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.


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