The Return of Pardee Butler, Part One

Pardee Butler

Pardee Butler

According to the Squatter Sovereign, the news of Samuel Jones’ shooting by an antislavery man in Lawrence had set Atchison’s proslavery men to readying their arms. Some new arrivals from South Carolina formed a military company, one of two then extant. The paper itself, believing Jones dead, demanded bloody revenge. One of their own, a trusty, violent proslavery man had caught a bullet. They preferred to reserve that undertaking to their enemies. One might dismiss the violent language as so much bluster, but proslavery men had killed or threatened to kill before for less provocation. Slavery’s partisans in Kansas had even turned the murder of an antislavery man by one of their own into cause for an invasion that came close to ruining Lawrence.

Closer to home, the same community had turned on Pardee Butler when he refused to endorse the whipping of an antislavery man. Robert S. Kelley, the junior editor of the Sovereign, led the mob that seized the minister, hauled him down to the Missouri River, and nearly killed him there. After a “trial” of two hours’ length, the mob put him into the Missouri on a raft with a flag declaring him an abolitionist. They didn’t kill him themselves, but anybody on the river might have seen the flag and tried their aim. Butler left an Atchison quite happy to see the back of him, but when he departed he promised that he would return to see to his claim.

Understandably, Butler didn’t rush right back to Atchison. He spent the winter of 1855-6 in Illinois, following the news out of Kansas. This convinced him that he would best wait before trying to evangelize the territory again. But return he did, first for a brief visit in November and then again, arriving in Atchison on April 30. Butler’s return doesn’t receive a mention in Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas, as more weighty matters transpire at the same time. I include it here, drawing from his Personal Recollections, because it clarifies a few issues and serves as a more material illustration of Atchison’s present state of discontent.

On the first point, Butler reports

The news of the coming of the South Carolinians had not reached Illinois when I started for Kansas, but when I had reached Western Missouri the country was alive with excitement. Maj. Jefferson Buford had arrived with 350 soldiers, and a part of them were quartered in Atchison.

The records I have of Buford’s movements place their arrival slightly later. Butler did write thirty years after the fact and might have confused things, but with him and the contemporary paper both identifying an existing group of South Carolinians who came with military intentions, I feel less inclined to chalk it up to a mistake. Most likely, some of Buford’s men had gone on ahead. Maybe those in Atchison come from the first “deserters” who had expected Buford to provide for them until they could find and settle claims.

Butler still had friends in Kansas. They told him to stay away, but the minister persisted in his course. His last night in Missouri, a fellow staying at the same hotel chatted Butler up. They didn’t bring up the slavery question, which Butler remarks that everyone else talked about. The next morning, they met again on the road to Atchison. The gentleman rode up beside Butler’s buggy and they talked some more, before he rode on ahead.

Butler told his readers that they would, “recognize this gentleman again in Atchison.”

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2 comments on “The Return of Pardee Butler, Part One

  1. “but anybody on the river might have seen the flag and tried their aim.”

    Uh, there was no flag because he used the flagpost as an oar.
    Also, you fail to point out that in this incident, the mob undoubtedly voted to execute Butler, but Kelley, who counted the votes, decided against any killing and lied about the vote. So Kelley, though he organized the mob, also saved Butler’s life.

    • This post isn’t meant as a full retelling of Butler’s ordeal. I wrote that last year, but I see that I forgot to link it. That’s on me and now remedied.

      With regard to the flag, the Butler family kept it and it’s in the archives now. It was with him, not lost in the river or something. That Butler took the post to use as an oar doesn’t change the fact that the mob put him on the raft with it in the likely expectation that someone down the river would open fire. Butler himself was keenly aware of that and mentions it in his Personal Recollections.

      As for Kelley, I looked at the story here and I’m not convinced by it. But even if John Stringfellow told it true, Kelley “saved” Butler only to put him in mortal danger from others, and only after having done the same immediately previously. The material available to me doesn’t seal the deal for that interpretation, but I think it’s the one more consistent with both the event in question and Kelley’s larger record then to date.

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