The Trouble at Hickory Point, Part Five

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

As Franklin Coleman told George Douglas Brewerton, he came into Kansas from Missouri in November, 1854. There he jumped a claim held by an absentee Indianan, in keeping with the local custom that absentees could have their claims taken by those actually present and improving the land. This put him on the wrong side of Jacob Branson, who bought the same claim from that Indianan. The two men came near to firing shots over it, but agreed to an arbitrated settlement. That came out in Branson’s favor, but he refused to abide by it all the same and took to generously helping free soil men move into the Hickory Point neighborhood, presumably with an eye to their supporting him against Coleman. Then someone burned down William White’s home on a claim adjoining Coleman’s. The day after, Charles Dow squatted on that claim. William Phillips blamed Coleman for the fire. Coleman and others in the area strongly suspected Dow. Dow’s evasive answers to questioning on the matter did not help his case.


Despite the initial friction, Dow and Coleman appear to have managed a neighborly enough relationship through most of the winter. Coleman told the Howard Committee that

Dow took possession of the claim formerly belonging to a Mr. White. I moved my house five hundred yards or more from where it stood, in order to be more convenient to the timber, for fear that the lines, when they came to be run by the government, should be between me and the timber, and throw me entirely on the prairie.

Without a map, I can’t say how Coleman’s relocation would have interacted with the other line between his and Branson’s claim. Arbitration had put all the timber on Branson’s side. It sounds as though Coleman considered himself no longer obligated to follow the settlement. Given Branson also disregarded it, one can’t blame him. However, Coleman and Dow had an agreed-upon boundary:

There was a conditional line between me and Mr. Dow, which was mutually agreed upon; and it was agreed upon by the people of the neighborhood that such lines should stand until the government lines should be run. I cut timber on this claim of mine from May, 1855, until late in the fall, and had no difficulty with Mr. Dow, as regards our claims, until the Shawnee reserve line had been run.

The line, “some two and a half miles east” Coleman’s claim, had the sanction of the government. Dow and some other neighbors

run off their lines from the half-mile stones placed on the reserve line, supposing that the government survey would make those half-mile stones corners of sections. A majority of the neighbors protested against it. Jacob Branson and Mr. Dow, seeing that these new lines would be advantageous to them, surveyed their lands off so that they would run over on my claim and the claim of Mr. Hargous, which joined me on the north.

Thus passed whatever peace had tenuously existed in the area. It might never have amounted to much. John Banks testified to continued tension between Branson and Coleman:

I heard Branson say Coleman had better keep out of the window and away from about him, and that if he did not he would hurt him.

But it seems that they managed until the next fall without direct conflict.

Banks has a somewhat different story about the evolution of the claims than Coleman. The latter’s narrative describes a fairly orderly process where Dow just settled down next to Coleman and they agreed on a tentative border. Coleman moved house, but only within that claim. Banks testified:

Coleman and Dow’s claims joined, when they made their claims there first. When Dow first came there Coleman was living on a prairie claim, and after Dow had made his claim Coleman went over on an adjoining claim to Dow’s. The one that Coleman went on was marked out before Coleman went on it, and before Dow settled on his; and when Dow went on his claim he respected the lines of the claim that Coleman afterwards went on. I think it was in May 1855, that Coleman went on that claim

This sounds like when Coleman moved house and began timber harvest. Whether Coleman had the claim before Banks knew, or just imagined all the land his from the start, it seems things went well enough. Banks helped Coleman with his log cutting on the land and says no one contested his claim to it. But the official lines intervene in Banks’ story as much as Coleman’s. Per Banks, the new lines would move Dow’s claim

some two hundred and fifty yards on to Mr. Coleman’s claim. A majority of the neighbors protested against the line being altered so as to correspond with their corner-stones. Dow claimed in to the new lines on Coleman’s claim a strip of some two hundred and fifty yards wide of timber land.

Good news for Charles Dow and bad for Franklin Coleman.


The Trouble at Hickory Point, Part Four

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Parts 1, 2, 3


Franklin Coleman told George Douglas Brewerton, that he, his partner John M. Banks, and Jacob Branson agreed to refer their land claim dispute to arbitration. The panel of arbitrators, with a proslavery majority, awarded one hundred sixty acres of the two hundred forty to Branson. His half included all the timber land that made the claim so appealing. Branson agreed to abide by that decision, thus surrendering the less valuable remainder. He then refused to cooperate in settling the property line. When told this caused ill will, Branson put on his best reality TV voice and informed Coleman and Banks that he had not come to make friends. While he had them on hand, he also said that he and a neighbor measured off the whole claim and it came to only a hundred twenty acres. Thus the arbitrators had effectively given Branson all the land.

With Branson uninterested in discussing the matter or seeing to his duties as he swore to the arbitrators, Coleman and Banks chose to mark the line themselves. This they did with the help of a man called Graves, another free soiler. In past adventures, Graves witnessed Coleman and Brason’s confrontation at Coleman’s house. According to Coleman, they gave Branson his full hundred sixty acres. that included all the timber land. Branson still would not take yes for an answer. At this point, again per Coleman’s testimony, Branson brought politics into it:

Branson then turned his attention to strengthening the Free State party-to which he himself belonged-in the vicinity of Hickory Point. This he did by encouraging Free state men to settle about him, giving them timber from his land, and informing them of vacant claims.

Did Branson have the purest motives at heart when bringing in free state men? Probably no more than anybody else. By making himself a good neighbor and giving them a hand he certainly aimed to turn the neighborhood to his politics. If he also personally benefited in winning supporters for his land claim, so much the better for him.

In pursuance of this object, he and his friends invited a man named Dow, an Ohioan and Abolitionist, to occupy a claim adjoining my own. This claim rightly belonged to one William White, of Westport, Mo., who had made some improvements on it, and therefore held it under the ‘Squatter Laws.’ The ‘improvement’ was a log-cabin, which was burnt down by the Free State party, on or about the day of Dow’s arrival at Hickory Point.

Did the free state men burn down White’s house? John Banks, Coleman’s free soil partner, doesn’t accuse the party but does find the timing suspicious:

About the time Dow first came to the neighborhood I made a claim, Mr. Coleman being there at the time. there was a house burned on a claim of William White, who was a free-State man. The day after the house was burned this Dow commenced to build another house on that claim. Some of the neighbors went up to Mr. Dow to see who had burned the house of Mr. White, being a committee appointed by the neighbors to see who had burned the house. Mr. Coleman and myself were on that committee.

Dow denied that he had anything to do with the arson. However:

He was asked if he knew who did burn it, and he would not answer. Mr. Coleman and he then got to talking about it, and Mr. Coleman remarked that if he, Dow, did not burn it, and had no hand in it, and knew nothing about it, he could answer it quietly, and also told him that if a man wanted to live peaceably in the neighborhood he would not engage in such things as that.

Dow jumped White’s claim the day after White’s house burns in a “mysterious” fire. Then he would not say who burned the building, if not him. He might look more suspicious wearing a black mask and black and white striped shirt, but just barely. Coleman’s committee pressed a bit more:

Upon being asked if he was not aware of the intention of the Free State people to destroy it, he answered that that was his business, and none of ours.

According to Banks, Coleman got understandably worked up. He and Dow quarreled and finally Coleman spelled it out:

“You deny doing it yourself, but will not say you do not know of its being done, and I think such men as those are dangerous in the country. we have come here to make our homes and settle here, and we do not want any houses burned; we want to live peaceably and neighborly here in the community.” Just as we started away, Mr. Coleman turned round and said, “Mr. Dow, we are strangers here together, and we wish to live peaceably with every person.”

Coleman’s testimony to Brewerton expresses much the same sentiment with a bit of implied threat:

I then observed to him, that as my claim adjoined his, I would be his nearest neighbor, and should be very sorry to suspect that the man who lived next to me could be guilty of such an act, but as he had affirmed his innocence […] I would (if it proved to be true), be a kind neighbor to him, and added that he was welcome to visit at my house if he wished to come. He thanked me and we parted.

The Trouble at Hickory Point, Part Three

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Parts 1 and 2

We left Franklin Coleman and Jacob Branson in a tense meeting at Coleman’s cabin on the claim they disputed. Both men had guns in hand and made serious threats, but they ultimately agreed to settle their dispute in arbitration. This had worked out before in the area and the process did not seem, at least in November of 1854, distorted by the territory’s slavery question. A tribunal with an antislavery majority had ruled in favor of a proslavery man. Coleman and Branson’s tribunal had a proslavery majority, which

decided against my partner and myself, insomuch, that instead of allowing our claim to the whole Frasier tract, amounting to two hundred and forty acres, they awarded one hundred and sixty acres to Branson as his proportion.

The decision swung in Branson’s favor, but not completely so. Coleman complained that Branson got the timber land, but he sounds largely content. According to Coleman, Branson swore that he would mark his line and abide by it. He subsequently declined to do so. Coleman and his partner, John Banks, reminded Branson of that promise. He doesn’t mention any firearms involved in the reminder, but guns or no Branson did not take it well

He said that he did not crave our friendship, and that we should never have a single foot of the lumber which grew upon the greater part of the claim. he then stated that he had measured the entire ‘Frasier claim,’ with one of his neighbors, and found it to contain but one hundred and twenty acres-called us a set of base thieves, who had swindled him out of his rights, and with whom he wished to have no intercourse, etc.

This all makes Branson sound terrible. He agreed to arbitration, albeit after threatening Coleman and his family, got the better side of the settlement, and then ignored it anyway. Coleman naturally wants to paint himself in the best light. Branson’s and John Banks’ testimony in the Howard Report begins a year after the initial encounters, saying nothing about them. William Phillips renders events a bit differently:

The first settlers of that region were free-state men from Indiana. other free-state men, from the Western States generally, and some of them from Missouri, also settled there. After the grove had been mostly taken by the settlers, some pro-slavery men came in, took claims, and some of them jumped claims already taken. In some of the cases where these claims were invaded the persons holding them had forfeited their right to them by their absence; but in several other instances the seizure was violent and fraudulent. In the same vicinity, at the lower end of the grove, on the Santa Fe road, a town called Palmyra had been laid off, and early in the summer of 1855, a party of men from Missouri came up and ordered the settlers in the place to leave it, or they would be driven away; and serious apprehensions of violence and bloodshed were entertained. The settlers mostly kept their ground. it was with much the same spirit that the pro-slavery men who came and settled in the grove were animated. One of these men, Franklin Coleman, not only took violent possession of several claims, but stole the building materials, which had been prepared by a free-state man, from another claim, and built a house for himself with them.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

If we had a time machine to go check, we might find either version of events actually happened. Phillips puts Coleman at Hickory point around early summer of 1855. Coleman has himself present in November, 1854. They can’t both have it right. Coleman describes a generally amicable coexistence between the proslavery and antislavery men in the area. Phillips gives them “many angry bickerings.” We can judge some of this as the same events reported through different biases. Phillips doesn’t acknowledge the Indiana absentees having their claims vacated by the community. Coleman admits to jumping one. But this only goes so far. Either the neighbors generally got on despite political differences or they did not. Either Coleman stole supplies, or he did not. Phillips has Coleman’s statement, which he quotes from, but doesn’t engage on the earlier confrontation at all. He doesn’t even dismiss it as a pack of lies.

Who told the truth about Coleman and Branson? Possibly both, possibly neither. If Coleman simply invented his past difficulty with Branson, then one would expect or Phillips to challenge the story. Branson might not, as he gave his testimony to the Howard Committee before Coleman gave his own. For my part, I suspect that the conflict did happen, but that both men engaged in a degree of brinksmanship. Branson might have done worse, as the silence regarding the first clash suggests that the antislavery party had reason to avoid raising the subject, but the sources I have don’t give enough of his side to make me entirely confident on the matter.


The Trouble at Hickory Point, Part Two

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

We left Franklin Coleman disputing his rights to a patch of timber-rich land at Hickory Point, on the Santa Fe trail. He jumped the claim of an absentee Indianan named Frasier, quite in keeping with what others in the same area had done with the approval of the community. This approval, notably, did not depend on one’s opposing slavery. Coleman did not, but he did his claim jumping with a Free State partner, John M. Banks. All might have gone well, save that the claim Coleman and Banks jumped no longer belonged to Frasier. He sold out to Jacob Branson, who Alice Nichols names a leader of the local Kansas Legion.

Here I must briefly digress. Nichols introduces Branson in Bleeding Kansas as commanding the Legion in the area. However, Coleman dates his first confrontation with Branson to November of 1854, prior to the Legion’s founding. While Branson might very well have had the esteem of his antislavery neighbors well before that date, we should not understand him initially as a man in charge of a paramilitary company.

Less than a month after Coleman and Banks set up on their claim, Branson arrived there. Coleman told Branson about his squatting and Branson informed Coleman that he had the claim from Frasier for fifty dollars. He meant to have the land. Coleman offered to put the matter before the neighborhood for arbitration, following the precedent of past disputes in the area. Branson refused, affirming instead, per Coleman’s testimony in Brewerton’s War in Kansas 

that if the laws took a man’s claim away he would defend himself and have his claim, or ‘die right where he was.’

Coleman suggested they had nothing more to discuss then and let the matter sit. Branson did not. He came up the next day to Coleman’s house with a wagon of belongings, another free state man, and found Coleman absent. Branson found two free state men present, Coleman’s partner Banks and a fellow named Graves. He may also have found Coleman’s wife and child, as Coleman names Banks and Graves “the only men” present rather than the only people.

However many people present,

Branson and his companion tried to force his property into my dwelling. Banks requested them to let their goods stand until they could send for me; he did so, and I came immediately.

Who would have gone to fetch Coleman? I doubt either party would risk having numbers against them at the moment. Coleman doesn’t name anyone in particular, which one would expect if some neighbor had come and gone to do the favor. It seems likely either his wife or son retrieved him. Coleman came home to find Branson and Farley within. He

reminded Branson that he had said that ‘he would have my claim or die upon it.’ I then drew a single-barrelled [sic] pistol from under the head of the bed and told him that I should defend myself, and if he was determined to settle the matter in that way, I was prepared to do so.

I don’t know the specifics of Coleman’s cabin, but I can’t imagine an especially spacious one for a brand new settler. A single room with five adults and a child in it seems like a terrible place to have a gunfight for everyone except the local undertaker. The participants noticed the difficulty and remembered, protests aside, their own aversion to gunshot wounds. Farley tried his hand at mediation.

During this conversation, Branson kept his hand upon an ‘Allen’s revolver’ which he had with him in his pocket, but made no motion to draw the weapon, nor did I threaten him with my pistol, further than to exhibit it as a proof of my intention to protect myself.

In this relaxing environment, Branson and Coleman finally agreed to arbitration.