“I thought it best”

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon at last had cause to use the power that Franklin Pierce had delegated to him and call out the 1st Cavalry to preserve order in Kansas. That meant, to both men, suppressing the antislavery movement in the territory. Armed bands of proslavery men didn’t warrant anything like similar concern. That didn’t mean Shannon was entirely blind to the optics of the situation, though. He ordered Captain Wood’s command out of Lawrence, where he put them only after the proslavery men did as they would with the town and moved on. News of John Brown’s killing spree had Shannon move those men out, so he called on Colonel Sumner to replace them at Lawrence.

Here, Shannon felt a need to explain himself to the president:

I do not know that my instructions, at least in express terms, give me the power to call on Col. Sumner for troops to be located at different points in the Territory for the purposes I have already stated; but the plan met the entire approbation of Col. Sumner, and I was so well satisfied of the policy of it, that I thought it best, under the emergency to carry it out at once.

If he went too far in ordering something like martial law for significant portions of Kansas, then Shannon promised he could easily fix it. At any rate, he hadn’t done any harm given the situation. The Governor got the harm out of his system, at least for the time, when he ignored Lawrence’s pleas for protection and promises to cooperate with Israel Donaldson if only he would draw his posse from their number instead of Missourians bent on killing abolitionists.

That action had born fruit, as we know, in the capture of Brown’s elder two sons. Neither had anything to do with the murders along the Pottawatomie, naturally. They picked the wrong relatives, as so many of us do. With his report to President Pierce, Shannon also enclosed a dispatch from John R. Church, a second lieutenant of the Cavalry. Church saw the Pottawatomie Rifles and reported the matter up the chain. This all happened on May 26, before the Browns reunited after the murders:

I came upon a body of men from Osawatomie and the surrounding country, who, as well as I could judge, numbered some seventy or eighty, although they pretended to have about one hundred and thirty. This body was commanded by a Captain Brown, and was evidently a Free-State party. They had been at Palmyra about two days, and had frightened off a number of Pro-Slavery settlers, and forced off, as far as I could learn, two families.

Church says “forced off” and “frightened,” not “dragged out of their beds and hacked to death.” He doesn’t mean the murders, or he would have said something more. The Free State men don’t say anything about scaring someone off in their accounts of the situation, but there mere presence might have done the job and they all told their stories with the more sensational news that followed in mind.

Church rode up to John Junior, the captain here, and informed him that bands of armed men of any politics broke the law. They needed to go home. “After considerable talk,” Brown agreed. Church stuck around long enough to make sure the Rifles broke camp, then moved on to chase a rumor that a hundred fifty Missourians had crossed over for a new invasion. Arriving, he found rumors and exaggerations. Bull Creek, the mooted concentration point, held only a few displaced proslavery people from Palmyra and a party aimed at going further west but stopped by the chaos ahead of them on the road. Others under the same officer as Church, Captain Wood, would arrest Brown all of two days later.

“A force competent to put it down”

Wilson Shannon

Governor Shannon had to do something. His choice of nothing previously worked the ruin he now faced. By ignoring Lawrence’s reasonable fears that a proslavery “posse” would turn out a band of hooligans bent on their destruction, he made their rampage through the town possible. In response to that devastation, John Brown went off into the night and committed five murders with his sons and a few others. Hauling proslavery men out of their beds and hacking them to death spread tremendous fear. Now that both sides knew for a fact that armed bands would hunt down and kill them for their politics, the volcano on which Shannon long sat would bear no more inaction.

When things got to this point in the past, Shannon stepped in. He tried to get the 1st Cavalry to interpose and went himself to Lawrence to negotiate a fragile peace that mostly endured from December until the end of April, when his inaction destroyed it. Even before news of the murders reached Shannon, he lurched into action in response to the sack of Lawrence. As he told the President:

I addressed a letter to Colonel Sumner, at Fort Leavenworth, calling on him for three companies of United States troops – one company to be stationed at Lawrence, one at this place [Lecompton], and one at Topeka.

Sumner, who this time around had orders ahead of time from the president to comply with Shannon’s requests, obliged. He also attached his letter to Sumner, which explains his motivation at the time:

In view of the excitement and present state of feeling in the country, and for the purpose of securing the safety of the citizens, both in person and property, as well as to aid in the execution of the laws and preservation of the peace of the Territory

That fits with Shannon’s consistent belief that events in Kansas could easily spiral out of control. He always casts the antislavery party as the real villains, but Shannon had eyes enough to see the obvious. He urged Sumner to “as little delay as possible” and added

The armed organization to resist the laws would seem to be broken up for the present, so far as the town of Lawrence is concerned, but there is danger that this formidable organization may show itself at some other point, unless held in check by the presence of a force competent to put it down.

Shannon the civil servant and Shannon the proslavery man share the same mind. The threat, even after a gratuitous attack on them, remains the free state men. The Governor needs force to put them down, not proslavery hooligans who have a fig leaf posse to justify themselves and promptly colored outside the lines. Though he didn’t know every detail of what happened at Lawrence then, he admitted to Pierce that he believed orders to respect private property and otherwise behave themselves got spotty adherence. Resistance to the laws counted as a vile crime for antislavery men. A proslavery mob could apparently do as they liked and the Governor would castigate them with the most eloquent of shrugs.


“How long shall these things continue?”

Wilson Shannon

William Barbee wrote Governor Shannon that proslavery families fled the Osawatomie area for fear of John Brown’s murdering band. He and the rest of the Kansas militia needed arms and reinforcements to keep what fragile peace remained. They could get the latter from the United States Cavalry out of Fort Scott, but the militia still needed more guns than it had. So if the Governor could shake some loose, everyone would appreciate it.

Barbee wrote from a camp he shared with William Heiskell, who also commanded a militia brigade. Heiskell wrote himself, probably on the grounds that the two of them writing would more likely get a good response. He informed Shannon:

All here is excitement and confusion. We have just heard of the murder on Saturday night of Allen Wilkinson, Doyle and his two brothers, and William Sherman; all living in Franklin county, near Pottawatomie creek. The body of another man has been found at the ford of the Pottawatomie. These murders, it is supposed, were committed by the abolitionists of Osawatomie, and Pottawatomie creeks, on their return from Lawrence.

Like Barbee and Cato, Heiskell wrote with imperfect information. He thought that three Doyle brothers died, rather than two and their father. He seems to have heard that someone died in the creek, but not that Dutch Bill Sherman did.

Basic facts conveyed, as he understood them, Heiskell moved on to the point:

How long shall these things continue? How long shall our citizens, unarmed and defenseless, be exposed to this worse than savage cruelty? Wilkinson, it is said, was taken from his bed, leaving a sick wife and children, and butchered in their sight. The two young Doyles were unarmed, and shot down on the prairie like dogs.

The Free State leaders at Lawrence made similar pleas to Shannon, which he brushed off. They too could claim a trail of bodies left by their foes, if one rather more spread over time and space. Shannon favored slavery for Kansas and disliked armed strife, at least when he would have some accountability for it, but also blamed the antislavery side for causing all the problems. That some free state militants escalated things to a massacre would suit his preconceptions and convictions exactly, even if the horrifying events of the weekend didn’t justify a strong response all on their own. Shannon had to do something, from his own convictions, out of his official responsibility for Kansas, and likely also if he expected to remain its governor.


“Families are leaving for Missouri.”

Wilson Shannon

Sterling Cato sent along a report of John Brown’s murders for Governor Wilson Shannon, who duly forwarded it to President Franklin Pierce. Cato dated his missive from Paola May 27. Shannon seems to have received it at the same time as a separate letter, dated the previous morning, from William Barbee of the Second Brigade, Southern Division, of the Kansas Militia. At any rate, he offered up Cato’s letter before Barbee’s in the attachments to his letter for the President. Barbee wrote

We were all surprised this morning by the sad intelligence that W. Wilkinson, (late member of the Legislature,) was, together with a Mr. Sherman and three Messrs. Doyle, on Saturday night taken from their beds by the abolitionists, and, in the hearing of their families, ruthlessly murdered and hacked to pieces; also, a man found dead at the Pottawatomie. There were some twenty in the gang. All is excitement here; court cannot go on.

John Brown

Barbee had Brown’s numbers inflated, but in the dark, dispersed, and in rumor eight men can easily turn into more than twice as many. Barbee didn’t see any of the bodies himself, but he did speak to Wilkinson’s widow and reported as much to Shannon. He also gave the Governor news that would have pleased John Brown:

Families are leaving for Missouri. Yankees concentrating at Osawatomie and upon the Pottawatomie, also at Hickory Point, where they have driven off the inhabitants without even provisions or clothing, save what they had on.

Brown hoped to provoke general strife and drive the proslavery side from Kansas. If Barbee had the right of it, killing those men got him off to a great start. For Barbee and Shannon, this meant they had to do something to restore order. Obviously that would involve armed force, so Barbee listed what he had to hand:

We can, perhaps, muster to-day, including the Alabamians, who are now encamped on Bull creek, about 150 men, but will need a force here. I have dispatched to Fort Scott for 100 men. The men will come from Fort Scott under Major Hill. There will be more men in readiness, if needed, at Fort Scott. We are destitute of arms; send by wagons for both my brigade and General Heiskell; we are together; we have scarcely any arms.

Barbee tells Shannon, and we who get to read over his shoulder, a great deal in a short paragraph. He has the Alabamans, Jefferson Buford’s men, all lined up and ready to kill abolitionists. He sought support from the US Cavalry out of Fort Scott and received word already at time of writing that they would come, so either the commander there acted on his own authority or Shannon had given him some prior order to come to the militia’s aid in such a situation. But contrary to our stereotypes of the American West, the militia and Buford’s Alabamans didn’t come with a small arsenal in every backpack. They would need more hot lead than a hundred or so cavalrymen could provide in order to join them as a credible peacekeeping force, or to embark on the long-feared purge of antislavery Kansans. Either would probably suit most involved, save for the soldiers.

Governor Shannon Receives News from Pottawatomie

John Brown

News of John Brown’s murders along the Pottawatomie got out fast. We’ve followed it reaching his son’s militia company and through the arrest of his uninvolved sons, John, Jr., and Jason. That necessarily gave us a look at word reaching Sterling Cato, who ordered up the arrest of the Browns and so consummated one of their longstanding fears. But news also reached further in Kansas, as the general alarm indicated. Proslavery men feared that Brown would continue his murders night by night. They could dream up legions of bloody-minded abolitionists coming for them and their families. Governor Shannon learned of the massacre thrice over, in letters he copied to Franklin Pierce as part of his explanation for all that had gone wrong at Lawrence. He explained to the president that “Comment is unnecessary.”

Shannon presented Cato’s letter from Paola first:

DEAR SIR: You will have learned, perhaps before this reaches you, that Mr. Allen Wilkinson, Mr. Doyle and two sons, and Mr. Sherman, all of Franklin county, were on Saturday night last most foully and barbarously murdered. There can be no doubt of the fact that such murders have been perpetrated, and that the community, as I understand, generally suspect that the Browns and Partridges are the guilty parties. I shall do everything in my power to have the matter investigated and there seems to be a disposition on the part of the Free-State men in Franklin to aid in having the laws enforced.

I have never elsewhere heard of the Partridges, Gentle Readers. No one by that name played a role in the killing, though their inclusion speaks to the general confusion about who had done what in the immediate aftermath.

Wilson Shannon

Cato did not delude himself here. The murders shocked many free state men, who felt obligated to denounce them and commit themselves to bringing the guilty to justice. Probably most of those felt a combination of genuine abhorrence toward the brutal murders of men taken unresisting from their beds and fears that the proslavery hammer would come down on everyone. More on this in future posts.

The judge told Governor Shannon that he would get the evidence he needed and issue warrants forthwith, promising the officers bound to serve them “all the aid necessary to execute the law.” In other words, Cato might have made promises that Shannon would need to keep or share some responsibility for. He had no army himself, nor delegated command of the United States Army in the area. He had to, the Governor should understand, because

These murders were most foully committed in the night-time by a gang of some twelve or fifteen persons, calling on, and dragging from their homes, defenseless and unsuspecting citizens, and murdering, and, after murdering, mutilating their bodies in a very shocking manner.

Everyone involved denied that the Browns mutilated bodies, but no one in Kansas had CSI to put the Doyles, Wilkinson, or Dutch Bill Sherman into a magic machine and cough up a neat dating of the injuries. Hacking people up with swords makes a mess regardless of one’s intentions. Shooting someone did not leave them less dead, but did tend toward a less gory spectacle. Though Brown chose the blades for stealth, the ruin they worked served better than bullets might have in his goal of spreading general terror among proslavery Kansans.

For the fear of John Brown

John Brown

Jason Brown blundered into a posse out to arrest him on his way to Lawrence. He meant to stop at Ottawa Jones’ and then proceed to surrender himself in friendly circumstances. That would, he must have hoped, spare him the fate of Reese Brown. Instead, he walked right up to a group of armed Missourians. Expecting that they wouldn’t know him, he asked directions and got what may have been the final surprise of his life in learning that they did. Some quick questioning confirmed it, at which point they collected his money and a revolver before ordering him out in front of the group for a clear shot.

With nothing left to lose, and probably more than a little of his father’s forthrightness, John Brown’s second son declared himself an abolitionist, bared his breast, and dared them to shoot. That took things too far for some of the Missourians, who put their guns down. Others would have gone ahead, but their leader called it off and took Jason prisoner instead. The combination of bravery and a revulsion toward killing unresisting white men likely did the trick.

The Missourians marched Jason off toward Sterling Cato’s court at Paola. He had more rest than his elder brother had the night before, but after several days with the Pottawatomie Rifles on little sleep, then the stress of learning what his father and brothers had done, proved too much for Jason’s body. During a rest, he sat down and fell dead asleep. That prompted a new round of threats on his life after the Missourians roused Jason, but he kept on making antislavery speeches and it seemed to have an effect on a few of them. They saw to it that Jason had a good bed and gave back his money and gun once the group arrived in town.

At Paola, Jason found his older brother, John. He also got to see firsthand the fear that his father’s murders had spread among the proslavery party. The day after he and John got put into a room with two guards, after spending some time playing cards, Jason hit the hay. John remained up a little longer, then climbed in with him. John Junior woke to

the sudden opening of the outside door and the rushing in of a number of men with drawn bowie-knives. Seizing the candle, and saying, ‘Which are they?’ they crowded around our bed with uplifted knives.

Telling the story afterward, Junior has Jason still dead asleep. Confronted with murderous men and fearing a torturous death for his brother, Junior opted for a novel solution:

I opened the bosom of his shirt, and pointing to the region of his heart, said, ‘Strike here!’

Maybe Junior meant it just as he said; others have made such terrible calculations. His fragile mental state must have played a part too. Either way, he dared them to do it quickly. Such challenges rely on people not ready to do what they propose, a dangerous gamble given the circumstances and the stakes. The presence of testimony from Jason tells us that he survived the night, but it may have come down to fear rather than an attack of conscience:

At this moment the sudden and loud barking of dogs outside and a hurrying of steps on the porch caused a most lively stampede of our assailants within, and this attack was ended without a blow.

The proslavery men had a note from the boys’ father, or at least what purported to be one. It came to them from the hands of one of their own and therein Brown declared that he knew they had Junior and Jason. When the dogs raised the alarm, they believed John Brown had come and raced to defend themselves. They left the brothers in peace for the rest of the night.


The Arrest of Jason Brown

John Brown

The posse took John Brown, Jr., not far from the home of his aunt and uncle. He came up and approached a group of soldiers, with the Missourians and federal marshal out of sight. They appeared in due course, making for a most unwelcome surprise. Judge Sterling Cato, informed of the murders that Brown’s father and brothers committed, issued warrants for everyone’s arrest. He even swept up an unrelated man named O.C. Brown. Brown deemed resistance “out of the question” in the face of professional soldiers and “a large number” of Missourians. The group took him back toward Paola, where Cato had his court. Along the way, the soldiers split off to make for a separate camp, leaving John Brown’s eldest in the hands of the proslavery men. There he met some familiar faces. Cato issued warrants for H.H. Williams, who had replaced Brown in charge of the Pottawatomie Rifles, and he arrived at Paolo ahead of Brown. So had his brother Jason.

Jason Brown parted ways with his father on the morning of May 26, rejoining his family at the Adair’s just as John Junior had. The murders his father and brothers committed on the night of May 24-25 weighed on him. The Adairs almost didn’t give them shelter and told him and Junior that their presence put the family at risk. All that in mind, Jason set off on foot on the morning of the 27th, hoping to reach Lawrence by way of Ottawa Jones’ and turn himself in to United States troops. In a friendly setting and in the hands of a neutral party, he might not have much to fear. According to Sanborn’s Brown biography, he first saw trouble when he looked off in the direction of Paola and spotted a dozen Missourians riding toward Brown’s Station.

The Missourians’ course intersected with Jason’s. He went right up and asked the way to Jones’ place, apparently gambling that they wouldn’t know him.

The leader of the party with an oath exclaimed: “You are one of the men we’re hunting for;” and levelled his rifle at him. Jason stood still, and the men began to question him rapidly. “What is your name?” “Jason Brown.” – “the son of old John Brown?” “Yes.” – “Are you armed?” “Yes, with a revolver.” – “Give it up. Have you any money?”

Jason had a few dollars and handed it over to the Missourians. All of this seems to have put Jason amid the party. After they collected his gun and money, they ordered him out in front of them. There they could get a clean shot, which Jason realized.

so he stepped backward, facing them, opened his bosom, and said: “I am an Abolitionist; I believe that slavery is wrong, and that Kansas ought to be a free state. I never knowingly harmed any man in the world. If you want to take my blood for believing in the doctrines of the Declaration of Independence, do it now.”

The dramatic show of courage and conviction, which they would probably have understood as “manhood,” moved a few of the Missourians to lay down their rifles. The others remained trained on Jason, but their leader felt otherwise. Martin White told Brown:

“Well, we won’t shoot you now, but make a  prisoner of you.”

The Arrest of John Brown, Junior

John Brown

John Brown’s namesake son hid out in the woods. There Junior’s frayed nerves made him a man, by his own account, not quite in his right mind. Mounted on a horse he might have suspected belonged to men his brother’s and father killed, knowing that men already hunted him as a likely conspirator on the killings, the whole world must have seemed set against him. The arrival of his brother Owen, who had hacked men to death with their father the night prior, can’t have helped with the strain. Owen came, rejected at his Aunt’s home, his own stolen horse wet with swat, and carrying urgent and further traumatic news:

he told me of the narrow escape he had just had from a number of armed proslavery men who had their headquarters at Tooley’s, -a house at the foot of the hill, about a mile and a half west of Mr. Adair’s. Their guards, seeing him in the road coming down the hill, gave a signal, and at once the whole gang were in hot pursuit.

Not only did men hunt the Browns, they had come within two miles and nearly caught one. Only superior, purloined horseflesh kept Owen from their grasp. Owen traded his spent animal for John Junior’s and rode off to rejoin their father. Junior spent a sleepless night in the woods and came out in the morning, seeking the Adairs again. He

was there but a few moments when there suddenly rode up a number of United states cavalry, whom I was quite willing to see; but while in conversation with them a large number of mounted Missourians came up also, and with them the United States Marshal, whom I knew, but did not wish to see.

Given how Missourians and posses had worked for Lawrence, which Junior had seen the aftermath of only days before, nothing about that meant good news to him. Less still when the Marshal read him a warrant that charged him with treason. With that formality taken care of, the cavalry informed John that they had not come in their official capacity as soldiers, but rather as members of the same posse. The warrant came from the court of Sterling Cato, now at Paola, thus realizing one of the fears the Browns had when he opened up shop at Osawatomie: he meant to have them behind bars after all.

News of the Pottawatomie murders threw Paola into a chaos that disrupted Cato’s court. He questioned militia members who had visited the sites, wrote a report for Governor Shannon, and launched a proper investigation of his own. Free state militia men answered his questions and all fingered the Browns, Weiner, Thompson, and Townsley. Once he got going, Cato decided to make a clean sweep of things and also indicted the Browns and several others for resisting the collection of the bogus legislature’s taxes.