Rees Perkins Brown—The Fourth Antislavery Martyr of Bleeding Kansas–January 18, 1856
Debian Marty, Ph.D.
Division of Humanities & Communication
California State University Monterey Bay
18 Jan 2016
“He had been elected a representative in Kansas on the day he was killed.”
The election had been moved from Leavenworth to Easton, to avoid conflict between the pro- and anti-slavery forces. The effort proved futile. On January 17, 1856, voters in Easton elected R. P. Brown as their Free State representative. The next day, a pro-slavery mob captured Brown, tortured him for hours, and then dumped his dying body on the frozen doorstep in front of his pregnant wife and child. He died during the small hours of the night, technically one day after he won the election.
Initially, the press misidentified him as a Kentuckian named E. P. Brown. Later, he would be mistaken for John Brown’s son-or nephew- whose death presumably motivated the Pottawatomie Massacre. More recently, a scholar claimed that Brown was a wool dealer from Springfield, Massachusetts. All were in error.
Although he was not related to the Osawatomie Browns, it was John Brown Jr. who presented a set of resolutions to the Free State legislature calling for the slain man’s sacrifice to be honored. “Resolved,” he declared, “That we recommend to the lovers of freedom and justice to erect a monument to the memory of the deceased.” That memorial was never built. Today is the 160th anniversary of his death and this is a remembrance. He was an Ohio native and his name was Rees Perkins Brown.
Rees Perkins Brown
He was the son of a slave owner. His father, Moses Brown, moved from North Carolina to Mississippi in the early 1800s even as other relations migrated north. The family’s discomfiture over Moses’ slave-owning status led them to send a nephew south to change his mind. Dutifully, the nephew appealed to his Uncle Moses to leave Mississippi “on account of the children” and to renounce the institution of slavery. Eventually, his persuasive powers prevailed.
With five children and a very pregnant wife, Moses Brown boarded a steamboat headed for Ohio. Family lore maintains that Moses freed nearly twenty people in Cincinnati before joining the northern Browns in Logan County, Ohio. There, on July 3, 1825, his wife Nancy gave birth to a son. On the day before the country celebrated its forty-ninth year of independence, Moses and Nancy named their child after her grandfather and brother, both of whom were slave owners. Their namesake, Rees Perkins Brown, however, would grow up to challenge their southern way of life.
The Ohio Browns were antislavery Quakers. Moses never returned to the faith, but his change of heart led him to sign a petition “praying” for Congress to abolish slavery in Washington D. C. After his death, his widow Nancy migrated west with her now adult children and their Quaker relatives. They settled in Michigan’s southwestern frontier in 1844 and straightaway got involved in local antislavery politics and the Underground Railroad network. Their new home in Cass County, Michigan was an established refuge for people fleeing slavery, a fact which drew the persistent attention of slavecatchers.
On August 20, 1847, a Kentucky posse raided the Michigan refuge and rounded up their “human chattel.” Rees, now twenty-two years old, joined his neighbors to thwart the slave catchers. Their captives escaped. This successful resistance earned the slave owners’ wrath. Several of the rescuers were charged with violating the Fugitive Slave law, including two of Rees’ relatives. To protect Rees from prosecution, the family urged him to leave.
He crossed the state line to enroll in Indiana’s new university, Notre Dame du Lac. Although an honors student, Rees soon had to withdraw. The bill for his board remained unpaid, and he became ill with consumption. Standard medical advice recommended warmer climes, so he ventured south. During the winter of 1850, he secured a teaching position near his father’s former home. A teacher’s meager wages did little for his pocketbook. But the year and a half he spent in Mississippi improved his health–and solidified his anti-slavery convictions.
“While South I learned the horrible reality of slavery.”
Rees wrote to his older brother, Aaron, who was trying his luck in California’s gold mines, to report that he had “found some of our relatives in the South that we had given up all hope of ever seeing again.” Their father, Moses, had four children from a first marriage, three of whom chose to remain in Mississippi when the rest of the family moved north. Born in Ohio, Rees had never known his southern relations. HIs excitement at meeting these long-lost family members quickly waned, however, for it was while visiting them that he “learned the horrible reality of slavery.”
Of particular concern was his half-brother, Edward S. Brown, a wealthy slave owner living in Liberty Township. A “more dis[s]ipated character never disgraced humanity,” complained Rees in his letter to Aaron. “It would be wasting time to give a full description of his character,” he declared, before ominously confiding, “I will describe him by saying that no crime is too heinous for him to commit.”
Back in Michigan, Rees’ youngest sister, Samantha, contracted consumption. She, too, sought the purported healing powers of the southern climate. That fall in 1850, she and a few other Michigan family members joined Rees on a visit to their relations in Liberty. In her diary, Samantha revealed more specifics about slavery’s “horrible reality.” She and her family “had frequent opportunities of witnessing the cruelties inflicted upon the blacks by their merciless tormentors.” She bewailed the fact that “I have lain my head in bed and listened to the strokes as they descended on the shrieking victim until my heart bled for the oppressed.”
In the spring of 1851, Samantha and the other Michigan Browns grew so “homesick” that they shortened their visit and returned north. She never recuperated from her illness. Within a few months, Samantha passed away at age twenty-three. Rees mourned his sister’s death deeply, experiencing a “sullen indifference” to spiritual comfort.
He wrote an entry in her diary, explaining how his religious skepticism derived from “the hidebound bigotry of many who stand forth as orthodox expounders of God’s word.” He struggled at length with the “contradictory tenets, the gross inconsistencies” of that religious bigotry until he “learned a lesson of infinite value.” In his sorrow, he came to accept the possibility of an afterlife and the Christian doctrine of resurrection. Rees placed his faith in “this noblest of lessons,” because he “saw that he was mortal and felt that he soon must die.”
Like Samantha and his northern relations, Rees became “so thoroughly disgusted with the workings of the institution of Slavery” that he could not remain in the south. In May, 1851, he boarded a steamer bound for the free states. His breaking point, according to his brother, Aaron, came when Rees witnessed “the burning of a slave in Liberty, Mississippi.”
This atrocity may have been Edward S. Brown’s “heinous crime” to which Rees had ominously referred. The “horror of that accursed outrage,” Aaron believed, “was vivid in [Rees’] memories on all occasions,” and “gave bent to his political feeling and action.” Upon his return to Michigan, Rees “immediately identified himself with the Free Democratic Party, and continued his connection with it down to the period of his death.”
The Free Democratic Party’s platform denounced slavery as “a sin against God and a crime against man.” The party also repudiated the infamous Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required northern cooperation with slavecatchers. This new law ensnared Rees’ Michigan relatives who were among those sued for interfering with the Kentucky Raid’s slave catchers.
Their trial ended with a hung jury, but left the defendants deeply indebted. Their difficulties were complicated further by the slave owner’s lawyers, who took advantage of a legal technicality to argue for a retrial under the more punitive terms of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. To aid his relatives and anti-slavery allies, Rees traveled through Ohio and Canada to raise funds for their legal defense. He came back practically empty-handed. In December 1851, prior to the judge’s ruling on the motion for retrial, Rees’ disheartened relations unilaterally settled with the slave owner. The decision shocked their abolitionist community. “Blood money!” their critics cried.
Political tensions over slavery continued to escalate in Michigan and throughout the United States. On May 30, 1854, President Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This law allowed territorial residents to adopt or reject slavery, free from Congressional influence. Pandemonium ensued, as pro- and anti-slavery advocates rushed to the territory, alongside opportunistic speculators and westward pioneers. Still, here was a chance to act against slavery. Within a year, Rees Perkins Brown was on his way to Kansas.
“Leavenworth will be a great town”
Rees arrived in Kansas on April 27, 1855, first exploring Lawrence and then Leavenworth. The latter, he wrote in his travel diary “was situated in a beautiful place” and would become, he believed, “a great town.” He watched the troops drill at Fort Leavenworth before heading home to collect his family.
Now a husband and father, Rees returned to Kansas that fall with his wife, Martha Ann, and their two-year old daughter, Samantha Evangeline. The family arrived in Leavenworth on October 4, 1855. In a letter to her Michigan pastor, Martha wrote, “When we landed in Leavenworth City dwellings were hard to get. Mr. McCrea solicited us to go on his claim (he was then in prison) and be company for his wife and have a home for ourselves.”
Cole McCrea was a Free State man, imprisoned in Fort Leavenworth for killing a pro-slavery man, Malcolm Clarke. McCrea’s wife, Elizabeth, and infant son were living alone several miles west of town in Salt Creek Valley. Before the Browns took McCrea up on his offer, Rees participated in the Free State election to secure delegates for the United States Congress and the upcoming Topeka Constitutional Convention. When, on October 9th, he cast his ballot and affixed his signature, “R. P. Brown,” he officially chose a side in the territory’s increasingly bloody dispute. He had three months and nine days to live.
“Prominent in the Defense of Lawrence”
The subsequent murder of a Free State man, Charles Dow, escalated the threats of violence and vigilante justice. The territorial governor called for troops to restore order as outraged Missourians and pro-slavery settlers surrounded the city of Lawrence. Free State men rushed to the city’s defense. One of the few to come from Leavenworth was R. P. Brown. Upon his arrival, he was commissioned by James H. Lane to serve as a Major in the 1st Regiment of the 1st Brigade of Kansas Volunteers. It was November 27th.
Within two weeks, the armed standoff was resolved by a peace treaty. The “Wakarusa War,” however, had heightened hostilities and produced the death of yet another Free State man, Thomas Barber. Although R. P. Brown’s role in the skirmish is unknown, his “gallantry” greatly impressed his commander-in-chief. Charles Robinson declared that “Brown had been prominent in the defense of Lawrence.” He “was true as steel and brave as a lion,” Robinson opined, “and hence was feared and hated by his opponents as were but few others.”
Rees’ reputation for bravery was established further upon his return to Leavenworth. Less than one week after the Wakarusa treaty was signed, another Free State election was held, this time to ratify the Topeka Constitution and its ban on slavery. As the voting was underway, Captain Charles Dunn led twenty armed men to the polls to put a stop to the election. At the polling place, Dunn confronted an election judge and demanded that he turn over the ballot box. The judge refused. As Dunn called for his posse, the judge fled the building. George Wetherill, an election clerk, grabbed the ballot box and hid it, then hurried out too. Dunn and his men mobbed Wetherill, punching and kicking him.
A witness reported that “some few of the Free State men who had not been frightened off, interfered.” They were led by “a young man from York State named Anthony and a man named Brown [who] cocked their pistols and rushed forward.” They carried the injured Wetherill away from danger and to a nearby store. Later, Rees’ wife, Martha, would identify Wetherwill’s rescue as a turning point. “From that time,” she believed, “my husband was a marked victim.”
Contemporary observers also described Rees as a marked man, albeit in different terms. Hannah Anderson Ropes commented that “in personal appearance,” Rees Perkins Brown “was quite a marked man, even in a crowd. He was unusually tall, with a rich, brown complexion, dark abundant hair and beard, and eyes large dark and sad in expression.” The Free State Governor’s wife, Sara Robinson, remembered him similarly, except for having noted his “pleasant dark eyes.”
Their appraisal was expanded upon by a local missionary. He asserted that Brown’s “boldness and energy were the very qualities which disposed the ‘Ruffians’ to mark him for death.” Given his distinctive presence and bold bearing, Rees was readily identifiable. As a marked man, however, his days were numbered.
“R. P. Brown came and rescued me.”
Despite the efforts of Dunn and men like him, the Topeka Constitution was ratified. Now, a government needed to be formed and state officers chosen. Rees ran as a candidate for the Free State Legislature in Leavenworth’s Twelfth Senatorial District.
To avoid more conflict between the pro- and anti-slavery forces, the next election was postponed and the polls relocated. On a bitterly cold day–January 17, 1856–voters cast their ballots at Thomas A. Minard’s farm in Easton, twelve miles west of Leavenworth. Predictably, a political confrontation ensued.
This time both sides were heavily armed. Many spent the day drinking whiskey, flashing their guns, and issuing taunts and threats. Though tensions ran high, the polls closed without significant incident.
Near midnight, a Free State man, Stephen Sparks, was on his way home with his son and nephew, when they were waylaid by a liquored-up group of pro-slavery men. Word of Sparks’ detainment reached Brown who, with a company of fifteen men, came to the rescue. Shots were fired. A proslavery man named John Cook was mortally wounded; Sparks’ son was injured.
Each side pulled back—Brown’s men retreated to Minard’s home, the proslavery group carried the wounded man Cook to nearby Dawson’s store. The rest of the night passed uneventfully. Sparks left the next morning, taking refuge in Lawrence’s friendlier environs. He immediately wrote his brother, a Baptist minister living in Indiana. Of his rescue, Sparks declared, “To [Brown’s] gallantry I am indebted for my life.” Back in Easton, R. P. Brown and seven of his men finished breakfast and headed for home.
“They murdered me like cowards.”
The pro-slavery men had recognized R. P. Brown as the leader of Spark’s rescue. As their party regrouped at Dawson’s store, they secured a doctor for Cook, who was in great pain. Alarmed, both the doctor and the store clerk sent express messages to Kickapoo and Leavenworth calling for reinforcements. The next morning, January 18th, fifty men set out toward Easton. Captain Martin’s company of Kickapoo Rangers was the first to encounter Brown and his men on the road.
Joseph H. Bird, traveling with Brown, accounted for what next transpired. The Kickapoo men, he said,
jumped out of their wagons and came up towards us, and we then jumped out of our wagon. Brown called to them and told them to keep their distance, that we were well armed and could defend ourselves against them…We looked at the top of the hill and saw a body of horsemen coming…there was a cry that they had got Brown sure, and they made a rush towards our wagon.
Vastly outnumbered, Brown, Bird and their companions relinquished their weapons. Under Captain Martin’s direction, they were rounded up and taken back to Dawson’s store in Easton. A “fierce discussion” erupted over what should be done. Several pro-slavery men were drinking heavily, tying up rope into nooses and threatening to hang them all. Others objected to any violence against the prisoners. Eventually, the Rangers decided to separate Brown from the others, leaving them under guard. Brown was led into the adjoining room to be put on “trial” for the previous night’s attack.
During Brown’s interrogation, a Kickapoo Ranger named Robert Gibson stormed into the room, leading a pack of enraged and drunken men. Joseph Bird, having been forced inside to give testimony against Brown, instead became a witness to the subsequent attack.
Gibson had the Sharpe rifle, which he presented to Brown’s heart. Brown then took hold of it and pushed it away from him. Gibson then took his hatchet and struck Brown… a gash on the temple. I saw the cut and blood.
Brown tried to defend himself, but the Rangers became “ungovernably fierce” in their bloodlust. Some men fled the melee, including Captain Martin and Joseph Bird. With the situation out of control, Martin allowed Bird and the other Free State men to escape. He then also left the scene. The remaining mob, however, set upon Brown with blows and kicks, yelling “kill him!” Brown was heard to cry out, “Don’t abuse me–It is useless-I am dying!”
By now it was nearly dusk. Charles Dunn, who had attacked George Wetherill at Leavenworth’s polling place, arrived at the Easton store having unsuccessfully pursued Stephen Sparks. Dunn, along with a pair of pro-slavery men, tossed his former nemesis onto the back of a lumber wagon. They left the injured Brown uncovered in the frigid, sub-zero air as they set out to take him home.
The trip over miles of hard, frozen ground caused Brown to moan as he lay in the wagon bed. Eli Moore, riding in the back of the wagon with Brown, tried to silence the wounded man with kicks. With rising frustration, Moore put his boot to Brown’s cheek, twisting his neck in order to expose his injury. He then spit tobacco juice into the gash along Brown’s temple, declaring that it “would ease any damned abolitionist.”
Dunn, Moore and the others carried Brown to a saloon in Salt Creek Valley. There, the party imbibed copiously, as they went through the “farce” of dressing Brown’s injuries. Seeing the futility, they continued on to the McCrea homestead, where the Brown family had taken up residence.
Elizabeth McCrea and Martha Brown were at home with their children, waiting. A Free State man who escaped earlier from Easton had warned them of the impending danger. Around midnight, the women heard the drunken party approaching. “Within about half a mile of the house,” Martha reported, “I heard [the Rangers] shouting & halloing like so many wicked fiends let loose from the Infernal Regions of darkness.”
Dunn and his men drove up to the house and backed the wagon up to the door. They dragged Brown out of the wagon bed by his feet, letting his body fall with a thud onto the frozen ground. “Here is Brown!” they drunkenly announced.
Martha rushed to her husband’s side. In a faintly audible voice, Rees gasped, “I have been murdered by a gang of cowards, in cold blood, without any cause!” Over Dunn’s objections, the women managed to get Rees in bed, where he remained conscious and cognizant of his surroundings. Helplessly, he witnessed Dunn accost his wife, Martha, “pushing his hands down into her Bosom.”
Martha went “to the foot of the bed and from a pile of Blankets drew a small charged revolver.” She said, “The first villain that lays his hand upon me, I’ll Kill…” Dunn and his men saw “that there was shoot in this demented woman’s eye” and departed.
From this death bed, Rees uttered his last words to his wife. “I am not afraid to die,” he said, “if I have done wrong in any way, I hope God will forgive me. I die in a good cause. I am sorry to part with you and our little child, but I want you should meet me in Heaven!”
“He died in defence of the liberties of Kansas, and shall his memory not be preserved?”
Out of the seventy-six votes cast at Easton, Rees Perkins Brown received seventy-three and was elected a Free State representative. But no doctor came to his death bed, no coroner held an inquest, and no grand jury indictments were issued to seek justice on his behalf. The writ issued by Judge Lecompte to secure Brown’s safety was never served, the Free State rescue party arrived days too late.
Quietly, on January 20, 1856, R. P. Brown’s “remains were consigned to their lasting resting place” at Pilot Knob cemetery, “amid the howling wind and drifting snow.”
There his body lay until his older brother Aaron read of his murder in the newspaper and came to Leavenworth to investigate. He had Rees’ body exhumed in March. Three physicians confirmed the mortal blow to his temple, a gash two inches long that had cut through brain and bone.
Martha Brown’s letter to her father explaining Rees’ death circulated in northern newspapers. Concerns about her mental health and financial well-being were relayed as well to sympathetic readers. Come early spring, Martha and her daughter left Kansas. Elizabeth McCrea accompanied them to Chicago, where they were met by their Michigan family. That summer, just weeks after what would have been Rees’ 31st birthday Martha gave birth to their second daughter. She named their baby Anna Rees Brown.
A special election was held to replace Rees in the Free State assembly. Resolutions were passed honoring his sacrifice and calling for a memorial. In May, a Congressional delegation came to investigate “the troubles in Kansas.” They took testimony about the circumstances surrounding R. P. Brown’s death and published the partisan-torn findings. That same month, in retaliation for Rees’ murder and the subsequent sacking of Lawrence, John Brown (no relation to Rees) led his men to commit the Pottawatomie massacre.
Some months later, a reporter visited Pilot Knob cemetery. “The grave of Brown is surrounded by a neat fence,” he wrote, “painted white, upon which is written the following:”
Rees Perkins BROWN, born in Logan County,Ohio, 3d of July, 1825.
Brutally murdered by that damnable League, the Kickapoo Rangers.
He died for Freedom, let us live for it.
Better die a martyr of Freedom like Brown, than live a champion of Slavery like DOUGLAS,
He was murdered because true to his native North and her free Institutions.
At the head of the grave, the reporter found a rough stone engraved with the initials R. P. B.
Senator Stephen A. Douglas, author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act which permitted “squatter sovereignty” and gave way to bloodshed, would soon lose the presidential contest to Abraham Lincoln. With the cemetery long gone, let alone Brown’s gravesite, no memorial currently exists. On the 160th anniversary of the death of Kansas’ fourth antislavery martyr, let this be a remembrance. Rest in peace, Rees Perkins Brown.
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