The Murder of Thomas Barber, Part One

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Gentle Readers, I left you with a body and it doesn’t do to leaved them sit too long. Contemporaries called the crisis at Lawrence arising out of the tangled Coleman-DowBranson-Jones dispute the Wakarusa War, but most of it involved rather more warlike rhetoric and warlike preparations than actual war. It must have felt very much like one at the time and easily could have gone that way, but the actual carnage proved largely limited to one man. Thomas Barber drew the proverbial short straw and in so doing proved that the proslavery cordon about Lawrence capable of more than imposing inconvenience and occasional terror.

William Phillips laid out the state of the siege on December 6:

At this time, while the Missourians had invested Lawrence, they found it difficult to keep it closely guarded to the south and west. There was a distance of twenty miles between the camp at Lecompton and Wakarusa. General Atchison had a force on the north side of the Kaw river, opposite Lawrence; but, while it was guarded thus on three sides, the only means of preventing people from leaving Lawrence for the south of the territory was by horse patrols, which scoured the country.

The senator from Missouri appears once more. He clearly means to imply that David Rice Atchison has command of a camp, and Bourbon Dave had certainly come to Kansas to raise Hell before at the head of an army, but neither Alice Nichols nor Nichole Etcheson puts Atchison in even unofficial command this time around. Nor have I seen indications of that in the primary sources, aside from Phillips. Rather it seems that Atchison came into Kansas in early December, 1855, at the request of Wilson Shannon. The Governor hoped that Atchison, like Albert Boone, could help restrain the proslavery men. He might have had the right of it, as he mentions Atchison’s help alongside Boone’s in his Howard Report testimony.

About one o’clock, Thomas Barber, his brother Robert, and brother-in-law Thomas Pierson rode out of Lawrence. According to Robert’s statement to Brewerton, he and Pierson had revolvers but Thomas rode unarmed. They went through the gap in the lines that Phillips describes. Brewerton notes

Pierson and the two Barbers were, at the time of this affray, regularly enrolled as privates of the Bloomington Company (D), of the 1st Regiment Kansas Volunteers, then serving in Lawrence, to defend that place against the so-called “Army of Invasion,” under Governor Shannon; they were absent on leave at the time.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

While shooting men on leave doesn’t make for the most equal of contests, the Barbers and their antagonists from the proslavery force appear equally belligerent parties. As such, we have upon us the seed of the very conflagration that Wilson Shannon and Charles Robinson feared, but Samuel Jones and William P. Richardson fairly lusted after: armed (bar Thomas) militants in both parties’ paramilitary would clash violently, with fatal result.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

The Barbers and Pierson went out of Lawrence for their homes, seven miles away. “Three and a half miles” out, in the words of Robert,

we observed a party of from twelve to fifteen mounted men to the right of the California road, in which we were travelling. This party was apparently making directly for it. They were over half a mile from us when we first saw them. We then left the California trail, to take a cross road, to the left, which was the shorter one to our residences; this was immediately after we discovered the horsemen. We had at this time no idea that they intended to interrupt us, nor did we quit the highway for the purpose of avoiding them. We had left the main road by some half a mile, when we saw two of these mounted men advancing before the rest, as if to cut us off; this they did by approaching us on our right, and placing themselves in front of us, or nearly so.

If Robert sounds a bit too innocent, then we should keep in mind that neither side wore issued the rank and file distinctive uniforms one could recognize at a great distance. Most likely everyone came in whatever they wore every other day. A militant could look exactly like an ordinary person going about his business. Even the presence of large firearms wouldn’t strike an ordinary observer as all that remarkable. The Barbers could quite reasonably have suspected nothing until the two men peeled off to intercept them.

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