May 9 - John Brown's 220th birthday
John Brown's convictions and actions are pertinent still today and they continue to influence how we stand up for what we believe in: that all people are equal and should be treated in such manner no matter their race, ethnicity or gender.
On this date in 1800, John Brown was born to Owen and Ruth Brown in Torrington, Connecticut. When the younger Brown was only 5 years old, his father moved the family to Hudson, Ohio, to be around other likeminded individuals, abolitionists.
The area we know as the Connecticut Western Reserve was a hotbed of abolitionist activity. Its people and his family shaped John Brown into the man he became who led a raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859, in an effort to end slavery in the United States.
In 2014, the Society applied to the National Park Service's Underground Railroad Network to Freedom to designate the John Brown House in Akron to this registry. It was accepted. Here is a portion of that application to give you a brief overview of Akron and Summit County's most consequential resident, John Brown.
John Brown (1800 – 1859), one of the most prominent figures in the abolitionist movement, and his family rented what we call today the John Brown House in Akron, Ohio, between the years of 1844 and 1854. Born in Torrington, Connecticut, Brown was raised in an abolitionist household and the family moved to Hudson, Ohio in 1805. He had long been involved in the Underground Railroad before bringing escaped slaves to his home in Akron for safe harbor as he traveled between Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio. In Hudson, he and his father, Owen, provided refuge for escaped slaves and helped transport them to Cleveland. Unfortunately, Brown’s role as an abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor in Akron has been marginalized by historians. Western Reserve graduate student, Mary Land, may have best summarized why more information about Brown’s time in Akron has not been as readily available:
In spite of the years spent in Ohio, John Brown’s biographers have given that period a cursory treatment, preferring to devote their energies to the Pottawatomie episode in Kansas or to the attack on the arsenal and his trial and execution.
She goes on to quote that the environs or atmosphere of the State of Ohio had an impact on Brown as a hotbed for Free Soil activity and well documented as an abolitionist center. Brown was influenced by the messages of William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Hearing Garrison’s 1837 oration in Hudson, Ohio telling of the death of newspaperman Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois, Brown was prompted to publicly consecrate his life to the cause of ending slavery. Over half a century since Land’s observations, more historians are starting to recognize the important part of Brown’s work on the Underground Railroad while he was living at the structure we now call the John Brown House.
In 1844, after years of financial struggle, bankruptcy and debtor’s prison, John Brown was offered a position by the wealthy Colonel Simon Perkins, the son of Akron’s co-founder, to work in the sheep business. Brown’s recognition as an excellent breeder of sheep and judge of wool had captured the attention of Colonel Simon Perkins, son of Akron’s co-founder, and the owner of a large farm on Perkins Hill, often referred to later as Mutton Hill, for the large flocks of Merino and Saxony sheep on the property. This change of landscape was a needed not only to provide him with a chance to redeem himself from his earlier business and legal troubles, but to escape from the sadness that the Brown family had experienced burying four children within two weeks in Richfield, just north of Akron. The family, which consisted of his second wife, Mary Ann Day, and nine children moved into the two-room cottage (with loft), located just across the street from the Perkins Mansion. In a letter to his son, John, Jr., Brown states that it is “ . . . the most comfortable and most favourable [sic] arrangement of my worldly concerns that I ever had.” However, death would also touch the family here, as sadly two children died at the Akron home in 1846 (Amelia) and 1852 (infant son).
Perkins and Brown entered into a partnership. An agreement signed by Perkins and Brown on January 9, 1844 called for a joint concern in value and share of their flocks to commence on the 15th day of April that year. Perkins was to furnish food and shelter for the flock as Brown would be responsible for the care of the sheep including wellbeing, shearing and shipping of wool to market.
Said Perkins agrees to let said Brown the frame dwelling house on his farm (south of the house in which he now lives) door-yard, garden grounds, and the privilege of getting wood for fuel, for the rent of thirty dollars a year commencing on the first of April next.
Success with the business of Perkins and Brown was widespread almost immediately as the spring clip was presented in New York and Boston winning the company gold medals at both locations. Samuel Lawrence, a manufacture in Massachusetts wrote Col Perkins in 1844 the following message:
Mr. Brown’s wool has ever been of the highest character since he first brought it here, but this year it has amazed us.
Between 1844 and 1848, more than fourteen articles were written about their work, especially highlighting Brown’s method for cleaning the wool and his speeches to unify growers to present a unified front of producing quality wool to garner prices from eastern merchants.
While working with Perkins to tend the flocks and travel for business, Brown did not forget his convictions and continued involvement in Underground Railroad activity while living at the house and even harbored escaped slaves at the home until they could be moved onto a station further north. While Perkins and Brown did not agree on the slavery issue, their partnership was formed on mutual respect, trust and honesty. Mrs. Perkins on the otherhand did not appreciate Brown, his boys, or the the continual appearance of freedom seekers on property owned by her husband.
John Brown transported escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad and was a revered transporter. He had an ability to change course and avert capture and quickly learned signs along the route to ensure safe passage for those he assisted. Professor Wilbur H. Siebert credits him with coining the term “Subterranean Pass Way,” in an effort to keep fugitives in the United States, instead of transporting to Canada, by educating northerners to provide defense.
In 1846, Brown convinced Perkins to open a warehouse in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he would be their agent. Taking his older sons, Brown took up residence on the coast to set up the business. By 1847, he had sent for his wife, Mary, and the younger children, while John, Jr. went back to Akron to assist the other boys in managing the Perkins farm where their sister Ruth was also still housed.
While Perkins and Brown continued to receive commendation for their wool, hardship and political issues, most significantly the implementation of the Walker Tariff caused Perkins and Brown wool to pile up without buyers leading Brown to make the decision to transfer the bales to London. Considered a disastrous failure by some accounts, the results of the situation were multiple lawsuits against Perkins and Brown. With the warehouse struggling, Brown found more and more solace in the abolitionist opportunities in Springfield. Here, he made contacts with other abolitionists and Underground Railroad conductors, such as Frederick Douglass., Historians believe that his time in Springfield, possibly because of his close interaction with the abolitionist community or his constant struggles, fueled the ideas for a bigger role in assisting the end of slavery. And it’s been noted that he even turned the Perkins and Brown warehouse into a station in Springfield, Massachusetts. Here, as Frederick Douglass observed, Brown lived in a “Spartan way in order to save as much money as possible for his great enterprise of freeing the slaves.”
In 1849, Brown decided to take up Gerrit Smith’s offer to purchase land in Timbucto, North Elba, New York. The move would allow Brown to participate in a program Smith supported to teach farming to escaped slaves and free black men. However, Brown continued to be employed in the wool business in traveled back and forth between Elba and Springfield. Brown may have been reluctant, to abandon the enterprise altogether because his travels for his sheep and wool business also afforded him the opportunity to conduct anti-slavery activity. Evan Carton writes:
The practical shepherd was, in fact, a double agent. His official rounds-transporting herds, meeting with associates, assessing stock and markets-gave him both occasion and cover to conduct his other business. That business was to familiarize imseld with black communities in the northeast and cultivate friendships with the increasing number of outspoken blacks whi in their pulpits, newspapers and antislavery congresses were beginning to advocate a more politically active and resistant abolitionism than the mainstream antislavery movement preached or favored.
The passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act intensified Brown’s activism. On January 15, 1851, Brown also organized a group called the League of Gileadites in Springfield, which he encouraged African Americans to train in arms to fight against the Fugitive Slave Law. In North Elba, according to Brown’s daughter, Ruth Thompson:
[He] bade us to rresist any attempt that might be made to take any fugitive from our town regardless of fine or imprisonment.
However, it was not only his time on the East Coast that was central to his development as a major figure in the movement to end slavery. Jean Libby, researcher and author with the Allies for Freedom states:
John Brown was hardly the only man to take extreme risks in the Underground Railroad work, but during his Ohio return of 1851-55, we may glimpse the rising figure of the man who would one day invade Virginia, finally personifying in his bold actions and noble death the ultimate triumph of freedom over slavery in the United States.
In 1850, Brown’s work in assisting free Black men and slaves in North Elba to learn farming ended, and discussion of moving his base to Akron had begun when Perkins requested his return. The whole family, except Ruth and her husband Henry Thompson, moved back to Akron to the same house owned by Perkins in March 1851. At this time, two sons were married and living in the community. These sons were working on Perkins’ farms in the town and within the county of Summit; organized in 1840 under the guidance of then State Senator Colonel Simon Perkins.
According to Col. Simon Perkins’ oldest son, George, noted abolitionists visited Brown here including Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet. Due to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law prior to his return to Akron, historians note that Brown’s Underground Railroad activities became more aggressive. His travels to Pennsylvania and Virginia allowed him to pick up fugitives seeking passage to Lake Erie and Canada.
His role working on the Perkins farm worked favorably for the Brown family up and through 1854 at which time, Brown in February reflects, “We have great reason to be thankful that we have had so prosperous a year, and have terminated our connection with Mr. Perkins so comfortably and on such friendly terms.” His older sons looked to purchase their own properties and made the decision to move to the territory of Kansas and while they requested their father to join them, Brown was influenced by his black friends to continue work in the northern region. After gathering enough funds to move the rest of the family back to North Elba, Brown left Summit County and the Ohio Western Reserve. Bigger ambitions surely were in store for him to again leave a place often referred to as home; a location of which he lived 38 of his 59 years.
It’s not long after the family arrived in North Elba that letters from his sons in Kansas territory compelled Brown to travel there stopping by Akron en route to acquire weapons and ammunitions. Included in these items were swords from noted politician and Mayor Lucius Bierce, whom later was boastful that such gifts may have been used to the slayings there to end proslavery rule. In May o f1856, Antislavery men formed in groups to assist the people of Lawrence and they were told the town had been taken without a shot fired and that it was being razed. Many others had already been insulted and abused by pro-slavery parties near Dutch Henry’s Crossing. At this point, John Brown talked amongst a small council in his company urging the need to defend themselves and their families. “Now something must be done.” Using the knowledge of H.H. Williams and the names he suggested, Brown took four of his sons, Owen, Frederick, Salmon and Oliver, along with son-in-law Henry Thompson, to defend the rights of antislavery landowners against the Border Ruffians. After sharpening the swords given by Bierce of Akron, the men traveled to the crossing between the ravines and waiting until nightfall took on the business of “evening” the score killing five pro-slavery men.
Frederick Brown, John Brown’s son, would be killed in cold blood while both John, Jr. and Jason would be taken prisoner after the murders, but they survived. Tension grew and a battle took place between John Brown and his men versus the pro-slavery Missourians at Osawatomie. Brown lost five men and the town was burned. Eventually, Kansas would be admitted to the Union as a free state, but not before Brown would take decisive action to try to end slavery in the United States with a raid on Harpers Ferry.
Contacts made in the Kansas campaign would lead Brown to an acquaintance with the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee who hoped to send arms and pikes to Kansas but the fighting there was ending. Brown in 1857 began soliciting arms and funds to support fighting in the Kansas territory, but others believed he had bigger plans. Instead, Brown was able to convince a group of six men, later called “The Secret Six,” to assist in funding his plan to attack the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and arm the slaves with these weapons instead. Meeting with Harriet Tubman, a well-known Underground RailRoad conductor in St. Catherines, Canada, Brown gathered information about the Virginia landscape and asked for her assistance in recruiting more men. The Kennedy Farm cabin was rented and Brown’s men took to the business of farming. Daughter, Annie, and daughter-in-law, Martha, were helpful with the cooking and cleaning but they were sent back to New York by the end of September. On the eve of October 16, 1859, Brown and his men took captive the great nephew of George Washington and took him as a hostage in the attack of the arsenal at Harpers Ferry
With 21 men, Brown was able to make progress quickly into acquiring the armory and they were assisted by a small group of slaves. What they did not plan was the role of local militia in fighting against the takeover. One raider, Osborne Anderson, even commented that, “I could not help thinking that at times he appeared somewhat puzzled.” By the 18th of October, the U.S. Marines, led by Col. Robert E. Lee, overtook Brown’s “Provisional Army.” Ten of his men had died, some mutilated by the townspeople and Brown himself beat upon the head until unconscious. . While those in the South were concerned about Northern rescuers, Brown would not agree to assist on pleas of insanity, although Akronite Bierce was willing to testify on his behalf. One of Brown’s most famous quotes just prior to death by hanging for his conviction of treason against the State of Virginia, shares his knowledge of recognizing the need to die to try and end slavery.
I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away, but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.
On December 2, 1859, John Brown was hanged for treason. In Akron, the stores were closed and the soung of church bells pealing was heard throughout town for one of its own.
At long last, Brown would meet his maker and accepted his sentence believing that he was worth more dead than alive in his efforts to end slavery. Through Brown’s involvement in Bleeding Kansas, his relationship with the Secret Six and his attack on the arsenal, historians believe that Brown himself sparked the upcoming American Civil War.