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John Brown, 1800-1859

Materials relating to John Brown

Of all the characters that played significant roles on the Kansas stage during the drama that was Bleeding Kansas, none left a legacy that compares to the controversial abolitionist, John Brown. Born in Torrington, Connecticut, on May 9, 1800, Brown most likely picked up his ideas concerning the institution of chattel slavery and emancipation from his father, Owen Brown, who reportedly liberated slaves from a Virginian traveling through Connecticut. The younger Brown worked as a farmer and tanner in Hudson, Ohio, and then Richmond, Pennsylvania, a vocation that earned him a living and a respectable reputation in his community. Over time, however, his various business ventures proved to be financially unsuccessful, and Brown went through bankruptcy in 1842; by the time he removed to Kansas he was nearing that point again.

Brown’s ardent hatred of the evil institution of slavery made him an active opponent of its spread into the new territories of the West. He also aspired by any means (including the use of force) to eliminate the legally sanctioned institution from the nation. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 gave Brown the opportunity to focus his energies towards the destruction of slavery. In October 1855, Brown followed five of his sons and their families to Kansas. Together they soon became actively involved in the struggle that was “Bleeding Kansas,” which pitted the free-state forces against proslavery partisans.

A series of battles ensued in which Brown and his supporters were actively engaged. On May 21, 1856, Missourians, under the command of Sheriff Samuel Jones, sacked the town of Lawrence. In retaliation for this attack, on May 24 Brown led a small force of free-state men against proslavery settlements on Pottawatomie Creek--five proslavery men were brutally murdered and hostilities merely escalated. A pitched battle was fought between Brown’s company and a proslavery force led by Henry Clay Pate at Black Jack (near Baldwin City, Douglas County) on June 2. Open warfare finally culminated on August 30 with the battle of Osawatomie along the banks of the Marais des Cygnes River, where Old John Brown lost one of his sons, Frederick. Brown had played an active role in the hostilities that had plunged Kansas into bloody turmoil during the year of 1856.

In 1857 Brown headed east on a fund-raising tour for his anti-slavery crusade. It was during this time period that Brown began his preliminary planning to attack the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now a part of West Virginia). Renewed fighting ensued in Kansas throughout years of 1857 and 1858. Brown all the while went forward with his active plans to recruit volunteers to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. His intended goal was the capture of the arsenal, followed by the arming of slaves from nearby southern plantations and a general slave insurrection. Civil war and the effective destruction of slavery would be the fruits of his victory should his plan succeed.

After leading on last raid from Kansas into Missouri and leading eleven slaves to freedom, Brown left Kansas for the last time in January 1859 and got ready to launch his bigger plan. Brown’s small band of men reached the vicinity of Harpers Ferry on July 3. After careful planning and additional recruiting, the force of twenty-one men (sixteen whites and five African Americans) stormed the arsenal on October 16. Brown and his men achieved complete surprise and captured the arsenal. However, federal military forces quickly mobilized under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee to retake the facility, and on October 18 they succeeded. When the fighting ended ten of Brown’s recruits (including two of his sons) lay dead. The much sought after slave insurrection had failed to materialize. Brown was taken to Charles Town, Virginia, were he was tried, convicted of treason, and sentenced to hang. The execution took place on December 2, 1859, soon after John Brown penned the now famous prophecy, “the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood.”

To many of Brown’s contemporaries in the antebellum South, he came to be synonymous with a madman bent on destroying the fragile bonds of the constitutional union. Yet to the abolitionist movement of the North, he was a martyr who characterized the champion of freedom and the destruction of the evil institution of slavery. In all respects, Brown’s personal actions at Harpers Ferry brought the nation to the crossroads of civil war and openly divided the nation on the single issue for which it could find no acceptable compromise.


John Brown & Bleeding Kansas: Prelude to the Civil War. A Territorial Kansas Heritage Alliance Guide. N.p.: Territorial Kansas Heritage Alliance, 2000.

McGlone, Robert. Biographical sketch of “Brown, John.” In American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Oates, Stephen B. To Purge this Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1970.

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