History and Hiking: Black Jack Battlefield

Our book will include “top” trails – top 10 best, best for mountain bikers, best for wildflowers, etc. along with best for history. One of those history trails is at Black Jack Battlefield.

Black Jack Battlefield, near Baldwin City, was the site of one of the first battles of the Civil War, and it was  designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2012. It was described as the place for the first shots fired in the Civil War on a recent episode of the National Geographic show “Diggers.”

Bonus history – this location also has some wagon ruts from the Santa Fe Trail.

To the battle!

To the battle!

The history in Kansas at this time was so violent, it’s been referred to as  “Bleeding Kansas.” The events, in short, that led up to the battle at Black Jack Battlefield:

Abolitionist John Brown led the fight against the pro-slavery forces led by Henry C. Pate from Missouri on June 2, 1856. That’s the same Henry C. Pate who was in the group that burned Lawrence on May 21, 1856. Shortly after the Lawrence was looted, John Brown and others executed five pro-slavery men at Potawatomie Creek, and then three anti-slavery men were taken prisoner by Pate, two of which were Brown’s sons. (Followed along so far?)

The five hour battle ended with John Brown’s side winning and his sons were released in exchange for the pro-slavery men who’d been captured.

Self-guided tours of the site are available, and the brochure explains the history of the battle with nine stops from Pate’s position, the point of surrender, John Brown’s position and more. Free guided tours hosted every Saturday and Sunday at 1 pm through the third weekend of October.

Also linked to the shorter self-guided tour path is a nature trail and mowed grass trails through a prairie restoration area. It’s a pleasant walk through a place of huge historical significance, and the trails are well taken care of and easy to follow with signs on the nature trail identifying different plants and trees.

I always find it to be a bit odd to walk through a battlefield. As you would imagine, over 150 years later, other than the signs pointing out the pivotal moments of the battle, there is no sign that anything had ever happened there, much less something that helped kick off a war that changed the shape of America forever. It’s a quiet place, or at least it seems as though it would be on most days not during the guided tours, and I had the place to myself.

I always kind of expect to feel the weight of history in places like these. To somehow connect with the ones who crossed through in covered wagons or were prepared to die fighting over the issue of slavery. I never quite feel what I think that I should, which is silly since there is no “right” way to feel, but I think the best that can be done is to get out and go to places like these. To pay respect to what happened there by visiting and walking the trails and by appreciating the space that it is now. Walking the trails at Black Jack Battlefield is a way to connect with the simple, natural world of the prairie and with the complicated history of not just the state of Kansas, but with the nation, and there’s not a lot of places where you can do that.

If you go:

Open from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year


163 E. 2000 Road
Wellsville, KS 66092