Salmon Brown on His Father's Kansas Critics and the Pottawatomie Killings
In the later 19th century, some of the established former Kansas free state leaders, such as Eli Thayer, Charles Robinson, and G. W. Brown, turned against John Brown and attacked his legacy in newspaper and publications. Apparently they did so out of political conservatism and jealousy.
Reflecting on their latter day treachery, Salmon Brown wrote to historian William E. Connelley that these critics, whom he called "men of easy reformed opening," knew full well that Brown and other militant free state men "never struck a blow but what was done in the defense of Kansas against the Missouri cut throats that were burning their towns and killing their people." This lengthy letter itself is a page by page rejoinder (admittedly, much of it laced with angry sarcasm) to the slanderous, error-ridden biography of Brown by Hill Peebles Wilson (1913). In fact, the Wilson bio was authorized and paid for by the widow of Charles Robinson, who shared her husband's evident contempt for John Brown. It has never been taken seriously by historians, and Salmon was doubtless correct in referring to it as a "worthless book which is fit only for reading by those who are still mourning for the lost cause."
Salmon's letter includes the following interesting comments in defense of his father, particularly in regard to the much misrepresented Pottawatomie killings of May 1856:
Who whipped Buford's men and broke up Cato's court and whipped Capt. Pate at Black Jack and whipped Reed at Osawattomie when nine tenths of the people of Kansas did not dare to let it be known which side they were on [?] It was John Brown, and his men, and men that stood with him. . . . We came fresh from the burning of Lawrence to that Pottawattomie crossing where Cato was preparing to exterminate "every dam[n]ed abolishinest [sic] in that region" as were were told by Buford's men a few days before Lawrence was burned. Cato in his efforts to exterminate the Browns exterminated his court and his low down backing officials. That was the last attempt to hold court in our neighberhood [sic]."
H. H. Williams . . . wrote down the names on a sheet of paper of the men that he wanted picked off on the Pottawatomie and handed it to my father. I stood by him when he wrote down the names. He saw us grind the sabers and knew what it was for. . . . He lived at this time on the Pottawattomie and afterwards at Osawattomie.
Students of John Brown, particularly those interested in understanding the Pottawatomie killings, must revisit all the testimony and evidence surrounding the incident instead of relying on hackneyed remarks by writers with decided opinions that Brown was a "terrorist." The Browns later acknowledged that the killings were carried out under John Brown's leadership, but unfortunately the "terrorist" school of writers does not use the full extent of their statements. As Salmon's testimony shows, not only was John Brown urged on by local free state people like H. H. Williams, but received specific names of persons that were distinguished for pro-terrorist activity. After investigating these men under the guise of a pro-slavery surveyor, Brown got first-hand affirmation from the very mouths of Buford's pro-slavery terrorists encamped nearby. In light of these dire political circumstances and the complete lack of protection by federal and territorial law enforcement at the time, the Browns took violent action at Pottawatomie to suppress pro-slavery terrorism, defend his family (which is the main reason he went in the first place), and make the first real counter-terrorist response on behalf of the vulnerably passive free state side. Brown was confident that he would be vindicated in historical terms for the killings, but that full vindication has been delayed by the prejudice and selective reading of Brown's "friends" and enemies alike.
If critics of John Brown think that it would be morally justifiable to uncover and destroy any terrorist cell with plans to attack our nation and its cities today, then at least they should grant John Brown some more consideration and stop blabbering the nonsense of "terrorism." Indeed, in light of all the evidence, the only critics of Brown with any justifiable platform are consistent pacifists. The rest are biased, or they are warmed-over rebels still clinging to the "lost cause."
Source: Salmon Brown to William E. Connelley, November 6, 1913, pp. 3, 4, 16, 25 and 32-33. Boyd B. Stutler Collection, MS05-0044