Passing Notes: Trouble at Easton, Part Four

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Sorry for the delayed post, Gentle Readers. This ought to have gone up on Friday and stood ready to do so in the queue, but something went wrong.

On the evening of January 17, 1856, proslavery men came up to the free state polls in Easton and demanded the ballot box. Free state men rushed out and lined up in front of them, armed and ready. Despite the urging of their leader, the proslavery side took a powder. But nineteenth century Americans didn’t just give up on something like this. If the free state party had its way, Missouri would have slave-stealing abolitionists to the side. They might bring black Americans into Kansas. They might spark a slave revolt that would burn the country to the ground. No proslavery man could take that laying down. If a display of their martial commitment, however equivocal, wouldn’t do the job then they had other methods.

They sent a note. Readers of a certain age might expect it to inquire as to whether one liked slavery, with boxes to mark yes or no. The note contained no such thing but some dispute exists in the sources over just what it did say.

Henry Adams told the Howard Committee that soon after the proslavery men departed

they sent a messenger up with a written demand, not signed, but addressed, I think to Mr. Minard, for the ballot box. Mr. Minard knew the individual who brought it, and told him he was surprised to see him int hat business, and to take the message back to him who sent it and tell him if he had any message to send him, to sign it. He went back with it, and shortly afterwards another man came up with another message of the same import, and with a threat, I think, to come and take the ballot box in an hour, if it was not delivered up. It was signed, I think, by Doctor Motter.

Dr. Edward Motter told a rather different story. According to him, nothing of significance happened on election day until the evening. Then a Wakarusa War veteran named Reese Brown, who had arrived in town and some “eight or ten men, all armed to the teeth” that morning, wandered by. Motter walked up and gave him some straight talk:

“Mr. Brown, I think it would be advisable for you to return with your men.” He threw open his coat and said, “by God, you think I am not armed.” I said, “that makes no difference to me,” and left him for a few minutes. About an hour afterwards, I went over to the grocery and saw Brown reading a letter, and told him things were getting to a critical position, and he had better go home with his men.

Motter wants the committee to think nothing important happened until he and Brown had their chat, but he tips his hand in referring to tensions growing. He knew full well that proslavery men had threatened the polls. Another hour passed, bringing us up to about nine. Brown and friends went to the grocery, where Motter tried again:

I told Mr. Brown that his men could not come into the grocery, because they were getting drunk and there would be violence committed. Nine of them rushed into the grocery, and I kept eleven of them out.

I’d like to know how Motter managed that feat. Drunken, armed men tend not to listen to sweet reason. Whatever he did didn’t last long. Soon

men were running both ways. Brown’s party had gone back to Mr. Minard’s house. They sent down a messenger to us, calling us cowardly, thieving, niggardly sons of bitches, and dared us to come up to Minard’s house, and that if we did, there would not be one to tell the tale. That was just the expression Mr. Minard used, and they all said so. After that news came down I sent them a note as follows: that if they would hold on, probably we would call to see them upon any demand they had requested.

At this point, we have two notes. In most accounts, one went out unprompted from the proslavery men to demand the ballot box. In Motter’s version, he receives one insulting him and writes back an answer. Per Motter, a personal dispute had arisen and they might settle things on the field of honor.

I have no doubt that Brown and company had a few. Other accounts mention them drinking. Probably some wandered about town and behaved boorishly too. But Motter reduces the election to a background event and that seems very implausible. According to him, no one harrassed voters or make any threats against the polls. In Kansas, in the vicinity of Leavenworth, and during a free state election that stretches credulity too far.

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