John Brown led a raid on proslavery advocates who lived along Pottawatomie and Mosquito creeks near modern day Lane on the night of May 24, 1856, during which Brown’s men killed five proslavery advocates with artillery swords.

Brown’s raid was, and is, called the Pottawatomie Massacre, and the morality of the raid has been the subject of debate since news of the raid became public in 1856.

James Hanway, a free state settler who knew John Brown, argued that Brown’s raid was morally and militarily justified and necessary for the protection of Free State settlers in the area.

Hanway wrote to James Redpath in a March 12, 1860, letter, stating: “I was personally acquainted with the Doyals, Wilkinsons & Sherman; and I am fully satisfied, as everybody else who lived on the Creek in ’56; that a base conspiracy was on foot to drive out, burn and kill: in a word the Pottawatomie Creek from its mouth to its founded head was to be cleared of every man, woman or child who was for Kansas being a free state.”

Hanway further asserted that John Brown was morally and militarily justified in his raid.

Hanway wrote: “I will give one item, which has never been published, and perhaps I may be considered as infringing on private conversation; but the importance of the question demands it. When the party [Brown’s raiders] called at the house of the Sherman’s, Mrs. Harris who was living there — commenced getting breakfast, believing the party who had arrived were friends who were expected from Missouri to carry out the border ruffian plan of clearing the Creek of Abolitionists. This important fact alone is evidence that John Brown was correct in his predictions.”

Hanway summed up his opinion on the morality of the “Pottawatomie Massacre” by writing: “My dear sir, I will sum up the entire question of the Pottawatomie matter in a few words. Old John Brown was at my house several days at various times in 1858. We had a long talk over the political difficulties of Kansas. He asked me ‘how do the people on the Creek regard the killing of the Sherman’s etc at this time.’ My remark was that I did not know a settler of ’56 but what regarded it as amongst the most fortunate events in the history of Kansas-that the event saved the lives of the free state men on the creek: that those who did the act were looked upon as our deliverers.”

The Pottawatomie Massacre was, and is still, one of John Brown’s most controversial actions, and James Hanway was a Free State settler who knew John Brown and believed that Brown’s raid was morally and militarily correct.

Hanway further believed that the men John Brown killed were militant proslavery advocates who were a real threat to the lives of Free State settlers along Pottawatomie Creek. Hanway’s view of John Brown’s raid on Pottawatomie Creek was shared by others in Kansas Territory and in the nation, and is but one view of the Pottawatomie Massacre.

Grady Atwater is site administrator of the John Brown Museum and State Historic Site.

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