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Chapter 5: Pottawattomie.

I have spoken of the rumors of midnight murder in the Pottawattomie region, and stated that Captain Brown was accused by the invaders of having done the deed. The charge is false. It was first made by his enemies, who feared him, and desired to drive him out of the district, and subsequently repeated by a recreant Free State journalist, who sold himself to the Federal Administration for the paltry bribe of the public printing.

The killing of the ruffians of Pottawattomie was one of those stern acts of summary justice with which the history of the West and of every civil war abounds. Lynch law is one of the early necessities of far-western communities; and the terrors of it form the only efficient guarantee of the peaceful citizen from the ruffianism which distinguishes and curses every new Territory. The true story of Pottawattomie is briefly told.

In all that region, ever since the opening of the Territory for settlement, the pro-slavery party had been brutally tyrannical. Free State men were daily robbed, beaten, and killed; their property was stolen, openly, before their eyes; and yet they did not dare to [116] resist the outrages. One or two families alone were occasionally exempted, by their character for desperate courage, from these daring and unwarrantable assaults. Among them were the sons and son-in-law of Old John Brown; and even they had repeatedly suffered from the conduct of the ruffians, until the arrival of their father in the autumn, with arms. Then, until the months of April and May, a season of peace was allowed them. But when, in fulfilment of the plan of the Missouri secret lodges, the Territory was to be conquered for slavery, it at once became a question of life, death, or immediate banishment to the settlers in Southern Kansas how they should act against the invading pro-slavery party and their allies among the squatters. Men who have passed their lives in the quiet of New England's valleys, or in Eastern cities, can never know what it is to be in earnest on what is seemingly a mere question of political right or constitutional interpretation. Hence this chapter may shock them; but it is my duty, nevertheless, to write it.

The pro-slavery party, in all the region around Pottawattomie, renewed their system of aggressions on the Free State men. John Brown began to stir himself and prepare for the defence of his neighborhood. With two sons or friends he went out into the prairies where a number of invaders were encamped, and, pretending to survey the country, drove his imaginary lines through the middle of their camp. All the Government officers in Kansas, from the Governor down to the humblest workmen, were at this time, and for long afterwards, ultra pro-slavery men; many of them professed [117] Secessionists who publicly cursed the Union as a burden to the South. John Brown frequently adopted this plan of entering the camp of the invading forces, and not only never was suspected, but was never asked what his political opinions were. Never doubting that he was a Government surveyor, the Southrons never doubted his political orthodoxy.

The men in this camp freely told him their plans. There was an old man of the name of Brown, they said, who had several sons here, whom it was necessary to get out of the way, as, if they were driven out or killed, the other settlers would be afraid to offer any further resistance. They told him how Wilkinson, the Doyles, and a Dutchman named Sherman had recently been in Missouri, and succeeded in securing forces to drive out the Browns, and that it was determined to kill them in the latter part of May. They mentioned several other prominent Free State men who were to share this fate.

John Brown left their camp, and at once notified the settlers who had been marked out for destruction, of the murderous designs of the Missourians. A meeting of the intended victims was held; and it was determined that on the first indication of the massacre, the Doyles,--a father and two sons,--Wilkinson, and Sherman should be seized, tried by Lynch law, and summarily killed.

On the 23d of May, John Brown left the camp of his son, at Ossawatomie, with seven or eight men, and from that moment began his guerilla warfare in Southern Kansas. He ordered them to the vicinity of his [118] home, to be ready for the Missourians when they came. He himself went in a different direction, for the purpose of obtaining further aid.

On the night of the 25th of May, the Doyles, Wilkinson, and Sherman were seized, tried, and slain. This act was precipitated by a brutal assault committed during the forenoon on a Free State man at the store of Sherman, in which the Doyles were the principal and most ruffianly participators. These wretches, on the same day, called at the houses of the Browns; and, both in words and by acts, offered the grossest indignities to a daughter and daughter-in-law of the old man. As they went away, they said, “Tell your men that if they don't leave right off, we'll come back to-morrow and kill them.” They added, in language too gross for publication, that the women would then suffer still worse indignities.

What redress could the husbands of these women have received, had they asked the protection of the law? They would have been obliged to seek it from Wilkinson, one of these ruffians, who was the magistrate of the Pottawattomie District! This instance had hundreds of parallels.

I do not know whether New England people will be able to vindicate the summary punishment inflicted on these wretches; but I do know that nearly every Free State man then in Kansas, when he came to know the cause, privately endorsed it as a righteous act, although many of them, “to save the party,” publicly repudiated and condemned it.

These facts I derived from two squatters who aided [119] in the execution, and who were not ashamed of the part they took in it. Neither of them was a son of John Brown. They were settlers in the neighborhood.

John Brown himself subsequently corroborated their statements, without knowing that they had made them, by his account of the affair and denial of any participation in it. “But, remember,” he added, “I do not say this to exculpate myself; for, although I took no hand in it, I would have advised it had I known the circumstances; and I endorsed it as it was.”

“Time and the honest verdict of posterity,” he said, in his Virginia cell, “will approve of every act of mine.” I think it will also endorse all the acts that he endorsed; and among them this righteous slaughter of the ruffians at Pottawattomie. John Brown did not know that these men were killed until the following day; for, with one of his sons, he was twenty-five miles distant at the time. He was at Middle Creek. This fact can be proved by living witnesses. It is false, also, that the ruffians were cruelly killed. They were tried, made confession, allowed time to pray, and then slain in a second.

The effect of this act was highly beneficial to the security of the Free State men. It gave, indeed, to a preconcerted invasion, an excuse for entering the Territory ; but, by the terror which it inspired, by teaching the Missourians that the sword of civil war had a double edge, it saved the lives of hundreds who otherwise would have fallen the victims of Southern aggression. Every one in Kansas at the time admitted that fact, although many of them deny it now.

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