"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Osawatomie Notebook
H. H. Williams, An Ally of John Brown in Kansas

Henry H. Williams was an Osawatomie abolitionist who fought proslavery forces alongside John Brown. After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, the Hudson, N.Y., man emigrated to Kansas, first settling in Anderson County along Pottawatomie Creek and eventually moving to Osawatomie.

Williams was commissioned a lieutenant in the Pottawatomie Rifles, a free-state militia commanded by Brown in November 1855 during the so-called Wakarusa War. About 1,500 proslavery militia men had surrounded Lawrence, threatening to attack and burn the town to the ground. Abolitionists negotiated a peaceful end to the Wakarusa War, and the Pottawatomie Rifles were disbanded. When the Rifles were reorganized in 1856 under the command of John Brown Jr., Williams enlisted as a private.

He was elected as a delegate from Osawatomie to the free-state convention in December 1855, and in January 1856 was elected to the free-state legislature, a rival body to the federally approved proslavery government.

Proslavery forces captured Williams in June 1856 and imprisoned him at Lecompton, the proslavery capital of Kansas Territory. Williams had fought beside John Brown and therefore was charged with high treason by the territorial government. U.S. Commissioner Edward Hoagland kept Williams in custody to prevent him from being killed by proslavery advocates, but he was released later in 1856.

Williams served as sheriff of Miami County in 1857 and was reelected to that post in 1859. When the Civil War broke out, Williams joined the Union Army in the Third Kansas Volunteers and was given the rank of major. He commanded the Third Kansas at the battles of Cane Hill, Prairie Grove and Van Buren in Arkansas. Williams later served on the staff of Gen. Thomas Ewing and was provost-marshal of the District of Saint Louis. Williams was honorably discharged from the Union Army in 1865 and continued to serve the public the rest of his life.

Williams was sheriff of Jackson County, Mo., from 1865 to 1867 and then returned to Osawatomie. He opened a hardware store and was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives in 1867 and the Kansas Senate in 1868.

Henry H. Williams is an example of an Osawatomie citizen who quietly spent his life serving his community and his nation. He is an example of the civic leaders who, throughout Osawatomie’s and the nation’s history, have worked to build up their towns and country.

Leaders like Henry H. Williams are not often the subject of books or movies, but they made invaluable contributions to American history. We have the communities and culture we have today because of people like Williams, and we owe them a debt of gratitude and respect.

   Grady Atwater is administrator of John Brown State Historic Site.


Postscript: H. H. Williams, John Brown, and the Pottawatomie Killings

According to Salmon Brown (the son of John Brown), H. H. Williams might be taken down a few notches despite his notable leadership among the free state settlers in that troubled era.  Salmon told Katherine Mayo, the researcher of Oswald Villard, that it was Williams who was something of the mastermind behind the Pottawatomie killings.

The younger Brown said that Williams was the “principal man—the leader—in the council that resolved on the necessity of Pottawatomie,” although he expressed some hesitation in revealing this because Williams himself had never acknowledged this after the fact of the killings.  At the time, however, Williams

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.  This was the crest of the wave of enthusiasm. . . .  Williams wrote down the names of the men whom, he said, it was necessary to pick off to prevent the utter destruction of the whole community and handed the paper to father.  We started back, thereupon, for the Pottawatomie country, which was the headquarters for the pro-slavery men, under Judge Cato, for that region, to pick off the designated men prominent in enforcing Border Ruffian laws. (Villard, John Brown, 152)

Villard points out in a note that, in all fairness, at the time that Brown and his men were organizing their attack on the Pottawatomie, Williams warned another settler not to get involved because something “rash” was going to be done (n. 16, p. 609).  However, Salmon Brown also pointed out that Williams “was a little cautious,” and “too smart” to involve himself in the same mission that he had encouraged when he could get others to do it for him.  Perhaps this other testimony reflects his subsequent timidity about the outcome, since Salmon told his interviewer that Williams “got scared” after the fact, weakened in the face of negative reaction of conservative free state critics, and “went back on his own radical measures, weakened, [and] did not confess to his own share in their origin, and counseled peace.” (Villard, p. 152).

Of course, Salmon Brown’s eyewitness account must be weighed, along with other admissions by the Browns and other Kansas testimonies.  We are of the opinion that the Pottawatomie killings were largely a matter of preempting and destroying the terrorist base in the vicinity of Osawatomie, although Salmon Brown likewise attributes a “radical retaliatory” aspect to the violent assault.  To be sure, we reject outright any notion that the Pottawatomie killings were an act of “terrorism” in the contemporary sense.  Neither Brown nor H. H. Thompson, were acting as terrorists, but as people caught in the midst of a war being waged upon the free state people by militant, violent and terroristic pro-slavery thugs with all the weight of the pro-slavery power’s influence in their favor. 

A fair evaluation of the political, legal, and strategic circumstances surrounding the killing make any notion of the Pottawatomie killings as “terroristic” a ridiculous and ill-founded conclusion.  Those who accuse Brown of being an “American terrorist” have probably failed to study the Kansas situation with adequacy, but instead are largely fueled by political bias and hearsay.

This is not to suggest that there are not questions—particularly questions surrounding the way Brown presented himself in relation to the killings in retrospect.  Nevertheless, the fundamental paradigm of John Brown the Pottawatomie “terrorist” must be set aside for a more reasonable and fair framework. 

Shortly after Brown’s hanging, an old Ohio associate recounted a conversation that he had with Brown sometime in the fall of 1857.  In that conversation, Brown recounted how, in 1856, the free state settlers had been invaded “by hordes of ruffians, and threatened with a bloody extermination.” [See “Recollections of John Brown,” The New York Times (Dec. 3, 1859)].  Responding violently to the threat of “bloody extermination” within a context of war and in the absence of any real protection from federal or local police cannot rightly be branded “terrorism.”  

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