By Andy Ostmeyer
Globe Staff Writer
In the winter of 1858, a grim-faced rider lit by Old Testament fire tracked through the night along the Little Osage River. Somewhere in the timbered bottoms and tallgrass country, he crossed from Kansas into Vernon County, Mo.
For years, that rider had stoked the border with razor-edged rhetoric and broadswords.
In retaliation for a pro-slavery raid on Lawrence, Kan., in 1856, and further incensed by the merciless beating of an abolitionist senator in the nation’s Capitol, that rider “went crazy — crazy,” according to his son.
Vowing revenge, John Brown and his disciples hacked to death with cutlasses five men near Dutch Henry’s Crossing along Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas. Though the victims were pro-slavery sympathizers, none owned a slave and none was armed.
“It has been ordained by the Almighty God, ordained from eternity, that I should make an example of these men,” Brown said.
More than two years after that massacre, that rider, a volatile man in the most volatile place in the country, launched his last act on the Kansas-Missouri border. And with that act, he sewed the seeds for a plan that helped trigger the American Civil War.
The question of slavery vexed America from its birth.
For all their collective genius, the Founding Fathers had been unable to resolve the issue, so they set the pattern future generations would repeat: Compromise. They determined that every slave would count as three-fifths of a human being for political purposes. Otherwise, slaves didn’t count at all.
A second compromise in 1820 gave birth to Missouri. It kept the balance of power by bringing in Maine as a free state while Missouri came in as a slave state. That compromise also restricted the spread of slavery everywhere north of a line that serves as Missouri’s southern border, with one exception. That exception was Missouri itself.
Victory in the Mexican-American War forced the country to confront the issue again. A third compromise, this one in 1850, allowed California to join as a free state while residents in the territories of Utah and New Mexico would decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. Popular sovereignty had entered the political debate.
The first two compromises lasted a generation; the third only a few years. And all because Stephen Douglas, a U.S. Senator from Illinois, wanted a railroad from Chicago to California.
Southerners favored a transcontinental route west out of New Orleans. In order to get his Chicago terminus, Douglas enticed Southern supporters with a promise: Throw out the line laid down in the Missouri Compromise, and let the people of Kansas and Nebraska determine for themselves whether to join the union as a slave state or a free state.
It was enough for Douglas to buy the support of powerful senators for his Kansas-Nebraska Act, senators such as Missouri’s David Rice Atchison and South Carolina’s Andrew Butler, who both had large roles yet to play.
‘If we win ...’
Arnold Schofield has spent his life studying John Brown and events on the Kansas-Missouri border in the 1850s.
He’s a former historian for the Fort Scott (Kan.) National Historic Site. He also spent part of his career at Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia.
“Western Missouri and eastern Kansas were the frontier,” he said, explaining that there’s a different mindset on the frontier, a harder edge to living and dying.
“Violence, death and conflict were all common on the frontier,” he said.
Stir into that the most electrically-charged question in American history and the region was ripe for strife.
When it came time for Kansans to elect a delegate to Congress in 1854, and seat a territorial legislature a year later, pro-slavery men from Missouri rode across the border by the thousands to stuff ballot boxes, led by Missouri’s David Rice Atchison.
“The game must be played boldly,” Atchison claimed. “If we win, we carry slavery to the Pacific Ocean ...”
The original pro-slavery legislature in Kansas made it a crime to even speak against slavery in the state.
Meanwhile, Immigrant Aid Societies from both North and South lured settlers to the region to stack the deck for coming elections. Northern supporters also sent rifles ironically called “Beecher’s Bibles,” in honor of the abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher, whose sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, had further inflamed the passions of the nation with her novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
‘Such is the crime’
That was the climate in 1856 when Missouri men sacked the abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence for the first time, ransacking and looting, destroying free-soil newspapers and burning a number of buildings, including the home of the free-soil governor.
The news provoked fighting on two fronts. The first was on the floor of the U.S. Senate, where Charles Sumner of Massachusetts delivered a Philippic loaded with buckshot. Its title: “The Crime Against Kansas.”
“It is the rape of a virgin territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery,” Sumner said of events in Kansas. “… here in our Republic, force — ay, sir, FORCE — has been openly employed in compelling Kansas to this pollution ...
“Such is the crime, and such is the criminal, which it is my duty ... to expose.”
He specifically singled out one of those senators who had backed Douglas and his railroad — South Carolina’s Andrew Butler.
A member of the House, Preston Brooks — a cousin of Butler’s — responded by beating Sumner senseless with a cane in a senate chamber.
“The fate of the South is to be decided with the Kansas issue,” Brooks had said earlier.
Southerners sent Brooks new canes so he could continue the work. People in the North were getting “saucy, and dare to be impudent to gentlemen” the newspaper in Richmond, Va., proclaimed. “The truth is, they have been suffered too long to run without collars.”
The second battlefront was near Dutch Henry’s Crossing along Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas, where news of the Lawrence raid and the attack on Sumner sent John Brown into a bloodlust frenzy.
“Brown reacted because he felt the free staters in Lawrence would not fight. He felt it was time somebody stood up and fought against those pro-slavers from Missouri,” said Schofield.
By Brown’s count, five free-soil men had died at the hands of pro-slavery invaders from Missouri since the border war had erupted. At Pottawatomie Creek, he evened the score — and not for the last time, either.
‘Blood for blood’
For the next two years, gangs of Missouri Bushwhackers and Kansas free-soil supporters known as Jayhawkers, ratcheted up each act of violence with another.
“Blood for Blood,” screamed a Kansas newspaper named the Atchison Squatter Sovereign.
“This was really a frightful time for people on both sides,” says Jeremy Neely, a Missouri author of “The Border Between Them,” a history of the period.
“If you lived in a border area as a civilian, the depredation is unbelievable; the cruelty is beyond belief,” says Terry Ramsey, director of the Bushwhacker Museum in Nevada.
Fear took a tremendous psychological toll, too, according to Schofield, and many residents on both sides of the border simply left.
The violence, according to Neely, reached its climax on May 19, 1858, when a gang of pro-slavery men from Missouri crossed into Kansas near the Marais des Cygnes River in Linn County and seized 11 free-soil settlers.
They marched them into a wooded ravine and opened fire. Five of the victims died, several were wounded and only one or two escaped unharmed.
Like Brown at Pottawatomie Creek, the leader of the Marais des Cygnes massacre was never brought to justice.
Brown responded to the murders by moving to the area and erecting a fortified, secluded building from which he could resist future Missouri border raids.
“I tell you,” Brown remarked that summer of 1858, “... that it is infinitely better that this generation should be swept away from the face of the earth, than that slavery shall continue to exist.”
Brown brewed up a plan to even the score, and set his sights on Southwest Missouri.
According to Neely, slavery, while legal, wasn’t common there. He estimates 5 percent of the households in Vernon County had slaves. But the people there considered themselves Southerners nonetheless. Vernon County itself is on a latitude even with Richmond, which became the Confederate capital.
People who settled there came from the Middle and Upper South, which includes Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee, said Ramsey, of the Bushwhacker Museum.
“The strong Southern sympathies of this county had to deal with who settled here,” she explained.
The county organized three units that fought for the Confederacy in the coming war. And not a man in Vernon County in 1860 voted for Abraham Lincoln, she said.
‘Hell is stirred’
Brown’s final act in the West opened on the night of Dec. 19, 1858, when he tracked into Missouri along the Little Osage River.
“There are two dozen men in this group, more than at Harper’s Ferry — some of the same men,” Ramsey said.
Brown’s band split into two parties. One group battered in the door where Harvey Hicklin and his family lived.
“John Brown himself came into the room,” Hicklin later recalled. “He said to me, ‘Well, you seem to be in a pretty tight place, but you shant be hurt if you behave yourself.’ He said he ... was going to take off all of the Negroes and free them.”
Brown and his men leave with five slaves. Brown’s other column, tracking on the far side of the river, hits the home of David Cruise. He tried to defend himself with a pistol, but was shot to death. One slave is rescued there and five more slaves are rounded up at the home of John LaRue.
Brown’s men then turn for Kansas, and ultimately, get the slaves to Canada.
In a statement he issues in January 1859, called “John Brown’s Parallels,” Brown defended his action. Eleven free-soil men had been rounded up against their will at Marais des Cygnes; now 11 slaves had been rounded up and “restored to their natural and inalienable rights.”
Brown had evened the score again.
This time, only one man died, yet, noted Brown, “all hell is stirred.”
Brown was a wanted man in Kansas, so why come back?
Back in the Bushwhacker museum, Ramsey believes the raid was an effort to raise money and build public support with a slave liberation that will help rehabilitate the image sullied by his violence.
And although Brown denies it in his “Parallels,” she said Vernon County probate records of James Lawrence, in whose home the Hicklin’s were living, indicate money and other property was stolen along with slaves.
Ramsey called the raid in late 1858 a “rehearsal,” a “stepping stone” for plans he wants to take back East.
Schofield believes that in erecting the fortified building after the Marais des Cygnes massacre, coupled with the raid into Vernon County and the flight into Canada, Brown has laid the seeds for a plan he ultimately wants to bring to fruition back East.
Brown wants to establish a series of fortified but secret camps in the Shenandoah Mountains to be used to help slaves escape to freedom. The camps will be built along an already established route called “The Great Way.” To do that, Brown will need weapons, and the closest place for that is the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.
“He believed the African-American population is going to respond to him,” said Schofield.
Brown himself in his “Parallels” notes that the governor of Missouri was demanding the governor of Kansas turn over Brown and his men, if they could find them. An armed posse was being organized after the raid. Some slave-owners even fled Missouri. Everyone is filled with “holy horror,” at his act, Brown noted in his “Parallels.”
Brown’s biographer, Stephen Oates, said the raid into Missouri and its response is a catalyst for John Brown. If his strike into thinly populated Vernon County could provoke all that outrage, what could he stir in Virginia doing the same thing?
“You will have no more attacks from Missouri,” Brown later tells an associate. “I shall now leave Kansas ... I consider it my duty to draw the scene of the excitement to some other part of the country.”
Brown’s final act played out at Harper’s Ferry in October 1859 when he and his followers attempted to seize the arsenal there. By December, he was dead. But not before a number of other Americans entered the national stage with larger parts yet to play.
Among the soldiers who were sent to end Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry were Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart.
In attendance at the hanging were a professor from the Virginia Military Institute, Thomas — later Stonewall — Jackson, and Edmund Ruffin, an ardent secessionist some historians credit with firing some of the first shots at Fort Sumter in April 1861. Also present to watch Brown hang was John Wilkes Booth.
At his execution, Brown handed one of the hangmen a note containing his final prophecy.
“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood ...”
The narrative was reconstructed from numerous interviews and from multiple published sources including: “Battle Cry of Freedom,” by James McPherson; “The Border Between Them,” by James Neely; “To Purge This Land With Blood,” by Stephen Oates; “War to the Knife,” by Thomas Goodrich; as well as journals from the Kansas State Historical Society.