John Brown was a leading figure in the abolitionist movement in the pre-Civil War United States. Unlike many anti-slavery activists, he was not a pacifist and believed in aggressive action against slaveholders and any government officials who enabled them. An entrepreneur who ran tannery and cattle trading businesses prior to the economic crisis of 1839, Brown became involved in the abolitionist movement following the brutal murder of Presbyterian minister and anti-slavery activist Elijah P. Lovejoy in 1837. He said at the time, “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”
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Brown was born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut, the son of Owen and Ruth Mills Brown. His father, who was in the tannery business, relocated the family to Ohio, where the abolitionist spent most of his childhood.
The Brown family’s new home of Hudson, Ohio, happened to be a key stop on the Underground Railroad, and Owen Brown became active in the effort to bring former enslaved people to freedom. The family home soon became a safe house for fugitive enslaved people.
The younger Brown left his family at 16 for Massachusetts and then Connecticut, where he attended school and was ordained a Congregational minister. By 1819, though, he had returned to Hudson and opened a tannery of his own, on the opposite side of town from his father. He also married and started a family during that time.
Family and Financial Problems
Initially, Brown’s business ventures were very successful, but by the 1830s his finances took a turn for the worse. It didn’t help that he lost his wife and two of his children to illness at the time.
He relocated the family business and his four surviving children to present-day Kent, Ohio. However, Brown’s financial losses continued to mount, although he did remarry in 1833.
With a new business partner, Brown set up shop in Springfield, Massachusetts, hoping to reverse his fortunes. In addition to finding some business success, Brown quickly became immersed in the city’s influential abolitionist community.
He also became more familiar with the so-called mercantile class of wealthy entrepreneurs and their often ruthless business practices. It is in Springfield that many historians believe Brown became a radical abolitionist.
By 1850, he had relocated his family again, this time to the Timbuctoo farming community in the Adirondack region of New York State. Abolitionist leader Gerrit Smith was providing land in the area to Black farmers—at that time, owning land or a house enabled Black men to vote.
Brown bought a farm there himself, near Lake Placid, New York, where he not only worked the land but could advise and assist members of the Black communities in the region.
Brown’s first militant actions as part of the abolitionist movement didn’t occur until 1855. By then, two of his sons had started families of their own, in the western territory that eventually became the state of Kansas.
His sons were involved in the abolitionist movement in the territory, and they summoned their father, fearing attack from pro-slavery settlers. Confident he and his family could bring Kansas into the Union as a “free" state for Black people, Brown went west to join his sons.
After pro-slavery activists attacked at Lawrence, Kansas, in 1856, Brown and other abolitionists mounted a counterattack. They targeted a group of pro-slavery settlers called the Pottawatomie Rifles.
What became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre occurred on May 25, 1856, and resulted in the deaths of five pro-slavery settlers.
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These and other events surrounding Kansas' difficult transition to statehood, made even more complicated by the issue of slavery, became known as Bleeding Kansas. But John Brown’s legend as a militant abolitionist was just beginning.
Over the next several years, Brown’s efforts in Kansas continued, and two of his sons were captured — and a third was killed — by pro-slavery settlers.
The abolitionist was undaunted, however, and Brown still advocated for the movement, traveling all over the country to raise money and obtain weapons for the cause. In the meantime, Kansas held elections and voted to be a free state in 1858.
By early 1859, Brown was leading raids to free enslaved people in areas where forced labor was still in practice, primarily in the present-day Midwest. At this time, he also met Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, activists and abolitionists both, and they became important people in Brown’s life, reinforcing much of his ideology.
With Tubman, whom he called “General Tubman,” Brown began planning an attack on slaveholders, as well as a United States military armory, at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), using armed freed enslaved people. He hoped the attack would help lay the groundwork for a revolt, but historians have called the raid a dress rehearsal for the Civil War.
Brown recruited 22 men in all, including his sons Owen and Watson, and several freed enslaved people. The group received military training in advance of the raid from experts within the abolitionist movement.
John Brown's Raid
The operation began on October 16, 1859, with the planned capture of Colonel Lewis Washington, a distant relative of George Washington, at the former’s estate. The Washington family continued to own enslaved people.
A group of men, led by Owen Brown, was able to kidnap Washington, while the rest of the men, with John Brown at the lead, began a raid on Harpers Ferry to seize both weapons and pro-slavery leaders in the town. Key to the raid’s success was accomplishing the objective — namely the seizure of the armory — before officials in Washington, D.C., could be informed and send in reinforcements.
To that end, John Brown’s men stopped a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad train headed for the nation’s capital. However, Brown relented and let the train continue—the conductor ultimately notified authorities in Washington about what was happening at Harpers Ferry.
It was during the efforts to stop the train that the first casualty of the raid on Harpers Ferry occurred. A baggage handler at the town’s train station was shot in the back and killed when he refused the orders of Brown’s men. The victim was a free Black man—one of the very people the abolitionist movement sought to help.
John Brown's Fort
Brown’s men were able to capture several local slaveowners but, by the end of the day on October 16, local townspeople began to fight back. Early the next morning, they raised a local militia, which captured a bridge crossing the Potomac River, effectively cutting off an important escape route for Brown and his compatriots.
Although Brown and his men were able to take the Harpers Ferry armory during the morning of October 17, the local militia soon had the facility surrounded, and the two sides traded gunfire.
There were casualties on both sides, with four Harpers Ferry citizens killed, including the town’s mayor. A militia made up of men from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad arrived in town and assisted local residents in countering Brown’s attack.
Brown was forced to move his remaining men and their captives to the armory’s engine house, a smaller building that later became known as John Brown’s Fort. They effectively barricaded themselves inside.
The militia attack was able to free several of Brown’s captives, although eight of the railroad men died in the fighting. With no escape route and under heavy fire, Brown sent his son Watson out to surrender. However, the younger Brown was shot by the militia and mortally wounded.
Robert E. Lee and the Marines
Late in the afternoon of October 17, 1859, President James Buchanan ordered a company of Marines under the command of Brevet Colonel (and future Confederate General) Robert E. Lee to march into Harpers Ferry.
The next morning, Lee attempted to get Brown to surrender, but the latter refused. Ordering the Marines under his command to attack, the military men stormed John Brown's Fort, taking all of the abolitionist fighters and their captives alive.
In the end, John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry ended in failure.
John Brown's Body
Lee and his men arrested Brown and transported him to the courthouse in nearby Charles Town, where he was imprisoned until he could be tried. In November, a jury found Brown guilty of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859, at the age of 59. Among the witnesses to his execution were Lee and the actor and pro-slavery activist John Wilkes Booth. (Booth would later assassinate President Abraham Lincoln over the latter’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.)
After he was executed, his wife, Mary Ann (Day) took John Brown's body to the family farm in upstate New York for burial. The farm and gravesite are owned by New York State and operated as the John Brown Farm State Historic Site, a National Historic Landmark.
Slavery would ultimately come to an end in the United States in 1865, six years after Brown’s death, following the Union’s defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War. Although Brown’s actions didn’t bring an end to slavery, they did spur those opposed to it to more aggressive action, perhaps fueling the bloody conflict that finally ended slavery in America.
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American Battlefield Trust. “John Brown’s Harpers Ferry Raid.” Battlefields.org.
Bordewich, F.M. (2009). “John Brown’s Day of Reckoning.” Smithsonianmag.com.
“John Brown.” PBS.org.