Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 5, 2020

John Brown and the American Indian

Filed under: african-american,American civil war,slavery — louisproyect @ 6:51 pm

It is a terrible disgrace that some on the left have praised the Showtime series on John Brown, including Eileen Jones on Jacobin, Ben Travers on IndieWire and Melanie McFarland on Salon. I say that without having seen a single episode but am sure that if it is even 1/100th faithful to James McBride’s novel, it is a hatchet job on John Brown.

As I work my way through David S. Reynolds’s superlative biography, I can imagine a great biopic about John Brown that would finally put the stake in the heart of all the trashy films that preceded it, including “Santa Fe Trail” and “The Good Lord Bird”. The following excerpt from Reynolds’s book details the relationship between Brown and the American Indians in Kansas. Yes, Brown was a Calvinist—with all its faults—but he was also a deeply ethical human being. A biopic about Brown would salvage him from all the mud that has been thrown by Hollywood and premium cable. He might have been a fanatic but that’s what it took to stand up to racism. Thank goodness the white participation in BLM protests shows that his soul goes marching on.


In Kansas there was a close link between the incursions of slavery and the maltreatment of Native Americans. As late as 1854, Kansas was still so sparsely settled that no settlement there could be identified as a white town or village. Native Americans, many of whom had been forced out of the East, were the main inhabitants of the Territory. Although white towns formed as proslavery and antislavery forces competed for supremacy after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Indians were by far the largest ethnic group during the time John Brown was there.

In warring against proslavery forces, John Brown was defending the rights of not only African Americans but also of Native Americans. Indian tribes occupied the finest lands in Kansas. From 1854 onward, proslavery settlers took control of most of these lands through unfair bargains, out-right confiscation, or deadly force. A contemporary journalist noted, “Nearly all of the Indian agents [i.e., white officials who dealt with the natives] were slavery propagandists, and many of them owned slaves.” The first to introduce slavery into Kansas was the Reverend Tom Johnson, an illiterate, coarse, slaveholding minister who appropriated some of the Shawnee tribe’s finest land and converted it into Shawnee Mission, a pro-slavery center.

Thereafter, proslavery settlers attempted to spread the so-called bless-ings of the South’s culture, including its incongruous mixture of Christianity and slavery. Nearly 1 oo,000 Cherokees, Creeks, and Choctaws established Christian communities in the territory south of Kansas, in what is now Oklahoma. These Indian communities had newspapers, churches, and, shockingly, slavery. Many Cherokee farmers owned black slaves.

Most of the natives who remained in Kansas, however, adopted few white customs other than excessive consumption of firewater. For the most part, the natives in Kansas were cheated or displaced by the invading whites.

Both proslavery and antislavery whites were prejudiced against the natives. The Free State settlers loathed the prospect of Indians remaining in Kansas as strongly as they desired the exclusion of blacks. John Brown and his family were as unusual on the Native American issue as they were in their opinion of blacks. John Brown’s respect for Native American culture dated from his Ohio childhood and ran through his adulthood. A story dating from his period in western Pennsylvania during the 1820s, when he was starting his family near Meadville, showed his deep sympathy for Indians. Every winter, natives from western New York would flock to the Meadville area to hunt. Many times the Browns welcomed groups of natives, supplying them with food and provisions. Some local white families, incensed over the annual arrival of the Indians, went with guns to John Brown’s house, asking him to join them in driving off the natives. John Brown replied firmly, “I will have nothing to do with so mean an act. I would sooner take my gun and help drive you out of the country.”

His notion of fighting racist whites while aiding Indians was fully real-ized in Kansas, where he befriended the natives as he battled the proslavery types who were trying to displace them. From the start, the Browns established friendly relationships with local tribes such as the Sacs, the Foxes, and the Ottawas. Bands of thirty to forty natives would frequently pass back and forth near Brown’s Station. Often four or five would break off from the pack and ride over to talk with the Browns. “While we were in Kansas,” recalled Jason Brown, “I did not know, or hear of a single act of unkindness by any of these Indians to the white settlers.”

In the summer of 1855, John Jr. visited a nearby Indian chief, who was so pleased with their meeting that later he sent members of his tribe to the Browns bearing gifts of melon and corn. The chief made it clear to John that he would have nothing to do with the efforts of whites to “civilize” Native Americans. Civilization, the chief indicated, was corrupting. “We want no houses and barns,” he said. “We want no schools and churches. We want no preachers and teachers.” He added with a laugh, “We bad enough now.” His tribe met in council and chose the Browns as the surveyors of its land, sensing it would thereby be protected against proslavery settlement.

On the eve of the Pottawatomie killings the Browns found that racism tainted even their close followers. John Jr., after seeing his father off with an anxious warning not to do anything “rash,” liberated two enslaved blacks (a teenaged boy and girl) from a farm a dozen miles outside of Lawrence. His subordinates in the Pottawatomie Rifles denounced this bold action, calling it “a great mistake and a terrible outrage upon humanity.”

His brother Jason reported later that the freeing of the slaves “raised a good deal of commotion and division among us” on the issue of race. He explained: “It was objected to by the ‘Free White State’ men, as they called themselves, who wanted Kansas only for whites, when it should be admitted to the Union as a State, leaving out the broken and disheartened remnants of eleven or twelve tribes of ‘red man’ around us, for another removal and the black man to be sent into a still more hopeless bondage.” The volunteers, who “did not want to mix up with ‘niggers’ or abolitionists,” voted to return the blacks to their owner. They also voted to relieve John Jr. of his command of the company.

The incident showed that the problems of blacks and Indians were intermingled. In the eyes of the Browns, the “hopeless bondage” of the slaves and the removals of “broken and disheartened” native tribes were equally despicable. For ” ‘Free White State’ men,” in contrast, both blacks and Indians were loathsome creatures to be banished from the presence of whites. Most Free State whites in Kansas were just as racist as their proslavery opponents, whom they were more inclined to compromise with than to murder.

John Brown’s actions around the time of his Pottawatomie raid show how distanced he was from such racism. Not only did he respect Native Americans, but his closest ally, other than family members, was the half-breed John Tecumseh “Ottawa” Jones. He finalized his plan on the reserve where Jones lived, and after the killings he spent much of his time there. He later credited his Indian friend with saving him and his family from starvation in the desperate months just after the raid.

Ottawa Jones was a prosperous and well-educated farmer who lived on the ten-mile-square Ottawa reserve along with more than three hundred other Indians. He had attended Hamilton College and in 1845 was married to a Maine woman who had come to Kansas as a missionary to the Indians. He owned over a hundred cattle and fourteen horses, and his three-hundred-acre farm produced 4,000 bushels of grain annually. Jones was familiar with the cruelty and treachery of whites. He had established a large hotel that was burned to the ground by forty proslavery men, who also stole money from his wife. His total loss was between $6,000 and $10,000. He had also witnessed the apostasy of Dutch Henry Sherman. For years Sherman had worked on Jones’s farm, until he earned enough to venture out on his own. While working for Jones, Sherman had been equivocal on slavery, but when he left to run the store on Mosquito Creek he became a rabid proslavery activist. On the Joneses’ reserve, near Middle Ottawa Creek, was a way station where Brown and his party camped the night of May 22. Brown’s group used a large grindstone there to sharpen the two-edged broadswords that had been brought from Ohio. The swords, inscribed with eagles, were reportedly left over from a failed filibustering scheme to take over Canada. Now they were going to be put to the service of a new kind of filibuster: one against slavery and racism, one that coupled the gratuitous violence of Southern lynchings with the bloodiness of revolts by enslaved blacks and massacres by Native Americans.

2 Comments »

  1. The biggest slaveowner in Oklahoma was a Native American himself, Isaac “Stand” Wattee, who was also a general in the Confederate Army; he was instrumental in the decision of the Sioux cheif, Red Cloud, not to join him in an alliance with the Confederacy; Red Cloud saw him punch one of his slaves to the ground for a minor infraction, and told his fellow cheifs, “Don’t listen to the Greycoats, they are even worse than the blue-bellies!”

    Comment by trevor a millar — December 6, 2020 @ 2:38 pm

  2. Richard O.Boyer, author of “Labor’s Untold Story” (still kept in print by the UE; used by many unions as part of their education programs to this day), wrote an excellent biography of John Brown. It was supposed to be a two-volume work, but he died before the second volume was complete.

    Comment by David Berger — December 6, 2020 @ 10:36 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: