Summary

Birth:
09 May 1800 1
Torrington CT 1
Death:
December 2, 1859 1
Charles Town, VA 1
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Harper's Weekly illustration of U.S. Marines attacking John Brown's Fort.jpg
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John Brown (possibly on way to his execution) followed by soldiers with rifles and bayonets. He is leded by officer with a drawn saber..jpg
John Brown (possibly on way to his execution) followed by soldiers with rifles and bayonets. He is leded by officer with a drawn saber..jpg

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Personal Details

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Full Name:
John Brown 1
Birth:
Male 1
Birth:
09 May 1800 1
Torrington CT 1
Death:
Cause: Death by hanging 1
Death:
December 2, 1859 1
Charles Town, VA 1
Burial:
John Brown Farm in North Elba, New York 1
Burial:
John Brown Farm in North Elba, New York 1
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Birth:
Mother: Ruth Mills 1
Father: Owen Brown 1
Marriage:
Dianthe Lusk 1
1820 1
Hudson OH 1
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Quote:
“Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slaver 1
Occupation:
Abolitionist 1
Race or Ethnicity:
English 1

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Stories

John Brown

John Brown was a man of action -- a man who would not be deterred from his mission of abolishing slavery. On October 16, 1859, he led 21 men on a raid of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His plan to arm slaves with the weapons he and his men seized from the arsenal was thwarted, however, by local farmers, militiamen, and Marines led by Robert E. Lee. Within 36 hours of the attack, most of Brown's men had been killed or captured.

John Brown was born into a deeply religious family in Torrington, Connecticut, in 1800. Led by a father who was vehemently opposed to slavery, the family moved to northern Ohio when John was five, to a district that would become known for its antislavery views.

During his first fifty years, Brown moved about the country, settling in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York, and taking along his ever-growing family. (He would father twenty children.) Working at various times as a farmer, wool merchant, tanner, and land speculator, he never was finacially successful -- he even filed for bankruptcy when in his forties. His lack of funds, however, did not keep him from supporting causes he believed in. He helped finance the publication of David Walker's Appeal and Henry Highland's "Call to Rebellion" speech. He gave land to fugitive slaves. He and his wife agreed to raise a black youth as one of their own. He also participated in the Underground Railroad and, in 1851, helped establish the League of Gileadites, an organization that worked to protect escaped slaves from slave catchers. 

In 1847 Frederick Douglass met Brown for the first time in Springfield, Massachusetts. Of the meeting Douglass stated that, "though a white gentleman, [Brown] is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery." It was at this meeting that Brown first outlined his plan to Douglass to lead a war to free slaves.

Brown moved to the black community of North Elba, New York, in 1849. The community had been established thanks to the philanthropy of Gerrit Smith, who donated tracts of at least 50 acres to black families willing to clear and farm the land. Brown, knowing that many of the families were finding life in this isolated area difficult, offered to establish his own farm there as well, in order to lead the blacks by his example and to act as a "kind father to them." 

Despite his contributions to the antislavery cause, Brown did not emerge as a figure of major significance until 1855 after he followed five of his sons to the Kansas territory. There, he became the leader of antislavery guerillas and fought a proslavery attack against the antislavery town of Lawrence. The following year, in retribution for another attack, Brown went to a proslavery town and brutally killed five of its settlers. Brown and his sons would continue to fight in the territory and in Missouri for the rest of the year.

Brown returned to the east and began to think more seriously about his plan for a war in Virginia against slavery. He sought money to fund an "army" he would lead. On October 16, 1859, he set his plan to action when he and 21 other men -- 5 blacks and 16 whites -- raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

Brown was wounded and quickly captured, and moved to Charlestown, Virginia, where he was tried and convicted of treason, Before hearing his sentence, Brown was allowed make an address to the court. 


. . . I believe to have interfered as I have done, . . . in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it be deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children, and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit: so let it be done."



Although initially shocked by Brown's exploits, many Northerners began to speak favorably of the militant abolitionist. "He did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them as he was bid. . . .," said Henry David Thoreau in an address to the citizens of Concord, Massachusetts. "No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature. . . ."

John Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859.

Pottawatomie Massacre

The fifth victim floated nearby as John Brown and his men washed blood from their swords in Pottawatomie Creek. Brown said that the killings had been committed in accordance to "God’s will," and that he wanted to "strike terror in the hearts of the proslavery people." His killings would provoke fear and reprisals -- pushing America one step closer to an all-out civil war.

In the mid-1850’s, "Kansas Fever" swept the country. 126,000 square miles of wilderness lying west of Missouri had just been opened for settlement. Five of John Brown’s sons responded to the call, joining thousands of settlers heading west in search of a better future. But the Brown boys also went to stake a claim for liberty; they went to ensure that the new territories would be kept free of slavery. 

The Missouri Compromise, which restricted the expansion of slavery, was swept aside by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. With a nod to Southern power, the federal government decided to place the volatile issue of slavery into the hands of those settling the new territories. The people would decide, by popular vote, whether to be "free" or "slave." 

Free soil and proslavery forces poured into Kansas, and the territory erupted in violence. On March 30th, 1855, a horde of 5000 heavily armed Missourians -- known as "Border Ruffians" -- rode into the territory. They seized the polling places and voted in their own legislature. Severe penalties were leveled against anyone who spoke or wrote against slaveholding; those who assisted fugitives would be put to death or sentenced to ten years hard labor. 

John Brown was initially reluctant to join his sons in Kansas. He was 55, an old man by the actuarial tables of his day. He seemed worn down, broken by a lifetime of failures and disappointments. But a letter from Kansas changed his mind. The free-soilers needed arms "more than bread," his son John Jr. wrote. "Now we want you to get for us these arms." 

The next day John Brown packed a wagon and headed west, gathering weapons along the way. "I’m going to Kansas," he declared, "to make it a Free state." 

When Brown arrived at his son’s homestead, he was dismayed at what he found; his boys were starving, shivering with fever. In three weeks Brown built a sturdy log cabin, then another. He quickly brought order to their homestead - named "Brown’s Station." 

Of the five sons, John Jr. was most like his father. A blunt talking abolitionist, he was the captain of the Pottawatomie Rifles, a small group of free-state men living near the creek from which they took their name. They frequently exchanged threats of violence with their proslavery neighbors, but maintained an uneasy truce. 

Throughout the winter, the Brown men heard stories of Southern aggression: a battalion of 400 armed Southerners were marching into the territory, a free-state man was hacked to death, his body tossed onto his doorstep, President Pierce, a Southern sympathizer, warned that organized resistance on the part of free-state Kansans would be regarded as treasonable insurrection. 

For the Browns, another proslave invasion seemed imminent. When word came on May 21st that hundreds of Border Ruffians had marched on Lawrence, John Jr.'s Pottawatomie Rifles quickly assembled. Old Brown accompanied them, but did not join their ranks. He took orders from no man, certainly not one of his sons. 

En route to Lawrence they learned that the Ruffians had sacked the town, burned the Free-State Hotel, and not one abolitionist had dared to fire a gun. Brown was furious at this cowardly response. Within hours they received another disturbing report -- abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner had been brutally attacked on the United States Senate floor by a southern Congressman. Sumner’s speech, "The Crime Against Kansas," had provoked the attack. He was beaten within an inch of his life. 

"Something must be done to show these barbarians that we, too, have rights," Brown declared. He took a small group of men under his command and told them to prepare for a "secret mission." John Jr. tried to keep his father in camp, cautioning him to commit no rash acts. But the old man stuck a revolver in his belt and led his men away. They marched toward Pottawatomie Creek, to the homes of proslavery sympathizers. 

On the night of May 24th, 1856, Brown banged on the door of James Doyleand ordered the men to come outside. Brown’s men attacked them with broadswords. They executed three of the Doyles, splitting open heads and cutting off arms. Brown watched as if in a trance. When they were done, he put a bullet into the head of James Doyle. Brown’s party visited two more cabins, dragged out and killed two more men -- five in all. 

"It was in response to extraordinary frustration and despair," comments author Russell Banks. "I really think he was like Samson trying to pull down the Temple. I don’t mean to condone it, any more than I would condone a car bomb in Belfast or Jerusalem, but there is a context, there is a progression, and we have to take a leap, an imaginative leap into his time and see the world as he saw it." 

Proslavery forces launched a manhunt, plundering homesteads as they searched the countryside for the Pottawatomie killers. John Brown took to the woods and evaded capture. His sons did not fair as well; John Jr. and Jason -- who had not been involved at Pottawatomie -- were savagely beaten. Frederick was shot through the heart. Brown’s Station was burnt to the ground. 

In September of 1856, a new territorial governor, John W. Geary, arrived in Kansas and began to restore order. The last major outbreak of violence was the Marais des Cynges massacre, in which Border Ruffians killed five Free State men. In all, approximately 55 people died in "Bleeding Kansas." 

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