“A man who had a hatchet struck at his head” Trouble at Easton, Part Ten

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Reese Brown and his company had quite a time. Through they passed hours of general inactivity with drinking during the election of January 17, 1856, they finally got the expected fight when proslavery men attacked Stephen Sparks. The immediate rescue didn’t bring exchange of fire, but one came as soon as proslavery and antislavery men could separate far enough for it. They exchanged rounds at long range, in the dark of night, and took cover within some nearby houses. In the exchange Sparks’ son suffered minor wounds. Two proslavery men did worse. One of the latter, a man named Cook, would die from a gut shot.

Fearing for his safety, Dr. Edward Motter sent to Kickapoo for help. The Kickapoo Rangers came, trapping Brown and some of his men on their way home from Easton. Brown tried to warn them off, but the Rangers had numbers on their side. J.C. Green described the encounter in rather retrained, summary terms. Henry Adams provided the Howard Committee more detail:

When we were about half way from Easton to Leavenworth, we met two wagons loaded with men, and one of the wagons was drawn by four animals-mules, I think. They hailed us to know where we were from, and wanted us to stop. There was a double track, and Mr. Brown drove by them without stopping. Shortly after we passed them, we saw another and a larger party in front of us, two wagons, and about thirty on horseback. The party in the wagons we already met, shouted to those in front of us, and they answered by shout, and then all rode around and surrounded us.

Green’s account broadly matches that, but the way he tells it you could almost think that the men from Kickapoo executed some kind of smooth battlefield evolution and, after some consternation, Brown surrendered. Adams speaks to the genuine chaos of the moment, with men not just maneuvering but also charging forward to fully envelop the group.

Brown’s party dismounted and raised arms as the proslavery men rushed forward, “levelling their guns and shouting.” Adams inquired, amid “a great deal of noise and disorder,” as to who had charge of the Rangers and Pierce Risely pointed him to a Captain Martin. Martin heard his name and rode over. Adams asked if he could get control of his men. Guns brandished or not, no one on the free state side seemed keen to fight it out just then. Martin obliged, “partially succeeded,” and the crowd settled enough that Adams

turned round and saw George Taylor, one of our party, on the ground, and two or three men were around him, and partially over him, and he was making an effort to get up. As he got up, his head came in sight, and a man who had a hatched struck at his head.

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“They had got us and were going to hang us” Trouble at Easton, Part Nine

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The gunfight at Easton on the night of January 17-8, 1856 ended inconclusively, with the free state men returning to the site of the late polls at Minard’s house rather than heading home. Stephen Sparks’ son suffered minor wounds. Two proslavery men had more serious injuries, one shot through the leg and the other in the stomach. Dr. Edward Motter tended him for some time that night, but “through fear” left at three in the morning. Motter did more than go into hiding, though:

Believing that our place was in danger, I sent an express to Kickapoo. Mr. Kookogey sent an express to Messrs. Johnson & Lyle, of this city.

Kickapoo served as the home base for the Kickapoo Rangers, a proslavery militia who the free state party took seriously. Reese Brown, Stephen Sparks, and the other guards at the Easton polls came with the expectation that they would try something. Motter set out to prove them retrospectively right. Kookogey’s missive would bring, among others, J.M. Lyle. He served an official in the bogus legislature and played a role in the lynching of the more obscure William Phillips. Given the already warm relations between armed proslavery and antislavery Kansans in the area, what could go wrong?

On the other side of the dispute, J.C. Green came into Easton with Reese Brown. He didn’t join the others in rescuing Stephen Sparks, but after Brown left his company heard the “considerable firing.” Brown, Sparks, and company returned to Minards and there stayed until morning. They had some breakfast and started out.

After riding about six miles, we met two wagons filled with men, who told us to stop. Mr. Brown told the driver to go on, and we passed them; and then their two wagons turned about and followed us. Some of them jumped out of their wagons, and said they would see if we would not stop. We then jumped out of our wagon, and Mr. Brown, I think, told them if they wanted anything to come on. We then saw in the road in front of us some forty or fifty more men armed, some with horses and some with wagons. They had stopped at a house near there. We kept walking along until we came up to them. They began cursing us, saying that they had got us, and were going to hang us.

Brown, Green, and company had met the Kickapoo Rangers, and probably some men out of Leavenworth too, that Motter and Kookogey summoned. Green doesn’t name them as such, but none of the witnesses I’ve seen mentions another large band of proslavery men coming into Easton on the eighteenth. He recognized Lyle among their number.

At its most, Brown’s company boasted around twenty men. By the time they met with the Rangers, Sparks and probably others had separated from them. The proslavery men had the advantage in numbers and superior positions, both ahead of and behind the party. Whatever else one might say about the shortcomings of free soil Kansans, they knew how to count and understood their precarious situation. The Rangers insisted that everyone hop into a wagon and come with them back to Easton. Brown’s men objected, but on the grounds of safe transport rather than out of a desire to hazard a fresh gunfight. The Kickapoo men conceded the point and divided Brown’s company between two wagons.

The Kickapoo Rangers remained mindful of their own safety too. One of them spotted Green’s revolver and asked its surrender:

I told him I would give it to the captain of their company, if they had any captain. He said they had, and that his name was Martin. Presently Martin came along on horseback by the side of the wagon, and I gave him two revolvers. I had one in a belt, and the other I had in my pocket.

In short order, Brown’s party found themselves back in Easton. This time they ended up in Dawson’s store, which connected to Dr. Motter’s office.

Trouble at Easton, Part Three

Around six o’clock on January 17, 1856, proslavery men in Easton, Kansas Territory, made their first serious go at the free state polls. They had come up and made threats before, but the close of the election and consequent dispersal of armed free state men emboldened them. They rode up and demanded the ballot box, at which point a group of free state men came out and formed a line against them. Joseph Bird and Henry Adams, two of the defenders, gave fairly restrained testimony to the Howard Committee about the confrontation. J.C. Green, another in the line that evening, told a bit more:

Towards night a party of men came up within a hundred yards of Mr. Minard’s house, where the election was held. They appeared to be generally armed, and were yelling.

Green and the others made their appearance

and told them they must come no further. They then stopped and used a good deal of abusive language. The one who seemed to be in command of the party coming up, told them to charge several times, but they did not do so. After standing a short time, they turned and went back.

Stephen Sparks, another man on the line outside Minard’s and of whom we shall hear more, agreed:

I heard some one of the crowd, who appeared to be the leader, say, “Charge on them, God-damn them! I ain’t afraid!” About this time our men had nearly formed themselves from the door to the road. Upon seeing our force they halted, and returned without further difficulty.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

The proslavery party in Kansas often come across like deranged maniacs, particularly the rank and file who we see almost exclusively through the accounts of their enemies. Prominent men had more to lose and so often acted with a small measure of circumspection. David Rice Atchison, who promised to murder every abolitionist in Kansas, ultimately backed down at Lawrence and worked to defuse the situation. He must have hated it and fumed at how those blasted abolitionists outmaneuvered him, but Bourbon Dave helped reel in his boys all the same.

Green doesn’t name the leader of the proslavery men; he may have been a locally prominent individual who also had much to lose. If he did, he thought Easton a hill worth dying on. His men disagreed. The folk wisdom about bullies seems pertinent: they didn’t mind an unfair fight but the other kind could get one of them killed. Maybe some of them had molested George Wetherell up at Leavenworth the month prior or gone off in hopes of destroying Lawrence, but in both cases they expected no fight or a very uneven one.

They might, in fact, have expected something more like disciplining slaves. An enslaved person could not fight back. Failing that, Southern communities often policed white dissenters from slavery by mob action. With the exception of Patrick Laughlin’s killing of Samuel Collins, every violent scrape that I’ve yet looked into in Kansas came in about much like that: an uneven fight from the beginning where the victim had few friends to come to his defense.