The life of Mary Emma Byrd's father John Huntington Byrd

Mary Emma Byrd was, like most of us, greatly influenced by her upbringing and the events of her childhood. For Mary these events were particularly dramatic since her father, John Huntington Byrd, was preaching anti-slavery in the decade before the American Civil War which was fought on the issue of slavery. We give below sentences extracted from J E Clayton, An Antislavery Mission: Oberlin College Evangelicals in "Bleeding Kansas", Honours Thesis (Oberlin College, 1990). We have made some modifications so that what we present below does not require the rest of the thesis to be meaningful.

The life of John Huntington Byrd

John Huntington Byrd was born the son of Thomas and Abigail Huntington Byrd on 28 December 1816, in Vergennes, Vermont. Raised in a Quaker household, he joined the Society of Friends at a very young age. In 1837, at the age of twenty-one, he left his home in Vermont to attend the Oberlin Preparatory School. After a full three years of preparatory coursework, he enrolled in the College and received his Bachelor's degree in 1843. In 1841 he joined the Congregational Church in Oberlin which resulted in a lifelong commitment to that faith. Byrd continued his studies in the Theological Department, receiving his degree in 1846, and was soon after ordained a Congregational minister by the Northwest Ohio Association of Ridgefield, Ohio. Less than a year later, on 10 May 1847, John Byrd married Elizabeth Adelaide Lowe, and settled in Fort Pleasant, Michigan.

After graduating, Byrd joined the American Missionary Association (AMA) to preach an Oberlin-bred Gospel that stressed Christian abolitionism within the framework of evangelicalism. The establishment of the American Missionary Association had resulted from the convergence of two dominant ideological trends: evangelical Christianity and abolitionism. Byrd's connection with the AMA can be traced to the organisation's beginning. He attended the second Convention in Albany and was selected as a co-secretary, along with the Rev. James W C Pennington. His first commission with the AMA, a grant of one hundred dollars, came shortly after while stationed in Battle Creek, Michigan. For the next four years, he served as an AMA home missionary in Michigan, preaching at different times in Leondis, Union City, and Olivet. Byrd was vocal in his opposition to slavery. Within months of his arrival in Michigan, in September, 1847, pro-slavery Methodists attempted to get Byrd barred from preaching in public buildings.

In the spring of 1851, Byrd resettled in Sicily, Ohio, because of the poor health of his family. His commissions with the AMA resumed in October 1853 and continued through the middle of 1855 when he decided to go west to Kansas. As in Michigan, Byrd preached a message of freedom and human brotherhood in his churches in Ohio. In a letter to Whipple, dated August 28, 1851, Byrd wrote: "During the winter, an enthusiastic meeting was held to express an opinion on the iniquitous 'Slave Bill' with abhorrence of its demands declared and a solemn pledge given to disregard its new requirements." As it was cultivated in Oberlin, Byrd's condemnation of slavery was embedded in his preaching and was expressed in nearly every sermon he delivered.

In 1855, the AMA commissioned its forth and fifth missionaries to the Kansas Territory. In June, the AMA accepted the application of John H Byrd. He was granted a five hundred dollar salary for twelve months labour and headed west. In early July he settled in Leavenworth City, a large Kansas town with a population of nearly one thousand and of Free-state sentiment.

Byrd's interest in Kansas had been stirring for nearly two years. In the summer of 1854, he took a fact finding trip to the Territory, "with the intention of removing hither if it should appear there were special urging for ministerial labour there. He returned to Ohio shortly thereafter but eight months later responded to a call in the American Missionary for ministers to emigrate to the Territory. with his family, Byrd left Ohio in April 1855 and arrived in the Territory in June.

During the journey west, he was confronted by the vocal proslavery supporter and editor of the Squatter Sovereign, Benjamin Stringfellow. Byrd recalled the incident vividly in a letter to Jocelyn:
He arose with great wrath and swore he would "mash my jaws" if I denied his statements. I repeated my demand for proof. He continued to swear and then arouse to strike. I kept standing directly before him with my eye steadily and coolly fixed upon him. I suppose if I had shown the least emotion of fear he would have struck me - as it was I thought he felt beaten.
Byrd had experienced his first violent confrontation with the pro-slavery opposition even before he had settled in the Territory. Over the next few years, Byrd - who was nicknamed the "nigger preacher" because of his vocal opposition to slavery - was often the object of harassment at the hand of proslavery zealots. Yet, Byrd always remained confident that Kansas would become a free-state, and never allowed his opposition to the slave system to diminish.

Because of John H Byrd's outspoken attacks on slavery, he was often the target of the ruffians' violence. During his first month in Kansas he was physically attacked by a Missouri slaveholder. While questioning the man regarding an incident involving the theft of some of Byrd's letters, the Minister was immediately attacked and beaten. In a letter published in the American Missionary, Byrd described the event:
... He leaped upon me like a tiger, dragged me from my horse, twice threw me down and kicked, stamped, pounded, bit me, and sought to gouge out my eyes; but Providence preserved me from this calamity. A neighbour was there, who took him off before he accomplished his purpose.
The incident left Byrd's right eye severely injured and his face swollen, but brought the "nigger preacher" to feel further compassion for the downtrodden slave and instilled within him a renewed vigour to vanquish slavery.

Less than a year later, Byrd was again victimised by proslavery agitators. On a late August night, Byrd was taken captive by a group of border ruffians. Describing the kidnapping, Mrs. Byrd wrote:
... last night about ten o'clock, we heard horsemen riding at full speed up to the house. They were soon at the door, knocking and calling for Mr. Byrd. They ordered him to get up and to go with them but would not for a long time, tell us where or for what reason. They assured him he should not be harmed at all, and finally said they had orders to take him to their camp. Husband arose and let them in, for they were also directed to see whether he had any fire arms, and to search for papers. The company consisted of five armed men ... I inquired what they wanted of him, he said they wished him to give them the names of his Free-state neighbours.
Byrd's captivity lasted nearly two weeks but he was released unharmed. The situation in Kansas had become so dangerous for Byrd, who had earlier been placed on a local proslavery force's "Black List," that he believed his capture actually was a "Providential preservation of my life." To Jocelyn he explained, "If I had been allowed to have remained at home, till their wrath arouse to the pitch, which it attained the next week I should doubtless have been killed as were some of my friends."

The massacre at Pottawatomie and the "sacking" of Lawrence, were major events in the history of Kansas. occurring within a week of each other, they gained widespread publicity and because of their ramifications took on a national significance in the battle over slavery. Byrd was directly or closely involved in the events. On the night of May 20, 1856, a large armed force of proslavery men - mostly recruited from Missouri - gathered outside the free-state town of Lawrence. The town, a bastion of free-state sentiment, had become a "thorn" in the side of many pro-slavery supporters. On the morning of the May 21, the troops - now nearly eight hundred strong - descended upon the town. carrying five cannon, the men seized the town, burned the hotel, pillaged a number of shops and homes, and tossed the printing presses of both newspapers into the river. Byrd wrote in a letter:
Governor Robinson and G W Brown are in peril of their lives. I shall not be surprised to hear of their execution, by a mob or by the Powers of law ... The whole power of the General Government is on the side of the oppressors. There is no alternative except war, or slavery ... Justice must [be handed] out to them with a strong firm hand, or I believe they will triumph.
Byrd seemed to believe that life in Kansas would only become rougher. With the provincial and national authorities, supporting the ruffians' atrocities, he grew further disillusioned with a faith in legal justice. He was beginning to accept that war may be the only way to bring justice and freedom to the Territory.

Byrd remained in Kansas for the rest of his life. His last commission with the AMA expired in December 1862. In the fall of 1861 he moved to a government farm at Fort Leavenworth where he served as Superintendent for thirteen years. In 1883, he moved to Lawrence where he preached occasionally and spent most of his life farming. On July 29, 1897, nearly eighty-one years old, John Byrd passed away.

Last Updated June 2023