Bleeding Kansas and Transgenerational Morality

The Immortals of Bleeding Kansas

The Immortals of Bleeding Kansas (Silas Soule second from right)


Use discretion: mentions of graphic violence


It has become more and more common for people to accept the idea of trangenerational trauma.  This is a step in the right direction.

Studies published over the past decade have shown how poverty, for example, causes our limbic systems to feed a constant stream of stress and fear messaging to our prefrontal cortex.  This overloading of our mental faculties can interfere with daily functioning in a number of ways, including our ability to finish tasks efficiently, our ability to set achievable goals – even our ability to act and solve problems in a rational manner.

Other studies are beginning to shed light on how historical events affecting the health of our ancestors can be imprinted epigenetically – for example, the descendants of Swedish famine survivors of the 19th century have been shown to exhibit famine-related health issues today.

All of this led me recently to consider the possibility of transgenerational “wellness” or positivity.

Could having a full belly, and living in an environment which includes love, ethical and moral behaviour, and general human decency lead to some form of imprinting and improvement in mental health, happiness, and greater resilience over generations?

Some say the human brain is deeply wired to imprint negative experiences more strongly than the positive.  This negativity bias is thought to be crucial to our ability to spot dangers in the future.

The downside to this comes when our tendency to notice the dark clouds makes us ignore the sun over our shoulder.

Perhaps much of the good which gets passed-down the generations often goes unremarked and unnoticed, to our own detriment.

Much of the world often comments on the American propensity for positivity.  As far as I know, America’s foundational document is the only one in the world in which “the pursuit of happiness” is explicitly listed as a fundamental right.

Yet writing about American history – real American history – can often lead to a deep sense of pessimism; a sense of being trapped today in a circle created by others in the past.

It is my own sense that events this year might well determine whether American democracy – with all its flaws – manages to survive.

So here is some good medicine for any spirit in need, a balm for those who doubt the power of the better angels of our nature.

There is work ahead, and inspiration from our better ancestors can do no harm.


“Bleeding Kansas”.  1859.

Kansas has been opened for settlement.  In a foreshadowing of the Civil War soon to come, pro- and anti-slavery settlers are flooding the territory, in an effort to influence who will hold sway in the Kansas legislature.

Among the anti-slavery abolitionists in Kansas at this time was a military man named Silas Stillman Soule – a personal friend of both Walt Whitman, the poet, and John Brown, the militant abolitionist hanged for his part in the raid on Harper’s Ferry.

As a teenager, Silas was already helping his father operate a stop on the Underground Railway, assisting enslaved African-Americans in their escape from Missouri to points north.

In July of 1859, while attempting to escort thirteen escaped slaves to safety, a local doctor in Lawrence, Kansas named John Doy was ambushed by pro-slavery men who had crossed the border from Missouri looking for “lost property”.  Dr. Doy was arrested and brought to a jail in St. Joseph, Missouri.  The escaped African-Americans were sold once again into slavery.

A short time later, Silas Soule, showing uncommon daring, bravery and resourcefulness, crossed into Missouri, infiltrated the jail in St. Joseph on a pretext, and effected the late night escape of Dr. John Doy back across the border into Kansas.

In an admirable act of thumbing their noses at their enemies (and to offer encouragement to the cause), the ten men involved in this daring raid had a photograph made, which achieved wide circulation at the time.  They became known as “The Immortal Ten”.

And if this alone is not enough to make these men and Silas Soule heroes in the cause of righteousness, five years later this same Silas Soule refused a direct order to participate in the infamous massacre of indigenous Americans at Sand Creek, Colorado, where Black Kettle‘s band had flown a flag of truce only to see their women and children ridden down and slain by Colonel John Chivington on a day of inhuman carnage with few parallels in USA history.

The breasts and genitalia of Cheyenne and Arapaho women, and the fetuses of their unborn children, were taken as “trophies”, and nailed onto the walls of Colorado saloons as grisly displays.

Afterwards, Silas Soule did a thing quite unheard-of for the time.  He testified before a congressional committee, against his superiors.

He was assassinated on the streets of Denver, Colorado shortly after.

Silas’ friend Lieutenant James Cannon tracked one of the suspected assassins, Charles Squier, all the way to New Mexico.  After being returned to Denver, Charles Squier was “mysteriously” aided in an escape from justice.

Lieutenant Cannon, on the other hand, would be poisoned to death soon after…

But the good people eventually won.

And 150 years later, we still need people like Silas Soule.

Look carefully at the photograph of the “Immortal Ten”.  See the faces of men from all backgrounds, united in proud brotherhood.  The Good Guys.

This is not to suggest that Black Emancipation was a story of White Saviourism.  African-Americans fought their own corner bravely, and paid in blood and suffering, for decades and centuries.

What we see here, is a brilliant example of how to be an ally to those in the heat of struggle.


Silas Soule was a direct descendant of George Soule, one of the signatories of the Mayflower Compact over 400 years ago.

The Petersons in my own family also descend from this same George Soule – and my Elisha “Wright” Peterson married a girl named Nancy Bunch from Grainger County, Tennessee.  Elisha came from a line of Quakers, and when he wasn’t working as an Ozark mountain cartwright, he was teaching Native Americans near his Ozark home (and later in Eastern Oklahoma Indian Territory) how to read and write.

The Quakers are one of the groups who shine like a beacon, running like a golden thread through most of American history.  They were not saints, nor were they perfect (looking at you, Richard Nixon).

But most were usually better than a lot of those around them – including some of my other, far less savoury forebears.

It is common for certain people today, as they attempt to defend the indefensible in America’s past, to say “We can’t judge people in the past by the standards of today”.

In some senses, they are right.  We can’t judge people for once believing the world was only 6,000 years old.  The sciences of biology and geology were still in their infancy.

But the systematic belittling, abuse, rape, torture, transgenerational enslavement and dehumanisation of others?

Empathy and fairness do not require a degree in science.  Neo-Confederates and the modern alt-right who claim that “slavery wasn’t that bad”, or that “it was just normal for the time” seem to ignore that Quakers had submitted a petition against slavery in America way back in 1688, almost 200 years before slavery’s eventual end.  So no, it wasn’t “normal” in the eyes of everyone back then.  It was “normalised” in law by legislation based in greed and white supremacy.

Many morally abhorrent things were also legal in Nazi Germany.  This does not mean things were “normal”.

Although I’m no Quaker myself, the Quakers in my family history make me immensely proud, and determined to prove that decency does indeed travel down the generations, as surely as wickedness or trauma.

#history #transgenerationaltrauma #quakerism #kansas #beforewewerewhite

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