Assume for a moment that you don’t know all the details of Franklin Coleman’s claim disputes with Jacob Branson and Charles Dow. Few in Kansas did, unless they lived in the Hickory Point area. But by late November of 1855, everybody knows that the free state men have a secret military order. Everybody also knows that the slavery question has turned Kansas territory in increasingly violent directions. A proslavery man straight-out killed a free state man only a month ago, in a dispute arising directly from their difference on slavery. The authoritarian territorial government and frequent election stealing, coupled with threats against the governor who tried to curb the latter, had driven many Kansans previously moderate on slavery over into the free soil camp. With proslavery men apparently running wild with official sanction, paramilitary organization clearly sounded downright prudent to some Kansans. Then another proslavery man kills another antislavery man.
Jacob Branson might have done some work to raise the mob hunting for Franklin Coleman, but he probably didn’t need to rely entirely on personal ties or his position as an officer in the Kansas Legion to get men to come and mob with him. Things in the territory had clearly gone out of control and proslavery men seemed entirely out of control. For Coleman to kill Dow just made him the next installment in a growing series of horrors. When Coleman, Buckley, and Hargis ran, it served to both prove their guilt and offered a welcome outcome, even if they’d have preferred to seize the guilty parties and do horrible things to them.
But Coleman didn’t go away, never to return. Instead, he went to sheriff Samuel Jones. Buckley swore to justice of the peace Hugh Cameron that Branson had made mortal threats against him, so the judge gave Douglas County’s favorite proslavery zealot a warrant for Branson’s arrest. Somehow, the murder of a free soil Kansan by a proslavery Kansan had turned into an excuse to hunt down a local free soil leader. Jones wasted no time getting together a posse to come serve that warrant and collect Branson.
William Phillips claims that Jones engaged in some chicanery to get his warrant:
The manner in which they had to proceed about this showed the character of the whole affair. Jones had got a commission for a justice of the peace all filled but the name; and found a man named Cameron, a recreant free-state man, of low repute, who, vain man, for the title “justice of the peace” was willing to sell what little had had of principle.
So per Phillips, and here he probably speaks for many antislavery onlookers, Jones manufactured a justice of the peace. Presumably he would have gotten that commission from Wilson Shannon, with the name handily blank, and went off to find someone who would sign it. This makes for a nice story, but seems very far-fetched. It sounds much more like a rehearsal of standard Whig complaints about Democratic patronage practices. Furthermore, Phillips has demonstrated familiarity with more facts than he admits to in his account previously. He quoted part of Coleman’s statement, but went on to insist that Dow and Coleman had no prior difficulties without acknowledging the contradiction even to cast aspersions on Coleman’s character. This seems like the kind of thing where Phillips would uncritically believe and report popular rumors.
I looked into the date of Cameron’s commission today, but except for an aging webpage that fails to cite any sources I haven’t found any details. A commission dated to late November of 1855 would make Phillips’ supposition entirely credible. I did, however, find a picture of Cameron. However he came about the justice of the peace commission, he honestly earned the title of Most Impressive Beard in Kansas.
Before this patent justice Buckley came; and, swearing he was afraid of his life for threats made by Jacob Branson, this Esquire Cameron issued a peace-warrant for the arrest of said Branson, doing so at the same time he received his commission from Jones. The next thing was to secure a posse. Coleman, it was decided, should not go; but he was unloading the pistols and guns, and making other preparations for the expedition. Before long a party of fifteen men, including Jones, Hargus, and Buckley, were ready for the expedition.
Coleman doesn’t say he went with Jones and it would make sense for him to stay behind. The others set out to make the arrest.