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Jason Brown Letter

Lawrence (Kansas) Journal
February 8, 1880


Statement by Jason, Second Son of John Brown.

Akron (Ohio) Beacon, Jan. 21, 1880.

[In The Beacon of December 27 last, appeared a synopsis of a statement by James Townsley in the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal, charging upon "old John Brown" participation in the famous Potawatomie massacre in Kansas in 1856, together with a brief statement to a Beacon representative by Mr. Jason Brown, of Akron, second son of John Brown and for the past six years second engineer for Mr. F. Schumacher in his German Mills. As the talk was necessarily hurried, Mr. Brown was requested to prepare for The Beacon a full written statement of his connection with one of the most thrilling chapters in American history, the first shedding of blood in behalf of the liberation of the slave, and particularly as to his personal recollection of events leading to the Potawatomie massacre. He has kindly done so, not from notesBfor he kept no written account of those terrible timesBbut from a remarkably retentive memory, as our readers will perceive. As a contribution to history his statement is well worth preserving--ED. Beacon.]

To the Editor of the Beacon:

Twenty years have gone since my father died on a Virginia scaffold (for an armed attack upon American slavery) and passed beyond the hatred and vengeance of enemies, and the sympathy and help of friends on earth. What I know or scan say about his acts, will be of little consequence. Yet I shall reply in my own way, and shall not fear to speak the truth wherever it may fall. I have never known, and never could believe that my father and brothers did it. It was so contrary to all his teachings and his whole character from my earliest recollections of him. I never knew him to show any signs of fear of anything save that he might do a dishonest act or wrong his fellow man. His rule of life was the golden rule: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them."

On the Sunday evening before his attack on Harpers' Ferry, he said, "And now, gentleman, let me press this one thing on your minds; you all know how dear life is to you, and how dear your lives are to your friends; and in remembering that, consider that the lives of others are as dear to them as your are to you. Do not, therefore, take the life of any one if you can possibly avoid it, but if it is necessary to take life to save your own, then make sure work of it."

I cannot dispute any of Mr. Townsley's statements except some unimportant (and I have no doubt) unintentional mistakes on his part. All that he said of us up to the time they left our camp near Ottawa Creek, is true, every word of it, according to the best of my remembrance. After that I have no personal knowledge of what was done by them, till they reached our camp at Ottawa Jones's. I was not much, if any, acquainted with Mr. Townsley, but remember of hearing his name called at our camp. His statement of the killing of those men, sounds like the first report we (my brother John and his company) had of it the next day near Palmyra, about twelve miles south of Lawrence, but not so much exaggerated.

After my father's company left us, (as stated by Mr. Townsley) our two companies, Captain Dayton's and my brother's moved on towards Lawrence and camped at Palmyra. I have forgotten just how long we staid there but think it was the remainder of the same day, through the night, and a few hours of the next day. The night we staid there, my brother John and a few others of his company and perhaps of both (I do not remember for I was tired and sick with ague, at the time) went to the house of a pro-slavery man named Jones, not far from there and took his slaves, a boy and girl, and brought them to camp, and told them that they belonged to no human master, or mistress but themselves, and that they were free.

This raised a good deal of commotion and division among us. It was objected to by "Free White State" men, as they called themselves, who wanted Kansas to be free only for whites, when it should be admitted into the Union as a State, leaving out the brokon [sic] and disheartened remnants of eleven or twelve tribes of "red men" around us, for another removal and the black man to be sent into a still more hopeless bondage. These tribes were the Wyandotts, Shawnees, Miamis and Weas, Delawares, Sacs and Foxes, Ottawas, Chippewas, Potawattomies, Peorias, and Kaskaskias, and a few others. While we were in Kansas I did not know, or hear of a single act of unkindness by any of these Indians to the white settlers. My grandfather and father were always true and friendly to the Indians. As long as I can remember, about the year 1829, the Indians from western New York, used to come nearly every winter, for several years and camp on a branch of French Creek, east of Meadville, Pa., to hunt, and often came to our house for food and hay for their ponies. Some of the "free white male citizens" of that time did not like this, and came on a Sunday with their guns to get my father and his hired men to help drive them off. He answered them by saying, "I will have nothing to do with so mean an act. I would sooner take my gun and help drive you out of the country." I mention this because it was one of the first things that I remember of that very much enraged him and shows something of his character.

The Free State white men in our camp of Palmyra considered the act of liberating that boy and girl a great mistake and a terrible outrage upon humanity. They claimed that it would bring down the vengeance of the Missourians upon us, and the slaves ought to be given up to their master again. I noticed that the boy and girl appeared to be very much frightened (they were were [sic] about 15 and 18 years old, respectively), and I asked them if they wanted to be free. They said, "Yes." I asked them if they were afraid. The boy said:

"As shore's yer born I feel powerful skeerd like."

It was finally decided by a majority vote of the Free State men to deliver them up. My brother said he had done his part towards giving them their liberty, and that he and a few others of us would have nothing to do with sending them back into slavery again. A man volunteered to take them and follow up their master who was on his way to the line of Missouri. He soon overtook him and gave up the slaves. The mistress was so overjoyed to get them back, that she presented the deliverer with a fine side-saddle. Of course we had no share in the reward.

The next morning we moved about two miles to the southwest (if I remember rightly), and near a long mound-shaped hill, with a spring of water near the north end. Here we halted for a short time. My brother proposed that we should name it Liberty Hill, which was agreed to. Here we were overtaken by a company of United States dragoons, and ordered to disband go home. On our way, after this, a man rode up to us from the south, saying that five pro-slavery men had been killed on the Pottawatomie creek and horribly cut and mutilated, and that old John Brown and his party had done it. This was the first news we had from my father and his company after they left us near Ottawa creek. The thought that it might be true, that my father and his company could do such a thing was terrible, and nearly deprived me of my reason for the time.

We moved on towards home and camped that night at Ottawa Jones's. I do not remember that Mr. Townsley was there, but remember the fact of my brother resigning, and that H. H. Williams, of Osawatomie, was elected Captain. I first met my father near my brother's cabin, (our cabins were empty, and our families had gone to Osawatomie for safety while we were at Palmyra). I then asked him if he had anything to do with the killing of the pro-slavery men on the Pottawatomie. I think he said, (but cannot be certain, that he denied it.)

"I did not do it, but I approved of it."

I told him that whoever did it, I thought it was an uncalled for, wicked act. He answered:

"God is my judge; and the people of Kansas will yet justify my course."

"That was the last and only question I ever asked him about this; and the last I ever heard him say about it. Perhaps if I had known then all the circumstances connected with it, as I heard them afterwards. I should not have condemned it. I will now mention some of the causes which I think led to such an act, whoever did it.

In 1854, before we moved to Kansas, General Stringfellow, in a speech at St. Joseph, Mo., said:

"I tell you to mark every scoundrel among you who is the least tainted with abolitionism, or freesoilism, and exterminate him. Neither give nor take quarter from the d--d rascals. To those who have qualms of conscience as to violating laws, State or National, say the time has come when such impositions must be disregarded, as your rights and property are in danger. I advise you one and all to enter every election district in Kansas, in defiance of Reeder and his myrmidons, and vote at the point of the bowie knife and revolver. Neither take nor give quarter, as the cause demands it. It is enough that the slave-holding power wills it."

That they followed such advice, there are plenty of living witnesses. On our way through Missouri to Kansas in 1855 we read such paragraphs as the above, and calls for meetings to devise ways to harass the emigrants from the free States--"the infidels and abolitionists," they called us--and proposing to incite the Indians against us. Soon after we reached Kansas and before we could build our cabins we began to hear their threats, and being almost without arms, we wrote to father to get arms for us and if possible to come with them, and help us defend our lives and the lives of our neighbors. He did come, and brought a good lot of them and when he told us that most of them were furnished by the good people of Akron, O., we could hardly help shouting our thanks. We never shall forget that time or the givers.

After the Shannon compromise at Lawrence in December, 1855, a large force of Missourians and other Southerners ("Territorial Militia" they called themselves) who had determined to destroy Lawrence, marched away into Missouri, swearing that as soon as the weather got warm enough, and the grass grew enough to feed their horses, they would drive out the Free State men from the Territory, and that they could not coax, whip or drive the cowardly Yankee-Abolitionists into a fight. They waited till about corn-planting time, so as to prevent any crops from being raised, and then came in companies; pretending to make settlement in different parts of the Territory. One of these settlements (camps) of armed "Territorial Militia," was south of the Potawatomie Creek and was called New Georgia.

A little before we were called out to help defend Lawrence, (about the 20th or 21st of May, 1856), we heard that a company of these settlers were crossing the Osage a short distance below where we lived. My father was a surveyor, and as nearly all the government surveyors at that time were pro-slavery men, he thought that he could run a line down among them and perhaps learn something of their plans, and he succeeded in getting among them without being suspected of being unsound on the slavery question. He asked them where they were going to settle. They said, across the Potawatomie, and that they were going to clean out the Abolitionists in that neighborhood, and among them, "We are going to kill every one of the damned Browns."

Now if my father did kill any of those five pro-slavery men he must have thought it justifiable as an act of self-defense, and the defense of others, and that the best way to fight them at first was to give them a single example of their own mode of warfare.

I shall not attempt now to describe any of the effects (upon us) of Stringfellow's advice, or what I had seen with my own eyes, but will only mention some of the acts of the Slavery Extentionists before and after the Potawatomie tragedy. The butchery of R. P. Brown, near Easton; the scalping alive of Hopps on the Lawrence and Leavenworth road; the murder of Stewart, Jones, Dow, Barber and others; the inhuman treatment of my brother John, H.H. Williams, Wm. Partridge, Jacob Benjamin, August Bandy [Bondi], Killbourne and myself, while prisoners; the murder of my brother Frederick and David Garrison, before the battle of Osawatomie; the murder of wounded prisoners after the battle; the massacre at trading post and others, for no other crime than trying to defend their own lives, or being opposed to slavery.

If a correct history of one-half these is ever written it will show what the true Free State men of Kansas had to contend with in the real beginning of the war, which finally broke the chains of the four million slaves of a Nation, continually boasting of its Christianity and freedom, and show the savage barbarism of the spirit of slavery in its own true light.

After the battle of Osawatomie my father stood looking at the smoke of the burning buildings rolling up, as they were fired one after another by the Missourians. He said:

"God sees it! There will be no more real peace in this country till the slavery question is settled. I have no feelings of revenge towards the people of the South. I have but a little while to live, and but one death to die. I will die fighting slavery."

Source: John Brown Scrap Book, compiled by Frank Sanborn, Vol. 2, Boyd B. Stutler Collection, West Virginia State Archives

Chapter Five: Bleeding Kansas

His Soul Goes Marching On

West Virginia Archives and History