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John Brown Jr. Letter

Cleveland Leader
November 29, 1883

John Brown, Jr.,

Takes Up the Pen in Defense of His Immortal Father.

A Vivid Account of the Troubles of the Early Kansas Settlers.

The First Signs of War—Six Browns Take the Field for Freedom.

John Brown, Disguised as a Surveyor, Enters the Pro-Slavery Camp.

Slavery’s Bracelet—The Day of Reckoning Near at Hand.

“John Brown of Osawatomie.”—A History, not an Apology.

[By John Brown, Jr.]

To the Editor of the Leader

A preacher in Chicago, formerly, I believe, settle in Kansas City, on the Missouri side of the Kansas border, where in 1855 I found some of the most bigoted champions of human slavery, has undertaken to give the American people a new view of my father’s character. Rev. David N. Utter, (if that is his name, relates in his own way, and not according to the truth of history, a single event in the long warfare between freedom and slavery in Kansas. Without specifying what is true and what false in his account of the Potawatomie executions, (May 24, 1856,) I propose to give


Preceding that affair with some that followed it, from which the reader can judge the completeness and fairness of Mr. Utter’s article.

During the years 1853 and 1854, most of the leading Northern newspapers were not only full of glowing accounts of the extraordinary fertility, healthfulness, and beauty of the Territory of Kansas, then newly opened for settlement, but of urgent appeals to all lovers of freedom who desired homes in a new region, to go there as settlers, and by their votes save Kansas from the curse of slavery.

Influenced by these considerations, in the month of October, twenty-nine years ago, five of the sons of John Brown—John, jr., Jason, Owen, Frederick, and Salmon—then residents of the State of Ohio, made their arrangements to emigrate to Kansas. Their combined property consisted chiefly of eleven head of cattle, mostly young, and three horses. Ten of this number were valuable on account of the breed. Thinking these especially desirable in a new country, Owen, Frederick, and Salmon took them by way of the lakes to Chicago, thence to Meridosia, Ill., where they were wintered, and in the following spring drove them into Kansas to a place selected by these brothers for settlement about eight miles west of the town of Osawatomie. My brother Jason and his family and I with my family followed at the opening of navigation in the spring of 1855, going by way of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to St. Louis. There we purchased two small tents, a plow and some smaller farming tools and a hand-mill for grinding corn. At this period there were no railroads west of St. Louis; our journey must be continued by boat on the Missouri at a time of extremely low water, or by stage at great expense. We chose the river route, taking passage on the steamer “New Lucy,” which too late found crowded with passengers, mostly men from the South bound for Kansas. That they were from the South was plainly indicated by their language and dress, while their drinking, profanity, and


openly wearing these as an essential part of their make-up, clearly showed the class to which they belonged and that their mission was to aid in establishing slavery in Kansas.

A box of fruit trees and grape vines which my brother Jason had brought from Ohio, our plow and the few agricultural implements we had on the deck of that steamer, looked lonesome, for these were all we could see which were adapted to the occupations of peace. Then for the first time arose in our mind the query: Must the fertile prairies of Kansas, through a struggle at arms, be first secured to freedom before free men can sow and reap? If so, how poorly were we prepared for such work will be seen when I say that for arms for five of us brothers we had only two small squirrel rifles and one revolver. But before we reached our destination other matters claimed our attention. Cholera, which then prevailed to some extent at St. Louis, broke out among our passengers, a number of whom died. Among these, Brother Jason’s son, Austin, aged four years, the elder of his two children, fell a victim to this scourge, and while our boat laid by for repair of a broken rudder at Waverly, Mo.,


Near that panic-stricken town, our lonely way illumined only by the lightning of a furious thunder storm.

True to his spirit of hatred of Northern people, our captain, without warning to us on shore, cast off his lines and left us to make our way by stage to Kansas City, to which place we had already paid our fare by boat. Before we reached there, however, we became very hungry, and endeavored to buy food at varous [sic] farm houses on the way; but the occupants, judging from our speech that we were not from the South, always denied us, saying “We have nothing for you.” The only exception to this answer was at the stage house at Independence. Mo.

Arrived in Kansas, her lovely prairies and wooded streams seemed to us indeed like a haven of rest. Here in prospect, we saw our cattle increased to hundreds and possibly to thousands, fields of corn, orchards, and vineyards. At once we set about the work through which only


could be realized. Our tents would suffice for shelter until we could plow our land, plant corn and other crops, fruit trees, and vines, cut and secure as hay enough of the waving grass to supply our stock the coming winter. These cheering prospects beguiled our labors through late spring until mid-summer, by which time nearly all of our number were prostrated by fever and ague that would not stay cured; the grass was cut for hay, moldered in the wet for want of the care we could not bestow, our crop of corn wasted by cattle we could not restrain. If these minor ills and misfortunes were all, they could be easily borne, but now began to gather


An election for a first Territorial Legislature had been held on the 30th of March of this year. On that day the residents of Missouri along the borders came into Kansas by thousands and took forcible possession of the polls.

“There was no disguise,


no regard for decency. On the evening before the morning of the day of election nearly a thousand Missourians arrive at Lawrence in wagons and on horse back, well armed with rifles, pistols, and bowie knives, and two pieces of cannon loaded with musket balls. Although but 831 legal electors in the Territory voted, there were no less than 6,320 votes polled. They elected all the members with a single exception in either House—the two free soilers being chosen from a remote district which the Missourians overlooked or did not care to reach”

See Greeley’s “American Conflict,” volume 1, page 238. That which occurred at Lawrence on that day is but a sample of what was done at the other election precincts of the Territory. In its next issue the Platte Argus, a Missouri paper, said: “It is to be admitted that they, the Missourians, have conquered Kansas, our advice is, let them hold it or died in the attempt.” A late writer has justly said: “It is self evident that under the American system of free government, the most terrible of all offenses against the State is the thwarting by fraud or violence the will of its people as expressed at the polls. If fraudulent voting, ballot box stuffing, or dishonest county is allowed to defeat the will of the majority, the foundation of our institutions is swept away.”

The Legislature thus fraudulently chosen, finally assembled at Shawnee Mission, near the line of Missouri, “and passed one act by which the laws of Missouri generally were adopted and declared to be laws of Kansas.” In addition to the Slave code of Missouri, other acts were passed intended to give greater security to slave holding in Kansas. Among these were the follow


“Be it enacted by the Governor and Legislative Assembly of Kansas, that if any free person by speaking or writing shall assert or maintain that persons have not the right to hold slaves in this Territory, or shall introduce into this Territory, print, publish, write, circulate, or cause to be introduced into this Territory, or written, printed, published, and circulated in this Territory any book, paper, magazine, pamphlet or circular containing any denial of the right of persons to hold slaves in this Territory, such person shall be deemed guilty of felony and punished by imprisonment at hard labor for a term of not less than two years.”

“If any person shall aid or assist in enticing, decoying or persuading, or carrying away or sending out of this Territory any slave belonging to another with the intent to procure the freedom of such slave, or deprive the owner thereof of the services of such slave, he shall be adjudged guilty of grand larceny, and on conviction thereof shall suffer death, or be imprisoned at hard labor for not less than ten years.”

“If any person shall entice, decoy, or carry away out of any State or Territory of the United States any slave belonging to another, with the intent to procure or effect the freedom of such slave, or deprive the owner thereof of the services of such slave, and shall bring such slave into this Territory, he shall be adjuged [sic] guilty of grant larceny in the same manner as if such slave had been enticed, decoyed, or carried away out of this Territory, and in such case the larceny may be charged to have been committed in any county of this Territory into or through which such slave shall have been brought by such person, and on conviction thereof the person offending shall suffer death.”

“No person who is conscientiously opposed to holding slaves, or who does not admit the right to hold slaves to this Territory shall sit as a juror on the trial of any prosecution for any violation of any section of this act.”

Early in the spring and summer of this year, the actual settlers at their convention repudiated this


and refused to obey its enactments. Upon this, the border papers of Missouri, in flaming appeals, urged the ruffian horde that had previously invaded Kansas, to arm, and otherwise prepare to march again into the Territory when called on, as they soon would be, to “aid in enforcing the la magnitude, at least, now appeared to us brothers to be inevitable, and I wrote to father, whose house was in North Elba, N. Y., asking him to procure and send to us, if he could, arms and ammunition so that we could be better prepared to defend ourselves and our neighbors. He soon obtained them, but instead of sending,


accompanied by my brother-in-law, Henry Thompson, and my brother Oliver. In Iowa he bought a horse and covered wagon; concealing the arms in this and conspicuously displaying his surveying implements, he crossed into Missouri near Waverly, and at that place disinterred body of his grandson and brought all safely through to our settlement, arriving there about the 6th of October.

A few days later William Dow, a Free State settler, near the Santa Fe road, between our place and Lawrence, in consequence of a difference in politics, was attacked by three armed men and shot dead, while he was himself wholly unarmed.

Resistance by a few Free State men of Lawrence to the service of a warrant in the hands of one Jones, of Westport, Mo., who held the office of sheriff in Kansas under the fraudulent Legislature, afforded a pretest for calling on the militia to aid him. The Missouri border responded, and


threatening vengeance on the people of Lawrence. Upon urgent call the Free State men of the Territory rallied in her defense. Father, Owen, Frederick, Salmon, Oliver, and myself were among this number. Henry Thompson and Jason were prevented by sickness from joining us there. For days the little town was menaced by 1,500 armed men from Missouri, who styled themselves “The Militia of Kansas.” Prudential reasons led them to defer an attack in force, but they would not return without blood, and poor Barber, a peaceable and worthy citizen, while returning from Lawrence to his home, a few miles west, was met by a squad of those “militia” and shot to death in the road for no other reason than for being a Free State man, and that he had gone to aid in defending Lawrence, Hundreds of his friends and comrades who were then assembled in that beleaguered town will not be likely to forget


of the widow of Thomas W. Barber when she saw in the Eldridge House the body of her husband just brought in from the prairie in which he had fallen. The effect upon the defenders of Lawrence was manifest in the settled determination that for this and the wrongs heretofore suffered a day of reckoning must come.

A kind of compromise was agreed upon at Lawrence, the “militia” withdrew across the border, and though no one of their number had been killed or wounded, their thirst for blood was not satisfied by the killing of Barber, they retired uttering curses and threats. The Free State men returned to their cabins and tents, which in general afforded but wretched protection. From the 27th day of November to the 11th day of December they had been absent from their homes in defense of Lawrence, they must now provide as best they could against the inclemencies of a winter which proved to be one of almost unparalleled severity.

Having no stoves to warm our two small tents, quite too small to shelter our present number, our means insufficient to purchase stoves in addition to provisions for the winter, we left the high prairie whither we had moved to escape malaria, and near the timber we built a shed, open in front, its roof of poles covered by long shingles, its three sides formed by bundles of long prairie grass placed one above another and pressed close between upright stakes. In front of this shed was our fire of logs, which furnished abundant warmth and smoke to spare.

Jason had a cabin of logs roofed by cotton sheeting, like many of those which then sheltered the people of Lawrence. Here we stayed until we could build more substantial houses, economy requiring that roofing and floors also should be split and hewed from the timber trees near. Owing to the severe cold and the continued disability of a part of our number by ague, it was late in February before our houses were ready to be occupied.

February 2, 1856, the papers brought information of


at Easton, near Leavenworth. He was returning home from an election to choose members of the Legislature, in accordance with what was known as the Topeka Constitution, which had been adopted by a majority of the actual residents of Kansas. A party of armed pro-slavery ruffians shot and stabbed him, carried him in an open wagon on a bitterly cold night to the door of his house, threw him out, and left him to die, as he did, before he could be brought in. His only offense was that of voting in favor of free Kansas.

Fully convinced that active preparation should be made in our section to “provide for the common defense,” Mr. H. H. Williams, of Osawatomie, came to our place on the 25th of February with a muster roll for a rifle company to be organized at a meeting of the signers at the house of William Partridge, on Potawatomie Creek, the 27th. All of our number, including father, signed the roll. At the meeting


Mr. Williams and Simeon B. Morse lieutenants. Full organization was soon afterwards completed and the work of military drill begun.

By this time the border papers were boldly proclaiming as their watchwords: “War to the knife and knife to the hilt!” “Death to the Abolitionists!” in which class they included all Free State men. They exhorted the faithful to “be in readiness, for as soon as the spring as grass should be sufficiently grown for their horses, the “friends of law and order,” as they styled themselves, “should once more march int[o] Kansas, and the d---d Yankee Abolitionists should be wiped out.” “They must not be allowed to plant crops.” “There must be no child’s play this time,” referring to the peace measures adopted at Lawrence, in December.

Early in the spring, Colonel Buford, of Alabama, arrived with a regiment of armed men, mostly from South Carolina and Georgia. They came with the openly declared purpose to make Kansas a slave State at all hazards. A company of these men was reported to us as being encamped near the Maria des Cygnes River, a little south of the town now called Rantoul, I think, and distant from our place about two miles. Father took his surveyor’s compass, and with him four of my brothers, Owen, Frederick, Salmon, and Oliver as chain-carriers, axman, and marker, and found a section line which, on following, led through the camp of those men. As all government officials whom these Southerners had heretofore met were known to be pro-slavery men, the disguise was complete and no questions were asked, The Georgians indulged in the utmost freedom of expression. One of them who appeared to be the leader of the company said, “We’ve come here to stay. We won’t make no war on them as minds their own business, but all the


over there, we’re going to whip, drive out of kill, any way to get shut of them, by G-d.” The elder Doyle was already there among them, having come from the Potowatomie a distance of nine miles to show them the best fords of the river and creek. These “settlers” were well provided with arms, but for men who had “come to stay” their poverty of farming tools was remarkable. Bands of such settlers were every day crossing from Missouri into Kansas, while emigrants from the Free States were arrested and turned back. Cannon were placed at various points on the Missouri River to stop boats for this purpose.

The grass of the prairie being now sufficiently grown, true to their promises the work of subjugation was resumed. While we were engaged in planting corn, a messenger in great haste arrived, saying:


and is now burning; come all of you as soon as possible.” Without delay I rode to Osawatomie with the word, and then rallied the men of my company whose homes were mostly on Potawatomie and Middle Creeks. They company from Osawatomie and mine joined near our place, and moving as rapidly as possible, we in the night reached a small stream a few miles south of Palmyra and camped. Here we were joined by the company of Captain Thore [sic], who informed us that Lawrence had been destroyed—that all the leading Free State men there were prisoners in the hands of the Missourians—that the force which had taken Lawrence had divided, and were engaged in the work of destruction and pillage in other parts of the Territory, and that a force of four hundred men under Buford were in camp a few miles east of us. Early next day word was brought into our camp from Potawatomie that the Georgians, aided by the pro-slavery residents there, were driving out the unprotected Free State settlers on the creek, that old Mr. Morse had fled in fear of his life, and that his house had been pillaged.

Up to this time Kansas had endured without retaliation,


of her peaceable citizens. “When smitten on one cheek,” she had “turned the other, also.” It was now considered that whenever her relentless foes came to realize that they were to receive death for death, the day of her deliverance would begin. It was now and here resolved that they, their aiders and abettors who sought to kill our suffering people, should themselves be killed, and in such manner as should be likely to cause a restraining fear. Father, at this time a member of my company, proposed to return with several of my men. At first I questioned the wisdom of reducing our numbers as we were near a superior force, but as he asked for only a few men no opposition was made. We aided him in his outfit. I assisted in the sharpening of his navy cutlasses. James Townsley, who resided near Potawatomie Creek, volunteered to return with his team, and offered to point out the abodes of such as he thought should be disposed of. No man of our entire number could fail to understand that a retaliatory blow would fail, yet when father and his little band departed they were saluted by all our men with a rousing cheer.

On the night of that day our companies moved on Palmyra on the Santa Fe road. Next day, with a detachment accompanied by Captain Abbot of Wakarusa, I saw the ruins at Lawrence. Returning


a young man and woman held by a man named Jones, I think, who lived near Palmyra. I informed Jones that if he remained until after sunrise, I would not be responsible for his safety. He left for Missouri ahead of time.

The arrival of those slaves in camp next morning caused a commotion. The act of freeing them, though attended by no violence or bloodshed, was freely denounced, and in accordance with a vote given by a large majority of the men, those freed persons, in opposition to my expressed will, were returned to their master. The driver of the team which carried them, overtaking him on his way to Westport, received a side saddle as his reward.

Soon after, by order of Colonel Sumner, of the United States army, who came, as he said, to disperse all armed gathering of men on either side, we disbanded in good faith and returned to our homes. The men from Missouri, and those under Buford, made a show of disbanding and at once re-assembled, acting as aids to the United States troops, who were ordered to act as a posse for the Marshal in


who had been or was likely to be active.

With a number of others, my brother Jason and I were arrested and taken to Bateeseville, now called Paoli. The day after we were taken to Paoli, a pro-slavery man from near Stanton brought in and gave to the Missourians and Buford’s men who held our little company as prisoners, a scrap of paper containing only these words: “I am aware that you hold my two sons, John and Jason, prisoners. John Brown.” The bearer of the paper said he brought it under the assurance that his own life depended on its delivery.

Brother Jason and I occupied a room which contained a bed and a small lampstand or table. Two others also occupied the room as guards. The early part of the night of this day had been spent by our guards at card playing at the little table. Jason, without removing his clothes, had lain down on the front side of the bed, and was in deep sleep. Occupying in like manner the side of the bed next the wall, at about midnight, as near as I can judge, I was awakened by the sudden opening of the outside door and the rushing in of a number of men with drawn bowie knives. Seizing the candle, and saying, “Which are they?” they crowded


Believing that our time had come, and wishing to save Jason, still asleep, from prolonged suffering, I opened the bosom of his shirt and pointing to the region of his heart, said, “strike here.” At that moment the sudden and loud barking of dogs outside and a hurrying of steps on the porch, caused the most lively stampede of our assailants within, and this attack ended without a blow. From this hour at Potawatomie father had become to slave-holders and their allies in Kansas an omnipresent dread. Filled with forebodings of evil by day he was the specter of their imaginings at night. Owing to that fear our lives were saved.

The next day we were placed in the custody of Captain Walker, of United States Cavalry, a Southerner who himself tied by arms back in such a manner as to produce the most intense suffering. Giving the other end of the rope to a sergeant, I was placed a little in advance of the column headed by Captain Walker, and to avoid being trampled by the horses which had been ordered to trot, I was driven at this pace


to Osawatomie, a distance of about nine miles. The rope had been tied so tightly as to stop circulation. Instead of loosening the rope when we arrived at camp, a mile south of town, no charge was made in it through that day, all of the following night, nor until about noon the next day. By that time my arms and hands had swollen to nearly double size, and turned black as if mortified. On removal of the rope, which in consequence of the swelling had sunken deeply, a ring of the skin came off.


I still wear after twenty-seven years.

To give in detail our imprisonment for months on charge of treason, no other, then set at liberty on ground of “no cause of action”—the burning of our houses and destruction of our little property, including a library of over 400 volumes which I had been accumulating from my youth, the driving off and appropriating of our stock, the burning and pillage of Osawatomie, the killing on that day of my brother Frederick, of David Garrison, a new-comer into the Territory, who had in no way engaged in the struggles of the time, of the killing of George Partridge, and still later of Mr. Hoyt, near the Wakarusa of Charles Kaiser, of the various skirmishes, closing the record of 1856 by marching on Lawrence for the third time by 2,700 Missourians on the 14th of September, and the burning of Franklin, the massacre of twelve men on the Maria des Cygnes, the killing in one night by Quantrel and his men of eighty unresisting people of Lawrence, would far transcend my limits. These did not, as alleged by Mr. Utter, follow as a consequence of the execution of the five men on the Potawatomie, but were truly a continuance of the most outrageous deeds to establish slavery, which, beginning in 1855, ended only with the close of the war of the rebelling. The men


were of the sort which infested the border during the rebellion, or rather until hunted out and summarily exterminated, men who would be found on their farms quietly at work during the day, but at night would mount their horses, ride twenty miles, saw the timbers of a railroad bridge, letting down to destruction not only our troops, but women and children to a common death, and then ride back to their farms before the morning light. The Doyles, Wilkinsons, and Shermans were furnishing places of rendezvous and active aid to armed men, who had sworn to kill us and others. With the Browns it became a qu[e]stion as to which side (to use a Western phrase) should “first obtain the drop.”

It has been said that some of the Free State men of Lawrence held a meeting and passed resolutions denouncing father and his action at Potawatomie, that among those were G. W. Brown and Dr. Charles Robinson, afterwards Governor of Kansas. If this be true, one of these, Dr. Robinson, afterwards changed his opinion, for at an interview with father at Lawrence, in the month of September, 1856, at which, by father’s request, I was present, Dr. Robinson, instead of expressing disapprobation, asked father to undertake further work of the same kind, saying, “There are certain men in this Territory who must be disposed of before we shall have peace.” Father replied, with some show of warmth: “I think, Doctor, if you know of a job of this sort which should be done you should undertake it.” This interview was had in one of the rooms of a house occupied in part, at least, by E. B. Whitman.

If David N. Utter, in his article published in the North American Review, had not “kept back part of the price,” virtually saying, “Yea, for so much;” had he possessed any sincere desire to place before “the new generation now upon the stage” all the essential facts by which only a just estimate of John Brown’s character could be formed, he would have given to his Potawatomie picture the


which led to the taking off of those men. But this did not suit his purpose, which no stretch of charity will lead his fair minded readers to suppose was one of justice and truth. Not satisfied by withholding essential facts of history, Mr. Utter says: “As the effect of his crime,” John, jr., immediately resigned the command of the rifle company, returned home, and afterwards in “wildest excitement” denounced his father—that “John Brown could not live in Kansas”—“ran away to save his life.” “He cut off his long beard probably as a disguise and sought help in New England, reciting the woes of his family, but concealing their cause.” “His accounts of his exploits before his Eastern friends, never modest, were seldom truthful.”

What are the facts? At the time of disbanding heretofore mentioned, I resigned the command of my company, not on account of the killing of those men on the Potawatomie, but because I was not in sympathy with the majority of my men, who, while engaged in armed resistance of slave holders in defense of their own rights, cowardly


whose liberty was as dear to them as their own. Never in any sane moment did I speak a word disapproving my father’s course. If at any time in moments of frenzy, or under the psychological influence of G. W. Brown, a “fellow prisoner,” I spoke the slanderous words reported by him and published by Mr. Utter, “I appear from Philip drunk to Philip sober.

Father remained in Kansas, participating in all the skirmishes of that year. I was with him in Lawrence when he aided in defending the town against the two thousand seven hundred Missourians, September 14, 1856. Both he and I were then guests of G. W. Brown, editor of the Herald of Freedom, of Lawrence. Father lived in Kansas much of the time in 1857 and 1858, and with Captain James Montgomery (afterward colonel) patrolled the border in defense of her people. From the time he first allowed his beard to grow, which was early in 1857, it was never cut off. It was at no time “a disguise,” but on the contrary served to identify.

Mr. Utter declares as his opinion that it is right to “steal slaves from their masters and free them.”


freed slaves. Mr. Utter, to accomplish the same end, would “steal them.” If he could have had the experience of Rev. Pardee Butler, of Kansas, in 1855, when mobbed, “tarred and cottoned,” it might have convinced even Mr. Utter that slavery is barbarism. Had he been convicted of “stealing slaves” in Kansas in 1856, he would have suffered death or imprisonment at hard labor for not less than ten years, unless saved from such a fate by “the deluded abolitionists,” men of the “higher law,” who would have made “a clean sweep” of that form of “civilization,” leaving the future to build a better.

How little we thought on that Sunday, September 14, 1856, that G. W. Brown, then graciously hospitable to us, was concealing beneath his smiles the virus he poured upon father’s name as soon as he was dead.

Into that virus the Rev. David N. Utter dipped his pen and wrote his “John Brown of Osawatomie.”

To the millions of our countrymen who know of “the furnace and the heat” in which “was forged the anchor of our hopes,” may be safely committed for kindly care and keeping the memory of the John Brown who gave all he had to save Kansas and our Nation from the curse of human bondage.

Put-in-Bay Island, Lake Erie, O., November 16, 1883.

Source: John Brown Scrap Book, compiled by William Elsey Connelley, Vol. 4, Boyd B. Stutler Collection, West Virginia State Archives

Chapter Five: Bleeding Kansas

His Soul Goes Marching On

West Virginia Archives and History