Pottawatomie Massacre

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POTTAWATOMIE MASSACRE, the murder by free-state men of five proslavery settlers near Dutch Henry's Crossing at Pottawatomie Creek, Franklin County, Kansas, on the night of 24–25 May 1856. The principal facts became known almost immediately. John Brown, four of his sons, and three other men were accused of the murders. Although warrants were issued, only one suspect, James Townsley, was arrested. The case never went to trial. Some proslavery newspapers gave fairly accurate statements of the facts but were confused in attributing motives; the free-state press misrepresented both. Brown's first biographer, James Redpath, denied Brown's presence at the murder and prior knowledge of the events. Only after Townsley's statement was published in December 1879 did the Brown family and friends (with a few exceptions) admit the truth. From that date, the Brown controversy centered on motives and justification rather than denial, but with little success in establishing either.

The primary political issue in the spring of 1856, just before the massacre, was enforcement of the so-called bogus laws. In various parts of the territory, threats were made against the courts and enforcement officers. Significantly, all but one of the Pottawatomie victims either were members of the Franklin County grand jury or were otherwise associated with the 21–22 April court session. These facts place the massacre in the category of political assassination, designed to prevent enforcement of law by resorting to terror.


Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. New York: Harper and Row, 1970. 2d ed., Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.

Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861. Completed and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

James C.Malin/c. w.

See alsoAntislavery ; Border War ; Kansas-Nebraska Act .