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Throughout my whole life I was opposed to slavery. I helped slaves from many states escape north to Canada.
Learning to Hate Slavery
Hi, I am John Brown and I would like you to compare my life to yours. I was born in 1820 in the town of Torrington, Connecticut. Then my family moved to Ohio, where I lived as a child. When I was 12 and working in my dad’s friend’s barn I discovered a slave boy about my age. He told me his name was Cyrus. He was frail and poorly clothed. I saw his owner hit him with an iron shovel! After that I hated slavery and had nightmares about it. I soon grew up and married twice with a result of twenty children. When I was married, I worked at many businesses. Through out my whole life, even though I was white I was opposed to slavery. I didn’t like slavery because the wanted signs (offering rewards for slaves to be returned to their owners) polluted our air, and there were people searching our houses for slaves.
I helped slaves from many states escape north to Canada. I began helping the slaves after I moved to Massachusetts in 1846. In 1849, I moved to New York. I helped slaves in New York for six years. I was really starting to hate slavery. In 1851, I participated in and helped the Underground Railroad protect and hide slaves from slave catchers. That just made me hate slavery even more because I saw how many catchers were looking for slaves and what they would do to catch them. It just sickened me.
In the mid-1850’s, "Kansas Fever" swept over the country. There were 126,000 square miles of wilderness lying west of Missouri that had just been opened for settlement. The Missouri Compromise, which attempted to stop the expansion of slavery, was swept aside by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The federal government decided to place the issue of slavery into the hands of those settling in the new territories. The people would decide, by the popular vote, whether to be a "free" or a "slave" state.
Five of my sons responded to the call, joining thousands of settlers heading west to seek a better future. They went to stake a claim for liberty. They went to ensure that the new territories would be kept free of slavery by voting to be a free state when the time came. I was initially reluctant to join my sons in Kansas. I was tired and felt worn down, but a letter from Kansas changed my mind. The free-soilers (people who don’t want slavery) need weapons "more than bread," my son John Jr. wrote. "Now we want you to get for us these arms." Of my five sons, John Jr. was most like me. An active abolitionist, he was captain of Pottawatomie Riffles, a small group of free state men, living near the Pottawatomie Creek from which they got their name. They frequently exchanged threats of violence with their proslavery neighbors but kept from actually fighting.
The day after I got the letter from John Jr., I packed a wagon and headed west, gathering weapons along the way. "I’m going to Kansas," I declared, "to make it a free State." When I arrived at my son’s homestead, I was upset at what I saw; my boys were starving and shivering with fever. I had to do something. I built a sturdy cabin then another. It took me only three weeks. This quickly brought order to our homestead-named "Brown’s Station."
As time went on, free soil and proslavery forces poured into Kansas leading to many acts of violence. On March 30, 1855, a group of five thousand heavily armed Missourians, known as "Border Ruffians" (people from States bordering Kansas), rode into the Kansas Territory. They seized the voting places and voted for Kansas to be a slave state. Severe penalties were given to anyone who spoke or wrote against slaveholding. Those who helped escaped slaves would be sentenced to death or ten years of hard labor.
Throughout the winter, we heard stories of the southerner aggression. Battalions of 400-armed southerners were marching were into the Kansas territory. A free-state man was hacked to death. His body was tossed onto his doorstep. President Pierce, who sympathized with the southerners, warned that organized resistance on the part of free-state Kansas would be punished.
My family and I felt another proslavery invasion was going to happen. When word came that hundreds of Border Ruffians had marched on Lawrence, Kansas, and my son John Jr.’s Pottawatomie Rifles quickly assembled. I joined them, but did not join their ranks. I take orders from no man, and certainly not my sons. Then, in 1856, some proslavery men came and burned down the small slave-free town of Lawrence, Kansas because they didn’t think it was right not to have slaves. Two days later, I gathered some men and I led an expedition to Pottawatomie Creek where my men brutally murdered five proslavery settlers. The newspaper headlines were:
After this, a number of small but bloody battles broke out between free state men and settlers who wanted slavery. My sons and I were major players in all of these battles. I soon became a "saint," a fanatic, or a cold-blooded murderer depending on whom was talking about me. If a proslavery settler were talking they would call me a cold-blooded murderer, but if my fellow abolitionists were talking about me I would be a saint.
Raid on Harper's Ferry
The name I am famous for is "Old Osawatomie Brown" after I defended Osawatomie from attack by proslavery men in 1856. In December of 1858, I led a group of men to Missouri and attacked two proslavery homesteads, stealing property and freeing slaves. One of my more famous battles was in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). I was thinking about invading the south, so I gathered food, fire- arms, ammunition, and men to help me during the invasion. Although I was an outlaw, many men who were abolitionists agreed to join me in this invasion. Many of the people who joined me did not know of my plans yet.
My plan was to raid the United States arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia to get weapons to fight against southerners and convince slaves to rebel against their masters. Twenty-one followers and I attacked the arsenal on October 17, 1859. Unfortunately, we failed our mission. Later that day the local militia bottled me and what was left of my men up. The newspaper headlines read:
Brown tried to persuade his friend Frederick Douglas to join him. He described the scenario: they would attack the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry and capture the guns. He thought the news would bring the slaves to rush and join him in creating an army. They would then drive south, and the revolution would grow. As the men moved south, we would gather more help from slaves that have been set free and we would gather more weapons.
After their meeting, Douglas would later write: "I at once opposed the measure. It would be an attack upon the federal government and array the whole country against us. All his descriptions of the place convinced me that he was going into a perfect steel trap, and that once he went in he would never get out alive."
Brown found 21 men to join him. In a farmhouse a few miles outside of Harper’s Ferry, the small army gathered and waited for the time to strike. The group included a fugitive slave, a college student, and free blacks. Three of the men were Brown’s sons.
On the evening of October 16, Brown gathered his men together and set out for Harper’s Ferry, where the small army gathered and waited. Then the time came. At first, the raid went like clockwork. They cut telegraph wires, and then easily captured the federal armory and arsenal, which was being defended by a lone watchman. They gathered up hostages, including Col. Lewis Washington, great grandnephew of George Washington.
Their problems began when a train approached town. The baggage master ran to warn passengers. Brown’s men shouted at him to stop then fired. The first victim of John Brown’s war was Hayward Shepherd, a free black man and a man who took care of the luggage on the train. Then, inexplicably, Brown allowed the train to continue onward. News of the raid made it to Washington by late morning.
Farmers, militiamen, and shopkeepers shot down at Brown’s men from the heights behind town. The raiders were pinned down in the armory buildings. As shots rang off the wall, John Brown quietly ordered breakfast from a hotel for his hostages.
Historian Dennis Frye comments, "Brown still controls his destiny. He commands the approaches in and out of Harpers Ferry…. So the question is why didn’t Brown leave?"
"He stayed and it seems to me a deliberate, resigned act of martyrdom," says author Russell Ranks. Becoming a martyr means dying for his cause to inspire others to keep fighting. Whatever his intentions, John Brown’s revolution was coming apart. At noon a company of militiamen stormed into town. They charged over the bridge and the only true escape route was gone.
Eight of Brown’s men were dead or almost dead; five others were cut off from the rest of the group. Two had escaped across the river. Brown gathered those who were left in a small brick building, the engine house.
The next morning, the raiders gazed out at a chilling sight: the armory yard was lined with a company of U.S. Marines, under the command of Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee. They were completely surrounded.
A young Lieutenant, J.E.B. Stuart, approached under a white flag. Stuart handed over a letter. If the raiders surrendered, their lives would be spared. Brown refused. Marines stormed the building; the door was broken down. One marine tried to stab Brown but the blade struck the old man’s belt buckle. Brown was beaten unconscious.
"If Brown would have died on that brick floor," says Dennis Frye; "I would have believed he would have been noted for history about a sentence or two about his failure at Harpers Ferry. Your real meaning is what happens to you after your capture." Frye believes that what Brown did after his capture earned him a place in every U.S. history book.
John Brown was taken to Charleston, Virginia along with four other captives. His statements during the trial reached the nation, inspiring many with his feelings toward slavery. The hanging would make Brown an abolitionist martyr, an abolitionist who died for his cause.
John Brown’s dedication to the abolition of slavery prompted Frederick Douglass to write the following: "Did John Brown fail? Brown began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free republic. His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him."
Brown was brought to the hanging sight at the appointed hour on December 2, 1859. The Virginian Governor Henry A. Wise was thinking about letting Brown go. Finally he made his decision and told the militia to arrest all suspicious looking characters, so if Brown had any last words no one would here them. Finally John Brown was hung, but his story inspired other abolitionists to keep fighting against slavery.
John Brown Timeline
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