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Civil War Chronicles

Abolitionist John Doy

May 2024
5min read

Tempers flare and violence reigns in the pre–Civil War battleground of Kansas

On January 25, 1859, a small wagon expedition of three whites and 13 blacks stole away from Lawrence, Kansas, on the first leg of a journey that would take the African Americans to the free state of Iowa, far from Kansas and the ever-present threat of kidnapping by slave traders. For the three white abolitionists it was a protest against those who would deny their deepest beliefs about freedom and human rights.

The wagons splashed across the Kansas River and left Lawrence behind. Twelve miles outside town, after the party had descended a small hill, about 20 armed and mounted men emerged from behind a bluff. Guns leveled, they forced the wagons to a stop and accused the white men of stealing slaves. The expedition’s white leader, John Doy, jumped from his horse and confronted a man he recognized. “Where’s your process?” Doy demanded. The man shoved his gun barrel into Doy’s head. “Here it is,” he growled.

Ever since the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, the Kansas territory had been thrust into the front lines of the increasingly rancorous national debate over slavery. The act nullified the Missouri Compromise, which had forbidden the expansion of slavery north of the 36°30 N line of latitude, and legislated that settlers could determine by popular vote whether or not to allow slavery in their territories. The stakes were high, and passions became inflamed. “The fate of the South is to be decided in Kansas,” declared South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks in March 1856. Four months later Brooks bludgeoned abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner senseless with a cane on the floor of the Senate after the latter had delivered a speech entitled, “The Crime against Kansas.”

Activists on both sides converged on Kansas, each intending to help tip the scales for or against slavery. “Border ruffians,” who crossed over from slave-owning Missouri, began battling with abolitionist “free soilers.” The violence gave the territory a new name: “Bleeding Kansas.”

John Doy, a physician from Rochester, New York, heeded the call from abolitionist societies and moved to Kansas in July 1854. A full-bearded and serious-looking man, Doy helped found the town of Lawrence and built a house on its outskirts, where his wife and nine children joined him. As a bastion of free-soil sympathies, Lawrence became a target of pro-slavers, who sacked it on May 21, 1856. In retaliation, the abolitionist firebrand John Brown and his men murdered five slave owners near Pottawatomie Creek. Three months later Doy fought alongside Brown in a pitched battle at Osawatomie, 60 miles southeast of Lawrence.

Kansas became increasingly dangerous for African Americans, so on January 18, 1859, a group of Lawrence’s citizens raised money to help blacks move to safety. Brown offered to take one group north to Canada and did so without incident. Doy also volunteered to help by taking another group about 60 miles northwest to the town of Holton, the first step on the road to Iowa. His passage proved less fortunate.

Among the African Americans on Doy’s expedition were Wilson Hayes and Charles Smith, cooks at a Lawrence hotel. Doy knew that both of them were free men, although they had no papers. All the others had their “free papers,” including William Riley, who had been kidnapped once before from Lawrence but had managed to escape.

Free or not, all 16 members of the party now found themselves in the hands of angry men bent on delivering them to slave-owning Missouri. The ambushers forced their captives on an overnight journey to Rialto Ferry, where they were put aboard a steamboat for passage across the Missouri River. On the opposite shore, an awaiting mob paraded Doy on horseback through town, beating and cursing him. One enraged man grabbed Doy by the beard and smashed his head repeatedly against a wall of the building where the prisoners were to spend the night.

The next morning John and his 25-year-old son Charles were pushed through the mob to the courthouse. The justice of the peace, who had “a face and eyes that looked as if all the milk of human kindness he ever possessed had long since soured,” Doy later remembered, sent the third white man back to Kansas but ordered the Doys locked up in Platte City and put on trial for abducting slaves.

After another rough welcome in Platte City, the two Doys were thrown into a windowless cell, “an iron box, exactly eight feet square . . . and about seven feet high, furnished with a mattress on an iron bedstead, and with a horse rug and an old piece of cotton carpeting for a coverlid.” The situation proved even worse for the African Americans. Hays, Smith, and Riley landed in the Platte City jail. Doy watched through the door grate as slave trader Jake Hurd brutally whipped Hays and Smith in a futile attempt to gain a confession that they were escaped slaves, then dragged them away. Riley managed to loosen the bars from his cell window and escaped back to Kansas—only to be later kidnapped once more as he was making his way to Nebraska.

Doy’s counsel successfully petitioned to have the trial moved to the slightly less hostile town of St. Joseph, and the Doys bid farewell to their miserable Platte City cell on March 24. “Pale from confinement and want of light, cadaverous, emaciated, covered with vermin—for notwithstanding the clean clothes we had had the advantage of since my wife’s arrival, we had not been able to free ourselves of them—with my joints swollen, my ankles, especially, so painful that I could hardly bear my weight upon them, I was weakened both in body and mind,” Doy wrote.

The jail in St. Joseph was “a paradise after the cell at Platte City,” and the jailer, named Brown, “proved to be a very humane man.” The jury at the first trial in St. Joseph deadlocked, so the judge set Charles free and scheduled a second trial for the elder Doy on June 20. The second jury found him guilty and sentenced him to five years’ hard labor. While Doy’s counsel filed an appeal to the state supreme court, prosecutors planned a dozen more indictments against him on charges of stealing other slaves in the ill-fated expedition. He faced up to 65 years in prison.

But help was on its way. On the evening of July 23 a young man visited him in the jailhouse and slipped him a note reading “Be ready at midnight.”

That night a storm hit St. Joseph. Amid its fury a man knocked on the jailhouse door and shouted to Brown the jailer that he had a horse thief he wanted locked up. Somewhat reluctantly, Brown went downstairs and opened the door. Two men held the alleged criminal, his hands bound. The jailer led them upstairs and opened the door to the cell. Suddenly the horse thief whipped off his bindings and one of his “captors” jammed a revolver against Brown’s chest. “If you resist or try to give an alarm, you’re a dead man,” he warned. “We’ve come to take Dr. Doy home to Kansas, and we mean to do it; so you’d best be quiet.”

Doy emerged from the cell, shook the jailer’s hand, and left with his rescuers. He was so weak that two men needed to support him through the storm and down to the river, where boats were waiting. “By dint of hard pulling, for the current of the Missouri is very strong there, we soon landed on the Kansas bank, which I had often gazed at longingly from the window of my cell,” Doy wrote. His rescuers bundled their charge into a covered wagon for the 90-mile journey back to Lawrence, where Doy was “restored to my home, to my family and friends, and to the soil I love so well.”

His ordeal was over, but the country’s was just beginning. In October 1859 Doy’s friend and fellow abolitionist John Brown led a raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Civil War erupted a year and a half later.

Editor’s note: As we approach the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, American Heritage has decided to publish a column, “Civil War Chronicles,” which will document events in our nation’s life that occurred 150 years ago. Over the next half a dozen years, “Civil War Chronicles” will offer an ongoing narrative of the unfolding events of the war and, in doing so, illuminate its profound effects on American history and our national character.


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