Pottawatomie massacre

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The Pottawatomie massacre happened on the night of May 24, 1856.[1] John Brown and a number of volunteer Free-Staters attacked and murdered five men in a small settlement on the Pottawatomie Creek near Manhattan, Kansas. The killings were particularly brutal. One by one, settlers were dragged from their homes and hacked to death with broadswords and shot.[2] The victims were pro-slavery, but were not slave owners themselves.[2] The murders were in response to pro-slavery Missouri Border Ruffians who burned and looted Lawrence, Kansas three days earlier.[2] It happened just two days after the Caning of Charles Sumner, the Senator from Massachusetts on the floor of the United States Senate.[2] The Pottawatomie massacre was one of the many bloody episodes in Kansas preceding the American Civil War. It marked the beginning of the period called Bleeding Kansas.[3]

Background[change | change source]

The Territory[change | change source]

In 1854, the Missouri Compromise, which had restricted the expansion of Slavery in the United States, was done away with by the Kansas–Nebraska Act.[4] Based on the doctrine of popular sovereignty, the federal government allowed the issue of slavery to be decided by those settling the Kansas Territory.[4] By popular vote the people who lived there would decide whether Kansas would become a "slave-state" or be a "free-state" (free of slavery).[4] Pro-slavery Missourians, Free-Staters and abolitionists all poured into Kansas.[a][7] Soon, the different sides held their own elections and set up two opposing territorial governments.[7] In May 1856, a drunken mob of pro-slavers sacked the town of Lawrence. Brown was enraged at this and wanted vengeance.

John Brown[change | change source]

Brown was a deeply religious man who spoke his mind.[2] As an abolitionist he found slavery in any form to be immoral.[2] He fathered 20 children and with his wife moved to Kansas Territory to wage a war against slavery.[2] He arrived on October 7, 1855, to help several of his sons who were already there to set up land claims.[8] Along the way he got funds from other abolitionists and bought a large number of guns and swords for the fight he was sure would come.[8] He had spoken out before against the Southern plantations and had called for the execution of slave catchers.[8] Kansas, he thought, would be the perfect place to put his words into action.[8]

When the town of Lawrence was sacked, Brown became extremely angry.[2] He could not understand why the people of Lawrence had not decided to fight.[2] He decided he and his followers would avenge the sack of Lawrence.[2]

The massacre[change | change source]

On the night of May 24th, 1856, Brown set out with seven others to the pro-slavery town of Pottawatomie Creek. They were armed with swords and rifles. One by one the victims were dragged out their beds and murdered by Brown and his followers.[2] They attacked three different farm houses.[1]

James Doyle and two sons were dragged outside their house and hacked to death.[1] Mrs. Doyle, her daughter and a 14-year old son were not killed.[1] They next went to Alan Wilkinson's farm where he was taken "prisoner".[1] His sick wife and two children begged Brown not to kill him.[1] Brown's men took his rifle and two saddles, but let Wilkinson live. James Harris owned the third house Brown visited that night. Haris, his wife and young child plus three other men were living there.[1] Brown's men killed one man, William Sherman, then took their weapons, a saddle and one horse.[1] Brown's followers included four of his sons who all later claimed that Brown himself did not actually murder anyone.[1] But he was the leader and he made all the decisions of who would live and who would die.[1] They washed the blood from their hands and their swords in the creek, then went home.[7] None of the killers were ever prosecuted for the crime.[7]

Aftermath[change | change source]

After the massacre, pro-slavery forces launched a manhunt for Brown.[9] They destroyed the Browns' property and Brown's son Frederick was shot and killed. Brown escaped Kansas and fled north.[9] Together, the sack of Lawrence and the Pottawatomie massacre started a civil war in Kansas.[8] Brown gained national attention and fame among abolitionists.[8] He was able to gather men and arms for another "secret mission"; John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry.

In November 1859, as Brown was waiting to be executed for his raid on Harpers Ferry, he received a letter.[10] It was from Mahala Doyle, whose husband and two sons Brown killed:

John Brown
Sir
Altho vengence is not mine, I confess, that I do feel gratified to hear that you ware stopt in your fiendish career at Harper’s Ferry, with the loss of your two sons, you can now appreciate my distress, in Kansas, when you then and there entered my house at midnight and arrested my husband and two boys and took them out of the yard and in cold blood shot them dead in my hearing, you cant say you done it to free our slaves, we had none and never expected to own one, but has only made me a poor disconsolate widow with helpless children while I feel for your folly. I do hope & trust that you will meet your just reward. O how it pained my Heart to hear the dying groans of my Husband and children if this scrawl give you any consolation you are welcome to it
Mahala Doyle

NB my son John Doyle whose life I begged of (you) is now grown up and is very desirous to be at Charleston on the day of your execution would certainly be there if his means would permit it, that he might adjust the rope around your neck if gov: wise would permit it
M. Doyle.[10]

Notes[change | change source]

  1. At first, abolitionists and free-staters, while both against slavery, held very different views on the subject. Abolitionists were against any kind of slavery anywhere. They wanted equal rights for black people.[5] Free-staters did not want blacks, slave or free, in Kansas. Most were prejudiced against black people believing the popular idea they were inferior.[6] Gradually the two groups began to compromise and work together to prevent slavery in Kansas.[6]

Reference[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 "John Brown and the Pottawatomie Killings". American Studies. University of Virginia. Retrieved 19 June 2016.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 "31d. The Pottawatomie Creek Massacre". Bloody Kansas. US History.org. Retrieved 19 June 2016.
  3. Chris Rein. "Pottawatomie Massacre". Civil War on the Western Border. Retrieved 19 June 2016.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 "Pottawatomie Massacre". American Experience. PBS/WGBH Educational Foundation. Retrieved 19 June 2016.
  5. "Abolitionist Movement". HistoryNet.com. Retrieved 15 June 2016.
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Bleeding Kansas". Kansas Historical Society. Retrieved 12 June 2016.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 "The Pottawatomie Creek Massacre". History Today, Ltd. Retrieved 19 June 2016.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia, Vol I, ed. Junius P. Rodriguez (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2007), p. 422
  9. 9.0 9.1 "Pottawatomie Massacre". Totally History. Retrieved 19 June 2016.
  10. 10.0 10.1 ""Bleeding Kansas" and the Pottawatomie Massacre, 1856". The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Retrieved 19 June 2016.