John Brown, Junior, told his father that he should commit no rash act. That triggered a father-son argument that ended with the elder Brown storming off. Brown had gone around, perhaps discreetly, asking volunteers for some kind of secret mission or, as his son would put it, the rash act in question. Salmon Brown, one of the volunteers, said years later that everyone in the camp understood Brown’s rash act as a planned killing. He, his brothers Frederick, Owen, and Oliver, and Henry Thompson formed the heart of Brown’s group. Brown also reached out to James Hanway, who took a pass. Theodore Weiner, who had previous run-ins with the Sherman brothers and the Doyles, signed on as well.
All those signed up for Brown’s secret mission so far also served in his little militia company, rather than the Pottawatomie Rifles under the command of the younger John Brown. One could expect a stronger degree of prior commitment from people who agreed to take his lead from the start. He approached at least one more man from outside that group, Marylander James Townsley. Townsley had military experience dating back to the Seminole War, but mustered out in 1844 and made his living as a painter. He came to Kansas in late 1855. Townsley remained there in the late 1870s, at which point the Kansas papers had some discussion over what had happened and someone realized they had an eyewitness still at hand. A lawyer rounded up James Hanway and went out to see Townsley, who obliged them.
About noon the next day, the 23rd, old John Brown came to me and said he had just received information that trouble was expected on the Potawatomie, and wanted to know if I wold take my team and take him and his boys back so they could keep watch of what was going on.
Townsley agreed, Salmon says “with glee.” He had family back there himself. With Townsley committed, Brown set to breaking camp while his sons began sharpening swords. Stephen Oates describes the weapons and their odd history:
These weapons, with ornamental eagles etched on their blades, had a bizarre history. Originally made as artillery broadswords, they had been sold as surplus property to an Ohio filibustering society called the Grand Eagles, whose members had indulged in fantasies of attacking and conquering Canada. But their plans had never worked out, and when Brown came through Akron, asking for guns and money to defend Kansas from the Slave Power, a member of the defunct society had given the swords to him.
Brown’s biographer, Villard, has John Junior and Jason with them sharpening the blades. This seems at first blush improbable, given that Junior had just tried talking his father down and Jason would remain behind, but Villard cites a statement from Jason supporting the point. He insisted that while he did put a grindstone to use that day, he had no idea what John Brown meant to do with the weapons.
George Grant noticed this going on and asked Frederick Brown if he could ride along when they moved out. Frederick asked John Brown, who told him no and advised that he have witnesses who could confirm his whereabouts in the coming night. Boys eager for adventure had best stay away from his plans, apparently.
James Hanway marked all the sharpening too and thought, like Grant did, that it meant something. He found out enough of the plan from one of the members to shock him and approached Brown, advising “caution.” Brown shot up:
Caution, caution, sir. I am eternally tired of hearing that word caution. It is nothing but the word of cowardice.