The most controversial incident in John Brown’s career as an antislavery fighter is not the raid on Harper’s Ferry, though that incident was by far the most consequential. Oswald Garrison Villard wrote that “the debate in Kansas today” (1910) over the Pottawatomie killings “is almost as bitter as at the time of the crime”. But, he continued one cannot reach a “true understanding” of John Brown without “a clear appreciation” of those killings. Villard even argued:
As one views Brown’s conduct in the killing of the five pro-slavery men on Pottawatomie Creek depends to a large degree the place which may be assigned to him in history. (Villard; 148)
Because Pottawatomie was used especially to paint Brown as a reckless and cruel murderer, and because it remains so controversial, I decided to start my discussion of Brown this year by talking about this incident.
What happened is that Brown led a small band of men to execute five proslavery men who lived along the Pottawatomie Creek, where Brown and those of his sons who were in Kansas also lived. Four of them, Salmon, Owen, Oliver and Frederick, were part of the execution team. The men killed were James Doyle and two of his three sons, Drury (age 22) and William (age 20), all of them proslavery immigrants from Tennessee and part of the proslavery Law and Order Party – Doyle and William had worked for the proslavery court in the area; Allen Wilkinson, a member of the illegitimate Lecompton state legislature and a district attorney for it; and, William (“Dutch Bill” Sherman), one of three brothers who were Lecompton partisans.
Brown’s group went to the houses of each of the men (Sherman was caught at the cabin of James Harris) on the night of Saturday, May 24, 1855, to Sunday, May 25. Brown normally was scrupulous about reverencing the Christian Sabbath. Presumably he felt that doing the Lord’s work on an urgent basis took priority over his conventional Sunday habits.
The five proslavery men were taken – the three Doyles together, then Wilkinson, then Sherman – some distance from their houses and executed by blows to the head with broadswords.
Salmon and Owen Brown executed the Doyles. There was no attempt to torture or further humiliate them, but the bodies of all three men showed defensive wounds. John Brown shot James Doyle in the head after he was felled with the broadswords, presumably to make sure he was dead.
Theodore Winer and Henry Thompson (it may have been one of the Brown sons instead of Thompson) killed Wilkinson with a blow to the head and cuts to his side and throat.
Finally, Weiner and Thompson executed Dutch bill Sherman. He was also struck in the head, but his left hand was severed, presumably a defensive wound.
Those are the basic facts of the Pottawatomie killings. It was ugly, brutal stuff. In the “wild west” condition of Kansas Territory at that time, no one was ever prosecuted for the murders – and John Brown himself described them as murders. But there is a great deal of detail known about the killings now. There were contemporary reports, and an 1856 Congressional investigation of the Kansas conflict included testimony about the incident. Three of the participants, James Townsley, Henry Thompson and Salmon Brown, later gave their own accounts of what happened.
I’m going to be talking more about this incident and its context, because it gives a real sense of what kind of conflict was occurring in Kansas.
But I’ll also mention here that I view the actions of Brown and his crew at Pottawatomie to be a justifiable act of guerrilla warfare in the particular circumstances in Kansas Territory at that time.
Yet I would also emphasize that there was nothing romantic or glorious about it. Nor did Brown himself think so. It’s also notable that he apparently did not ask for anyone’s retroactive approval of the action, though in later years he did at times explain his motives. His son Jason, who had not been part of the Pottawatomie raid and had not known what was planned, asked Brown the next morning if he had taken part in the killings. Brown responded, “I did not do it, but I approved of it”.
Jason then stated he thought the action was unjustified. Brown said, “God is my judge, we were justified under the circumstances”.
Villard, who did not view those killings as justifiable, wrote:
How may the killings on the Pottawatomie, this terrible violation of the statue and the moral laws, be justified? This is the question which has confronted every student of John Brown’s life since it was definitely established that Brown was, if not actually a principal in the crime, an accessory and an instigator. There have been advanced many excuses for the killings, and a number of them deserve careful scrutiny. (Villard; 170)
Villard proceeds to examine several of those “excuses” in some detail.
However, Brown himself evidently did not ask for approval or care about disapproval of the action, either from his contemporaries or from us. He was content to let God be his judge.
(See Sources on John Brown for references.)
An Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.