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Sketch of Captain John Brown, the Leader of the Harper's Ferry Insurrection

Original Citation
"Sketch of Captain John Brown, the Leader of the Harper's Ferry Insurrection," Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, October 27, 1859, p. 1: 5-6.

This 1859 profile of John Brown, from the New York Herald, a leading Democratic newspaper, illustrates how critics of Brown tried very quickly to define him as an insane, violent terrorist. The article contains a number of errors (Brown, for instance, was born in Connecticut, not Kentucky) but it is important nonetheless as an example of the sectional propaganda war ignited by Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry.


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From the N.Y. Herald

Sketch of Captain John Brown, the Leader of the Harper's Ferry Insurrection.

Captain John Brown emigrated to Kansas from Central New York, in the fall of 1855, and settled in the township of Ossawattomie. He was accompanied by seven sons, the youngest being old enough to earn his livelihood. The birthplace of Brown is not positively known to the writer, but report has it that he was born in Kentucky. At the time of his death he was about sixty years of age. He was about medium height, slim, muscular, and possessing in an iron constitution. He had blue eyes, sharp features, and long gray hair, wearing a full beard.

In December, 1855, during the "Shannon war," Brown first made his appearance among the free State men at Lawrence. His entrance into the place at once attracted the attention of the people towards him. He brought a wagon load of cavalry sabres, and was accompanied by twelve men, seven of whom were his own sons. He first exhibited his qualities at the time the free-State and pro-slavery parties, under the lead of Governor Robinson on one side, and Governor Shannon on the other, met to make a treaty of peace. After Gov. Robinson had stated to the people who were gathered around the hotel the terms of the peace, Brown took the stand, uninvited, and opposed the terms of the treaty. He was in favor of ignoring all treaties, and such leading men as Robinson, Lane, and Lowry, and proceeding at once against the border-rufian invaders, drive them from the soil, or hang them if taken. General Lowry, who was chairman of the committee of Safety, and also commander of the free State troops, ordered Brown under arrest. The latter made no physical resistance, but it was soon discovered that he was altogether too combustible a person to retain as a prisoner, and a compromise was made with him by the free-State men, and he was released. He was informed by the leaders of that party that his remarks were intended to undo what they were trying to accomplish by means of the treaty; that he was a stranger in Lawrence and Kansas, and ought not, by his rash remarks, to compromise the people of Lawrence until he had known them longer and knew them better.

One of his sons, who was elected to the Legislature in February, 1856, was seized and taken from Ossawattomie to Lecompton in chains, a distance of 30 miles. His feet and hands were chained together with a large, heavy chain, the size of that used upon ox-teams. He was compelled to walk the whole distance beneath a burning sun. The irons wore the flesh from his ankles; he was attacked with the brain fever, was neglected, and died in two or three days. He was the companion of Governor Robinson, (since shot by Lane.) and some eight or ten others. Another son of Captain Brown was shot at Ossawattomie by a marauding party from Missouri. After the death of his first son, occasioned by the tortures and fatigue of his forced march, Brown swore vengeance upon the pro-slavery party, and it was frequently observed by the more prudent of the free-State men that he was evidently insane on the subject. He was always considered by them a dangerous man, was never taken into their councils, and never consulted by them with reference either to their policy or movements.

The destruction of the free State Hotel and presses at Lawrence, in May, 1856, incited him anew to action, and he organized a small company, composed chiefly of men who had been robbed, or whose relatives had been murdered by the pro-slavery party, and at the head of this band, armed with Sharp's rifles, bowie knives, and Colt's revolvers, he scoured southern Kansas, and the name of "Old Brown" became a terror to all who opposed his will in that region. While he was thus marauding, five pro-slavery men were taken from their cabins at Pottawattomie creek, in the night-time, and shot dead. The pro-slavery party charged this deed upon old Brown, while the free-State party asserted that they could prove him in Lawrence, forty miles distant, when it happened, and that the horrid deed was perpetrated by "Buford's Georgia Ruffians," supposing that the victims were free State men.

The news of this massacre reached Westport, Missouri, the place of rendezvous of the "border ruffians," the same evening that the Kansas Commission sent out by the United States House of Representatives arrived at that place. The excitement was intense, and was induced almost as much by the appearance of the Commission, as by the news of the massacre. The "ruffians" swore vengeance upon the members and officers of the Commission, declaring that their blood should recompense for the slaughter at Pottawattomie creek, and but for the intercession of Mr. Oliver, the pro slavery member of the Commission, and others, it was believed that the Constitution would have been attacked. It was at this time that the notorious H. Clay Pate organized a band of men in the streets of Westport, Mo., with the avowed purpose of entering the Territory and capturing "Old Brown." He raised about thirty men, and went into the Territory about twilight one evening, and was surprised at sunrise the next morning by "Old Brown," who was in command of nine men, armed as stated above. Pate sent a flag of truce to Brown, who advanced some rods in front of his company, and ordered the flag bearer to remain with him, and sent one of his own men to inform Pate to come himself. Pate obeyed, when Brown ordered him to lay down his arms. Pate refused to give the order to his men, when Brown, drawing a revolver, informed him that he must give the order, or be shot on the spot. Pate immediately surrendered up himself and men, and they were disarmed and marched into a ravine near by, and kept until liberated and sent back to Missouri, by Colonel Sumner, a few days subsequently, who also ordered 'Old Brown'to disband and go home. The latter agreed to do so, if the Colonel would also agree to protect the settlers in that region of the Territory. This was the celebrated "Battle of Black-Jack Point," made famous by the "H.C.P." correspondent of the St. Louis Republican, who was the heroic commander of the surrendering party. Captain Brown was not much heard from again until the notorious Captain Hamilton made his incursions into Southern Kansas from Missouri, in 1858, when he raised another company, and, with Captain Montgomery, drove Hamilton and his companions back to Missouri, and marching his men into that State, took possession of one of the villages, shot one or two men, and liberated several slaves. This course of Brown was repudiated by Governor Robinson, and the leaders of the free-State party, in and out of Kansas, which caused Brown to publish a letter explaining his position, in which he assumed the entire responsibility of his acts, and relieved the free-State men from any share therein. This letter was called the "Two Parallels," on account of the peculiar distinction made by the writer.

Captain Brown was a very strong believer in the doctrines of the Presbyterian Church. He was fanatical on the subject of anti-slavery, and seemed to have the idea that he was especially deputed by the Almighty to liberate slaves and kill slaveholders. It was always conceded to him that he was a conscientious man, very modest in his demeanor, apparently inoffensive until the subject of slavery was introduced, when he would exhibit a feeling of indignation unparalleled. After matters subsided in Kansas, Brown intimated to some of his anti slavery friends that he contemplated organizing an insurrection amongst the slaves in Kentucky and Tennessee. This fact becoming known to some of the leading anti-slavery men of the country, they refused him means with which to go on and discouraged his proposed undertaking. He spent a portion of the last summer in visiting different Northern cities, and was tendered sums of money, with the understanding that he wished to secure a little farm on which to settle in his old age. It is supposed that he employed the money thus obtained to hire the farm near Harper's Ferry, which he used as a rendezvous for the insurrectionists, and near which he so recently paid the last debt of nature.

Citation for this page

Carlisle (PA) American Volunteer, "Sketch of Captain John Brown, the Leader of the Harper's Ferry Insurrection," October 27, 1859, Underground Railroad Digital Classroom, Dickinson College, 2008,

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