James Henry “Jim” Lane is a figure who in many ways has been lost to history. His name does not ring familiar when mentioned to most people these days, but during his lifetime, Jim Lane was regarded as a hero and he had a town in Johnson County named after him. Lane played an important role in determining the future of Johnson County and of Kansas during the pivotal years of 1855-1865.
Jim Lane was born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana in 1814. He served in the Mexican-American War in the late 1840s before being elected to the U.S. Congress as a representative from Indiana. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 had cleared the way for new settlement in the Kansas Territory, and Lane staked his claim on a piece of land outside of Lawrence in 1855. He quickly became involved with the abolitionist movement in Kansas. The battle over whether Kansas would be admitted to the Union as a free state or a slave state caused many violent incidents from 1854-1861. This border war between pro-slavery forces and anti-slavery elements led much of northeast Kansas to be known as “Bleeding Kansas” during this period. Lane was regarded as a powerful orator and he spoke widely about the anti-slavery cause.
The Battle of Bull Creek took place in southwest Johnson County on September 1, 1856 and cemented Lane’s reputation in the Kansas Territory. Utilizing his military background, Lane mustered a group of a few hundred men from Lawrence and Topeka to confront a pro-slavery force of 1,600 fighters who were camped out at Bull Creek. Although Lane’s group was hugely outnumbered, from a distance he positioned and paraded his men in such a way that the pro-slavery Missourians believed Lane’s forces were larger. After a brief skirmish, the Missourians retreated 30 miles back to Westport. The Battle of Bull Creek made Lane a hero. In 1858, a small town established on the west side of Bull Creek was named Lanesfield in his honor.
Kansas entered the Union as a free state in Janaury 1861, and Lane was elected as the first U.S. senator from the new state. He also commanded regiments of soldiers during the Civil War while serving in the Senate. Lane was rumored to have struggled with mental illness, and in 1866 he took his own life near Leavenworth. Jim Lane’s legacy lives on in Johnson County and in other parts of Kansas. Lane has a street named after him in Johnson County. The last remnant of the town that bore his name, The Lanesfield Historic Site in southwest Johnson County, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Lane County in western Kansas is also named in his honor.
– Matt Gilligan, Johnson County Museum