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Battle of the Spurs

Wikimedia Commons

There's something vintage Old Testament about the whole story, something that feels like myth. But it happened; and just a bit north of Topeka, an unkept highway marker up on a hill tells part of the story that can't be doubted. What can is far more fascinating.

That John Brown, the abolitionist, was willing to die to put an to end slavery is not news, either to us or the "border ruffians" who, for a time, ran the Kansas government. John Brown was willing to die, but also to kill--and did, not only at Harper's Ferry, but also in eastern Kansas. Slavery was of the Devil, which made fighting a holy war his calling. 

That historical marker is all about him. He was, at the time, aboard a prairie schooner full of runaway slaves that ended up close to where that highway marker stands--ten--no eleven--runaway slaves, a Mrs. Daniels having just had a baby. It was cold, not unmercifully so--January, 1859. In Kansas the Civil War had begun, even though Ft. Sumter was a year and a half away.

Kansas had become a checkerboard of areas controlled by the slavers, who wanted to make Kansas a slave state, or the abolitionists, the "free-staters" who'd gone west to homestead land but mostly to fight slavery. 

When a pro-slavery bunch got wind of John Brown and his wagon full of runaway slaves, thirty men, well-armed, went out to stop it. They called themselves "law-and-order" party. 

John Brown sent word into nearby Topeka, where, on Sunday morning, Col. John Richee and family had just taken a pew in their Congregational church. When Richee got whispered the news, he stood up and said, "There is work for us to do," then walked out. The preacher quietly told his flock there'd be no worship that Sabbath.

A dozen church-goers hurried to the Fuller cabin just outside of a town named Holton, where they found John Brown gearing up for a trip to Tabor, Iowa, the next stop on the underground railroad. Brown told the Topekans that he and the others were going to ford Straight Creek and head north, according to plan. Col. Richee, et al, suggested that because the creek was high, it might be wise to go another five miles up, where the ford was less demanding.

John Brown saw life as a mission. He was going to cross Straight Creek where God intended him to cross, come hell or very high water, even though he knew a pro-slavery posse had assumed battle stations. He knew. He had to.

No matter.

He climbed into the seat, took the reins, aimed the team up the road toward Straight Creek, fire in his eyes, the straight and narrow out there clearly before him, as if there were no guns at all, only the arms of the Lord.

Credit Wikimedia Commons
Salt print, three quarter length portrait of John Brown. Reproduction of daguerreotype attributed to Martin M. Lawrence.

Here's the Old Testament story. For reasons no one knows, the pro-slavers watched them leave, then turned and took off running without firing a shot, which is why, today, up there on the hill above the creek, that weathered highway marker is titled "The Battle of the Spurs." Listen. The only weapon the slavers used that wet January morning was the spurs they dug into their horses' flanks.

By the way, the Topekans were right about the ford. That prairie schooner got so stuck in the creek, it took several hours to get out.

Less than a year later, John Brown and his men, after a failed rebellion at Harper's Ferry, were behind bars, facing the hangman's noose. One of his men, Aaron D. Stevens, wrote Jennie Dunbar, his friend, to say his wounds were healing and that he wasn't feeling guilty in the least "for there was no evil intention in my heart." His note from death is memorable. "Slavery demands that we should hang for its protection," he wrote Miss Dunbar, "and we will meet it willingly, knowing that God is Just, and is over all."

Fanatics? —or just the faithful? You call it.


Support for Small Wonders on Siouxland Public Media comes from the Daniels Osborn Law Firm in the Ho Chunk Centre in downtown Sioux City, serving needs of clients in real estate transactions; business formation and guidance; and personal estate planning. More information is available on Facebookor at danielsosborn.com.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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