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.
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
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, 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.
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.”
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. 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.