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John Brown

Born: May 9, 1800
Place: Torrington, Connecticut
Died: December 2, 1859
Place: Charles Town, West Virginia

John Brown John Brown was born on May 9, 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut. He was raised by his parents under strict religious and moral principles. At an early age, John Brown became an ardent believer in the wrongs of slavery. His father also held strong anti-slavery beliefs. When John Brown was five years old, his family left Connecticut and moved to Hudson, Ohio. Here his abhorrence of slavery became even stronger. Personally witnessing the abuse of a young black slave, he is said to have pledged "to wage an eternal war against slavery." He took his pledge seriously, very seriously, and actively fought for this cause throughout his entire life.

While living in Hudson, John Brown married his first wife, and began raising a family. He married again later in life, and in all he fathered twenty children, twelve surviving past childhood. He ingrained all his children with his fierce anti-slavery passion. There was never much money in the Brown households. He and his family raised some of their food, and they kept sheep. John provided meager incomes by dressing out leather and land surveying. But his focus was always on the abolition of slavery.

For a period of time around 1834, John Brown was in Pennsylvania, organizing abolitionist-minded citizens to create havens where young black people could come and get some schooling. In 1835 he was organizing similar groups back in Ohio. Later on, he did the same in Massachusetts. His belief was that the more groups like this he could organize, the sooner the slave states would have to recognize the trend and adopt emancipation. He traveled to Virginia, and planned colonies for black people there on tracts of land owned by Oberlin College. Then in 1848, he headed to North Elba in New York, where Gerrit Smith had set aside 100,000 acres of northern land to be used by black people who wanted to clear the land and set up small farms. Brown actually purchased some of this land himself so that he could be there to work with the homesteaders. All during these years, John Brown relied heavily on the backing of his own large family, who tended the farm and provided financial and physical assistance to him. But now John Brown had become widely known in abolitionist circles, and he began receiving contributions from these supporters. This support enabled John Brown to travel more frequently organizing resistance to slavery. It also freed some of his family members to spend more time on their mission to end slavery. In the 1850's, as states were lining up as "free" states vs. "slave" states, the territory of Kansas was ripe for admission to the Union. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 stipulated that Kansas could vote to declare itself a free state or not. Of course, there were those who wanted Kansas to join as "free" and those who wanted to see the territory declare itself a "slave" state. Many people saw Kansas as a pivotal battleground on the issue. So, people from both persuasions began moving into the territory to bolster the numbers on their preferred side. Five of John Brown's sons moved to Kansas to swell the anti-slavery ranks. John Brown soon followed. The issue was so divisive that militants on both sides began campaigns of violence and retaliation. Bloody battles followed, and John Brown continued to rise in national prominence even as his own views became increasingly militant.

Brown began thinking seriously of a plan to create a fugitive slave colony, perhaps somewhere in the mountains of Virginia or Maryland. He envisioned a colony that was well-armed, able to defend itself in the event of an attack. He also thought that if he could establish such a base, then more and more fugitive slaves would join, and further weaken the slaveholders' positions. There were many abolitionists who disagreed with Brown's rising militancy, and there were those who began to question his grip on rational thinking. But John Brown persevered. He began accumulating arms, and assembling recruits. The United States had a military arsenal at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. John Brown developed a plan to capture the arsenal, and late on October 16, 1859, he and his band of recruits, including two of his sons, put their plan into action. They assaulted the arsenal, but were never able to go any further. Local citizens of Harper's Ferry were also armed, and they attacked Brown's army, killing several of his men and surrounding the rest. By the next evening, Colonel Robert E. Lee led an army from Washington to Harper's Ferry, and ended the ordeal. John Brown was wounded, and both his sons were killed. John Brown went to trial, and was sentenced to die. He was hanged at Charles Town, West Virginia on December 2, 1859.

During John Brown's life he had supporters and detracters, and the same is true of authors who have tried to portray his life. Some vilify the man as a raving madman, others cast him in a golden glow. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Read more about John Brown. Click on the following titles and you can purchase our recommendations directly from

Fiery Vision: The Life and Death of John Brown by Clinton Fox. This is a huge biography of John Brown, meticulously detailed and factual, a good choice for students in grades 7 to 10.

To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown by Warren Oates and Stephen B. Oates, a well-researched and detailed biography of John Brown.

The Secret Six: John Brown and the Abolitionist Movement by Otto J. Scott. This is a more provocative look at John Brown, as the author explores John Brown's personal motives and actions in several contexts, covering issues that range from delusions of grandeur, to religious fanaticism, terrorism, and the influence of wealthy financiers. This is not your typical biography, but it is an interesting alternative perspective on an important part of America's history.

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks and Arturo Patten. This is a huge, well researched book, a fictionalized account of the times narrated by John Brown's son Owen.


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