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, 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.