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The Battle of the Spurs

By May 18, 2018 4 Comments

There’s something vintage Old Testament about the story, something decidedly like myth. But it happened; and just a bit north of Topeka, atop a hill along the road, a somewhat unkempt highway marker tells part of the story, the part that can’t be doubted. What can is far more fascinating.

That John Brown (yes, that John Brown) was willing to die to put an to end slavery is not news, either to us or the “border ruffians” who, for a time at least, ran the government in Kansas in the late 1850s. John Brown was willing to die, but also willing to kill–and did, not only at Harper’s Ferry, but in eastern Kansas. Because slavery was of the Devil, fighting a holy war was his calling. 

The historical marker on the hill is all about him. He was, after all, at the reins of a prairie schooner full of runaway slaves that ended up in the neighborhood of that highway marker–ten–no eleven–runaway slaves to be exact, Mrs. Daniels having just had a baby mid-escape. It was cold, not unmercifully so, but it was January, 1859; and for all intents and purposes, in Kansas the Civil War had begun, even though Ft. Sumter was a year and a half away.

For more than a year, 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, then in power, got wind of John Brown and his runaway slaves, they formed a posse–thirty men, well-armed–to stop the criminal activity. They called themselves “law-and-order” party after all. 

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

A dozen church-goers hurried to the Fuller cabin just outside of a tiny 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 had mission in his soul. He was going to cross where God intended him to cross, come hell or that very high water, even though he knew a pro-slavery posse had assumed battle stations for an attack. Brown could not have missed them. 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 in front of them, as if there were no guns at all, only the arms of the Lord.

Here’s the Old Testament part. For reasons forever unknown, the pro-slavers held their fire, then turned and got the heck out of there, took off and ran 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.” The only weapon the slavers put to use that wet January morning was the spurs they dug into their horses’ flanks.

By the way, the Topekans were right about the ford. John Brown’s prairie schooner got stuck fast 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 row grips the heart. “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.”

True believers, they were–perfectly true believers.

At what point does faith become fanaticism? Go ahead and try to answer me that. 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Thank you so much for giving us this stuff. We need to know these stories.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Good morning!

    I’ll take a stab at your challenge question:

    “For there was no evil intention in my heart.”

    If you start with that presupposition, you can really achieve an incredible amount of fanatical evil.

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    For a wacky and fascinating and, in the end, rather moving take on John Brown and Harper’s Ferry, read James McBride’s novel, The Good Lord Bird. Do you know it, Jim? You’d enjoy it.

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