John Brown Today

Pottawatomie, 1856: The Political and the Personal

November 29, 2020 Louis DeCaro Jr. Season 1 Episode 5
John Brown Today
Pottawatomie, 1856: The Political and the Personal
Show Notes Chapter Markers

In this episode, Lou considers one of the most controversial themes in the John Brown story: the Pottawatomie killings of May 1856. Lou argues that there is a standard bias in the way many narrators deal with the controversial Kansas episode, when Brown and his men killed five proslavery neighbors along the Pottawatomie Creek.  All too often, popular narratives on Brown have barely begun before the "Pottawatomie massacre" is invoked, reinforcing notions of Brown as a "terrorist." As a biographer, Lou argues to the contrary: John Brown was a counter-terrorist and the Pottawatomie episode cannot be correctly understood without a consideration of the political conditions of territorial Kansas in the spring of 1856, and the particular challenges and hazards faced by the Browns, who were notorious, even among free state settlers, for being radical abolitionists and advocates of black equality. The argument is not to beautify the Pottawatomie killings, but to see them for what they were, and to understand why principled and religious men like John Brown and his party chose to make such an extreme response.

The Pottawatomie "massacre"?
John Brown, "American" terrorist?
What's wrong with the popular narrative
The real facts of the incident
The historical-political context
The big picture
Brown's interview with William A. Phillips
"I drew my sword in Kansas when they attacked us"
John Brown and free state racists
The motivation for the killings
Kansas and the Civil War
On the Pottawatomie killings
Mahala Doyle's letter
Memories of killing and death
As "essential" as "horrible"
Response to skeptics
Counter-terrorism