“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.

Advertisements

The Lawrence Revolt, Part Two

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: 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

Charles Robinson thought the hammer would soon come down on Lawrence and the free state movement. Samuel Wood had taken a lawful prisoner, Jacob Branson, at gunpoint from an officer of the law and his duly-deputized posse. Some Kansas firebrands might have welcomed the confrontation that must now ensue when Sheriff Jones got to Governor Shannon and the territorial militia came down on their heads. Robinson appreciated the real danger they now faced, to the cause as well as their persons. What would happen if Shannon appeared at the head of a column of men, Jones at his right hand?

Here, then, was the first skirmish, and what should be done? Undoubtedly the force would be called out by authority of the Governor, and to resist it would be to resist Federal authority, which could not be thought of for a moment. While the Free-State men might, under favorable circumstances, resist the bogus local authority, the moment a Federal officer appeared all were loyal citizens of the Republic.

The free state Kansans had always stressed that they only rejected the authority of the bogus legislature and its agents. That extended to Samuel Jones, one of their sheriffs, but Wilson Shannon held his commission from Franklin Pierce. He served as an officer of the federal government to which antislavery Kansans had often proclaimed their loyalty and which they hoped may yet send them relief. Taking up arms against him could ruin their fragile bid for respectability and turn many sympathetic Americans against them, just as later many northerners who opposed the Republicans and antislavery decided that the defiance of federal authority warranted forcible suppression.

But it seems that not everyone in Lawrence felt the gravity of the situation warranted circumspection. Shannon reported to Brewerton that Lawrence got together a meeting on the morning of the 27th, with Branson presiding “in a military uniform.” Wood made speeches “of an incendiary character, glorying in the triumph of the Free State men over the laws of the Territory.”

The Herald of Freedom reported on the meeting. As a prologue, it recapped the Coleman-Dow affair and repeated the story that Hugh Cameron got his commission as a justice of the peace on the spot so he could issue Jones a warrant for Branson’s arrest. Then:

A meeting was convened of our citizens to learn the cause of the excitement. -A chairman was elected, the object stated, and the particulars of the arrest and rescue were given by Mr. Branson, and listened to with profound interest by the people. Mr. B. spoke calmly, yet feelingly, and closed with the remark that he was in the hands of his friends, -alluding to his rescuers,-and would abide their judgment.

Branson asserted that Coleman killed Dow “in cold blood, without any provocation.” Branson’s only crime involved knowing the fact. He then offered himself up as a martyr: if the people of Lawrence didn’t believe his cause just, he proposed to “go home and die in his own defense, and find a grave by the side of his friend.”

The Lawrence Revolt, Part One

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, 9

Charles Robinson knew that when Samuel Wood relieved Samuel Jones of Jacob Branson and delivered him to Lawrence, he brought trouble along for the ride. The sheriff of Douglas County, not a moderate man even on a normal day, would not take losing his prisoner lightly. It appears, in fact, that Jones told Wood and his company as much when they blocked the road and took Branson from his posse. Harrison Buckley, one of Franklin Coleman’s friends and a member of the posse, testified later that

Sheriff Jones said they were doing something they would regret hereafter, in resisting the laws

Josiah Hargis, another posse member and Coleman associate, agrees that Jones made a threat, adding

He then told them that he would call out the militia to enforce the law.

Given he lost his prisoner at gunpoint, one can hardly blame Jones for objecting strenuously. That Wood’s band told him that they

relied only upon their rifles as the law of the land, and would at all times defend themselves from being arrested by any process issued by any officer of the said territory

could hardly mitigate matters.

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

Escalation normally begets escalation. The promise of forcible resistance invites the application of force to suppress it. I don’t see how either side would back down from this easily. Jones went for help as he promised and

immediately made requisition on Governor Wilson Shannon for a sufficient force to arrest the said Jacob Branson, and execute other process in his hands as sheriff of said county; that the said Jacob Branson was taken into the town of Lawrence, in the said county, and there, as he verily believes, as he was informed by good authority, tried an acquitted by citizens of the said town, without any legal investigation; that a mob of some fifteen or twenty threatened to tar and feather and inflict other punishment upon the justice of the peace who issued the warrant; that he, as sheriff, has been repeatedly insulted by the citizens of the said town of Lawrence, and threatened with violence if he attempted to execute any process in his hands against any citizen of that place […] that the citizens of that place and vicinity are all armed with Sharpe’s rifles for the avowed purpose of resisting the execution of the laws of this Territory; that they are daily being drilled for that purpose alone

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

The tar and feathering sounds a bit more like a proslavery maneuver, but one doesn’t have to reach far to believe the people of Lawrence made threats against Jones and promised to obstruct his official duties. They declared often enough that they meant to resist enforcement of the laws as a matter of policy. They might also have threatened Hugh Cameron over the warrant. One can hardly deny that they had a militia, given the ladies of Lawrence presented a flag to its commander back on July. The man who received the flag, to make the connection especially clear, likewise led the party that took Branson from Jones.

How could this look like anything but the start of an armed revolt?

 

 

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.

 

The Hunt for Jacob Branson, Part Five

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

We left Jacob Branson, Kansas Legion officer and landlord to the murdered Charles Dow, on the night of November 27, 1855 and in the custody of a posse led by Sheriff Samuel Jones. Some time after taking Branson, and escorting him over to where they could lubricate themselves, Jones explained his business to Branson at last. Only then did his charge learn the identity of his captor and reason for his seizure in the middle of the night.

Another group of armed, displeased men rode around Hickory Point that November night. Franklin Coleman’s murder of Dow caused much excitement and men had come down the day before from Lawrence to attend a public meeting on the subject. This meeting convened on Friday, the twenty-third. As Kansas meetings tend to, this one called for a sequel on the coming Monday, the 26th. Samuel Newitt Wood, of the Fourth of July festivities fame, attended both meetings and recounted his experiences in a 1857 letter to A. Wattles, reprinted in Charles Robinson’s The Kansas Conflict. The meetings set up a vigilance committee and appointed Wood to question witnesses, in the course of which he discovered or “discovered” that Dow died not as a result of a long-running land dispute but rather on account of his antislavery politics.

The meeting on the twenty-sixth lasted to dusk and

Much feeling was manifested against Coleman, and a strong disposition exhibited to burn his house, which stood near. Three or four men broke down the door, rushed in, emptied a straw bed upon the floor, and fired it. S.C. Smith, S.N. Wood, and others rushed into the house, smothered the flames, clearing the house, and amid the greatest excitement, some crying, ‘Burn the house,’ and others interceding to save property. S.N. Wood jumped upon the fence and said murder, pillage, and arson were the peculiar avocations of our enemies, that houses were too scarce to be burned, and that this meeting must not be disgraced in this way. Wood moved as the sense of the meeting that the house not be burned, which was carried unanimously, and the meeting quietly separated.

Branson also agreed that the men at the meeting wanted to burn Coleman out. He, like Wood, opposed the measure. The house still burned. That Wood stresses the bad press that the arson might bring on the cause, and the meeting’s attendees personally, might come down to good politics in persuading the more radical members of the crowd. It also might have come out of his genuine sentiment that the free state movement could not afford a reputation as arsonists. Or it might have served as cover for the members who quietly went off and burned Coleman’s and Buckley’s homes thereafter. Someone committed those arsons, and with a meeting of around a hundred free state men nearby so soon beforehand it seems likely that the guilty parties stood with the rest around the site of Charles Dow’s death that afternoon.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Wood turned back for Lawrence after the meeting, in the company of J.B. Abbott. They got lost in the dark, but found themselves at Blanton “about ten or eleven o’clock”

where we were met and told that a large party of armed men had just passed towards Hickory Point. I immediately urged the necessity of following the party to ascertain if possible their business to Hickory Point. We finally adjourned to Abbott’s for supper. After supper fresh horses were procured. One was sent up and down the Wakarusa to notify the settlers, two started upon foot to raise what Free-State settlers they could on the route and rendezvous near old man Branson’s, while Abbott and myself went to Hickory Point.

Wood doesn’t name the party as such, but he must have heard of Jones’ posse. From his reaction, he has to have understood them as at least likely a proslavery mob bent on some kind of violence. On that count, he and Sheriff Jones apparently agreed.

On Bias and How to Read History, with thanks to @HankGreen

This past week, I saw a post from educational Youtuber Hank Green (@HankGreen) over on Facebook. Hank and his brother John operate the benevolent informative empire of SciShow, CrashCourse, and numerous associated channels. Hank found a quiz put out by an actual academic to tell the you how much bias influences your politics. He scored very well on it. I also took the test and beat the average by a healthy margin, though I didn’t do quite so well as Hank. Best to disclose that up front. I also don’t mean to call Hank out here. His Facebook post provided the inspiration, but dealing with bias constitutes a very large part of what I do here. Evaluating sources for bias comes in not very far under reading sources, and usually runs simultaneously with it.

If you go around the Civil War block enough times, you’ll hear plenty of accusations of bias. Historians have a bias. Sources have a bias. Interpretations have a bias. Geography itself has a bias, apparently toward the North. The implication generally runs that the guilty indicate, by the presence of bias, shown themselves utterly untrustworthy. The speaker, emancipated by that discovery, can just skip reading the lot in favor of the unbiased. There one can learn the truth. The same argument runs through almost every subject on which people have differences. We could as easily have talked about the news as historical documents, or the questions asked on the test that Hank found. The liberating power of shouting “bias!” always works.

I find the entire business frustrating, because it comes so close to a good point and then careens off into a weird mix of cynicism and naivete. The cynicism comes in with the assumption that the presence of bias invalidates all points. If we really believed that then we would believe nothing about anything including that. Rather we generally mean by it that people who disagree with us constitute a pack of lying villains we can and should dismiss out of hand. This conviction comes in tandem with the notion that those who agree with us we can accept uncritically as they have no bias. Not everybody will go to that extreme, and I don’t mean to suggest that Hank did or does, but just calling out bias and stopping there ends up in much the same place. I’ve seen others do it, and others have seen me do it, often enough.

The bias road has a third exit, which generally goes unstated: we ourselves either have no bias or can easily set it aside when we make determinations about the bias of others. After a few years dealing with historical actors and documents, on top of all the normal business of life, I have come to find the latter assumption far more dangerous. What follows from finding what one considers an unbiased source, if not that we can then accept what this source says uncritically? We have not escaped bias then, but rather elevated it to dogma.

In some perfect world, we may find that unbiased source and so come to no grief from taking it uncritically. In the world where we actually live, bias comes hand in hand with humanity. If you can think, you have bias. It comes from your upbringing, your values, your experiences, your education, how your brain chemistry sorts itself out, and literally every input into your life. All of us live in its thrall; none of us can escape. We all come from somewhere and we all take it with us into all the things we do, from the historian perched uncomfortably on the sharpest peak of the ivory tower to the latest newborn. Every stimulus gets processed according to the machinery already in place and in so doing becomes part of the machinery itself. This doesn’t make us bad. We do not acquire all our biases out of malice. But we do acquire them uncritically enough that we should do our best to keep close watch over them. As the world’s most peerless experts in fooling ourselves, that proves a daunting challenge.

So naturally, we should give it all up. If we can never escape bias, then we can never do anything worthwhile or approaching the truth. Having no solution, we must either decide we have no problem and proceed anyway or we have to call it quits. Only the second allows us to make an honest choice, though even there we come freighted with biases in favor of consistency over contradiction. I even put my thumb on the scale by calling the latter the honest choice. Or we can do something else entirely, though this comes less naturally than either of the two previous options.

John Blassingame

John Blassingame

If all of this sounds abstract, then let me give you a few examples. I’ve mentioned Ulrich Bonnell Phillips before. Phillips wrote the first real history of slavery in the modern sense. In so doing, he made one of these calculations and demonstrated very well how the cynicism/naivete dynamic plays out. Phillips had slave narratives available to him. He chose to discard them as hopelessly muddled and written as polemical works to inflame antislavery sentiment. In other words, the experiences of enslaved people as passed down to us came with bias. They couldn’t be trusted. Phillips had no trouble, however, accepting uncritically the writing of their enslavers. Those rare specimens of humanity had written objectively, free of their biases. This may sound so retrograde to us that it beggars belief, but it made perfect sense to Phillips and to a bit more than two generations of historians after him. For most of the twentieth century, the study of slavery involved very few enslaved perspectives. This held true even for historians with a far more positive opinion of the antislavery movement and black Americans than Phillips had. It took until the 1970s and the work of a black scholar, John Blassingame, for the change to begin. One still finds occasional historians who treat slave narratives as an expendable genre of literature rather than one which can tell us important things about slavery. The Economist generally likes their work.

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

In my own late work, I’ve dealt with two murders committed by proslavery men against antislavery men. In both cases, the only eyewitness testimony I have found comes from proslavery sources. These naturally paint both murderers as acting in self-defense against aggressive antislavery partisans who both escalated the conflict and initiated the violence in their final, fatal encounters. Samuel Collins literally came looking for Patrick Laughlin to cause trouble. Charles Dow and Jacob Branson wanted Franklin Coleman gone so badly that they went against established custom to excuse their expropriating parts of his claim and leaving him with not enough to support his family.

Or so the stories sympathetic to the killers go. The accounts in the Herald of Freedom generally swing the other way, but George Washington Brown doesn’t claim to have any witnesses to back himself up. His decision to paint both Collins and Dow as innocents murdered by brutes seems to have come down to consulting their politics. William Phillips, the author and journalist but not the lynching victim, did much the same. Branson, Coleman, and Laughlin all lived to tell their sides of the stories but they all had an understandable interest in vindicating themselves.

How does one sort out that mess? Ideally, one could read proslavery and antislavery accounts against each other. When they agree, we can more confidently argue that things happened as described. Where they do not, we must necessarily consider both in their contexts and inevitably make subjective judgments about probability and plausibility. When I do this, I try for transparency by both admitting that I have made the judgments and sharing my reasoning. In no way do these judgments, or those of a real historian, constitute a science. In the past generation most historians have come to accept that we can’t manage any kind of perfect objectivity. Instead the discipline strives to integrate diverse perspectives in the service of mitigating the ubiquity of bias through commensurate diversity of bias.

That said, I don’t want to leave you, Gentle Readers, with shrugs and invocations of human messiness. History does not aspire to science, but it does have some best practices. I’ve already alluded to some of them, and they live in the subtext of most every post here, but I can’t go this far without offering a few suggestions. These apply to both primary sources from the era in question and to historians working from them:

A diversity of sources, as diverse as one can get, considered fairly but critically will tell you more than one source or one type of source alone. Where they differ, you can read them against one another and see what falls out. However, this often makes for an unattainable goal. We have only so much time, money, and access to information. Sources which seem consistently misleading and deceptive may not deserve the effort put into integrating them. That holds especially true for sources speaking to things that happened in some external to the author sense, but less so for sources speaking to attitudes, feelings, and perceptions at the time. If you want to know what enslavers thought and felt, you’ve got to read them even though they frequently lie even to themselves.

William Phillips

William Phillips

One should always consider who wrote a source and try to know something about the author and his or her circumstances. That includes their politics, upbringing, and their personal involvement with issues touching upon their subject. William Phillips (both of them) actually lived in Kansas and participated in antislavery politics there, which presents us with both an asset in firsthand knowledge and a liability in that they have enough personal investment to strongly encourage them to ignore or obscure facts inconvenient to the cause. Much the same holds true for Franklin Coleman and all the rest. More recent and scholarly works remain likewise a product of the same. Historians find their questions in their present, even if they dig into the past to answer them. Historical work inevitably comments on the present as well as the past. Interest in political violence, notably around Reconstruction, has had a considerable revival since September 11, 2001. Interest in moderation and consensus, along with enthusiasm for capitalism, similarly took place of prominence during the years of white prosperity after the Second World War.

One should then consider to when the author wrote. William A. Phillips published his book on Kansas with the issue still very much unsettled. Charles Robinson wrote his decades after the fact. He had more hindsight to benefit him than Phillips, as well as a less urgent need to vindicate the free state cause before the nation with the question long resolved, but likewise took a very personal role in events. Those decades further added to the natural fading of human memory. On a broader level, one should take histories written closer to the event as inherently more invested in the event than those written later. That doesn’t mean that all early works don’t deserve reading, or that all recent works do, but the earlier authors often have less access to information and frequently worked in times with different scholarly norms. Assessments we find abhorrent, like U.B. Phillips’ dismissal of the slave experience, once raised no eyebrows at all. Our own time will have the same.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

One should further consider to whom the author wrote. William Phillips, like George Brown and Robert Kelley, wrote with a national audience in mind. Kelley’s and John Stringfellow’s Squatter Sovereign hoped to elicit the sympathy and support of southern partisans for their Kansas project, whilst simultaneously stressing the evils of abolitionism to depress its appeal to wavering northerners. Phillips and Brown hoped to do the same things, but in favor of their own Kansas project. Thus they have more interest than they might otherwise in emphasizing the virtues of their own side and vices of the other. Furthermore, they might not shy away from printing lies that anybody in Kansas could spot on the grounds that many readers would not have the firsthand knowledge to recognize the deceptions.

As a person inordinately concerned with history, writing a history blog, I have naturally approached the subject through that particular lens. I submit, however, that these techniques apply just as well to sorting through the inherent messiness of humanity in other fields. We can’t figure it all out to perfection, but we need not make the perfect the enemy of the good here. Understanding better and more completely, if more complicatedly, may require uncomfortable and unaccustomed exertions, but remains within our power.

The Hunt for Jacob Branson, Part Four

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

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

Sheriff Samuel Jones and his posse relented and let Jacob Branson put on some pants, and a coat, before hauling taking him away. The posse left Branson’s claim on horseback, but it seems they only had a mule for their charge. He testifies that previous to him, Franklin Coleman rode the animal.

Then the posse went to Harrison Buckley’s house. Buckley’s deposition doesn’t shed any light on this, but presumably he asked for a side trip to check on his claim. Given his land and Branson’s both abutted Coleman’s, they wouldn’t have had to go far out of their way. According to Branson:

Buckley, and I think one or two others, then got off and went into the house, and got a bridle, and caught another horse. There were several trunks set outside the house; some of them were open; Buckley pushed one back into the house and said that the damned Yankees, or abolitionists, I do not recollect which, had been robbing his house, and that was the way he had found it when he got home.

Whoever fired Buckley’s home didn’t commit the arson until near dawn.

Buckley mounted up on his own horse and the posse rode to the home of a Mr. Freeland. Two remained outside to guard Branson, while the rest went in.

They remained in there for some time, I think from half an hour to an hour. They brought some liquor out to the other men in a jug, and gave me some. I was almost frozen-very much chilled, as it was a clear cold night.

Good thing they let Branson put some pants on. Pants or otherwise, he got to stew outside while the posse had their drinking session. Sufficiently lubricated, the posse continued along. They came up to Blanton’s bridge. It appears that only then did Jones make his business, aside the fact that he put Branson under arrest, known to his prisoner:

Sheriff Jones, who called himself the high sheriff of this county-the one that first presented the pistol to me in my house and called me his prisoner-claimed to be the leader of the company. He never showed me his warrant, and did not tell me for what I was arrested, until a short time before I was rescued. He then rode up to where I was, and I asked him what great criminal act I had been doing, that he brought so many men to take me?

Given Branson couldn’t Google Jones and get a look at his picture or see him on television, I can believe that he didn’t know the man on sight. He says as much later in his testimony. But could he really have gone this long in doubt of just why a bunch of proslavery men came to arrest him? Possibly. It’s obvious to us that the Coleman-Dow affair led to all of this, but from Branson’s perspective, Jones could just as likely have come simply because Branson served in the Kansas Legion. Jones explained that he had a peace warrant against Branson, which naturally led to the next question:

I then said, it took a great many men to come after an old man like me. He said, “these men that came along with me we expected would have a little fun; we heard that there were about a hundred men at your house to-day, and we hoped to find them there to-night, as we wanted to have some sport with them;” and said he regretted they were not there, and that they were cheated out of their sport.

Jones likely would not have relished the odds of about a dozen vs. a hundred, and Branson has every reason to paint him in the worst light, but this sounds to me like fairly ordinary frontiersman bluster. The sheriff certainly assembled his posse with the expectation of trouble and he and his deputies probably did hope for a little action, if not to take on an enemy that outnumbered them ten to one.

 

 

The Hunt for Jacob Branson, Part Three

Hugh Cameron

Hugh Cameron

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

Sheriff Samuel Jones set out in the evening of November 26, 1855, to arrest Jacob Branson for the threats he’d made on Harrison Buckley’s life. He went armed with a warrant from justice of the peace Hugh Cameron and a posse to help execute it. That posse included Buckley and Josiah Hargis, both of whom the free state mob had threatened. Alice Nichols speculates that they saw the light of their burning homes in the distance, bright fruits of free state wrath. The precise timeline remains murky to me, but they must have passed quite near. Hargis lived on a claim directly adjoining Coleman’s, just as Jacob Branson did. William McKinney puts the burning of Buckley’s home around dawn on the 27th, which would make it after the posse came and went, but McKinney also testified that Franklin Coleman’s home burned on the night of the 26th. The posse could very well have seen that.

The posse rode through the night, coming to Branson’s cabin around two or three in the morning. None of the three men told what happened when they met Branson in their depositions, but Branson had plenty to say about it to the Howard Committee. He finished up his day with a meeting at the site of Dow’s murder where he and other free state men questioned witnesses, then went home and retired around seven.

My wife woke me up. I do not know how long I had been asleep, but thought it was but a short time. I found that a good many persons were coming towards my house, and by the time I was fairly awake I heard a rap at the door. I asked who was there? and the answer was, “Friends.” Before I could tell them to come in, the door was burst open, and the room was filled with persons. I had got out, and was sitting on the side of the bed, with nothing on but my shirt.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Presumably Branson means a nightshirt. Hopefully a long one. One of the “friends” who called so kindly

asked me if my name was Branson, and I said it was. He then drew his pistol, cocked it, and presented it to my breast and said, “You are my prisoner, and if you move I will blow through you. Don’t you move.”

Samuel Jones had gone the better part of a year without aiming a gun at a free state man and threatening to kill him. He must have thought it about time he got a second turn. Branson proceeded to resist arrest by the most devilish stratagem:

I went to stoop to get my pants, and he stopped me two or three times, saying, “Don’t you move, or I will blow through you.” I heard others cock their guns, and I saw them present them to me all around me, except at the back of my bed, where they could not get.

We should not automatically take Branson at his word about this whole affair, but Jones did essentially the same thing at Bloomington back in March. It seems entirely in character for him to repeat the performance. Eventually, however, Jones and his posse relented. I imagine they didn’t entirely relish the thought of having Branson riding painfully or walking draftily around in the November night in a state of dishabille.