Cantrell was born in 1820 to William and Mary Cantrell in Tennessee. Somewhere along the line, he made his way to Missouri before moving again to Kansas Territory in 1854, where he built the first log cabin where Baldwin City now stands.
He was not particularly active in the period’s political troubles but spent most of his time developing his claim. However, he placed a sheet on his wagon where he wrote in plain black letters, “Kansas Free State.” When he briefly returned to Missouri, this drew the attention of some of his former neighbors who did not like it, and several men cut the sheet in strips with a large knife and threatened him. Afterward, he was harassed and pursued by pro-slavery advocates in Kansas.
When Cantrell went to the aid of the Free-State forces during the Battle of Black Jack on June 2, 1856, the threats Immediately increased. Soon afterward, he was captured by border ruffians led by Henry Clay Pate, the pro-slavery Westport, Missouri newspaper editor.
He was given a mock trial on the charge of treason to Missouri. He was convicted and led into a ravine and shot on June 6, 1856. He cried out, “Oh, God, I am shot; I am murdered.” He was then shot two more times. Later, his body was found by I.I. Bell, also of Baldwin City, and Cantrell was buried where he died. He was just 36 years old and left behind a wife and several children.