TIME MACHINE: John Brown’s Christmas Raid Into Missouri

TIME MACHINE: JOHN BROWN’S CHRISTMAS RAID INTO MISSOURI

When people think of 19th century abolitionist John Brown, they would usually bring up his activities against pro-slavery factions in the Kansas Territory in the mid 1850s, especially the lethal attack he had led against five pro-slavery settlers near Pottawatomie Creek in May 1856. Or they would especially bring up the famous raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (West Virginia), with the intent to start a slave liberation movement. However, toward the end of the 1850s, Brown became known for another raid that led him from Missouri to the Canadian border. 

On December 19, 1858; a biracial Missouri slave named Jim Daniels had encountered one George Gill, a free black man who happened to be one of Brown’s lieutenants near the Missouri-Kansas border. Daniels complained to Gill that his owner Harvey Hicklan planned to sell his wife and children, along with another slave. This sale threatened to break up his family. Gill informed Brown, who saw Daniels’ situation as an opportunity for a raid to liberate slaves and strike a blow for abolitionism. Earlier, he had conveyed his plans for an anti-slavery raid into the South, via the Appalachian Mountains to his Northern-born abolitionist supporters. But they had dismissed the idea as unrealistic and advised Brown to return to Kansas and lie low. However, Brown saw Daniels’ plea to help prevent his family from being sold as an opportunity. He believed this raid and the 1,100 mile exodus to Canada would provide a good deal of press attention for his cause.

Brown’s previous activities, especially the Pottawatomie Creek killings had made him persona non grata with many Americans – including a good number of abolitionists – by late 1858. Many Southerners wanted him captured or dead. His return to Missouri soil had infuriated many citizens of that state. By December 20, Brown had managed to gather twenty (20) riders to lead this latest raid into Western Missouri. He split his followers into three groups in order to free neighboring blacks on the same trip. Brown’s group held up Harvey Hicklan at gunpoint, extracted Jim Daniels and the latter’s family and took some of Hicklan’s possessions to support the freed slaves. Brown sent a second group to John Larue’s nearby farm t liberate four slaves and kidnap Larue as a hostage. A third group, led by Aaron Stevens (another Brown lieutenant), surprised David Cruise at his farmhouse and liberated a female slave. Believing that Cruise was reaching for a weapon, Stevens shot him dead.

Cruise’s death transformed the raid from a rescue into an act that infuriated Kansans, Missourians and Southerners. The act, the slave escapes and Larue’s kidnapping led to a great deal of negative press by the newspapers in those regions. Missouri’s governor, Robert Marcellus Stewart, offered a reward of $3,000 for Brown’s capture. Because of the publicity, Brown’s efforts to lead the fugitive slaves and his men through Kansas and up north became increasingly difficult. Brown and his men were forced to keep the fugitives hidden inside the homes of anti-slavery supporters in the area near Osawatomie, Kansas for a month. One of the fugitives, a woman who happened to be pregnant around the time of her rescue, gave birth to a baby boy, who was named after Brown. However, the abolitionist, his men and the fugitives realized that none of them were safe, especially after nearly being spotted by pro-slavers on two separate occasions. On January 20, 1859; Brown, his men and fugitives resumed their journey north by heading for the Kansas-Nebraska Territory border.

Despite the negative press that covered Brown’s journey; Brown, his men and the fugitives continued to receive aid from local anti-slavery supporters. On the night of January 24, 1859; Brown, Gill, eleven fugitives and the newborn baby had arrived at the farm of Major James Abbott near Lawrence, Kansas. Abbott provided them with food, clothing and fresh horses before they resumed their journey. Brown and his companions were nearly captured, following their arrival in Topeka, during a severe snowstorm. They were forced to spend the night at a nearby village called Holton. The following day, the party – including the remaining raiders – reached Spring Creek. Unfortunately, the water was too high for crossing by wagon or horseback. Brown was nearly in a state of panic, for he had learned both a local posse and one sent by Missouri’s governor were waiting for them. Brown and his party managed to slip away to Fuller’s Crossing . . . where a large posse of around one hundred men awaited them.

Brown remained calm and led his party across the raging creek. Following the crossing, the raiders and the fugitive slaves became engaged in a gun battle with eighty members of the posse. In a bold move, Brown and his party charged the posse members and drove the latter out of the area. The posse members were so intent upon retreating that two men rode some of their horses, digging their boot spurs into the animals. Ironically, there were no fatalities during the incident. Not only was it reported by the press, but also dubbed in newspapers as “the Battle of the Spurs”.

After traveling through the eastern half of the Nebraska Territory, Brown and his party reached the free state of Iowa. Brown had used the state as a hideout during his anti-slavery activities in 1855 and 1856. Although they were allowed shelter in some of the Iowans’ homes, they were not allowed to remain longer than one night, due to David Cruise’s death. However, Brown and his party received friendlier receptions in communities like Des Moines, Grinnell and Springdale. Brown and fellow raider John Henry Kagi were nearly captured when they made an overnight visit to Iowa City. On March 9, Springdale’s citizens accompanied Brown’s party to West Liberty, where the latter boarded a railroad box car to Chicago, Illinois. They arrived in the latter city on March 11, at 3:30 a.m.

The party remained at the home of private detective and future Secret Service leader and Presidential bodyguard,Allan Pinkerton. The detective hid them at his home and at two other houses for several days, as he tried to raise funds for the raiders. Ironically, Pinkerton managed to raise a good deal of cash from fellow members of the Chicago Judiciary Convention, when he blurted out John Brown’s presence in the city.

After raising $600 dollars, Pinkerton and his son conveyed Brown, the fugitives and the raiders to the Chicago railroad station. They boarded a boxcar for Detroit, Michigan. Upon their arrival in Detroit, the fugitive slaves and most of the raiders boarded a ferry that conveyed them across the Detroit River into Canada and freedom. Only Brown remained in the United States. After bidding them farewell, he headed for Oberlin, Ohio in order to visit the imprisoned rescuers involved in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue.

The Christmas 1858 Raid of 1858 led to a 1,100 mile journey from Missouri, through Kansas Territory, Nebraska Territory, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and finally Canada. The raid provided a great deal of national press coverage for John Brown. President James Buchanan offered a reward of $250 for Brown’s capture. Missouri Governor Robert Marcellus Stewart continued to offer a reward of $3,000. The raid convinced Brown’s Northern abolition supporters that his plan for a raid into the South via the Appalachian Mountains in order to lead the slaves into a major rebellion might work. Seven months later, John Brown led his famous raid to Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

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