John Brown’s Other Neighbors

John Brown

The Browns did not have the best of neighbors down by Osawatomie. They annoyed posterity by settling near that town, then performing their most conspicuous historical act before 1859 on the near by Pottawatomie, but they could keep it straight. They objected in the main to belligerent proslavery men living nearby. Rude at best and likely drunkards or worse, at least in antislavery rumor, people like the Sherman brothers and Allen Wilkinson made the area decidedly unwelcoming. Of course, their neighbors had gripes of their own.

The Browns spent too much time sick and shivering to become nuisances even if inclined, but at least one local antislavery man had a vicious reputation as an eager brawler. Decades later, Salmon Brown told Oswald Garrison Villard (PDF) -a founding member of the NAACP and William Lloyd Garrison’s grandson as well as a John Brown biographer- that Theodore Weiner was a “big, savage, bloodthirsty Austrian” and “could not be kept out of any accessible fight.” Wiener would go with Brown to visit some of those proslavery neighbors in 1856.

Beyond the brawlers, Brown can’t have liked the news that most of the antislavery party shared in white America’s common loathing of black America. Another white colonist in the area, John Everett, described the general sentiment in letters to his parents:

The community here are very nearly united on the free-state question. But the majority would dislike and resent being called abolitionists. . . . Our community here are mostly Western people, some from Slave States. There is a prevailing sentiment against admitting negroes into the territory at all, slave or free.

[…]

The Western people find much such a country as they left behind them, and settle right down, build their cabins, fence and break up their fields and drop their corn, before you hardly know they are here. They have a strong instinct against slavery, do not want it about them, but lack the strong moral sense of its injustice which we feel.

That made them typical westerners and western men predominated in Kansas; the territorial census of 1855 found fully 83% of white Kansans hailed from points rather nearer the territory than Massachusetts or New York. That our informants tend to hail from the Northeast and had a more moral condemnation of slavery makes it easy to forget that. Many who did come from the Northeast found that the Emigrant Aid Company badly oversold the territory’s amenities and soon went home. Even beside that, people from the Northeast often didn’t know to expect quarrels over land claims and the generally rough situation on the white frontier.

John Everett thought he might reach his neighbors, though:

If you have more than one key to Uncle Tom, we would be very glad if you could send us one. We could do good with it by lending it. They need light here on that subject.

After writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe faced charges that she made up all the information in it about slavery. Thus she hit the books and produced a second volume arguing for the accuracy of her book. Stowe’s critics had a point; she did the research after the fact. However, she could get it as right as she did partly from being an informed antislavery American before writing the book and possibly with the help of enslaved informants she met while helping them escape Kentucky through her Cincinnati home. The facts might not move Missourians, for whom they couldn’t be news, but maybe they would shake loose a few from the Old Northwest for whom slavery remained something more theoretical.

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