On the Volcano Either Way

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

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

The Lawrence Revolt: parts 1, 2, 3

The situation in Lawrence always held the potential for an explosion. That Samuel Wood finally did what antislavery Kansans had promised and defied the law at gunpoint had to escalate matters. Wilson Shannon responded exactly as most people, regardless of their position on slavery, would probably have expected: he called out the militia. As he told George Douglas Brewerton, he understood the free stater men as finally beginning their

settled plan and determination to resist and bid defiance to the Territorial laws, in accordance with [their] resolutions

The statement of purpose that the Lawrence Committee of Safety issued couldn’t have done much to change his mind. Shannon sent his orders to the militia on November 27, 1855. The next day, he wrote his account of the situation to Franklin Pierce. Through all of this, Shannon said, he

presumed as a matter of course, and intended, that all these men should be drawn entirely from the citizens subject to militia duty in Kansas Territory. At that time-as the seat of difficulties (Lawrence), is distant some forty miles from the State line of Missouri-it never for a moment occurred to me that the citizens of that State would cross into Kansas or volunteer their aid to carry out her laws.

Shannon reads as genuinely surprised here. Missouri managed to reach a hundred or more miles into the territory for the Assembly elections back in March, but Shannon missed those. He might not have believed the stories of such things and didn’t have the Howard Report to go check up with. He might have dismissed the Branson Rescue as a local matter that wouldn’t interest Missouri. One has the sense that he, like Andrew Reeder before him, didn’t fully understand just how far off the rails Kansas had run. He could tell Pierce that they stood on a volcano, but he also told the president that he didn’t know when it would blow.

On the twenty-ninth, the day after he wrote Pierce, Shannon released a proclamation that listed the free state party’s offenses against law and order. They had formed military companies aimed at resisting the laws of Kansas by force. They used those companies against Samuel Jones to free Jacob Branson. Shannon calls this “a violent assault,” which doesn’t quite match what happened, but had Shannon decided to try the matter by arms, surely would have. Further the sheriff’s prisoner led a mob that burned proslavery settlers out of their homes. And finally:

I have received satisfactory information that this armed organization of lawless men have proclaimed their determination to attack the said sheriff of Douglas county, and rescue from his custody a prisoner, for the avowed purpose of executing him without judicial trial, and at the same time threatened the life of the said sheriff and the citizens

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

After all of this, Franklin Coleman finally enters into things again. While free state Kansans generally seem more interested in harming property than people, at least compared to proslavery Kansans, the mob that sought him looks very much like they intended a lynching. Ridding themselves of Samuel Jones would make for a nice bonus. Whether or not Branson then intended to see Coleman dead, it seems clear that some of the hundred or so people rooting about for him would have reduced the proslavery population of Kansas by at least one if they came on him in the night.

However much our sympathies remain with antislavery Kansans, we cannot dismiss these as light and trivial offenses. Shannon may have bungled the execution of his response and deluded himself into thinking Missourians would for once not involve themselves, but I don’t see any way he could have just let things go. He stood on the volcano either way.

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