Friday, June 24, 2011

1870: A Congressman and a Federal official take hostages in Jackson County

Rep. Charles M. Hamilton
by Dale Cox

Much is said during budget negotiations about Members of Congress holding senior citizens hostage. In Jackson County, however, it happened for real in the summer of 1870.

Although both U.S. Representative Charles M. Hamilton (R, Florida) and William J. Purman, U.S. Assessor for Florida, claimed to live in Jackson County, neither had visited the county in over one year. They came back in August of 1870, however, while campaigning for office. Things did not go well.

Although much has been made in the writings of historians about the events that took place in Jackson County during the Reconstruction years, particularly with regard to hostility between the races, Hamilton and Purman - both white - were undoubtedly the most hated men there during those violent years.

They had first arrived in Marianna in 1866 as agent and assistant agent of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, the Federal entity created to guide the assimilation of Southern whites and blacks as they adjusted to the freedom of the latter following the War Between the States. While many of the stated goals of the Freedmen's Bureau, as it was generally termed, were noble, things did not always work so well in practice.

Sen. William J. Purman
Hamilton and Purman became engaged in a series of bitter confrontation with Jackson County residents and the former even went so far as to write secret letters to other officials urging the instigation of an uprising of the local black population and a racial war against the county's whites. The animosity was by no means one-sided. Purman barely survived an assassination attempt in 1869 and violence committed by both whites and blacks accelerated to dramatic levels.

Hamilton left the county first, having been named Florida's sole Congressman. Purman followed following the assassination attempt, serving first as a political appointee and then as Jackson County's state senator (even though he no longer lived in the county).

As the election of 1870 heated up, however, the two men came back to Jackson County on a campaign swing. Likely to their surprise, one of Florida's leading African-American officials accused them both of being little more than thieves. Tensions heightened and Hamilton and Purman soon began to wonder how they would be able to leave the county with their skins.

Marianna in the late 1800s
Initially they conferred with Sheriff Thomas West, also an appointee of Florida's Reconstruction Governor, and he issued a summons for an armed posse of 500 men to escort the two officials out of the county. Fearing that this would ignite all out war, a delegation of Marianna's older and established citizens came to try to convince them of the error of this policy:

When the older citizens found such was to be the programme, they immediately came to us, and begged, for God’s sake, that we should not call out such a posse, saying that their young men would not stand it; that war would take place right away at once. They said: “Ask any means for your safety and you shall have it.” Thereupon, we selected ten of the oldest and best citizens as hostages. - Testimony by William J. Purman, November 11, 1871.

Purman later testified before a group of U.S. Congressmen investigating the outbreak of violence in Jackson County. The members seemed stunned to some degree that a sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives (Hamilton) and a Federal official (Purman) would resort to such measures:

Question. You spoke of some ten or twelve old men going with you as hostages. Do you mean by that they went out to answer with their lives for any assault on you?

Answer. No, sir; I will explain what I mean, Mr. Senator. There were fifteen of us, and ten of them, and had we been attacked, and had it become necessary to go on, spiritually speaking, into the land of Canaan, every one of those men would have gone with us.

Question. You would have murdered those old men?

Answer. We would not have gone alone ; we would have done what it is said Indians have done under certain circumstances. We have heard of Indians, who, when pursued, would interpose the women and children they may have kidnapped between the guns of their enemies and themselves. Had we been pursued in that way, we would have made a bulwark of those hostages.

The use of American citizens as human shields by two Federal authorities in Jackson County worked in that both escaped with their lives. They never faced legal consequences for their roles in the episode.


Jessica Ross said...

Hello again. I was so pleased with your possum article I just had to read more... do you have any information on Cottondale?? I am from Chipley but I moved here six years ago and sence discovered a love for this tiny town. Older people I speak with told me the home I live in is over a hundred years old and one of the first two homes built here. I can't find out anything about my home or the town. can you help me in any way? Thanks! Jessica

Dale said...

Hi Jessica, Thank you so much for your kind words. Yes, Cottondale was founded when the railroad was built through Jackson County during the late 1800s. There was a little settlement there, however, from the earliest days of the county and the one-time county seat of Webbville was just a few miles north of what is now Cottondale. Let me see what I can find out about some exact dates and such for you.


Anonymous said...

I saw something about that subject on TV last night. Good post.

Anonymous said...

I really liked the article, and the very cool blog

Dale said...

Thank you very much for the kind words.