We left John Brown on May 23, 1856. He had news of the fall of Lawrence and probably the caning of Charles Sumner. Convinced that someone must do something, and likely also that free state families now remained around Osawatomie at some peril, Brown resolved that something must be done. He went off and asked a man named James Hanway to come along for that something. Hanway told us that Brown informed him about what he had in mind, though he doesn’t say clearly if Brown mentioned murder or if he just made a general reference to some kind of reprisal. Either way, it sounds like Brown approached him personally and at least somewhat in private. On the balance, that seems the most likely version of events.
Salmon Brown told a different story, which will bear a look.
The general purport of our intentions -some radical retaliatory measure – some killing- was well understood by the whole camp. You never heard such cheering as when we started out. They were wild with excitement and enthusiasm. The principal man -the leader- in council that resolved on the necessity of Pottawatomie, -was H.H. Williams: I do not know that I ought to tell this since he himself has not; but it is the fact. He was wholly determined that the thing must be done. He knew all those men on the Pottawatomie, better than any of us. He lived among them -was familiar with all their characters. he was now the most active of us all in urging this step. And not fifteen minutes before we left to go to Pottawatomie I saw him, myself, write out a list of the men who were to be killed and hand it to father.
One should view a statement by a participant decades later in the vein of everyone sharing in his crime and casting the real instigator as someone else with a mine or two of salt. Salmon has an obvious interest in vindicating himself and his martyred father. Spreading the blame around at least makes them less singular militants and more of their times. It paints the coming murders as something in the air, which anybody might do. As such, could one really hold them responsible? Or rather, might one view them as acting in the right?
Williams depicts himself as surprised to learn of the killings, which he obviously could not manage honestly if Salmon told the whole truth here. But if he did know then he has every reason to disassociate himself. Salmon casts him as the kind of man happy to dream up violence, but unwilling to get his own hands dirty:
Then, when it was all over, and he found out how the people down at home took it, he got scared. He hadn’t the backbone to stand by his own mind, against popular opinion, -he went back on his own radical measures, weakened, did not confess to his own share in their origin, and counselled peace. In fact, he got scared.
Salmon paints an intensely unflattering picture of Williams. One can’t read him and fail to imagine some after the fact score settling. But that still leaves us with two different versions of what went on at the Rifles’ camp that day. In Hanway’s, John Brown recruits people individually and tells them what he means to do. In Salmon’s, everyone in the camp understands that Brown meant murder from the get-go.