Black Jack Battlefield starts fundraiser for education center

Black Jack Battlefield, sitting just outside of Baldwin City in neighboring Wellsville, Kan. has reopened for the spring. The battlefield was home to one of the first battles between Kansans and pro-slavery activists.

Black Jack Battlefield is said to be the beginning of Abolition John Brown’s armed war on slavery. The three-hour long Battle of Black Jack took place on Jun. 2, 1856. Brown and his 100 men fought the attacking force that had previously taken Brown’s two sons hostage, hoping to not only retrieve them but also run the pro-slavery advocates out of the city that would become Wellsville, according to the official Black Jack Battlefield website. 

The battlefield also houses the Pearson farmstead, the home to one of the first settlers of the Palmyra township that later became Baldwin City. Robert Hall Pearson, a soldier in the battle, returned to the area from California in 1855 after the gold rush ended. He bought the land because of its personal significance and chose to build his home and farmstead on the property. He married and had nine children on the site, with these children and many descendants inhabiting the land and surrounding area until 2003. 

Before the property looked the way that we know it today, the site was a popular dumping site for trash and other items for neighboring residents. The site was considered a “potential health hazard” according to a 2006 Lawrence Journal World article by Mike Belt. Though the team in charge of the property today got to work cleaning with help from the Kansas Department of Health. 

The Black Jack board hired their first-ever executive director in 2022 and have been working to preserve the historical importance and natural landscape of the site to this day. The property is also home to a crossing of the Santa Fe Trail, which Brown had used for travel. Across the street from the Pearson house are the Santa Fe Trail Ruts, which Associate Professor of Religious Studies Nicholaus Pumphrey gives tours for in his off time. These ruts are some of the deepest recorded along the trail and can still be seen today.

“Some of the wagons contained over four tons of material. As a result, they literally carved pathways in the ground,” Pumphrey said. “The trail literally goes through Black Jack.”

The battlefield is open to the public from dawn to dusk every day. Visitors can take self guided tours any time, though guided tours are also offered among request. Visitors can walk through these trails at any time and guests are urged to visit the battlefield while they are there, as there is some more history on its importance to the battle on their tour.

“Near the Pearson house we provide brochures and QR codes for guests to scan to view a map of marked stopping places on the trail where the battle played out,” Emery Compton, Assistant Director of Marketing for the Black Jack, said.

Not only is the battlefield hoping to drum up some business in the coming months to bring awareness to the history of the site, they are also in the process of trying to raise funds for their new education center construction project.

This building will provide an informational, recreational, and educational resource to share the history of Black Jack and its impact on our nation,” Compton said. “We will have educational displays to provide information about the history of Black Jack, from how it was an important stop on the Santa Fe Trail to its significance as the first real battle between Free-State and pro-slavery militiamen.”

The new visitors center would sit within a historical barn on the property next to the Pearson farmhouse, keeping the exterior historically accurate but having a completely modern interior with virtual tours of the battlefield and interactive displays where visitors can ask John Brown and the militiamen questions. Compton also hopes that the education center will “make people feel more welcome” at the historical site.

“We want guests to feel a sense of pride when they visit Black Jack Battlefield and Nature Park,” Compton said. “There are a lot of projects going on at once, but when everything is complete, it’s going to be amazing!”