“So calculated to unMan me”

John Brown

One more John Brown letter. Regular posts resume Monday.

Osawatomie Kansas Territory 1st Feby 1856

Dear Wife & Children every One

Your & Watsons Letter to the Boys, & Myself of Decem 30th & Jany 1st were received by last Mail. We are all very glad to hear again of your welfare; & I am particularly grateful when I am noticed by a letter from you. I have just taken out Two Letters for Henry One of which I suppose is from Ruth. Salmon & myself are so far on our way home from Missouri; & only reached Mr Adairs last night. They are all well & we know of nothing but all are well at the Boys Shantees. The weather continues very severe; & it is now nearly Six Weeks that the Snow has been almost constantly driven (like dry Sand) by the fierce Winds of Kansas. Mr, Adair has been collecting Ice of late from the Osage River; which is 9 1/2 Inches thick, of perfect clean sollid Ice, formed under the Snow. By means of the sale of our Horse & Wagon: our present wants are tolerably well met; so that if health is continued to us we shall not probably suffer much. The idea of again visiting those of my dear family at North Elba; is so calculated to unMan mme that I seldom allow any thoughts to dwell uppon it: & I do not think best to write much about it. “Suffise it to Say”; that God is abundantly able to keep both us, & you: & in him let us all trust. We have just learned of some new; & shocking outrages at Leavenworth: & that the Free State people there have fled to Lawrence: which place is again threatened with an attack. Should that take place we may soon again be called uppon to “buckle on our Armor”; which by the help of God we will do: when I suppose Henry, & Oliver will have a chance. My judgment is; that we shall have no more general disturbance until warm weather. I have more to say; but not time now to say it. So farewell for this time. Write.

Your Affectionate Husband & Father

John Brown

An extraordinary letter from John Brown

John Brown

Gentle Readers, I usually take a one day blogging hiatus this time of year. Without particularly meaning to, I’ve taken longer this year. Don’t worry; it’s all for pleasant reasons. I’m about ready to begin again, but the week only has two blogging days left and it seems like a waste to get back going with the narrative for those and then stop for a weekend before restarting. Instead, let me share with you a letter that came to me courtesy of Louis Ruchames’ A John Brown Reader, which I did not have on hand when last I mentioned it.

Akron, Ohio, 30th Sept 1854

Dear Children

After being hard pressed to go with my family to Kansas as more likely to benefit the colored people on the whole than to return with them to North Elba; I have consented to ask for your advice & feeling in the matter; & also to ask you to learn from Mr. Epps & all the colored people (so far as you can) how they would wish, & advise me to act in the case, all things considered. As I volunteered in their service; (or the service of the colored people); they have a right to vote, as to the course I take. I have just written Gerrit Smith, Fredk Douglass, & Dr. McCune Smith, for their advice. We have a new daughter now Five days old. Mother & child are both doing well to appearance. Other friends well so far as I know. John & Wealthy are still with us. Will you write as soon as you can? Have not received your reply to my other questions.

Your Affectionate Father

John Brown

Few white men of his age would acknowledge a general debt to black Americans, let alone give them a say in such a momentous decisions as moving across the country. Brown asked the people he made the commitment to personally up in North Elba, and also Frederick Douglass and James McCune Smith, the latter the first black American to earn a medical degree.

The startling news

John Brown

Henry H. Williams, who lived near the Pottawatomie, got the word on Wednesday, May 21, 1856. The Border Ruffians, under the leadership of IB Donaldson and Samuel Jones, had come for Lawrence again as long expected. He mounted up and rode the ten miles “to arouse” the Pottawatomie Rifles under the command of John Brown’s son. At about four in the afternoon, everyone gathered where the Osawattomie and the California road met. They waited on two other companies, the Marion Rifles and Pomeroy Guards, but only two men showed from those groups.

The roused Rifles soon had a second messenger from Lawrence, who contradicted the previous and seems to have said they should stay put and wait on further word. They would have none of that and resolved to go and find out the situation for themselves. That brought them to a third messenger, who reported the town’s surrender and subsequent destruction.

This startling news was received in silence by the company. Then the word “Onward” was passed along the line, and although scarcely a word was spoken, the thoughts of every man could be read in his countenance. We pushed on, and a messenger was dispatched the arouse the settlers at Osawattamie.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

More bad news came in: No free state militia operated in or near Lawrence. The Border Ruffians held Blanton’s Bridge and still had a force in Lecompton. That looked like more than thirty-odd men could handle, so they camped at Prairie City and hoped that more men would appear. Company C of the Kansas Volunteers and the Pomeroy Guards joined them on May 23. That evening, the news came that proslavery men had taken Charles Robinson off his steamer and hauled him back to Kansas.

That got the Rifles and company moving, aimed at intercepting Robinson at Palmyra and rescuing him. There the Marion Rifles finally appeared. While they waited for the free state governor to come by, John Junior and a small group went to check on Lawrence, finding Robinson’s house burned and both presses ruined:

the town was sacked according to “Law and Order” by a posse of 400 South Carolinians, Georgians, and Border Ruffians

The militias considered their next course. Lawrence would not fight for itself and they couldn’t carry that battle on their own, so everyone agreed to go home and look to their own defense.

On our return from Palmyra we received intelligence of a disturbance on Potawatamie Creek, in which five men were killed.

“I’ll drive this knife to the hilt until I find your life”

John Brown

Squire Morse, an old Michigander with two kids, sold Frederick Brown some lead bars that he took over to the Grant house to make into bullets. Dutch Bill Sherman and his proslavery friends took note of that and told Morse that he needed to quit the area or he would leave it permanently at the end of a rope. He had until eleven that morning to get gone, at which point they returned and decided to upgrade his murder weapon to an axe. They also gave him until sundown, after his children cried and pleaded. Morse took his two boys and went to the Grant’s. He stayed with them for a while, but insisted on sleeping rough in the prairie rather than risk being caught in town at night. The stress of that and the threat to his life eventually ended it. The Grant family caught some of it too, with Dutch Henry Sherman calling to tell them of More’s expulsion and that many other antislavery families had to go too.

The proslavery men around Osawatomie had made dire threats before. Sanborn had it from a Mr. Foster that in the same spring of 1856,

William Sherman had taken a fancy to the daughter of one of his Free-State neighbors, and had been refused by her. The next time he met her he used the most vile and insulting language toward her, in the midst of which Frederick Brown appeared and was besought for protection, which was readily granted. Sherman then drew his knife, and, speaking to the young woman, said: ‘The day is soon coming when all the damned Abolitionists will be driven out or hanged; we are not going to make any half-way work about it; and as for you, Miss, you shall either marry me or I’ll drive this knife to the hilt until I find your life.

Frederick supposedly told Sherman that if he tried it, “he would be taken care of.” Foster tells this all after the fact in a passage largely about defending the Browns for murdering Dutch Bill, so we have to read it with some skepticism. Furthermore, if the Browns or the other Pottawatomie Rifles thought that their families in the area stood at serious risk they most probably would have either stayed home or made arrangements for their safety. Sherman may have made the threat to the woman, and Brown answered it as reported, but their behavior suggests that they believed their hostile neighbors talked big and never delivered.

Morse’s travail suggested that things had changed. The absence of the antislavery men and presence of Georgians who came those hundreds of miles to kill abolitionists bolstered their convictions.

A rope, an axe, violent crying and violent illness.

John Brown

John Brown’s son Frederick went into Dutch’s Crossing to buy some lead bars. He aimed to use that lead for free state bullets and enlisted the Grant family to help make them. With Lawrence under threat again, they needed the ammunition. In many places, all that might go unmarked. Dutch’s Crossing presented several problems for that, all of which go back to the German-born “Dutch” Sherman brothers. Illegal squatters and likely petty criminals from way back, they went all-in for slavery and acted belligerently toward their antislavery neighbors. One of the Shermans and some of their proslavery friends saw Frederick Brown passing by with the lead and asked what he meant to do for it. Frederick told them.

The proslavery men didn’t take it out on Frederick, a relatively young man carrying a bunch of useful bludgeons; a man could get bruised trying to bruise a guy like that. Instead they went to the older Michigander who ran a store nearby and sold the lead. Squire Morse, who had two small children, received a visit first thing in the morning as soon as the free state men moved out for Lawrence. Dutch Bill, the Doyles, and Allen Wilkinson (a bogus legislature member) showed him a noose and told him that they would hang him for selling the lead.

But not just now. The proslavery men gave Morse until eleven to abandon his store and claim. They had only talked big before. Now they had a rope and gave a deadline. This fit the typical script for lynching a white man. The warning must have only felt sporting and refusing to abide by it would give them further aggravation. After making the threat, they departed to drink.

George Grant, then a child, recalled what happened next:

About eleven o’clock a portion of them, half drunk, went back to Mr. Morse’s, and were going to kill him with an axe. His little boys -one was only nine years old- set up a violent crying, and begged for their father’s life.

That childhood memory would stick with you. The violent crying and begging even moved the proslavery men, a little. They amended their deadline to sundown. Morse wasted no time:

He left everything and came at once to our house. He was nearly frightened to death. He came to our house carrying a blanket and leading his little boy by the hand. When night came he was so afraid that he would not stay in the house, but went out of doors and slept on the prairie in the grass.

Morse remained in the area, but he hid out in the bush and came in for meals with the Grants. The travail took its toll on an already older man, who soon took “violently ill” and died. A doctor saw to him in that time and attributed the death to “the fright and excitement of that terrible day when he was driven from his store.”

All this for selling some lead, which Morse himself got from Dutch Henry originally. That Sherman brother got in on the action too, going over to the Grants to tell them that they had ordered Morse out “and a good many others of the Free-State families have to go.” George Grant doesn’t report it as a personal threat to them, but the Shermans knew that Brown took his lead to them to turn into bullets. With some Georgian proslavery militants nearby and the antislavery militia away, they had to feel intensely vulnerable.

Twenty or thirty pounds of lead bars and one noose

John Brown

Affairs between the proslavery and antislavery white colonists in Kansas did not go smoothly in general. Nothing that had happened in the territory’s short, stormy history pointed toward happy coexistence. Osatwatomie fit perfectly with the rest of the territory, maybe more so courtesy of outspoken antislavery men like the Browns in close company with similarly outspoken proslavery men like the Doyles and Shermans. August Bondi found that out the hard way when, new to Kansas, he called on the former as a fellow German. On learning his antislavery politics, they told him that he’d best get lost or he might get lynched.

That conversation put Bondi in touch with the Browns, who promised to have his back if the Shermans ever followed through. For a long time, they and others like them proved all talk. That began to change in the spring of 1856, just about the time that Cato opened his court and John Junior and the Pottawatomie Rifles made their sceneAccording to George Grant, who shared his recollections in 1879:

There was a company of Georgia Border Ruffians encamped on the Marais des Cynges, about four miles away from us, who had been committing outrages upon the Free-State people; and these proslavery men were in constant communication with them. They had a courier who went backward and forward carrying messages.

When news of the new threat against Lawrence came to the area, the free state men prepared to go to the town’s rescue. Frederick Brown visited a store run by a Michigander down at Dutch Henry’s Crossing, where the Shermans lived and operated their tavern. Frederick bought twenty or thirty pounds of lead, then took it over to Grant’s father’s house on a Sunday morning. Frederick and the Grant kids, including young George, spent the day making bullets from the lead.

Heading from old Squire Morse’s store to the Grant home took Frederick past Dutch Henry’s house. There he found several proslavery men, including James Doyle and sons and Dutch William, Henry’s brother. Seeing a known free state man with a load of twenty or thirty pounds of lead got them wondering if he meant it for something. Frederick told them his business, which “much incensed” them.

The next day, the Browns and other armed men started for Lawrence. That left no one around to keep the proslavery party in check and

a number of these proslavery men-Wilkinson, Doyle, his two sons, William Sherman, known as ‘Dutch Bill’- took a rope and went to old Squire Morse’s house, and said they were going to hang him for selling lead to the Free-State men.


When August Bondi met Dutch Sherman

John Brown

John Brown, his son who was also a John Brown, and the Pottawatomie Rifles walked away from Dutch Henry’s tavern on April 21, 1856 with most of what they came for. They knew for a fact that Judge Sterling Cato, holding court there, would enforce the bogus legislature’s laws against being Kansas and antislavery…mostly. Cato secured no indictments against Kansans who declared against slavery, or even formed antislavery militia companies like Brown and his son. He did indict only free state Kansans, but only for regular offenses. The next day he closed up shop with those settled and moved a county over to indict another free state Kansan, this one for assault. The junior Brown made a big show of telling his band of armed men that they would meet immediately right where everyone in court could hear him, but all they did present Cato with a copy of the resolutions recently voted on to resist enforcement of the proslavery code by force if necessary. He left no record of Cato’s reaction.

All of that didn’t amount to much, really. The free state men came out of it with the knowledge that the proslavery party would not stage an immediate crackdown, but the machinery of Kansas government had lurched further to life. What didn’t happen at one court session could happen at the next. For that matter, Missouri threatened to invade Kansas yet again. Across the territory’s political divide, the proslavery men around Osawatomie had parallel anxieties: among them lived a band of armed militants sworn to wage war against the forces of law and order. The implied threat to Cato’s court had to strike close to home for the Shermans (who hosted it), Allen Wilkinson (district attorney), Thomas McGinn (grand jury foreman), William Doyle (bailiff), James Harris and James Doyle (William’s father, both jurors). The Doyles also affiliated themselves with the Law and Order Party. Wilkinson served in the bogus legislature.

Not that they had behaved well before the threat. Sanborn relates that August Bondi arrived in Kansas almost a year before all this and went to check up with his fellow Germans. Dutch Sherman told him

“he had heard that Bondi and Benjamin [another German who had come with Bondi] were Freesoilers, and therefore would advise him to clear out, or they might meet the fate of Baker,” – a Vermont man whom the Border Ruffians had taken from his cabin on the Marais des Cynges, whipped, and hanged upon a tree, but had cut him down before death, and released him upon his promise to leave Kansas.

Sandborn worshiped Brown and Bondi told him all this years later, probably while they clambered about Kansas trying to find where Bondi and Brown camped out in the spring and summer of 1856. He might have invented it as a handy way to tell how he came to meet the Brown family, though Frederick’s promise that if the Shermans caused trouble they could come to his rescue. But proslavery and antislavery Kansans often had poisonous relationships and the proslavery side in particular seems inclined to make violent threats, even if most of them didn’t go all the way to committing murder. Nothing that Bondi has Sherman threaten him with would depart from the norms established elsewhere.

Dead Hogs, Selling Alcohol, and Shooting at a Judge: An Anticlimax

John Brown

We left John Brown Junior departing Dutch Henry’s tavern, where Sterling Cato charged a grand jury. Junior, asking for his Pottawatomie Rifles and his unaffiliated father, wanted to know if Cato meant to enforce the laws of the bogus legislature. Those laws made expressing antislavery opinion in Kansas, something that probably every member of the company had done often and which Junior and his more famous father did to proslavery faces, illegal. Would Cato preside over their indictments, arrest, and trial? Not that Junior asked this in so many words, of course; one does not confess so openly to officers of the relevant court. He only wanted to know if Cato considered the legislature’s laws part of his court’s business or not.

Cato, a proslavery Alabaman, gave the answer everyone expected. When he refused to put it in writing for Junior, John Brown’s eldest stepped just outside the tavern and declared, loudly, that his rifle company would meet immediately. The Rifles, already assembled and waiting on the news, wasted no time getting back to where they had left their guns. According to Junior,

On their return, the preamble and resolutions of the Osawatomie meeting were read and passed unanimously, taking the vote by “shouldering arms.”

Those resolutions, recall, obliged the men who signed to them to resist the territorial government by force. Voting approval by taking up their guns made for good political theater and a decidedly literal expression of their position. Having turned the company into a mass meeting with extra firearms, they then went the next logical step and named a committee to deliver a copy of the resolutions to Cato.

Junior doesn’t tell us anything about how Cato received that drama. Instead he passes on to what the court did the next day. Only indictments passed the grand jury, and them only against three people. One killed hogs belonging to someone else. Another sold alcohol to Native Americans. The third took a shot at a proslavery probate judge. All opposed slavery, but none faced charges for that specifically. No one in Kansas had much stomach for enforcing the extreme territorial code, but Cato’s jury did only direct its attention to antislavery men. Even leaving aside political violence and illegal voting, one wouldn’t expect ordinary crime to fall so exclusively on one side. At least some tried to jump claims -the Browns had a problem with one of those in January- or squatted illegally on Indian or government land and might have faced charges for that.

All in all, the matter ended in anticlimax. Cato probably never intended to run an even-handed court, but he also didn’t go out hunting for the Browns and other antislavery men to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. With no arrests, no daring rescue took place. Knowing that, we can dismiss this as so much incidental noise in the record.

We should not. The Pottawatomie Rifles didn’t know that Cato would decline to enforce the law against them. Given the record of the proslavery party in Kansas, they had good reason to fear he might do so and acted accordingly. When they marched to the tavern, leaving their guns behind, they might well have walked straight into a jail or had to fight their way free. Keeping the guns so close testifies to the genuine fear that this might all end in a shoot out, or at least intimidation at gunpoint to keep the free state men at liberty.


“The Pottawatomie Rifle company will meet at the parade ground.”

John Brown

John Brown’s eldest, also John Brown, led his Pottawatomie Rifle company to Dutch Henry’s tavern on April 21, 1856. They left their rifles behind, but close enough that if something happened they could arm themselves in a hurry. John Junior went into the tavern, which caused a stir as everyone recognized him and knew him as an antislavery militant, and asked if Judge Sterling Cato’s court would enforce the laws of the United States or the laws of the bogus legislature. Cato saw that Brown and company hadn’t come in packing heat, so he told them that the laws of the territorial legislature applied.

Junior took his answer and went outside, to where most of his company waited on the news. The men can’t have taken it well. He came back inside the tavern toward the end of Cato’s proceedings and spoke up, as he recounts to the Herald of Freedom

May it please the Court, I have a question in writing to propose to the court, an answer to which, would enlighten the citizens, and no doubt would be acceptable to the Grand Jury.


Cato did not take the interruption well. He told Brown to wait until he was finished and ignored Brown’s note until then. Picking it up, he read

To the Court. Does this Court intend to enforce the enactments of the Territorial Legislature, so-called?

In Brown’s words, Cato

took up the paper containing the question, and after looking at it, laid it down near the clerk, in a rather contemptuous manner, without making any reply whatever. The clerk then did the same thing, and also the marshal.

Stephen Oates, citing manuscript sources I don’t have access to, expands on the contemptuousness. The judge read the paper and then threw it across the table. Brown adds that the clerk and marshal likewise read and discarded it. Cato would not have his court disturbed by theatrics, apparently.

Brown writes that he waited “awhile longer.” Maybe he thought that if he did, Cato would oblige him after all. The court had finished its work, so answering a technical question of obvious relevance wouldn’t be a great burden. Cato persisted in declining to play his part in Brown’s drama.

Junior could take the hint and had a flair for the dramatic that day which no proslavery man would get in the way of. He stepped just outside the tavern and then declared, loudly so everyone inside could hear,

The Pottawatomie Rifle company will meet at the parade ground.


The Potowatomie Rifles go to Court

John Brown

The tax assessor came to Osawatomie. Finding out that the residents might not take kindly to paying taxes to a government foisted on them by violence and massive fraud, dedicated to ramming slavery through without even a reasonable sham of democracy. A public meeting there resolved that no one would pay any such tax and if the assessor came around asking for it they would resist him with force. That’s what John Brown’s eldest son, John Junior, wrote to the Herald of Freedom. He left out that the first speaker at the meeting advocated paying and a group of conservatives walked out rather than be party to what the Browns and other like-minded Kansans resolved.

The assessor came anyway, but he did so without disclosing his affiliation. Instead he arrived as a stranger, innocently asking about the state of claims in the area. Soon thereafter, a marshal went around summoning jurors for Sterling Cato’s court. They might hear charges against the Browns and others for declaring against slavery while Kansan. The free state men didn’t sit idle as this went on. Realizing that the proslavery cause again looked ascendant in Kansas, Junior informs the Herald’s readers that on April 21,

a volunteer company, known as “Potowatomie Rifles,” met to drill about one mile and a half from the place where Judge Cato was to hold his Court, and this Company, composed of the actual settlers in this region, feeling an interest in the proceedings of that Court, were dismissed for a short time, and went to hear the charge of the Judge to the Grand Jury.

Again Junior left some details out. John Brown, never one to take orders and certainly not about to take them from his own son, did not join the Rifle company. Junior and Jason Brown did. They elected Junior their leader, so he likely chose their place of meeting and certainly dismissed them to go see what the court would do.

Separate from that trip, Brown himself dispatched Salmon and Henry Thompson to Cato as a test. Would the proslavery judge have them arrested on sight? They walked ten miles to Dutch Henry’s tavern to find out. Salmon didn’t appreciate playing the part of bait, but went along. His father promised that if Cato dared order their seizure, the old man would be along the next day to bust him out.

Brown himself rode to the tavern with the Rifle company. Everyone left their guns elsewhere, with some of the Browns staying back to guard them. Junior and an escort went inside and heard the Marshal open the court. Cato swore his jury and then charged them, but did not specify whether they had to work under the laws of the country or “the acts of the Shawnee Mission.” The ambiguity couldn’t stretch too far, though, as the judge

spoke frequently of “our laws,” at the same time laying his hand on a copy of those acts [of the territorial legislature] which was lying on the table.

Cato also alluded to

certain offenses or penalties not named or provided for by the laws of the United States.

Everyone in the room got the drift. National law did not make antislavery opinion illegal, but territorial law did. Still, it would help to have Cato on the record. John Junior’s appearance caused a stir, but once the judge saw that he didn’t come armed, he specified that the laws of the bogus legislature absolutely applied. Junior went back outside and told the men.