Six Browns in Lawrence

John Brown

The news came to John Brown at Samuel Adair’s: a proslavery man killed an antislavery man. The victim’s friend and landlord Jacob Branson got together a meeting to look into the death. The murderer ran for the hills. Sheriff Samuel Jones got a posse together and went after Branson. Some antislavery men got their own posse together and took Branson from Jones. Now both sides looked on the edge of pitched battle at Lawrence, with Missourians rushing in to kill abolitionists and free state men converging to defend the town. Brown got home in a rush and sent John, Junior, to confirm the news.

Junior came galloping back in short order. He met someone on the road who said two thousand armed men massed on the Wakarusa aiming to burn Lawrence to the ground. Henry, Jason, and Oliver didn’t have it in them to go, still laid up with ague. The able-bodied men loaded up a wagon with weaponry and started out on December 6, 1855. Brown drove it while Junior, Frederick, Owen, and Salmon walked alongside. They started at five in the evening and traveled through the night. At a bridge, they kept on in the face of the enemy, not slowing and daring the proslavery men to stop them. The Missourians declined.

The five arrived to find Lawrence at arms, which brings us to where James Redpath’s account first entered our story. His grim warrior saint made a powerful first impression. Redpath wrote in 1860, aiming to defend Brown’s reputation against those who deemed him mad. Among that set stands George Washington Brown, editor of the Herald of Freedom and no relation to John. Responding to the news out of Virginia in 1859, he published an account of what people in Kansas knew of Brown. He, like Redpath, witnessed Brown’s arrival in Lawrence on that December day:

When the Wakarusa war was pending the old man and four sons arrived in Lawrence, the balance he reported sick. As they drove up in front of the Free State Hotel they were all standing in a small lumber wagon. To each of their persons was strapped a short heavy broad sword. Each was supplied with a goodly number of fire arms, and navy revolvers, and poles were standing endwise around the wagon box with fixed bayonets pointing upwards. They looked really formidable and were received with great eclat.

As Redpath said, that arrival prompted the formation of a military company under Brown’s command. Brown immediately

commenced fomenting difficulties in camp, disregarding the commands of superior officers, and trying to induce the men to go down to Franklin and make an attack upon the Pro-slavery forces encamped there.

The Committee of Public Safety had to step in several times to put a stop to that “wild project”. G.W. Brown’s version, like Redpath’s, has John Brown leave Lawrence in disgust when peace breaks out.

Good and Bad News for John Brown

John Brown

Gentle readers, I’m not going to do a full political post today but I want to draw your attention to the attack against civilization currently pending before the Senate and encourage you to make your opposition known to your Senators. If the reasons there don’t suffice, then the GOP also looks likely to use it as a vehicle to pack the courts with the sorts of judges who think Donald Trump would make a great president. Those are lifetime appointments, so imagine Judge Trump ruling on your civil rights into the 2060s.


Back to Kansas. We left John Brown finding out that John Junior did him proud by breaking the gag law that the bogus legislature passed outlawing antislavery statements. He went right up to the proslavery man and declared, in as many words, that no one had a right to hold a slave in the territory. Junior dared the proslavery party to come get him. John Brown would have none of that and resolved that no proslavery man would take any son of his. Soon after hearing that news came the free state elections for delegates to the Topeka Convention. Expecting trouble, the Browns arrived armed at the polls in Pottawatomie. No Missourians appeared and no local proslavery men caused any trouble, so Brown stood by while his sons voted. Then everyone went home.

The lack of disturbance at the polls pleased Brown greatly. He wrote his wife that he thought things on the turn in Kansas. The territory has suffered powerfully, but since the Missourians didn’t show they might have had their fill of Kansas. The same optimism that drove Brown into deep debt and failed businesses appeared again. Winter followed the good news and promptly laid the Brown boys up again, with their father the only able-bodied man at Brown’s Station for some time starting in late October. He regretted that that kept him from helping the neighbors as much as he meant to. At the start of November he finally replaced the first tent on the claims with a mud-chinked structure. Salmon recovered enough to help with the second building and things looked up, or at least progressing, again.

Samuel Jones

For Thanksgiving, not yet a standardized national holiday, Brown called on his brother-in-law, Samuel Adair. With Adair and his wife at Osawatomie, Brown received the news that Kansas pitched toward a great explosion after all. Franklin Coleman, a proslavery man, murdered the antislavery Charles Dow at Hickory Point, ten miles off from Lawrence. Jacob Branson, who had put Dow up before then and served as an officer in the antislavery militia, arranged a meeting to look into the death which Coleman understood as a lynch mob. He ran for shelter with Governor Shannon and Sheriff Samuel Jones, the latter of whom drummed up a posse to arrest Branson on the strength of a warrant that Shannon arranged for him. Free staters led by Samuel Wood sprung Branson from Jones’ custody, at which point he declared Lawrence in a state of rebellion and got Governor Shannon to call out the territorial militia to suppress it. David Rice Atchison and hundreds of Missourians, informed by Jones before he bothered to let Shannon know what happened, decided they could do militia service across the border and started into Kansas bent on a fight. Deeply disturbed, Brown rushed to his sons and dispatched Junior to find out the lay of the land.

“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.

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.

With Folly and Wickedness: The Peace Conference, Part Two

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The peace conference at Lawrence did not get off to the best of starts. As soon as Charles Robinson, James Lane, and Wilson Shannon exchanged pleasantries their disagreements came to the fore. Shannon wanted the Sharpe’s rifles and other weaponry that the free state men had received from abroad. He argued, quite reasonably, that these arms really amounted to company property rather than the private possessions of individuals who paid a mere pittance against their true value. Shannon soon, however, came to appreciate that he would get few guns and insisting would only bring on the conflict that he wanted to avoid.

That said, the Governor didn’t entirely give up the dream of a disarmed free state movement:

I therefore merely suggested to the committee that they should surrender their arms to Major General Richardson, and I would direct that officer to receipt for the weapons so received; it being understood that in the event of their so doing, the arms thus receipted for, should be restored, when, in the opinion of the chief executive, it could be done with propriety; or, if they preferred it, they might, in the same manner surrender, them to me.

Shannon proposed that the free state party, in the presence of a hostile army, surrender their means of defense to one of that army’s leaders and a member of the Blue Lodges. Perhaps he didn’t know about Richardson’s Lodge affiliation, but enough people knew in Kansas by the next summer that the Howard Committee summoned him to testify on the matter. He proposed this in the full knowledge that he had at best incomplete control over the proslavery army and at least a reasonable suspicion that the besiegers of Lawrence might take matters into their own hands and raze the place.

Yet Shannon apparently made the proposal in earnest. He and Richardson saw eye to eye on the weapons issue. The Governor explained to Brewerton that he intended to use the disarmament as cause to disband the forces arrayed against Lawrence. So far as it went, that made perfect sense. The Missourians and others came infuriated initially by the armed defiance of Sheriff Samuel Jones and once engaged maintained their wrath against armed antislavery men in general. Disarming the lot of Lawrence would surely please them, possibly enough for most to go home happy that smaller groups in the future could finish the work of destroying the movement.

William Phillips

William Phillips

While that might sound persuasive to us, it does require Robinson, Lane, and the rest of Lawrence to trust in the good faith of Wilson Shannon, William P. Richardson, and even Franklin Pierce. This would have made for a tall order even in the least trying circumstances. William Phillips describes Shannon at this point as a man trapped

by his folly and wickedness. He had hoped that the troops would enable him to retain his authority, hold the ruffians in check, and still crush the free-state men beneath his feet. The troops would not come to his aid, and the border ruffians, now that he had clothed them with authority, despised him, and determined to carry out their bloody purpose independent of his authority. He had no resource left but the free-state settlers, whom he had abused, and still desired to abuse and crush. But he was not prepared for the border ruffian measures, neither was he willing to shoulder the responsibility he was likely to incur.

Sara Robinson

Sara Robinson

Shannon did plenty to earn Phillips’ hostility, but allowing for that his account of the facts matches Shannon’s own. When negotiations concluded for the day, Shannon and his party repaired to the Robinson’s. There Sara Robinson met the Governor and came to largely agree with Phillips’ impression:

The governor is a gray-haired man, tall and well-proportioned. He has coarse features and a hard-looking face, generally. Nature must bear part of the blame, but the weather and bad whiskey, doubtless, come in for share. However, mild eyes and a good heighth of forehead show that naturally he is not a cruel man; but his head lacks firmness, as we speak phrenologically, and his course here, as well as elsewhere, is evidence that he is vacillating, weak, ill-suited to be the leader of other men; that he is credulous, and easily made a tool in the hands of base men; that in brief he is the exponent of the purposes and actions of the men, or party, with whom he is most thrown in contact.

The Peace Conference, Part One

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon had a lot on his mind when he rode into Lawrence on the morning of December 7, 1855. If he had any control of the proslavery army besieging the town at all, then it might soon pass. Rumors flew that the black flag would go up and the Missourians and their Kansas auxiliaries would descend upon the free state headquarters without mercy. When he came back from meeting with the free state leaders, he would learn that some of the proslavery militants plotted to intercept his messages to keep the United States Army from stopping the fun and possibly seizing arms that the Missourians had taken from a federal arsenal before they embarked on their Kansas adventure.

Troubles or no, Shannon came into Lawrence. There he saw the body of Thomas Barber before conferring with the free state leadership. The full Committee of Safety received Shannon and Albert Boone, then the two went off with Charles Robinson and James Lane for a private meeting. Then one party or the other, depending on whether one believes Shannon or Robinson, essentially gave up the substantive parts of their politics in the name of peace. Most likely neither did, but both made some effort at conciliation. Sheriff Jones and his militants wanted the wreck of Lawrence, but Shannon, Boone, Robinson, and Lane alike preferred otherwise.

Shannon soon found in Lawrence perhaps the first good news he had had since Franklin Coleman appeared on his doorstep:

I satisfied myself, however, that there was then no person in the town against whom writs had been caused to issue, as the parties had left the place several days before. I then, moved by the consideration of the fearful danger in which their people stood, stated to them that so far as I was concerned, as the chief executive of the Territory, the arrangements which they appeared willing to enter into in good faith would be satisfactory to me; that my sole purpose was to secure a faithful execution of the laws; that I asked nothing more, and that object obtained, I should at once disband the posse.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Shannon couldn’t argue with the facts. He ordered the militia out to see warrants served. With no one in Lawrence to serve those warrants to, the militia had no job to do. Everyone could just go home, if they cared to obey Shannon’s order to that effect. That, naturally proved the rub:

I explained to them the difficulty of prevailing upon the highly-incensed forces then surrounding Lawrence to retire without attacking the place or demanding the surrender of the Sharpe’s rifles and revolvers, with which they were well known to be armed. I added, moreover, that the idea was universally prevalent, both in the Lecompton and Wakarusa camps, that these weapons had been furnished from the East for the purpose of resisting the execution of the Territorial laws of Kansas and making her a free State.

Robinson’s version of the meeting matches Shannon’s except for the omission of this point. According to Robinson, the Governor held that people of Lawrence did nothing wrong in arming themselves for their own defense. When confronted on the matter, Shannon has Robinson and company make unconvincing denials:

The committee declared that these weapons had neither been procured nor distributed for any such end, but simply to defend the ballot-box from invasion. Yet it cannot be denied that they admitted to me that these arms were forwarded in boxes from the East, having been written for by General Robinson for the purpose aforesaid.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Everyone knew that Shannon had the right of it, but the fiction might serve to keep the free state men armed in the presence of an equally armed enemy. Robinson further argued that, while the arms came from the East, they passed into the hands of individuals who owned them fair and square. Shannon didn’t buy it:

each man who received a Sharpe’s rifle paid something as an equivalent; but, from what has transpired, it is my believe that the amount so paid bore no proportion to the real cost or value of the arms; in fact, it is currently reported that the sum paid for these Sharpe’s rifles by their receivers did not average over three dollars per man.

Shannon did the math. Citing an estimate that 1,200 Sharpe’s rifles now called Kansas home and the price at $30 each, the arsenal ought to cost $36,000. If the free state militants really paid about $3 each, as the rumor said, then who bore the other 90% of the cost? Anybody could sell at a loss if they wanted to, but clearly someone heavily subsidized those arms. In that case, could one really consider them private property? Perhaps one could legally, but as a practical matter these guns came to Kansas and remained there as instruments of the free state cause.

On the Volcano Either Way

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

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

The Lawrence Revolt: parts 1, 2, 3

The situation in Lawrence always held the potential for an explosion. That Samuel Wood finally did what antislavery Kansans had promised and defied the law at gunpoint had to escalate matters. Wilson Shannon responded exactly as most people, regardless of their position on slavery, would probably have expected: he called out the militia. As he told George Douglas Brewerton, he understood the free stater men as finally beginning their

settled plan and determination to resist and bid defiance to the Territorial laws, in accordance with [their] resolutions

The statement of purpose that the Lawrence Committee of Safety issued couldn’t have done much to change his mind. Shannon sent his orders to the militia on November 27, 1855. The next day, he wrote his account of the situation to Franklin Pierce. Through all of this, Shannon said, he

presumed as a matter of course, and intended, that all these men should be drawn entirely from the citizens subject to militia duty in Kansas Territory. At that time-as the seat of difficulties (Lawrence), is distant some forty miles from the State line of Missouri-it never for a moment occurred to me that the citizens of that State would cross into Kansas or volunteer their aid to carry out her laws.

Shannon reads as genuinely surprised here. Missouri managed to reach a hundred or more miles into the territory for the Assembly elections back in March, but Shannon missed those. He might not have believed the stories of such things and didn’t have the Howard Report to go check up with. He might have dismissed the Branson Rescue as a local matter that wouldn’t interest Missouri. One has the sense that he, like Andrew Reeder before him, didn’t fully understand just how far off the rails Kansas had run. He could tell Pierce that they stood on a volcano, but he also told the president that he didn’t know when it would blow.

On the twenty-ninth, the day after he wrote Pierce, Shannon released a proclamation that listed the free state party’s offenses against law and order. They had formed military companies aimed at resisting the laws of Kansas by force. They used those companies against Samuel Jones to free Jacob Branson. Shannon calls this “a violent assault,” which doesn’t quite match what happened, but had Shannon decided to try the matter by arms, surely would have. Further the sheriff’s prisoner led a mob that burned proslavery settlers out of their homes. And finally:

I have received satisfactory information that this armed organization of lawless men have proclaimed their determination to attack the said sheriff of Douglas county, and rescue from his custody a prisoner, for the avowed purpose of executing him without judicial trial, and at the same time threatened the life of the said sheriff and the citizens

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

After all of this, Franklin Coleman finally enters into things again. While free state Kansans generally seem more interested in harming property than people, at least compared to proslavery Kansans, the mob that sought him looks very much like they intended a lynching. Ridding themselves of Samuel Jones would make for a nice bonus. Whether or not Branson then intended to see Coleman dead, it seems clear that some of the hundred or so people rooting about for him would have reduced the proslavery population of Kansas by at least one if they came on him in the night.

However much our sympathies remain with antislavery Kansans, we cannot dismiss these as light and trivial offenses. Shannon may have bungled the execution of his response and deluded himself into thinking Missourians would for once not involve themselves, but I don’t see any way he could have just let things go. He stood on the volcano either way.

Shannon’s View of Kansas’ Troubles, Part One


Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

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

The Lawrence Revolt: parts 1, 2, 3

On November 27, 1855, Wilson Shannon issued orders for the organized northern and unorganized southern divisions of the Kansas territorial militia to converge on Lecompton. There they would place themselves at the disposal of Sheriff Samuel Jones to serve warrants against Jacob Branson and those who rescued him from Jones’ custody. Shannon specified that the militia had those duties and no more, clearly sensitive to how the use of force could go badly wrong. But Shannon’s prudence had its limits. He paints Franklin Pierce a rather dire picture of matters the next day. Kansas faced

great danger to the peace and good order of society. I am well satisfied that there exists in this Territory a secret military organization, which has for its object, among other things, resistance to the laws by force.

The Kansas Legion had military organization, at least in chapters sufficiently large, and promised essentially that. Shannon might not have known it then, but Branson served as an officer in the group. His rescues almost certainly included his comrades in arms. Shannon knew all of that for some time, as Patrick Laughlin’s revelations hit the papers a month prior and free state groups had threatened resistance of the law in martial language for some time prior. He also makes reference to “hints thrown out by some of the public journals in their interest,” which he could hardly have missed.

Until the Branson affair, he understood this all as bold talk rather than a plan of action. Some free state Kansans probably agreed with him.

Shannon didn’t know how many men the Legion boasted, but he guessed between one and two thousand

well supplied with Sharp’s rifles and revolvers, and that they are bound by an oath to assist each other in the resistance of the laws when called upon to do so.

Now that the Legion proved itself as martial as its rhetoric, he had to do something. Shannon related the story of Dow’s murder to Pierce, complete with “three to four hundred” men out to lynch Coleman. He told of Branson’s arrest in somewhat more general terms, not naming him but calling him a leader of that mob. “[B]etween forty and fifty” intercepted Jones to free his prisoner, armed with those same Sharpe’s firearms. Along the way, the proslavery families around Hickory Point, who Shannon called “law-and-order families” suffered burned houses, killed cattle, and general destruction of property to the point that all but two households fled.

Helpless women and children have been forced by fear and threats to flee from their homes and seek shelter and protection in the State of Missouri. Measures were taken by the legal authorities to procure warrants against these lawless men, and have them arrested and legally tried.

Those measures may include making Franklin Coleman and Josiah Hargis justices of the peace alongside Hugh Cameron. Though hardly impartial, Shannon could have expected them to know from experience where to best issue warrants.

William Phillips and the Case of the Curious Commissions

William Phillips

William Phillips

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: part 1, 2, 3

I have to back up a little bit, Gentle Readers. You’ll remember that Hugh Cameron, the impressively bearded justice of the peace, gave Sheriff Samuel Jones the peace warrant he used to arrest Jacob Branson and so bring escalate the Dow murder into a major territorial controversy. William Phillips claimed that Cameron came to issue that warrant by less than upright means:

The manner in which they had to proceed about this showed the character of the whole affair. Jones had got a commission for a justice of the peace all filled but the name; and found a man named Cameron, a recreant free-state man, of low repute, who, vain man, for the title “justice of the peace” was willing to sell what little had had of principle.

Hugh Cameron

Hugh Cameron

Charles Robinson substantially repeats the idea and Free state Kansans seem to have generally thought Cameron issued his warrant as a quid pro quo. When I related all of this, I couldn’t speak to the accuracy of the free state claim one way or the other. It would help greatly to know the date of Cameron’s commission. In the search for another document, I found reference to Cameron receiving a commission. In Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, Volume 3, the executive minutes of the Shannon administration include a note that Cameron got a commission on October 8, 1855. He then became Treasurer of Douglas County, not justice of the peace.

Odd, but not conclusive. Just a bit further down, I found note of this series of commissions dated November 24, 1855:

Commission issued to Hugh Cameron, as Justice of the Peace for the township of Lawrence, in the county of Douglas.

Commission issued to Franklin M. Coleman, as Justice of the Peace for Louisiana township, in the county of Douglas.

Commission issued to Joshua N. Hargus, as Justice of the Peace for Louisiana township, in the county of Douglas.

Joshua Hargus probably means Josiah Hargis, one of Coleman’s friends and a member of Jones’ posse. Everyone seems to have had their own way to spell his name. Needless to say, seeing Cameron’s commission issued at the same time as Coleman’s and Hargis’ at the very least looks suspicious. But does the timeline fit?

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Jones got his warrant from Cameron on November 26 and rode through the night to apprehend Branson and take him away. If we take this at face value, then Cameron had his commission a full two days before the affair. I think we should probably not, however. We can’t ignore that he got his commission alongside Coleman and Hargis. I suspect that either the clerks got the date wrong or the commissions came back-dated a few days to lend them more legitimacy.

Leaving aside human error, does Shannon’s grant of the commissions implicate him in some questionable business too? Possibly, but he might have heard from Jones that Douglas County stood on the edge of rebellion even before the Dow murder and Branson arrest. Shannon generally seems inclined to believe whatever proslavery Kansans tell him, so he could have understood the situation as an emergency and requiring a generous helping of legal authority freshly dispensed. It would make sense for him to issue credentials to the presumed experts on the ground, especially two men he had right in front of him. He might have picked Cameron as a reliable sort, already an officeholder in the territorial government, and had Jones deliver the commission. Or he may have gone all-out in his alarm and handed Jones blank documents to fill in as needed. Neither reflects particularly well on Shannon, but likewise neither required a fool nor a fiend.