Pottawatomie Massacre

Pottawatomie, part of Bleeding Kansas

The Pottawatomie Massacre occurred in Franklin County in Kansas, and was one of the many violent events that took place between pro-slavery and abolitionist factions in Kansas in the build-up to the American Civil War. The massacre was carried out by a group of abolitionists who were led by John Brown Senior. During the night of May 24, 1856 and the following morning, Brown’s group attacked and killed five settlers near the Pottawatomie Creek.


Brown’s son, also named John, had assembled his Pottawatomie Rifles, an abolitionist militia, in response to the pro-slavery threat to the village of Lawrence. Lawrence had been founded in 1854 by a group of abolitionists who settled there. In December 1855, the village was besieged by pro-slavery supporters. Following the non-fatal shooting of Sheriff Samuel Jones in April the following year, the Lawrence residents expelled the sheriff.

Destruction of Lawrence

Federal Marshal J. B. Donaldson declared that this action was in breach of the law and he called a grand jury. The jury ruled that the Lawrence Hotel was actually a fort. As a result, Sheriff Jones assembled a group of around 800 pro-slavery supporters and attacked and ransacked the village on May 11. The attack completely destroyed the village and one person was killed.

When Brown Jr. learned that Lawrence had been destroyed, he ordered his men to return home. However, Brown Sr. was outraged by the event, and several others that had occurred in the recent past, and was determined to seek revenge. His primary target would be Henry Sherman, a violent pro-slavery supporter.

The Massacre

Together with four of his sons, Owen, Frederick, Salmon, and Oliver and two other men, Thomas Weiner and James Townsleythey, arrived at the home of James Doyle on the evening of May 24. Doyle and his two eldest sons were known slave catchers.

Brown told them that they were to be taken prisoner, but when the men left the house, Brown’s men attacked them with swords and killed them. Brown did not take part in the actual killings, but he shot James Doyle in the head to make sure he was dead. Doyle’s wife and youngest son were left unharmed in the house.

Brown’s group then traveled to the home of Allen Wilkinson, whom they also attacked and killed. They then moved on to the home of James Harris, arriving there in the early hours of May 25.

Harris had three visitors staying with him, one of whom was Henry Sherman’s brother, William. Brown and his group conducted interrogations of Harris and his guests, and appear to have been satisfied with their answers because all but one of the men were spared. William Sherman was not so lucky, presumably because of his family connections, and he was taken from the house to the nearby Pottawatomie Creek and chopped and stabbed to death by swords.

During the interrogation at the Harris home, Brown learned that Henry Sherman, known as Dutch Henry, was not in the area. He and his group then returned to rejoin Brown Jr.’s men.


Pro-slavery supporters launched a violent manhunt, and destroyed the Browns’ property. John Brown senior managed to flee unscathed, but his son Frederick was shot dead.

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