Blame Andrew Reeder, Part Two

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Gentle Readers, yesterday’s post previously went out titled “Blame Andrew Reeder’s Fault.” Sometimes when one writes on less sleep than one would like, one forgets to edit in mid-line. I opted to finish the job late rather than never.

Anyway, Franklin Pierce started his special Kansas message by blaming the territory’s many troubles on its first governor, Andrew Horatio Reeder. A neophyte very much in over his head, Reeder’s tenure in office did little to ease tensions and, at least arguably, helped exacerbate them. He proved just active enough to order replacement legislative elections for some of Kansas most compromised districts, but not all of them despite clear evidence of territory-wide fraud. That he announced the decision while under armed guard says something about where his circumspection came from. By leaving the legislature firmly in control of the proslavery party, he also ensured that they would soon undo the little good he had done in the name of electoral integrity.

Pierce knew all of that, but he found in it no particular cause to blame Reeder. The President insisted that everybody claimed illegal voting took place, which the did. Reeder’s setting aside of some elections and accepting others indicated that most elections proved sound enough and the legislative assembly so constituted withstood scrutiny. That the Assembly felt otherwise and purged antislavery members in short order didn’t really matter:

by the parliamentary usage of the country applied to the organic law it may be conceded that each house of the assembly must have been competent to determine in the last resort the qualifications and the election of its members. The subject was by its nature one appertaining exclusively to the jurisdiction of the local authorities of the Territory. Whatever irregularities may have occurred in the elections, it seems too late now to raise that question. At all events, it is a question as to which, neither now nor at any previous time, has the least possible legal authority been possessed by the President of the United States. For all present purposes the legislative body thus constituted and elected was the legitimate legislative assembly of the Territory.

Reeder might have done better, but he didn’t. Fraud may have occurred, but stuff happens. At any rate, Americans agreed back in the powdered wig and knee breeches days that legislatures judged the credentials of their own members. Pierce, advancing his theory of presidential impotence again, said he could do nothing about it even in the unlikely event that someone ought to. No one had done wrong worth mentioning or, if they had done wrong after all, in anyone’s power to remedy.

Instead, Pierce hammered Reeder further on his dilatory inclinations. It did not suffice to damn him for taking months to arrive in Kansas. The president pointed to the smoothly fraudulent election of Kansas first territorial delegate back in November of 1854. Nobody complained then, right? Clearly, had Reeder gotten the lead out and conducted a census, set up full elections, and completely established the territorial government then and there all would have gone well. This also would have meant Reeder capitulating to the demands, sometimes backed with deadly threats, of the local proslavery men. According to Pierce, that would have forestalled interference by people from other states. People from Missouri, who crossed the line needlessly to ensure that John Whitfield became their delegate, didn’t count. By delaying, Andrew Reeder had invited “pernicious” antislavery agitators to bring their “misdirected zeal” to Kansas.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

And why had Reeder delayed? Pierce appointed him, so he must have appreciated that simply calling Reeder unfit for his office would prove inconvenient. Rather

the governor, instead of exercising constant vigilance and putting forth all his energies to prevent or counteract the tendencies to illegality which are prone to exist in all imperfectly organized and newly associated communities, allowed his attention to be diverted from official obligations by other objects, and set himself an example of the violation of law in the performance of acts which rendered it my duty in the sequel to remove him from the office of chief executive magistrate of the Territory.

Easton, Pennsylvania’s favorite son neglected his duties in favor of getting rich on illegal land speculation. As everybody knew at the time, you abused your office to get rich whilst carrying out your duties, not in lieu of them. That Reeder had good reasons to delay, including the coming winter, and the territory’s then-small population, just didn’t matter. One can’t read Pierce and not get the sense that he thought Reeder should have immediately found the proslavery leaders on the ground and pledged himself to their cause. Wilson Shannon, a far more experienced and astute politician, certainly got that message.

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Blame Andrew Reeder, Part One

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

John Hale and Franklin Pierce did not get on. That Pierce had drummed him out of the New Hampshire Democracy can’t have brought the two men together, but come 1856 they had more bad blood between them. In his annual message, Pierce laid into antislavery politicians. Those enemies of the Constitution had done all in their power to wreck the Union, bedeviling a prostrate South that gave up concession after concession incompatible with its honor or status as an equal partner in the American nation. Nothing would please antislavery fanatics, the president said. Hale, an antislavery politician, understood that this all meant him and his. He shot back with an impressive tirade in the Senate, which concluded with his foreboding that in short order a rupture may come. Hale hoped that it could wait until Pierce left office, as a master of the art of capitulation ought not helm the ship of state in such a time. The Senator’s kind words so moved Pierce that, according to James Rawley, turned his back on Hale at a White House reception. Clearly, Pierce had declared for slavery in Kansas.

Things didn’t necessarily look quite so dire in Kansas. From the beginning, free soil Kansans thought they might have a friend in Franklin Pierce. Well-connected men like James Lane told them so. The president hailed from New Hampshire, hardly a hotbed of proslavery sentiment. If he rose up through the Democracy, then that didn’t necessarily bother a majority of antislavery Kansans. Many of them, though certainly not all, leaned democratic. The charitable among them might even dismiss Pierce’s annual message for 1855, delivered on the last day of the year, as directed more at outside politicians than themselves. Yes, Pierce dismissed their concerns as the ordinary imperfections of government and, anyway, not something he could help. Yes, Pierce refused to send the army to protect them from Missouri’s invasions. But if you really wanted to, you could read all of that as indifference or poor information. Nothing the president said, contra Hale, necessitated that he had it in for free state Kansans.

On January 24, nine days after the free state pools opened everywhere save Leavenworth, and exactly a week after Leavenworth’s election belatedly took place in Easton and occasioned the murder of Reese Brown, the president sent a special message to the Congress. The House still didn’t have a Speaker, but Pierce had given up waiting on that fiasco back at the end of December. Why it took him so long to chime in again has puzzled historians. With the exception of the free state elections, nothing all that noteworthy had happened in Kansas since the annual message. Proslavery men killed Reese Brown, but all of a month before that Pierce had stood idly by while actual, if small and makeshift, armies had gathered in the territory and came near to blows. What changed?

In the second volume of his Ordeal of the Union, Allan Nevins suggests that Pierce had a divided Cabinet. The Interior Department leaned as far antislavery as the War Department, under Jefferson Davis, did proslavery. At State, William Marcy refused to give any opinion at all. Bereft of a clear consensus, in an era when presidents often shared more decision-making power with the Cabinet than we might expect, Pierce might have floundered about. Nichole Etcheson speculates that Pierce meant the message to undermine Andrew Reeder. In the endnotes, she also points to Pierce’s biographer, Roy Nichols. Nichols thought that the entire message aimed at swinging southern Know-Nothings into voting for the administration’s man as Speaker of the House. I doubt we’ll ever know.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

But when Pierce did set pen to paper, he displayed made himself very clear: Andrew Reeder, who the free state Kansans had named their delegate to Congress, screwed it all up. He dragged his feet getting to the territory, delaying from the end of June until the beginning of October before setting foot within his new domain. Then he declined to conduct the census that he ought to have begun immediately, delaying the first legislative elections until the end of March as a consequence. Then Reeder took until the start of July to summon the legislature.

So that for a year after the Territory was constituted by the act of Congress and the officers to be appointed by the Federal Executive had been commissioned it was without a complete government, without any legislative authority, without local law, and, of course, without the ordinary guarantees of peace and public order.

I have yet to find a historian who will defend Andrew Reeder’s performance as governor. He appears genuinely unfit for the task, an inexperienced lawyer jumped up to head a territory for the convenience of the Democracy in his part of Pennsylvania. He might have done his very best, but Kansas needed more. And who had put such an incompetent novice in charge of the nation’s newest, and surely most fraught, territory? What kind of fool would look at the obvious challenges facing Kansas and decide to seat an undistinguished lawyer into the governor’s chair?

Franklin Pierce.

“We will take the house; shoot Capt. Sparks at sight.”

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Angry proslavery men at the Sparks home sought Stephen Sparks, who Reese Brown had rescued the night before. They arrived at Sparks’ home before their fellows in Easton murdered his rescuer and before the man himself made it back. On arrival, they clashed with a pair of free soil men resolved to go rescue Reese. The antislavery Kansans, Francis Browning and Richard Houcks, bolted and separated. Esseneth Sparks, Stephen’s wife, saw it all.

With their quarry of opportunity gone, the proslavery men turned around and returned to the house. After an awkward moment, someone asked for orders. A Captain Dunn, the same fellow involved in the violence at the Leavenworth election the month prior and also present at Easton for some part of Reese Brown’s ordeal, gave those orders: “take the house; shoot Capt. Sparks at sight.”

Esseneth Sparks had no real defense against a band of armed men. Short of a similarly armed and numerous group; few do. She had only her son, her white skin, and the proslavery mob’s consciences to defend her. Nineteenth century chivalry could extend far enough to be some help to her. Even while besieging Leavenworth, proslavery men treated the town’s women more gently than they did the men. Whiteness provided certain immunities as well, but that sentiment could run even less than skin deep when proslavery sorts caught a whiff of antislavery in the air.

One must use the tools one has, rhetorical, or otherwise. Hearing that her unwelcome callers aimed to shoot her husband dead, and seeing them push through into the building, gambled on their pity. She told them that she had only “an afflicted son” who they might throw “into spasms right at once” and another son only twelve. Anyway, Stephen hadn’t come home. Not every proslavery American ran around in a black cape, twirling a mustache and toasting evil at every turn. Molesting a white woman and her ill child might very well prove more than they could countenance.

When I stepped to the door and looked in, I saw Captain Dunn, with a six-shooter presented at my son’s breast. I did not hear the question asked, but heard my son’s answer-“I am on the Lord’s side, and if you want to kill me, kill me; I am not afraid to die.”

Or perhaps they could countenance some violence against invalids, children, and women after all.

Incidentally, this makes the second member of the Sparks family in less than twenty-four hours to deal with a gun pointed at him by daring its owner to shoot. Stephen’s son did as his father had the night prior in Easton.

The afflicted Sparks son might not have feared death, but Dunn neglected to take him up on the matter. Instead, the proslavery captain

left him, and turned to my little son, about twelve years old, and put the pistol to his breast, and asked him where his father’s Sharpe’s rifle was, and my son told him he had none. Dunn asked him where those guns were, pointing to the racks, and told him if he did not tell the truth, he would kill him; and my son told him the men-folks generally took care of the guns.

Surely frustrated, Dunn came out. Esseneth pressed him for an explanation and

[h]e answered that they had “taken the law into their own hands, and they intended to use it.”

Intentions or not, they got no guns and no Stephen. Whether moral qualms, practical fears that some armed free state men might soon appear, or simple realization that Sparks might not risk coming home so soon moved them, the proslavery party left. They didn’t all have to go far. Esseneth knew two of the party on sight, one who lived in Leavenworth and another “raised within a mile or so of where we lived, in Platte county, Missouri.”

The Hunt for Stephen Sparks

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Reese Brown’s lifeblood spilled out from the gash in his head. He died in the early morning hours of January 19, 1856. Though free state sources often declare that he suffered numerous wounds, David Brown (no relation) found only the one. That doesn’t preclude Brown suffering quite a pummeling beforehand, of course. Most probably, his proslavery captors roughed him up fairly thoroughly. They may also have given him many solid kicks when he fell down. Neither would be particularly out of character, as George Wetherell could tell us, nor necessarily likely to leave marks for David to find later on.

Brown earned the wrath of the Kickapoo Rangers and Easton’s proslavery party by coming to the rescue of Stephen Sparks. Some may have also mistaken Reese Brown for George Washington Brown, editor of the Herald of Freedom, and objected to his living on the grounds that he ran for the free state legislature, but mainly Brown led an armed group of free state men in a battle that left a proslavery man mortally wounded. By the time of Brown’s capture, he and Sparks had parted company. The proslavery mob hadn’t forgotten him.

On the afternoon of January 18, the day after Spark’s rescue, two men outside the Sparks home got news of Reese Brown’s plight. According to Esseneth Sparks, who apparently had yet to hear of her husband’s ordeal, Francis Browning and Richard Houcks resolved to go to Brown’s rescue.

Just as they started, two men rode up and called for Mr. Sparks. I told them he was out on business. They said they had private business with him.

While Esseneth and the proslavery men spoke about her husband, Browning spotted a larger party on a rise. Understanding the threat in a large group of armed men, particularly near a known and undefended free state household, he turned back and asked them what had transpired.

They said “they did not know; there was a great excitement at Dawson’s, they had heard, but they had not been there.” They then gave the sign by firing two pistols in the air, and motioning to the party with their hands. The party then came riding on as fast as they could, shouting. When they came up, they all joined in pursuit of Browning and Houcks, shouting “kill them,” “kill them,” “kill the damned abolitionists,” and firing upon them; but they divided one going one way, round the hill, and the other the other way, and escaped.

The Murder of Reese Brown

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Captain John Martin, of the Kickapoo Rangers, did all he could for Reese Brown. The mob at Easton, including some of his own men, had enough of talk about giving Brown over to the lawful authorities. They waited long enough while he, Edward Motter, and others questioned the free state man. They came for blood, not talk. Martin delayed the final confrontation by some time, but at last the proslavery rowdies burst in and refused to depart. With some parting imprecations, Martin mounted up and started back for Kickapoo. He left Brown to the mob.

 

On the way out, Martin managed to release Brown’s companions. Under the same roof, they could hear the mob laying into Brown. Brown himself had rather less luck. Eyewitness testimony drops off at this point. M.P. Rively gave a confusing and evasive version of events:

He [Brown] was then taken out of the store by some one, I do not recollect whom; and it was proposed by some person, I do not recollect whom, that Brown and Gibson should fight, which they did. Brown fought, and Gibson knocked him down with his fist; that I saw. While he was down, Brown Hallooed “Enough.” He then got up, and I led him to the wagon and put him in it, and he went home in the wagon. That is all I recollect of it. I went off in advance of the wagon, and the next day I heard Brown was dying. I did not see the fight between Brown and Gibson when it commenced. I saw Gibson knock him down, and saw Brown strike at him. Id id not see Gibson use any weapon at that time, though I saw Gibson have a hatchet as we were going out there that day. I did not see him have a hatchet at the time of the fight. I do not know that Brown was bleeding when I helped him in the wagon, for it was about dusk. Mr. Charles Dunn helped me to lead Brown to the wagon, and Brown got in himself. […] I did not see either Brown or Gibson, at the time of the fight, have any weapon. It was about dusk, and I should probably not have seen the weapons if they had had any.

Charles Dunn had a prior proslavery adventure at Leavenworth involving free state polls.

Rively managed to see and not see everything. We can only speculate, but it seems far more likely that Rively saw most everything and declined to recall on the grounds that he might incriminate himself. He admitted to the concern when he opened his testimony. It doesn’t take much reading between the lines when he spells it out for you. At some point in the attack, the proslavery men decided Brown had had enough and bundled him up in a wagon to go home.

David Brown, no relation to Reese, lived on the claim to the west of the other Brown’s. He saw Brown “three or four hours” after the proslavery men dropped him on his doorstep. A teamster in Brown’s employ asked him to find a doctor. David obliged, securing a promise to come before returning to Reese Brown’s home around three in the morning, where he

found him in a dying condition, lying upon a pallet on the floor, his clothes literally covered with blood. I sat down, took his head upon my lap, and examined the wound. I asked him how he was; he said he was dying, but should die in a good cause. I commenced opening his vest to ascertain if there were any further wounds in his body, and he told me they were all in his head.

David checked anyway, but Reese had it right. Other sources say that Reese Brown suffered numerous serious injuries, but none of them saw his body. All that blood came from a gash

on the left side of the head, cutting the inside of the ear, and extending perhaps two inches long to the left temple, cutting off a lock of hair.

Even in the full dark of night, we might expect Rively to have noticed such an injury. It claimed Reese Brown’s life soon thereafter, with his head laying on David Brown’s lap at the time of death.

Reese Brown’s brother engaged doctors to examine the body, which they exhumed for the purpose about a month after burial. The cold preserved Brown fairly well. Dr. James Davis testified that the wound

was in the left temple, severing the temporal bone to the length of about two and a half inches. I judge that the wound was made with one blod of a hatchet or tomahawk, or some weapon of that kind. The temporal bone was opened sufficiently to admit my finger anywhere along it for two inches. I ran my fore-finger into the wound up to its second joint. I have no doubt it was a mortal wound.

Dr. J.G. Park agreed, adding that it made

about a line from the outer end of the socket of the eye, and running along towards the ear […] I ran my finger through the squamous portion of the temporal bone, which is the thinnest part of the skull bone. The opening into the skull was sufficiently large to admit my fore-finger, which I ran into the brain. Fragments of bone were sticking on the inside into the brain[…] The wound was one that must have produced death, and the only wonder is that the person should have lived so long after he received it.

If Gibson, or anybody else, managed to deal Reese Brown such a wound without a weapon then they must have had metal hands. Probably Rively, and everyone else who stuck around, saw Brown take the hatchet to the head and decided that things had gone far enough. Best get him out of the area before he died surrounded by obviously guilty proslavery men.

The Taking of Reese Brown

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Captain John Martin, of the proslavery Kickapoo Rangers, had a problem. His men took Reese Brown and his fellow free state militants prisoner on the morning of January 18, 1856, under the understanding that they had killed a proslavery man. They hadn’t quite done that, but they did hold up their end of a gunfight the night prior and John Cook, who participated on the other side, would die from a free state gunshot later in the day. On coming into Easton, the site of the previous night’s battle, Martin put his prisoners in Dawson’s store. Then he and some others, including Dr. Edward Motter, took Brown apart from the rest and questioned him.

While in the store, the free state men had other callers as well. J.C. Green testified that

I heard many of the men say that Brown should never get away from Easton alive. One man came into the store and said that Brown had as many friends in the room where they were trying him as he had enemies, and he would be damned if Brown should get away from there alive. Some one said that Brown ought not to be killed, but ought to be given up to the law. Some one then said they would be damned if Brown should get away alive.

Not everybody wanted to kill Brown, but plenty did. Both Easton locals and Martin’s Rangers included men out for blood. The release of the other free state men can’t have cooled their tempers. At some point after Brown’s questioning, a crowd formed outside the building. Martin went out to talk them down, calling on some of his less bloodthirsty comrades to help. Confident that they’d done the job, Martin went back inside.

While I was in the room some drunken men, some of whom lived out on the Stranger, some from Leavenworth, and probably one or two from Kickapoo, but none who belonged to the Rangers, broke open the door of the room and came in. Myself, Mr. Rively, and Mr. Elliot put them out again.

Martin repeats his favorite denial: Yes, men from Kickapoo came and got mixed up in everything. As a Kickapoo resident himself, he should know. But none of his Rangers had anything to do with it. Just random proslavery militants who acknowledged his authority as an officer in the Kickapoo Rangers.

Whoever came, their bursting into the room impressed the gravity of the situation on Martin’s companions:

Mr. Elliot, who was an old gentleman, advised me to come out, as the crowd would kill me and Brown both. He said he would not stay there and be exposed to such a set of drunken fools, and advised me to come away. I went out a few moments afterwards, and went into the other room where the rest of the prisoners were, and got them away while the crowd was breaking the second time into the room where Brown was.

Martin may have saved the lives of Brown’s party, but Brown remained in dire straits. He came back to Brown’s room just as the crowd broke in.

Some of them caught hold of him and tied his hands with a rope, and some tried to shoot him. Mr. Rives [probably M.P. Rively] and myself tried to protect him all we could by throwing the muzzles of the guns up and trying to take them away from them. Brown said I had done all I could do to save him, and if he was killed his blood would not be on my head. I cursed the men and told them they were doing wrong, and declared if they would kill Brown in spite of all I could do, I would not stay to see them do it.

The proslavery Captain then washed his hands of the situation, collected his horse, and rode back to Kickapoo. He insisted, truthfully, that he did all he could to spare Brown’s life. One person can rarely dissuade a lynch mob. Martin could and did prevent any immediate murder, to the point of seizing guns, but he and his lieutenant couldn’t prevail against the entire crowd.

The Trial of Reese Brown

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The Kickapoo Rangers had Reese Brown and his free state men in their custody. A Ranger named Gibson made a go at an unarmed George Taylor with hatchet but one of Brown’s men and one of the other Rangers pulled him off. Gibson didn’t take that laying down. After a second try, he settled for destroying Taylor’s hat. This in mind, the Rangers’ captain, John Martin, felt quite anxious for the safety of his captives. He put reliable guards on them, as much to protect them from his others as to prevent escape or rescue. Everyone then rode back into Easton, where Martin put his prisoners in Dawson’s store.

The people of Easton did not greet Brown’s return with unanimous joy. M.P. Rively described them as “very much exasperated.” Despite that, Captain Martin insisted on a more formal exercise of frontier justice. He wanted facts before considering any serious punishment and so chose to examine Brown. The interrogation took place in Dr. Edward Motter’s office and it seems the doctor took the lead. According to Martin:

Dr. Motter questioned him as to what he (Brown) had done the night before. Brown went on to state that they had come to Easton to the election to vote, and to defend the polls if necessary; that he had understood that the Kickapoo Rangers, or the pro-slavery party, were coming there to take the ballot-box away from them. he stated the cause of the difficulty the night before, to have grown out of the fact that Mr. Sparks was going from Mr. Minard’s house home, and the news came to Mr. Minard’s that Sparks had been taken prisoner, and he went down with some 30 or 40 men to rescue him.

 

All true enough. According to Motter, Brown also admitted doing some wrong that night, though the Doctor said that Brown wouldn’t elaborate on the point and he judged the free state captain more concerned with the election’s legality than the gunfight. Neither sounds entirely plausible, but knowing himself in the power of potentially murderous enemies, Brown might have said as much of what they wanted to hear as he felt he could get away with.

Brown confessed to the exchange of gunfire, at which point Martin and company had to decide what to do next.

Myself and Mr. Elliot, Mr. Grover, and Mr. Burgess advised them to bring Brown back to Leavenworth city, and place him in the hands of the proper authorities here. There were others in the room at that time; and I went out, and the crowd asked what conclusion we had come to, and I told them. They swore that would not do, because Brown would get away as McCrea had, and they were determined to have Brown or shoot him.

Cole McCrea killed Malcolm Clark at a public meeting some time earlier. The less famous William Phillips earned his lynching from the belief that he provided the gun. Martin, and probably everyone in Kansas by this point, knew the reference. He wouldn’t have any of this unlawful execution, though:

I told them that would be wrong and cowardly, as Brown was a prisoner, and that I would be responsible for him-would take him back myself, and he should not get away. Several other men promised the same thing, and then went back into the house to get some other steady men to go out and talk with the crowd, and try to pacify them; and they did so.

Martin had every reason to paint himself as the sensible, moderate one who wanted nothing to do with needless violence. On occasion his testimony comes across as the words of a man trying too hard to defend himself. But he and hostile witnesses to the same events agree that Martin had trouble controlling his men. The man on the other side standing up for a vulnerable enemy makes for a romantic image, but our natural hostility to the proslavery party shouldn’t convince us that every one of them considered violence equally appropriate in every situation. They too had their relatively dovish and hawkish members.

 

Understanding the Kickapoo Rangers, Part Two

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The Kickapoo Rangers, or a group near enough that it makes little difference, rode to the rescue. They had word of free state Kansans murdering a proslavery man and they would see justice done. The Rangers found their quarry, Reese Brown’s band of free state men, on the road outside Easton. According to the proslavery commander, John Martin, their capture occasioned

a good deal of excitement, and some questions were raised as to what we should do with them. Some of them got into a fight with one young man who had been taken in the wagon, by the name of Taylor.

Martin differs from George Taylor and Henry Adams, both of whom paint the fight as a one-sided affair that ended with Adams and a proslavery man pulling Ranger called Gibson and his descending axe away from the unarmed, prone Taylor. But Martin’s invocation of excitement implies he might have had trouble restraining his men.

That subtext runs through his testimony. Per Martin, the Rangers looked to him for advice on what to do with their prisoners. He doesn’t say it in so many words but, given the context, the options likely included letting Gibson have his way. Henry Adams testified that Martin lacked full control over his men and chose two trustworthy ones to guard them as much from their fellows as to prevent escape. Martin agreed that he did so:

They asked me if I would protect them, and I said I would, so far as I could. I requested Mr. D.A.N. Grover and Mr. Williams to get into the wagon with them, to protect them from injury, they being sober, discreet men.

Maybe Martin saw the guard as a chivalrous act designed entirely to appease his over-frightened captives, but in that case any man bar Gibson might have done. That he chose with some care, cognizant of the excited state of his company, suggests that he understood in the moment that he had a bigger problem than one malcontent.

All of this left the question Martin’s band posed to him not entirely answered. Now that they had their prisoners, what would the Rangers do with them? Martin decided they must go on to Easton, taking Reese’s people with them, in order to determine just what exactly had happened. Once back in town, Martin put the free state men

into Mr. Dawson’s store for protection against some of the men who had got to drinking and had become excited. Some were excited before we got there, and belonged to the party who had been there the night before.

I said before that none of the Rangers had firsthand knowledge of what happened with Stephen Sparks the night prior to their arrival. I stand by that. Nothing in Martin’s account of his gathering up a band of men and riding for Easton mentions firsthand knowledge. If someone knew something back at Kickapoo, I can’t imagine opting for silence and instead hoping that Edward Motter’s second letter of the night would carry the day. Someone may have met the party on the way and Martin neglected to mention them. Or he might have meant only to add the threat from Easton residents to that of his own more unruly elements and not phrased himself as clearly as one would hope. For the most part, Howard Committee testimony seems to have been given verbally. A clerk could have made a mistake in transcription or Martin might not have spoken as precisely as one would hope.

Pointing toward a fresh local menace, Rively testified that when the group arrived in Easton, they found

The citizens were very much exasperated, and it is not to be wondered at that they should retaliate; I fully expected they would.

However Martin came to understand it, he had more to worry about than his prisoners escaping or posing a threat to their captors. His men, the proslavery men of Easton, or a combination might well set aside his prudence and do something drastic. One had already tried.

Understanding the Kickapoo Rangers, Part One

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

We left George Taylor not quite the victim of axe murder. One of the Kickapoo Rangers, Gibson, set to the unarmed Taylor with the aforesaid axe but suffered the cruel disappointment of intervention by Henry Adams and a fellow proslavery man. Even the sort of person keen to join a proslavery militia had some limits, through Gibson clearly had fewer scruples than some of his comrades.

Their motivations could stand further investigation. We can generalize from other proslavery groups and expect similar concerns about the preservation of white power and slave property. The Rangers probably understood the free state movement as an insurrection that warranted extraordinary measures in opposition. But the Howard Report includes testimony from two Rangers present that day, the M. P. Rively that Henry Adams recognized and Captain John W. Martin himself. We don’t have the good fortune to hear from Gibson, and we do know that not all the party felt precisely as he did, but they give us our best approach to understanding why he felt George Taylor needed a gruesome death.

The Kickapoo Rangers rode for Easton on January 18, 1856 without a full knowledge of the confrontations the night previous. Indeed, they almost didn’t come at all. Martin received word from Edward Motter that Easton’s proslavery men required his services, but the news did not impress him:

I answered his note by telling him I apprehended no danger, and he had better go on until they commenced to fight.

According to Motter, he wrote for the Rangers to come after the gunfight. Maybe the Doctor didn’t communicate as clearly as he wanted to so soon after hearing bullets whistle by. He could also have just told the Howard Committee that he summoned help after the fight, but really done so before. Martin dates his receipt of Motter’s letter to about eleven at night on the seventeenth. We must take such times as approximate, but it still seems likely Motter wrote sometime that night rather than in a panic over the free state party’s effrontery in simply holding an election.

“About sunrise,” Martin heard from Motter again:

saying that one of their men named Cook had been killed by the free-soilers the night before. I then went down to Kickapoo, and told the men what had happened, and showed them the notes, and we concluded, a good many of us, to go out to Easton and see what was up.

Here Martin stresses that he did not call out the Kickapoo Rangers, but rather that some random citizens of Kickapoo chose to come along instead. He just had people from Kickapoo, or within a decent range thereof. One might call them the Rangers from Kickapoo, but certainly not the Kickapoo Rangers. Maybe to his mind, the distinction mattered. I have yet to find a historian who agrees. If anything, Martin might have drawn such a line to deflect responsibility from himself given what transpired later on.

M.P. Rively began his testimony with evasions:

I first saw Mr. R.P. Brown near Easton on that day, with a number of men with him, whose names I do not recollect. He was walking, but I do not recollect whether by his wagon or not. As that was some time ago, I do not recollect much that took place; not much took place while I was there. Some men had him, but I don’t know whether they were Kickapoo Rangers or not.

You can almost see him sweating in front of the committee. He told them that he came with the understanding that they had questions about elections, “not in regard to any little difficulties that have occurred in the Territory.” Rively didn’t know anything, didn’t see anything, nothing happened, if anything happened he wasn’t there. If he was there, he didn’t remember what happened. He just saw Brown hanging out, you know?

The committee informed Rively of their purpose and John Sherman, William’s then more famous brother, cut to the heart of the matter:

Q. Will true answers to questions as to what was done that day by the persons you have spoken of to R.P. Brown, tend to criminate you personally?

A. Upon due reflection, I think they might in some degree.

Rively went on to tip his hand a bit further by counting himself among the proslavery party, making his claim to ignorance preposterous, and named many names. For a man with a faded memory, he did very well. He even remembered why the Kickapoo Rangers chose to come that day:

We had no warrant to stop these men. We heard that Mr. Brown, with a number of others, had been out holding an illegal election at Easton; that there had been some misunderstanding between Brown and his party and some gentlemen who lived at Easton, and that Mr. Brown was the leader of the party who fired upon those gentlemen, killing a gentleman by the name of Cook, a pro-slavery man

All of that sounds downright plausible. None of the Rangers appear to have lived in Easton, where they could have seen events firsthand. If they did, Motter would surely have gone to them for help directly rather than write Martin. They hadn’t reached Easton before meeting Brown’s party and so probably had no other source of information. They knew that free soil men had done murder and came to find them.

Trouble at Easton, Part Eleven

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

On the morning of January 18, 1856, Reese Brown and his free state compatriots started for home. They came to Easton to defend the polls, but the number of defenders proved sufficient that save for two incidents the day prior involved mostly drinking. They lined up outside the polls to answer a proslavery charge that never came and, about midnight, rode to the rescue of Stephen Sparks when he tried to leave and the proslavery men cornered him against a fence. The latter incident brought about a short gunfight, with both sides taking cover at nearby houses and exchanging fire at long range in the dark. Sparks’ son suffered minor wounds. Two proslavery men did worse, one of whom would later die. The shootout ended with the free state men retiring back to the polling place, at the house of a Mr. Minard.

While they retired to Minards’, Dr. Edward Motter sent word to Kickapoo. He feared for his life, as people lately shot at often do, and begged help in the person of the Kickapoo Rangers. The Rangers came, meeting Brown and his party on the road. They got on both sides of the party and charged forward, surrounding them. Shouting chaos ensued, where their leader temporarily lost control. He regained it only to find free state man George Taylor on the ground, a proslavery man with an axe poised above.

Taylor explained how he got into such a position:

When we got to the top of a knoll, we saw another party-I should think of a hundred men-who were at a double log-house. We walked on up the road to where they were. Directly one of them came to me and told me he wanted my rifle. I gave it to him. I was standing among the crowd about five minutes, and the man who took my rifle came up to me and knocked me down, and several hit me while I was down. he caught hold of my hair, and when I raised up I saw him trying to hit me with a hatchet. I raised up and pulled away from him. I dodged about then for some time, and he followed me with his hatchet.

Taylor made for a priority target because, according to Joseph Bird, he alone held a Sharp’s rifle. Henry Adams and an unnamed proslavery man came to Taylor’s rescue:

I sprung there and caught the hatchet in time to prevent its hitting Taylor. Some person on the other side of Taylor caught Gibson [the attacker] about the same time, and pulled him round out of my reach. It was one of his own party, trying to prevent his killing Taylor, which he seemed bent on doing. Gibson made a second blow at Taylor’s head, and one of his own party caught the hatchet. He then commenced hacking Taylor’s cap to pieces, which was on the ground.

Gibson had to endure the cruel disappointment of murdering only a hat just then. He really wanted to do in Taylor. Plenty of proslavery men talked a big game about such things. Some meant it quite sincerely. Gibson makes for the first I’ve seen so committed that he aimed to hack to death an unarmed man. He sounds frankly unhinged. Adams advised the proslavery leader, Captain Martin, to put a guard on Gibson lest he take another crack at murder.

Adams thought others in the group more of Gibson’s mind than Martin’s and convinced the Captain to separate his captives from the more dangerous sorts before they headed back into Easton as prisoners.