went out from there that all Free State men must leave the Territory or be killed. The frightened settlers applied for assistance to Lawrence, Kansas Territory, the headquarters of the Free State movement in Kansas, and the officials there determined that a messenger should be dispatched to find out what were the intentions of the men in Fort Saunders. David Starr Hoyt volunteered to be the messenger, and went to Fort Saunders on August 12, 1856. He spoke with the men there, staying until after dinner. When he left to return to Lawrence, he was followed by several men from the fort. Hoyt had not gone far on his journey home when the men shot him dead through the back of the head and buried the body in a shallow grave. The murder was observed by several boys and word of it reached Lawrence. A party of Free State men from Lawrence found Hoyt's grave and exhumed his body. The men were incensed by the murder, and marched on Fort Saunders on the 15th with the intent to attack and destroy it. The men occupying Fort Saunders got word of the Free State men marching on them and abandoned the fort, so when they arrived, the attackers found an empty building. They proceeded to burn the structure to the ground. Violence in the Washington Creek area subsided, but the tension the settlers were under did not. In the fall of 1856, Robert Carey sold his claim on Washington Creek to a man named Sutton. There is no evidence as to where the two men stood on the issue of slavery in Kansas, so there is nothing to suggest that there was any animosity between them over the issue. The terms of the sale of Carey's claim are not known, but apparently required Sutton to perform some tasks in lieu of or in addition to cash payments. Instead of complying with any of the terms of the sale, Sutton left the area and was absent all winter. He returned in the spring of 1857 and demanded the claim. Carey would not give up the claim on the same terms agreed to the previous fall, and a dispute arose. On Saturday, May 2, 1857, Carey was observed going in the direction of Sutton's house. As reported in the Weekly Lecompton Union, "… when next seen [Carey] was lying dead in the house, having been shot twice through the body." The victim's pistol was found with him, and although one chamber was empty, it was determined that the weapon had not been fired recently. The newspaper observed that this was "… the third instance of the kind which has occurred in Douglas County, within the last two or three months." Aside from one short article in the newspaper, there appears to have been no other reaction to the shooting. Given the militant reaction to the killings of Dow and Hoyt, the fact that neither side in the slavery issue made anything out of the killing of Carey indicates that it was likely just over a land dispute and had no political overtones. Sutton was sought by the authorities, but he managed to escape capture, and apparently was never forced to answer for the murder of Robert Carey.

From: Weekly Lecompton Union, v. 1, no. 45 (May 9, 1857), p. 2.

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Created: November 27, 2006; Revised: May 1, 2015