1918 KANSAS AND KANSANS Chapter 30 Part 3

The party seems to have been reunited at the house of Wilkinson and to have gone in a body to the house of James Harris, near that of Dutch Henry.4 William Sherman was taken from that house, led down into the bed of Pottawatomie Creek and slain by Henry Thompson. He was cut down with a sword, as Wilkinson and the Doyles had been. The affidavit made by Harris for the use of Oliver of the Investigating Committee, is the best account of what occurred at his house:

I reside on Pottawatomie creek, near Henry Sherman's, in Kansas Territory. I went there to reside on the last day of March, 1856, and have resided there ever since. On last Sunday morning, about two o'clock (the 25th of May last), whilst my wife and child and myself were in bed in the house where we lived, we were aroused by a company of men who said they belonged to the northern army, and who were each armed with a sabre and two revolvers, two of whom I recognized, namely, a Mr. Brown, whose given name I do not remember, commonly known by the appellation of "old man Brown," and his son Owen Brown. They came in the house and approached the bedside where we were lying, and ordered us, together with three other men who were in the same house with me, to surrender; that the northern army was upon us, and it would be no use for us to resist. The names of these other three men who were then in my house with me are, William Sherman, John S. Whiteman, the other man I did not know. They were stopping with me that night. They had bought a cow from Henry Sherman, and intended to go home the next morning. When they came up to the bed, some had drawn sabres in their hands, and some revolvers. They then took into their possession two rifles and a Bowie knife, which I had there in the room - there was but one room in my house - and afterwards ransacked the whole establishment in search of ammunition. They then took one of these three men, who were staying in my house, out. (This was the man whose name I did not know.) He came back. They then took me out, and asked me if there were any more men about the place. I told them there were not. They searched the place but found none others but we four. They asked me where Henry Sherman was. Henry Sherman was a brother to William Sherman. I told them that he was out on the plains in search of some cattle which he had lost. They asked if I had ever taken any hand in aiding pro-slavery men in coming to the Territory of Kansas, or had ever taken any hand in the last troubles at Lawrence, and asked me whether I had ever done the free State party any harm or ever intended to do that party any harm; they asked me what made me live at such a place. I then answered that I could get higher wages there than anywhere else. They asked me if there were any bridles or saddles about the premises. I told them there was one saddle, which they took, and they also took possession of Henry Sherman's horse, which I had at my place, and made me saddle him. They then said if I would answer no to all the questions which they had asked me, they would let me loose. Old Mr. Brown and his son then went into the house with me. The other three men, Mr. William Sherman, Mr. Whiteman, and the stranger were in the house all this time. After old man Brown and his son went into the house with me, old man Brown asked Mr. Sherman to go out with him, and Mr. Sherman then went out with old Mr. Brown, and another man came into the house in Brown's place. I heard nothing more for about fifteen minutes. Two of the northern army, as they styled themselves, stayed in with us until we heard a cap burst, and then these two men left. That morning about ten o'clock I found William Sherman dead in the creek near my house. I was looking for Mr. Sherman, as he had not come back, I thought he had been murdered. I took Mr. William Sherman out of the creek and examined him. Mr. Whiteman was with me. Sherman's skull was split open in two places and some of his brains was washed out by the water. A large hole was cut in his breast, and his left hand was cut off except a little piece of skin on one side. We buried him.

No other members of the company went with Henry Thompson and Weiner when Sherman was killed. He was taken into the bed of the stream and executed by Thompson and Weiner. The account of this matter written by Salmon Brown for the author of this work is here given.5

We started off with the cheers of quite a crowd with their hats in the air, they knowing the purport of our mission. On the way back old man Townsley got weak in the knees and wanted to quit from sheer fear, but we wouldn't let him go, fearing he might turn traitor and foil our plans.

We went down to near the crossing at Dutch Henry's and turned off [to] the right up a deep grassy canyon next to the timber on the creek, far away from all travel. We stayed there that night and all of the next day till late in the evening. The reason for taking the night for our work was that it was impossible to take the men in the daytime, and also using the broad swords in a noiseless manner, as shooting would have aroused the whole neighborhood. We went to Doyle's first and encountered a number of savage dogs. Old man Townsley went after the dogs with a broad sword and he and my brother Fred soon had them all laid out. Townsley went in without being asked to and worked with all his might, not as a prisoner as he has since claimed. The three Doyles were taken out of the house and half mile or so away, and were slain with the broad swords. Owen Brown cut down one of them and another son cut down the other and the old man Doyle. Old man Doyle's wife gave the Doyles a terrible scoring as they left the house. She said, "I told you you would get into trouble with all your devilment." Henry Sherman was killed by Henry Thompson, and also Wilkinson, about the same time that the Doyles were killed. Our party divided, Thompson and Weiner in one party, and Owen Brown, Fred Brown, Salmon Brown, Oliver Brown and old man Townsley in the other, father running back and forth between the parties. Father never raised his hand in slaying these men. We went to our camp and stayed all the next day until quite late in the evening. We left and Townsley was more than willing to go with us. The night of the slaying of these men I went alone to the house of Mr. Harris, who worked for Dutch Henry, and had the care of his fine grey stallion, and made him saddle the horse and hold the stirrup for me to mount, which he did in fine shape. I said "thank you and goodby" and I have never seen him since. I traded the horse to some parties from up North for two Missouri race horses that they had captured from some invading Missourians. Harris afterward made a report of this as it was before an investigating committee. We moved back towards our place near Middle Creek and camped.

One of the raging controversies of Kansas history has been over the. motives of John Brown in killing the five men at Dutch Henry's Crossing. No conclusion satisfactory to all historians has ever been arrived at. A historical character must be tried in the times in which he lived and by the conditions under which he operated.

4 J. N. Baker, of Greeley, Kansas, writing to William E. Connelley, June 5, 1909, says he knew all the settlers on the Pottawatomie in those days, and his integrity and veracity are beyond question. Concerning Harris, he says:

"I have no recollection of a man ever living there by the name of James Harris. So I think that if there ever was such a man lived there he must have been a border-ruffian stopping with the Shermans, as their House was Headquarter for the border ruffians in those days."

Harris might have been some tenant, living temporarily in Dutch Henry's house. His wife might have been housekeeper there, as Henry was unmarried.

5 The confession of Townsley was obtained on the 3rd of August, 1882, and is here set out:

"I joined the Pottawatomie Rifle Company at its re-organization, in May, 1856. At that time, John Brown, Jr., was elected Captain. On the 21st of this month, Lawrence was sacked by a Pro-Slavery mob, under Sheriff Jones, and on the day of the sacking, information was received that a movement to that end was in progress. The company was hastily called together, and a forced march to aid in its defence immediately determined upon. We started about four o'clock in the afternoon. About two miles south of Middle Creek, the Osawatomie company, under Captain Dayton, joined us. Upon arriving at Mount Vernon, we halted for two hours, until the rising of the moon. After marching the rest of the night, we went into camp, near the house of John T. Jones, for breakfast. Just before reaching this place, we learned that Lawrence had been destroyed the day before, and the question arose whether we should go on or return. It was decided to go on, and we proceeded up Ottawa Creek to within about five miles of Palmyra. We remained in camp undecided over night, and until noon of the next day. About this time, Owen Brown. and a little later, old John Brown himself, came to me and said information had just been received that trouble was expected on the Pottawatomie. The old man asked me if I would go with my team and take him and his boys down there, so that they could watch what was going on. I replied that I would do so, my reason being that my family was then living on the Pottawatomie, in Anderson County, about one mile west of Greeley. Making ready for the trip as quickly as possible, we started about two o'clock in the afternoon. The party consisted of old John Brown, and four of his sons - Frederick, Oliver, Owen and Watson - Henry Thompson, his son-in-law, Mr. Winer and myself. Winer rode a pony; all the rest rode in the wagon with me. We camped that night between two deep ravines about one mile above Dutch Henry's crossing.

"After supper. John Brown first revealed to me the purpose of the expedition. He said it was to sweep the Pottawatomie of all Pro-Slavery men living on it. To this end he desired me to guide the company some five or six miles up to the forks of the creek, into the neighborhood where I lived, and point out to him on the way up, the residences of all the Pro-Slavery men, so that on the way down, he might carry out his design. Horrified at his purpose, I positively refused to comply with his request, saying that I could not take men out of their beds and kill them in that way. Brown said, 'Why won't you fight your enemies.' To which I replied, 'I have no enemies I can kill in that way.' Failing to prevail upon me, he decided to postpone the expedition until the following night, when they would go, as the old man himself said, where they knew Pro-Slavery men to be. I then proposed to him that he take his things out of my wagon and allow me to go home; to which he replied that, 'I could not go, that I must stay with them; there was no other way of getting along.' We remained in camp that night and all the next day. During the morning of this day, the 24th, I tried to dissuade him and his boys from carrying out the expedition, and to this end talked a great deal. Brown said it was necessary to 'strike terror into the hearts of the Pro-Slavery party,' and taking out his revolver, said to me, 'Shut up! You are trying to discourage my boys. Dead men tell no tales.' From the last remark, I inferred that I must henceforth keep still or suffer the consequences. Shortly afterward I stepped down into the ravine, when Owen Brown and Henry Thompson each picked up his rifle and, without saying a word, walked down the banks of the ravine on either side of me. When I returned, they returned. But little more was said during the day.

"Some time after dark we were ordered to march, and went northward, crossing Mosquito Creek above the residence of the Doyles. Soon after crossing the creek, one of the party knocked at the door of a cabin, but received no reply. I do not know whose cabin it was. We next came to the residence of the Doyles. John Brown, three of his sons and son-in-law, went to the door, leaving Frederick Brown, Winer and myself a short distance away, ostensibly to see that no one escaped from the house, but really, as I believe, that Brown and Winer might act as guard over me. About this time a large dog attacked us. Frederick Brown struck the dog with his short two-edged sword, after which I struck him, also with my saber. I do not know whether or not the dog was killed, but we heard no more of him.

"The old man Doyle and his sons were ordered to come out. This order they did not immediately obey, the old man being heard instead to call for his gun. At this moment Henry Thompson threw into the house some rolls or balls of hay in which during the day wet gunpowder had been mixed, setting fire to them as he threw them in. This stratagem had the desired effect. The old man and his sons came out, and were marched about one-quarter of a mile in the road toward Dutch Henry's Crossing, where a halt was made. Here old John Brown drew his revolver and shot old man Doyle in the forehead, killing him instantly; and Brown's two youngest sons immediately fell upon the Younger Doyles with their short two-edged swords. One of the young Doyles was quickly dispatched; the other, attempting to escape, was pursued a short distance and cut down also. We then went down Mosquito Creek, to the house of Allen Wilkinson. Here, as at the Doyle residence, old John Brown, three sons, and son-in-law, went to the door and ordered Wilkinson out, leaving Frederick Brown, Winer and myself in the road a little distance east of the house. Wilkinson was marched a short distance south and killed by one of the young Browns with his short sword, after which his body was dragged to one side and left lying by the side of the road.

"We then crossed the Pottawatomie and went to Dutch Henry's house. Here, as at the other two houses, Frederick Brown, Winer and myself were left outside a short distance from the door, while old man Brown, three sons and son-in-law went into the house and brought out one or two persons with them. After talking with them some time they took them back into the house, and brought out William Sherman, Dutch Henry's brother, and marched him down into Pottawatomie creek, where John Brown's two youngest sons slew him with their short swords, as in the former instances, and left his body lying in the creek.

"It was Brown's intention to kill Dutch Henry, also, had he been found at home, as well as George Wilson, Probate Judge of Anderson County, had he been found at Dutch Henry's house, as it was hoped he would be.

"The killing was done with swords in order to avoid alarming the neighborhood by the discharge of fire-arms. What mutilation appeared upon the bodies was consequent upon the manner in which the men were killed.

"I did not then approve of the killing of those men, but Brown said it must be done for the protection of the Free-state settlers; that it was better that a score of bad men should die than that one Free-state man should be driven out. It was my refusal to pilot the party into the neighborhood where I lived that caused us to remain in camp all night, May 23, and all day May 24. I told him I was willing to go to Lecompton and attack the leaders, or to fight the enemy anywhere in open field, but that I could not kill the men in that way. The deeds of that night are indelibly stamped upon my memory.

"In after years my opinion changed as to the wisdom of the massacre. I became, and am, satisfied that it resulted in good to the Free-state cause, and was especially beneficial to the Free-state settlers on Pottowatomie Creek. The Pro-Slavery men were dreadfully terrified, and large numbers of them soon left the Territory. It was afterward said that one Free-state man could scare a company of them.

"Immediately after the killing of William Sherman, the two sons of Brown who had done all the killing, except the shooting of the old man Doyle, washed their swords in Pottawatomie Creek. I did not wash my sword, having done nothing with it but strike the dog.

"Soon after midnight we went back to where my team and the other things had been left, and remained there in camp until the next afternoon. Just before daylight Owen Brown came to me and said 'There shall be no more such work as that.'

"In the afternoon we started back to join the Pottawatomie company under John Brown, Jr. We reached them about midnight, in camp near Ottawa Jones' place. When daylight had come, some members of the company noticing the blood and hair upon my sword, picked it up, and after examining it, remarked, 'There is no human blood upon that saber!' This was the end of the expedition."

Townsley was questioned about this matter by W. H. Sears of Lawrence, Kansas, in the latter part of August, 1888. Mr. Sears has kindly furnished the author of this work the notes made by him at that interview.


"Hon. William Elsey Connelley,
"Topeka, Kansas.

"My Dear Mr. Connelley: -

"In compliance with my promise I send you herein a verbatim copy of my original pencil notes taken at the interview I had with James Townsley, at Lane, Kansas, during the week of the old settlers meeting held in a grove across the river from Lane, the latter part of August, about the year 1888. James Chalfant, Jr., of Lawrence, Kansas, was present at this interview, and heard Townsley tell the story of the killing of the settlers on the Pottawatomie, May 24th, 1856. The notes are as follows: -

"'James Townsley, born in Md. was 72 years old the 29th of August. Enlisted in the U. S. Army under Scott in the Seminole War in Ala., and then Florida. Drove team - Came to Kansas in 1855. Saw John Brown near Lane in the spring of 1856. Joined Brown's Company. Started on May 22nd for Lawrence to help Free State men; but messenger met us and sent us back. Brown wanted Townsley to show him where all the pro-slavery men lived. He refused but Brown compelled him to go. Camped on Pottowattomie Creek on May 23rd, 1856, and Townsley tried to persuade Brown not to make the raid. Brown said he intended to sweep the creek of every pro-slavery man. Townsley then went to the Brown boys and tried to influence them. Brown pulled a pistol on him and told him he was trying to discourage his boys, and told him to stop. The first cabin they visited there was a man inside loading a rifle and they left him, Brown saying, "Don't care much about him any way." Took Doyle and his two sons half mile from their home. Brown turned and shot old man Doyle, and Brown's sons cut the Doyle boys down with sabers. Wilkerson, Postmaster under Buchanan. Brown called him out, and after taking him half a mile, the two youngest Brown Boys, Oliver and Watson, cut Wilkerson down with sabers. Next called at Sherman brothers at Dutch Henry's Crossing. House full of people. Took Bill Sherman and killed him at the ford. Brown boys did all the killing except old Doyle and John Brown killed him. It was a bright moonlight night. Townsley feigned illness when called upon to guide this expedition; but Brown felt of his pulse and said: "You are not sick, all you need is a smell of blood." This happened on the night of May 24th, 1856. After the raid they went back to their camp on Ottawa Creek. Townsley served three years in 4th Artillery, at Ft. McHenry. Served five years in 2nd dragoons and was wounded in shoulder in Indian fight in the Seminole War.'

"I well remember that Townsley said that Brown pointed a pistol at his head and compeled him to take his team and wagon and take them on this raid. Also, that Townsley saw Old John Brown shoot old man Doyle through the forehead.

"Chalfant married a Lecompton, Kansas, girl, and moved to Galveston. His father was at this time editor of the Lawrence Tribune, and his son James was a reporter on the paper. We went to the old settlers meeting referred to, together, driving overland in a buggy, and while at the meeting we were entertained by 'Stonewall' Clark and slept together. Senator Plumb attended this meeting, and visited Chalfant and the writer, in our reporter's tent.

"I enclose you my original notes that you may see the few changes I have made do not materially change the sense of facts stated.

"Very sincerely yours,

"(Signed) W. H. SEARS."

The following letter of F. B. Sanborn to the author will be of interest. That Governor Robinson also favored the assassination of leading Pro-Slavery men in 1856 was charged. See Villard's John Brown, p. 184.

CONCORD, MASS., SEPT. 17, 1916.

Dear Mr. Connelley:

Eli Thayer was a violent, impulsive person, whose zeal went far beyond his prudence, in his first labors for Free Kansas, and who was so upset by the election of Buchanan in 1856 that he proposed, in my hearing, at the old Emigrant Aid Rooms in Winter Street, Boston, at a meeting in November, to send on orders to Kansas to have Atchison and Stringfellow assassinated, as a preliminary to what we were to do next in the Territory. Robinson at that time was equally sanguinary, and had no fault to find with John Brown for any of his acts of violence. He, Thayer. continued in this state of mind for a year or two, and promoted Brown's wishes in respect to arms and supplies for Kansas. He had been chosen to Congress in 1856, and was reelected in 1858. But he had by that time formed his chimerical plans for a free colony in western Virginia, to be called "Ceredo," and was introducing ideas of pecuniary profit along with his free-state principles. Robinson had even earlier begun to practice on that plan, and was trading this way and that, as you know. Thayer probably had lost money by his Kansas ventures, and politically cooled so much that the Republicans in 1860 would not renominate him for Congress. but chose a man from the Fitchburg end of the Worcester district, - the same which G. F. Hoar afterward represented, before he became ,Senator. When the war came on, Thayer got himself appointed by Secretary Chase one of his many treasury agents in 1861-2; and planned schemes for colonizing freedmen in Florida, Utah and in S. America: but these were absurd, and came to nothing. From 1864 to 1870, Thayer was land-agent for a railroad in Missouri, with an office in New York; but, like Robinson in Kansas, with whom, I think, he generally agreed, he disliked and distrusted Lincoln, but I think he favored his reelection. Like Robinson, he claimed to have been one of the chief agents in emancipation, but he took no active interest in Kansas after 1858. His son has always been a Democrat, and has represented the Worcester District, as his father did; but as a regular Democrat.

Does this answer your question? I knew Thayer well in 1856-59, but seldom after that. Few persons had much confidence in his judgment.

Yours truly,

1918 Kansas and Kansans Previous Section Next Section

A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans , written and compiled by William E. Connelley, transcribed by Carolyn Ward, 1998.

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