Understanding the Kickapoo Rangers, Part One

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

We left George Taylor not quite the victim of axe murder. One of the Kickapoo Rangers, Gibson, set to the unarmed Taylor with the aforesaid axe but suffered the cruel disappointment of intervention by Henry Adams and a fellow proslavery man. Even the sort of person keen to join a proslavery militia had some limits, through Gibson clearly had fewer scruples than some of his comrades.

Their motivations could stand further investigation. We can generalize from other proslavery groups and expect similar concerns about the preservation of white power and slave property. The Rangers probably understood the free state movement as an insurrection that warranted extraordinary measures in opposition. But the Howard Report includes testimony from two Rangers present that day, the M. P. Rively that Henry Adams recognized and Captain John W. Martin himself. We don’t have the good fortune to hear from Gibson, and we do know that not all the party felt precisely as he did, but they give us our best approach to understanding why he felt George Taylor needed a gruesome death.

The Kickapoo Rangers rode for Easton on January 18, 1856 without a full knowledge of the confrontations the night previous. Indeed, they almost didn’t come at all. Martin received word from Edward Motter that Easton’s proslavery men required his services, but the news did not impress him:

I answered his note by telling him I apprehended no danger, and he had better go on until they commenced to fight.

According to Motter, he wrote for the Rangers to come after the gunfight. Maybe the Doctor didn’t communicate as clearly as he wanted to so soon after hearing bullets whistle by. He could also have just told the Howard Committee that he summoned help after the fight, but really done so before. Martin dates his receipt of Motter’s letter to about eleven at night on the seventeenth. We must take such times as approximate, but it still seems likely Motter wrote sometime that night rather than in a panic over the free state party’s effrontery in simply holding an election.

“About sunrise,” Martin heard from Motter again:

saying that one of their men named Cook had been killed by the free-soilers the night before. I then went down to Kickapoo, and told the men what had happened, and showed them the notes, and we concluded, a good many of us, to go out to Easton and see what was up.

Here Martin stresses that he did not call out the Kickapoo Rangers, but rather that some random citizens of Kickapoo chose to come along instead. He just had people from Kickapoo, or within a decent range thereof. One might call them the Rangers from Kickapoo, but certainly not the Kickapoo Rangers. Maybe to his mind, the distinction mattered. I have yet to find a historian who agrees. If anything, Martin might have drawn such a line to deflect responsibility from himself given what transpired later on.

M.P. Rively began his testimony with evasions:

I first saw Mr. R.P. Brown near Easton on that day, with a number of men with him, whose names I do not recollect. He was walking, but I do not recollect whether by his wagon or not. As that was some time ago, I do not recollect much that took place; not much took place while I was there. Some men had him, but I don’t know whether they were Kickapoo Rangers or not.

You can almost see him sweating in front of the committee. He told them that he came with the understanding that they had questions about elections, “not in regard to any little difficulties that have occurred in the Territory.” Rively didn’t know anything, didn’t see anything, nothing happened, if anything happened he wasn’t there. If he was there, he didn’t remember what happened. He just saw Brown hanging out, you know?

The committee informed Rively of their purpose and John Sherman, William’s then more famous brother, cut to the heart of the matter:

Q. Will true answers to questions as to what was done that day by the persons you have spoken of to R.P. Brown, tend to criminate you personally?

A. Upon due reflection, I think they might in some degree.

Rively went on to tip his hand a bit further by counting himself among the proslavery party, making his claim to ignorance preposterous, and named many names. For a man with a faded memory, he did very well. He even remembered why the Kickapoo Rangers chose to come that day:

We had no warrant to stop these men. We heard that Mr. Brown, with a number of others, had been out holding an illegal election at Easton; that there had been some misunderstanding between Brown and his party and some gentlemen who lived at Easton, and that Mr. Brown was the leader of the party who fired upon those gentlemen, killing a gentleman by the name of Cook, a pro-slavery man

All of that sounds downright plausible. None of the Rangers appear to have lived in Easton, where they could have seen events firsthand. If they did, Motter would surely have gone to them for help directly rather than write Martin. They hadn’t reached Easton before meeting Brown’s party and so probably had no other source of information. They knew that free soil men had done murder and came to find them.

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