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.


Trouble at Easton, Part Two

William Addison Phillips

William Addison Phillips

We left the Leavenworth election of January 15, 1856 over in Easton on January 17. The change of venue and date put proslavery forces momentarily off their game, allowing for some genuine free state voting. When they tried to make a roaring comeback, armed free state men warned them off. Despite repeated threats to the polls, slavery’s friends ended up harassing people going to and fro rather than putting on the customary violence. That turned away some voters, but failed to end the election.

In the days before telephones and the internet, an election required more than just holding the vote. Actual people had to count the ballots and then deliver the results. This usually happened after the polls closed, at which point the free state men who had secured them would also disperse. According to William Phillips, “some eighteen or twenty” present realized the obvious weak spot in their security and stayed behind to guard against the seizure of the ballot box. If they had anything to say about it, the proslavery men would not make off with it as they had back in December.

In the early part of the night an attack was expected, and the free-state men were prepared for it. They knew that messengers had gone to Kickapoo for the Kickapoo Rangers, and an attack was looked for whenever they arrived.

I don’t think the Kickapoo Rangers have appeared on this blog before. In them, we have a group of genuine Kansans organized into a proslavery paramilitary. The Rangers must have taken the scenic route, as the night wore on without an appearance. The proslavery men nearer by, just down at Dawson’s store, appeared in a more timely manner. Joseph Bird, and others, saw it firsthand and told their stories to the Howard Committee:

about six o’clock at night, a large party of horsemen, I should think forty or fifty, not more, came down towards the house, and a few of them, some five or six, demanded the ballot-box. They were not answered right away, and they threatened to come and take the ballot-box; that they would have it, if they had to shoot every man there, or something to that effect. I do not remember the precise words they used.

Phillips’ eighteen to twenty guards then rolled out, forming a line in front of Minard’s house.

Henry Adams, there with Bird, put the proslavery men at “twenty-five or thirty” when he and the others came out with their guns.

Considerable altercation took place back and forth, but I do not recollect exactly what was said. Some of our party were considerably excited and I thought were going rather too far, and Mr. Minard and I were apprehensive they might fire upon this party coming up, and we urged them not to do so, to commit no act of hostility except in self-defence. After some parleying, and, I thought, urging by the leader of the party coming up, to get his men over, they retired without doing anything.

They proslavery men did retreat, but they left watchers on the house. They hadn’t given up yet.