Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Life of Thomas Archer

While I've written about people like Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Wild Bill, here is a story about an American who I believe is a great deal more impressive than the three men I mentioned. His name is Thomas Archer. And since there's a good chance that you have never heard of him, I'm here to tell you about him. I hope you find him as interesting as I do.  

Thomas Archer was born near Louisville, Kentucky, on July 18, 1833. He was in Kentucky for less than a year when his parents E. B. and Eliza Allen Archer, moved their family to Missouri in 1834. At the age of 17, Thomas Archer moved out of the family home and left for Pittsfield, Illinois, where he lived for about three years before returning to Missouri. In 1857, Thomas arrived in Topeka, Kansas, and found a job in a brickyard. 

During the late 1850s, abolitionist John Brown was operating his part of the "underground railroad" moving escaped slaves to freedom in the North. The town of Topeka was one of the "stations" when the underground railroad was in operation, and Thomas Archer worked with John Brown to make it happen.

Our history as Americans shows that we give the government time to right things, but when they fail or are too slow to act -- Americans take action. This was the case when it came to abolishing slavery. While some folks think the "underground railroad" was started and ran by a relatively small handful of freed Black slaves, that's not true. What became known as the "underground railroad" was, in reality, a network of places run by mostly White Americans and a few escaped slaves who offered shelter and aid to fugitive slaves from the South.
While the exact dates of its existence are really unknown, it is believed that it may have been operated from the late 1790s into the Civil War's turbulent days. Quaker Abolitionists were the first to organize groups to actively assist escaped slaves. In fact, by the early 1800s, Quaker abolitionist Isaac T. Hopper set up a network in Philadelphia to help escaped slaves on the run. At the same time that was going on in the North, Quakers in the South, starting in North Carolina, organized abolitionist groups that laid out secret routes and stations for escaped slaves seeking shelter.

Later in 1816, like the Quakers, the African Methodist Episcopal Church organized a group to help fugitive slaves heading North. Also, Vigilance Committees were organized at the time with the mission of protecting fugitive slaves from bounty hunters in the North. Those Vigilante Committees later expanded their mission to include guiding escaped slaves on the run. Robert Purvis, an escaped slave who became a Philadelphia merchant, formed a Vigilance Committee there in 1838 to help other fugitive slaves.

In the South, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 made capturing escaped slaves a fairly lucrative business. This gave rise to bounty hunters who sniffed out the hiding places of escaped slaves. Some of those hiding places were the homes of ordinary people, farmers, business owners, and ministers, known on the underground railroad as "conductors" and "stationmasters." 

Those folks guided the fugitive slaves to the next station in the chain of "stations." While some "stations" were private homes, they also included churches, schoolhouses, stores, warehouses, and other places where sympathetic people could hide them safely. Besides known as "stations" and "depots," those "safe places" were also known as "safe houses." 

Routes stretched west through Ohio to Indiana and Iowa, while other routes led escaped slaves to Pennsylvania and New England. Some led all the way to Canada, where Black people had the freedom to live where they wanted, sit on juries, run for public office, and, most importantly, avoid the American Fugitive Slave Laws as a result of the Fugitive Slave Acts. 

The first Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1793. It allowed local governments to apprehend and extradite escaped slaves from within the borders of free states. Those escaped slaves were sent back to their point of origin. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 setup punishment for anyone helping the fugitives. While there was an attempt by Northern states to try to over-rule the Fugitive Slave Act with what was called Personal Liberty Laws, the efforts by Northern states were struck down by the United States Supreme Court in 1842.

As for the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850? It was designed to strengthen the previous law, which Southern states saw as being inadequately enforced. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 created much harsher penalties for those assisting fugitive slaves. It also made Commissioners that sided with slave owners and led to some freed slaves being recaptured. 

Abolitionist John Brown was a conductor on the underground railroad. During that time, he established the League of Gileadites -- a group of devoted believers who helped fugitive slaves get to Canada. While John Brown was a fervent believer in eliminating slavery and did whatever was called for to help fugitive slaves, he is famously known for leading a raid on Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia. But frankly, Brown and his group did more than that to free slaves.

Thomas Archer became involved in the underground railway and was a companion to John Brown. In fact, Archer was with John Brown at the "Battle of the Spurs" near Holton, Kansas. What became known as the "Battle of the Spurs" is interesting for a few reasons, but mostly in regards to who has the deeper commitment. You'll see what I mean in a moment. 

What became known as the "Battle of the Spurs" took place about 7 miles north of Holton, Kansas, on January 31, 1859. At the "Battle of the Spurs," what took place was a pathetic display of cowardice by pro-slavery authorities there.

John Brown and his men, which included Thomas Archer, were escorting 11 escaped slaves. Some of the fugitive slaves were women and children. He had brought them from the Slave-state of Missouri and was heading to the Free-state of Iowa. At one point, Brown and his group faced a posse of U.S. Marshals and citizens. The Marshal's posse was hoping to cash in on the $3,000 reward offered for Brown's capture. 

Brown's group consisted of about 21, which included the 11 slaves. And among the slaves, more than half were women and children. Marshal John Wood, who led the posse, was hidden in a nearby stream crossing with his 35 deputies. And while this was going on, Freestaters heard about Brown being in trouble and gathered to march from Topeka to support him. 

Brown's group faced that Marshal's posse of reportedly 35 armed men. The pro-slavers were hungry to divide up that $3,000 reward money. Brown’s party was outnumbered two to one. But instead of surrendering, Brown led his party to charge straight toward the Marshal Wood's posse. Brown defiantly ordered his group to ford the creek. Brown and his group all reached Iowa unharmed.

A witness later recalled, "Scarcely had the foremost entered the water when the valiant marshal but mounted his horse and rode off in haste." Another witness said, "The closer we got to the ford, the farther they got from it." In response to Brown's advance, the Marshal's posse panicked and turned and ran for their lives. People hearing about what happened mocked the pro-slavery posse’s retreat, and a newspaperman dubbed what took place as the "Battle of the Spurs." 

During the incident, not a single shot was fired. So why is it called the Battle of the Spurs? It's because "Free-Staters labeled the confrontation the 'Battle of the Spurs,' in mocking reference to the pro-slavery posse fleeing on horseback." The battle received its name because the Marshal Wood's posse and Missouri citizens used their spurs to getaway. There is a historical marker located where it took place near Netawaka, Kansas, in Jackson County.

The inscription on that marker reads as follows: Just before Christmas, 1858, John Brown "liberated" eleven slaves in Missouri. He hid them in a covered wagon and circled north on the underground railway toward Nebraska and freedom. En route, a Negro baby was born. Late in January, they reached Albert Fuller's cabin on Straight creek, a mile and a half south of this marker. Here a Federal posse barred their way. Both sides sent for reinforcements. Help for Brown arrived first, Topeka abolitionists leaving in the midst of Sunday church. Declaring he would not be turned "from the path of the Lord," Brown, though still outnumbered, crossed the creek in spite of high water and the enemy entrenched on the other side. Demoralized by his audacity, the posse mounted and spurred away -- thus giving a name to the bloodless battle. This was Brown's exit from Kansas. In December 1859, he was hanged for his treasonable attack at Harper's Ferry. This sign marks the site of Eureka, a trading center on the Parallel Road which ran from Atchison to the Pike's Peak goldfields.

As for Thomas Archer, he continued being a part of Brown's group but was not there at Harper's Ferry, which took place from October 16th to the 18th, 1859. At Harper’s Ferry, Brown's mission was to capture arms at the Federal Armoury located there, to create an armed force. That force was to make its way into the South and free slaves by force of arms. Brown’s men were defeated, and Brown hanged for treason in 1859.

Archer kept working with the underground railroad after the federal authorities hanged John Brown for his Harper's Ferry Raid. And it wasn't long after the start of the Civil War that Archer joined the Fifth Kansas Volunteer Cavalry. 

Then during the Battle of Pine Bluff on October 25, 1863, Archer received a wound to his the shoulder that would change his life. The Battle of Pine Bluff was a Civil War battle that was fought on October 25, 1863, in Jefferson County, Arkansas. 

It was there near the Jefferson County Courthouse, where the Union garrison under the command of Col. Powell Clayton successfully defended the town against attacks led by Confederate Brig. Gen. John S. Marmaduke. The Union victory ensured the safety of the garrison until the end of the war.

After the capture of Little Rock, Arkansas, Union forces occupied several towns along the Arkansas River. Confederate Brig. Gen. John S. Marmaduke decided to test the Union strength at the town of Pine Bluff. On October 25, 1863, at 8:00 a.m., when Gen. Marmaduke sent his cavalry, a force of 2,000, to attack the town from three sides. Their target was the Union post at Pine Bluff. 

Confederate Brig. Gen. Marmaduke believed the 550 Union cavalrymen and the Missouri militia, supported by 300 freedmen, commanded by Col. Powell Clayton would not stand a chance against such odds. In response to the attack, the Union troops barricaded themselves in the courthouse square. Using cotton-bales and wagons as barricades, and utilizing single cannon in such a position to command the adjacent streets, the smaller unit of Union troops held their position. 

After several attempts to take the square, including trying to set the county courthouse on fire, the Confederate forces withdrew and retreated to Princeton, Arkansas. It's said Gen. Marmaduke never got over the demoralizing defeat that day.

As for Archer, the result of his shoulder wound was the loss of the use of his right arm. But though that was the case, Archer remained in the Union Army until he was discharged on August 11, 1864. It was then that Archer returned to Topeka, Kansas, and became a Shawnee County Sheriff’s Deputy. I found it interesting that he was a County Deputy and a Constable in Topeka at the same time.

On August 3, 1866, The Topeka Tribune reported that a prisoner who was being guarded by Archer had escaped custody. The prisoner was Charles Gillison. And believe it or not, Gillison did not escape from jail but from this room in a boarding house. 

For me, I mark this story as learning something new every day. Why? Well, at the time, if a prisoner could afford it, it is said that a prisoner could rent a room and "hire a deputy" to guard him rather than spend time in jail. And no, I never heard of such a thing. 

As for Charles Gillison, it's said he took complete advantage of that option, rented a room on the second floor of what some describe as a boarding house with the only access down an outside stairway, and then he hired Deputy Thomas Archer to guard him. Imagine that! 

While Gillison was in his room, Thomas Archer positioned himself on a landing outside the rented room. It was while Archer was sitting there when Charles Gillison suddenly came running out the door, pushed past Archer, and then ran down the stairs. Once Gillison made it outside, there was no stopping him. He headed out of town, and no one in Topeka ever saw Charles Gillison again. Despite Thomas Archer's attempt to pursue him, Gillison was gone. 

The Topeka Tribune is said to have poked fun at Archer by reporting, "His guard was in a reclining posture on the stairway – the prisoner is a young, active and strong man and wholly unencumbered, while Mr. Archer was encumbered by a heavy revolver, heavy boots on his feet and a lame arm." 

Thomas Archer married Ruth Hard on September 26, 1867. Then in 1873, Thomas Archer ran for Shawnee County Sheriff but lost the election. He was a Deputy and Constable there for 12 years.  

He left law enforcement after he passed the bar exam and became a lawyer. Soon after that, he became a Jefferson County Judge. He was a Judge for the next 26 years before finally retiring. Even before retiring, he was known to contribute editorials to the local newspaper. 

After living a life that benefited all around him, Thomas Archer died in Kansas City, Missouri, on November 4th, 1913. He is buried in his beloved Topeka, right there at the Topeka Cemetery, Shawnee County, Kansas.

All in all, no one can deny, he had a fascinating life.

Tom Correa


  1. My, my, my, Tom, you did it again; a marvelous bit of history! Thanks so much, from Elizabeth in Redding, on top of Johnson Mountain.


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