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Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Pottawatomie, 1856: The Political and Personal


Thanks to the misinformation and harping of writers who actually know very little about Brown, he is all-too-often remembered first and foremost as the man who led the Pottawatomie killings—massacre, as they call it--in the Kansas territory, which took place overnight on May 24-25, 1856. The story of the killings of five pro-slavery Southern settlers has been recounted ad nauseam and often in an unbalanced and even distorted fashion—always to John Brown’s disadvantage. In these narratives, the men who were killed by Brown and his party are typically presented as having been guilty of nothing more than holding proslavery sympathies. In some narratives, they are “innocent victims.” In other narratives, they are portrayed as having been almost randomly chosen as targets of Brown’s alleged vendetta strike against proslavery people.  We have heard it and seen it time and again: they say John Brown is the original “American terrorist”—as if terrorism in this nation originated in 1856, rather than in the violent and intentional acts of racist aggression unleashed by whites upon indigenous and African people in North America.  As the legal historian Paul Finkelman has observed, no, John Brown was not a terrorist.  John Brown did not fight against human freedom. He fought people who were trying to deny democratic and human rights.  I prefer to put it this way. John Brown was not a terrorist.  He was a counter-terrorist.

In the frequently distorted Pottawatomie scenario, the five men killed—William Sherman, Allen Wilkinson, James Doyle and his sons William and Drury—are victims virtually above reproach, while John Brown and his men are adjudged as murderers and terrorists.  Often, too, narrators speak of the Pottawatomie killings as if Brown did them all alone, and that his men were held under some sort of spell. In fact, every one of the Pottawatomie killers joined in this mission because they understood what was at stake. In fact, this flattened, sterile reading of the Pottawatomie killings cannot be presented without (1) misrepresenting the real facts of the incident; (2) ignoring the historical-political context; and (3) overlooking the moral and political "big picture" as it existed in 1856. 

The Real Facts

First, the real facts of the Pottawatomie episode are that Sherman, Wilkinson, and the Doyles were not mere “victims,” nor were they killed because they were proslavery men, or because they were Southerners. While John Brown did not agree with proslavery settlers in Kansas, he interacted with them peacefully from late 1855 when he arrived in Kansas, until the heated circumstances of the spring 1856, when proslavery terrorism began to mount its bold assault upon free state people. Brown had regularly traded with pro-slavery Missourians and co-existed with proslavery settlers because, first, he was first a peaceful man, not someone with a “unslakable thirst for violence”, like one biased, Lincoln-worshipping academic has put it. Second, Brown wanted the democratic process to play out—the voting of settlers that was supposed to determine whether Kansas entered the Union as a free or slavery state.  Third, Brown and his sons would have abandoned Kansas had it been won by a majority proslavery vote, although in fact the superior number of settlers were free state. The question for Brown seems never to have been if the free state side was going to triumph in the democratic process, but whether the South would acquiesce to a free state victory at the polls, of if they were going to attempt to thwart it by illegal means.

Unfortunately, most popular narratives of Brown’s role in Kansas virtually begin with May 1856 and the Pottawatomie killings. But Brown had been in Kansas since the fall of the previous year and his correspondence is filled with optimistic expressions that Kansas would enter the union through the democratic process without interference by proslavery thugs.  It was only when things took a turn for the worst that Brown took up arms. The idea that he was looking for an excuse to kill proslavery people is patently incorrect, not only in terms of the record, but in terms of his own biographical profile overall.

Of course, it is true that Brown went to Kansas with weapons in late 1855; but he did so only because he was asked to do so by his sons, who had settled in the territory the year before, and were worried about the possibility of a worsened political scenario. From his arrival, Brown monitored political matters in the Territory and over six months of residence in Kansas, he never lifted a finger to oppose, threaten, or harm a pro-slavery person. 

So if the “Pottawatomie Five” were not killed because they were proslavery men, why were they killed? Well, simply put, the men who were targeted by John Brown and his party were part of a circle of Kansas territorial settlers who were actively engaged in conspiring to assist and support the overthrow of the democratic process in the territory by any means necessary.  Sherman, Wilkinson, and the Doyles were local allies of invading proslavery so-called "Ruffians" (that is, domestic terrorists) who began to invade the territory in the spring of 1856 with the clear intention of using violence and intimidation to seize power from the majority free state settlers. These terrorists were particularly hostile toward pro-black abolitionists like the Browns.  In their eyes, it was bad enough that Northerners did not want slavery in Kansas; it was far worse when some of those settlers were outright abolitionists who did not hesitate to declare their belief in black equality.  To no surprise, it did not take long for the Browns to become distinguished in the eyes of their proslavery neighbors like the Sherman brothers and Allen Wilkinson, who was a proslavery political leader in Kansas.

While some of the “Pottawatomie Five” were low-life types, this was not the reason they were killed. Nor was the fact that the Doyles had formerly been slave hunters in the South the reason for their being targeted. Rather, the basis of all of these men having been taken from their homes at night and killed was that they were discovered through reliable sources to have been conspirators and collaborators with invading terrorists, or “hordes,” as Brown referred to them. Specifically, John Brown had been given good information that these men were connected with locally encamped invaders, and that these terrorists would be directed against the Browns by the likes of the Doyles, especially because of their pronounced antislavery and pro-black position. According to Brown family testimony, John Brown went so far as to conduct an investigation himself to make certain of the conduct and intention of his proslavery neighbors. When he was certain of their intentions to lead an attack upon his family, there was no doubt left in his mind that waiting passively would only give them the time and opportunity they needed to bring destruction upon his family. 

It is important to stress that the typical free state person was not an abolitionist who believed in black equality.  Most of the free state settlers in Kansas really were pro-free white labor, not pro-black. Many of them did not want a black presence in Kansas, which was a point of contention for the Browns. To put it another way, many free state settlers from the North were conservatives. Like the moderate Abraham Lincoln, they wanted the nation to be a white-first nation; blacks should be free, but priority and prerogative should be given to white people.  

At best, Brown thought this position was half-right because it was antislavery. But he was a “radical abolitionist,” not because he picked up a gun but because he demanded immediate emancipation, preached the equality of all people, and believed black people had as much right to use violence to win their liberation as did the founders of the United States. In Kansas, this made the Browns a minority among free state settlers. One should also remember that when Brown went to Kansas, he was already deeply connected with the leaders of the black liberation movement. Frederick Douglass was sipping tea in the Brown homestead over a decade before he was ever invited to Lincoln’s White House. The Browns read black newspapers, entertained black guests in their homes, and hosted a number of major black leaders before they ever thought about going to Kansas. Such openness was not typical of free state people, and the Browns were quite outspoken and even defiant in upholding their social and political views regarding the equality and empowerment of blacks. This is a key factor in understanding the political background to what happened at Pottawatomie Creek—and what might have happened had the Browns not struck first. 

The Historical-Political Context

As to the historical-political context, this is another reality that is typically overlooked when John Brown's alleged "terrorism" is discussed in popular commentaries and on TV documentaries. First, we must remember that by May 1856, a de facto civil war was already underway in the Kansas territory. Although there was no formal political division of the United States until secession in 1861, there was actual political division manifested in the Kansas territory in 1856. At that time, it was the free state side that was grappling with the federal government, which was dominated by proslavery interests. Later, in 1861, it was the proslavery side that was struggling against the federal government, which was then under the control of the Republicans, who wanted to delimit—but not abolish—slavery. Unlike John Brown and a small number of abolitionists, in 1856 much of the North was still enamored with the idea of political compromise with the South. Many free state settlers were extremely conservative and expected the federal government to handle Kansas affairs in a democratic fashion; as to defending themselves, they were timid and hesitant. 

It’s no small matter that Kansas in 1856 was a territory, not a state in the union. Given that the Kansas territorial war was technically outside of the United States, the distance, in terms of geography and information was exploited by proslavery forces. In other words, because the Kansas territory was literally on the frontier, on the “outside” of the political United States, proslavery terrorism targeting a largely benign and unprepared majority of free state settlers met no initial resistance. 

In his correspondence, John Brown’s letters reflect the "outside" reality of the Kansas territory. For instance, in a letter to his wife dated January 9, 1856, he wrote: "We get no News from the States of account to satisfy our hunger which is very great"; and again on March 6, 1856, he wrote: "It seems that those of our friends who write us, take it for granted that we know of all that happens in the United States." Free state and proslavery settlers alike shared the experience of being removed from the nation in a manner that had practical and political implications. 

Certainly, there was a deficiency in information and communication that separated free state people from the United States. Interruption of and/or tampering with the mail and news reporting initially enabled proslavery interests to work behind a veil of political ignorance and naivete in the free states of the union. With the support of proslavery interests in Washington D.C., the initial siege of the territory by proslavery thugs, including the first attempt to seize the town of Lawrence, a free state center, could be carried out to a significant degree because it was “outside” and away from the ready sight of the free states. 

To no surprise, the record of Kansas territorial governors in this period reflects the power of pro-slavery interests and the relative impotency of free state interests. Indeed, what passed for "law and order" in the Kansas territory was pro-slavery domination at best. At worst, there was such a fragmenting of the rule of law that neither peaceful proslavery nor peaceful free state settlers were safe, a point later made by Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts, testifying before the U.S. Senate in 1860. To put it plainly, the idea that John Brown was acting as a vigilante is an unstudied presumption that suggests he had recourse to legal protection. A vigilante is one who takes the law into his own hands. But in territorial Kansas in May 1856, the law was under the boot of proslavery thugs and the Browns had recourse neither to federal protection nor local to constabulary support. They knew that if they did not take action for themselves, they could not look to the government to protect them.

Free state settlers (who were in the majority) went to Kansas without the means of war, being fully confident in the just oversight of the federal government regarding the democratic process. As it turned out the most definitive presence in Kansas was that of the so-called Border Ruffians—armed domestic terrorists from Missouri, as well as other proslavery thugs streaming into the territory from the South. As free state settlement increased, so did violent and aggressive proslavery forces, and this came to a head in the spring of 1856. 

Meanwhile, federal and territorial officials failed to insure the civil rights and democratic freedoms of settlers, especially free state people. Brown had brought guns and swords to Kansas, but he never would have broken them out of the crate had the threat of terrorism not begun to explode after the spring thaw. The notion that he is somehow the prototypical “domestic terrorist” is pure nonsense. If prototypes of domestic terrorism are to be found in the Kansas story, they are found in “Border Ruffians” from Missouri and proslavery “hordes” from the Deep South, some of which carried banners proclaiming, “The Supremacy of the White Race.” These thugs were threatening free state people before John Brown arrived in the territory and they killed five free state men in different instances all before the Pottawatomie incident took place. Certainly, the conspiracy and malicious intentions of proslavery invaders constitutes the real prototype of domestic terrorism in the Kansas story. That John Brown should be labeled a terrorist for making a preemptive strike against men aligned with terrorists simply has no basis.

The Big Picture

Brown’s lethal response to the plotting and conspiracy of pro-slavery collaborators in his vicinity must be viewed against the backdrop of free state settlement and proslavery expansion, which is a vital part of the “big picture.” 

As noted, the free state settler movement was politically conservative at first, somewhat passive, and apparently naïve regarding the intentions of the federal government and the power of proslavery interests. Since the free state movement was fundamentally conservative, free state leaders and settlers in the territory were not initially willing to use a militant response to proslavery intrusion. Free state settlers were not political radicals, and some were compromisers—take for instance, the Pennsylvania publisher, George Washington Brown—or G.W. Brown—(he was no relation to John Brown), who published two versions of his newspaper in Kansas, one to send back east, and one to shield himself from proslavery contempt. True enough, free state settlers expressed a political opposition to the expansion of slavery; but they were willing to tolerate slavery in the South as long as it did not expand, and as long as it did not come into Kansas. 

Now, in contrast, pro-slavery leaders were about the business of expansion. The introduction of “Popular Sovereignty,” as it was called, gave proslavery politicians a basis to further their interests in the expanding nation. Indeed, proslavery leaders would not vote for a transcontinental railroad unless the government included proslavery options into the opening of new territories, including Kansas and Nebraska  (in 1854). Actually, proslavery interests were determined to expand slavery by any means necessary, but were willing to go along with the democratic process as long as it worked in their favor.  This is why, when Lincoln was elected in 1860, proslavery leaders were quick to move toward secession. It was not slavery that was at stake for them; it was the expansion of slavery.

John Brown was a careful student of proslavery politics and he believed that the South was not going to relent without militancy, an insight that was proven correct in history. In the 1850s, he believed that pro-slavery interests were exploiting federal resources and quietly planning to break out of the union if they were not successful in expanding slavery westward. He further understood that Kansas was a watershed in the destiny of the nation as far as slavery was concerned. Journalist William A. Phillips recounted a conversation with Brown in early 1859, when the Old Man, in Kansas, told him that civil war was on the minds of some of President Buchanan’s cabinet members; and that “for years” the military’s resources had been manipulated and maneuvered to the advantage of the South; and that other proslavery officials in the military and administration were preparing to ravage the federal government’s resources in the event of secession. Phillips was skeptical of Brown’s gloom-and-doom reading of antebellum intentions at the time, but he recorded Brown’s prophecy: 

“No, the war [in Kansas] is not over. It is a treacherous lull before the storm. We are on the eve of one of the greatest wars in history, and I fear slavery will triumph, and there will be an end of all aspirations for human freedom. For my part, I drew my sword in Kansas when they attacked us, and I will never sheathe it until this war is over. Our best people do not understand the danger. They are besotted. They have compromised so long that they think principles of right and wrong have no more any power on this earth.*  

Although Phillips recounted these words in an 1879 recollection published in The Atlantic Monthly, we have no reason to doubt the fundamental integrity of his reminiscence. Brown had corresponded with him and Phillips had interviewed Brown three times, this last statement being made in early 1859, the year of the Harper’s Ferry raid.  Furthermore, Brown’s remarks as recalled by Phillips are consistent with his letters and other recorded words. It is clear that he understood the significance of the territorial civil war in Kansas, especially the fact that it was only an opening skirmish in what he believed would become an unprecedented tragedy in the young nation’s history. Beyond this, he seems to have alluded to Pottawatomie as the jumping-off point of his own militancy: He drew his sword, he said, in what he perceived as an attack upon himself and his family in conjunction with the larger free state presence. 

By pointing, too, out the lack of understanding among what Brown referred to as “the best of our people,” he was criticizing the politically conservative and ill-prepared leaders of the North who were so caught up in political business-as-usual that they did not see the naked reality of the proslavery power. Not perceiving proslavery leaders as actual enemies, Northern conservatives and moderates persisted in the belief that the South could be placated and bartered into cooperation with the North. Meanwhile, the South was playing a political zero-sum game, quietly making provision for secession and war. 

John Brown knew well that pro-slavery interests were fundamentally violent and hostile to both democracy and human rights. But in the Kansas territory he also had to contend with a large segment of free state people who were, in his own words, “besotted”—muddled and stupefied by their own belief that somehow the nation could find a solution by political compromise. By settling in Kansas, many free state people were not only establishing new lives and expanding the white frontier, but they were hoping to bring Kansas into the union as a free state based upon the assumption that the South would actually cooperate if defeated at the ballot box. Not only were they entirely unrealistic about prospects of “Popular Sovereignty,” they were reactionary and critical of the more militant voices on the free state side, voices like that of John Brown. Indeed, not a few free state leaders were unwilling to use force and were quite critical of any talk of militancy in the face of proslavery aggression. This non-militancy among the free state settlers not only accounts for the 1856 sacking of Lawrence, but probably also the ruthless assault on Lawrence that took place again during the Civil War. Had John Brown, or men like John Brown, been in charge of Lawrence, neither of these proslavery invasions would have taken place with such ease, and many proslavery thugs would have died in the process.

Of course, John Brown, ever the optimist, characterized the free state position as “half-right,” for he was happy to find agreement as to the exclusion of slavery from the new territory. However, he wanted Kansas to enter the union as a free state for whites and blacks to live together in equality. This was the family philosophy of the Browns, and their outspokenness in this regard even strained their relations with free state people. Needless to say, if the unabashed egalitarian views of John Brown’s family troubled free state allies, then their gospel of black equality was downright infuriating to proslavery settlers, including neighbors like the Doyles and Shermans. Indeed, the Browns’ reputation as lovers of black people was broadcasted by the Browns themselves, usually in a tone of defiance. And although he refused to follow his father in the case of the Pottawatomie killings, it’s interesting that meek John Brown Jr. himself attempted to liberate an slaved person by force in 1856, but was obligated by his free state colleagues to return the victim to his master, something that his father would never have done. 

In conclusion, it has often been claimed that it was the Pottawatomie killings that incited war in Kansas. This is a frank misrepresentation of the facts. Violence, terrorism, and warfare were the mainstay of proslavery thugs—armed men, who were themselves nurtured in a culture of violent repression of black people, who had no intention of losing Kansas to the free state side. 

The shelling and sacking of Lawrence in May 1856 was the natural result of proslavery politics in Kansas, although it has become a mainstay of historians to claim that Brown struck at Pottawatomie in retaliation for that invasion. But if there was an element of political retaliation in the Pottawatomie attack, this was not the reason for the killings. The motivation behind the Pottawatomie killings was preemptive. The Browns knew that the same forces that had attacked Lawrence were soon coming for them, and that their proslavery neighbors were going to help bring this about. Osawatomie, the burgeoning free state community closest to the Brown settlements was marked for assault whether or not Brown took action. But the Browns themselves were in the crosshairs of the Shermans and the Doyles and there is every reason to believe that had Brown not taken action, he and his sons and their families would have been either killed or driven from their settlements in May 1856. 

By striking first, Brown deprived the invading forces of assistance and derailed an attack, at least for the time being.  The proslavery attack on Osawatomie three months later was not a result of the Pottawatomie killings, but rather a regrouping of the proslavery faction’s original intention. It is ludicrous to argue that the attack on Osawatomie in August of 1856 would not have taken place if the Pottawatomie killings had not taken place in May 1856; rather, it is reasonable to conclude that Brown’s bold actions at Pottawatomie delayed that attack for three months in a political context where there was a clear lack of federal and local protection for free state people including especially the radical abolitionist Brown family.
As would be the case in 1861 for the entire nation, so matters in Kansas had to come to the climax of war in 1856 because proslavery interests were determined to have their way. Blaming “bleeding Kansas” on John Brown is no more valid than is crediting him with starting the Civil War by his actions at Harper’s Ferry. The reactionary, bellicose and determined proslavery faction were decidedly secessionist and were intolerant of anything less than getting their way. After losing Kansas territory to the Union, the most militant Southern leaders were tracking for secession and looking for any excuse to secede. But if Lincoln had lost the election of 1860, the South would not have seceded, regardless of the Harper’s Ferry revolt.  

In 1856, pro-slavery interests were advancing with determination into Kansas; they saw it as a first step toward achieving the territory they intended to take. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out what would have happened if proslavery terrorism had not been checked in the Kansas territory; nor did the Slave Power easily surrender. But after Brown was hanged and buried, even the most conservative people in Kansas probably wished that he were resurrected to face off against the likes of original American terrorists like Quantrill or “Bloody Bill” Anderson. 

The Personal

When John Brown and his men pulled the Pottawatomie Five from their cabins in the dead of night and hacked them to death with broadswords, their actions were terrible, bloody acts of a kind that would make anyone sick. There’s no way to beautify the Pottawatomie killings: but they are a reminder that the advance of evil can sometimes become so great that even good men are driven to extreme measures of violence in order to stop it. There is no basis to suggest that John Brown ever regretted the Pottawatomie killings, although he evaded association with the episode because he knew that politically na├»ve people, without real understanding of the reality of things in Kansas, would merely be horrified by the killing and miss the point that the Browns were facing dire circumstances and had to act or be targeted themselves.   Did John Brown and his men overreact? Was the Pottawatomie incident literally overkill? It might be easy to criticize Brown for the violence of the strike at Pottawatomie, but if one tries to step into his shoes, he had no idea of what would happen, and waiting may very well have given his enemies the advantage they needed, especially if the Doyles and others were involved in leading an army of terrorists to their doorstep. 

After the Harper’s Ferry raid, when the widow and mother of the slain Doyles wrote to Brown in his Virginia jail cell—partially to gloat and partially to express her sorrow—he evidently read her letter but said nothing. What could he have said? Had he not lost three sons himself in the war against slavery? The only difference between the two parents was that Brown grieved over sons slain in defense of human rights while Doyle’s husband and sons died as terrorists, or at least, as abettors of terrorism—caught in the snare of their own making. By her own words at the time, she had warned her husband about getting involved in “devilment.” 

Like any group of combat veterans, the Pottawatomie killers themselves had different feelings about the incident, although the prevailing attitude among them leaned in Brown’s direction.  The ill-fated Frederick Brown, who was murdered not long after the Pottawatomie affair, felt regret for his role.  But feeling badly about killing an enemy does not necessarily mean one feels he has done wrong.  In my first pastorate, I became quite close to an elderly leader in the congregation who had served in World War II and did his share of killing Germans. There were stories he could relate to me, like the time he jumped into a fox hole and saw a dead S.S. officer, standing before him, eyes open in a grim death stare. But there were other things that he would not talk about—the horrors of war and killing and death that stayed with him all of his life. According to the daughter of Henry Thompson, Brown’s faithful son-in-law and one of the Pottawatomie killers, Henry carried those killings with him all of his life. Yet he always defended the strike and John Brown he upheld as the noblest man he had ever known. Similarly, savagely slaying his Pottawatomie neighbors may have broken Owen Brown’s heart, but neither did he ever renege on the necessity of the bloody deed. None of them were coerced into the action of killing their neighbors, and Brown cast no spell on them as whimsically stated by Stephen Oates in his biography. All of the Pottawatomie killers followed John Brown’s lead because they understood what was at stake at that hour. In the early 1900s, when she was conducting interviews of Brown’s family for Oswald Villard’s biography, Katherine Mayo summed up Henry Thompson’s belief that the Pottawatomie killings were as “essential’ as they were “horrible.” 

Of course, any skeptic can argue that this hardly proves the Pottawatomie killings were right. My response to skeptics and headstrong devotees of the so-called “John Brown terrorist” school is then tell the whole story. Look at the political and social context of the Kansas territory and quit presenting the Pottawatomie incident in a vacuum. Don’t breeze over the fact that five free state men were murdered in the territory before Pottawatomie; don’t pass over the fact that throngs of armed southern thugs and terrorists were invading the territory with the intention of subverting the democratic process, even at the cost of murder and mayhem. Don’t overlook the fact that John Brown always conducted himself in a peaceful manner, that he advocated peaceful coexistence with proslavery people throughout the democratic process, and never took up arms until it was clear that free state rights were being trampled upon, and that proslavery invaders were threatening the lives of free state people.  Anyone who starts their commentary with the Pottawatomie killings with “terrorism” is clearly being selective and biased. As I have written in my first biography, the first question that one might ask, particularly knowing the character and conduct of John Brown up to 1856, is simply this: “What kind of circumstances would drive exceptionally moral and religious people like the Browns to such desperate measures?”

If we truly value freedom and oppose tyranny, then the Pottawatomie incident cannot be viewed as a case of domestic terrorism. To the contrary, the awful slaying of five men along the Pottawatomie Creek in May 1856 must be viewed through the lens of political and historical realities. John Brown used blunt but measured force to excise a real threat; his actions were counter-terroristic, surgical, and specific to a particular case where all forms of law and justice had broken down, and where the power of thuggery and terrorism threatened to swallow up everything sacred to freedom. Furthermore, John Brown saw his own family personally overshadowed by such evil and so he struck first. He did not lift his sword to initiate terrorism, but to answer it. And he did so with finely honed steel. 

And evil men trembled. --LD

*William A. Phillips, “Three Interviews with Old Brown,” The Atlantic Monthly (Dec. 1879): 743-44.] 


Rich said...

Hello Louis, where did you find info that the Doyles had formerly been slave hunters in the South and what is the story behind John Jr. giving up a slave he had rescued?

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

Hi Rich,

The basis for that background on the Doyles is from the Villard Papers at Columbia University, an interview conducted on June 4, 1892 by William E. Connelley, with Montgomery Shore, a free state man and associate of Brown. Shore told Connelley the Doyles were from the South, had worked as plantation guards and patrollers, and had their bloodhounds with them. One of their functions was to catch runaways in the territory. The reference to John Jr. is from Villard's biography, pp. 150-51. It was actually two enslaved people. John Jr. was serving as the leader of the Pottawatomie Rifles and was deposed as a result, and the two victims were returned to slavery under the new leader, H. H. Williams.