Start Your Visit WithHistorical Timelines
General Interest Maps
John Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut, on May 9, 1800. His father, Owen Brown, was an early abolitionist who was accused in 1798 of forcibly freeing slaves belonging to a clergyman from Virginia. He spent most of his youth in Hudson, Ohio, where he worked mainly for his father and developed skills as a farmer and tanner.
He married the widow Dianthe Lusk in 1820, and had seven children by her. Within a year of her death in 1832, he married again and had 13 more children.
He experienced inconsistent results in business, trying his hand at sheep raising, farming, tanning, and the wool trade. From 1849 to 1854, he lived in a black community near North Elba, New York. With tensions rising in Kansas following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Brown sent his five sons – all thoroughly indoctrinated as abolitionists – westward while he attempted to settle his debts.
Brown, driving a wagonload of guns, later joined his sons in Kansas. Proclaiming himself the servant of the Lord, Brown led an attack in the spring of 1856, that resulted in the murders of five proslavery settlers. The incident became known as the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre. This event was part of widespread violence then occurring in Bleeding Kansas.
Brown’s uncompromising stand against slavery won him numerous supporters in the North, where many abolitionists were frustrated by their lack of progress. In particular, encouragement and financial support were extended by the “Secret Six,” a group of influential New England aristocrats. With their help, Brown was able to establish a base in western Virginia where he hoped to spark a general slave rebellion in the South.
His raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry on October 16, 1859, was part of that plan. With a band of 18 men, 13 white and 5 black, Brown seized the town. A number of persons died during the raid. He expected that slaves would join his "army of emancipation" as it continued further into slave-holding territory, but the support did not materialize.
By the following night, federal troops commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee reached the town and surrounded the raiders. Brown would not surrender, so they were attacked. Two of Brown's sons died in the fighting and Brown himself was seriously wounded. He was taken to Charles Town, then in Virginia and now in West Virginia, where he was tried on charges of inciting a slave insurrection, murder and treason. After conducting his own defense, he was convicted, and hanged on December 2.
The execution involved two men who would play major roles in the events of the next few years. The colonel of the marines in charge of the execution was Robert E. Lee, while on of the militamen in attendance was John Wilkes Booth.
The event was widely reported in Northern newspapers, where some described him as a selfless idealist. Others, wishing to pursue a peaceful resolution of the slavery issue, painted him as simply insane. Abraham Lincoln, perhaps considering his prospects in the next year's presidential election, chose to distance himself from Brown, but Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson announced that Brown's martyrdom would "make the gallows glorious like the cross."
John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was a major step toward the polarization of North and South on the eve of the Civil War.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by John Brown.
Regarding Harper's Ferry
Now, if it is 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 withe blood of millions in the slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments — I say, let it be done!
- - - Books You May Like Include: ----
The Civil War in Kansas, Ten Years of Turmoil by Debra Goodrich Bisel.
No other state’s history is so entwined with the American Civil War as that of the Sunflower State. By the time the war officially began in 1861, Kans...
Kansas: In the Heart of Tornado Alley by Jay M. Price, Craig Torbenson, Sadonia Corns, Jessica Nellis, Keith Wondra.
Back in 1915, Snowden D. Flora of the US Weather Bureau wrote, “Kansas has been so commonly considered the tornado state of the country that the term ...
From Midnight to Dawn: The Last Tracks of the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline L. Tobin.
The Underground Railroad was the passage to freedom for many slaves, but it was full of dangers. There were dedicated conductors and safe houses, but ...
The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861 by David M. Potter.
David M. Potter's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Impending Crisis" is the definitive history of antebellum America. Potter's sweeping epic masterfully ch...
Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz.
Plotted in secret, launched in the dark, John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was a pivotal moment in U.S. history. But few Americans know the true stor...
To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown by Warren Oates.
Over one hundred fifty years after his epochal Harpers Ferry raid to free the slaves, John Brown is still one of the most controversial figures in Ame...
In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America 1859-1863 by Edward L. Ayers.
Winner of the Bancroft Prize: Through a gripping narrative based on massive new research, a leading historian reshapes our understanding of the Civil ...
War to the Knife: Bleeding Kansas, 1854-1861 by Thomas Goodrich.
Long before the secession crisis at Fort Sumter ignited the War between the States, men fought and died on the prairies of Kansas over the incendiary ...