The Trouble at Hickory Point, Part One

William Phillips

William Phillips

In the middle of November, the Topeka and Leavenworth conventions finished their respective business. The first drafted its constitution and called elections for ratification. The second condemned the first as treasonable and pledged its members to suppress the free state movement and support the existing laws of Kansas at all hazards. The conventions closed within days of one another. For all the violent rhetoric, political strife in Kansas had yet to claim many lives. Talk of secret military orders could fill the air, but no one had embarked on a campaign.

Alice Nichols sets the scene in Bleeding Kansas:

Hickory Point appeared, to men expert at despoliation, to hold great promise. It was a great grove of hardwood in a land hard pressed for building materials. Missourians had known of this place because Palmyra, at the southern tip of the grove, was on the Santa Fe Trail, and a few dozen serious settlers had brought their families there. Lawrence, however, lay only ten miles to the north and free-soil settlers soon predominated.

The area very much favored the free soilers, with a healthy chapter of the Kansas Legion and “Some hundred free-soil men in the community and fifteen or twenty pro-slave families.” With good timber land at stake and politics to further divide them, not everyone got on well. As William Phillips had it:

While the political sentiment arising from the slavery question had been the moving cause of all the difficulty in Kansas Territory, quarrels about claims have often been the means of precipitating them. The inefficiency of the authorities to preserve the rights of the settlers, the scarcity of courts of judicial officers, and the little confidence felt in what there was of these, prevented the people from securing their rights to their claims, or obtaining redress for any grievance upon them.

What could go wrong?

According to Franklin Coleman, he quit his Virginia home back in 1849 and made his way to Kansas via Iowa and Missouri. There he ran a hotel until September, 1855. Then Kansas called and he answered, wife and son in tow. He found Hickory Point

held by three Indianans, who occupied, partly by their own claims, but mostly as the representatives of certain friends of theirs in Indiana, who, though non-residents, claimed title by them as their proxies. Time passed on, and the absentee claimants neglected to comply with the requisitions of the ‘Squatter Laws’ thereby forfeiting their claims. Three of their claims were accordingly taken by Missourians, who learned that they were lying vacant, in November of 1854. Some few days after these claims had been entered upon, the absentee Indianian claimants arrived.

Yet violence did not erupt in November, 1854. Those concerned agreed to arbitration by a third party. Per Coleman’s narrative, which I have from Brewerton’s The War in Kansasthe arbitration committee had an antislavery majority. They decided in favor of the Missourians. Seeing good land available and both precedent and the local community in his favor, Coleman partnered with a Free State man, John M. Banks. Together they claimed their own slice of Hickory Point. They did their best to respect the privileges of the absentee they proposed to displace:

We notified this person that we had ‘jumped his claim,’ and as we did not wish to take any undue advantage of him, would give it up if he could show any legal right to the land in question.

Coleman seems very interesting in avoiding serious disputes over the land, even allowing for the natural tendency to cast oneself in the best light. The original claimant an Indianian named Frasier, might have let it go. However, he sold his claim to Jacob Branson for fifty dollars. Branson, who Nichols names a leader in the Kansas Legion, didn’t care to just let that money slip away. On learning Coleman squatted on the Frasier claim, Branson informed him of the purchase and his intention to take the land. Coleman, who knew Branson from his time in Kansas City, argued that Frasier had no rights to sell given his absentee status. He offered to put the matter before arbitration.

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