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.


A Contentious Public Meeting at Osawatomie

John Brown

We left Brown’s Station, the Brown boys’ adjoining claims near Osawatomie, with the news that the proslavery courts would soon begin operation. The Browns might then face arrest and trial, before a proslavery judge and jury, for breaking territorial law by insisting no one had the right to own people in Kansas. Other news came to them around the same time, as John Brown, Junior, wrote to the Herald of Freedom at the end of April:

Some time in March last, a person calling himself an assessor, sent a verbal notice to the settlers of Osawatomie that he would soon call on them in that capacity, and would, before calling to assess their property under the enactments of the so-called Kansas Territorial Legislature, send them written notice of the time he would meet them.

The taxman declared himself on the way, always the most welcome of news. This prompted a public meeting in the area to discuss what they ought to do about paying tax to the proslavery government which many of them had sworn to ignore. Citing that government’s illegitimacy, they opted to again “utterly repudiate the authority” of the legislature and all its acts. Its officers, they resolved, “have no legal power to act.”

One can’t fight the state all alone, so the men of Osawatomie further resolved

That we pledge to one another mutual support and aid in forcible resistance to any attempt to compel us into obedience to these enactments, let that attempt come from whatever source it may

If anyone tested them, they pledged that all the officers of the state would “do so at peril of such consequences as shall be necessary.” To let them know of the threat, the meeting voted a committee to deliver copies of their resolutions to anyone who might try and also to put them in the papers, hence Brown’s letter to the Herald. 

John Junior tells a tidy story of a united community. He left out that a contingent present that day, men who favored a free white state, preached submission to the laws. That brought an angry response and drew Junior’s father to the floor. He declared that he would rather drown the land in blood than pay tax to a proslavery government, even though he personally owed no taxes because he lacked a claim in Kansas.

The conservative, free white state men then walked out. Their leader eventually joined the proslavery party, which seemed to have an attitude toward black Americans more in line with his own. That wouldn’t look good in a letter intended for public consumption. The image of a united front would do more to hearten the paper’s readers abroad and possibly deter the taxman from coming after all.


The Court Season Begins

John Brown

We left John Brown and proslavery Missourians both anxious about Kansas. Joshua Giddings could promise no war, but Brown had to deal with the real prospect and the Missourians seemed bent on ginning it up even if they had to canvass the whole South for the job. Franklin Pierce declared from the White House that the free state movement constituted an insurrection and must cease or face suppression. The free state movement responded by running elections and forming a government in which Brown’s eldest, John Junior, served as a legislator. When the government met for the first time, at Topeka, Junior set to forming a set of laws for the state of Kansas.

The legislature approved of those laws, but disappointed the Browns all the same. They could pass laws easily enough, but at the urging of Governor Charles Robinson they delayed enacting them until such time as Washington accepted them as the real government of Kansas. Instead, the main affirmative act of the Topeka government involved electing two Senators, Andrew Reeder and James Lane, and dispatching Lane off to Washington with a memorial pleading the case of a free Kansas to Congress. Junior signed the memorial. He later claimed that about that time Lane also initiated him into the Kansas Regulators, aka the Kansas Legion.

Stephen Oates, the elder Brown’s biographer, notes that no evidence besides Junior’s word points to his joining the Regulators. His endnotes go into no more detail than that, which leaves me puzzled. It would fit the characters of Lane and Junior both at this point for him to have signed up. A chip off the old block, Junior didn’t shy away from militant talk. He didn’t go to the polls with a small arsenal expecting not to need it. Nor would we necessarily expect a full roster to have existed. Individual companies of Regulators and other groups may have kept muster rolls, but such an incriminating document would not circulate widely if they did.

As winter melted into spring, colonization of Kansas resumed largely from the free states. Many of the men now arrived armed and willing to fight to make Kansas free. April brought copies of the proslavery laws of Kansas into the hands of many lawyers and judges who would soon begin the court season. Junior, and many others, had broken those laws simply by saying no one had a right to own a slave in Kansas. With the opening of the court term, they might face formal consequences instead of informal brawls. The district court with jurisdiction over the Browns would meet at Dutch Henry’s tavern, a proslavery gathering place run by alleged thieves and rapists. Sterling Cato, a proslavery man, would preside. Now the Browns, and many others, might find out just how far they could go in ignoring the bogus legislature.


“We must have men in Kansas”

Joshua Giddings (R-OH)

Joshua Giddings could promise John Brown no war in Kansas from the comfort of Washington City. Brown had to deal with the reality on the ground. At first, it didn’t look too bad and Brown’s perpetual optimism might well have kicked in. He busied himself readying a cabin for a man he knew who planned to move to Kansas soon. Then he and the boys set to surveying the boundaries of the Ottawa reservation. March brought new streams of white colonists along with Giddings’ promises, mostly from the free states.

Those Yankees came in part because the Emigrant Aid Societies stepped up their efforts, spurred on by warnings from Kansas and Franklin Pierce’s openly proslavery course. That brought its own reaction, with the Missourian operating kicking into higher gear. To this point, the Show Me State had largely worked on its own in Kansas. The whole South might express solidarity, as Giddings said the North did for the free state cause, but solidarity did not win far away elections or make one’s home secure. The Kansas Emigrant Aid Society of Missouri, a proslavery outfit, begged more than well wishes from the other slave states:

The time has come when she [Missouri] can no longer stand up single-handed, the lone champion of the South, against the myrmidons of the North. It requires no foresight to perceive that if the ‘higher law’ men succeed in this crusade, it will be but the beginning of a war upon the institutions of the South, which will continue until slavery shall cease to exist in any of the States, or the Union is dissolved.

The struggle in Missouri would lead to a struggle for the South entire. Anxious border state men and deep South enslavers alike had to take note, because events in Kansas now neared a critical stage. Kansas had elections in October of 1856 “and unless at that time the South can maintain her ground all will be lost.” Enough talk, the time for action had come and slavery did not have much time at all to win through.

we must have men in Kansas, and that by tens of thousands. A few will not answer. If we should need ten thousand men and lack one of that number, all will count nothing. Let all them who can come do so at once. Those who cannot come must give money to others to come.

Tens of thousands of men would probably come near equaling Kansas’ white population, but urgency breeds exaggeration. Even if nowhere near so many men showed up armed and ready to fight for slavery, the proslavery side now threatened to at least match the Yankees with a national movement. Already anxious about more Missourians showing up, they had to wonder how many men might make the long trek from other states. Back in December, the Missourians had homes nearby to get back to. Anyone who came from farther away would probably mean to stay for the duration and want more satisfaction for the trouble. Giddings might promise peace, but the other side looked bent on war.


“There will be no war in Kansas” Joshua Giddings and John Brown

Joshua Giddings (R-OH)

In late February, 1856, John Brown wrote Joshua Giddings from Kansas. He feared that the Army would soon suppress the free state movement. If that happened, Brown thought that antislavery Kansans might well fight it out and so make themselves traitors to the United States by the ordinary understanding of the term as well as by the one Franklin Pierce dreamed up. Congress might get in the way of that, so Brown wrote Giddings pleading for an inside line on what the body intended.

It took a while for Giddings to write back, but he did on March 17. He gave Brown mixed news, pointing out that the anti-Nebraska coalition that controlled the House but that they depended on Know-Nothings for their majority “and they are in a very doubtful position.” Giddings could only promise that he and other antislavery men would “try to relieve you.” Brown can’t have taken much solace in that.

Giddings then moved from Brown’s general plea for help in Congress to his specific concern:

The President never will dare employ the troops of the United States to shoot the citizenbs of Kansas. The death of the first man by the troops will involve every free State in your fate. it will light up the fires of civil war throughout the North, and we shall stand or fall with you. Such an act will also bring the President so deep in infamy that the hand of political resurrection will never reach him.

Pledging to Franklin Pierce’s good faith would satisfy few save proslavery extremists, then or now, but Giddings repeated the common understanding of the political class. Affairs in Kansas posed a genuine risk of civil war. Should the conflict intensify, passions already ignited over the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and kept alive through continued news of strife would ensure that it spread. None could say where it would end.

John Brown

None of that really promised Brown much security. Giddings pledged him solidarity to come, not guarantees in the present which he, admittedly, could not deliver. He and other northern men could deliver in different ways, though:

Your safety depends on the supply of men and arms and money which will move forward to you relief as soon as the spring opens.

The Congressman told Brown that if he could make it through the winter, the North would flood Kansas with the men and guns enough to warn off Missouri for good. He admitted he “may be mistaken” but predicted that “there will be no war in Kansas.”

John Brown and Joshua Giddings

John Brown

As January turned to February, back in 1856, John Brown wanted to know what Congress meant to do about Kansas. He suffered bitterly from homesickness and the news of the murder of an antislavery man on the heels of rumors that Missouri would come back can’t have helped his state of mind. Nor could word from the President of the United States that he considered Brown and the free state movement dirty traitors who needed suppression. He wrote home anxiously about the situation. As a frequent Ohioan of antislavery bent, Brown had long followed the career of Joshua Giddings. The two men had met previously and Brown expressed his admiration then. Now he turned his pen to learning what Congress might do from an actual congressman.

I write to say that a number of United States Soldiers are quartered in this vicinity for the ostensible purpose of removing intruders from certain Indian Lands. It is, however, believed that the Administration has no thought of removing the Missourians from the Indian Lands; but that the real object is to have these men in readiness to act in the enforcement of those Hellish enactments of the (so called) Kansas Legislature; absolutely abominated by a great majority of the inhabitants of the Territory; and spurned by them up to this time. I confidently believe that the next movement on the part of the Administration and its Proslavery masters will be to drive the people here, either to submit to those Infernal enactments; or to assume what will be termed treasonable grounds by shooting down the poor soldiers of the country with whom they have no quarrel whatsoever.

Emphasis Brown’s.

Joshua Giddings (R-OH)

Brown asked, essentially, if Giddings thought that Franklin Pierce meant his declaration of war. Would soldiers dispatched, officially, to preserve Indian reservations instead be used to force white men to submit to proslavery tyranny? He thought so, warning Giddings that if things went that way antislavery Kansans would probably take up arms against the Army.

Or at least that Brown might; the free state leadership consistently chose otherwise. The rank and fire antislavery men of the territory might go either way. They proved receptive to Brown’s style of militancy and did suffer under a genuine, often present threat to their lives and property. Such things can drive one to extreme measures. Brown had charisma and clarity of vision. With their backs to the wall and the regular leadership trying to navigate some kind of politically prudent, emotionally unsatisfying course many might choose to follow the straight talking old man from Osawatomie.

Immediately thereafter Brown begs Giddings “in the name of Almighty God,” “our venerated fore-fathers,” and “all that good or true men ever held dear” would Congress go along with that?


“We are very anxious to know what Congress is doing.”

John Brown

January of 1856 brought good and bad news for the Browns out in Kansas. John Junior won nomination and then election to the Topeka legislature. The Missourians stayed away from the Browns’ corner of Kansas even when the free staters threw that election. But the miserably cold winter also left the family destitute, low on food, and news came that the Missourians had gotten to the free state polls at Leavenworth. As part of that, they hacked to death Reese Brown (no relation). Rumor out of the Show Me State had it that they would come back as soon as it warmed up some and the snow melted. Along the way, Franklin Pierce also declared against the free state cause and that raised the specter of the United States Army stepping in.

On February 20, Brown wrote back to North Elba. He had letters from the sixth and sixteenth of January, both received just the last week.

This week we get neither letter nor paper from any of you. I need not continually repent that we are always glad to hear from you, and to learn of your welfare. I wish that to be fully understood.

Stern phrasing aside, Brown clearly missed his loved ones back in New York and wanted to hear from them constantly. We don’t write letters anymore, but before email and phone calls people wrote endlessly to one another. Then they kept the letters to read and reread, a habit intensely gratifying to historians. Someone who said they would write every day might mean it literally.

Brown held up his end of the correspondence by updating the family on how they did in Kansas. He and Salmon wrote from Osawatomie on their way back from Missouri, where they paid thirty cents for a bushel of corn.

I have but little to write this time, except to tell you about the weather, and to complain of the almost lack of news from the United States. We are very anxious to know what Congress is doing. We hear that Frank Pierce means to crush the men of Kansas. I do not know how well he may succeed; but I think he may find his hands full before it is all over.

By the time Brown wrote, he could have read Pierce’s statement in the Herald of Freedom or elsewhere. Congress might still act to restrain the president, though. We tend to focus on the presidency, with good reason, but congressional leaders had a much higher profile in Brown’s day and might well use it to make Pierce’s life difficult. The opposition controlled the House, which helped. That the opposition coalition specifically organized on anti-Nebraska principles helped still more. When he wrote, Brown knew that he had at least a few friends in Washington City and the might plausibly speak for the chamber.

John Brown and President Pierce

John Brown

We left John Brown in the wake of the Wakarusa War, which brought with it a peace settlement he distrusted as much as he liked the outcome of the proslavery Missourians going home. He thought Kansas’ troubles might soon come to an end, a hope that must have tracked closely with ratification of the Topeka Constitution in December of 1855. The winter brought bitter cold and deep snow down upon Kansas. Still, Brown forged on. He wrote home that things went tolerably well. That included frequent trips to Westport, where Brown challenged the locals with the declaration that he opposed slavery and lived in Kansas. They ignored him and took his money, which ran out despite receiving a fair sum from his aged father. Consequently, the food ran low too.

Two of Brown’s sons suffered frozen toes that winter and a third, Frederick, had another attack of the mysterious ailment that brought terrible headaches and left him near mad with pain. The conditions got to Brown, who again considered taking his own claim in Kansas and again abandoned the plan. He still wanted to end his days in North Elba. He suffered through a miserable bout of homesickness for the Adirondacks, which he declared almost enough to “unMan” him. I don’t have access to the original letter for context, if Brown provided any, but clearly he felt near to breaking. Whether that meant just an emotional collapse or drawing near to quitting Kansas completely, I can’t say.

Franklin Pierce

Still, Brown kept busy. The ratification of the Topeka Constitution meant that the free state government had a full slate of officers and legislators to fill. He presided over the meeting that Osawattomie that nominated men for the new legislature. John Junior got the nod, which pleased Brown greatly. On January 15, the polls opened and Brown trooped down to Pottawatomie with a basket full of guns and knives again; you never knew when a Missourian might show up. Junior won his seat, which had to please the elder Brown more still. He’d gone around the area as a tough-talking antislavery man, a chip off the old block, and the voters approved.

Then word arrived that cowardice had not kept Missouri at bay, only the cold. As soon as it warmed up and some of the snow melted away, the proslavery men meant to come again into Kansas and work some ruin. That news received swift confirmation in word out of Leavenworth, where the Missourians came to trouble the polls after all. Reese Brown (no relation) caught the worst of it for the free state side, hacked nearly to pieces and left dying on his own doorstep by the Kickapoo Rangers. Almost at the same time, Franklin Pierce declared that all Kansas’ troubles lay at the feet of antislavery men. He deemed the free staters revolutionaries and insisted that their continued activity constituted an insurrection. In other words, John Brown now had an enemy in the White House.