History, Tales, and Destinations in the Land of Ahs


Border Ruffian Warfare in Atchison

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Atchison, Kansas around 1860The few Free-Staters who settled in Atchison previous to 1857 were, with two or three exceptions, very careful not to express their sentiments. Up to the spring of that year there was no political organization in the county opposed to the principle of slavery. Occasionally; however, very early in the conflict, someone like Reverend Pardee Butler of the Christian Church, reckless of bodily consequences, ventured to uphold his Abolitionist opinions, even upon the corner of the streets.  


In the month of August, 1855, a black woman "belonging" to Grafton Thomassen, the sawmill man, was found drowned in the river. A gentleman from Cincinnati, J. W. B. Kelley, a lawyer by profession and a Free-soiler in politics, made the mistake of expressing his opinion that if she had been treated better she would not have committed suicide.


He went on to throw out more remarks on the subject of slavery, which were offensive to the pro-slavery party. Thomassen was sufficiently angered enough that he physically beat Kelley up and was sustained in his conduct by a large meeting of Atchison's townsmen. The townsmen quickly made several resolutions concerning Kelley:


  • Resolved, That one J. W. B. Kelley, hailing from Cincinnati, having upon sundry occasions denounced our institutions, and declared all Pro-slaverymen ruffians, we deem it an act of kindness to rid him of such company, and therefore command him to leave the town of Atchison one hour after having been informed of the passage of this resolution, never more to show himself in this vicinity.

  • Resolved 2d. That in case he fails to obey this reasonable command, we inflict upon him such punishment as the nature of the case and circumstances may require.

  • Resolved, 3d. That other emissaries of this Abolitionist Society, now in our midst tampering with our slaves, are warned to leave, else they will meet the reward which their nefarious designs so justly merit - hemp.

  • Resolved, 4d. That we approve and applaud our fellow townsman, Grafton Thomassen, for the castigation administered to said J. W. B. Kelley, whose presence among us is a libel upon our good standing and a disgrace to our community.

  • Resolved, 5th. That we recommend the good work of purging our town of all resident Abolitionists; and after cleansing our town of such nuisances, shall do the same for the settlers on Walnut and Independence creeks, whose propensities for cattle stealing are well known to many.

  • Resolved, 6th. That the chairman appoint a committee of three to wait upon said Kelley and acquaint him with the action of this meeting.

  • Resolved, 7th. That the proceedings of this meeting be published, that the world may know our determination.


It was further agreed that copies of these resolutions be made out and circulated for the signatures of all the townsmen, and all who refused to sign them should be considered and treated as abolitionists.


Reverend Pardee Butler lived upon his claim, twelve miles west of Atchison. On August 16th, very soon after this large and enthusiastic meeting had been held, he came to town on his way to the East, bound on business. But some of his pro-slavery enemies said “he arrived in town, with a view of starting for the East, probably for the purpose of getting a fresh supply of Free-soilers from the penitentiaries and pest-holes of the Northern States."


Being obliged to wait for a boat until morning, Pardee stayed at the National Hotel, and then proceeded to make the rounds of the town, expressing himself freely, as was his wont, upon Free-soiler and Abolitionist doctrines, and being particularly severe upon the actions of the meeting which passed the Thomassen-Kelley resolutions. He declared that there were many persons in Atchison who were Free-soilers at heart, but feared to avow their sentiments. He; however, would express his views wherever he was. Reverend Butler, in fact, preached the "foulest Abolitionist heresies," and was considered a dangerous man, to be let alone.




Pardee ButlerIn the course of a conversation which he had at the post office with Robert S. Kelley, publisher of the local newspaper, Butler informed him that he would have become a regular subscriber of his paper, had he not disliked the spirit of violence which characterized it.


To this, Kelley replied, "I look upon all Free-soilers as rogues, and they ought to be treated as such."


Butler responded, "I am a Free-soiler and expect to vote for Kansas to be a Free State."


"I do not expect you will be allowed to vote," was the reply.


The next morning Kelley called at the hotel with the resolutions which had been adopted by the public meeting, and the signature to which was to be made the test of political faith. Of course, Butler refused to sign the pro-slavery document and walked down the stairs into the street. A crowd was there awaiting him, which increased as they dragged the abolitionist victim along towards the river, saying they were going to drown him. A vote was taken upon the mode of punishment which ought to be accorded to him, and a decided verdict of death by hanging was rendered. Ironically, Kelley ended up saving Butler's life, by talking the other townsmen into sending him down the Missouri River on a raft instead.


The particulars of his treatment were later given by the Reverend Butler himself:


"When we arrived at the bank, Kelley painted my face with black paint, marking upon it the letter 'R'. The company had increased to some thirty or forty persons. Without any trial, witness, judge, counsel, or jury, for about two hours I was a sort of target at which were hurled imprecations, curses, arguments, entreaties, accusations and interrogations. They constructed a raft of three cottonwood saw logs, fastened together with inch plank nailed to the logs, upon which they put me and sent me down the Missouri River. The raft was towed out to the middle of the stream with a canoe. Robert S. Kelley held the rope that towed the raft.


They gave me neither rudder, oar, nor anything else to manage my raft with. They put up a flag on the raft with the following inscriptions on it: 'Eastern Emigrant Aid Express,' 'The Reverend Pardee Butler again for the underground railroad,' and 'The way they are served in Kansas,' 'For Boston,' 'Cargo insured, unavoidable danger of the Missourians and Missouri River excepted,' 'Let future emissaries from the North beware,' 'Our hemp crop is sufficient to reward all such scoundrels.' They threatened to shoot me if I pulled the flag down. I pulled it down, cut the flag off the flag-staff, made a paddle of the flag-staff, and ultimately got ashore about six miles below."


On April 30, 1856, the Reverend Pardee Butler, having terminated safely his voyage on the raft, again ventured to make his appearance in the pro-slavery town of Atchison, where, as he would later record:




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