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 through a short stretch of Kansas Territory via the Underground Railroad.
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, been threatened or endangered by people who objected to the Underground Railroad’s interference with slavery? 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 counties and naming the men set to help.
“March 12, 1859, Mr. Anderson was instrumental in forming the first Republican organization in this Territory,” 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.”
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 were stored, arming themselves.
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.
“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.
 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.
 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..
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.