Black Jack Battlefield designated as National Historic Landmark

America, meet the Battle of Black Jack.

Leaders with the National Park Service on Wednesday announced the Black Jack Battlefield just east of Baldwin City had been designated as a National Historic Landmark.

“This puts our history in a whole new category,” said Kerry Altenbernd, vice president of the Black Jack Battlefield Trust and tour coordinator for the site. “Some people thought this battle may have just been a part of local or regional history. This shows this battle had national significance.”

Waged on June 2, 1856, the Battle of Black Jack pitted abolitionist John Brown against the pro-slavery forces of Henry Clay Pate. Several historians in recent years have argued that the fight that ensued should be declared the first battle of the Civil War.

“The headlines back east were that open warfare had broken out in Kansas,” Altenbernd said. “It was a very big deal at the time.”

Now it is again. National Park Service officials in making the announcement said the Battle of Black Jack “marked a culmination of escalating violence in ‘Bleeding Kansas’ and the beginning of John Brown’s war on slavery, which would culminate in his raid on Harpers Ferry three years later.”

The battlefield becomes the third National Historic Landmark in Douglas County — Haskell Institute in Lawrence and Lecompton’s Constitution Hall also are listed — and just the 25th national landmark in Kansas.

Area leaders are predicting the national designation will help eastern Kansas and western Missouri develop a national reputation as a region rich with early Civil War history.

“What is really significant about this is that we’ve always been telling these stories, but now it will be seen as a national treasure to preserve and promote,” said Fred Conboy, president and CEO of Destination Management Inc., which operates the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area.

Altenbernd, who has been part of a group seeking the designation since 2009, said the listing will make it easier for Civil War aficionados, who have spent considerable money visiting battlefields back east, to find the relatively undiscovered Black Jack site.

“I keep telling everybody it literally puts us on the map,” Altenbernd said. “National historic landmarks are put on all major maps.”

Altenbernd also said the designation may help in securing grants to maintain the property and improve the visitor experience at the site. Altenbernd said his organization eventually would like to have more money for parking, signs, historical displays and even a visitors center someday.

“We’re a completely volunteer organization, so money has been hard to come by,” Altenbernd said of the trust, which owns the 40-acre battlefield site. “Sometimes you have to prove yourself that you are worthy of getting money. This is the highest designation you can receive from the National Park Service. It shows we are the real deal.”

In addition to the 40-acre battle site — which is along U.S. Highway 56 about three miles east of Baldwin City — the designation also includes two other pieces of property adjacent to the battlefield: the 11-acre Ivan Boyd Prairie Preserve, which includes wagon ruts from travelers of the Santa Fe Trail; and the two-acre Black Jack roadside park owned by the state of Kansas.

The designation comes just ahead of Baldwin City’s annual Maple Leaf Festival, which will feature tours of the battlefield and surrounding nature park. The free tours will be at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Sunday.