When August Bondi met Dutch Sherman

John Brown

John Brown, his son who was also a John Brown, and the Pottawatomie Rifles walked away from Dutch Henry’s tavern on April 21, 1856 with most of what they came for. They knew for a fact that Judge Sterling Cato, holding court there, would enforce the bogus legislature’s laws against being Kansas and antislavery…mostly. Cato secured no indictments against Kansans who declared against slavery, or even formed antislavery militia companies like Brown and his son. He did indict only free state Kansans, but only for regular offenses. The next day he closed up shop with those settled and moved a county over to indict another free state Kansan, this one for assault. The junior Brown made a big show of telling his band of armed men that they would meet immediately right where everyone in court could hear him, but all they did present Cato with a copy of the resolutions recently voted on to resist enforcement of the proslavery code by force if necessary. He left no record of Cato’s reaction.

All of that didn’t amount to much, really. The free state men came out of it with the knowledge that the proslavery party would not stage an immediate crackdown, but the machinery of Kansas government had lurched further to life. What didn’t happen at one court session could happen at the next. For that matter, Missouri threatened to invade Kansas yet again. Across the territory’s political divide, the proslavery men around Osawatomie had parallel anxieties: among them lived a band of armed militants sworn to wage war against the forces of law and order. The implied threat to Cato’s court had to strike close to home for the Shermans (who hosted it), Allen Wilkinson (district attorney), Thomas McGinn (grand jury foreman), William Doyle (bailiff), James Harris and James Doyle (William’s father, both jurors). The Doyles also affiliated themselves with the Law and Order Party. Wilkinson served in the bogus legislature.

Not that they had behaved well before the threat. Sanborn relates that August Bondi arrived in Kansas almost a year before all this and went to check up with his fellow Germans. Dutch Sherman told him

“he had heard that Bondi and Benjamin [another German who had come with Bondi] were Freesoilers, and therefore would advise him to clear out, or they might meet the fate of Baker,” – a Vermont man whom the Border Ruffians had taken from his cabin on the Marais des Cynges, whipped, and hanged upon a tree, but had cut him down before death, and released him upon his promise to leave Kansas.

Sandborn worshiped Brown and Bondi told him all this years later, probably while they clambered about Kansas trying to find where Bondi and Brown camped out in the spring and summer of 1856. He might have invented it as a handy way to tell how he came to meet the Brown family, though Frederick’s promise that if the Shermans caused trouble they could come to his rescue. But proslavery and antislavery Kansans often had poisonous relationships and the proslavery side in particular seems inclined to make violent threats, even if most of them didn’t go all the way to committing murder. Nothing that Bondi has Sherman threaten him with would depart from the norms established elsewhere.

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Dead Hogs, Selling Alcohol, and Shooting at a Judge: An Anticlimax

John Brown

We left John Brown Junior departing Dutch Henry’s tavern, where Sterling Cato charged a grand jury. Junior, asking for his Pottawatomie Rifles and his unaffiliated father, wanted to know if Cato meant to enforce the laws of the bogus legislature. Those laws made expressing antislavery opinion in Kansas, something that probably every member of the company had done often and which Junior and his more famous father did to proslavery faces, illegal. Would Cato preside over their indictments, arrest, and trial? Not that Junior asked this in so many words, of course; one does not confess so openly to officers of the relevant court. He only wanted to know if Cato considered the legislature’s laws part of his court’s business or not.

Cato, a proslavery Alabaman, gave the answer everyone expected. When he refused to put it in writing for Junior, John Brown’s eldest stepped just outside the tavern and declared, loudly, that his rifle company would meet immediately. The Rifles, already assembled and waiting on the news, wasted no time getting back to where they had left their guns. According to Junior,

On their return, the preamble and resolutions of the Osawatomie meeting were read and passed unanimously, taking the vote by “shouldering arms.”

Those resolutions, recall, obliged the men who signed to them to resist the territorial government by force. Voting approval by taking up their guns made for good political theater and a decidedly literal expression of their position. Having turned the company into a mass meeting with extra firearms, they then went the next logical step and named a committee to deliver a copy of the resolutions to Cato.

Junior doesn’t tell us anything about how Cato received that drama. Instead he passes on to what the court did the next day. Only indictments passed the grand jury, and them only against three people. One killed hogs belonging to someone else. Another sold alcohol to Native Americans. The third took a shot at a proslavery probate judge. All opposed slavery, but none faced charges for that specifically. No one in Kansas had much stomach for enforcing the extreme territorial code, but Cato’s jury did only direct its attention to antislavery men. Even leaving aside political violence and illegal voting, one wouldn’t expect ordinary crime to fall so exclusively on one side. At least some tried to jump claims -the Browns had a problem with one of those in January- or squatted illegally on Indian or government land and might have faced charges for that.

All in all, the matter ended in anticlimax. Cato probably never intended to run an even-handed court, but he also didn’t go out hunting for the Browns and other antislavery men to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. With no arrests, no daring rescue took place. Knowing that, we can dismiss this as so much incidental noise in the record.

We should not. The Pottawatomie Rifles didn’t know that Cato would decline to enforce the law against them. Given the record of the proslavery party in Kansas, they had good reason to fear he might do so and acted accordingly. When they marched to the tavern, leaving their guns behind, they might well have walked straight into a jail or had to fight their way free. Keeping the guns so close testifies to the genuine fear that this might all end in a shoot out, or at least intimidation at gunpoint to keep the free state men at liberty.

 

“The Pottawatomie Rifle company will meet at the parade ground.”

John Brown

John Brown’s eldest, also John Brown, led his Pottawatomie Rifle company to Dutch Henry’s tavern on April 21, 1856. They left their rifles behind, but close enough that if something happened they could arm themselves in a hurry. John Junior went into the tavern, which caused a stir as everyone recognized him and knew him as an antislavery militant, and asked if Judge Sterling Cato’s court would enforce the laws of the United States or the laws of the bogus legislature. Cato saw that Brown and company hadn’t come in packing heat, so he told them that the laws of the territorial legislature applied.

Junior took his answer and went outside, to where most of his company waited on the news. The men can’t have taken it well. He came back inside the tavern toward the end of Cato’s proceedings and spoke up, as he recounts to the Herald of Freedom

May it please the Court, I have a question in writing to propose to the court, an answer to which, would enlighten the citizens, and no doubt would be acceptable to the Grand Jury.

 

Cato did not take the interruption well. He told Brown to wait until he was finished and ignored Brown’s note until then. Picking it up, he read

To the Court. Does this Court intend to enforce the enactments of the Territorial Legislature, so-called?

In Brown’s words, Cato

took up the paper containing the question, and after looking at it, laid it down near the clerk, in a rather contemptuous manner, without making any reply whatever. The clerk then did the same thing, and also the marshal.

Stephen Oates, citing manuscript sources I don’t have access to, expands on the contemptuousness. The judge read the paper and then threw it across the table. Brown adds that the clerk and marshal likewise read and discarded it. Cato would not have his court disturbed by theatrics, apparently.

Brown writes that he waited “awhile longer.” Maybe he thought that if he did, Cato would oblige him after all. The court had finished its work, so answering a technical question of obvious relevance wouldn’t be a great burden. Cato persisted in declining to play his part in Brown’s drama.

Junior could take the hint and had a flair for the dramatic that day which no proslavery man would get in the way of. He stepped just outside the tavern and then declared, loudly so everyone inside could hear,

The Pottawatomie Rifle company will meet at the parade ground.

 

The Potowatomie Rifles go to Court

John Brown

The tax assessor came to Osawatomie. Finding out that the residents might not take kindly to paying taxes to a government foisted on them by violence and massive fraud, dedicated to ramming slavery through without even a reasonable sham of democracy. A public meeting there resolved that no one would pay any such tax and if the assessor came around asking for it they would resist him with force. That’s what John Brown’s eldest son, John Junior, wrote to the Herald of Freedom. He left out that the first speaker at the meeting advocated paying and a group of conservatives walked out rather than be party to what the Browns and other like-minded Kansans resolved.

The assessor came anyway, but he did so without disclosing his affiliation. Instead he arrived as a stranger, innocently asking about the state of claims in the area. Soon thereafter, a marshal went around summoning jurors for Sterling Cato’s court. They might hear charges against the Browns and others for declaring against slavery while Kansan. The free state men didn’t sit idle as this went on. Realizing that the proslavery cause again looked ascendant in Kansas, Junior informs the Herald’s readers that on April 21,

a volunteer company, known as “Potowatomie Rifles,” met to drill about one mile and a half from the place where Judge Cato was to hold his Court, and this Company, composed of the actual settlers in this region, feeling an interest in the proceedings of that Court, were dismissed for a short time, and went to hear the charge of the Judge to the Grand Jury.

Again Junior left some details out. John Brown, never one to take orders and certainly not about to take them from his own son, did not join the Rifle company. Junior and Jason Brown did. They elected Junior their leader, so he likely chose their place of meeting and certainly dismissed them to go see what the court would do.

Separate from that trip, Brown himself dispatched Salmon and Henry Thompson to Cato as a test. Would the proslavery judge have them arrested on sight? They walked ten miles to Dutch Henry’s tavern to find out. Salmon didn’t appreciate playing the part of bait, but went along. His father promised that if Cato dared order their seizure, the old man would be along the next day to bust him out.

Brown himself rode to the tavern with the Rifle company. Everyone left their guns elsewhere, with some of the Browns staying back to guard them. Junior and an escort went inside and heard the Marshal open the court. Cato swore his jury and then charged them, but did not specify whether they had to work under the laws of the country or “the acts of the Shawnee Mission.” The ambiguity couldn’t stretch too far, though, as the judge

spoke frequently of “our laws,” at the same time laying his hand on a copy of those acts [of the territorial legislature] which was lying on the table.

Cato also alluded to

certain offenses or penalties not named or provided for by the laws of the United States.

Everyone in the room got the drift. National law did not make antislavery opinion illegal, but territorial law did. Still, it would help to have Cato on the record. John Junior’s appearance caused a stir, but once the judge saw that he didn’t come armed, he specified that the laws of the bogus legislature absolutely applied. Junior went back outside and told the men.

 

A Contentious Public Meeting at Osawatomie

John Brown

We left Brown’s Station, the Brown boys’ adjoining claims near Osawatomie, with the news that the proslavery courts would soon begin operation. The Browns might then face arrest and trial, before a proslavery judge and jury, for breaking territorial law by insisting no one had the right to own people in Kansas. Other news came to them around the same time, as John Brown, Junior, wrote to the Herald of Freedom at the end of April:

Some time in March last, a person calling himself an assessor, sent a verbal notice to the settlers of Osawatomie that he would soon call on them in that capacity, and would, before calling to assess their property under the enactments of the so-called Kansas Territorial Legislature, send them written notice of the time he would meet them.

The taxman declared himself on the way, always the most welcome of news. This prompted a public meeting in the area to discuss what they ought to do about paying tax to the proslavery government which many of them had sworn to ignore. Citing that government’s illegitimacy, they opted to again “utterly repudiate the authority” of the legislature and all its acts. Its officers, they resolved, “have no legal power to act.”

One can’t fight the state all alone, so the men of Osawatomie further resolved

That we pledge to one another mutual support and aid in forcible resistance to any attempt to compel us into obedience to these enactments, let that attempt come from whatever source it may

If anyone tested them, they pledged that all the officers of the state would “do so at peril of such consequences as shall be necessary.” To let them know of the threat, the meeting voted a committee to deliver copies of their resolutions to anyone who might try and also to put them in the papers, hence Brown’s letter to the Herald. 

John Junior tells a tidy story of a united community. He left out that a contingent present that day, men who favored a free white state, preached submission to the laws. That brought an angry response and drew Junior’s father to the floor. He declared that he would rather drown the land in blood than pay tax to a proslavery government, even though he personally owed no taxes because he lacked a claim in Kansas.

The conservative, free white state men then walked out. Their leader eventually joined the proslavery party, which seemed to have an attitude toward black Americans more in line with his own. That wouldn’t look good in a letter intended for public consumption. The image of a united front would do more to hearten the paper’s readers abroad and possibly deter the taxman from coming after all.

 

John Brown has Questions

John Brown

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Charles Robinson and others saw to it that John Brown did not finish his fiery speech denouncing the peace that ended the Wakarusa War. From their perspective, everything came to the best end. Only one antislavery man died and a general battle did not ensue. Lawrence had a very stressful time of it, but the town survived and Robinson and James Lane connived to get Governor Shannon to recognize their militia. Brown thought they gave up something material, acknowledging the supremacy of the territorial laws and government. He left town unmoved by assurances that no one had conceded anything material.

While Lane and Robinson negotiated with Shannon and other proslavery leaders, Brown had a talk with James F. Legate. (Legate previously featured here as the man who warned the free state leadership that Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury issued warrants for their arrest.) In 1879, Legate recalled spending that Saturday night with Brown. Legate had experience living in the South and Brown had many questions.

So far as I can tell, John Brown never made it further into the South than Harper’s Ferry and elsewhere in modern West Virginia. He knew about slavery from seeing enslaved people in the North of his youth and speaking to people who had stolen themselves to freedom. It took only that to convince him of slavery’s monstrous wrong, much as records of the same in slave narratives might do for us, but he had this opportunity to learn more and took it. I haven’t been able to find Legate’s own recollection from the Leavenworth Weekly Press online, but Stephen Oates summarizes:

Were they as passive as some people said? Did they have attachments with their masters? Or were they willing to fight for their liberty should the opportunity arise?

Legate did not inform posterity of how he answered, but the questions themselves point to Brown’s long-range thinking. Right now he had the struggle in Kansas, where few slaves lived to fight for their freedom. He also had Missouri right next door, with rather more slaves on hand. Maybe Brown thought he would take a trip over there in the near future. Maybe he still thought of Virginia, as he had for years.

The conversation turned then to an argument about the prayer and Legate must have found Brown as immovable on his theology as on slavery. That led to Brown praying that the Almighty would strengthen his hand against the Missourians, “enemies of God.”

Silence and Silencing John Brown

George W. Brown

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George Washington Brown left a few details out of his account of John Brown’s arrival in Lawrence during the Wakarusa War. With John Brown now deemed a madman and guilty of attacking the United States arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, not to mention Kansas much settled, the editor must not have seen much glory in associating himself with the old man. He has Brown appear in Lawrence and a military company forms around him on the spot.

Newspaper Brown omitted how he met the crusading Brown outside the Free State Hotel, gratefully shook his hand, and introduced him to the free state leadership. He received his commission from Lane and Robinson and viewed Thomas Barber’s body before going back out and dreaming up his attack plans. Then the newspaper’s account picks back up, with Brown out around Lawrence drumming up support for his plan to attack Franklin and ignoring contrary orders. It again leaves out Brown’s response to news of peace, which he suspected meant surrender.

As soon as James Lane and Charles Robinson got done telling the news, Brown mounted the unsteady platform they used to give his own speech. His biographer Villard has extracts:

He declared that Lawrence had been betrayed, and told his hearers that they should make a night attack upon the pro-slavery forces and drive them out of the Territory. “I am an Abolitionist,” he said, “dyed in the wool,” and then he offered to be one of ten men  to make a night attack upon the Border Ruffian camp. Armed with lanterns, his plan was to string his men along the camp far apart. At a given signal in the early morning hours, they were to shout and fire on the slumbering enemy. “And I do believe,” declared John Brown in telling of it, “that the whole lot of them would have run.”

John Brown

Brown might have just gotten himself and several other men killed, but the Missourians did come to Kansas with a remarkable faith that they would never face a serious fight. Villard claims that James Lane thought it was a good idea too, so one can’t attribute it entirely to Brown’s poor command of tactics. Critics and friends alike pulled Brown off the platform before he could talk everyone into something rash. Villard credits Charles Robinson with masterminding that. The Emigrant Aid Company man generally took the least militant tact when it came to actual fighting, so that would fit his character.

 

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.

Back to Lawrence

The rules for guests at the Free State Hotel, May 10, 1856

We left Lawrence behind on the back in May of 1856. A proslavery posse rampaged through the town, burning homes, destroying printing presses, and razing the Free State Hotel. They did all of this on a quest, officially, to apprehend free state leadership for whom Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury issued warrants and then to arrest people who participated in the shooting of Samuel Jones, or who rescued Jacob Branson from his custody, or just to destroy the hated antislavery party in their headquarters. Every reason pointed worked equally well as pretense, though the indiscriminate and opportunistic nature of the attack suggests that most of the mob preferred the last. Their officers struggled to restrain them from general pillage.

After all that fell out, Governor Wilson Shannon finally stirred himself. He behaved suspiciously all through the lead up to the attack on Lawrence, indicating that he might have expected and hoped things went badly for the antislavery town. Shannon could have furnished Israel Donaldson with a posse drawn from Colonel Sumner’s command. (I know of no relation between the E.V. Sumner who led the First Cavalry from Fort Leavenworth and Charles Sumner.) Everyone on the ground seems to agree that the military would provide more disciplined, reliable service. Either Shannon didn’t offer the cavalry to Donaldson -he shies away from saying that he did- or Donaldson refused him. When explaining himself later on, Shannon would surely have mentioned such an exculpatory refusal. As it happened, he dispatched them only once he knew that Lawrence had felt proslavery wrath.

Wilson Shannon

Shannon explained his action now as aimed at preventing all-out war in Kansas, which he believed would soon lead to a general civil war. By placing companies at Lecompton, Topeka, and Lawrence he would get them between the combatants. Shannon would also greatly appreciate it if the military would disperse and disarm the free state militias, which he continued to believe constituted the real problem for his territory. The Governor need not explain that all to Franklin Pierce, who agreed with him, but the president had complained of not receiving adequate updates on the situation and Shannon needed to look good for the boss.

Across the political divide, Kansas antislavery party had appearances in mind too. Donaldson had come to Lawrence with a federal posse, under his authority as a US Marshal and serving warrants from a federal court. Attacking him would have meant rebellion against the United States, something which they had to avoid the appearance of to both keep the heavy hand of Washington from descending on them and maintain public sympathy in the North. Furthermore, with debts still owed for all their military action in the Wakarusa War and the inconvenient season -the busy spring rather than the more idle winter- they lacked the means and men on hand to make a real fight of it.

They adopted a strategy of nonresistance out of those circumstances. Many antislavery men griped at that course, deeming their leaders cowards. With lives, family, property, and futures in Kansas all at stake sitting out the fight was a tall order. Even in the best of times, nonviolence while under violent threat requires a great deal of personal conviction and discipline. We can too easily forget now that the nonviolent Civil Rights movement engaged in direct action with the expectation that activists would be attacked, beaten, and even killed. Simple dignity and decency didn’t move white Americans in their favor; horror at their suffering on the television every night did.

 

The Crime Against Kansas, Prologue

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Charles Sumner saw the way out of his political difficulties in the direction his conscience pointed and where he had proven talents: a big antislavery speech. He had previously inveighed against the Fugitive Slave Act, but the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and more than a year of increasing troubles in the nation’s newest territory gave him good cause to change subjects. Letters full of proslavery horrors filled his correspondence. Of course the Democrats in the Senate got the other side of the story and in an era before live news feeds and swift long distance travel, no one could much tell beyond the Kansas-Missouri border which side lied more often. Neither the Herald of Freedom nor the Squatter Sovereign would shy away from inventing suitable news or slanting real stories to serve the cause.

Kansas debates opened up with Stephen Douglas making an impassioned attack on the free state movement. They only made trouble for the law-abiding citizens of the territory, who ought to have their legal government recognized at once. Never a fan of Douglas, Sumner found his aggressive tone nearly intolerable. William Seward answered him with a proposal that the Topeka government be admitted to the Union at once. Things went downhill from there, but more and more northerners lined up against Douglas and his allies as the debate went on.

Sumner stayed out of it, instead sitting down for one of his research sessions. He took a copy of Don Quixote out of the Library of Congress to make sure he got his insults right and busied himself with histories of Georgia and the Carolinas to check his facts. He wrote more than a hundred pages, gilded with quotations from Antiquity, the British parliament, and past American debates. Then Sumner memorized the whole thing, so he wouldn’t have to check his notes as he spoke. He did a dry run with Seward and then deemed himself ready.

At one in the afternoon on May 19, as Marshal Donaldson’s proslavery army gathered at Lecompton and dreamed of razing Lawrence for good, Charles Sumner gained the floor in the United States Senate. He would hold it (PDF) for three hours:

Mr. President: You are now called to redress a great transgression. Seldom in the history of nations has such a question been presented. Tariffs, army bills, navy bills, land bills, are important, and justly occupy your care; but these all belong to the course of ordinary legislation. As means and instruments only, they are necessarily subordinate to the conservation of government itself. Grant them or deny them, in greater or less degree, and you will inflict no shock. The machinery of government will continue to move. The State will not cease to exist. Far otherwise is it with the eminent question now before you, involving, as it does, liberty in a broad territory, and also involving the peace of the whole country with our good name in history for evermore.