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"Bloody Kansas"

31d. The Pottawatomie Creek Massacre

Pottawatomie Creek
PBS
At Pottawatomie Creek, five men were dragged from their cabins and massacred by John Brown and his sons.

John Brown was not a timid man. A devout reader of the Bible, he found human bondage immoral and unthinkable. The father of 20 children, he and his wife Mary settled in Kansas to wage a war on the forces of slavery. A few days after the sack of Lawrence, Brown sought revenge. He was furious that the people of Lawrence had chosen not to fight. He told his followers that they must "fight fire with fire," and they must "strike terror in the hearts of the pro-slavery people." In his eyes, the only just fate for those responsible for the border ruffian laws was death. A great believer in "an eye for an eye," John Brown sought to avenge the sack of Lawrence.

Vengeance would come on the night of May 24, three days after the Lawrence affair. Setting out after dark with 7 others and calling himself the Army of the North, Brown entered the pro-slavery town of Pottawatomie Creek. Armed with rifles, knives, and broadswords, Brown and his band stormed the houses of his enemies. One by one, Brown's group dragged out helpless victims and hacked at their heads with the broadswords. In one encounter, they even killed two sons of an individual they sought. Before the night was through, five victims lay brutally slain by the hands of John Brown.

John Brown
John Brown's followers insisted that he did no killing at the Pottawatomie Massacre, but he did decide which men would live and which would die.

It was the South's turn to be outraged. Destroying property was one thing, but no one had been killed at Lawrence. Brown had raised the stakes. He and his followers were doggedly hunted well into the summer. Federal troops arrested two of Brown's sons who had not been with him. Border ruffians burned the Brown homesteads to the ground. But John Brown lived to fight another day. Now a fugitive, he traveled north where he was received by Abolitionists like a cult hero. This would not be the last America would hear of John Brown. He would again make national headlines at Harper's Ferry in 1859.

The sack of Lawrence and the massacre at Pottawatomie set off a brutal guerrilla war in Kansas. By the end of 1856, over 200 people would be gunned down in cold blood. Property damage reached millions of dollars. Federal troops were sent in to put down the fighting, but they were too few to have much effect. Kansas served as a small scale prelude to the bloody catastrophe that engulfed the entire nation only 5 years later.

On the Web
The Underground Railroad: John Brown
A short bio of Brown, with a link to Brown's speech before the court.
John Brown's Body
Listen to "John Brown's Body" and sing along to the gruesome words that gained popularity during the Civil War.
The infamous pikes that John Brown's men used at Harper's Ferry were modeled after a Bowie knife that Brown took as a souvenier after his forces fought Pro-Slavery forces at the Battle of Black Jack.
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