Abolitionist John Brown Leads Pottawatomie Massacre
America in the 1850s was a nation sharply divided over the issue of slavery, a conflict that in 1861 would lead to the tragedy and destruction of the Civil War. In the disputed Territory of Kansas during the 1850s, however, civil war had already erupted, as pro- and anti-slavery forces violently clashed in what became known as “Bleeding Kansas.” On the night of May 24, 1856, an obscure 55-year-old abolitionist named John Brown and a small band of followers committed the Pottawatomie Massacre, killing five pro-slavery men and increasing tension and hostility in the area.
The heart of the dispute was whether Kansas (which was applying for statehood) would be admitted into the Union as a free or slave state. Rather than tackle the issue head-on, Congress sidestepped the controversy by passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 with a “popular sovereignty” provision, which said that settlers in those two territories could decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. This angered abolitionists, because the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had specified that slavery would not be allowed in territories north of the 36 degrees, 30 minutes latitudinal line (as both Kansas and Nebraska were).
As a consequence, the Kansas Territory became a battleground between opposing camps. Each side attempted to flood the territory with residents who would vote according to their preference on the slavery question. New England abolitionists settled there to further their cause, while the pro-slavery forces relied upon Missourians who slipped across the border to establish a temporary presence during voting.
Brown was angered when pro-slavery forces sacked the town of Lawrence, Kansas, on May 21, 1856—killing no one, but destroying some houses, two anti-slavery newspaper offices, and a hotel. Brown was especially angry that abolitionists had not dared stop the assault.
In response, he led four of his sons and two other men on a “secret mission” north of Pottawatomie Creek in Franklin County, Kansas, on May 24. They attacked several homes that night and butchered five pro-slavery men—including Allen Wilkinson, mentioned in the article below—hacking them to death with broadswords and mutilating the bodies.
John Brown’s obscurity ended as he became a fanatical leader of the anti-slavery movement, culminating in the raid on Harper’s Ferry on Oct. 16-18, 1859 (a failed attempt to lead an armed rebellion to free slaves throughout the South) that shocked the nation and was seen by many as a warning of the war to come. Upon his execution on Dec. 2, 1859, John Brown was condemned by some as a terrorist, and hailed by others as a martyr in the cause of freedom.
The pro-slavery perspective on the Pottawatomie Massacre is represented in this article published by the Charleston Mercury (Charleston, South Carolina) on June 13, 1856:
(Correspondence of the Missouri Republican.)
Baptiste Paola, May 30, 1856.
Your correspondent is in the neighborhood of the massacre. There are over one hundred Kansas militia here and fifteen United States dragoons. They are assembled for the purpose of catching the murderers, who are an organized band of Abolitionists, armed and equipped to thieve, murder, and resist all law. Such is the Free State Party here. The free-soilers, who are ashamed of their confreres, have slipped them and joined the pro-slavery party in ferreting out the criminals. The facts as related in my last regarding the slaughter, are correct; the circumstances are more aggravated than was thought. No grudge existed between the parties personally; in fact, no cause whatever can be, or is attempted to be assigned, for the savage barbarity, but that the deceased were pro-slavery in their sentiments.
Thirteen prisoners, supposed to be connected with the affair, are here under arrest. What will be done with them is not known. The witnesses are scattered about, and Judge Cato’s court, now in session at this place, will perhaps adjourn before they can be brought in. If ever Lynch law was or could be justifiable, it is in these cases.
It is said that the murderers are fortified on the Marais des Cygnes, in a cave, about twenty-five miles from here, and are receiving reinforcements from Lawrence and elsewhere. The leader of this party showed the bloody dagger, and boasted that it did the bloody deed; his name is Brown; two of his sons are arrested. One of them, who feigns to be crazy, has just left in charge of the dragoons. He is made to accompany them on foot at a pretty rapid gait of course, as the troops are mounted. His day’s march will help the craziness, and perhaps cool down the fanaticism which has laid five innocent men in their graves, and brought mourning on several families, on a sick wife and a widowed mother. The blood of Allen Wilkinson cries out for justice, all humanity demands it, and let it be visited on the offenders as soon as possible. The destroyed hotel and presses at Lawrence were nuisances, because a means of resisting law, and were abated as such, according to law, and this the fanatics claim as an excuse for cold-blooded slaughter and theft. How long will the honest people of the North be deceived?
—H. C. P.
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