The Trouble at Hickory Point, Part Three

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Parts 1 and 2

We left Franklin Coleman and Jacob Branson in a tense meeting at Coleman’s cabin on the claim they disputed. Both men had guns in hand and made serious threats, but they ultimately agreed to settle their dispute in arbitration. This had worked out before in the area and the process did not seem, at least in November of 1854, distorted by the territory’s slavery question. A tribunal with an antislavery majority had ruled in favor of a proslavery man. Coleman and Branson’s tribunal had a proslavery majority, which

decided against my partner and myself, insomuch, that instead of allowing our claim to the whole Frasier tract, amounting to two hundred and forty acres, they awarded one hundred and sixty acres to Branson as his proportion.

The decision swung in Branson’s favor, but not completely so. Coleman complained that Branson got the timber land, but he sounds largely content. According to Coleman, Branson swore that he would mark his line and abide by it. He subsequently declined to do so. Coleman and his partner, John Banks, reminded Branson of that promise. He doesn’t mention any firearms involved in the reminder, but guns or no Branson did not take it well

He said that he did not crave our friendship, and that we should never have a single foot of the lumber which grew upon the greater part of the claim. he then stated that he had measured the entire ‘Frasier claim,’ with one of his neighbors, and found it to contain but one hundred and twenty acres-called us a set of base thieves, who had swindled him out of his rights, and with whom he wished to have no intercourse, etc.

This all makes Branson sound terrible. He agreed to arbitration, albeit after threatening Coleman and his family, got the better side of the settlement, and then ignored it anyway. Coleman naturally wants to paint himself in the best light. Branson’s and John Banks’ testimony in the Howard Report begins a year after the initial encounters, saying nothing about them. William Phillips renders events a bit differently:

The first settlers of that region were free-state men from Indiana. other free-state men, from the Western States generally, and some of them from Missouri, also settled there. After the grove had been mostly taken by the settlers, some pro-slavery men came in, took claims, and some of them jumped claims already taken. In some of the cases where these claims were invaded the persons holding them had forfeited their right to them by their absence; but in several other instances the seizure was violent and fraudulent. In the same vicinity, at the lower end of the grove, on the Santa Fe road, a town called Palmyra had been laid off, and early in the summer of 1855, a party of men from Missouri came up and ordered the settlers in the place to leave it, or they would be driven away; and serious apprehensions of violence and bloodshed were entertained. The settlers mostly kept their ground. it was with much the same spirit that the pro-slavery men who came and settled in the grove were animated. One of these men, Franklin Coleman, not only took violent possession of several claims, but stole the building materials, which had been prepared by a free-state man, from another claim, and built a house for himself with them.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

If we had a time machine to go check, we might find either version of events actually happened. Phillips puts Coleman at Hickory point around early summer of 1855. Coleman has himself present in November, 1854. They can’t both have it right. Coleman describes a generally amicable coexistence between the proslavery and antislavery men in the area. Phillips gives them “many angry bickerings.” We can judge some of this as the same events reported through different biases. Phillips doesn’t acknowledge the Indiana absentees having their claims vacated by the community. Coleman admits to jumping one. But this only goes so far. Either the neighbors generally got on despite political differences or they did not. Either Coleman stole supplies, or he did not. Phillips has Coleman’s statement, which he quotes from, but doesn’t engage on the earlier confrontation at all. He doesn’t even dismiss it as a pack of lies.

Who told the truth about Coleman and Branson? Possibly both, possibly neither. If Coleman simply invented his past difficulty with Branson, then one would expect or Phillips to challenge the story. Branson might not, as he gave his testimony to the Howard Committee before Coleman gave his own. For my part, I suspect that the conflict did happen, but that both men engaged in a degree of brinksmanship. Branson might have done worse, as the silence regarding the first clash suggests that the antislavery party had reason to avoid raising the subject, but the sources I have don’t give enough of his side to make me entirely confident on the matter.


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