An Underground Railroad Ambush In Jefferson County, Part VI, The Holton Difficulty

Jesse Newell’s strange denial letter ran in Lecompton’s proslavery newspaper, the Kansas National Democrat, on March 24, 1859. The settler and 10 other men had just been outed as partners in John Doy’s plan to move freedom-seekers[1] through a short stretch of Kansas Territory via the Underground Railroad.

Maj. Martin Anderson, photo from ancestry.com, Report of the Adjutant General, Kansas, National Archives
This Civil War image is of Martin Anderson, a major in the Kansas 11th Cavalry Regiment, who survived the 1859 Holton difficulty, political party violence. The image is from the adjutant general , Kansas, National Archives courtesy of Steve Cortright. The image is ancestry.com, Historical Data Systems

Newell, the co-founder of Oskaloosa, had written his letter in response to the articles revealing his name in Kansas and Missouri newspapers. Exposure like that would be poison to the secret operations of the Underground, which thwarted the Fugitive Slave Law’s command against helping enslaved people escape. And while participants were considered heroes in some quarters, they were thieves and lawbreakers in others.

Had Newell, a radical freestater in Jefferson County,[2]  been threatened or endangered by people who objected to the Underground Railroad’s interference with slavery?[3] Is that why he or someone writing for him would publish a letter denying involvement? I can’t say.

In the next county over, Jackson County, another man whose name was revealed alongside Newell’s was beaten severely at a political party meeting at Holton on March 12. The articles naming 11 men who had agreed to help in the Underground Railroad were published as early as Feb 19, so Martin Anderson’s proslavery neighbors could have learned of his Underground Railroad involvement.  Already, Anderson was helping to build the Republican party in Jackson County, making him an opponent to  Democrats who were slavery supporters. Anderson was beaten unconscious and several Democrats were hurt at the meeting, described in the press as an affray, a riot, a row, a melee, a difficulty. Was Martin attacked because of his Underground Railroad ties?

Anderson’s name, like Newell’s, had been published in  newspapers from notes that John Doy apparently wrote outlining his planned Underground route through Jefferson and Jackson[4] counties and naming the men set to help.

“March 12, 1859, Mr. Anderson was instrumental in forming the first Republican organization in this Territory,”[5] an 1897 obituary said. ”He called a meeting for that object which was held in the school house in Holton, only twelve men participating.

“After the organization was completed and the meeting adjournment the little party was assaulted by a mob of drunken proslavery ruffians. Major Anderson was struck in the back of the head with an oak stick three feet long (the heart of a clap-board bolt) in the hands of a burly ruffian; he fell to the ground and the ruffian deliberately emptied his revolver at the prostrate form, but without further injury.”

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The Emporia Weekly News, April 2, 1859. Image from Newspapers.com.

 

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The Asheville News, Asheville, North Carolina, April 21, 1859. Image from Newspapers.com.

 

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The Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Illinois, March 26, 1859. Image from Newspapers.com

As was nearly always the case, a deep chasm sat between one side’s “facts” and the other’s, at least in the newspaper accounts I read.

Proslavery-leaning newspapers told of four Democrats who were first assaulted by Republicans. Angered by the loss of conservative men to the Democrats, the Republicans attacked these Democrats at the meeting and then went to a nearby abolitionist’s house where anywhere from 50 to 70 Sharps rifles[6] were stored, arming themselves.

top comment The_Topeka_Tribune_Thu__Mar_31__1859_ (1)

Clipping image from The Topeka Tribune, Thursday, March 31, 1859, page 3. The image is from the online newspaper website, newspapers.com. This freestate newspaper’s editor could not resist an outrageous comment on an outrageous allegation

Later, these Republicans drove the four men from their Kansas Territory homes and back to Platte County, Missouri. Those accounts don’t mention Anderson, who was a probate judge at the time, or anyone injured by Democrat ruffians. The Republican accounts do mention the four men injured and driven back to Missouri, but portray the violence as defense.

Considering the unease in Kansas Territory, March 1859, Anderson’s attack merited a double-take. I had not read of the Holton “difficulty” before in my narrow (Jefferson County) research over the past five years. The story, although nothing I read connected Anderson’s injuries to an Underground Railroad, got a lot of ink, as violent tales from Kansas Territory usually did. My quick look at online newspapers  found Holton coverage in Kansas and Missouri, and Ohio, Kentucky, Washington D.C., Illinois, Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Iowa.

Important elections were on the horizon, although it was by then understood that proslavery rule was kaput. Kansas Territory was on its way to joining the Union as a free state, one that outlawed slavery. Defeated, Democrats (and perhaps some freestate conservatives) were working up their next big campaign: keeping all people of African descent out of Kansas.

Yes, times were caustic. The Fugitive Slave Law had just been validated by the U.S. Supreme Court against attempts to nullify it, meaning it was still against the law to help enslaved people escape bondage by any means. That meant offering food, providing secret harbor, acting as a rifle-toting escort for a covered wagon full of fugitive slaves and even refusing to inform a marshal of a fugitive slave’s whereabouts, if one held that information.

Also at the time of Newell’s letter and Martin Anderson’s injury, Kansas Territory and Missouri  slavery supporters were furious over the latest Underground Railroad activity. Of particular aggravation was the violent abolitionist, John Brown, who had just winged it out of Kansas Territory (via a Holton area stop) with 11 fugitives, and John Doy, who had attempted to do so, both events near the end of January 1859.

Yes, the stories were vigorously at odds over whether Democrats or radical Republicans started the fight and assaulted their opponents. Some newspapers even ran both versions of the story, noting the chasm between one side’s “facts” and the other’s.

But some of the proslavery newspapers widened the context of the Holton sensation by dropping John Brown, John Doy and other freestate leaders, fighters and Jayhawkers into their stories. John Brown, while long gone from Kansas, was controlling these Kansas Territory happenings from afar, they charged.

Supremely evident regarding the charges of who started what at Holton on March 12, however, was the  star plank in the Dem’s new agenda: making Kansas a free white state, blocking all people of African descent from living in Kansas.

Local Democrats, in campaigning for more party members, maintained that the radicals, or “Black Republicans” — people who wanted to abolish slavery and advocated “negro equality,” among other then-radical ideas– were extremist troublemakers. They were destroying the peace of Kansas Territory and they were unpopular among conservative freestaters. These Democrats hoped to attract those freestaters to build up sentiment (and votes) to keep people of African descent out of Kansas.

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The Kansas National Democrat, Lecompton, Kansas Territory, March 31, 1859. Image from newspapers.com
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The Cleveland Daily Leader, Cleveland, Ohio, March 18, 1859.Image from newspapers.com. The last sentence should be Judge Anderson in Jackson County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Free State men rallied at once, secured their [Sharps] rifles and drove the ruffians from the town and across the river into Missouri.” Martin Anderson’s obituary said nearly 40 years after the Holton trouble. “One of the ruffians was shot through the mouth as he mounted his horse to leave and another lost his good right arm as the result of another shot from a [Sharps] rifle.”

Martin Anderson was unconscious for three days, his obituary said, and he didn’t recover completely for six months. An ardent freestate supporter, Anderson had settled in Grasshopper Falls, Jefferson County, in 1857 but moved to Jackson County in 1858. A probate judge and later Kansas state treasurer, Anderson was a major in the 11th Regiment, Kansas Volunteer Cavalry in the Civil War.

[1] John Doy’s Underground Railroad “train,” two horse-drawn wagons, was ambushed in Jefferson County about eight miles south of Jesse Newell’s home at Oskaloosa, Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, Jan. 25, 1859. According to notes Doy appears to have carried with him the night he was abducted, Newell’s place was to be the first stop for aid on that treacherous  trip. The notes named 10 other people between Oskaloosa and just past Holton, in neighboring Jackson County, travel stop by travel stop, who were lined up to help once Doy got to Oskaloosa. It was at Oskaloosa that Doy would get his escort  guard to protect the train. He had had to travel from Lawrence without protection. But he and the African-Americans he carried with him never made it to Oskaloosa. [Oskaloosa guard information is from Doy’s book, The narrative of John Doy, of Lawrence, Kansas, “A Plain Unvarnished Truth.”] Slave owners and slave-hunters captured Doy’s party about 8 miles south of Oskaloosa and 12 miles north of Lawrence , taking all to Missouri. In March when “The Holton Difficulty” occurred, Doy was still in jail in Missouri accused of inducing a slave to leave Missouri with him.  As early as February, a few area newspapers (most of them proslavery) had published the names of the men who were to participate with Doy in the Underground Railroad, an illegal act under the Fugitive Slave Law. Such exposure could be dangerous, of course, and Jesse Newell’s name had appeared in a letter in which he appeared to deny planning to help fugitive slaves. Newell’s letter was published March 24, although it was dated earlier, March 2, 1859.

[2] Day, Judge John W., “Selected Sketch, Scrap of Kansas History,” The Oskaloosa Independent, April  2, 1881, p1, referred to Jesse Newell as a radical freestater..

[3] Jesse Newell’s letter is in Part V of this “Underground Railroad Ambush” series.  John Doy’s written notes transcribed into a newspaper article include  the names of men he had enlisted to help him move 13 freedom-seekers from Lawrence to Holton. That article is in Part IV. After studying Newell’s letter and a collection of linked information, I believe Newell was involved in the Underground Railroad, at least he would have been had Doy not been ambushed in this instance. Newell’s letter contains a touch of snark, and the last portion is written to include language from the Fugitive Slaw Law itself.  One possibility for the careful letter is that Newell contended he had signed up to help free persons of color escape the area, not slaves. Doy had indicated that all of the 13 were free persons, although that was not the case.

[4] Calhoun County’s name was changed to Jackson County by the Kansas Legislature in February 1859.  Some newspapers hadn’t yet made the change to “Jackson” in their news columns. Golden Silvers, another man on John Doy’s Underground Railroad roster, had been the legislator proposing the change.

[5] The Topeka Daily Capital, “Martin Anderson. Death of One Who Helped Make Kansas History”, 10 July, 1897. See the full obituary at the bottom of this post.

[6] The freestaters’ weapon of choice, the Sharps rifle, was legend in Kansas Territory. It was an innovative breech-loading weapon, more accurate and rapid-firing than other arms of the day. The “Mr. Ray” mentioned was Abraham Ray, another freestate proponent who named a son James Lane Ray for the fiery Kansas militant, politician and Jayhawker, U.S. Sen. Jim Lane.Martin Anderson obituary, The_Topeka_Daily_Capital_Sat__Jul_10__1897_

 

An Underground Railroad Ambush In Jefferson County, Part V, Agitators and Fanatics

Sometimes a 158-year old story mined for new depths glides along yielding astonishing new chapters and minute but key details.  All is grand.  But then the story takes an abrupt turn, balks at the jump, hits a snag. Or, as I’ve just survived, the story suddenly clamps a bone-chilling denial onto the exhilarating historic tale that our deep and careful research has resurrected.

Glaring out from page 2 of the March 24, 1859,  Kansas National Democrat, a Lecompton proslavery newspaper, was a letter from our Oskaloosa radical freestater, Jesse Newell. Newell,  was denying  that he had agreed to assist Dr. John Doy with an Underground Railroad expedition from Lawrence to Holton two months earlier.

Of course, Newell had not participated in Doy’s attempt Jan. 25, 1859, to help 13 freedom-seekers move covertly through Kansas to Iowa and farther north to safety. That’s because Doy’s “train” was ambushed by slave-holders and slave-catchers about 8 miles short of Newell’s home, Doy’s intended first stop, and the entire Doy party taken across the river to Missouri.[1]

Dr. Doy had been in jail in Missouri ever since his January catastrophe, awaiting trial for enticing a slave out of Missouri.

What was Jesse Newell doing

Jesse Newell letter Kansas_National_Democrat_Thu__Mar_24__1859_
This letter appeared on page 2 of the March 24, 1859, Kansas National Democrat. The image is from the website newspapers.com.

in a proslavery newspaper talking about something that was supposed to be watertight-secret among radicals like him? All of the people linked along the Underground Railroad  routes offering shelter, food, transport or escort guard were breaking the law. The nation’s Fugitive Slave Law was still in effect, and it barred anyone from helping enslaved people break free.

Why would Newell even raise the subject with a denial, albeit with perhaps some crafty wording and little snark?

“I never assisted a fugitive slave to run away from his master, and do not know that I have ever seen one,” the letter under Jesse Newell’s name said.  “And I never made any arrangement with Dr. Doy, or any other man, to harbor, conceal, convey or conduct fugitives from slavery.”

Wow. Was all that other material false about Jesse Newell and his aim to help enslaved people free themselves from slavery? This was not a happy development for my research.

Once my heart rate decelerated, I looked at Newell’s letter again and registered that the letter was in response to something.

That something was John Doy’s “memorandum book,” or journal/notes on paper that outlined his route from Lawrence to Oskaloosa and Grasshopper Falls (now Valley Falls) in Jefferson County and on to Holton (See Part IV of the Underground Railroad Ambush series in this blog to read what was held to have been written in Doy’s notes.).

These notes named all the people Doy had appeared to have lined up to help him between Lawrence and Holton. The notes had revealed them as people who were going to break the law to do their part to grind out human bondage.

Doy’s captors reported they had found the route notes in Doy’s pocket when he was seized and taken prisoner in January. And now, besides Missouri prosecutors holding Doy’s notes for use against him in court, the contents of the notes had already been published in some area  newspapers.

The publication of Doy’s damning notes appears to have occurred months earlier than I had known. Their revelation during the tense period when a Kansas Territory man was held in a Missouri jail could only have made things worse for Jesse Newell, a noisy radical freestater who had made it through the 1856 Bleeding Kansas days.

Newell’s letter in Lecompton’s Democrat referred to Doy’s journal/notes having been published in the (Feb. 19, 1859) Kansas Weekly Herald,[2] a proslavery newspaper in Leavenworth. He quotes a part of the published article of Doy’s notes..

“…’Arrived at Oskaloosa that night; opened my subject to Mr. Newell, who laid out the town – he accepts.’ This is a very vague sentence. ‘He accepts.’ – Accepts what?  It is not stated; but from what follows, it is to be presumed that he accepts the appointment of conductor on an underground Railroad,” Newell’s letter said.

Right. So Newell’s letter does reveal a whisper of the author’s sentiments about what happened to Dr. Doy and company upon their southern Jefferson County ambush and subsequent forced March into Missouri: He chose the word “kidnapped.”

I should declare at this point that I reject Newell’s denial.  I believe he told an untruth as an act of self-preservation. Or maybe someone else, a protector, wrote the letter on his behalf, whether he wanted the denial or not. Maybe he believed that Doy’s 13 African-American passengers  were free, and not fugitive slaves. Compared to another communique Newell wrote in 1856, this one sounds nothing like him. It has a semicolon in it, for Heaven’s sake.

Significantly, Newell’s letter in the Democrat, published in Douglas County, Jefferson County’s southern neighbor, was hemmed in by column after column of proslavery braying, crowing and dog-whistling. By 1859, Kansas Territory was drawing closer to becoming a state and it was evident it would enter the Union as a free state, outlawing slavery within its boundaries.

Crouched directly atop Newell’s letter in the Democrat is an article about a meeting of Jesse Newell’s Oskaloosa and Jefferson County neighbors, and they were organizing the Jefferson County Democrats.

JeffCo Dems Kansas_National_Democrat_Thu__Mar_24__1859_
This article appeared atop Jesse Newell’s letter on page 2 of the “Kansas National Democrat” on March 24, 1859. This image is from the website newspapers.com.

With palpable exasperation, Newell’s Democrat neighbors acknowledged that Kansas Territory was going to be admitted to the Union as a free state. But the Jefferson County Democrats were tired of the “intolerant spirit of fanatical sectionalism as evinced by a certain portion of the citizens of this Territory…”

They were “…opposed to all and every attempt made by agitators, to disturb the peace and quiet  of our own Territory and the peaceful relations between us and the citizens of our neighboring States.”[3]

Oh, and if the state of Kansas was going to prohibit slavery, the Jefferson County Democrats resolved unanimously:

“That we are opposed to free negroes being permitted habitations in this Territory, either as our equals in increasing political rights, or in any way whatsoever.”

And there it was, the vitriol that would slide into the next part of the Kansas question, debate before and even on the floor of the constitution-writing convention in 1859 over whether people of African descent, negroes, should be allowed to live in the free state of Kansas. And if they were to live in Kansas, should their children be educated alongside white Kansas children?

By the time Jesse Newell’s letter appeared in the Democrat on March 24, Dr. Doy was being tried for abducting a slave or slaves from Missouri.[4]  Grasped by his prosecutors and trickling onto the pages of a few proslavery newspapers were the incriminating words from Dr. Doy’s memo book: the names of those 11 or 12 men in Jefferson and Jackson counties whom he had lined up to help him with his Underground Railroad train.

Page 2 of the March 24, 1859, Kansas National Democrat, where Jesse Newell’s letter appeared in response to his name being publicly linked to the Underground Railroad, displayed flashpoint issues that had burned through the Kansas Territory freedom fight.  Here was a celebratory article about the newly upheld Fugitive Slave Law. There was an article calling for Democrats to unite — maybe with some not-radical Republicans — to clench the power at the constitutional convention that would bring Kansas to statehood. Here were Jefferson County Democrats saying what they really thought about their neighbors, the intolerant fanatics and agitators (Translation: Slavery opponents who thought black men should live free in Kansas and enjoy the same rights of white people.).

Jesse Newell had stood opposite of these people since his arrival in Kansas Territory in 1856 and had not been a friend to the proslavers in northeast Kansas. He had faced difficulties and threat of death for his freestate actions.

His oldest son, Valentine F. Newell, devoted much of his own biographical spot in the Jefferson County section of William G. Cutler’s History of the State of Kansas book to his father. In such publications, people were allowed to write about themselves and what they had done in Kansas. V.F. Newell wrote of Jesse Newell:

“He was a strong Free-state man, and was fearless in denouncing the advocates of slavery, who took every possible opportunity of persecuting him. He was a powerful man, physically, and did not hesitate to exercise his strength where language failed to have the desired effect. Few men were more popular among the Free-soilers. Himself and son were at Hickory Point battle, and at other skirmishes of less importance. The first Free-state election in that part was held in a cabin on his farm, five of six votes being cast.”

My next few posts will look at some of those issues carried in the March 24, 1859, Kansas National Democrat.

[1] The distance from the Kansas Territory ambush site to Weston, Missouri, where Doy and the other captives were taken, is about 30 miles, but only as the crow flies. See Part IV of the Doy ambush series to learn how Doy had attempted to help 13 brave freedom-seekers, some of them enslaved people and some who said they possessed  free papers, move north through Kansas from Lawrence to Holton, where new conductors would go on to Iowa and (probably) on to Canada. The party was ambushed by Missouri and Kansas slave-holders and slavery supporters, including the ruthless slave kidnapper, Jake Hurd, and taken into Missouri, where Doy and his son, Charles, were jailed. Doy had mapped out his planned route to Holton and carried with him the names of men who had agreed to help (Jesse Newell’s home was to be the first stop) maneuver through two counties to Holton.  The names of the men were found by Doy’s captors, used against him at trial, and publicized in newspapers, exposing the Underground Railroad participants’ plans.

[2] The article is on page 2 of the Herald and may be seen on microfilm reel L835 in the research library of the Kansas State Historical Society. The Herald and Newell’s letter refer to the Herald’s copy coming from the Argus, which I haven’t yet verified as the Western Argus in Wyandotte City, Kansas, or the Weston or Platte Argus in Missouri.   The Feb. 19, 1859 Herald also refers to the notes being published in the Times, possibly the Leavenworth Times in Kansas.

[3] Missouri was the only state bordering Kansas at the time. Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado did not yet have that status. This dog-whistle reference must be to Kansas Jayhawkers or Underground Railroad forays into Missouri, or both.

[4] Dr. Doy was tried in St. Joseph for enticing a slave away from Missouri, but the trial ended March 27 when jurors could not agree on a verdict. All but one juror had found the evidence lacking against Doy, who was granted $1,000 for his defense by the Kansas territorial legislature. Charles Doy, Doy’s son who had been with him on the Underground Railroad mission, was released. The elder Doy was tried again and convicted, his penitentiary sentence set at 5 years. He did not serve that sentence because he was liberated from jail in July by Kansas men, the “Immortal Ten.” We will learn more of the Jefferson County freestaters small, supporting role in that story in a future post.

The worst result of the ambush was that 13 freedom-seekers, who had had the most to lose in taking this risk, were taken to Missouri, a slave state, to be returned to slavery or, if they had been free, to risk being sold into slavery. The most complete account I’ve read about what happened to these people is in a book by Harriet C. Frazier, Runaway and Freed Missouri Slaves and Those Who Helped Them, 1763-1865.