Visions of Prosperity: The Journey to Kansas, Part 3

John Brown

Parts 1, 2

With Austin Brown dead of cholera and buried in Missouri, the families of Jason and John Brown, Jr., made their way back to the steamer and found that it had left them behind. They paid for a full passage and departed the boat only to bury four year old Austin, in the middle of a thunderstorm no less, but got abandoned all the same. By the most charitable reading, the captain simply didn’t know they left. More likely he didn’t care or saw the chance to spite Yankees as a fringe benefit to making up lost time. That left the Browns to proceed by land, paying passage all over again. That included food, which many Missourians refused to sell to Northerners.

Still, the Browns soldiered on and reached Kansas

her lovely prairies and wooded streams seemed to us indeed like a haven of rest. Here in prospect we saw our cattle increased to hundreds and possibly to thousands, fields of corn, orchards, and vineyards. At once we set about the work through which our visions of prosperity could be realized.

The Browns had the standard frontier experience, gleefully imagining their future prosperity on stolen land. They came to the town of Osawatomie, where the Marais des Cynges met Pottawatomie Creek, an area with ample timber. They a brief time time with John Brown’s in-law, Samuel Adair, and he probably got them up to speed on what the Missourians did come election time. Then they headed off to find Frederick, Salmon, and Owen Brown’s claims by North Middle Creek, a tributary of the Marais des Cynges. There they established adjoining claims. Kansas greeted its new arrivals with the height of its rainy season, delivering thunderstorms aplenty.

All this takes us up to May of 1855, at which point Brown biographer Stephen Oates says Brown decided to join his sons in Kansas. He references Sanborn’s Life and Letters of John Brownfrom which I have most of the Brown correspondence I’ve quoted to date. Sanborn doesn’t produce a letter indicating Brown’s official change of heart, but the relevant page includes narrative from Sanborn that Brown made his decision at this point. Considering Sanborn knew Brown personally and served as one of his Harper’s Ferry backers, his word should suffice.

Oates refers to Brown writing John, Jr., on May 24 to ask about the best way to come to Kansas and what his sons wanted him to bring along. The relevant page of Sanborn does include two brief letters Brown wrote from Rockford, dated May 7 and June 4. Neither letter refers to any plan to come to Kansas directly or includes the questions Oates has Brown ask. Nor does the letter that Junior wrote Brown on May 2 informing him of the situation in the territory appear there. I would rather have both, but will have to settle for Oates’ rendition:

On May 24, Brown himself wrote his sons from Rockford, Illinois, asking how he should come to Kansas and what necessities they might want him to bring. He also inquired about the prospects for surveying and speculating in land and about the going prices for beans, apples, cornmeal, bacon, horses, and cattle.

In the letter of May 7, Brown asks only about the prices of wheat and corn in Westport. The next, June 4, reports that Brown has sold his Devonshire cattle and planned to head up to North Elba. Reading those in conjunction with Sanborn’s declaration that Brown chose for Kansas at this point makes for a convincing case, but the absent letters remain a personal research frustration.

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