Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican
The Potawatomie Executions.
A New Witness Testifies--Mr. Bondy's [sic] Evidence.
To the Editor of the Republican: -
In the discussion which has been lately renewed concerning the execution of the five Border-ruffians, Wilkinson, Sherman and the three Doyles, there has been as yet little direct evidence concerning the character of these men. It is therefore interesting to find in the "Kansas Free Press," a German newspaper published at Leavenworth, a letter from a German, August Bondy, who early settled in Kansas, speaking of them as they deserved. The letter is in German, but has been translated for publication in New England by Theodore Lauenstein of Put-in-Bay, O. The editor of the Leavenworth newspaper vouches for Mr Bondy as "a man with clear head and a heart beating for the right, for progress, freedom and truth,--a man with honest German eyes, who now describes John Brown as he appeared in 1856, during the border troubles of Kansas." Mr Bondy's letter is the following: -
Salina, Saline county, Kan. Nov. 17, 1883.
Pursuant to your request that I should give you my recollections and views of the character and deeds of Freedom's hero, John Brown, in reply to the slanderous article of Utter, I have tried my utmost to refresh my memory, and recall that border war (ended now for more than a quarter of a century), and my intimate relations with the grandest personality of that eventful struggle.
About the middle of May, 1855, I, with a friend named Benjamin, of St. Louis, settled on the Musquito [sic] branch of the Potawatomie creek. About the end of May I called upon one Henry Sherman ("Dutch Henry"), living about four miles from our claim. I had heard he was a German and I wished to make his acquaintance. After a short talk, this worthy said "he had heard we were free-soilers, and he therefore would advise us to clear out, or ours might be the fate of Baker." Baker was a settler on the Marais des Cygnes, whom a band of ruffians had taken from his house, whipped and hanged upon a tree; but had taken down before life was extinct and released upon his promise to leave Kansas—all this because Baker was from Vermont! On my return from Sherman's I had some words with one Wilkinson, who saluted me in the style of "Dutch Henry."
Reaching home, Benjamin and I held a council of war. Benjamin (who had worked several days at the settlement on the Marais des Cygnes) reported that no help could be expected thence, where the settlers were all from Missouri or Arkansas; he had heard, however, of a small settlement of Ohio men about five miles to the northeast; and we agreed that these ought to be seen. Next morning Benjamin went there, and about noon returned with Frederick Brown, who brought a greeting from his three brothers, and assured as that they would always be found ready to assist us. In the course of that summer (1855) I got acquainted with the rest of the Browns, who at that time resided in Kansas, namely, John Brown, Jr., Jason, Owen and Salmon Brown. They had claims on Middle creek, and owned a herd of full-blooded Devons brought from Ohio. They had come to Kansas with their families and all their property, and, as free-state men, had the intention of helping to make Kansas a free state by lawful means; but they were also firmly resolved to resist force by force. During this summer there was considerable emigration both from the North and the South,—the northern men in the majority, but the pro-slavery men had the advantage of being generally well armed, and under better organization. On their side, too, were all the gangs of robbers and murderers who had long considered the borders of Missouri and the Indian territory as the starting points of their plundering raids. The free-soilers abstained from voting at the first territorial elections held in November, 1855, for the Missourians had a second time taken possession of the polls, and only allowed their own friends to vote. In the letter part of November the free-state men held an election of their own for a territorial convention. I was then down with fever, but the neighbors, two Germans, placed me in an ox-cart and conveyed me to the voting place. Here I first got acquainted with Capt. Brown. He told me that he had heard from his sons and kindred of our need; and that he had come to stand by them and us in the coming struggle. Besides his four sons above named, he had also two brothers-in-law, Orson Day and Rev. S. L. Adair, settled near Osawatomie in Kansas. If John Brown himself did not come as a settler, nevertheless his principal object in coming was to help, by counsel and deed, his children and kinsmen in their deadly conflict with murderous ruffians. It was in Kansas, too, that he came to the conviction not only that slavery was a crime against the negroes, but that its continuance and spread would bring innumerable evils and crimes upon the whites; and to get rid of its effects the cause, he thought, should be destroyed. A few days after that November election I went to St. Louis, and consequently know nothing of the so-called "Wakarusa war," in December, 1855.
I returned to Kansas in the spring of 1856, and arrived on my claim the morning of May 21, the day when Lawrence was sacked. The same day mounted messengers brought news of the danger which then threatened Lawrence, and at 2 p. m. the "Potawatomie Rifles," under the command of H. H. Williams of Osawatomie, were on their march toward Lawrence. Theodore Weiner (who kept a store on my claim) and myself joined them. After a march of three miles, we overtook the "Osawatomie Rifles," under the lead of a certain Dayton. The two companies marched together about a mile farther, where we found Capt. John Brown, with his sons John, Owen, Frederick, Salmon and Oliver, and his son-in-law, Henry Thompson, waiting for us; and here John Brown, Jr., took command of the "Potawatomie Rifles." On the morning of May 22, the whole command, reinforced by free-state men from Palmyra and Prairie City, advanced nearly to Palmyra and went into camp. Here we first heard of the bombardment of Lawrence. In a council of war it was resolved to wait further news before going forward toward Lawrence. In the evening a messenger came from that town with the request that we would return home, so as not to further exasperate the pitiless enemy. The heads of the free-soil party, who at that time had the upper hand in Lawrence, and therefore in Kansas, belonged to that class with whom interest always counts for more than principle, as was the case in 1848 in Germany, and as it is at present with the Kansas anti-prohibitionists. The chief of those foolish leaders at that time was S. C. Pomeroy, afterward nicknamed the "Christian Statesman." These cowards buried their guns and rifles, and were ready for anything to keep up the speculation in Lawrence town lots. The Osawatomie and Potawatomie rifles counted together 65 men; the Palmyra guards, Capt McWhinney, and the Prairie City guards, under Capt Shore, in all about 40 men. All these captains expressed their disgust at the thought of disbanding; for they said that in three days more at farthest enough men would have come together to drive Jones and his Missourians out of the territory. But without consulting Old Brown, a majority of the men at last resolved to stay in camp until the next morning, and then by slow marches return home. At 9 o'clock that evening a messenger arrived from the Potawatomie creek, reporting "that the pro-slavery men, Wilkinson, Doyle and his sons and William and Henry Sherman (alias "Dutch Henry") had been going from house to house of the free state men and had threatened that shortly the Missourians would be there and make a clean sweep of them. At some places where the men were absent, they had grossly insulted their wives and daughters." This news created great excitement in our camp. Still the majority thought it better not to start before morning. Old Brown, who felt indignant, called his sons, his son-in-law, Thompson, Weiner, Townsley, and me aside and said, "Something must be done to show these barbarians that we, too, have rights." After that he wished to know if we all were ready to obey him; and then ordered Townsley to get ready his team; but in a few words requested me not to go with him. He thought I might be elsewhere of greater service to the good cause if for the present I remained behind, and, if need be, kept open the communication between his men and their families.
The remainder of that night (May 22) those who remained in camp talked about the situation and the best means to defend the free-state cause. In the afternoon of May 23 messengers from Lawrence arrived and reported that Col Sumner, commanding the 2d United States dragoons, had issued an order forbidding the gathering of armed men of either party, and that there was no doubt Sumner would strictly enforce his order. Now it was urged from all sides that we disband. A few only demurred; our provisions were nearly gone, and to go to war on an empty stomach is unpleasant; so that evening (May 23) the Potawatomie and Osawatomie rifles went home. Late in the evening I arrived at my claim, in company with an old neighbor, Austin, who was afterward named "Old Kill Devil," from a rifle he had of that name. The family of Benjamin (whom we had left when we departed for camp) had disappeared, and no cattle were to be seen. This latter was a serious matter, for there was nothing left in the shape of provisions. When I told Austin that I was willing to stay with him until the last of the Border-ruffians had left the country, he encouraged me, and assured me that he would find Benjamin's family and protect them, at all events. This the old man faithfully did, and in memory of his friendship and self-sacrifice I have placed a simple slab upon his soldier's grave, near Helena, on the Mississippi.
The evening of May 24, I arrived, tired and hungry, at the camping-ground of Old Brown, a log cabin on the banks of Middle creek upon the claim of his brother-in-law, Orson Day. This is one of the cabins which, under the name of "John Brown's cabin," has since become famous. Day built it as a first shelter for his family in the winter of 1855-6, and Brown dwelt in it with his younger sons. It stands about 12 miles west from Osawatomie on the bottom land of North Middle creek. Here also I found my friend Weiner, from whom I first heard an account of the killing of Doyle and his sons, Wilkinson and Dutch Henry's brother William. In this account Weiner never expressed himself positively as to who killed those persons, and I could only guess about it. I was astonished, but not at all displeased. The men killed had been our neighbors, and I was sufficiently acquainted with their characters to know that they were of the stock from which came the James brothers, the Youugers and the rest, who never shrank from perpetrating crime if it was done in the interest of the pro-slavery cause. As to their antecedents,--the Doyles had been "slave-hunters" before they came to Kansas, and had fetched along two of their blood-hounds, "Dutch Bill,"--(Sherman)--a German, from Oldenburg, and a resident of Kansas since 1845--had amassed considerable property by robbing cattle droves and emigrant trains. He was a giant, six feet four inches high, and for some weeks before his death had made it his pastime (in company with the Doyles) to break in the doors of free-state settlers, frightening and insulting the families, or once in a while attacking and ill-treating a man whom they encountered alone. It would take too much time to recount all their atrocities. Wilkinson was one of the few Southerners who were able to read and write, and who prided himself accordingly. He was a member of the Border-ruffian Legislature, and a principal leader in all attempts to annoy and extirpate the free state men. Although he never directly participated in the murders and robberies, still it was well understood that he was always informed, a short time before an invasion of Missourians was to occur, and on the very day of his death, he had tauntingly said to some free-state men that in a few days the last of them would be either dead or out of the territory. In this he referred to the coming invasion of Cook, at the head of 250 armed men from Bates county, Mo., who made his appearance about the 27th of May and plundered the whole region. His men carried off a good many prisoners, but abstained from killing them, as they feared that for every murdered free-soiler John Brown would kill one of their number.
Should Mr Utter ever visit southeastern Kansas, and make inquiries of any old settler there, of the years 1855 and 1856, he will find the above statement confirmed, as often as he may meet with a settler of those years still living. As a full man cannot understand the pangs of a fasting man, so Mr Utter, in his luxuriously furnished study at Chicago, cannot imagine the feelings of frightened mothers who do not know which is worse, the day or night, nor how soon the fruits of their labor will be destroyed by a band of miscreants, or themselves be called to mourn the death of some of their loved ones.
John Brown and his small body of soldiers with him only executed upon those scoundrels a just sentence of death for the benefit of several hundred unprotected families. There was no cabin on the banks of the Potawatomie in which, after the events of that night became known, fathers and mothers did not go to their day's work with a lighter heart, nor was there any pro-slavery man who did not perceive that the so-called "peace policy" (born of the selfishness of eastern speculators), had come to an end, and that only good behavior could shield him from the arm of the avenger. Southern Kansas looked upon John Brown as the instrument of God's vengeance.
As to G. W. Brown, Mr Utter can have all needed information concerning him from old Kansas settlers. These men will tell him that he was a "freedom screecher" by profession; but, for the rest, "a scamp without principle and without character, who for the sake of a few dollars would be ready for anything."
The language of Mr Bondy is his own, so far as a hasty translation can give it. His statements agree with those which I heard from old settlers in southern Kansas and at Lawrence in 1882, when I visited the scene of these events. I did not see Townsley, but the statement which he made was read to me by one of the persons who took it down. In some respects it differed from that of other eye-witnesses; but he would have given the same account of the five men, I think, which Mr Bondy has given.
F. B. Sanborn.
Concord, December 11, 1883.
Source: John Brown Scrap Book, compiled by William Elsey Connelley, Vol. 1, Boyd B. Stutler Collection, West Virginia State Archives