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.”

The_Emporia_Weekly_News_Sat__Apr_2__1859_
The Emporia Weekly News, April 2, 1859. Image from Newspapers.com.

 

Asheville_News_Thu__Apr_21__1859_
The Asheville News, Asheville, North Carolina, April 21, 1859. Image from Newspapers.com.

 

Chicago_Tribune_Sat__Mar_26__1859_
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.

Brutal murderer Brown Kansas_National_Democrat_Thu__Mar_31__1859_
The Kansas National Democrat, Lecompton, Kansas Territory, March 31, 1859. Image from newspapers.com
Cleveland_Daily_Leader_Fri__Mar_18__1859_ (1)
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_

 

Jesse Newell’s 1856 Travel Pass “I expect, sir, to carry that pass to the judgment day”

I interrupt John Doy’s badly ending Underground Railroad trip to introduce you to Jesse Newell, whose Oskaloosa homestead Dr. Doy had failed to reach. I will introduce you to Mr. Newell the same way I met him about five years ago.

We had just figured out that a badly declining property in Oskaloosa, Kansas, had once been Jesse Newell’s homestead plot and we wanted to find out more about him. Local and state compiled histories revealed practically nothing.

Stephen Smith, Newell stone cabin, west side door,keith 2 10 2013
This limestone cabin sits behind a house on what was once the homestead plot of Jesse Newell in Oskaloosa, Kansas. The site was named to the Register of Historic Kansas Places on May 13 and on July 10, 2017, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Photo by Stephen Smith.

A simple web search captured a glimpse of Mr. Newell and showed him to be a Kansas character beyond what our aged historical portraits had told us: co-founded Oskaloosa, had a saw mill, moved to Kansas from Iowa.

My first illuminating encounter with Jesse Newell, then, sprang from an essay written by Mary-Sherman Willis in the literary journal archipelago, http://www.archipelago.org/vol6-3/willis.htm.  Her essay, “The Fight for Kansas: The Letters of Cecilia and John Sherman,” reveals a critical moment in the warfare that led to Kansas statehood, told in letters written by her ancestors Cecilia Stewart Sherman and Ohio Congressman John Sherman.[1]

Mrs. Sherman’s letter shows us Jesse Newell travelling from Topeka to Lawrence with a son, John Newell, his brother-in-law Joseph Fitzsimmons and Dr. Robert Gamble. It was May 17, 1856, and Newell had just arrived in Kansas Territory from Iowa. He was annoyed.

Over and again, Newell and his company were stopped, harassed, interrogated, all OK’d by proslavery authority at Lecompton to stop people from getting to Lawrence, home of eastern slavery opponents.  The proslavery partisans were cutting off Lawrence to suppress a “rebellion” by antislavery settlers there who resisted the proslavery government’s outrageous and illegally enacted laws.[2]

Exasperated, Newell rode for Lecompton, roughly half way between Topeka and Lawrence on his 25-mile trip. Lecompton was the proslavery crowned capital of the territory. A native of Ohio, Newell found fellow Ohioan Wilson Shannon, the current governor of Kansas Territory. Cecilia Stewart Sherman’s letter, written to a sister on May 19, details what Newell[3] said of his visit with Gov. Shannon. Mrs. Sherman wrote:

“… Mr. Jesse Newell, formerly from near Olivesburg [Ohio] & immediately from Iowa with his two sons & a son-in-law, is looking through the country for a location. He arrived [in Leavenworth] today and gave us an account of his adventures for the last two or three days. He was stopped several times before he got through. He was going from Topeka to Lawrence on Saturday but after having been stopped once or twice he turned around and went to Lecompton, the headquarters of the enemy, to see Gov. Shannon whom he knew. He spied him in a crowd upon the street and accosted him thus:  ‘I would like to know what these bands of armed men who are going round the country mean stopping peaceable citizens on the high way—&c &c. I am a free man & thought I was in a free country till I came here,’ he said.

“Shannon got angry & told him there was no use in his getting mad—&c—that the whole Territory was under military law. He then turned to go into his office.  Mr. Newell called to him, ‘Shannon it’s me[,] and you are not going to treat me thus. I’ll know what these things mean.’ Shannon then told him to follow him in. He did so & he gave him a permit to pass unmolested through the territory. He then started again for Lawrence but was stopped twice by one party of ten—-& another of fifteen armed with rifles & fixed bayonets; they questioned as to where he was from, when he came, what town he had been, where he was going.

“He told them, and they said he had been travelling in d—d abolition towns all the time. They supposed he was going now to Lawrence to help fight the Border Ruffians, and he couldn’t go. He told them he had started for Lawrence, there he intended to go. They told him they would take his mules for the use of the army. Says he, ‘These mules cost eleven dollars & before you get them you’ll take my scalp.’ He showed them his permit then & they let him go, but Shannon & they too told him there was no use to go, that he wouldn’t get into the town, it was guarded & in arms. But he said he went on & when he came near the town he saw men planting corn & women in the garden. He went on down town & there were little girls jumping the rope, stores were open, the men at their usual work & all was quiet. He didn’t know what to make of it after the stories Shannon had told him about the citizens of Lawrence all being in arms &c. No doubt Shannon thinks they are. The pro-slavery tell him so in order to bend him to their measures & he never goes out of Lecompton so he can find out himself.”

Included in the national news about the Kansas struggle for freedom were stories about the severing of simple freedoms by the proslavery powers at Lecompton, and they included stories about Jesse Newell and his pass.

Jesse Newell's Pass, The Buffalo Daily Republic
From the Buffalo Daily Republic (Buffalo, New York), Thursday, May 29, 1856, page 1.  Image from newspapers.com.

Well, maybe not yet were they identified with the “troubles” of the territory; that came a few months later when Newell was fully invested in the free-state cause.  Newell and Joseph Fitzsimmons, the brother-in-law with him for the pass, went on to start the town of Oskaloosa, naming it for Oskaloosa, Iowa.  Dr. Gamble, born in Pennsylvania and later an Ohio man, likewise had come to Kansas Territory from Iowa. After serving in leadership positions around the town, Gamble had moved on to California in the later 1860s.

Eleven years later the Oskaloosa Independent newspaper published a long-running series of reminiscences by Jefferson Countians about the Civil War and the territorial strife that preceded Kansas statehood in 1861. John W. Day, who arrived in Kansas Territory in May 1856, was present for various territorial skirmishes and political clashes and in June 1867 wrote about events of 1856.

He noted Newell’s pass, setting up his story  by detailing how settlers had to carry written passes from the government to ensure their safety on public thoroughfares.[4]  Mr. Day, who edited the Oskaloosa Independent for a time, wrote:

“I think it was in June or July of 1856 that at the store of Nelson McCracken, in Leavenworth, Jesse Newell, who had been traveling through the Territory looking for a location to settle and build a mill, exhibited to myself and several other persons, a pass furnished him by Wilson Shannon, then governor of the Territory of Kansas.  This pass was obtained from the Governor on the ground of old acquaintanceship in Ohio when both were Democrats[5] in the Buckeye State.

“I solicited the document to file away as a memento, but Mr. Newell replied:  ‘No, sir; I cannot part with it.  I expect, sir, to carry that pass to the judgment day’.”

Newell cabin stone north window
A photo of one of the stones that makes up the limestone cabin on Jesse Newell’s homestead property in Oskaloosa, Kansas.

[1] The Shermans were in Kansas Territory because John Sherman was on a three-person congressional committee assigned to investigate the 1855 and 1856 “troubles” in Kansas, including voting frauds by out-of-state proslavers and violence through the territory.  The committee produced the Report of the Special Committee Appointed to Investigate the Troubles in Kansas; With the Views of the Minority of Said Committee. Report No. 200, 34th Congress, 1st Session, 1856.  Mrs. Sherman’s letter is held by the Mansfield/Richland County Public Library in Mansfield, Ohio, in the (John) Sherman Room Collection.

[2] The first sacking  sacking of Lawrence occurred a few days later, on May 21, when proslavery militia, supported by men from southern states, marched on Lawrence and destroyed the Free State Hotel, ruined the printing presses of two newspapers, the Herald of Freedom and the Kansas Free State, and burned the home of Charles Robinson, future Kansas governor. Before the burning began, a red flag bearing the words “Southern Rights” on one side and “South Carolina” flew briefly over Lawrence.

[3] Mrs. Sherman’s letter was illuminating because it told a story that, as far as I have figured out, was unknown in Kansas.  It was the first “new” bit of information we had found about Jesse Newell.  And for a moment in May 1856 Jesse Newell’s experience in Kansas Territory had made national news.

[4] Oskaloosa Independent, June 22, 1867, page one, series “Heroes of the Border and the War for Liberty and Union”

[5] Jesse Newell a Democrat, the party associated with slavery? That, to me,  was a new label for Jesse Newell.  Later descriptions of Newell, including one by Mr. Day, called him a Radical Republican, meaning someone who was not only an opponent of slavery in Kansas, but of slavery all together and was a proponent of rights for  black people. Others who came to Kansas Territory and fought against slavery, including Kansas’ U.S. Sen. James H. Lane, the orator and top free-state recruiter, came to the state as Democrats.

An Underground Railroad Ambush in Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, Part II

 

January 25, 1859

Somewhere on the Delaware Reserve, Jefferson County, Kansas Territory

We left John Doy and his Underground Railroad train deep in trouble on the Missouri side of the river. But since my task is unearthing Jefferson County history, let’s head back to the place where Dr. Doy and friends were ambushed, wherever that was.

Doy, a Lawrence abolitionist, two helpers  and 13 African-American passengers[1]  had been snared by armed slave catchers as they travelled from Lawrence north toward Holton,[2]  a rough wagon ride of about 50 miles.  By Doy’s description, the calamity happened about 12 miles north of Lawrence in Douglas County and  8 miles south of Oskaloosa in Jefferson County on the Delaware (Indian) Reserve.

ks memory map cropped zoomed doy twp 11 r 19 (3)
This is a zoomed-in image of a Kansas Land Survey Plat of the township in Jefferson County where the Doy ambush took place. The U.S. surveyor general of Kansas and Nebraska oversaw the surveying of lands in Kansas Territory from 1855-1861. This image is from Kansas Memory from the Kansas State Historical Society. See image at the bottom of this post for more information on the map.

Two wagons carried the passengers.  Doy rode a horse, his son Charles drove Doy’s wagon and young Wilbur Clough drove a second wagon. Well on their way to Oskaloosa, the travelers advanced down a long decline. At the bottom of the hill, on the right, sat a bluff.  As Doy’s party turned at the bluff about 20 armed, mounted men emerged and captured the group.[3]

A second description, with only the tiniest bit more information, comes from the Rev. Ephraim Nute, a Lawrence minister strong for abolishing slavery. Nute wrote a letter detailing the ambush and lamenting the high cost of the failed effort, both in the tragedy of the 13 freedom-seekers and in the money it took to put the effort on, and now the money it would take to pay for the imprisoned Doy’s legal bills. It’s possible that Nute obtained the information from a jail visit or from Clough, whom the Missourians didn’t imprison.

“… they took the road toward Oscaloosa [sic] & about an hour after entering a sort of defile between the bluffs & ‘the timber’ found themselves surrounded by a party of armed & mounted men,” Rev. Nute wrote.[4]

Mitchell map Kansas Memory Item 305777
A zoomed screen shot of  Mitchell’s Sectional Map of Kansas, Middleton Storbridge & Co., 1859. Lawrence is on the lower right and Oskaloosa is in the top central part of the image. From the  Kansas State Historical Society at http://www.kansasmemory.org/item/305777

 

Rev. Nute did refer to a road in his letter. Because roads and passable trails were few in the county a road might show up on an old map .  But it wasn’t enough to find the spot.

Hilly, timbered landscapes are not a rarity in southern Jefferson County, and if  we wanted to find the location of this disaster — and I had never known of the place being identified — we would need more information.

Stunningly, our best location clues ended up being clues that never should have been revealed at all, and they came from John Doy.

Riding in the Underground Railroad was secretive and dangerous work for all involved.  Brave enslaved people and free African Americans had everything to lose if they were caught fleeing slavery or its threat.  Escaped slaves could be pursued and caught in other states and returned to slavery;  free black people were not safe from  kidnappers who would ignore their free status and sell them into slavery. Those who assisted in UGRR efforts faced jail and fines. Missouri was a state that allowed slavery and a good share of Missourians wanted to extend slavery to Kansas when it would become a state.

Names of Underground Railroad conductors and agents, and their “stations” for hiding freedom-seekers along the route, naturally, were strictly secret.  But Dr. Doy had made a dry run of his planned UGRR route from Lawrence to Holton. He had jotted down the names and places he had arranged to hide his passengers and obtain escorts for each leg of the slow trip north.

Doy apparently carried a journal containing those names and places with him when he was ambushed Jan. 25, 1859.  Worse, an excerpt was published in a Missouri newspaper, the St. Joseph Weekly West in its June 26, 1859 edition.  Here’s how the transcript opened:

“Bought bread and cheese, 20 cents, before starting. Paid 25 cents Monday ferried over Kaw river [Kansas River] at Lawrence; took the road west up the river, crossing Buck creek, keeping the left-hand road till the creek is crossed, then the right-hand; arrived at Oscaloosa [Oskaloosa] that night, opened my subject to Mr. Newall [Newell], who laid out town.[5] He accepts at dark; went to Mr. Barnes, from Ohio; also accepts the appointment of conductor; will feed and assist them.…”[6]

And on he went to name three people who would help at Grasshopper Falls (now Valley Falls, Jefferson County)  and another half dozen people in or near Holton in Calhoun County (now Jackson County).

Colossal mistake aside, Doy did probably take that same route on January 25.  For his dry run, he crossed the Kansas River at downtown Lawrence and followed the river to the north and west.  He turned off to go north around the point where Buck Creek meets the Kaw.  If he followed a trail or road like the Lawrence-to-Oskaloosa road, it wasn’t long until he was  about 12 miles north of Lawrence and about 8 miles south of Oskaloosa.

Still not enough information, however, to find the spot, so we will continue our quest in the next post.

To view this plat map and several others, follow this link.

 

ks memory map doy twp cropped 11 r 19 (2)

Plat map by the U.S. Surveyor General of Kansas and Nebraska for Township 11 south, Range 19 east of the Sixth Principal Meridian, in southern Jefferson County.  Buck Creek and the road to Oskaloosa are visible on this map, with survey dates, from Kansas Memory, the Kansas State Historical Society.  Item No. 223914, page 7.

[1] Doy, John, The Kansas Narrative, A Plain, Unvarnished Tale, (Thomas Holman, book and job printer, New York, 1860),  24. Doy reported eight men, three women and two children as his cargo. Two men were free persons of color, coming from Ohio and Pennsylvania,  and the rest had shown Doy’s son, Charles, their free papers before the trip, according to Doy’s book. Other accounts dispute the free status of the 11, contending they were runaway enslaved persons.

[2] Holton, in Jackson County, was an Underground Railroad hub. From Holton, the UGRR travelers would go north into Iowa and often on to Canada..

[3] Doy, John, The Kansas Narrative, 25.

[4] Nute, Ephraim, Letter, [E. Nute] to [Unidentified recipient], February 14, 1859; Kansas State Historical Society Item No. 102720, John Brown Collection, #299, Box 2, Folder 1.

[5] Jesse Newell and Joseph Fitzsimmons were co-founders of Oskaloosa, arriving there in May 1856 and later naming the town for Oskaloosa, Iowa.

[6] St. Joseph Weekly West (newspaper); 26 June, 1859, 2.  Microfilm, State Historical Society of Missouri. Knowledge of the existence of this extraordinary newspaper clipping — vital to tracking Jefferson County history — was generously shared with me by a Lawrence author and researcher of the Underground Railroad in Kansas, Judy Sweets.

An Underground Railroad Ambush in Jefferson County, Part I

The gravel roads in southern Jefferson County, Kansas, are silent about where an Underground Railroad catastrophe played out 158 years ago. No roadside signs mark the hill where Dr. John Doy’s attempt to help 13 African-Americans elude slavery rolled to a tragic stop eight miles south of Oskaloosa.

Not that it’s the sort of historic fact a Kansas county would want to celebrate. But the ambush, and the sensational events that followed, attach Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, to the relay of secret links helping brave freedom-seekers move north to free states and Canada.

Doy, a New Yorker, moved to Kansas Territory in 1854 with the Kansas-Nebraska Act and worked to ensure Kansas joined the Union deeming slavery illegal within its borders. Almost five years on, Kansas Territory had emerged from the violent Bleeding Kansas slavery clashes between Missouri border ruffians and their southern friends, and those opposed to slavery in Kansas.

Finally, the slavery opponents, free-staters, pulled ahead with majority sentiment.  More work remained, however, and free-staters did what they could to break slavery’s back.

The dark morning hours of January 25, 1859, found Doy on horseback negotiating a primitive road that connected Doy’s hometown Lawrence to Oskaloosa and points north.

Accompanying Doy in two covered wagons were eight men, three women and two children who hoped to leave behind the threat of enslavement, which was still legal in many states including Missouri.  Doy’s son Charles, and a young wagon driver, Wilbur Clough, completed Doy’s party.  What Doy did not have was outriders or escort guards to watch for slave hunters and other enemies along the way.

The little group was 12 miles into the 20  it needed to cover to reach its first stop, Oskaloosa, and most likely the home of Jesse Newell, a radical free-stater who had come from Iowa and was willing to fight to block slavery in Kansas.  There, Doy would pick up his escort to help continue the trip northwest to Holton, a major taking-off point in Kansas Underground ventures.  Doy had dry-run his proposed route about a week earlier, taking notes on “conductors” who would help along the way.  He listed Jesse Newell’s wooded place on the south edge of Oskaloosa as  the first stop in what he planned would be a five-day journey.[1]

The night of the trip, Doy had departed Lawrence heading north, crossed the Kansas River into Jefferson County and followed Buck Creek up through the Delaware Reserve. [2]

“When about 12 miles from Lawrence, and eight from Oscaloosa [sic], having ascertained, as I supposed, that the road was clear, I requested the men to get into the wagons, as we had quite a long descent before us, and would go down it at a brisk pace.[3]  They did so, and then, excepting myself, all the party were in wagons, which were covered and thus effectually prevented them from seeing what occurred immediately afterwards, and from defending themselves.

“At the bottom of the hill, on the right of the road, is a bluff; from behind this, as we turned it, came out a body of some twenty, or more, armed and mounted men. Eleven of them approached with leveled rifles and ordered us to halt; they keeping, however, at a safe distance from our revolvers.”

doy-from-1862-le-tour-du-monde001
This remarkable image depicting the ambush of Dr. John Doy and his Underground Railroad “train” was published in the French magazine Le Tour du Monde in 1862. The illustration and several others accompanied Doy’s story about ruffian slave hunters who captured Doy and his little party of 15 south of Oskaloosa, Kansas Territory, on Jan. 25, 1859. The illustrations were drawn by the French artist Janet-Lange.

 

 

 

Doy saw that he was overpowered and quickly persuaded his son not to shoot at the assailants. Recognizing several of the men, including “notorious ruffian and kidnapper” Jake Hurd from around proslavery Lecompton,[4] Doy began his arguments.

He knew what could happen to the 13 African-Americans in the wagons if taken by Hurd and his posse. Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 slave owners could pursue runaway slaves to other states and return them to slavery. Slave hunters for hire prowled Kansas Territory, close to free states like Iowa to the north, to capture slaves who had bolted from Missouri and elsewhere.

Worse, some of them kidnapped free black people and sold them into slavery, despicably profiting from human misery. People who engaged in the dangerous work of helping fugitive slaves escape such fates faced fines and  prison (officially) and bodily harm.

Doy asserted that all the African-American adults in his group except two had free papers proving they were not slaves. The other black two men were known to be free men who had been working as cooks at the Eldridge hotel in Lawrence.

To no productive effect, Doy demanded that Hurd and the other attackers show proof that the 13 African-Americans were slaves sought by slave owners and to state whether those owners were in the armed crowd. His questions were met with curses, violent threats and drawn weapons. Doy’s claim that his passengers were free people were ignored.[5]

Somewhere, about eight miles south of Oskaloosa not far from Buck Creek, Doy, his two conductors and 13 African-Americans freedom-seekers were seized, taken to the Missouri River’s edge, put on a ferry to Weston, Mo., the next night, and locked up in Missouri. Jesse Newell and nine others prepared to assist Doy’s planned Underground Railroad venture welcomed no freedom train in late January 1859.

“The sufferings, both physical and mental, of the poor trembling creatures around us, no words can describe,” Doy wrote in his book.  “The chill wintry blast penetrated their thin clothing, and there seemed to be nothing between them and a life-long slavery.  All hope must have been dead in their souls.

“Even now I can hear the sobbing ejaculations of the poor mother, as she tried to hush the wails of her half-clad babes.  In spite of the commands of the ruffians not to stir, I jumped up, tore off the wagon-cover, and gave it to her to wrap around her children.

“The memory of that night will never be effaced from my mind.”[6]

[1] Portions of Doy’s journal, or memorandum book, described the route in some detail.  Transcriptions from the journal were published in the St. Joseph Weekly West (newspaper) on June 26, 1859, page 2, column 6. Microfilm copy held by the State Historical Society of Missouri. The journal was used against Doy in the Missouri court case against him on the charge of helping slaves escape their masters.

[2] “The Kansas Narrative, ‘A Plain, Unvarnished Tale’,” written by John Doy and  published 1860 by Thomas Holman, book and job printer, New  York, p 25.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 26.

[5] Ibid, 26, 27.

[6] Ibid, 30.

kirk-webb-doy-route-002
Map showing the Underground Railroad route John Doy planned to take from Lawrence to Oskaloosa in January 1859. Stars marking sites north and west of Oskaloosa depict planned stops on the rest of Doy’s route to move 13 African Americans north to Holton, had his trip not been ambushed by slave hunters (marked as “John Doy Ambush Site”). The map was created by Kirk Webb, Jefferson County Geographic Information Systems Department, using notes John Doy had taken to designate safe stops and escort help for the dangerous trip. 

To be continued.

Upcoming posts will examine where that ambush took place, based on a couple of descriptions from 1859, and look into the people Doy had lined up to help him once he would reach Oskaloosa and continue the journey.