“The prosperity or ruin of the whole South” A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Three

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1, 2

Proslavery Missourians and antislavery Kansans had a parallel series of conventions in their respective jurisdictions. We left David Rice Atchison, late senator from Missouri, firmly turning down the effort to turn one into the start of his reelection campaign. Bourbon Dave had given up on Washington, at least in the near term, in favor of saving Kansas for slavery. Through it, he would also save slavery in Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas, and spread it to the other territories.

In the summer of 1855, almost everything turned out to Atchison’s liking. His border ruffians had secured the Kansas legislature for their own men. They ousted Andrew Reeder, who had defied them. Between governors, Daniel Woodson filled in and he had already proven his proslavery bona fides. That Franklin Pierce passed him over to appoint Wilson Shannon did not thrill the Missouri border, but Shannon soon earned the endorsement of Atchison’s Kansas-based organ, the Squatter Sovereign. The fall brought invitations for Atchison to go east and speak for the cause, as he had probably done during the winter. He declined them, citing obligations at home, but answered with a letter that made his case.

We (“the border ruffians”) have the whole power of the Northern states to content with, single-handed and alone, without assistance and almost without sympathy from any quarter; yet we are undismayed. Thus far we have bewen victorious and with the help of God, we will still continue to conquer. … The contest with us is one of life and death, and it will be so with you and your institutions if we fail. Atchison, Stringfellow and the “border ruffians” of Missouri fill a column of each abolition paper published in the North; abuse most foul, and falsehood unblushing is poured out upon us; and yet we have no advocate in the Southern press-and yet we have no assistance from the Southern States. But the time wilol shortly come when that assistance must and will be rendered. The stake the “border ruffians” are playing for is a mighty one. … In a word, the prosperity or ruin of the whole South depends on the Kansas struggle.

Atchison’s biographer added the emphasis, which neatly encapsulate’s the ex-senator’s view of the question. He certainly wrote it to exhort and guilt his fellow southerners into action, but he believed it too. Those who invited him might never have expected Atchison to turn up -such invitations often served more as a way to request a public letter- but even if they did he had work to do and probably didn’t think Kansas could spare him. The rise of the free state movement in the fall proved Atchison right.

Daniel Woodson

To answer that threat, establishment figures in Kansas tired to take a moderate tone with their Law and Order party. They positioned themselves as moderate alternative to Atchison’s hooliganism in November. At the end of the month, Franklin Coleman killed Charles Dow. The ensuing strife put those hopes to rest. Daniel Woodson wrote straightaway to Kelley and Stringfellow at the Squatter Sovereign, who he could depend on to pass word into Missouri and Kansas had a new invasion. The territorial secretary especially asked that his friends bring “the Platte City cannon.” The letter crossed the border and came into Atchison’s hands. He read it to a mass meeting at Platte City, then took two hundred men into Kansas to join the campaign against abolitionism.

Yet Atchison’s rhetorical, and occasionally physical, militancy fell short again. When Wilson Shannon negotiated a settlement with the free state leadership at Lawrence, he and Albert Boone took the governor’s side in talking down the army that Atchison had himself helped gather. His argument then had less to do with principal than public relations. The antislavery side had maneuvered things so that if the proslavery men struck, they would appear as the aggressors. Without Governor Shannon’s blessing, withdrawn thanks to the settlement, turned an irregular militia into a lawless mob that would destroy the Democracy come election time and put “an abolition President” in power.

Horace Greeley

Not that this mattered to Atchison’s Missouri foes. Still a potential senator, they castigated him for plotting the destruction of the Industrial Luminary and voting in Kansas, the latter of which forfeited his Missouri citizenship and disqualified him. Failing reelection, the Missouri Democrat thought Atchison might forge some kind of breakaway proslavery nation. Atchison’s biographer, William Parrish, found no evidence for any of this. In the Democrat’s pages, even the convention where Atchison refused to make the affair into an election event proved his perfidy; the paper recast it as a failed attempt at the same. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune declared that the Squatter Sovereign’s masthead endorsed Atchison for president on the Know-Nothing ticket. The paper did endorse Atchison for the presidency, until he told them to stop, but always and only as a Democrat.

With all that going on, Missouri’s General Assembly again convened to elect a senator and again failed to manage the feat. Both houses of the legislature agreed that they should hold an election, but could not agree on a time for it. Moments of legislative grace like this did much to explain why these same bodies would eventually vote to strip themselves of the power to choose their senators in ratifying the Seventeenth Amendment. Atchison’s seat in Washington remained empty until 1857.

Governor Shannon’s New Army

SJ Jones

Samuel Jones

When the free state legislature chose to defer enactment of any legislation it passed until it secured Kansas’ admission as a state, with the free state men in charge, they did so of a mind that the President of the United States considered them traitors. They might soon face arrest, a fact that could have hardly slipped their minds with the notorious Samuel Jones taking their names down as they swore their oaths of office. They might actually have committed treason. Legal niceties had hardly stopped Missourians from coming to steal their elections and in hopes of razing their towns, but the border ruffians did not operate under the color of law the way that the United States army would if Franklin Pierce gave the proper orders.

Pierce had already done something to that effect. The March 15, 1856 Herald of Freedom reminded its readers how all had hoped that Colonel Sumner would come from Fort Leavenworth to Lawrence’s rescue back in December. Sumner had not come, despite Wilson Shannon’s entreaties. Sumner said at the time that he lacked instructions from Washington and did not feel confident to act on his own authority. Now he had those instructions, which the paper printed news of by way of a letter that Secretary of State William Marcy wrote to Governor Shannon. He attached a copy of Sumner’s orders and Pierce’s law and order proclamation.

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy

Pierce, Marcy averred, did not think Shannon’s situation so dire as to require the use of federal troops. He should call upon them only as a last resort, but

if it becomes indispensably necessary to do so in order to execute the laws and preserve the peace, you are hereby authorized by the President to make requisition upon the officers commanding the United States military forces at Forts Leavenworth and Riley

Shannon would only use the power in “extraordinary emergency”, Marcy insisted, but he had it. If the immediate establishment of the free state goverment didn’t justify calling out the troops, then some future clash might. Shannon tried desperately to secure Sumner’s aid to save Lawrence and so had established precedent that he would use the military if possible. Once the Cavalry rode, where would they stop?

George Brown put a positive spin on all of this. He insisted that Pierce’s proclamation

is not so villainous a document as the telegraph reports make it, and as for the instructions to Gov. Shannon, they are all we could expect, or even desire. While the Governor abides by the letter of those instructions, it will afford us pleasure to sustain him. Our State organization will be in no way of Gov. Shannon. Until an attempt is made to enforce the laws enacted by that body, they are harmless. If they adopt a code of laws which commend themselves to everybody’s sense of justice, and they are everywhere obeyed, how can Gov. Shannon, or anybody else, find fault?

Brown had a strong interest in painting the free state government as perfectly innocuous, but even in doing so he hedged carefully. If they adopt laws and if those laws comport to everyone’s morals, why would they give cause for objection? And if Shannon followed the letter of Franklin Pierce’s proclamation, rather than its avowedly proslavery spirit, all would work out.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

But would Shannon follow the letter of the president’s instructions? When he came to Lawrence’s rescue, Shannon had shown himself not quite the proslavery partisan everyone had feared. Maybe he had gotten right by popular sovereignty when he saw how far things had gone, but Shannon had helped save Lawrence from a private army of hooligans which he had unwittingly mustered himself. When they went to Lawrence, they went to serve warrants that Shannon had seen issued. A public army legally under his control presented a different scenario entirely. Likewise the governor can’t have loved the news of a rival government to his own, headed by men he probably thought had tricked him. His charge to, in Brown’s words,

put down insubordination on the one hand, and prevent invasion on the other

might mean no more Charles Dows, Thomas Barbers, Samuel Collinses, or Reese Browns, but it could also mean calling out the army to break up the government at Topeka. Insubordination, to Shannon, might very well mean wildcat state governments as much as proslavery violence. Even if he struck at both equally, that would leave the Kansas that stolen elections had already wrought. That Kansas had slavery baked deep into its laws.

“Martyrdom on the scaffold or the stake”

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Robinson concluded his first message (PDF) to Kansas’ new legislature with some further remarks on their situation. Everyone had seen Sheriff Jones taking names down as men came forward and swore their oaths of office. They might have exchanged some jokes or tossed a few insults his way, but everybody knew Jones meant business. Robinson didn’t name him, but none could have had to guess for long just who he meant when the new governor said

It is understood that the Deputy Marshal has private instructions to arrest the members of the Legislature and the State officers for treason as soon as this address is received by you. In such an event of course, no resistance will be offered to the officer.

The last time someone, Samuel Newitt Wood, offered resistance to Jones it ended with an army outside Lawrence. For all the bellicose language common in such times, the free state movement had barely gotten clear of that without a battle they might well have lost or, failing that, won at the expense of bringing the United States Army down on their heads.

The standards of manly performance would not allow Robinson to admit to that in so many words, but nineteenth century discourse permitted him other avenues:

Men who are ready to defend their own and their country’s honor with their lives, can never object to a legal investigation into their action, nor to suffer any punishment their conduct may merit. We should be unworthy the constituency we represent did we shrink from martyrdom on the scaffold or at the stake should duty require it. Should the blood of Collins and Dow, of Barber and Brown, be insufficient to quench the thirst of the President and his accomplices in the hollow mockery of “Squatter Sovereignty” they are practising upon the people of Kansas, then more victims must be furnished. Let what will come not a finger should be raised against the Federal authority until there shall be no hope of relief but in revolution.

If the vampiric president descended upon them, Robinson told the free state men to stand ready. Should Pierce throw a war, they ought to come. Should he martyr them, they died for righteousness’ sake and could claim whatever patriotic and heavenly blessings such an office would convey. Kansas had hard times yet ahead, Robinson averred, but together and putting their faith in the Almighty, “His wisdom who makes ‘the wrath of men praise him'” they would make their Kansas into the Kansas, a state of the Union free twice over. Their Kansas would have no slaves and no black Americans alike, preserving it for them and their posterity. To that cause, the Governor need not add, they would commit their lives, their liberty, and their sacred honor.

Nathaniel Banks

Nathaniel Banks

It must have made for a rousing read, thick with the patriotic and religious sentiments most potent to Robinson’s audience. But the bold words had to come with more than a hint of desperation. Jones would probably try nothing then and there, but what would happen down the road? The free state men had stuck their necks out, then stuck them out still further, in the hope that Congress would come to their rescue. That same Congress finally agreed on who ought to serve as Speaker of the House after a solid two months of debate, finally settling on a Know-Nothing antislavery man called Nathaniel Banks. They elected him on a plurality, not a majority, and it took one hundred and thirty-three ballots. The question of the free state government’s legitimacy could not hope to be any less explosive than that.

Burying Thomas Barber, Part Two

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

We left the interment of Thomas Barber with James Lane giving a political speech. That might sound crass to us, and some who braved the December cold that day might agree, but Barber died at the hands of a proslavery man in a relatively one-sided armed conflict between Kansas contending parties. Barber and his killer lacked any claim dispute, unlike Charles Dow and Franklin Coleman, and had not sought out a clash as Samuel Collins had. Nor had he even died in the conduct of his duties in the defense of Lawrence. Rather the proslavery men shot him on his way home. Barber chose the antislavery cause and died for it.

After Lane, Charles Robinson spoke. He commenced by assailing the face-saving fiction that Wilson Shannon insisted upon:

‘Misunderstanding’ the facts and the temper of our people, as well as their tactics, the Executive recently gave the signal for another [invasion], and the armed hordes again responded. our citizens have been besieged, robbed, insulted, and murdered; and our town threatened with destruction for two whole weeks, by the authority of the executive, and, as he now says, in consequence of a ‘misunderstanding.’ A misunderstanding on the part of an Executive is a most unfortunate affair.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

While a hostile army waited outside town, Robinson might go along with all that. Now that doom did not hang over Lawrence, he saw no need to continue. Instead he recast the Wakarusa War as a plan on Shannon’s part to steer the free state movement into collision with the United States military. If he went beyond the facts in carrying the Governor’s plans so far, one can hardly blame him. Shannon supplied the pretext by which forces marched against Lawrence and his government included men eager to have the Missourians on board and to do more than put Jacob Branson back in the hands of Samuel Jones. The Governor then called for the 1st Cavalry out of Fort Leavenworth to play a part. We might take Shannon at his word that he planned to use the Army to save Lawrence, but Robinson didn’t have the Governor’s correspondence on hand. Nor can we fault him too much for holding a low opinion of Shannon’s honesty on such matters.

This consideration led directly to another. Who must they blame for Thomas Barber’s untimely death?

Report says Thomas Barber was murdered in cold blood by an officer or officers of the Government who was a member of the Sheriff’s posse, which was commanded by the Governor, was is backed by the President of the United States. Was Thomas Barber murdered? Then are the men who killed him, and the officials by whose authority they acted his murderers. And if the laws are to be enforced, then will the Indian Agent, the Governor, and the President be convicted of, and punished for, murder. There is work enough for the ‘law and order’ men to do, and let us hear no more about resistance to the laws till this work is done.

The enforcement of the law, Robinson noted, required “all Missouri must be aroused, and the whole nation convulsed to serve a peace-warrant on an unoffending citizen.” Might they hope the same with a man dead? In a just world, they might. In a world where everyone hewed to the same principles in the same way, they would. The people of Lawrence, in such a world, would soon see at least the man who shot Barber, the aforementioned Indian Agent, on trial. They might even see those who had command responsibility over him, like Wilson Shannon, on the dock.

But Robinson and his neighbors lived in territorial Kansas, where their foes did not regard the death of an antislavery man as regrettable at all. For proslavery men to accept justice for Thomas Barber’s memory, they would first have to accept that they could do wrong in killing an antislavery man at all. They aimed to do no such thing, instead understanding themselves as dispatching dangerous criminals. If they undertook the task with transparent glee, then who could fault the righteous for enjoying their wrath?

Two Triumphs on the Wakarusa

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Gentle Readers, I began delving into the strange course of the Wakarusa War back in September.  Everything started when Franklin Coleman killing Charles Dow and rapidly spiraled out of everyone’s control. It came to head with an army of proslavery men, largely Missourians, and the territorial militia mustered around Lawrence. With considerable difficulty, Wilson Shannon, Albert Boone, David Rice Atchison, James Lane, and Charles Robinson managed to arrive at a settlement. During the crisis, both sides had difficulty keeping control of the men under their command. That settlement conceded little, but wars come with at least losers. Now and then they have winners as well.

Strictly looking at the terms of the settlement reveals no clear winner. The parties agreed to return to the status quo ante bellum. Did that make the whole business a frightening draw, which accomplished nothing for all the turmoil. A certain strain of history plays heavily into the futility of war, declaring it solves nothing for all the blood and treasure spent. Some wars live up to that reputation, either at the time or with the benefit of hindsight. Others have clearer verdicts, even if they rarely deliver anything worth the price in lives.

The Wakarusa War makes for a terrible war and an excellent one. Less than a half-dozen people died. No great battle took place. I don’t think that it quite lives up to the name in hindsight, and so have largely refrained from using it. When you call something a war, you expect rather more fireworks. But on the other hand, few people died. Little destruction took place. I’d quite like to have more so-called wars like it than those which cost us far more dearly. I suspect that many called upon to hazard their lives in the things would agree.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

A broader examination of the Wakarusa War shows it as not quite the indecisive affair one might suspect. The treaty settled little, true enough, but an army marched against Lawrence. That army came fired by dreams of killing abolitionists, destroying printing presses, and decapitating the free state movement. It left in its wake an intact down full of living abolitionists, functioning presses, and the free state leadership emerged undamaged.

Surviving, a friend told me a few days back, literally means “over-living” in Italian and German. If you know your Latin, you can see the sense in English too. It feels that way often enough and can make for a paltry triumph, but the free state movement emerged from its most serious threat to date unscathed. Had Lane, Robinson, and company folded then, they would probably have lost Kansas to slavery. At the very least, they would have gravely damaged their own authority and so given further legitimacy to those on the antislavery side more enthusiastic about violence. The firm of John Brown & Sons would likely have seen its stock rise.

In the end, however, the free state movement did more than survive. They took the piece of paper that Charles Robinson urged on Wilson Shannon on the night of December 9, which he signed without reading, and put it to immediate use. The Herald of Freedom reports that in short order

Eleven full companies of fifty-four each were duly registered on the part of the citizens, besides the cavalry and artillery companies, and numberless persons who were not enrolled, but held themselves in readiness to fight where they could be most effective, when occasion should demand. It is probable there were not less than eight hundred efficient men ready for service at any moment.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Shannon’s commission made Lane’s and Robinson’s command something like a legal militia, with the free state leadership not just influential but formally in charge. As such, on the afternoon of the 10th

the companies were mustered and passed under a review.

The free state movement had come into the crisis looking for a way to come out the other end alive. At the end of the day, they did far better than that. They came out with a legal respectability their paramilitaries had hitherto lacked. That might not make a great deal of difference within Kansas, but abroad antislavery partisans could point to Shannon’s commission as proof that their comrades in the territory constituted no paltry band of rebels and fanatics. They had not set themselves against the law but rather become part of it even, and especially, in the eyes of a proslavery conniver like Wilson Shannon.

The Perils of Insurrection, Then and Now

The free state movement knew that they played with fire in repudiating the territorial government and its laws. Going further and creating their own government raised reasonable questions about just how far they intended to take things. Establishing their own militia, even if for self-defense, understandably gave further cause for concern. That apparently some, like Charles Dow, went in for burning proslavery Kansans out of their claims took at least some fringes of the movement beyond rhetorical protests and into serious crimes. A group that could burn homes down at will generally deserves a serious response from law enforcement, whatever its politics. To further underline the point, a Kansas Legion man seized a lawful prisoner from a sheriff engaged in the normal course of his duties. Authoritarians often invoke the frailty of civil institutions in the name of their repressions, but sometimes reasonable people of far more democratic mores make the same invocations. Now and then, they even have facts on their side.

The entire tangled prelude to the Wakarusa War makes much more sense when one keeps this in mind. The politics of the day, and our own, make it very easy for us to throw in with the free state party all the way. We have the luxury of time and distance to insulate us from any consequences of that decision. Nobody will burn our homes down or shoot us dead for our opinions about politics in territorial Kansas. Even if we disagree with the proslavery radicals, Kansas still offered the spectacle of armed men apparently ready to pursue their agenda by force. If we admit that fact as a motivation for driving antislavery Kansans to arms, then we must admit it the other way around as well.

The free state leadership knew the risk of that very well. They, like Wilson Shannon, sought a peaceful resolution to the crisis at Lawrence. Samuel Newitt Wood, a Kansas Legion man, had gone and rescued Jacob Branson from Sheriff Samuel Jones’ custody. But he did not go with the blessing of Charles Robinson, James Lane, or other Kansas luminaries. Nor did Lawrence rush to endorse his action after the fact. Rather he and the other rescuers found themselves asked to leave town. All the warlike preparation that the Kansas Legion did could have had offensive applications, but nobody until Wood had actually used force against the legal government of Kansas. While violent threats flew back and forth, it appears that most political violence in Kansas up through the winter of 1855 happened relatively spontaneously and on a person-to-person level rather than with official imprimatur. Had such an undertaking gone off, the free state movement risked dramatic retaliation from both proslavery radicals and likely the United States military. One simply doesn’t, for example, seize public property at gunpoint and expect nothing to happen in response.

Nor should one expect such impunity. If private individuals do so, then we soon find ourselves on the express train to anarchy. Instead of civil society, one finds oneself forced to align with a gang of violent thugs for protection and hope that it extends not just to protection from them but also other such gangs. While the occasional enthusiast might cast himself as the white-hat-wearing, gun-toting hero of such occasions, in the real world the most ruthless and brutal tend to rise to the top. We have the police and, if necessary, the military to prevent that sort of thing. Had antislavery Kansans found the 1st Cavalry arrayed against them and gone to war against it, they would have found their support almost everywhere go silent. Many probably would have gone all the way over to cheering for their suppression.

Why wouldn’t they? The Constitution calls levying war against the United States treason. Antislavery Kansans could hardly better discredit themselves with the nation than to cross that line. The traditional remedy for doing so involved gunpowder and ropes, a precedent most famously remembered in the case of Lee v. Grant. Even without the benefit of that precedent, it would take a very dull free state man to miss the fact that seeking out armed confrontations risked the federal hammer coming down. Thus, by and large, the free state movement up through the Wakarusa War exercised the better part of its martial valor.

This same principle holds on a smaller scale. If we see someone wandering around with a gun outside our home, most of us will probably call the police. This doesn’t take a strange phobia about firearms, but only a basic knowledge of what a bullet can do to a human body. If you see an armed person wandering about, you expect that person intends to shoot something. The police come and discourage that, one hopes successfully and without further violence.

Except when they don’t. Not everyone learned circumspection from studying Kansas, anything else. Not that long ago, a man who stole millions of dollars from you and me had an armed standoff with law enforcement that ended to his satisfaction. That Cliven Bundy has made off with far more than a typical bank robber’s haul should, perhaps, surprise us. This kind of plot twist one expects from a supervillain rather than a real world rancher.

Now that they’ve had their Negro Seamen Act, it seems some have decided that their strange revival of nineteenth century radicalism requires its Nullification Crisis. Some of Bundy’s family members have taken up the cause of a pair of arsonists, who apparently didn’t want the help, and occupied federal property. I mean that literally, they seized United States property and hold it still at the time of this writing:

a group of outside militants drove to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, where they seized and occupied the refuge headquarters

If this happened in another country, we’d have a talk about armed militants about now. A story that begins with the line “armed gunmen seized property” generally ends with the lines “shot by police”. Yet with these armed militants, the authorities don’t seem all that concerned. One can understand hesitancy, especially given the federal government’s record a few decades back in handling standoffs, but so far it doesn’t seem that law enforcement has besieged the gunmen. Instead they’ve just asked people to stay away and monitor the situation while working for a peaceful resolution.

I could say that I can’t fault the circumspection, whether here or in 1855 Kansas. Even if people have clearly broken the law, one naturally wishes to keep violence to a minimum. One must consider bystanders, though in this case the miscreants have taken over a building that seems quite remote. It probably doesn’t hurt to take one’s time out in Oregon. As an isolated event, the affair raises concern but not necessarily outrage. Yes, we have a group of men with guns breaking the law and encouraging others to join them. This cannot stand, but it doesn’t mean we need to call in the tanks or a drone strike.

Isolated events, however, often turn out rather more connected than not. American law enforcement doesn’t operate in a vacuum. The police grow up in the same world as the rest of us, and that world has very firm convictions about who does and does not deserve consideration and leniency. Cliven Bundy does, even if he made out like a bank robber. His relatives and others probably do as well. Otherwise someone could get hurt:

A group of white adults with real weapons came up and took possession of a building they don’t own, inviting others to come and join them. They warrant great consideration. We don’t want people hurt:

“No’m. Killed a nigger.”

“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.

Thus Americans, ensconced as always in our city on a hill, demonstrate our most ancient and dear values to the watching world.

“I will have revenge before I see Missouri.” The Lawrence Revolt, Part Three

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Trouble at Hickory Point: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

The Hunt for Franklin Coleman: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The Hunt for Jacob Branson: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

The Lawrence Revolt: parts 1, 2

The day after his rescue from Sheriff Samuel Jones, Jacob Branson told a public meeting at Lawrence that if they did not support his cause he would go home and face the consequences himself. He asked only that they bury him near his slain boarder, Charles Dow. Branson’s display of manly virtue surely pleased many in the crowd. In the testosterone haze, more than his potential martyrdom swirled. The Herald of Freedom informed its readers that

Others reported that the Governor had been informed of the transaction, that the self-called Sheriff had claimed he would bring an army to his aid, and that he would demolish Lawrence.

The unnamed others probably included members of Samuel Wood’s band of rescuers. They might also by the time of the meeting have had word of Jones doing as he threatened. The news would have come from Franklin, a town quite near to Lawrence. Though my map of territorial Kansas, printed in Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era, lacks a scale Franklin appears nearer to Lawrence, if somewhat further east, than Blanton’s Bridge where Wood and company took Branson from his captors. Testimony describes the bridge as only a few miles off. It seems reasonable that a rider could have carried word between the towns in short order. Samuel Jones did the same, if coming up from the bridge to Franklin rather than riding from Franklin to Lawrence.

I.A. Prather saw Jones there:

The day before Branson was said to be rescued, Mr. Wallace, of Franklin, asked me to attend to his store, which I agreed to do. After I went to the store the next morning I went to the hotel and saw Mr. Jones writing. Mr. Wallace and myself went into the room together. Before we went into the room he had told me that Mr. Branson had been rescued from Mr. Jones and his pose, of which he was one, by thirty or forty men.

At least as far back as George Douglas Brewerton, those trying to learn what happened when Wood met Jones and came away with Branson have noted wide disagreement over the number of men involved. The lower estimates, with both sides under twenty, seem more likely.

Prather continues:

He then told me that Mr. Jones was going to send to Missouri for aid, and it was suggested that we should go to Mr. Jones to try to stop it. Mr. Wallace expressed himself opposed to sending to Missouri. After we went into the room and found Mr. Jones writing, Mr. Wallace remarked to me, “Mr. Jones is now writing the despatch to send to Colonel Boone.” Before going into the room I said, “Why not send to Governor Shannon?” I should think I was not more than two feet from Mr. Jones when he was writing what I was told by Mr. Wallace was the despatch to Missouri. The conversation was loud enough for Mr. Jones to hear, although the room was nearly as full of persons as it could well hold.

Everyone must have wanted to see the fireworks. Jones opted for the theatrical, taking his paper and walking out to hand it to a messenger. Probably Harrison Buckley did the honors. Once his messenger started, Jones told the crowd:

That man is taking my despatch to Missouri, and by God I will have revenge before I see Missouri.

Another message went off to Wilson Shannon, asking him to rouse the militia. Jones sent it after the one to Missouri. Prather thought that Josiah Hargis carried that missive.

The Hunt for Jacob Branson, Part Nine

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Trouble at Hickory Point: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

The Hunt for Franklin Coleman: part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The Hunt for Jacob Branson: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Samuel Wood liberated Jacob Branson from Samuel Jones and his posse. In doing so, he and his gang of free state men staged the first large-scale, armed defiance of the territorial government. Jones had a legal warrant for Branson’s arrest on charges of his threatening Franklin Coleman and others. Wood had his own say-so and the conviction of the free state movement to reject Kansas’ legal government in favor of their own. Had any in the posse missed the significance of events, Wood spelled them out by refusing to recognize Jones as a sheriff or even to acknowledge the existence of Douglas County.

After an hour of conversation on the matter, Jones gave it up and rode off. Wood and company rode into Lawrence. Wood’s account of events ends there. Charles Robinson’s continues, now from his own memory:

That the matter was premeditated but a few Free-State men at that time doubted. The killing of Dow was not of itself sufficient to bring on a conflict with a pretended legal officer, but the arrest of such a man as Branson when the people were enraged at the murder would most likely provoke a rescue, which was the excuse desired for calling out the militia, which meant the people of Missouri.

In fairness to Robinson, Branson’s arrest would understandably have provoked suspicion. How did one justify arresting Branson, an old man, when Franklin Coleman remained free? They had an actual killer loose and the territorial government seemed bent not on seizing him but doing striking against his enemies. That the enemy in question served as an officer in the Kansas Legion had to further inflame free state paranoia in already fraught times.

Hugh Cameron

Hugh Cameron

To add insult to injury, the warrant to take Branson came from Hugh Cameron, who Robinson damned as a

National Democrat and professed Free-State man who, as judge of election, received the votes of Missourians on the 30th of March […] He was appointed justice of the peace by the county commissioners, who were appointed by the Territorial Legislature, which Legislature was elected by the invaders, aided and abetted by Cameron.

Hugh Cameron’s impressive facial hair could not hide the appearance of impropriety. From our remove, and knowing what we do of the Coleman-Dow dispute, Robinson’s impression that all of this came down to an elaborate proslavery scheme seems far-fetched. But he and the other free state men had neither the benefit of hindsight nor the full version of events before them. They just knew state officials had come after free state militia leader instead of the murderer of a free state man, and appeared to benefit from a quid pro quo to get their warrant. In their position, how could it look like anything but the opening of an organized campaign of suppression? Samuel Collins fell to a lone proslavery man, or that man and his immediate friends, but Jacob Branson literally had the law after him.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Robinson would have learned all of this on the morning of the 27th, when Wood came to his house and shared the story. Whether Robinson proved prescient at the time or only with the benefit of hindsight, he understood

that probably this action would furnish the long-wished-for pretext for calling out a force against Lawrence […] No one could doubt that the Governor would call out the militia, ostensibly to enforce the law, but really to humiliate the Free-State men and destroy Lawrence, or at least to compel the surrender of the Sharp’s and other rifles at that place.

The militia would come. If Wilson Shannon could suppress the free state movement, especially under so reasonable a cause as serving a legal warrant, then I suspect he wouldn’t have shed many tears over it. From Shannon’s perspective, an insurrection had finally broken out. He could hardly just stand by and let the territory entirely slip from his grasp. Franklin Pierce appointed him to govern Kansas, not preside over anarchy. If he remained idle,

“Not a man of you shall leave alive” The Hunt for Jacob Branson, Part Seven

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

Trouble at Hickory Point: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

The Hunt for Franklin Coleman: part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The Hunt for Jacob Branson: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Two rods separated Samuel Newitt Wood and his twenty or so free state men from Samuel Jones and his about a dozen proslavery men. That meant not that someone left rounded sticks in the road but rather a unit of distance now obscure. A rod runs five and a half yards long, so two rods make for eleven yards or thirty-three feet. That sounds awfully close for two large parties of armed men, but presumably neither party proceeded at a gallop to be heard from afar nor rode with torches or lanterns to aid in their spotting.

Whatever the distance, Jones’ men did not eagerly ride up into a hastily-gathered band of armed men in their way. Branson described their appearance:

When we were within about half a mile of Blanton’s bridge, I saw some men who appeared to come from behind a house; and as we were going on at a pretty smart canter they stretched out across the road where we were, I should suppose about fifty yards from the house. Those men were on foot. Those men who were with me then spurred on, presenting their guns, leaving me a little behind, until they got within twenty or thirty feet of those men, and as they did not give way, they halted.

After a moment of tense silence, Jones called out in the traditional greeting of cartoon rabbits: “What’s up?”

I heard someone from the other party say, “That’s what we want to know; what’s up?” I then spoke, and said; “They have got me here a prisoner.” One from the other party said: “Is that you, Branson?” I said it was, and he told me to come over to the other side.

Wood reports a slightly different version of the exchange, but the words align closely enough that I don’t think either man saw fit embellish things. Jones’ posse, having taken such trouble to arrest Branson and demolish some alcohol along the way back, didn’t just shrug that off:

Two men were by me then, and one said: “Don’t you go, or we will shoot you.” I told them to shoot if they wanted to, as I was going. I then rode forward, and got to the other company, and got off my mule, and asked what I should do with it. Some one said, “let it go to hell;” and I let go of it, and some one gave it a kick, and it went back towards Jones’s party.

Wood adds some encouragement from himself and his companions for Branson to come over:

Said S.N. Wood, ‘If you want to be among your friends, come over here.’ […] Said Huffs (a Hoosier), ‘Shoot and be d—-d.’ Said Wood to Branson, “Come, let them shoot if they want to,’ and, turning to them, said ‘Gentlemen, shoot, and not a man of you shall leave alive.’

He also takes credit for kicking the mule.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

It appears from both accounts that the posse stood and took all of this, though not happily. Wood recounts that

Guns were aimed and cocked upon both sides, but just as Branson left one of the opposite party lowered his gun with the remark, ‘I ain’t going to shoot.’ Jones then advanced upon horseback, said his name was Jones, that he was Sheriff of Douglas County, Kansas, that he had a warrant to arrest the old man Branson, and he must serve it.

That Jones would wait until he’d lost charge of his prisoner to identify himself seems strange, but he waited quite a while to identify himself to Branson too. One gets the sense that he didn’t feel he had to answer to any antislavery Kansan.


“To Save Your Husband or Die” The Hunt for Jacob Branson, Part Six

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

Trouble at Hickory Point: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

The Hunt for Franklin Coleman: part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The Hunt for Jacob Branson: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

On the night of November 26-27, 1855, on his way back to Lawrence from a meeting to discuss the murder of free stater Charles Dow by proslavery man Franklin Coleman, heard of an armed band of proslavery men headed the way he came. Wood, himself involved with the free state militia, saw trouble and dispatched riders to raise the alarm. He and his traveling companion, J.B. Abbott rode back to Hickory Point to see what would transpire, as he told a correspondent two years later:

Never shall I forget that seven miles’ ride. Almost the whole distance was passed in silence. Just as we came to the timber I turned and inquired what we should do if we found the rascals at Branson’s.

Nineteenth century Americans did not understand rascal as a playful description. Rather they took it as a dire insult which might only be wiped clean with bloodshed. Given Wood understood Samuel Jones’ posse as aimed at Jacob Branson, and sent out the call for his own band to gather before setting out himself, he clearly foresaw the potential for the kind of treatment rascals deserved.

Abbott answered Wood tactfully. As the leader here, Wood should decide what they would do.

With tightened rein, revolvers in our hands, we galloped into the thicket, and in a moment were at the door of Branson’s. Dismounting, I hastily inquired for Branson. His wife, an old lady, in choking accents replied, ‘Twenty armed men have got him and gone.’ ‘Where?’ I asked. ‘Towards Lawrence,’ she replied, and at the same moment said they would ‘murder him,’ which I believed true, and spring into the saddle, and to the inquiry, ‘Where are you going?’ replied, ‘To save your husband or die.’

Wood surely knew that Branson held a rank in the Kansas Legion. He probably did the same, as the newspapers have Wood in command of a free state military company all the way back in July. He had one of his own to protect. If he didn’t, he might very well find himself next on Sheriff Jones’ list.

Wood and Abbott went out under a bright moon, looking for traces of the posse and asking passers-by if they’d seen Branson, Jones, and the posse. In a footnote, Wood explains that the posse went off-road to visit a proslavery man’s home for drinks. Branson confirms that. Two hours’ search availed them not, so “discouraged and dispirited” they split up, with Abbott heading for the agreed-upon rendezvous point to meet their reinforcements while Wood questioned a few more locals before riding to meet parties headed into the area. They came together at Abbott’s with about a dozen men gathered by Wood, Abbott apparently returning empty-handed as he “did not wait for the men on foot.”

The party debated what to do next, having gotten up their mob and found no one to sick it on.

we were about sending messengers to the pro-slavery town of Franklin for information, when all at once some one announced, ‘They are coming.’ Pell-mell we rushed out of the house and got into the road ahead of them, they halting within two rods of us.