“It was only the outburst of Slavery’s Wrath” The Maltreatment of Reverend William C. Clark

Pardee Butler

Pardee Butler

The Reverend William C. Clark, aboard the steamboat Polar Star escaped from his first confrontation with proslavery men unscathed. They had a discussion about theology that drifted into the politics of territorial Kansas, wherein Clark defended the common ancestry of Indians, blacks, and whites. After getting clear of that, and noting how his fellow passengers had taken to pointing him out to one another, Clark spent the rest of the day in his cabin. He came out in the evening and some men tried to sweet talk him into an impromptu public lecture on his racial and political theories. Clark didn’t rise to the bait, expecting that if he had he would have found himself under arrest for inciting a slave revolt amongst the Polar Star’s stewards.

The next morning brought Clark new troubles. He gave up his seat to a lady and took a walk on deck. There he found “some twenty or thirty” discoursing about current (September, 1855) events in Kansas. Clark spoke up and they descended upon him. A man punched him in the face and a second swung into his side. The reeling reverend then took several more blows as the crowd called out for the murder of the “abolition son of a —–.”

The affray continued a few more moments. Clark

stepped back between the chimney and cabin, so as not to be favored with a dirk in my back, when the captain of the boat appeared, and, refusing to hear any explanation, ordered me to go to my state-room, and be ready to leave the boat at Providence, the next village below.

Clark would have to find some other way across half the width of Missouri to St. Louis and he would leave the Polar Star as a conspicuous antislavery man.

Nothing he could do about it. Clark went back to his cabin and seems to have remained there for some time. But he had no breakfast, having surrendered his seat to a lady, and decided he had to have some coffee.

I stepped from my stateroom to the table for a cup of coffee, where I was again assailed. An attempt was made to strike me with a chair, which I seized with my hands, and in the contest the chair was broken in pieces.

The captain intervened again, once more not accepting any explanation. He said stay in the stateroom and he meant it, end of story. Clark obliged, but considered the dangers facing him at Providence. He would arrive

with the marks of violence on my face, as slaves and their masters would be there in great numbers to ship and receive freight; and it was probable that the cry of “abolition Yankee” would follow me from the boat.

The good people of Providence lived in Boone County, which had 3,666 slaves in the 1850 census. Their owners could reasonably understand Clark as a threat and decide to take action. Clark took a powder at a woodyard ahead of Providence, absconding with valise in hand whilst the steamer took on fuel. He followed the river to a log house, where he explained himself and received a rather warmer welcome than he might have expected. He could just as well have gotten the Pardee Butler treatment.

Clark told the Herald of Freedom that he had gone about the world since his sixteenth year, mingling with “the pious and humble christian of New England to the savage Esquimaux of Labrador.” In all that time, he had

never before found a man who was so savage and brutal as to lay hands of violence on me and, what renders this case more savage, it was without any previous offence-the first blow that I received was as unexpected as a clap of thunder from a cloudless sky. But it was only the outburst of Slavery’s wrath, which had probably been gathering over my head from the moment when they found I was an Eastern man, a minister, travelling alone, and probably unarmed[…] The demons of slavery in Kansas seem to manifest more hatred toward anti-slavery ministers than any other class of men.

They feared the influence of the Gospel, Clark said. It would sway minds against slavery. Proslavery men had their own version of the Gospel that did no such thing, but slavery did require strict white solidarity to keep secure and proslavery partisans had molested ministers before. Clark raised Pardee Butler’s example by name, and also that of a Reverend Snyder, who “is tarred and feathered and rode on a rail.” To Clark, as well as the others, “they applied their soundest arguments in favor of slavery-fists, chairs, and slung shots.”


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