The view from two sides of Lawrence

William Addison Phillips

William Addison Phillips

From William Phillips, we know that people moving around Lawrence suffered harassment and risked their lives at the hands of proslavery forces converging on the town. The newspapers reported that even a messenger sent from the town to Governor Shannon dodged bullets on his way back. J.B. Donaldson’s posse had begun its unofficial work, at least. With the town’s pleas for help refused or left unanswered, things looked grim. People of less prominence than reporters for the Eastern papers and intimates of the free state government agreed.

Axalla Hoole, had lived in Lawrence until recently. He wrote to his sister on May 18, the day after Lawrence dispatched its latest desperate plea to Donaldson. He was glad to hear that the slaves back home remembered him in their prayers:

Thank them a thousand times for me, and beg them always to remember me when they render up their petitions to Him who rules and governs all things. I feel that I need the prayers of everyone.

Hoole had not set aside his politics when he moved to Kansas. He reported Jefferson Buford’s arrival in the territory and his intention to call on the filibuster, who just then resided at the house of his neighbor.

While I am writing, guns are firing in the camps of the different companies of soldiers who are gathering to attack Lawrence. Sunday as it is, they are shooting in every direction. I expect before you get this Lawrence will be burnt to the ground. I may not know when it will be attacked, but if I do, I expect to go-although I don’t think that they will show any fight, though they are preparing. But I hear they are very much frightened and have sent to the Governor for protection, but he sent word to them that they did not consider him their Governor and would not submit to the laws, so he would leave them to their fate.

Hoole wrote from Douglas, not far at all from Lawrence. If he knew of the shooting, then the town can’t have long remained ignorant. Of course Hoole doesn’t know if they shot at anything in particular just from the reports. Most likely, a group of well-lubricated men with guns found ways to amuse themselves that didn’t necessarily put bullets in the bodies of their enemies. Shooting for fun didn’t preclude shooting for purpose soon enough, though little daylight may have separated the two for many.

On the other side of Kansas politics, Edward Fitch wrote his parents on the same day from Lawrence itself. He complained that the surveyors had come through and ran a line straight through his house, which may mean that when he went to claim his land he would get half a building. But his neighbor didn’t live on the claim, so Fitch thought he had a good chance to prevail.

but having a claim is not going to do me any good if I don’t live and we don’t know how soon now we may be cut off. We are surrounded by an armed mob and they may attack us at any time and in our present condition we stand a chance to be wiped out which is what they say they are going to do. We never have been quite so near war as we are now.

Fitch arrived in Kansas, courtesy of the Emigrant Aid Company, in October of 1854. He lived in Lawrence from that point on, so he knew the Wakarusa War firsthand. For him to consider this the nearest they had yet come to destruction speaks volumes. He apologizes to them for infrequent writing and saying so little, on account of the “fevered excitement” and begs more letters from home.

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“We shall have a bloody time out here”

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce called the free state movement revolutionary, tending toward insurrection, and ordered its members to disperse. In the certain event that they would refuse, he placed the Army at the disposal of Kansas’ proslavery government to suppress them. Forget the local militia, or even the Missouri militia, the actual United States Army would ride out of its forts and put an end to Kansans’ experiment in self-government. To oppose them by force would make the free state movement traitors in the eyes of large numbers of Americans. That very fear had helped curb proslavery militancy, if just barely, back in December. Charles Robinson had similar apprehensions, which the presidential proclamation could only rouse from whatever abeyance they might have settled into since the middle of December.

Free state Kansans did not miss Pierce’s meaning. Edward Payson Fitch, a Massachusetts native, had come to Kansas in the third group of New England Emigrant Aid Society settlers. Transcriptions of his letters (PDF) made it into the Spring, 1989 issue of Kansas History, along with an account of his life. Fitch wanted Kansas kept clear of slavery and if he could set up a prosperous farm and get rich on real estate speculations too, so much the better. He came to Lawrence and taught school for a time, invested in land, and partnered with Charles Stearns in the Republican House. That establishment constituted a sod hut with canvas for a roof. You could sleep there for ten cents a day, but it cost fifty more if you wished to eat too.

On February 24, Fitch wrote his parents back in Massachusetts. He had good news to report:

I have been to meeting twice to-day. It is growing warmer and we have meetings more regularly and shall continue to if we are not all killed.

They might all die tomorrow, but at least he got to church. His failure to attend, sometimes for lack of meetings at all and sometimes otherwise, features into prior letters. Fitch looked forward to the meeting of the free state legislature come March, which would put Pierce’s threats to the test. Fitch would turn twenty-three on March 8 and one can read a young man’s bravado into this. But he had put himself in harm’s way to defend Lawrence and the President of the United States really had threatened military force against his party, a fact which he reminded his parents of:

Pierce says we are traitors so of course the Missourians are to put us down but if they try it we shall have a bloody time out here. God Grant that it may be avoided.