The Hunt for Franklin Coleman, Part Three

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Trouble at Hickory Point: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

The Hunt for Franklin Coleman: part 1, 2

We left Franklin Coleman headed for the Shawnee Mission to turn himself in to Governor Wilson Shannon for the killing of Charles Dow. His friend and claim partner, free state man John Banks, went out to find him at Mrs. Coleman’s request. She suspected that the mob which had gone around Hickory Point looking for Coleman would find him on the return trip and hang him. This all transpired in the second half of the week of November 21, 1855, though sorting out precisely what happened when presents some difficulties given the witnesses couldn’t agree on the dates or days of the week.


Before pressing on, I have one more thing to say about the delay. I have relied heavily on proslavery sources for the first part of Coleman’s story as the antislavery sources purposefully neglect it. In doing so, I missed that, William Phillips does address the issue of the delay in official action against Coleman for Dow’s murder as a factor in motivating antislavery men. Past concerns about the timeline apply all the same, and we should read Phillips with some caution here, but in the interests of fairness:

By the 26th of the month no action had been taken by the authorities, and, as the inference was that the murderers would go unpunished, a meeting of the settlers was called at Hickory Point, and assembled on the day in question. The action of the meeting was marked by no violence; they merely passed resolutions deploring and condemning the murder, and appointed a committee, whose duty it should be to take steps to bring the murderers to justice. As some of of the more indignant of the settlers were in favor of burning the houses of the murderers, a resolution was passed, condemning and deprecating such an act, even against these men.

That meeting and its resolutions will come back in a later post.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Phillips adds the story that Coleman took his family off with him the night of the killing, setting out for Missouri and only later coming back to Kansas. Banks has things otherwise, with Coleman leaving his family with his neighbors. Phillips might simply have things confused. Wilson Shannon told told George Douglas Brewerton that other proslavery families from Hickory Point fled to Missouri at about the same time. However, Shannon testifies

In the meantime, Buckley, Hargis, and Coleman -who had fled so soon as they could to escape from the band who were threatening their execution-made their way to the Executive office at Shawnee Mission, K.T., to have an interview with myself. I was absent at the time.

The last word I had of Buckley and Hargis, unless I’ve missed something, put them both still at Hickory Point. Coleman left for the governor’s protection by himself. While he might have omitted his companions to make himself sound less frightened, John Banks testified to seeing Hargis the day after the shooting. By that point he should have gone if he went with Coleman. However, subsequent testimony makes it clear that Buckley and Hargis arrived at Shawnee Mission some time prior to Coleman and Sheriff Jones setting out for Hickory Point. They must have gone there. Shannon, not present for their arrival, might just have conflated them without realizing.






The Hunt for Franklin Coleman, Part Two

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Trouble at Hickory Point: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

The Hunt for Franklin Coleman: part 1

A small note before we dig in today, Gentle Readers. I previously said I had no testimony from Josiah Hargis or Harrison Buckley regarding Coleman’s murder of Dow. I have since found a pair of affidavits elsewhere in Brewerton, but neither sheds much light on the shooting itself.

We left John Banks in the somewhat unwelcome company of Jacob Branson’s group of fifteen or so men hunting after Franklin Coleman. They had gone up to the home of Coleman’s neighbor Hargis/Hargous, where Mrs. Coleman then stayed, after searching the Coleman residence itself. Hargis, Banks, and a fellow called King went up to meet them and, one presumes, see they didn’t harm the building or Mrs. Coleman. Branson stopped Hargis for questioning, insisting that he had to know where Coleman ran off to and not believing his story about a trip to surrender himself to Governor Wilson Shannon.

Banks didn’t hear the full argument. One can’t blame him for wanting to press on clear of the mob, but he told the Howard Committee that he saw no officer of the law among them. By this point, Dow’s body had lain out on a relatively busy road for probably the whole afternoon. Coleman seems to have expected the law to reach him before a mob would. I can’t speak to just what happened to delay an official response from sheriff Samuel Jones. It puzzled Alice Nichols too. In Bleeding Kansas, she writes:

No move was made by Samuel J. Jones, Sheriff of Douglas County, K.T., to arrest the murderer. This may have been a deliberate prod to free-soil emotions; it may have been in simple keeping of territorial custom, since there had been numerous killings and few arrests; or perhaps the strongly proslavery Mr. Jones was just too busy with his duties as postmaster of Westport, Missouri, at the time, to attend to his territorial police duties. Whatever the cause, his ignoring of the murder angered free-soilers.

Nichols generally reads proslavery men with some charity, so that she finds it unusual and potentially damning suggests fairly strongly to me that malice played its part. Jones’ record back at the Assembly elections in March, where he and a band of proslavery men stormed the polls and demanded the judges of election resign at gunpoint or be killed on the spot, does not suggest the sort of impartiality one would hope for in such a case.

This delay becomes more conspicuous with a closer look at the timeline. My sources, who testified months after the fact, don’t all agree on what happened when. Nichols dates the shooting to November 21, a Wednesday. This date, I’ve come to realize, appears more consistently in the records than Coleman’s recollection of the 27th. Coleman dates his departure to the night of the shooting, right after he got warning about the Kansas Legion. Banks heard of the shooting the same evening, but did not go up to see the Colemans until the morning. This places his encounter with the mob on Thursday morning. However, Banks testifies that he started after Coleman the next morning after that. This should put him on Friday, but he testifies that he began out on Saturday. If Banks remembered the day of the shooting wrong, then Branson’s mob could have stewed for a few days. If he has the date of his encounter with them and the dates thereafter wrong, then they waited less before trying to take matters into their own hands. Banks and Coleman can’t both have it right. I suspect that Coleman might have chosen to wait until morning rather than go off alone into the night when he knew men might want his head, which would help reconcile things, but I can’t fairly call that more than speculation.

Does all of this matter? Maybe not, but the Dow killing marks a significant escalation over past violence. While it arose out of a land dispute, the principals appear not to have deeply invested themselves on the slavery question beforehand. Coleman worked, apparently easily, with free soil men. They in turn don’t seem to have found him obnoxious. While Branson and Jones had clear affiliations, Dow doesn’t appear to have joined up with the Kansas Legion. Coleman, who knew of Branson’s affiliation, pass on any suspicions to that effect. If he had them, one would expect him to do so. Here we find a pair of at least relative civilians, very much unlike Patrick Laughlin and Samuel Collins, in the somewhat unwitting process of joining in the brewing Kansas conflict. If the delay factored in, then it helped escalate matters in the previously relatively peaceful Hickory Point area. That escalation would soon have larger consequences.

The Hunt for Franklin Coleman, Part One

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Trouble at Hickory Point: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10


Franklin Coleman killed Charles Dow. He claimed self-defense. He names three of witnesses to the fatal event, his friends Moody and Hargis and his “enemy” Wagoner, but neither of them gave an account that I’ve yet found. Branson’s testimony also names all three as witnesses. What does one do after killing a person on the Kansas frontier? Coleman went home and told his wife. He informed her, and later George Brewerton, that he aimed to give himself over to the law for trial from the start.

Coleman left Dow’s body in the road, where anyone could see. Eventually, Jacob Branson took charge of the body and funeral. Had things ended there, the affair would warrant little more than a footnote or two in most histories. Instead, in the evening after the killing, and likely shortly after the removal of Dow’s body

several persons came to my house, and advised me, for fear of the Free State secret military organization-of which, as I have before mentioned, Branson, Dow’s friend was one of the commanders-to leave the neighborhood. I at first declined to go, stating, as a reason for so doing, that such an act might be construed into a desire on my part to elude the officers of justice. they then suggested that I should deliver myself up to Governor Shannon, or some other fit person, at a distance from the scene of difficulty, where they believed that I would not only be in great personal danger but have no chance to obtain an impartial hearing.

Coleman left that night, setting out for Shawnee Mission. It seems before the visit he expected the sheriff to come out for him. Before departing, Coleman left his wife and child with in the care of Buckley and Hargis.

The same evening as Coleman received his visitors, his partner John Banks heard of the killing. Illness prevented his going at once, but he called the next day.

Just as I was starting I stopped in a neighbor’s house, and there were some fifteen or sixteen men came in from around, and asked me if I knew where Coleman was; I said I did not, but had heard that he had gone down to the governor to give himself up. They then started off and went in the direction of Coleman’s house, saying they were going to hunt Coleman, though they did not say what they were going to do with him. They did not say anything about having any legal authority to arrest Coleman.

Banks went on with the group, which joined another of similar size who came up from around Branson’s house. They searched the claim while Banks pressed on to Hargis’, where Coleman’s wife had gone.

I was there some half an hour, and on looking up towards Coleman’s, I saw these men there yet. They were all armed, principally with Sharpe’s rifles, some with common rifles. Mr. Branson was among them. Mr. Hargous and I walked over to a grocery, about a quarter of a mile off, and were there a little while, and I looked up towards Coleman’s house again, and saw these men about half-way between Coleman’s and Hargous’s, going towards Hargous’s. Some ten or fifteen stopped between the two houses, and the rest went on to Hargous’s house.

A potential lynch mob marching toward the home of a friend of their intended victim, which then sheltered the victim’s wife, suggests only dire outcomes. They must have thought Coleman inside and might elect to punish Hargous for sheltering him, or failing that take his wife as a hostage or worse. Hargous, Banks, and a man named King went back to the house. The mob turned to meet them, passing King and Banks through.

Hargous was detained a good while by these men, about four or five rods from the house. I heard them talking to him as I stood in the door. I heard Branson ask him if he knew were Coleman was. Hargous said he did not know where he was then, but he knew he had started to the Shawnee Mission to give himself up to the governor.

Branson didn’t buy it. He and Hargis argued. Banks missed most of it, but caught Hargous saying

Gentlemen, you have got me in your power, and you can kill me, but you cannot make me tell a lie.

The Trouble at Hickory Point, Part Ten

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9


After a year of on-again, off-again tension over competing land claims, Franklin Coleman killed Charles Dow. He claimed self-defense. Dow had a piece of iron for a wagon and came at him with it at the culmination of their troubles. We have only Coleman’s word on it. Where other accounts delve into their prior tensions, Coleman’s account seems fairly accurate. However, Coleman told George Brewerton that he came on Dow by surprise on the road on the occasion of their fatal meeting. William McKinney, speaking to Coleman just before the event, told the Howard Committee that he saw Dow on the road passing by. McKinney added that he tried to keep Coleman back from the road, which suggests he suspected what would come. Maybe he feared drastic action from experience with Coleman’s temper. Maybe he could see it on the man’s face.

McKinney didn’t see the shot fired:

They both went off down the road together towards Coleman’s house. When they got opposite his house, I heard a gun fired down there, and I looked and saw the smoke of the gun, and Mr. Coleman throwing the gun on his shoulder. I observed to my son, “I wonder what Coleman is shooting at.”

It seems that McKinney could have seen things had he looked the right way at the right time. He could spot Coleman in the distance, some three to four hundred yards, and understand his motions after the gun’s report. However, McKinney gave his testimony to a secret session and that suggests he felt some fear for himself that might have prompted him to hold back. McKinney’s son Nicholas gave testimony, also in secret session, and confirmed his account. He goes a step further than his father and says outright that Coleman went after Dow on the road.

I have found one other eyewitness, but she can’t tell us much we don’t already know. Almina Jones saw the shot fired and Dow fall. She put the men at twenty to twenty-five yards apart when Coleman fired, which would fit with Coleman’s story that he and Dow argued, then parted, and then Dow started back for him with the wagon skein. But she neither saw Coleman go off to see Dow nor came close enough to get the gist of their confrontation before the shot. She names Mr. Hargous, Coleman’s neighbor, as a fellow witness but he doesn’t seem to have left an account for posterity.

If this all counts very murky, it should. One might not prove it in a court of law, but it seems that Coleman deliberately sought out Dow. He might have aimed to kill the man from the moment he set out from McKinney’s or the two might have mutually worked one another up to blows. Contrary to his own account, where Coleman comes off so consistently in favor of compromise and negotiation that it raises eyebrows, he might have said something that provoked Dow to wheel on him. In the politically charged Kansas environment, with both sides feeling increasingly embattled, even a far clearer situation might give ample ammunition to both sides. With one so ambiguous as Coleman’s killing of Dow, partisanship seems inevitable.

South Carolina’s First Nullification


John C. Calhoun

One simply can’t run a country according to the plan that the nullifiers and states rights men advocated. If a state can overrule federal law on its own say-so, then federal law loses its force. With federal law impotent, the federal government becomes irrelevant and soon dissolves. Some vestiges might remain, but as a practical matter one reduces the Union to a collection of smaller, quarreling nations. Given many states had neither the population nor the economy to manage easily on their own, they would then likely consolidate into somewhat like-minded blocs. These groups would probably not repeat the same mistakes as the previous consolidation. Some nullification proposals foresaw essentially that, most notably the idea that the United States should try having two presidents with veto power over one another. One would come from the North, the other from the South. The Southern president would thus keep the Union forever safe for slavery.

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

The criticism holds true for matters large and small, in principle. We could leave things there, but doing so would require us to ignore the realities of the past. Certainly one could not expect a nation to endure large-scale acts of nullification. If a state or seven rejected losing the presidency or the program of a victorious party in national elections, that more obviously strains the Union and puts nineteenth century democracy in doubt than if it nullifies on a smaller scale. As a practical matter, many Northern states nullified the Fugitive Slave Act. Wisconsin took the extra step of doing it outright, leading to the Taney Court ruling that states had no power to nullify federal laws in Abeleman vs. Booth. Therein, the Court made much the same argument in contemplating the assertion that a state court could interfere with and prevent the operation of federal law:

It would seem to be hardly necessary to do more than state the result to which these decisions of the State courts must inevitably lead. It is, of itself, a sufficient and conclusive answer, for no one will suppose that a Government which has now lasted nearly seventy years, enforcing its laws by its own tribunals and preserving the union of the States, could have lasted a single year, or fulfilled the high trusts committed to it, if offences against its laws could not have been punished without the consent of the State in which the culprit was found.

The rebelling states, of course, would without a trace of irony cite the practical nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act by the North as one of the injustices which drove them to rebellion. They correctly understood the tradition of states rights rhetoric: the issue, however contested, did not go our way and therefore we claim the right to declare ourselves winners. Obviously no nation could let such a thing stand and call itself democratic even by nineteenth century terms. Yet the United States did eventually let it stand. The nation did not spend vast sums and tie up the military to do as it had done to Anthony Burns a second time. Before that, it accepted nullification of a kind from South Carolina. I draw this account from Freehling’s Prelude to the Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina 1816-1836.

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

South Carolina’s cotton flowed out of the nation through Charleston and a few other lowcountry ports. Those ports thus naturally had ships in and out regularly, if nothing on the volume that New York, Baltimore, Boston, or New Orleans did. Like any functioning port, Charleston saw ships from diverse places. Many of its regular visitors hailed from the North and abroad. These ships had the usual complements, including some black seamen. Those seamen could roam freely about Charleston. To Charleston’s whites, that meant that northern blacks tainted by abolitionism could speak to their slaves. Worse still, Haitian seamen could walk free and tell anybody who asked about their country’s successful slave revolt. All of this in a region of the state where enslaved blacks vastly outnumbered whites. To further complicate matters, many enslavers from Haiti had passed through Charleston when fleeing the revolution. In the 1820s, they had had direct, personal knowledge of what a real slave uprising looked like. If they missed the significance, than the fact that Denmark Vesey used Haiti as an example of what his conspiracy could achieve would have highlighted it to even the dullest wits.

Charleston hung Denmark Vesey on July 2, 1822. Before he died, he brought the black seaman “problem” further into the limelight. With the lowcountry’s enslavers anxious about revolts, feeling embattled by the recent debates over the fate of slavery in Missouri, and a fresh uprising narrowly averted, they felt they had to do something. To answer the dire menace to their lives and their property in lives, South Carolina’s enslavers passed a law that required every black sailor locked away in the town jail for the duration of his ship’s sojourn in Charleston. Thus Charleston imprisoned the free to secure the enslaved at the end of the year.

All of that worked out just fine for Charleston’s fretting whites and just terribly for its free black visitors, precisely as intended. However, it put South Carolina on the wrong side of the United States and the United Kingdom. The two nations had a treaty granting their sailors free access to one another’s ports. This treaty, declared the Constitution

shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

South Carolina passed a state law to the contrary. The UK protested to the Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams. Freehling says that Adams might have gotten Charleston to ignore the law for a time. By the middle of the next year, Haitian and other black seamen moved about Charleston freely once more. This did not suit Charleston’s still-anxious citizens. They arranged a mass meeting in late July, forming the South Carolina Association to supervise enforcement of all South Carolina’s laws controlling black lives. The association named standing committees to do that work, which they soon commenced.

That enforcement led in short order to a court case. Charleston’s sheriff seized a free Jamaican black named Harry Elkinson and locked him up. Elkinson protested and sought habeas corpus proceedings, which he got. Supreme Court Justice William Johnson found the seaman law in violation of treaty and therefore invalid. However, Johnson held that he couldn’t order Elkinson’s release as his power extended only to federal prisoners. The South Carolina Association, for its part, declared the state sovereign and insisted that it had not surrendered its power to suppress revolts. Any act designed toward that end rightfully fell within its power, not the capacity of the United States. The state had not yet articulated a full-blown theory of nullification as Calhoun would later invent, but in pleading its case Benjamin F. Hunt and Isaac E. Holmes laid out an important precursor. Johnson didn’t buy it and laid out a strong refutation in his opinion:

Where is this to land us? Is it not asserting the right in each state to throw off the federal Constitution at its will and pleasure?

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

Johnson’s opinion provoked a firestorm in South Carolina. If the state could not pass laws to govern its slaves and keep them in slavery, then how could it retain slavery at all? All Haiti’s alleged woes came back to a distant government meddling with slavery. Now they received the same at the imperious hands of a Supreme Court justice. The state ignored the decision and continued jailing sailors. John Quincy Adams kept getting protests from the United Kingdom. He reached out to the Attorney General, William Wirt, for an opinion on the law. Wirt came down firmly against it. In July of 1823, Adams forwarded Wirt’s argument and the protests to South Carolina, asking the legislature to fix the problem.

Though South Carolina’s legislature could not settle on what tone to take, they agreed on the substance. The Senate held that “self preservation”

will never by this state, be renounced, compromised, controlled, or participated with any power whatever.

The House affirmed

The measures directed towards colored persons brought within the territory of this state, are simply part of the general system of domestic police, defensible as such, and absolutely necessary to ensure the safety of the citizens.

In other words, John Quincy Adams could best repose Wirt’s opinion and the British protests in some area perhaps well-suited to the cultivation of mushrooms but otherwise ill-disposed to agriculture. The state acted accordingly, continuing to imprison sailors. Washington and London could protest all they like, but South Carolina did as it willed. London could not perhaps force the issue short of a war. Washington chose not to and let the nullification stand.

Here, for the first time, the state grappled with the issues of the later Nullification Crisis. South Carolina cited the same reserved power of the states to nullify a treaty in the name of internal security that it would later call upon to nullify a federal law. In both cases, its constitutional thinkers discovered this power to save slavery. Victory in the first instance spurred South Carolina onward. If nullification worked once, it could work again.

The Trouble at Hickory Point, Part Nine

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

When Franklin Coleman saw Charles Dow and Jacob Branson coming up, Dow for the second time, on the morning of November 27, 1855, he noticed the gun in Branson’s hand and possibly mistook a wagon skane in Dow’s for another. Coleman didn’t need more of a sign than that to suspect they meant him harm, given past difficulties. Coleman told George Brewerton that he made at once for the home of Mr. Hargis. (Hargous in the Howard Report.) There Coleman

informed him of my being ordered off, and begged him, as I did not wish to trespass upon my neighbors, to come to my house that afternoon and assist me in establishing the dividing lines between his (Hargis) and my claim; this he promised to do. I then armed myself with a double-barrelled fowling-piece, loaded with buckshot, intending upon going back to my work, to defend myself if again interfered with

Coleman then returned to Hargis’ house, where he hoped to join up with a proslavery man called Buckley and a few others. Coleman told Brewerton that he aimed to resolve the line between his claim and Hargis’. He gives the strong impression that if he had a few dependable proslavery men on hand should Dow and Branson appear, Coleman would be glad of it. On his return to the Hargis house, Coleman got word from Buckley that Hargis had gone off “to a whisky-store” half a mile away.

Buckley suggested that he and Coleman not wait, since Hargis would know to come up to Coleman’s house. Buckley then took his own advice, leaving Coleman on his own. Coleman doesn’t phrase things as clearly as one might hope here, but it seems he let Buckley go off out of sight and then realized that left him alone with people who might mean him harm in the area. So he took off after Buckley. His path took him past the home of William McKinney. They had a chat about how McKinney’s would soon have his house finished. With Buckley not in evidence, Coleman turned around for home. He

continued on for about a hundred and fifty yards, or thereabouts, when I entered the Santa Fe trail; as I did so, I came most unexpectedly upon Dow, who was walking along the road, in the same direction as that in which I was going.

Italics in the original. I don’t know if we should believe them. McKinney has Dow clearly visible on the trail when Coleman left him:

As Mr. Dow got opposite the house, Mr. Coleman was standing at the corner of the house. He left and went out towards the road where Dow was passing. I called to Mr. Coleman to hold on a little, that I wanted to see him. He observed, I will see you again this evening. They both went off down the road together towards Coleman’s house.

It sounds more like Coleman went out to meet Dow than came on him by surprise. Either way, it seems Dow saw Coleman and waited for him to watch up. Coleman says Dow

was unarmed, with the exception of a wagon-skien-a piece of iron some two feet in length, and a most dangerous weapon in the hands of so powerful and determined a man as Dow is represented to have been.

Coleman would not require accounts of Dow’s build, since he knew the guy. Brewerton must have added that on his own. A two foot length of iron, however thin, could do considerable damage even if wielded by a person of modest build.

Dow then entered into conversation with me about the claim difficulty, and continued to use hard language upon this subject until we had walked together as far as my house, which stands off the Santa Fe road about 75 yards. We must have gone side by side for some 400 or 500 yards. During this conversation I urged him to compromise the matter, as I did not wish to hav eany trouble with my neighbors. When we got opposite my dwelling, I moved off the road to go towards home. Dow walked on his way for a few paces, and then turned around and re-commenced quarrelling, high words passed, and Dow advanded upon me with the wagon-skien, which he was carrying in his hand, raising it as he did so, in an attitude to strike. I levelled my gun as he came on, brought it to bear upon him, and pulled the trigger; the cap exploded but not the charge. Dow then paused, and turned as if to go away. Seeing this, I put my gun upon the ground, which Dow had no sooner perceived than he faced towards me, and again advanced upon me with the skien, at the same time crying out, with an oath ‘You’ve bursted one cap at me, and you’ll never live to burst another;’ hearing this, and believing that my life was in danger, I again levelled my gun and fired upon him, as he came rushing on; the shot struck him (as far as I have since ascertained) in the neck and breast, and he fell-dead.

The Trouble at Hickory Point, Part Eight

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

We left Franklin Coleman, a Mr. Moody, Charles Dow, and Jacob Branson on the portion of Coleman’s claim that Dow disputed. According to Branson, Dow had gone up and told Coleman that he and Moody stood on land that did not belong to either of them and received a rebuff that prompted him to collect Branson for a second confrontation. In his testimony to George Brewerton, Coleman leaves out the first meeting with Dow on November 27, 1855. He did recount it in his testimony to the Howard Committee:

Mr. Dow came up to me one day about ten o’clock, and said he wanted me to stop cutting timber. I told him I was inside of our conditional lines, and was not interfering with his claim. I showed him I was one hundred and fifty yards inside of my claim, according to the conditional lines. He said he had never made any lines himself, and that, according to the Shawnee reserve line, he would be thrown over on my claim some two hundred and fifty yards further than by the conditional line. I told him I had been conversing with the surveyor who had run the reserve line, and was well satisfied that it would have nothing to do with the government survey, and that the laws of my country protected me in holding that portion of my claim.

We have heard that story before in every detail except Coleman having the surveyor affirm that the reserve line would not impact local claims. According to Coleman, Dow took this all remarkably well:

He swore he did not care a God damn for the laws of the country, and that I should quit cutting timber on that part of the claim. He said “God damn you, you think you will get all the timber off the claim and let me pre-empt the bare rocky land.”

Unless you grew up in a fairly orthodox religious environment, the potency of Dow’s curse probably doesn’t come across. At the time it probably sounded much more like one of our premium four letter words than a mid-range imprecation.

Coleman tried for compromise. If Dow had the line he wanted, Coleman would have no timber at all. He had a wife and child to support and required the wood for that. Dow, moved as before by the spirit of charity,

said he did not care a God damn; that I had made myself very meddlesome at the time he had taken possession of the claim he then occupied.

Dow referred to Coleman’s looking into just who turned the house on William White’s claim the day before Dow jumped it. When asked, Dow denied knowledge of the arson but then refused say if he knew who had burned the place. I think we can all understand why Dow found this irritating. An arsonist, or an accomplice to arson, hardly wants someone to find him out no matter how obvious he makes it.

Dow and Coleman parted the first time that morning without bloodshed, but an hour later Dow returned with his wagon skane and an armed Jacob Branson to, according to Coleman and Branson alike, continue the dispute.


The Trouble at Hickory Point, Part Seven

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

We left Franklin Coleman down at Hickory Point with things starting to heat up. His free state neighbors, Jacob Branson and Charles Dow, had redrawn their claim lines. The latter did so very much to Coleman’s disadvantage, putting him out of his timber land. Coleman had worked that land since the spring and built a lime kiln on it. He thus had an investment in it twice over. Coleman had also heard increasingly dire rumors that Branson and Dow had designs on his life. Then, on the morning of November 27, 1855, Coleman and a free stater named Moody spotted Branson and Dow coming up to them at the kiln. Both men had rifles.

Coleman didn’t wait to see what Branson and Dow meant to do with the guns, as he told Brewerton:

I immediately left my claim without waiting for them to come up, for it was my belief that they intended to kill me, and were then coming upon me with arms in their hands for that purpose. Moody, being a Free State man, remained at his work. Moody has since informed me that on coming up they ordered him from the claim, stating that they would not hurt him ‘this time,’ but if they caught him there again, they would do him an injury; they furthermore said, that they ‘just wanted to see me, and asked Moody where I was?’

They would like to see Coleman with their bullets, of course. I don’t have any testimony from Moody and so must take Coleman’s word for it, but this sounds in keeping with Branson and Dow’s behavior to date. Branson’s own account begins this morning, a bit before he and Dow went up to Coleman, denying all prior difficulties with Coleman:

there was no previous difficulty between Dow and Coleman, before the one that took place the morning Dow was killed. Coleman and Dow used to speak together when they met. On the morning of the 21st of November last, Dow and I went down on his claim to set a log heap on fire, to burn some lime, which we did; and after remaining a while with him, I returned home, and Dow went towards the blacksmith shop to get a wagon-skane mended.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Branson or Coleman has the date wrong, I suspect the former given the date reports appear in the Herald of Freedom. I chalk that one up to the foibles of memory. However, considering Branson’s outright denial of past trouble between him, Dow, and Coleman in the face of outside testimony to the fact from others, we should treat his testimony with care. Branson continues:

About half an hour after I left him, he [Dow] came back to my house, and complained that Coleman and Moody were on his claim cutting timber. He asked me to go down with him, as Coleman refused to leave when he had told him to go. I did so, and took my gun along; but Dow refused to take his with him, although I endeavored to get him to do so. He went back with me with nothing but this skane in his hand.

Branson describes the skane as a piece of iron between twelve and fourteen inches long, “very thin and very much work […] not much more than an eighth of an inch thick.” Coleman may have mistaken it for a gun in the distance, especially seeing Branson with his own weapon. Branson could also have lied about it.  If Moody ever gave his own testimony, I haven’t found it. Dow might have had something to say, but he didn’t make it through that day alive.


The Trouble at Hickory Point, Part Six

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Franklin Coleman told the Howard Committee that the official survey lines a few miles away gave reason for some of his neighbors to redraw their claim borders. Jacob Branson and Charles Dow both revised their boundaries, to the detriment of Coleman and a neighbor of his named Hargous. Branson’s campaign to have friendly free state men settle about had brought in Dow, possibly at the low cost of burning out William White’s claim, and it seems likely that some of those friends joined Branson in the local chapter of the Kansas Legion:

In July or August of 1855, a branch of the Kansas Free State secret military organization was established among the Free State settlers around Hickory Point. Branson being their commander. Not long after this, I learned that he had not only threatened to use this force to put down and set at defiance the Territorial laws, but had stated, on several occasions, that he had an old grudge to settle with me-that he would like to meet me-that I should not live in the territory, but that he would have his revenge before I quitted it, &c. It was also reported to me, some four days previous to my rencounter with Dow, that he (Dow), had declared that ‘he would beat my d—-d brains out, if I went into the grove’ -on my own claim- ‘to cut timber.’ I was also warned by a Free State man, a friend of mine named Spar, ‘that my life was in danger from the ill will harbored against me by Branson and Dow.’

Branson had friends who shared at least a rhetorical commitment to violence with him. He and Dow had a beef with Coleman. Furthermore, Coleman’s claim adjoined Hargous’ on the north and he too had fallen prey to the border revisions Branson insisted upon. The Kansas Legion officer went out to settle up with Hargous before things degenerated further with Coleman. According to the latter’s Howard Committee testimony:

Branson went to Hargous, where he was at work on his claim with some five or six men, Dow being one of them. They threatened him and prevented him from cutting timber on his claim, so far as they claimed.

Coleman didn’t state it as clearly as he could, but from his use of the plural in referring to Branson and those threatening Hargous, it seems that Branson went out with five or six friends, Dow included. They came on Hargous alone and laid down the law. He had to imagine they would soon come for him, especially with the rumors he heard of Branson and Dow’s designs on his life.

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

The revision of Dow’s claim moved the line two hundred fifty yards into what Coleman considered his own. He operated a lime kiln on the disputed land and had used it and cut timber there for some time previous without controversy, but if Dow and Branson required a new casus belli then they had one.

Coleman told Brewerton

“On, or about the 27th of November, 1855, between 11 and 12 o’clock, A.M., I was at work making a lime-kiln, on my claim, in company with a young man named Harvey Moody.-Moody is a Free State man-I had been busy there since early in the morning, as I had been for several days previous. Dow came to the place where we were working; he was alone, and apparently unarmed. He quarrelled with me about my claim-said he intended to stop our working there, and after making several threats left. I continued on with my work. In a short time after this visit from Dow, Moody called out to me, ‘Here comes Branson and Dow.’ On looking up I saw them approaching, armed with Sharpe’s rifles. Both Moody and myself were entirely unarmed.

The Nullification Crisis and Slavery

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Once upon a time, South Carolina defied the national government. It declared her rights as a state and struck down a federal law, daring Andrew Jackson to come down and make something of it. The state even tried to raise an army to meet the one Jackson intended to send. Most of the Confederacy’s latter-day boosters don’t know about the affair. Now and then, however, one does find someone aware of history before April of 1861. They will trot out the story of the Nullification Crisis as proof positive that the South (even though only the dominant faction in South Carolina went all-in with nullification) had grievances with the North unrelated to slavery, usually with immediate reference to the tariff.

I don’t propose here to dissect the tariff issue in detail. Others, notably Craig Swain and Andy Hall, have done a good job of that and I don’t yet feel competent to add to it. But I have made my way through William W. Freehling’s Prelude to the Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina 1816-1836. I have not yet read the other modern treatment of the event, Richard Ellis’ The Union At Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States’ Rights, and the Nullification Crisis. I have, however, learned that Ellis agrees with Freehling on the central point that even back in the 1830s, South Carolina launched a fleeting rebellion to save slavery. Both treatments thus depart from prior historians who insisted that in Nullification times, South Carolina had a cause pure and divorced from slavery. My own high school history class followed the older school, to the point where in younger and more ignorant times I once used the argument from Nullification myself.

The intricacies of constitutional theory invented in the late 1820s to justify nullification, a revolutionary step in itself, could probably make for a dozen or more posts. Freehling devotes his longest and most difficult chapter to them. It makes for demanding reading even if one has a strong interest in the subject. The chief primary source, John C. Calhoun’s then-anonymous South Carolina Exposition and Protest (PDF), doesn’t help matters much as the South Carolina legislature did some heavy revising of Calhoun’s text to incorporate multiple different theories of nullification. One ends up with a document somewhat at odds with itself. I may dig into all of that in the future, but today I have a more practical approach in mind.

The argument goes that South Carolina, which the arguer often conflates with the entire South, opposed a high tariff. Sure enough, the United States passed a very high tariff in 1828. Southerners did protest. South Carolina’s congressmen voted through those rates, so one might at once dismiss them as hypocritical. But on the contrary, South Carolina’s representatives voted as they did intending to destroy the bill. They ensured that it would include duties injurious to manufacturers, with Freehling listing high rates on raw wool and molasses in particular as aimed at northern industry. This would, they hoped, separate those manufacturers from the others and turn enough votes to defeat the whole bill. South Carolina bet wrong, finding that enough northerners voted for lower rates on the targeted goods to render the bill acceptable, if imperfect, to the manufacturers that they hoped to turn.

George McDuffie (D-SC)

George McDuffie (D-SC)

The argument continues, tactical blunders aside, that Southerners understood the tariff as picking their pockets to subsidize the development of the North. It didn’t clearly do so, as Crag and Andy show, but they certainly believed that. The popular argument of the time, articulated by George McDuffie on the floor of the House, held that the tariff demanded Southerners give away the proceeds of forty bales of cotton to the taxman out of every hundred they grew.

Here we hit on the central difficulty of taking anti-tariff politics independent from slavery: the enslavers didn’t grow that cotton. Their slaves did. South Carolina’s upcountry, more so than other states, felt the pinch of the depression after the War of 1812. A combination of poor access to credit, even by early nineteenth century American standards, and overextension that came back to haunt the upcountry cotton magnates. They had a great deal of debt taken on in an era of high cotton prices which they had to repay in a time of lower prices. But their objection boils down to the fact that the tariff would cut into the profits they stole from their enslaved labor force. How could anyone understand this as a cause independent from slavery, short of simply not reading or not thinking about it at any length, I don’t know. Rather we have here a clear, specific grievance that arises from and depends upon slavery. Maybe a farmer in Illinois or Maine could have a tariff complaint untainted by human bondage, but not the cotton planters in the South’s most enslaved state. A commercial grievance did not necessarily make for a slavery grievance, but in South Carolina one had precious little commerce that didn’t either arise from or directly serve slavery.

One could argue, if rather selectively, that South Carolinians did not understand the tariff issue as deeply connected to slavery, or at least to proslavery politics. They had a straightforward financial crunch they wanted out of and saw the tariff making it worse, even if their business involved stealing lives and labor. Here too we soon find ourselves confounded by facts. In this case, however, we need to understand a bit more about the South Carolina economy in the early nineteenth century.

Most everyone probably remembers that one could only profitably grow cotton, even with slave labor you could torture into higher yields, along the coast and on the Sea Islands. There enslavers grew long-staple cotton. There, in the swampy lowcountry, South Carolina got its start. In addition to cotton, Carolina enslavers collected the fruit of slave labor on massive rice plantations. Rice required swampy land to grow, something in short supply in most of the upcountry. then Eli Whitney changed the world with his cotton gin, making short-staple cotton a profitable crop in the upcountry and across the Lower South. This turned the inland South from a land of timber stands and wilderness into the richest section of the country. The expansion of short-staple cotton naturally began in South Carolina.

The two cotton fibers, however easily confused, supplied different markets. Long-staple cotton went into luxury goods like lace. Short-staple cotton went into most everything else. Advances in processing made it look briefly like upcountry cotton might force sea island strains out of the market, but improvements in production had mitigated against that and made the years immediately before Nullification relatively comfortable and prosperous for lowcountry enslavers whether they grew rice or luxury cotton. One would not expect them to lead an antitariff crusade in such an environment. In that role, we would expect the upcountry men feeling the squeeze. Yet within South Carolina most of the leading nullifiers hailed from the lowcountry. Clearly they had more than the bottom line on their minds.

The lowcountry’s great fear came in the horrifying specter of debating slavery. The nation’s tiny antislavery movement had sent its first petitions to Congress and the lowcountry enslavers, vastly outnumbered by their human property, believed that discussion of slavery had reached the slaves who took part in Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy. If they did nothing to stop discussion, then their slaves might rise up and murder them in their beds. They had already taken steps in that direction through various vigilance measures in and around Charleston, but a series of fires and rumors of other conspiracies kept them in a state of keen paranoia. Thus they felt they must silence slavery debate forever, for their own wealth and safety and decided they could best manage that by declaring Congress had no power over their domestic institution. Through social connections and shared investment in slave property, they spread their ideas into the upcountry.

Why not just say they set out to defend slavery? In the early 1830s, endorsement of slavery qua slavery lacked the cachet it would later have. A gentleman should hope that at some indeterminate date in the future, slavery would magically end. Until then, he just had to make do with the terrible burden of a fortune beaten, raped, and stolen from the bodies of black Americans. In this way, enslaving constituted a necessary evil. Arguments for the positive good of slavery, though in development, had yet to sweep even South Carolina.

Allow me to close with some words from the nullifiers themselves on the nature of their crusade. Freehling quotes the May 12, 1830, Winyaw Intelligencer:

It is not, it ought to be understood, that the Tariff is only one of the subjects of complaint at the South. the Internal Improvement, or general bribery system, and the interference with our domestic policy-most especially the latter-are things which … will, if necessary, be met with something more than words.

Looking at the justification for internal improvements in the Constitution’s General Welfare Clause, Robert Turnbull argued

these words “general welfare” are becoming every day more and more important to the folks, who are now so peaceably raising their cotton and rice, between the Little Pedee and the Savannah. The question, it must be recollected, is not simply, whether we are to have a foreign commerce. It is not whether we are to have splendid national works, in which we have no interest, executed chiefly at our cost. … It is not whether we are to be taxed without end. … But the still more interesting question is, whether the institutions of our forefathers … are to be preserved … free from the rude hands of innovators and enthusiasts, and from the molestation or interference of any legislative power on earth but our own? Or whether, like the weak, the dependent, and the unfortunate colonists of the West-Indies, we are to drag on a miserable state of political existence, constantly vibrating between our hopes and our fears, as to what a Congress may do towards us, without any accurate knowledge of our probable fate, and without a hope of successful resistance.

Thompson Player, an upcountry man, agreed that the tariff

is only preparatory to ulterior movements, destined by fanatics and abolitionists to subvert the institutions and established policy of the Southern country, to gratify their capricious and pretended charities.

Robert Barnwell held that

there are some changes in the very forms of our domestic policy, to which they could scarcely persuade us quietly to submit. And there are no changes, however vital and subversive of our most absolute rights, which fanaticism and misguided philanthropy would not attempt.

William Preston said it more bluntly still:

the slave question will be the real issue-All others will be absorbed into it. The hypocrisy of the north & the fears of the South will combine to bring us to the same result, and will Louisiana cling to her sugar and give up her negroes?

All quotes from Freehling.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

I could go on. I may still in the future. But I can think of no better spokesman for the nullifiers than their leading ideologist, a fixture of Carolina politics and figure on the national stage for decades, none other than John C. Calhoun. In September of 1830, Calhoun wrote to Virgil Maxcy:

I consider the tariff act as the occasion, rather than the real cause of the present unhappy state of things. The truth can no longer be disguised, that the pecular domestick institution of the Southern States and the consequent direction which that and her soil and climate have given to her industry, has placed them in regard to taxation and appropriations in the opposite relation to the majority of the Union, against the danger of which, if there be no protective power in the reserved rights of the states they must in the end be forced to rebel, or, submit it to have their paramount interests sacrificed, their domestick institutions subordinated by Colonization and other schemes, and themselves and children reduced to wretchedness. Thus situated, the denial of the right of the State to interpose constitutionally in the last resort, more alarms the thinking, than all the other causes; and however strange it may appear, the more universally the state is condemned, and her right denied, the more resolute she is to assert her constitutional powers lest the neglect to assert should be considered a practical abandonment of them, under such circumstances.