William Phillips and the Case of the Curious Commissions

William Phillips

William Phillips

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

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

The Hunt for Jacob Branson: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

The Lawrence Revolt: part 1, 2, 3

I have to back up a little bit, Gentle Readers. You’ll remember that Hugh Cameron, the impressively bearded justice of the peace, gave Sheriff Samuel Jones the peace warrant he used to arrest Jacob Branson and so bring escalate the Dow murder into a major territorial controversy. William Phillips claimed that Cameron came to issue that warrant by less than upright means:

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.

Hugh Cameron

Hugh Cameron

Charles Robinson substantially repeats the idea and Free state Kansans seem to have generally thought Cameron issued his warrant as a quid pro quo. When I related all of this, I couldn’t speak to the accuracy of the free state claim one way or the other. It would help greatly to know the date of Cameron’s commission. In the search for another document, I found reference to Cameron receiving a commission. In Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, Volume 3, the executive minutes of the Shannon administration include a note that Cameron got a commission on October 8, 1855. He then became Treasurer of Douglas County, not justice of the peace.

Odd, but not conclusive. Just a bit further down, I found note of this series of commissions dated November 24, 1855:

Commission issued to Hugh Cameron, as Justice of the Peace for the township of Lawrence, in the county of Douglas.

Commission issued to Franklin M. Coleman, as Justice of the Peace for Louisiana township, in the county of Douglas.

Commission issued to Joshua N. Hargus, as Justice of the Peace for Louisiana township, in the county of Douglas.

Joshua Hargus probably means Josiah Hargis, one of Coleman’s friends and a member of Jones’ posse. Everyone seems to have had their own way to spell his name. Needless to say, seeing Cameron’s commission issued at the same time as Coleman’s and Hargis’ at the very least looks suspicious. But does the timeline fit?

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Jones got his warrant from Cameron on November 26 and rode through the night to apprehend Branson and take him away. If we take this at face value, then Cameron had his commission a full two days before the affair. I think we should probably not, however. We can’t ignore that he got his commission alongside Coleman and Hargis. I suspect that either the clerks got the date wrong or the commissions came back-dated a few days to lend them more legitimacy.

Leaving aside human error, does Shannon’s grant of the commissions implicate him in some questionable business too? Possibly, but he might have heard from Jones that Douglas County stood on the edge of rebellion even before the Dow murder and Branson arrest. Shannon generally seems inclined to believe whatever proslavery Kansans tell him, so he could have understood the situation as an emergency and requiring a generous helping of legal authority freshly dispensed. It would make sense for him to issue credentials to the presumed experts on the ground, especially two men he had right in front of him. He might have picked Cameron as a reliable sort, already an officeholder in the territorial government, and had Jones deliver the commission. Or he may have gone all-out in his alarm and handed Jones blank documents to fill in as needed. Neither reflects particularly well on Shannon, but likewise neither required a fool nor a fiend.

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