A Closer Look at the Free State Hotel

The rules for guests at the Free State Hotel, May 10, 1856

We left the Free State Hotel a burned ruin, after attempts to level it with cannon fire and blow it sky-high with gunpowder failed. Before Samuel Jones and his proslavery army destroyed the place, it featured occasionally in the Kansas story. To Jones and men like him, the Emigrant Aid Company had built a fortress that might withstand any assault. To their free state enemies, it appears just as a large building. A stone building of considerable size could easily serve both roles. Before leaving the building behind, we should take a closer look. For that, I rely upon Martha B. Caldwell’s The Eldridge House, published in volume nine of the Kansas Historical Quarterly (PDF page 363).

The New England Emigrant Aid Company might have had trouble with its finances, but its board knew that people they sent to Kansas would need somewhere to stay while they looked for claims and built their own houses. The plan envisioned several hotels, each capable of housing three hundred people. The board entrusted Samuel Pomeroy, the same Pomeroy who Jones spoke to on the day the hotel burned, with buying sawmills and building those hotels on August 26, 1854. The first Company party arrived in Lawrence on Septemeber 15 of that year and they built the first hotel

by setting up two rows of poles a distance apart and bringing them together at the top, then thatching the sides with prairie hay. The gable ends were built up with sod and contained the doors and windows. The floor was hard sod.

Luxury had yet to arrive in Kansas, but sod floors and walls didn’t set the hotel far apart from the general run of frontier building. Community functions, including church services, took place there until it burned. Its replacement went on the same lines, but with higher walls and cotton cloth lining the interior. Nobody intended for the sod-walled tent to remain indefinitely and the Aid Company’s trustees asked Pomeroy and Charles Robinson to get moving with a proper building. By November 2, they had managed to dig the cellar out.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Construction faced many obstacles, taking nineteen months and never quite reaching a full opening. The Company often ran out of money, with Robinson informing the board that construction stopped in part for that reason at the end of November. The mill that Pomeroy had set up couldn’t keep up with the demand of private customers, so lumber had to come up the river from St. Louis. Kansas’ turmoil can’t have sped things along either. One can forgive the difficult logistics of the Kansas frontier, but Caldwell believes the men in charge also distracted themselves with land speculation and points to the Company later refusing agents the freedom to conduct private business and revoking permission from Pomeroy.

All of that meant that the first emigrant parties to come in the spring of 1855 did not find a hotel waiting for them as planned. In January, the Herald of Freedom advised them not to expect the finest lodgings but promised that Lawrence could handle people ready to rough it. Come February, Pomeroy advertised for someone to furnish and run the hotel. Soon enough, Shalor W. Eldridge took up the lease. He already ran the company’s hotel in Kansas City, the same one where Andrew Reeder would hide the next year.

By spring, the basement had walls and waited on lumber but the shortage of that material had grown so acute that it prompted a revision of plans. The Aid Company intended a timber frame building but a perpetual lack of timber made that impossible. Instead they would build in “stone and concrete.” This argues strongly that no one envisioned the Free State Hotel as a fortification, at least until the spring of 1855, but the change of plan in the context of the deteriorating Kansas situation might well have looked like one aimed at military necessity from the outside. By this point the delays had already made the hotel infamous, with Josiah Miller of the Kansas Free State editorializing against it. People passed Lawrence by or left in disgust for lack of proper accommodations and yet the Company refused to either finish the work or sell to someone who would. Flooring, pre-fabricated in St. Louis, and doors arrived in town only on August 19.

At the beginning of October, two floors stood more or less complete, internal walls going up and windows in place. That served well enough to make the building host to social events, starting with a party thrown by the Kansas Rifles boasting elaborate invitations and a hunting contest to feed the guests. Five hundred people attended despite cold, rain, and deep much. They dined on “squirrel, rabbit, prairie chicken, wild turkey, and one roast pig, together with cakes and pastries.” Not much more than a week after, Franklin Coleman killed Charles Dow and the Wakarusa War began. The hotel became a barracks and headquarters, then housed Thomas Barber’s body and the peace talks. The subsequent festivities further put it to good use.

After the Wakarusa War, construction resumed. Putting up plaster and supplying furniture took place in December. By January, rumors circulated that the Free State government might quit Topeka for a more fortified spot. Surely they could get the hotel done by February 15, but that date came and went. In March, “between twenty and thirty men were constantly employed.” Their work concluded by April 12, when the papers reported the end of construction. Caldwell quotes the Herald of Freedom on the hotel’s final form:

50 feet front, 70 feet back; three stories above the basement; contains 50 separate apartments, besides a hall in each story. The basement is divided into three rooms, each 18 feet square -two to be used as pastry and meat kitchens, the other as storehouse or cellar. The first story is 11 feet from floor the ceiling, is divided into 9 rooms; the dining hall 18 feet wide and 47 feet long; hall 9 1/2 feet wide, entire length of building; Gentlemen’s parlor, 18 feet square; Ladies’ parlor, 18 x 20; Reading Room, 18 feet square; Sitting room, 16 x 18; two bed-rooms, 9 feet square; office, 6 x 14 […] stairs leading to the roof, which is flat, and affords a fine promenade and a splendid view of the surrounding scenery. There are thirty or forty port-holes in the walls, which rise above the roof, plugged up now with stones, which can be knocked out with the blow of the butt of a Sharp’s rifle.

The Howard Committee

The military use of the building must have come to mind more and more, even if the original plan involved none of it, but the main focus of the description remains on the hotel amenities. It had outhouses “of the neatest kind” and a partially-built stable which would hold fifty horses and keep your buggy out of the rain. Brown’s paper, which ought to know considering it drew funds from the Emigrant Aid Company too, estimated the cost of the building at over $20,000. The grand opening would take place on the first of May.

Samuel Jones

Eldridge set into furnishing the hotel to meet that date, ordering pieces from St. Louis and Boston. He spent over five thousand dollars, but most of the furniture had yet to arrive when the Howard Committee did. The people of Lawrence loaned him some of their own to spare him embarrassment. I.B. Donaldson and Samuel Jones then intervened. Jones convalesced briefly under the hotel’s roof after his shooting. With all trouble then in the offing, the grand opening did not take place as planned. The Eldridges held out hope all the same, with a set of rules for guests coming off the Herald of Freedom press on May 10. Instead Lecompton’s grand jury declared the Free State Hotel a military edifice and recommended someone do something about it. A recovered Jones lied to the proslavery mob about having an order for the building’s destruction and saw it done.

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“General Mitchell is guilty of having prostituted his power” Smuggling Slaves with David Brydie Mitchell, Part Four

David B. Mitchell

Parts 1, 2, 3, American State Papers (pages 957-75, PDF), Shingleton’s paper (JSTOR)

It didn’t take long for David Brydie Mitchell to put his position as Creek Agent to work for him. He received his appointment from James Monroe on November 4, 1817. By December 8, the first shipment of contraband slaves from Amelia Island had arrived there. I have to this point worked entirely from the American State Papers, but last night discovered that one historian took it upon himself to do more than cite them and move on. Back in 1973, Royce Gordon Shingleton published his version of events in the Journal of Negro History. He had access to the original papers on which William Wirt drew for his report and adds some important information, whilst also wrestling them into a coherent narrative. From him I have it that Bowen set out for Amelia Island on October 18, prior to Mitchell taking up his post as Indian agent. That suggests that Mitchell may have stumbled on a scheme already afoot and insisted on buying in, but he could just as easily have learned about his appointment well in advance and participated from the start. It seems unlikely that the plan’s financiers would have such confidence in him to agree to make good any expenses he called on them for had he just popped in at the last minute.

Either way, Erwin, Groce, & Company of Augusta and Savannah fronted Bowen the $25,000 he used to buy 110 slaves and bring them into the United States in defiance of the 1807 ban on slave importation. Those slaves, in two groups, came and stayed at the Agency for some time. During that time, Mitchell fed them and he and the other partners marked out the ones they claimed for themselves. Mitchell’s share may have come for both services rendered and from a direct investment of embezzled funds meant to support the Creek Nation.

The matter came to the attention of John Clark, soon governor of Georgia, through the Agency’s blacksmith. He found letters in Mitchell’s desk about the business and sent them on. Clark appears to have done much of the subsequent investigation. However, Shingleton’s paper clarified for me the role of General Gaines in the matter. According to him, Mitchell passed through the Agency in early December to attend a meeting of the Creek chiefs. On the return trip through, toward the middle of the month, Mitchell came back to the Agency in the company of General Edmund Pendleton Gaines. Gaines had the job of surveying the boundaries of Indian territory. On seeing all these slaves, he became suspicious. Mitchell did keep slaves he legally owned at the Agency as well, but it seems he kept the imported people separate from them and that stood out to Gaines. Mitchell, as he would when defending himself later, insisted he didn’t know anything about them. Gaines thereafter sent men to make sure those slaves didn’t conveniently vanish.

Per Wirt in the ASP, a

Captain Melvin, of the fourth infantry, states the had observed fifteen of the Africans (the choicest of those brought to the agency by Bowen) building huts and clearing land at the agency, the plantation of General Mitchell

A few days later the Inspector of the Port of Darien, McQueen McIntosh, caught wind of this. He probably found out much like the federal marshal did, when Mitchell offered to sell him some of the slaves. They must have elected governors for their subtlety in those days. McIntosh went out to the agency aiming to seize the contraband slaves and found many of them four days gone toward Alabama with Jared Groce. McIntosh set off in pursuit and overtook Groce and the slaves on the road to Alabama. Groce claimed the slaves as his own, which prompted McIntosh to arrest him. They turned back for the Creek Agency.

McIntosh employed a man named Langham to escort him, but Langham

perfidiously hurried on to the agency for the purpose of giving notice of McIntosh’s approach and intention, enabling those who had charge of the negroes there to put them out of the way.

Mitchell himself had left the agency again, putting it in the hands of his son William. Melvin tipped McIntosh off to that and led him the mile and a half to their huts. McIntosh opted not to take them out of doors in the cold, which had hit the slaves hard, but went to the younger Mitchell and told him to consider the slaves seized. Mitchell fils agreed to that without objection, but didn’t volunteer any information about other slaves. Groce had forty-seven slaves with him. That accounts for sixty-two of the hundred and ten slaves, leaving forty-eight unaccounted for. Five of those probably went off with Long as his payment for helping with the transport, leaving forty-three to slip William Mitchell’s mind.

The slaves had not forgotten their fellows. When McIntosh came for them in the morning, he learned

from the negroes [Wirt’s emphasis] that General Mitchell’s overseer had the night before supplied a great many Africans with provisions, and taken them into the woods; that Captain Melvin himself fell upon their trail, and found about fifteen in the woods, who tried to make their escape, but were apprehended, and the whole thirty were brought to the agency; Captain Mitchell then delivered up eleven small Africans (children, I presume) from the huts in the yard.

Wirt clearly means the fifteen Melvin and McIntosh found in the huts and woods, respectively. So we can account for eighty-two, ninety-three with the children. As McIntosh took them off, William Mitchell followed him down the road a few miles. McIntosh had left behind “two or three” people. I don’t know what to make of this. McIntosh may have genuinely misplaced a few people or Mitchell might have tried to hand over a few more in a desperate bid to deflect suspicion. Regardless, McIntosh came to the Creek Agency expecting to collect fifteen contraband slaves and departed with forty-one.

Discussion of all this came into the letters between Bowen and Mitchell pere that William Moore found in the latter’s desk and sent on to John Clark. Bowen feared that Groce would spill the beans and wrote that he had gotten himself worked up to the point of incoherence, so they needed to do something to shut him up. A letter from Mitchell declaring Groce a bondsman engaged in removing the slaves might do the trick.

Wirt spends the rest of his report discussing the arguments Mitchell and Bowen made in their defense and reporting on Clark’s investigation of the affair. He goes on at considerable length and with diligence, but writes little new for it. To cut his long, rather circuitous story short, the parties told improbable lies, could not keep their stories straight with one another, and none of it withstood scrutiny. He couldn’t prove, to the standards admissable in court, that Mitchell profited from the importation and actively conspired for it, but the evidence supported his having an understanding with Bowen. Even if Mitchell and Bowen didn’t have some kind of arrangement, they clearly entered into one when the slaves arrived at the agency. He concluded:

that General Mitchell is guilty of having prostituted his power, as agent for Indian affairs at the Creek agency, to the purpose of aiding and assisting in a conscious breach of the act of Congress of 1807, in prohibition of the slave trade-and this from mercenary motives.

The presidential inquiry wound down in February of 1821. Monroe reviewed the evidence, agreed with Wirt, and had Secretary of War John C. Calhoun write his pink slip.

That leaves the matter of what happened to the slaves. Wirt devotes some time to discussing whether or not responsibility for them fell to the president under new anti-slave trade laws passed in 1817 and pleads a lack of recent information on the question. According to Shingleton, eighty-eight of them passed into the hands of Georgian authorities for sale. State law required a public notice and period of delay before action, during which the Governor Rabun -Clark did not win the office until November- placed them in households around Milledgeville, the state capital, to provide for their maintenance until the waiting period ran out. They appear to have all passed into private ownership by August, grossing $34,736.18. Expenses reduced that to $27,571.82. Somewhere along the way, twenty-two of the slaves slipped through the cracks. Most probably they ended up just like the rest, but enslaved in Alabama.

Yellow and Red Strings: Smuggling Slaves with David Brydie Mitchell, Part Three

David B. Mitchell

David Byrdie Mitchell, late governor of Georgia and present Indian agent, had looked to all the world like a guilty man. Letters and sworn statements, albeit some of the latter hearsay, implicated him in a slave smuggling ring. He didn’t personally bring in contraband slaves, in defiance of the nation’s 1807 ban on importing people, but his employee at the Creek Agency did. That man, William Bowen, had written letters to Mitchell discussing the business in candid terms. Bowen got seed money from the firm of Erwin, Groce, & Company. He took that money to Amelia Island on St. Mary’s river, a well-known smuggling hot spot just outside the United States. He claimed to have gone for coffee and sugar, but finding them too expensive bought human merchandise. He took his slaves into Georgia via the St. Mary’s and Flint Rivers up to Mitchell’s agency. There they awaited sale and/or transport elsewhere, probably to Alabama Territory.

Mitchell tried to defend himself. He insisted, truthfully, that Bowen brought the slaves to the Creek Agency while he was away. On receiving news of the slaves, “a SMALL parcel of African negroes” numbering only sixty, Mitchell went back and accused Bowen of importing them. Bowen produced a fake bill of sale to prove that he bought the slaves off a privateer in Georgia, which still left him in defiance of the law. Mitchell then, he says, told Bowen that he needed to get those slaves out of the country. The Indian agent also took time in his statement (page 964) to gripe about the insufficiency of state and national laws against importation, ultimately he

reflected upon the facility with which such an order could be evaded, by just carrying them over the Spanish line, and re-introducing them; and believing, too, that the negroes were actually intended for the use of the parties interested, who, I have no doubt, are large land-holders on the Alabamaby purchase at the recent sales, and not for sale, I declined detaining them.

In Mitchell’s version, all that has come and gone. He did not detain the slaves, so they moved along into Alabama or wherever. Wirt noticed that right off, calling Mitchell out for implying that no contraband slaves remained at the agency. Instead, his explanation to the Secretary of War looked forward to future events. If this happened again, Georgia’s former governor would like advice on how to handle it. Mitchell wrote all of this in a report to the Secretary of the Treasury on the same Christmas day that Bowen wrote to him, with about sixty slaves in residence at the Agency and forty more coming.

Wirt broke it down. At the time of Mitchell’s writing, December 25, 1817, he knew

  1. That those Africans had been unlawfully brought into the United States, and that Bowen’s tale of the purchase in Camden county, from the owner of a privateer who had brought them in, even if true, would not have altered the case. He must, consequently, have known that, under the act of Congress of 1807, neither Bowen, nor those for whom he acted, nor any person claiming under them, could have any right or title whatever to those negroes or to their services.
  2. That certain mercantile houses in Savannah and Augusta were interested in them; and, if Bowen had not previously informed him, the letter of Erwin, Groce, & Co. by Colonel Morgan, and the visit of that gentlemen to the agency, could not have left him in ignorance of the fact that the house of Erwin, Groce, & Co. was one, at least, of those houses.
  3. He knew that these Africans were intended for Alabama, and to be settled on the lands of those gentlemen in that Territory.
  4. General Mitchell must have known that to carry them  to Alabama was as clear a violation of the act of Congress as to carry them into any one of the United States; for General Mitchell is a man not only of uncommon intelligence and acuteness, but, as it appears by these documents, a lawyer by profession; and his talents, which are manifest, leave no doubt that he was a lawyer of distinction.

Mitchell also tried to claim that he needed to place a bond on the slaves under a confused interpretation of Georgia law on exporting slaves clearly invented for the purpose of excusing himself. Even if that law applied, the responsibility for such bonds lay with the governor.

A business this involved has many stakeholders and they all looked to their investments. A Jared Groce, as in Erwin, Groce, & Company, took forty-seven slaves across the Creek Nation under Mitchell’s passport. James Erwin, as his father Andrew testified, had gotten notes from Bowen for half the slaves. Taking out the five slaves given to Long for his part in the affair, that matches up awfully well.

Mitchell didn’t do all his looking the other way for free, of course. A John Lambert, who worked at the agency as a gardener, swore that he fed the slaves out of Mitchell’s pantry and that he saw Mitchell, his son, Long, Bowen, and others divide up the slaves. The elder Mitchell’s “part was distinguished from the others by a piece of yellow ferret or tape tied in their hair.” John Oliphant, who had helped bring the slaves to the Agency, reported that Bowen and Mitchell gave the slaves regular examinations and that

thirty or thirty-five of said negroes had a red flannel string tied around their wrists, which the witness understood, was to distinguish General Mitchell’s from Mr. Bowen’s”

The difference in marking reflects the two consignments of people. Oliphant speaks specifically of the second group, whereas Lambert left his position at the Agency before they arrived.

Mitchell seems to have gotten his share of the slaves for more than services rendered. Rumors, deemed credible by a federal marshal, circulated that he embezzled money meant for the Creek nation to buy himself a share. That Mitchell tried to sell him some of the slaves may have put the question on the marshal’s radar. He declined unless Mitchell would write out proper deeds for them in his own name, which Mitchell refused. If they wanted that, then they should talk to Bowen. The Creek Agency had nothing at all to do with the smuggled slaves, except that Bowen proved he had not smuggled them and so held the slaves legally. If we departed all good sense and took Mitchell at his word, then that still makes him a man trying to sell someone else’s people.

“It is useless for me to deny it” Smuggling Slaves with David Brydie Mitchell, Part Two

David B. Mitchell

William Bowen, David Byrdie Mitchell’s employee at the Creek Agency, had quite the close call. He smuggled the last forty-two of his hundred slaves out of Amelia Island less than a week before the United States Navy sailed in and ended its usefulness as a depot for slave smuggling. We might expect a man who claimed that he scared so easily he risked breaking American law by taking his slaves to the Agency instead of Spanish West Florida based on rumors to take that as a lesson and get himself out of slave smuggling. If nothing else, he ought to at least stop doing it around St. Mary’s River.

That same crippling anxiety surely gripped Bowen as he wrote, on Christmas of 1817, that he heard that someone moved group of a hundred sixty contraband slaves off Amelia before the Navy arrived and they remained somewhere nearby on the mainland. We must imagine him rending his garments and weeping as he informed (page 962) Mitchell

excellent bargains could be had in the purchase of those [slaves] that were run off to the main from Amelia.

and furthermore

I would make another purchase, but my other business is too much neglected to take the necessary time to accomplish the security of them.

Also Mitchell’s friend Captain Thomas really ought to have come so he could have gotten in on those profits. Of course Bowen had handed over supervision of his smuggling operation to a Creek named Tobler, who had fake papers indicating that he had bought the slaves in Georgia. That made the trade domestic and legal, or at least someone else’s problem if he got caught.

Bowen parted company with Tobler to tend to some of that neglected business, but two men came across the Creek and his charges. Lodowick Ashley and Jason Brinson later made sworn statements on the matter. They saw Tobler in charge of the slaves and in the company of a white man, John Oliphant. Tobler informed Ashley and Brinson that he owned those forty people. That took place on December 26, 1817, the day after Bowen wrote from Drummond’s Landing.

Ashley and Brinson went to Drummond’s Landing and found Bowen still there. They told Bowen the slaves might run afoul of army movements. The army would likely have other priorities than rounding up slave smugglers, but if they blundered into a group then they might take action. Bowen tried to hire the two to go and turn the contraband slaves to a safer route. They could have their pick of the slaves so long as they made sure the rest got to the home of a Timothy Barnard or to the Creek Agency.

The witness [Ashley] observed that he should not like to be caught there with the negroes by General Mitchell; to which Bowen replied that he believed General Mitchell was his friend; and that, if the negroes were left or set down in the back part of the agent’s field, it should entitle the witness to the negro before mentioned.

Brinson confirmed all of that. Attorney General Wirt’s report doesn’t say, but it sounds like Ashley and Brinson turned Bowen down.

It might have all ended there, but Bowen sent his letter -the same letter I have quoted from- to Mitchell with Tobler. That letter found its way into Mitchell’s desk, where the Agency blacksmith. There William Moore, found it along with a bill of sale. (Mitchell, going away for a while, asked Moore to repair the desk in his absence.) Moore gave the letter to John Clark, who become governor of Georgia in 1819. Clark in turn confronted Bowen with the document. Had he written and signed his name to he incriminating latter?

To which Bowen replied, “It is useless for me to deny it”, as my handwriting is so well known;” which I [Wirt] understand to mean, “I would deny it, if I did not know that my handwriting could be so easily proved; but, since it can, it is useless for me to deny it.”

Clark insisted on a straight yes or no and got the former. Nor did Bowen recant when questioned later, which makes things look very bad for Mitchell. Asked to explain just why he consulted so closely with the Indian agent on slave smuggling, Bowen finally clammed up.

Meanwhile, Mitchell had the illegal slaves on his agency and entertained interested parties. On December 20, 1817, before the second group of slaves arrived, Tennessean Gideon Morgan, stopped by Mitchell’s at the request of some of Bowen’s financiers. He had a letter from the partners in the firm identifying him as their agent, addressed to Mitchell by name. So the men who fronted Bowen the cash to go buy slaves and smuggle them into the country knew that their slaves either had already or would soon arrive at Mitchell’s Creek Agency. Those papers don’t mention slaves, but refer tellingly to Morgan carrying out business near the Agency and then into Alabama Territory. Morgan had a letter from a General Gains -who did not know about the slaves and made it his business to expose Mitchell when he learned of them- asking Mitchell to write him a passport through Indian country.

Georgia might prove too close to prying eyes for a safe resale of slaves, but less settled and more labor-hungry Alabama would probably  look the other way.

To further link Mitchell, Morgan, and the firm of Erwin, Groce, & Company (the aforementioned financiers), his introductory letter to the agent includes this passage:

“Should he,” says the letter, “have occasion for funds or any other services in your power, you will confer a singular favor on me by rendering him any service in your power. We will accept his drafts at any sight for any sum he may think proper to draw on us for.” [Wirt’s emphasis.]

That bespeaks considerable trust in Morgan and a similar degree of confidence in Mitchell not to bleed them dry. Wirt spells it out:

The engagement in the letter of Erwin, Groce, & Co. that they would pay at any sight the drafts of Colonel Morgan in favor of General Mitchell, to any amount, is certainly calculated to suggest inquiries which it would not be easy to answer satisfactorily.

In other words, they wrote Mitchell a blank check. They would not do such a thing unless they both trusted him extremely well and expected extraordinary service of him.

Odd Accidents: Smuggling Slaves with David Brydie Mitchell, Part One

David B. Mitchell

Gentle Readers, without meaning to I have gotten away from doing posts on events prior to the 1850s. Kansas remains my focus, but I want to write about earlier subjects more often than I have. This post goes to remedying that, though I can’t promise I will make it a regular feature. When I do these posts, I intend to put them in the new Deep Dives category. Enough about programming, let’s get into some history.

The United States outlawed the importation of Africans to the country, effective January 1, 1808. Many at the time took this as a banner antislavery achievement, pointing especially to the remarkable fact that the House of Representatives managed only five votes against the law. If one wants to find an antislavery consensus in the Early Republic, that makes for an appealing data point. In the broader context, the United States covered itself in rather less glory. The ban permitted the sale of people brought illegally into the nation. Judges and juries didn’t work that hard to convict slave smugglers. Except for the president, no one had a clear chain of command to the federal marshals, attorneys, and customs officials who might enforce the prohibition. Even had all that existed, the vast spaces involved and the presence of Spanish on just the frontier where one would most want to smuggle human cargo into the nation presented a serious logistical challenge to widely-scattered officials. Some pleaded for revenue cutters and naval vessels to patrol coastal waters. Others protested flagrant violation of the law, particularly in Louisiana after its purchase.

We have had to revise early estimates of the number of slaves smuggled into the nation downward substantially, but it would not do to overcorrect and assume that little to no smuggling took place after 1808. In the 1810s, probably a few thousand enslaved people did enter the United States in defiance of the law. Some of those came in the conventional way we imagine: a ship goes to Africa and comes back with a human cargo sold in port, but slavers had more subtle methods. Large operations existed on either side of the nation. Jean Lafitte and other pirates took the slaves they stole from Spanish slavers to Galveston Island and sold them to middlemen, including Jim Bowie, who took them overland through Spanish Texas to Louisiana for a tidy profit. Amelia Island, at the mouth of St. Mary’s river on the border between Georgia and Florida, housed a similar operation with far less overland travel involved. Both came to the attention of the United States, which eventually sent the Navy to suppress them, but before that many Americans happily wet their beaks in the trade.

David Brydie Mitchell resigned from his third term as governor of Georgia in March of 1817 to accept an appointment to the Creek Agency in western Georgia. Mitchell cited high principle as the main reason: he would earn the same salary in either post, but Indian agents served at the pleasure of the president during good behavior and so he could expect to collect that salary for rather longer than a governor’s two year term. He wanted tenure and got it, until his behavior came to official notice in a scandal that ended with his dismissal by James Monroe.

Documentation of the scandal comes mainly from a report (pages 957-75) of Attorney General William Wirt, which does not make for the most enchanting reading. Wirt himself complains of having to sort through about seventy documents full of claims and counterclaims, many of them inadmissable in a court of law and some not given under any kind of oath. They concerned men he did not know, some of whom others vouched for. As best he could determine, something like the following happened.

Mitchell took up residence at the Creek Agency, with his son and another man going ahead to plant corn for him. Shortly after Mitchell arrived, men began coming up to him and saying things, thinking aloud style, about how it would be nice to make money by importing slaves from Florida. Amelia Island was the main prospect, but really anywhere would do, so long as he could manage safely and legally. Mitchell thought that a capital idea and said that he’d considered the trade himself. It would be easy enough to bring the slaves in through Creek country to the agency. Mitchell and the other man, John Loving, then got to discussing details of the best route. Loving took notes.

Another man, Thomas Woodward, reported that another man, Joseph Howard, tried to hire him to go off and do the same thing. Woodward protested that it would break the law and anyway, he could not afford the upfront cost of buying the slaves on Amelia Island. Howard told him that Mitchell would front the cash in exchange for a share of the profits. Some Georgia financiers also got involved; one of their agents later talked.

In the main, the Mitchell affair begins with a Captain William Bowen. Bowen had worked for the man who held the Creek agency before Mitchell. Wirt says he doesn’t know much about any prior relationship Bown and Mitchell had, but Bowen claimed he got ten thousand dollars from Mitchell to use in buying things for the Creeks, probably in the spring or early summer of 1817. Apparently Mitchell apparently trusted him.

Bowen left the west for a visit to South Carolina and then called at the homes of some of those Georgia financiers. Somewhere along the way, he caught word that you could make a tidy buck trading on Amelia Island for coffee and sugar. Honestly, he only wanted coffee and sugar. Life handed him lemons when he learned that just then Amelia Island considered sugar and coffee too dear for the funding his backers had staked him. Bowen wanted to give up just then, but

By accident [Wirt’s emphasis], however, he is left by the vessel in which he had intended to embark; and, while he remains waiting for another conveyance, by another casualty (the arrival of a cargo of negroes in one of Commodore Aury’s privateers) he is induced to change the subject of his speculation

He bought the slaves, about a hundred of them. Some accident! Bowen arranged lodgings for about forty of them and took the sixty “most prime and able”with him across Florida. Bowen decided, or “decided” to settle with his new slaves in West Florida. He cites concern for the security of his property in making that decision. In other words, he realized that if he took them into the country straightaway he might get caught. Taking slaves between Spanish jurisdictions probably still broke a law, but not the famous slave import ban. All went well until Bowen suffered another coincidence. He got news at the Flint River, sixty miles downstream from the Creek Agency, of the Seminole War. Also, curiously, he had the forethought to arrange provisioning for the slaves he left behind but lacked it for the sixty or so slaves he had with him. So he just had to go to Mitchell’s agency “by chance, over the exact route with Loving states General Mitchell to have indicated to him.”

Wirt didn’t buy it and had witnesses who said otherwise. Moving that many slaves took more than one white man, so Bowen hired help and his help informed on him. The contraband slaves ended up on the south end of Mitchell’s field, “where they built houses for the negroes, and put them to work; a step certainly not deficient in boldness.”

Mitchell claimed absence when Bowen arrived, but returned in time to see him, the quarters, and the slaves. They talked things over and Bowen came away not at all alarmed by the agent’s return. He had frayed nerves right up until he didn’t. After the talk, Bowen went again to Amelia Island and came back with the remainder of his human merchandise. Those he took directly to Mitchell. The forty-two enslaved people left on Amelia got to come to the Creek agency with Bowen and his helpers, now including an Indian named Tobler. Along the way, Bowen resold four to a Captain Drummond. Accidents happen, you know? From Drummond, he wrote to Mitchell. Wirt includes the full letter:

I have got the balance of the stock that I had left on Amelia, (say forty-two,) and am just starging them under the care of Tobler. I believe I am narrowly watched, but think I have evaded discovery as yet. The risk of getting this lot through, I believe to be more -considerably more- than the first. A party was made up for the purpose of following me and Long, three days after we left St. Mary’s river. Mr. Clark, the collector, was at his mills, and some persons lodged information that they were gone up the river, and had crossed; he offered half to the inhabitants in that neighborhood to detect us.

More pressing still, the United States had seized Amelia Island on the twenty-third of December. Bowen wrote from Drummond’s Landing on Christmas day. In leaving the island on the twenty-first, he just barely missed them. All that said, Bowen remained a silver lining kind of guy:

The channel through which Africans could be had being obstructed, they will rise considerably.

Unanswered Questions about the Sack of Lawrence

Wilson Shannon

We left Wilson Shannon explaining the sacking of Lawrence to Franklin Pierce. He said, essentially, that sometimes people get a little excited and a lot of pillaging happens. What could you do? After the fact, he kept a promise he had made to Lawrence before this all began. Now that they had disarmed, thanks to Sheriff Samuel Jones riding into town and collecting what arms he could at the head of a small army, he ordered Colonel Sumner of the 1st Cavalry to dispatch men from Fort Leavenworth to guard Lawrence. For good measure, he also ordered a company for Topeka.

This all looked bad, of course. Shannon, charged with maintenance of law and order in Kansas, had permitted armed invasion, the pillage of one of its towns, and the destruction of a considerable amount of property. What kind of governor did that? He knew his conduct would come under scrutiny, both by antislavery figures outside Kansas and by proslavery politicians looking for a fall guy. Much of Shannon’s letter suggests that he understood the president as one of the latter. He got the job in the first place because Pierce fired Andrew Reeder for mismanaging the ascent of slavery, after all. Toward the end, the governor made the subtext into text:

I have relied solely on the forces under the command of Colonel Sumner, in order to maintain peace and good order in the Territory and enforce the execution of the laws. I have furnished no posse to the Marshal, nor have I been called on by that officer to do so.

Pierce had asked if Shannon drew on the force under Colonel Cooke out at Fort Riley, which the governor had not done. The stress on exclusivity suggests both that Shannon wanted the president to know he hadn’t gone mad with his new power to summon the army and that he hadn’t repeated his blunder of the winter and given proslavery forces a pretense to invade under his authority. Nor had I.B. Donaldson come to Shannon and asked for a posse, which could have come from the ranks of the 1st Cavalry. He hadn’t approved any posses since the small force sent into Lawrence with Jones on the occasion of his shooting, weeks before. Pierce would have to understand that Shannon did everything he could and simply did not deserve the blame for what happened after. The buck did not stop there.

All through this, I have wondered just how much of the story Shannon told honestly and how much he worked to excuse himself. The governor doesn’t appear to have outright lied, though he may have mistaken some things. He wrote for an audience that had every reason, including a past bungling, to hold him accountable and so we must expect him to paint himself in the most favorable light. But the matter of Donaldson’s posse remains ambiguous. Did Shannon firmly suggest he take the military instead of summoning any proslavery man with a grudge to move on Lawrence? He might have seen Lawrence as a problem that the posse would take care of for him, as suggested by his indifference to the town’s plight while it remained under arms. That would encourage him not to press the matter. Donaldson clearly turned him either way, but Shannon could still have ordered Sumner’s men out to serve as a kind of peacekeeping force; he tried to do just that during the Wakarusa War.

And why did Donaldson refuse the aid Shannon might have offered him? Concern for his safety makes perfect sense in light of how Lawrence treated Samuel Jones. Shannon told Pierce that the Marshal feared the soldiers might tip off the men he aimed to arrest, but if Donaldson feared that then why wait weeks to move? Why issue a proclamation calling for the largest posse he could possibly assemble? Donaldson deserves the lion’s share of the blame for bringing in his posse, but what did Shannon really do to deter him? During at least days closeted together in Lecompton, they must have discussed Lawrence. What did they say? Did all of this go according to plan and get disavowed later? Or did Shannon try his best and get outpaced or outmaneuvered?

I don’t know.

Governor Shannon’s Peace

Wilson Shannon

We left Wilson Shannon, second governor of Kansas Territory, explaining what had happened to Lawrence to an impatient President Franklin Pierce. The posse of proslavery men, hundreds strong, ran amok for hours. The governor explained that the antislavery party headquartered in Lawrence had driven them to distraction. They could not rest easily until reducing the Free State Hotel and the town’s two printing presses to ruins. No one died -Shannon either ignored or didn’t know of the proslavery man who died when a piece of the hotel fell on him as it burned- and the governor dismissed the property damage as the result of incidental exuberance and brief failure of the officers on the ground, not design. Trust him and note the fine raiment he chose for his posterior.

I.B. Donaldson gathered a suspiciously large posse to begin with and then made no protest over its transfer to the control of a known proslavery hooligan with a grudge against Lawrence, Douglas County sheriff Samuel Jones, but the federal marshal himself got in and out of town without any destruction. He left with prisoners in tow, taking them straight to Lecompton. There Governor Shannon waited. On having news of Donaldson’s success, the governor finally stirred himself to concern about Lawrence’s fate:

As soon as I was advised that he [Donaldson] had dismissed his posse, and without waiting for further information from Lawrence, I addressed a letter to Colonel Sumner, at Fort Leavenworth, calling on him for three companies of United States troops -one company to be stationed at Lawrence, one at this place [Lecompton], and one at Topeka.

Shannon wrote to Sumner on May 21, 1856; he probably put pen to paper as the rampage took place. Aside from knowing that Donaldson had arrested the men he came for, his letter to the colonel reveals

The Sheriff has also got through making arrests on warrants in his hands, and I presume by this time has dismissed his posse.

Franklin Pierce

That dates the composition of Shannon’s letter into the evening, but he may have presumed on both counts and written Sumner what he expected to happen rather than what he knew. If Jones arrested anybody in Lawrence on that day, I haven’t seen reference to it in any sources with local knowledge. If he wrote in anticipation, Shannon could easily have written earlier and sent his missive during the afternoon.

Either way, Shannon wanted Sumner to get the lead out. He should dispatch his three companies -a hundred men each, on paper, but probably only thirty or so effective at any moment- “with as little delay as possible.” Shannon anticipated that more warrants would come and someone would have to go back into Lawrence to serve them. The military force would secure the peace, which he expected tested again when those warrants appeared in the hands of sheriffs and marshals.

The armed organization to resist the laws would seem to be broken up for the present, so far as the town of Lawrence is concerned, but there is danger that this formidable organization may show itself at some other point, unless held in check by the presence of a force competent to put it down.

Governor Shannon wanted to preserve the peace, or at least a peace. Ever since he came to Kansas he had written and acted on those lines with clear sincerity. He feared the result of a pitched battle between proslavery and antislavery militias, both for Kansas and the nation at large. If nothing else, a chaotic Kansas reflected poorly on him personally. Wild carnage did not suit him in the slightest, but he only exerted himself energetically to prevent bloodshed during the Wakarusa War, where he bore personal responsibility, and to dispatch Sumner’s men against antislavery organizations. In doing so, he followed closely the president’s own policy.

 

An excited mob and impotent orders

Wilson Shannon

Gentle Readers, I’ve been hard on I.B. Donaldson. I strongly suspect he saw his official duties as an excuse to get up a large proslavery force and bring it near Lawrence. His reasons for not taking a purely military force instead don’t add up in light of his behavior over the course of May. If he wanted surprise, then a proclamation announcing his intentions and weeks of warning can’t have looked like the way to secure it. If he expected the shock of that proclamation to paralyze the free state leadership, then why take weeks to follow up? Simple incompetence may play a part here -free state sources describe Donaldson as a bit dim- but his correspondence with Lawrence shows a keen enough mind. Maybe Governor Shannon lied about telling the Marshal he could have the 1st Cavalry, as Shannon’s careful wording may suggest, but that requires us to read a great deal into ambiguous phrasing.

Either way, Donaldson got his army of proslavery men and took them to Lawrence. While under his control, they remained relatively well-behaved. They occupied, and probably looted, Charles Robinson’s home and arrested people trying to flee Lawrence, but Donaldson got those of his quarry still present in the town with a small party of guards and left without incident. The things went bad, which Shannon doesn’t try to hide when he gave his version of the story (PDF) to Franklin Pierce:

Everything so far has proceeded with the utmost order. As soon as the Marshal had dismissed his posse, Sheriff Jones, who was on the ground with a number of writs in his hands against persons supposed to be in Lawrence, summoned the same body of men, as I am informed, to aid him

Shannon admitted that Lawrence put up no fight, though he made sure to note that most of the arsenal that might have opposed him left Lawrence “some days before.” However, the mob had “excitement” over Jones’ shooting, threats against others, and Lawrence’s refusal to submit to the laws, which “could not be restrained.”

A deep and settled conviction seemed to rest on the public mind that there was no security or safety, while those who refused obedience to the laws held their Sharps rifles, artillery, and munitions of war, and while the Aid Society Hotel was permitted to stand, this building having, it is said, been used as a fort, arsenal, and barracks for troops.

Jones’ posse then commenced its general rampage. Shannon doesn’t pin that on Jones, though. It turned out that people just got so damned excited that they had to go a little crazy. But not too crazy:

I understand that orders were given to respect private property, except that which I have named above, but, in so much confusion and disturbance, it is probable that these orders were not in all cases obeyed.

The Governor wrote this ten days after the sack of Lawrence. If he still had doubts about the extent of the destruction, he could have gone down and seen for himself. Instead he downplayed it as only something that happened occasionally. The mob hadn’t leveled Lawrence, fair enough, but even allowing for generous free state exaggerations the town paid a substantial price in stolen and destroyed possessions, to say nothing of the profound traumas suffered by the women who caught the eyes of some proslavery men.

The Cat-Like Tread of I.B. Donaldson

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce wanted to know what had happened or would soon happen in Kansas. His second governor of the territory, Wilson Shannon, had failed to write him with updates. Instead he got word through army dispatches and rumors, which the president found less than helpful. All the same, he endorsed Colonel Sumner’s plan to use the 1st Cavalry to serve process on people in Lawrence in lieu of a civilian posse. Governor Shannon heartily agreed when he finally wrote back on May 31, 1856. By then the moment had come and gone. He informed the President of the warrants issued against free state leaders, which I.B. Donaldson dispatched his deputy to serve. Said Deputy Marshal tried to secure Andrew Reeder and came away empty-handed. He also came away with a fear for his life if he gave it another try. In light of that and the surprise gift of a bullet to Sheriff Jones shortly before, convinced Donaldson he needed the security only a large posse could bring.

You can’t argue with that, but it all pointed to just the solution Pierce, Shannon, and Sumner all preferred. Donaldson got no such posse from Shannon, which raises troubling questions. The Shannon who appears in the free state correspondence has a tin ear for Lawrence’s concerns. Unless they completely disarm and submit to him, they can take their chances. I don’t know what went on between Shannon and Donaldson at Lecompton, where both men remained for some time and heard pleas from Lawrence together, but the governor gave Pierce a curious account:

Had the Marshal called on me for a posse, I should have felt myself bound to furnish him with one composed entirely of United States troops. Knowing this to be the case, and feeling satisfied that wish a posse composed of such troops, the parties to be arrested would evade the service of process, he determined […] to summon his own posse

Wilson Shannon

Shannon doesn’t quite say that he told Donaldson he could have the 1st Cavalry. He might have; Donaldson somehow knew that he could have the Army at his back, but Shannon only implies that he said so in as many words. I may have read this too closely, but it sounds like the Governor might be hard at work polishing his record. He omits any reference to his trying to extract confessions from Lawrence in exchange for ordering Sumner’s men into action.

The objection that Shannon gives from Donaldson doesn’t make much sense. John Speer and Marc Parrott both tell us that the military sided with the free state party in general. Donaldson reasonably might feared someone tipping his quarry off. But if he feared that then why did he announce to the world that he wanted a massive posse to deploy against Lawrence? Such cat-like tread makes for poor surprises. Even if he counted on shock, Donaldson waited ten days between his proclamation on the 11th of May and marching Lawrence on the 21st. If he really cared about people getting away, he had a funny way of showing it.

A generous reader might think Donaldson honestly wanted his quarry to escape and so gave them every chance, but he could have done so as easily and with far less danger of things getting out of his control had he taken Shannon’s possible offer for military help. If Shannon never made that offer, then he could have just sent his deputy in again or gone himself with a token force. As it stands, none of this adds up.

Franklin Pierce, Out of the Loop

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

The sack of Lawrence took place on a hot Wednesday, May 21, 1856. The destruction, pillage, and worse continued into the night but had abated by dawn. In the most restrictive sense, it played out over as little as four or five hours from the time Samuel Jones led his posse into town until they left again. But it took time and good cause, or at least a solid pretense, to get so many men to come over and consummate their long-held desire to do something about the infamous abolition town. The story could begin all the way back when Stephen Douglas cutting deals with the F Street Mess and Archibald Dixon. One could make a case for either, but to keep things manageable let’s focus on the immediate campaign against Lawrence that culminated on that Wednesday afternoon and evening. That also takes us back to Samuel Jones, sans posse, coming into Lawrence to arrest Samuel Wood on April 19. Failing then, he came back with a detachment of United States Cavalry and found Wood gone. He collected a few men as consolation prizes, then received a bullet in the back from someone in Lawrence gratis. On May 5, Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury made a federal case of things by ordering the arrest of various free state leaders and the suppression of the free state newspapers. The two causes came together in I.B. Donaldson’s overgrown “posse” of Missourians and Jefferson Buford’s adventurers.

That yields a bit more than a month between inciting event and the attack. During all that time, plenty of news could have passed back and forth between Kansas and Washington. One has to wonder just what the Pierce administration thought of events as they developed. The Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, Volume IV (PDF), have an account of that. The documents begin with the news that Franklin Pierce felt left out of the loop. On May 23, he telegraphed

Has the United States Marshal Proceeded to Lawrence to execute civil process? Has military force been found necessary to maintain civil government in Kansas? If so, have you relied solely upon the troops under the command of Colonels Sumner and Cooke? If otherwise, state the reasons. The laws must be executed; but military force should be employed until after the Marshal has met with actual resistance in the fulfillment of his duty.

Shannon, absent airline travel, couldn’t have called upon the president; he might at least have written.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Later that day, the President telegraphed again. In the interim, he received word from Edwin Sumner via Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War. Pierce had a copy of Sumner’s letter to Shannon “of the 12th instant.” I think that Pierce means the letter Sumner sent on the 13th, based on his endorsement of Sumner’s policy there. The Colonel wanted a purely military posse to keep the peace and offered to furnish Shannon with however many men he required. Pierce wrote

My knowledge of facts is imperfect; but with the force of Colonel Sumner at hand, I perceive no occasion for the posse, armed or unarmed, which the Marshal is said to have assembled at Lecompton.

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

Nobody looks on Franklin Pierce as a sterling example of presidential leadership or far-sighted judgment, but even he could see things had gone sour indeed and required containment. He knew that Donaldson had a posse at Lecompton but had yet to move on Lawrence, thanks to his information as of the 13th. But while he sat in Washington and wondered why Shannon hadn’t written back to him, Donaldson had gone and Lawrence unresisting people of Lawrence paid the price.