Atchison on Pierce: A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Five

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Gentle Readers, Atchison previously appeared in this series largely as an actor either on the front lines of the Kansas struggle or not far removed from them. He missed the day to day strife by remaining most of the time at Platte City, but he took an interest in southern militants who came from the east to join his crusade and took a direct hand both times that proslavery armies came to Lawrence. He also served as a promoter for the escapade in his last journey to and from Washington as Missouri’s senator. The return to Kansas meant that his work as a lobbyist took place on pen and paper, but Atchison kept it up. He corresponded with friends, interested parties, and Franklin Pierce.

Atchison’s biographer, William Parrish, has the late senator among others who wrote the President to enlighten him on the perfidy of the Free State Movement. I had suspected such a role for Bourbon Dave, but never had evidence. Parrish’s footnotes provided some. In Holloway’s History of Kansas, the author relates that as of February, 1855,

The Border chiefs did not forget to keep themselves right with the administration at Washington. That was an object of great concern with them. They sent a special messenger to represent Kansas matters to the President and his cabinet.

Holloway declines to give more details or a citation of his own, though that doesn’t set him apart from most nineteenth century historians I’ve read on Kansas matters. He merely points to a Pierce-connected paper repeating the usual claims that the proslavery side did nothing wrong and the antislavery side committed all manner of villainies. (Parrish also cites Roy Nichols’ Pierce biography, pages 443-5. To my regret, I lack a copy.) It appears that, while Pierce would probably have come down hard against the free state side even without the help, he issued his proclamations against the Free State Movement in early 1856 with information on hand from Atchison and other prominent border ruffians.

This all delighted Atchison, who wrote Stephen Douglas on February 28. It transpired that Bourbon Dave had his doubts about the pleasant Mr. Pierce, fearing that the Young Hickory of the Granite Hills would bring a soft touch and pliant will to the White House. Now he saw some much-needed spine in the administration. But Atchison didn’t fall in love like a modern television pundit, taking any trifle as an excuse to wax poetic on a politician’s virtues; he knew about the system from the inside. Pierce’s stand for slavery tipped Atchison in his favor over the other prospect, James Buchanan, but he told Douglas that he, “will not put myself to any extraordinary trouble about either.”

Franklin Pierce

Wilson Shannon went to Washington to consult with the president on Kansas’ troubles, arriving shortly after Pierce issued his second proclamation that so pleased Atchison. He got back, at Pierce’s insistence, in time for the free state legislature convening on March 4. Then Shannon failed to do anything to break up the gathering and Bourbon Dave cooled on the President for it. He wrote an Abel R. Corbin

If the General Government would only leave Kansas to the nurture of the ‘Border Ruffians’ we would soon have peace in that quarter, but as Genl Pierce has taken the matter out of our hands God knows what will come of it. I do not complain of him, but I believe his motives are good, but I doubt his policy.

Political enemies often tar one another in terms that count less for their literal meaning than the dislike expressed. Uncertain allies can receive the same treatment. We should read Atchison in context of that, but also aware that other politicians who worked with Pierce expressed similar concerns. Douglas and the F Street men got the president’s agreement to back the Kansas-Nebraska Act in writing because they feared he would tell them what they wanted to hear and then promptly forget. Contemporaries call the president pleasant with the implication that they didn’t have much nicer to say, particularly about his intellect. Dim bulb or not, I’ve yet to find any historian who holds Pierce in high regard. Most likely his contemporaries had more than political concerns about him.

A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Four

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left David Rice Atchison’s senate seat empty, as it would remain until 1857, and the man himself fully engaged with Kansas affairs. He won the apparently permanent emnity of Thomas Hart Benton’s wing of the Missouri democracy by orchestrating the senior senator’s involuntary retirement in coalition with the Whigs. Atchison probably considered Kansas the more important matter, and likely a road to finding himself in Washington again someday. He had refused to actively seek reelection. But Bourbon Dave still found time to resent the situation. On December 14, 1855, he wrote that the Missouri legislature lacked

the moral courage to elect me, a majority of them would prefer my election to that of any other person yet they have not the moral courage to do it

Atchison had the votes but failed, somehow, to have the votes. He went on to tell his correspondent that the press would implicate him in the late Wakarusa War. He doesn’t seem to have minded that so much, as a man who led two hundred armed men into Kansas on that occasion might well have. Atchison couldn’t help himself,

but when I do move in earnest here will be a noise louder than thunder or I am mistaken.

And furthermore:

Before the moon shall fill her hours twelve times you shall hear more from me.

More from Atchison, thunderous or not, included a public statement declaring he would not accept any elected office. Bourbon Dave’s papers explained that he withdrew from the Senate race in order to help the Missouri Democracy reunite. But if Atchison wouldn’t answer Missouri’s call, which he probably would not have received anyway, then at least a few in the South would answer his. In the fall of the year, the emissaries that his people had chosen to fan out across the South looking for proslavery settlers. They had some success, if never as much as they dreamed.

Georgia’s governor recommended a Southern convention if Congress failed to accept Kansas as a slave state, a proposal Atchison endorsed. A Southern convention naturally invoked memories of Nashville. Get enough angry southerners together and they might decide to do something drastic, so the nation had best concede the territory. Everyone, except the slaves, would win:

This course on the part of the South will save Kansas to the South-save bloodshed, civil war, and perhaps a dissolution of the Union itself.

In January, Missouri’s former senator followed that letter up with another, repeating the call for immigration:

Let your young men come forth to Missouri and Kansas. Let them come well armed, with money enough to support them for twelve months, and determined to see this thing out. One hundred true men would be an acquisition; the more the better. I do not see how we are to avoid civil war; come it will. Twelve months will not elapse before war-civil war of the fiercest kind-will be upon us. We are arming and preparing for it. Indeed, we of the border counties are prepared. We must have the support of the South. We are fighting the battles of the South. Our institutions are st stake. You far Southern men are now out of the nave of war; but if we fail it will reach your own doors, perhaps your hearths. We want men-armed men. We want money-not for ourselves, but to support our friends when the come from a distance.

Atchison may have intended to follow his own advice. He mentions that he might soon move to Kansas and the Squatter Sovereign reported the news the same month. According to them, he would arrive with two hundred of his closest friends. There his slaves would farm and he would collect the profits. The paper even claimed that Atchison had moved to the territory.

Robert S. Kelley

Parrish looked into the matter, noting that Stringfellow and Kelley kept up that story through 1856. For a Kansan, Atchison did a great deal of living in Missouri. With no family of his own, he kept rooms at a Platte City hotel. He probably also rented rooms in Atchison and may have used them, but Parrish looked deep into the land records and never found evidence that Atchison bought a parcel. In my own research, Atchison always comes over from Missouri rather than down from his namesake town. The Sovereign could claim that the senator had the same basis for residence in both jurisdictions, but it doesn’t look like he lived that way.

Whether Atchison ever had serious plans to make himself a Kansan or not, others did. Late April brought the largest group of southern colonists, Jefferson Buford’s organization, arrived to do their part in saving Kansas for slavery. When Southerners came through, Atchison took an interest in them. South Carolinians particularly drew his eye and he personally housed the children of friends and others who came in their company. Corespondents asked him to advise the young men they sent on “where to settle, how to vote, and if necessary, when to fight.” Atchison the man did as asked, showing new arrivals around Atchison the town. When they came with money for him to use, he let them keep it but stood ready with advice on how to best spend their funds. In turn, the new arrivals admired Atchison well enough to honor him at banquets.

 

“The prosperity or ruin of the whole South” A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Three

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1, 2

Proslavery Missourians and antislavery Kansans had a parallel series of conventions in their respective jurisdictions. We left David Rice Atchison, late senator from Missouri, firmly turning down the effort to turn one into the start of his reelection campaign. Bourbon Dave had given up on Washington, at least in the near term, in favor of saving Kansas for slavery. Through it, he would also save slavery in Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas, and spread it to the other territories.

In the summer of 1855, almost everything turned out to Atchison’s liking. His border ruffians had secured the Kansas legislature for their own men. They ousted Andrew Reeder, who had defied them. Between governors, Daniel Woodson filled in and he had already proven his proslavery bona fides. That Franklin Pierce passed him over to appoint Wilson Shannon did not thrill the Missouri border, but Shannon soon earned the endorsement of Atchison’s Kansas-based organ, the Squatter Sovereign. The fall brought invitations for Atchison to go east and speak for the cause, as he had probably done during the winter. He declined them, citing obligations at home, but answered with a letter that made his case.

We (“the border ruffians”) have the whole power of the Northern states to content with, single-handed and alone, without assistance and almost without sympathy from any quarter; yet we are undismayed. Thus far we have bewen victorious and with the help of God, we will still continue to conquer. … The contest with us is one of life and death, and it will be so with you and your institutions if we fail. Atchison, Stringfellow and the “border ruffians” of Missouri fill a column of each abolition paper published in the North; abuse most foul, and falsehood unblushing is poured out upon us; and yet we have no advocate in the Southern press-and yet we have no assistance from the Southern States. But the time wilol shortly come when that assistance must and will be rendered. The stake the “border ruffians” are playing for is a mighty one. … In a word, the prosperity or ruin of the whole South depends on the Kansas struggle.

Atchison’s biographer added the emphasis, which neatly encapsulate’s the ex-senator’s view of the question. He certainly wrote it to exhort and guilt his fellow southerners into action, but he believed it too. Those who invited him might never have expected Atchison to turn up -such invitations often served more as a way to request a public letter- but even if they did he had work to do and probably didn’t think Kansas could spare him. The rise of the free state movement in the fall proved Atchison right.

Daniel Woodson

To answer that threat, establishment figures in Kansas tired to take a moderate tone with their Law and Order party. They positioned themselves as moderate alternative to Atchison’s hooliganism in November. At the end of the month, Franklin Coleman killed Charles Dow. The ensuing strife put those hopes to rest. Daniel Woodson wrote straightaway to Kelley and Stringfellow at the Squatter Sovereign, who he could depend on to pass word into Missouri and Kansas had a new invasion. The territorial secretary especially asked that his friends bring “the Platte City cannon.” The letter crossed the border and came into Atchison’s hands. He read it to a mass meeting at Platte City, then took two hundred men into Kansas to join the campaign against abolitionism.

Yet Atchison’s rhetorical, and occasionally physical, militancy fell short again. When Wilson Shannon negotiated a settlement with the free state leadership at Lawrence, he and Albert Boone took the governor’s side in talking down the army that Atchison had himself helped gather. His argument then had less to do with principal than public relations. The antislavery side had maneuvered things so that if the proslavery men struck, they would appear as the aggressors. Without Governor Shannon’s blessing, withdrawn thanks to the settlement, turned an irregular militia into a lawless mob that would destroy the Democracy come election time and put “an abolition President” in power.

Horace Greeley

Not that this mattered to Atchison’s Missouri foes. Still a potential senator, they castigated him for plotting the destruction of the Industrial Luminary and voting in Kansas, the latter of which forfeited his Missouri citizenship and disqualified him. Failing reelection, the Missouri Democrat thought Atchison might forge some kind of breakaway proslavery nation. Atchison’s biographer, William Parrish, found no evidence for any of this. In the Democrat’s pages, even the convention where Atchison refused to make the affair into an election event proved his perfidy; the paper recast it as a failed attempt at the same. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune declared that the Squatter Sovereign’s masthead endorsed Atchison for president on the Know-Nothing ticket. The paper did endorse Atchison for the presidency, until he told them to stop, but always and only as a Democrat.

With all that going on, Missouri’s General Assembly again convened to elect a senator and again failed to manage the feat. Both houses of the legislature agreed that they should hold an election, but could not agree on a time for it. Moments of legislative grace like this did much to explain why these same bodies would eventually vote to strip themselves of the power to choose their senators in ratifying the Seventeenth Amendment. Atchison’s seat in Washington remained empty until 1857.

A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Two

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

 

We left David Rice Atchison, Senator from Missouri, invisible in the records. Between February second and twentieth of 1855, he drops off the map. During that time, Lewis Cass believed that Atchison toured the South soliciting support for his crusade in Kansas. Large rallies would have generated news reports, but if Atchison came to a state capital quietly and talked to fellow politicians behind closed doors, we might never know. Outside of Missouri and Washington, few people likely knew him on sight. He appears again back in Missouri, possibly in St. Louis on the twentieth and definitely in Jefferson City by the twenty-second.

Bourbon Dave arrived to disappointing news. The Missouri legislature had just voted to postpone choosing a new senator. Until that point, Atchison may have expected easy reelection. It turned out that his battle with Thomas Hart Benton had cost him the support of many Democrats, enough together with Missouri’s Whigs to deny him a clear majority. With nothing much to do in the state capital, he made for the border the next day. He had Kansas to save for slavery, after all. Elections for the legislature would take place on March 30 and he could hardly miss that. On the twenty-fifth, Atchison went into Kansas in the company of “eighty men and twenty-four wagons.” He came packing two Bowie knives and four pistols, just for himself. The proceeds of his movement, in fraud and intimidation, amounted to control of the legislature of Kansas.

Robert Morse Taliaferro Hunter (D-VA)

Atchison wrote his F Street messmate, Robert M.T. Hunter, celebrating the victory and asking for ten thousand southerners to come and consolidate their victory. If they could “take possession of and hold every acre of timber” then Kansas could never go against slavery. Missouri could swing half of the ten thousand, he believed, but the rest of the section had to do its part. If the section failed Atchison, then it would lose Missouri and, soon after, Texas and Arkansas. With them gone, the South would have to concede the territories entire to freedom.

But none of this made Atchison “a Bandit, a ruffian, an Aaron Burr.” Atchison did not, he would have his friend know, preside over a regime of violent hooliganism. Instead he saved the lives and homes of antislavery Kansans by restraining his men. Where he went, nothing violent transpired. He couldn’t claim any responsibility for other places, but he assured Hunter that only the most impudent got “the hickory.”

One must suspect Atchison of polishing up his reputation here, but the Howard Report found only violent threats where he personally went. He may, as he did when proslavery forces moved against Lawrence, have acted to restrain his followers just as he claimed. He still got the mob in position where it could do harm and we ought to understand the border ruffians as part of a movement he started, organized, and led. The two do not cancel out, but only together form a complete picture of Missouri’s senator.

Andrew Butler of South Carolina, another of Atchison’s late messamates fabulously declared

the advent of Kansas shall be to the living Atchison a Star in his varied galaxy of life.

A young friend or relation of Butler’s had just gone off to Kansas and Butler asked Atchison to look after him.

James Mason

James Mason, author of the Fugitive Slave Act, proved less effusive. He heard rumors that people in Kansas wanted Andrew Reeder deposed in favor of a more pliable governor. The proslavery side should not use their victory as an excuse to color outside the legal lines. Instead, if Reeder proved intransigent against the proslavery legislature, then they could charge him with various offenses and ask his removal. Atchison had anticipated Mason’s advice, bending Franklin Pierce’s ear on the issue through his old friend, classmate, and present Secretary of War. Jefferson Davis had his back, to the point where the papers referred to a coalition of the two men against Reeder. In the summer, Pierce fired him at the request of Kansas’ legislature.

In the mean time, Atchison’s Platte County men destroyed the Parkville Industrial Luminary for objecting to how Missouri had outright stolen Kansas’ legislature. Parrish, Atchison’s biographer, stresses that he has no evidence the man himself took part in the destruction, but also notes that the Squatter Sovereign praised the act. Given the close personal and political relationship between the brothers Stringfellow and Atchison, it seems unlikely they would have done so if Atchison objected. Instead they advised continuing the campaign against antislavery papers elsewhere in Missouri and, as they later would, in Lawrence.

Atchison’s reelection campaign also got off to an odd start. A proslavery convention met at St. Louis between the twelfth and fourteenth of July. It heard a motion that Atchison and his old law partner Alexander Doniphan, leading contenders for the Senate seat, give speeches. Atchison tried to give them a pass, aiming to keep the convention a proslavery affair rather than introduce partisanship into things. Doniphan, a Whig, followed his lead. The convention wouldn’t hear of it and appointed a committee, which Atchison again refused. The usual order of such things seems to have involved such refusals, but then one reconsidered when a committee affirmed that the convention really wanted you to speak. Maybe Atchison proved himself in earnest in the hopes that it would win him popularity enough to keep his post in the Senate, but Parrish rightly points out that he didn’t give up on Kansas after realizing that he would not again serve as senator. Rebuffed, the convention turned to the favorite pastime of nineteenth century mass meetings: drawing up a set of resolutions. Over in Kansas., the free state men did the same.

A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part One

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison looms large in the story of Bleeding Kansas. A man of his beliefs and inclinations, living just across the line in Missouri, would have probably taken part regardless of his national prominence. Though all but forgotten today, except for the false trivia about his serving as president for a day, in his time Atchison enjoyed a national following. After Calhoun’s death, he served as one of the most high-profile spokesmen for extreme proslavery politics. He had the high esteem of his peers in the Senate, who elected him president pro tempore, unanimously, during what many consider that body’s golden age. He appears in antislavery sources as a crude drunkard, probably with some justice, but Atchison also received a fine education and served ably as a lawyer and judge before his political career. In the former capacity, he worked to defend the Mormons from their hostile Missourian neighbors. We may know far more about him, except that most of his papers went up in smoke in a house fire. Thus when William Earl Parrish took Atchison as his subject, he produced a spare monograph that remains the Senator’s lone biography. Parrish leans heavily on Atchison’s ease in making political friends to underline his abilities, while not neglecting that Bourbon Dave put them to work in the service of slavery.

Parrish traces Atchison’s involvement with filibustering Kansas from its start. He joined with the Stringfellows, close friends of his, in calling for a meeting to discuss Kansas matters and plan a response to the Emigrant Aid Company in the summer of 1854, with the ink barely dry on the Kansas-Nebraska Act. That meeting formed the Platte County Self-Defense Association, which accepted B.F. Stringfellow’s Negro-Slavery, No Evil. as its manifesto. As soon as Atchison got home from Washington, he took up control of the Self-Defensives. They used their group as a model in establishing the blue lodges that spread across Missouri and joined with a separate group Parrish calls the Kansas League, which operated inside the territory. Then the Senator came into Kansas to speak at his namesake town, just before they began selling off lots.

Atchison’s organization did not elude national notice. Amos Lawrence wrote him in March of 1855, asking the Senator to rein in his followers. Lawrence made no bones about their conflicting purposes: Atchison wanted slavery in Kansas and Lawrence wanted it out. But he asked that the two sides have a fair fight of it and assured Atchison that his organiztion did not actually have a vast legion of militant Yankees bent on conquest. If his side failed, Lawrence promised that antislavery Kansans would accept a loss in good grace “but they will never yield to injustice.”

Amos Adams Lawrence

Atchison answered in April, two weeks after the legislative elections where he and his conducted one of the largest and most flagrant frauds in American electoral history. He had no regrets:

You are right in your conjecture that I and my friends wish to make Kansas in all respects like Missouri. Our interests require it. Our peace through all time demands it, and we intend to leave nothing undone that will conduce to that end and can with honor be performed. If we fail, ten we will surrender to your care and control the State of Missouri. We have all to lose in the contest; you and your friends have nothing at stake. You propose to vote or to drive us away from Kansas. We do not propose to drive you and your friends from that Territory; but we do not intend either to be voted or driven our of Kansas, if we can help it; for we are foolish enough to believe we have as much right to inhabit that country as men from New England. Neither do we intend to be driven from Missouri, or suffer ourselves to be harassed in our property or our peace, if we can help it. At least we will try and make you and your friends share some of our anxieties.

At the time of the first delegate election, Atchison stumped across western Missouri. He told the people of Weston in to do their duty, anticipating what he would write to Lawrence in the spring:

When you reside within one day’s journey of the territory, and when your peace, your quiet, and your property depend upon your action, you can, without an exertion, send 500 of your young men who will vote in favor of your institutions.

That day or shortly thereafter, Atchison ran a convention of the various blue lodges in Weston which nominated John Wilkins Whitfield as delegate.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Bourbon Dave didn’t leave things sit with that, of course. He skipped the first few weeks of the new term of Congress that began in December of 1854. Instead of Washington, Atchison went to Independence where he presided over a meeting to choose blue lodge emissaries to fan out across the South and replicate his work. Some would send men, but Atchison would take money and propaganda too. B.F. Stringfellow drew Virginia (his home state) and Maryland as his assignment. Platte and Buchanan counties would pay his travel expenses. He traveled back east with the Senator.

At Atchison’s request the Senate had elected Jesse D. Bright, a friend of Atchison’s from university days and who represented Indiana whilst owning slaves and a plantation in Kentucky, as his replacement. Bright offered to resign in Atchison’s favor, but the Missourian turned him down. He did little in the Senate, and missed sessions entirely toward the end of January. Parrish couldn’t find proof of it, but suspected that Atchison went with Stringfellow to lobby Virginia and Maryland. The Senator likely last served in his official capacity in Washington on February 2, 1855. Afterwards, he drops off the radar for about twenty days again. The papers, national and Missourian, took no note of him except for the latter complaining that he had vanished.

The absence drew some attention after the fact. Gideon Welles confided to his diary (in a volume I can’t find online) that he asked Lewis Cass after Atchison in that time. A mutual friend told Cass that Atchison had gone

on a tour through the Southern States, concocting measures with the Governors and leading men at the South to make Kansas a slave state.

In Defense of the National Endowment for the Humanities

Gentle Readers, some of you might enjoy my prose but I suspect you keep reading for the history. That history comes from a mix of original research on my part and the work of others, who guide me to documents and further work through their footnotes. A typical post begins with my reading what a historian has said about something, checking those footnotes, and then reading the sources if I can access them. In the course of that, I also come on things by chance. If you read the acknowledgements of any history book, you’ll find long lists of colleagues, archivists, and others thanked. Still more fill the citations. Every work of history owes much to unnumbered collaborators from librarians to mentors to students, friends, and family.

And they cost money. I do my research through an internet connection, but I can do that because of you. For decades the United States has used tax dollars to fund historical research in much the same way, albeit rather less generously, as it does science. Those countless historians digging through the archives often do so with government grants. If you look through the citations of any history book, except perhaps the most narrow and technical works, you will find numerous references to widely-scattered archives. Even if one has the good fortune to live near an important archive, others always remain that require travel expenses. That’s gas for your car, your airfare, hotel costs, and historians have long accustomed themselves to eating while they do all of this. Grants and other federal funds make meeting those expenses far easier, especially for the vast majority of historians who lack the considerable wealth of the few academic superstars who regularly hit the bestseller lists.

If you have ever read a history book published in the United States in the last fifty years, you have almost certainly read a work that received support from our government many times over. In addition to the historians themselves, the United States funds many of the archives used. It has funded work I do here, by way of the digitization projects which have made so many documents available to me. I lack the funds and ability to travel to Kansas or Missouri where I might find bound volumes or loose issues of those nineteenth century papers. I journey to them through the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website, which is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. If you have a local museum, university, college, historical site, or library, then your community probably has had funding from them too. The NEH has a search function you can use to find what it has done for your town.

We have a public library here with an impressive local history room, which received $6,000 in 2009. To the best of my knowledge it doesn’t have any interesting slavery-related materials, but I have had occasion to use it all the same. Last fall, my father saw a news report about the anniversary of a plane crash. He vaguely recalled the event but not any details, so one Tuesday we hopped in the car and got over to the public library, which hosts the collection. I thought we would probably have to go through the microfilm and we found the proper reel, but we no sooner did that than a librarian came over. She told us that they kept clippings from the local newspaper for aircraft disasters. In less than five minutes, we sat down in a pleasant little room with one of the gray archival boxes you see in the documentaries. We came away with almost everything we needed to know. My father wanted to know about a monument that the families had built on public land. The librarian knew a few local people who studied that kind of thing and put me on the phone with one, who gave us directions. That NEH grant paid for our afternoon’s research and facilitated a thoroughly pleasant afternoon together.

The loser of the 2016 presidential election got to be president anyway. This past week he submitted a budget which does not merely cut the NEH, but actually eliminates it on the grounds, presumably, that the NEH has never killed a sufficient number of people as to impress him with its hard power bona fides. I consider it eminently worth keeping, and vastly increasing, simply for the good work it does. You can’t put a dollar value on the greater understanding of ourselves that the humanities provide. But if one insists, then the NEH consumes such a tiny part of the four trillion dollar budget that eliminating it wouldn’t pay for a brand new aircraft carrier or some other war-winning gadget for a war we have yet to embark upon. If one feels an overriding need to slash spending for its own sake, then the president might well look at his own travel budget. His weekend jaunts to his vacation home in Florida have already cost us millions, rather more than almost every historian will ever see.

The cuts to the arts and humanities will not kill anyone, which is more than I can say for most of the cuts that Trump prefers, but they do strike to the heart of this blog’s mission. I hope you will join me in condemning them and making your opposition known.

A Closer Look at the Free State Hotel

The rules for guests at the Free State Hotel, May 10, 1856

We left the Free State Hotel a burned ruin, after attempts to level it with cannon fire and blow it sky-high with gunpowder failed. Before Samuel Jones and his proslavery army destroyed the place, it featured occasionally in the Kansas story. To Jones and men like him, the Emigrant Aid Company had built a fortress that might withstand any assault. To their free state enemies, it appears just as a large building. A stone building of considerable size could easily serve both roles. Before leaving the building behind, we should take a closer look. For that, I rely upon Martha B. Caldwell’s The Eldridge House, published in volume nine of the Kansas Historical Quarterly (PDF page 363).

The New England Emigrant Aid Company might have had trouble with its finances, but its board knew that people they sent to Kansas would need somewhere to stay while they looked for claims and built their own houses. The plan envisioned several hotels, each capable of housing three hundred people. The board entrusted Samuel Pomeroy, the same Pomeroy who Jones spoke to on the day the hotel burned, with buying sawmills and building those hotels on August 26, 1854. The first Company party arrived in Lawrence on Septemeber 15 of that year and they built the first hotel

by setting up two rows of poles a distance apart and bringing them together at the top, then thatching the sides with prairie hay. The gable ends were built up with sod and contained the doors and windows. The floor was hard sod.

Luxury had yet to arrive in Kansas, but sod floors and walls didn’t set the hotel far apart from the general run of frontier building. Community functions, including church services, took place there until it burned. Its replacement went on the same lines, but with higher walls and cotton cloth lining the interior. Nobody intended for the sod-walled tent to remain indefinitely and the Aid Company’s trustees asked Pomeroy and Charles Robinson to get moving with a proper building. By November 2, they had managed to dig the cellar out.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Construction faced many obstacles, taking nineteen months and never quite reaching a full opening. The Company often ran out of money, with Robinson informing the board that construction stopped in part for that reason at the end of November. The mill that Pomeroy had set up couldn’t keep up with the demand of private customers, so lumber had to come up the river from St. Louis. Kansas’ turmoil can’t have sped things along either. One can forgive the difficult logistics of the Kansas frontier, but Caldwell believes the men in charge also distracted themselves with land speculation and points to the Company later refusing agents the freedom to conduct private business and revoking permission from Pomeroy.

All of that meant that the first emigrant parties to come in the spring of 1855 did not find a hotel waiting for them as planned. In January, the Herald of Freedom advised them not to expect the finest lodgings but promised that Lawrence could handle people ready to rough it. Come February, Pomeroy advertised for someone to furnish and run the hotel. Soon enough, Shalor W. Eldridge took up the lease. He already ran the company’s hotel in Kansas City, the same one where Andrew Reeder would hide the next year.

By spring, the basement had walls and waited on lumber but the shortage of that material had grown so acute that it prompted a revision of plans. The Aid Company intended a timber frame building but a perpetual lack of timber made that impossible. Instead they would build in “stone and concrete.” This argues strongly that no one envisioned the Free State Hotel as a fortification, at least until the spring of 1855, but the change of plan in the context of the deteriorating Kansas situation might well have looked like one aimed at military necessity from the outside. By this point the delays had already made the hotel infamous, with Josiah Miller of the Kansas Free State editorializing against it. People passed Lawrence by or left in disgust for lack of proper accommodations and yet the Company refused to either finish the work or sell to someone who would. Flooring, pre-fabricated in St. Louis, and doors arrived in town only on August 19.

At the beginning of October, two floors stood more or less complete, internal walls going up and windows in place. That served well enough to make the building host to social events, starting with a party thrown by the Kansas Rifles boasting elaborate invitations and a hunting contest to feed the guests. Five hundred people attended despite cold, rain, and deep much. They dined on “squirrel, rabbit, prairie chicken, wild turkey, and one roast pig, together with cakes and pastries.” Not much more than a week after, Franklin Coleman killed Charles Dow and the Wakarusa War began. The hotel became a barracks and headquarters, then housed Thomas Barber’s body and the peace talks. The subsequent festivities further put it to good use.

After the Wakarusa War, construction resumed. Putting up plaster and supplying furniture took place in December. By January, rumors circulated that the Free State government might quit Topeka for a more fortified spot. Surely they could get the hotel done by February 15, but that date came and went. In March, “between twenty and thirty men were constantly employed.” Their work concluded by April 12, when the papers reported the end of construction. Caldwell quotes the Herald of Freedom on the hotel’s final form:

50 feet front, 70 feet back; three stories above the basement; contains 50 separate apartments, besides a hall in each story. The basement is divided into three rooms, each 18 feet square -two to be used as pastry and meat kitchens, the other as storehouse or cellar. The first story is 11 feet from floor the ceiling, is divided into 9 rooms; the dining hall 18 feet wide and 47 feet long; hall 9 1/2 feet wide, entire length of building; Gentlemen’s parlor, 18 feet square; Ladies’ parlor, 18 x 20; Reading Room, 18 feet square; Sitting room, 16 x 18; two bed-rooms, 9 feet square; office, 6 x 14 […] stairs leading to the roof, which is flat, and affords a fine promenade and a splendid view of the surrounding scenery. There are thirty or forty port-holes in the walls, which rise above the roof, plugged up now with stones, which can be knocked out with the blow of the butt of a Sharp’s rifle.

The Howard Committee

The military use of the building must have come to mind more and more, even if the original plan involved none of it, but the main focus of the description remains on the hotel amenities. It had outhouses “of the neatest kind” and a partially-built stable which would hold fifty horses and keep your buggy out of the rain. Brown’s paper, which ought to know considering it drew funds from the Emigrant Aid Company too, estimated the cost of the building at over $20,000. The grand opening would take place on the first of May.

Samuel Jones

Eldridge set into furnishing the hotel to meet that date, ordering pieces from St. Louis and Boston. He spent over five thousand dollars, but most of the furniture had yet to arrive when the Howard Committee did. The people of Lawrence loaned him some of their own to spare him embarrassment. I.B. Donaldson and Samuel Jones then intervened. Jones convalesced briefly under the hotel’s roof after his shooting. With all trouble then in the offing, the grand opening did not take place as planned. The Eldridges held out hope all the same, with a set of rules for guests coming off the Herald of Freedom press on May 10. Instead Lecompton’s grand jury declared the Free State Hotel a military edifice and recommended someone do something about it. A recovered Jones lied to the proslavery mob about having an order for the building’s destruction and saw it done.

“General Mitchell is guilty of having prostituted his power” Smuggling Slaves with David Brydie Mitchell, Part Four

David B. Mitchell

Parts 1, 2, 3, American State Papers (pages 957-75, PDF), Shingleton’s paper (JSTOR)

It didn’t take long for David Brydie Mitchell to put his position as Creek Agent to work for him. He received his appointment from James Monroe on November 4, 1817. By December 8, the first shipment of contraband slaves from Amelia Island had arrived there. I have to this point worked entirely from the American State Papers, but last night discovered that one historian took it upon himself to do more than cite them and move on. Back in 1973, Royce Gordon Shingleton published his version of events in the Journal of Negro History. He had access to the original papers on which William Wirt drew for his report and adds some important information, whilst also wrestling them into a coherent narrative. From him I have it that Bowen set out for Amelia Island on October 18, prior to Mitchell taking up his post as Indian agent. That suggests that Mitchell may have stumbled on a scheme already afoot and insisted on buying in, but he could just as easily have learned about his appointment well in advance and participated from the start. It seems unlikely that the plan’s financiers would have such confidence in him to agree to make good any expenses he called on them for had he just popped in at the last minute.

Either way, Erwin, Groce, & Company of Augusta and Savannah fronted Bowen the $25,000 he used to buy 110 slaves and bring them into the United States in defiance of the 1807 ban on slave importation. Those slaves, in two groups, came and stayed at the Agency for some time. During that time, Mitchell fed them and he and the other partners marked out the ones they claimed for themselves. Mitchell’s share may have come for both services rendered and from a direct investment of embezzled funds meant to support the Creek Nation.

The matter came to the attention of John Clark, soon governor of Georgia, through the Agency’s blacksmith. He found letters in Mitchell’s desk about the business and sent them on. Clark appears to have done much of the subsequent investigation. However, Shingleton’s paper clarified for me the role of General Gaines in the matter. According to him, Mitchell passed through the Agency in early December to attend a meeting of the Creek chiefs. On the return trip through, toward the middle of the month, Mitchell came back to the Agency in the company of General Edmund Pendleton Gaines. Gaines had the job of surveying the boundaries of Indian territory. On seeing all these slaves, he became suspicious. Mitchell did keep slaves he legally owned at the Agency as well, but it seems he kept the imported people separate from them and that stood out to Gaines. Mitchell, as he would when defending himself later, insisted he didn’t know anything about them. Gaines thereafter sent men to make sure those slaves didn’t conveniently vanish.

Per Wirt in the ASP, a

Captain Melvin, of the fourth infantry, states the had observed fifteen of the Africans (the choicest of those brought to the agency by Bowen) building huts and clearing land at the agency, the plantation of General Mitchell

A few days later the Inspector of the Port of Darien, McQueen McIntosh, caught wind of this. He probably found out much like the federal marshal did, when Mitchell offered to sell him some of the slaves. They must have elected governors for their subtlety in those days. McIntosh went out to the agency aiming to seize the contraband slaves and found many of them four days gone toward Alabama with Jared Groce. McIntosh set off in pursuit and overtook Groce and the slaves on the road to Alabama. Groce claimed the slaves as his own, which prompted McIntosh to arrest him. They turned back for the Creek Agency.

McIntosh employed a man named Langham to escort him, but Langham

perfidiously hurried on to the agency for the purpose of giving notice of McIntosh’s approach and intention, enabling those who had charge of the negroes there to put them out of the way.

Mitchell himself had left the agency again, putting it in the hands of his son William. Melvin tipped McIntosh off to that and led him the mile and a half to their huts. McIntosh opted not to take them out of doors in the cold, which had hit the slaves hard, but went to the younger Mitchell and told him to consider the slaves seized. Mitchell fils agreed to that without objection, but didn’t volunteer any information about other slaves. Groce had forty-seven slaves with him. That accounts for sixty-two of the hundred and ten slaves, leaving forty-eight unaccounted for. Five of those probably went off with Long as his payment for helping with the transport, leaving forty-three to slip William Mitchell’s mind.

The slaves had not forgotten their fellows. When McIntosh came for them in the morning, he learned

from the negroes [Wirt’s emphasis] that General Mitchell’s overseer had the night before supplied a great many Africans with provisions, and taken them into the woods; that Captain Melvin himself fell upon their trail, and found about fifteen in the woods, who tried to make their escape, but were apprehended, and the whole thirty were brought to the agency; Captain Mitchell then delivered up eleven small Africans (children, I presume) from the huts in the yard.

Wirt clearly means the fifteen Melvin and McIntosh found in the huts and woods, respectively. So we can account for eighty-two, ninety-three with the children. As McIntosh took them off, William Mitchell followed him down the road a few miles. McIntosh had left behind “two or three” people. I don’t know what to make of this. McIntosh may have genuinely misplaced a few people or Mitchell might have tried to hand over a few more in a desperate bid to deflect suspicion. Regardless, McIntosh came to the Creek Agency expecting to collect fifteen contraband slaves and departed with forty-one.

Discussion of all this came into the letters between Bowen and Mitchell pere that William Moore found in the latter’s desk and sent on to John Clark. Bowen feared that Groce would spill the beans and wrote that he had gotten himself worked up to the point of incoherence, so they needed to do something to shut him up. A letter from Mitchell declaring Groce a bondsman engaged in removing the slaves might do the trick.

Wirt spends the rest of his report discussing the arguments Mitchell and Bowen made in their defense and reporting on Clark’s investigation of the affair. He goes on at considerable length and with diligence, but writes little new for it. To cut his long, rather circuitous story short, the parties told improbable lies, could not keep their stories straight with one another, and none of it withstood scrutiny. He couldn’t prove, to the standards admissable in court, that Mitchell profited from the importation and actively conspired for it, but the evidence supported his having an understanding with Bowen. Even if Mitchell and Bowen didn’t have some kind of arrangement, they clearly entered into one when the slaves arrived at the agency. He concluded:

that General Mitchell is guilty of having prostituted his power, as agent for Indian affairs at the Creek agency, to the purpose of aiding and assisting in a conscious breach of the act of Congress of 1807, in prohibition of the slave trade-and this from mercenary motives.

The presidential inquiry wound down in February of 1821. Monroe reviewed the evidence, agreed with Wirt, and had Secretary of War John C. Calhoun write his pink slip.

That leaves the matter of what happened to the slaves. Wirt devotes some time to discussing whether or not responsibility for them fell to the president under new anti-slave trade laws passed in 1817 and pleads a lack of recent information on the question. According to Shingleton, eighty-eight of them passed into the hands of Georgian authorities for sale. State law required a public notice and period of delay before action, during which the Governor Rabun -Clark did not win the office until November- placed them in households around Milledgeville, the state capital, to provide for their maintenance until the waiting period ran out. They appear to have all passed into private ownership by August, grossing $34,736.18. Expenses reduced that to $27,571.82. Somewhere along the way, twenty-two of the slaves slipped through the cracks. Most probably they ended up just like the rest, but enslaved in Alabama.

Yellow and Red Strings: Smuggling Slaves with David Brydie Mitchell, Part Three

David B. Mitchell

David Byrdie Mitchell, late governor of Georgia and present Indian agent, had looked to all the world like a guilty man. Letters and sworn statements, albeit some of the latter hearsay, implicated him in a slave smuggling ring. He didn’t personally bring in contraband slaves, in defiance of the nation’s 1807 ban on importing people, but his employee at the Creek Agency did. That man, William Bowen, had written letters to Mitchell discussing the business in candid terms. Bowen got seed money from the firm of Erwin, Groce, & Company. He took that money to Amelia Island on St. Mary’s river, a well-known smuggling hot spot just outside the United States. He claimed to have gone for coffee and sugar, but finding them too expensive bought human merchandise. He took his slaves into Georgia via the St. Mary’s and Flint Rivers up to Mitchell’s agency. There they awaited sale and/or transport elsewhere, probably to Alabama Territory.

Mitchell tried to defend himself. He insisted, truthfully, that Bowen brought the slaves to the Creek Agency while he was away. On receiving news of the slaves, “a SMALL parcel of African negroes” numbering only sixty, Mitchell went back and accused Bowen of importing them. Bowen produced a fake bill of sale to prove that he bought the slaves off a privateer in Georgia, which still left him in defiance of the law. Mitchell then, he says, told Bowen that he needed to get those slaves out of the country. The Indian agent also took time in his statement (page 964) to gripe about the insufficiency of state and national laws against importation, ultimately he

reflected upon the facility with which such an order could be evaded, by just carrying them over the Spanish line, and re-introducing them; and believing, too, that the negroes were actually intended for the use of the parties interested, who, I have no doubt, are large land-holders on the Alabamaby purchase at the recent sales, and not for sale, I declined detaining them.

In Mitchell’s version, all that has come and gone. He did not detain the slaves, so they moved along into Alabama or wherever. Wirt noticed that right off, calling Mitchell out for implying that no contraband slaves remained at the agency. Instead, his explanation to the Secretary of War looked forward to future events. If this happened again, Georgia’s former governor would like advice on how to handle it. Mitchell wrote all of this in a report to the Secretary of the Treasury on the same Christmas day that Bowen wrote to him, with about sixty slaves in residence at the Agency and forty more coming.

Wirt broke it down. At the time of Mitchell’s writing, December 25, 1817, he knew

  1. That those Africans had been unlawfully brought into the United States, and that Bowen’s tale of the purchase in Camden county, from the owner of a privateer who had brought them in, even if true, would not have altered the case. He must, consequently, have known that, under the act of Congress of 1807, neither Bowen, nor those for whom he acted, nor any person claiming under them, could have any right or title whatever to those negroes or to their services.
  2. That certain mercantile houses in Savannah and Augusta were interested in them; and, if Bowen had not previously informed him, the letter of Erwin, Groce, & Co. by Colonel Morgan, and the visit of that gentlemen to the agency, could not have left him in ignorance of the fact that the house of Erwin, Groce, & Co. was one, at least, of those houses.
  3. He knew that these Africans were intended for Alabama, and to be settled on the lands of those gentlemen in that Territory.
  4. General Mitchell must have known that to carry them  to Alabama was as clear a violation of the act of Congress as to carry them into any one of the United States; for General Mitchell is a man not only of uncommon intelligence and acuteness, but, as it appears by these documents, a lawyer by profession; and his talents, which are manifest, leave no doubt that he was a lawyer of distinction.

Mitchell also tried to claim that he needed to place a bond on the slaves under a confused interpretation of Georgia law on exporting slaves clearly invented for the purpose of excusing himself. Even if that law applied, the responsibility for such bonds lay with the governor.

A business this involved has many stakeholders and they all looked to their investments. A Jared Groce, as in Erwin, Groce, & Company, took forty-seven slaves across the Creek Nation under Mitchell’s passport. James Erwin, as his father Andrew testified, had gotten notes from Bowen for half the slaves. Taking out the five slaves given to Long for his part in the affair, that matches up awfully well.

Mitchell didn’t do all his looking the other way for free, of course. A John Lambert, who worked at the agency as a gardener, swore that he fed the slaves out of Mitchell’s pantry and that he saw Mitchell, his son, Long, Bowen, and others divide up the slaves. The elder Mitchell’s “part was distinguished from the others by a piece of yellow ferret or tape tied in their hair.” John Oliphant, who had helped bring the slaves to the Agency, reported that Bowen and Mitchell gave the slaves regular examinations and that

thirty or thirty-five of said negroes had a red flannel string tied around their wrists, which the witness understood, was to distinguish General Mitchell’s from Mr. Bowen’s”

The difference in marking reflects the two consignments of people. Oliphant speaks specifically of the second group, whereas Lambert left his position at the Agency before they arrived.

Mitchell seems to have gotten his share of the slaves for more than services rendered. Rumors, deemed credible by a federal marshal, circulated that he embezzled money meant for the Creek nation to buy himself a share. That Mitchell tried to sell him some of the slaves may have put the question on the marshal’s radar. He declined unless Mitchell would write out proper deeds for them in his own name, which Mitchell refused. If they wanted that, then they should talk to Bowen. The Creek Agency had nothing at all to do with the smuggled slaves, except that Bowen proved he had not smuggled them and so held the slaves legally. If we departed all good sense and took Mitchell at his word, then that still makes him a man trying to sell someone else’s people.

“It is useless for me to deny it” Smuggling Slaves with David Brydie Mitchell, Part Two

David B. Mitchell

William Bowen, David Byrdie Mitchell’s employee at the Creek Agency, had quite the close call. He smuggled the last forty-two of his hundred slaves out of Amelia Island less than a week before the United States Navy sailed in and ended its usefulness as a depot for slave smuggling. We might expect a man who claimed that he scared so easily he risked breaking American law by taking his slaves to the Agency instead of Spanish West Florida based on rumors to take that as a lesson and get himself out of slave smuggling. If nothing else, he ought to at least stop doing it around St. Mary’s River.

That same crippling anxiety surely gripped Bowen as he wrote, on Christmas of 1817, that he heard that someone moved group of a hundred sixty contraband slaves off Amelia before the Navy arrived and they remained somewhere nearby on the mainland. We must imagine him rending his garments and weeping as he informed (page 962) Mitchell

excellent bargains could be had in the purchase of those [slaves] that were run off to the main from Amelia.

and furthermore

I would make another purchase, but my other business is too much neglected to take the necessary time to accomplish the security of them.

Also Mitchell’s friend Captain Thomas really ought to have come so he could have gotten in on those profits. Of course Bowen had handed over supervision of his smuggling operation to a Creek named Tobler, who had fake papers indicating that he had bought the slaves in Georgia. That made the trade domestic and legal, or at least someone else’s problem if he got caught.

Bowen parted company with Tobler to tend to some of that neglected business, but two men came across the Creek and his charges. Lodowick Ashley and Jason Brinson later made sworn statements on the matter. They saw Tobler in charge of the slaves and in the company of a white man, John Oliphant. Tobler informed Ashley and Brinson that he owned those forty people. That took place on December 26, 1817, the day after Bowen wrote from Drummond’s Landing.

Ashley and Brinson went to Drummond’s Landing and found Bowen still there. They told Bowen the slaves might run afoul of army movements. The army would likely have other priorities than rounding up slave smugglers, but if they blundered into a group then they might take action. Bowen tried to hire the two to go and turn the contraband slaves to a safer route. They could have their pick of the slaves so long as they made sure the rest got to the home of a Timothy Barnard or to the Creek Agency.

The witness [Ashley] observed that he should not like to be caught there with the negroes by General Mitchell; to which Bowen replied that he believed General Mitchell was his friend; and that, if the negroes were left or set down in the back part of the agent’s field, it should entitle the witness to the negro before mentioned.

Brinson confirmed all of that. Attorney General Wirt’s report doesn’t say, but it sounds like Ashley and Brinson turned Bowen down.

It might have all ended there, but Bowen sent his letter -the same letter I have quoted from- to Mitchell with Tobler. That letter found its way into Mitchell’s desk, where the Agency blacksmith. There William Moore, found it along with a bill of sale. (Mitchell, going away for a while, asked Moore to repair the desk in his absence.) Moore gave the letter to John Clark, who become governor of Georgia in 1819. Clark in turn confronted Bowen with the document. Had he written and signed his name to he incriminating latter?

To which Bowen replied, “It is useless for me to deny it”, as my handwriting is so well known;” which I [Wirt] understand to mean, “I would deny it, if I did not know that my handwriting could be so easily proved; but, since it can, it is useless for me to deny it.”

Clark insisted on a straight yes or no and got the former. Nor did Bowen recant when questioned later, which makes things look very bad for Mitchell. Asked to explain just why he consulted so closely with the Indian agent on slave smuggling, Bowen finally clammed up.

Meanwhile, Mitchell had the illegal slaves on his agency and entertained interested parties. On December 20, 1817, before the second group of slaves arrived, Tennessean Gideon Morgan, stopped by Mitchell’s at the request of some of Bowen’s financiers. He had a letter from the partners in the firm identifying him as their agent, addressed to Mitchell by name. So the men who fronted Bowen the cash to go buy slaves and smuggle them into the country knew that their slaves either had already or would soon arrive at Mitchell’s Creek Agency. Those papers don’t mention slaves, but refer tellingly to Morgan carrying out business near the Agency and then into Alabama Territory. Morgan had a letter from a General Gains -who did not know about the slaves and made it his business to expose Mitchell when he learned of them- asking Mitchell to write him a passport through Indian country.

Georgia might prove too close to prying eyes for a safe resale of slaves, but less settled and more labor-hungry Alabama would probably  look the other way.

To further link Mitchell, Morgan, and the firm of Erwin, Groce, & Company (the aforementioned financiers), his introductory letter to the agent includes this passage:

“Should he,” says the letter, “have occasion for funds or any other services in your power, you will confer a singular favor on me by rendering him any service in your power. We will accept his drafts at any sight for any sum he may think proper to draw on us for.” [Wirt’s emphasis.]

That bespeaks considerable trust in Morgan and a similar degree of confidence in Mitchell not to bleed them dry. Wirt spells it out:

The engagement in the letter of Erwin, Groce, & Co. that they would pay at any sight the drafts of Colonel Morgan in favor of General Mitchell, to any amount, is certainly calculated to suggest inquiries which it would not be easy to answer satisfactorily.

In other words, they wrote Mitchell a blank check. They would not do such a thing unless they both trusted him extremely well and expected extraordinary service of him.