The Hunt for Jacob Branson, Part Nine

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

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

The Hunt for Franklin Coleman: part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The Hunt for Jacob Branson: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Samuel Wood liberated Jacob Branson from Samuel Jones and his posse. In doing so, he and his gang of free state men staged the first large-scale, armed defiance of the territorial government. Jones had a legal warrant for Branson’s arrest on charges of his threatening Franklin Coleman and others. Wood had his own say-so and the conviction of the free state movement to reject Kansas’ legal government in favor of their own. Had any in the posse missed the significance of events, Wood spelled them out by refusing to recognize Jones as a sheriff or even to acknowledge the existence of Douglas County.

After an hour of conversation on the matter, Jones gave it up and rode off. Wood and company rode into Lawrence. Wood’s account of events ends there. Charles Robinson’s continues, now from his own memory:

That the matter was premeditated but a few Free-State men at that time doubted. The killing of Dow was not of itself sufficient to bring on a conflict with a pretended legal officer, but the arrest of such a man as Branson when the people were enraged at the murder would most likely provoke a rescue, which was the excuse desired for calling out the militia, which meant the people of Missouri.

In fairness to Robinson, Branson’s arrest would understandably have provoked suspicion. How did one justify arresting Branson, an old man, when Franklin Coleman remained free? They had an actual killer loose and the territorial government seemed bent not on seizing him but doing striking against his enemies. That the enemy in question served as an officer in the Kansas Legion had to further inflame free state paranoia in already fraught times.

Hugh Cameron

Hugh Cameron

To add insult to injury, the warrant to take Branson came from Hugh Cameron, who Robinson damned as a

National Democrat and professed Free-State man who, as judge of election, received the votes of Missourians on the 30th of March […] He was appointed justice of the peace by the county commissioners, who were appointed by the Territorial Legislature, which Legislature was elected by the invaders, aided and abetted by Cameron.

Hugh Cameron’s impressive facial hair could not hide the appearance of impropriety. From our remove, and knowing what we do of the Coleman-Dow dispute, Robinson’s impression that all of this came down to an elaborate proslavery scheme seems far-fetched. But he and the other free state men had neither the benefit of hindsight nor the full version of events before them. They just knew state officials had come after free state militia leader instead of the murderer of a free state man, and appeared to benefit from a quid pro quo to get their warrant. In their position, how could it look like anything but the opening of an organized campaign of suppression? Samuel Collins fell to a lone proslavery man, or that man and his immediate friends, but Jacob Branson literally had the law after him.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Robinson would have learned all of this on the morning of the 27th, when Wood came to his house and shared the story. Whether Robinson proved prescient at the time or only with the benefit of hindsight, he understood

that probably this action would furnish the long-wished-for pretext for calling out a force against Lawrence […] No one could doubt that the Governor would call out the militia, ostensibly to enforce the law, but really to humiliate the Free-State men and destroy Lawrence, or at least to compel the surrender of the Sharp’s and other rifles at that place.

The militia would come. If Wilson Shannon could suppress the free state movement, especially under so reasonable a cause as serving a legal warrant, then I suspect he wouldn’t have shed many tears over it. From Shannon’s perspective, an insurrection had finally broken out. He could hardly just stand by and let the territory entirely slip from his grasp. Franklin Pierce appointed him to govern Kansas, not preside over anarchy. If he remained idle,

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