The Pottawatomie Massacre

Instructor: Matthew Hill
The Pottawatomie Massacre involved the murder of five pro-slavery men in Kansas by the abolitionist John Brown and his sons. These dramatic events were part of a larger civil war in Kansas over slavery.

Background to Kansas

On the night of May 24, 1856, five pro-slavery sympathizers were struck down in the town of Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas in retaliation for earlier, similar pro-slavery violence against abolitionists. This eye-for-an-eye response only created more violence. The person behind these events was the mercurial and fiery John Brown. The background to the Pottawatomie Massacre is rooted in the changing demography of slave and free states following the U.S. war against Mexico. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had divided the nation into slave states and free states along the Mason-Dixon Line, a boundary between the southern border of Pennsylvania and the northern borders of West Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland. At the time, the western boundary of the United States stopped at the western reaches of the Louisiana Purchase. The United States' victory over Mexico in 1846, however, expanded U.S. territory into the southwest and California. The Compromise of 1850 decided that the status of slavery in most of the new territories would be settled by popular sovereignty, which meant that the residents of the new territories would decide for themselves what they wanted.

Free State/Slave State Map at the time of the Kansas-Nebraska Act
Kansas-Nebraska Act

Kansas-Nebraska Act

In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, splitting this combined region into the separate states of Kansas and Nebraska. As expected, Nebraska became a free state, but Kansas threw everything for a curve. Kansas sat in the southern region, but most of its residents poured in from the northern states and were overwhelmingly free soil in temperament. The free soil movement was driven by the view to establish the new territories as free states. So-called 'Border Ruffians' from Missouri, though, poured across the border and illegally voted in a pro-slavery government. Not to be outdone, the majority anti-slavery faction revolted and formed a separate legislature, essentially creating two governments within Kansas. Soon, the Border Ruffians and the Jayhawkers, as the Kansas residents who opposed the pro-slavery faction were called, waged a guerrilla war against one another. This war was known as 'Bleeding Kansas.'

Canning of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks
Charles Sumner and Preston Brooks

Bleeding Kansas

Into this mix came John Brown. Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut in 1800, but largely grew up in Ohio. His family was deeply religious and Brown eventually became an activist in the abolition movement. He worked at several failed businesses, though in a sense the failures freed him up for his abolitionist work. He married twice, and fathered a whopping twenty children! He moved his family ten times before settling in North Elba, New York in 1849 to work with fellow abolitionists. Following the events in Kansas, though, Brown relocated to Osawatomie, Kansas and began plotting a means to take revenge on the pro-slavery factions there. Brown became convinced that the only way to strike at slavery was through violence.

Sumner and Lawrence

Two incidents related to the events in Kansas especially inflamed Brown. On May 21, 1856, 800 Border Ruffians raided the town of Lawrence, looting homes and shops, destroying two printing presses, and even blasting the Free State Hotel with cannons! The following day, May 22, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was severely beaten on the Senate floor by South Carolinian Preston Brooks in opposition to Sumner's 'Crime Against Kansas Speech' denouncing the pro-slavery faction in Kansas. Brown was fond of paraphrasing the biblical passage that 'without the shedding of blood, there can be not remission of sin.' Of course, the biblical injunction was about self-sacrifice, not revenge against one's enemies, but Brown soon put his own spin on this when he launched his retaliatory raid on the town of Pottawatomie.

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