An extraordinary letter from John Brown

John Brown

Gentle Readers, I usually take a one day blogging hiatus this time of year. Without particularly meaning to, I’ve taken longer this year. Don’t worry; it’s all for pleasant reasons. I’m about ready to begin again, but the week only has two blogging days left and it seems like a waste to get back going with the narrative for those and then stop for a weekend before restarting. Instead, let me share with you a letter that came to me courtesy of Louis Ruchames’ A John Brown Reader, which I did not have on hand when last I mentioned it.

Akron, Ohio, 30th Sept 1854

Dear Children

After being hard pressed to go with my family to Kansas as more likely to benefit the colored people on the whole than to return with them to North Elba; I have consented to ask for your advice & feeling in the matter; & also to ask you to learn from Mr. Epps & all the colored people (so far as you can) how they would wish, & advise me to act in the case, all things considered. As I volunteered in their service; (or the service of the colored people); they have a right to vote, as to the course I take. I have just written Gerrit Smith, Fredk Douglass, & Dr. McCune Smith, for their advice. We have a new daughter now Five days old. Mother & child are both doing well to appearance. Other friends well so far as I know. John & Wealthy are still with us. Will you write as soon as you can? Have not received your reply to my other questions.

Your Affectionate Father

John Brown

Few white men of his age would acknowledge a general debt to black Americans, let alone give them a say in such a momentous decisions as moving across the country. Brown asked the people he made the commitment to personally up in North Elba, and also Frederick Douglass and James McCune Smith, the latter the first black American to earn a medical degree.

Money and Provisions: The Journey to Kansas, Part 4

John Brown

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left John Brown inquiring with his sons who went to Kansas about prices in Westport. Brown still planned to make a trip to North Elba, but by spring of 1855 he had decided to go at least for a time to the nation’s newest territory himself. As he settled up affairs in Ohio and looked forward to that tip, Brown had a letter in hand from John, Jr., describing all Kansas’ troubles with election-stealing Missourians. He recommended, in language close to that his father used when establishing the League of Gileadites, that “The Antislavery portion of the inhabitants should immediately, thoroughly arm and organize themselves in military companies.”

The younger John Brown avowed that his brothers with him in Kansas, except maybe the unusually gentle Jason, would take up the fight in a heartbeat, if only they had guns and ammunition. Since Brown the elder intended to come to Kansas anyway, could he pick up some for them? To get the cash, Junior suggested hitting up Gerrit Smith.

Brown already had some years of familiarity with Smith from his North Elba involvement. Smith had the right politics and the deep pockets to provide. Brown meant to go to New York anyway. All the pieces fell together and Brown found Smith at Syracuse, where “Radical Political Abolitionists” had gathered for a convention. Brown stepped into the hall on June 28 and informed the body, who had already voted $4,600 to antislavery business, that Kansas needed support.

Brown explained what happened next in a letter collected in The Life and Letters of Captain John Brown, by Richard Webb. He received “a most warm reception from all” and got just that day

a little over sixty dollars-twenty from Gerrit Smith, five from an old British officer; others giving smaller sums with such earnest and affectionate expressions of their good wishes as did me more good than money even. John’s two letters were introduced, and read with such effect, by Gerrit Smith, as to draw tears from numerous eyes in the great collection of people present.

Gerrit Smith

Smith and Frederick Douglass also spoke to the convention on Brown’s behalf.

Brown sounds genuinely moved by his reception. He tells his family that he wishes they could have seen it with him and that he made many “warm hearted and honest friends.” He took their sixty-odd dollars, not a great deal considering what the convention pledged elsewhere, back to Ohio and bought bought a box of guns.

In Springfield, he received advice from Junior that he had requested about the best way to get into Kansas. Brown should avoid the river at this time of year and travel by lumber wagon. Junior also warned him of the weather and reported that the amount of squatters made land speculation dubious. Nor should Brown hope to do well with horses or cattle. Jason wrote as well, explaining that he had fallen silent out of depression over Austin’s death. His wife Ellen had taken it worse still and he might have to bring her back east. Salmon wrote asking Brown to bring food and summer clothing, while also reporting slaves owned not three miles away from the boys’ claims.


The Journey to Kansas, Part 1

John Brown

John Brown and North Elba: parts 1, 234

According to Stephen Oates’ biography, John Brown felt conflicting urges to go ahead with his plan to relocate to North Elba and to go with his sons to Kansas. He had a prior commitment to New York and most of his family already lived there, but Kansas did beckon. He asked advice from friends and gave the black community in the Adirondacks potentially the deciding vote. By November of 1854, Brown had settled on the point. He would stick with his first plan.

That same month, Owen, Salmon, and Frederick Brown drove their herd of eleven cows and three horses into Illinois for the winter. Come spring, 1855, they continued on and staked claims near Osawatomie. That put them some thirty miles south of Lawrence and near to where Samuel Adair set up his homestead.

While Owen, Salmon, and Frederick moved their stock and wintered over, Jason and Brown’s namesake son sold their Ohio farms and readied themselves to follow. Not burdened by herds, they expected to travel across Missouri by riverboat. Brown himself kept on making arrangements and trying to scrape together the money to remove permanently from Ohio to North Elba. By February, he hoped that he could quit the state sometime in the next month and also

I got quite an encouraging word about Kansas from Mr. Adair the other day. He had before then given quite a gloomy picture of things. He and family were all well.

On the same day, February 13, he wrote another letter where he declared his interest in Kansas as considerably beyond the abstract:

Since I last saws you I have undertaken to direct the operations of a Surveying; & exploring party to be employed in Kansas for a considerable length of time, perhaps for some Two or Three years.

Contrary to his first biographer, James Redpath, Oates found evidence that Brown intended to do more than survey a bit. He would look into land speculation and business opportunities. If any of those appeared promising, and Brown tended to find most business opportunities promising, then he could relocate his whole family to Kansas. John Brown would go to Kansas, at least for a few years and maybe for good, sometime in the summer or fall of 1855.

The other Browns had already gotten underway. Jason and Ellen, with their son Austin; and John Jr, Wealthy, and their son John Brown III went by boat as planned. They loaded up on supplies in St. Louis: “two small tents, a plough, and some smaller farming-tools, and a hand-mill for grinding corn.” In April they got going aboard the New Lucy,

which too late we found crowded with passengers, mostly men from the South bound for Kansas. That they were from the South was plainly indicated by their language and dress; while their drinking, profanity, and display of revolvers and bowie-knives -openly worn as an essential part of their make-up- clearly showed the class to which they belonged, and their mission was to aid in establishing slavery in Kansas.

“They should have a right to vote” John Brown and North Elba, Part 4

John Brown

A small personal note, Gentle Readers: I’ve just had my second appearance on the AskHistorians Podcast, talking about Charles Sumner. If you think all of this would be better without having to read my prose or just want my soothing words to delight you, it’s available here, via Youtube, or on Spotify. As before, I promise to use my fame mostly responsibly.

Parts 1, 23

John Brown vented himself to Frederick Douglass about the Kansas-Nebraska Act in a letter. He asked that Douglas refine his prose and make it available to the general public; someone had to talk good sense into white Americans. Douglas obliged by printing the letter in his paper. There Brown’s words joined the tide of outrage against repealing the Missouri Compromise. He could read the indignation of others from Horace Greeley’s paper, to which Brown subscribed, and probably hear it on most streets in the North at least for a while. Everyone understood that the future of Kansas now hung in the balance. Proslavery and antislavery whites would collide there and to the victor might go the nation.

Brown must not have enjoyed the news any better for expressing himself in the papers, but his many debts from the wool business preoccupied him. His surviving letters from the time don’t mention Kansas further. Instead he laments the drought, which claimed the crops he hoped would clear his obligations. Brown hadn’t suffered as badly as some of his neighbors, and suspected they might help themselves to his fruit crop, but the Kansas fever did not strike him at first.

Instead, Brown’s grown sons Owen, Salmon, Frederick, Jason, and John, Jr. decided they should go. They read Emigrant Aid Company material that depicted Kansas as especially verdant and promising. With Ohio in a drought, they must have seen little sense in sticking around. If the kids went, might Brown not go too? Junior asked him and Brown wrote back on August 21, 1854:

If you or any of my family are disposed to go to Kansas or Nebraska, with a view to help defeat Satan and his legions in that direction, I have not a word to say; but I feel committed to operate in another part of the field. If I were not so committed, I would be on my way this fall.

In other words, Brown still dreamed of the Adirondacks and the black colony Gerrit Smith set up there. An in-law of Brown’s, Samuel Adair, already aimed to go so the Brown boys would have a friendly face on the frontier. He had made promises to Smith and to the black community. He felt at home and at peace in North Elba. John Brown couldn’t turn away.

Frederick Douglass

On November 2, 1854, he wrote to his children that expected the elder boys to strike for Kansas. He felt “still pretty much determined to go back to North Elba.” But even by this point, Brown had his doubts. It appears that he wrote to Smith and Frederick Douglass for advice, as he says

Gerrit Smith wishes me to go back to North Elba; from Douglass and Dr. McCune Smith I have not yet heard.

Here Stephen Oates cites a letter in the Brown papers I dearly wish I had access to. As Oakes tells it, brown felt “hard pressed” to relocate to Kansas

as more likely to benefit the colored people on the whole than to return with them to N. Elba.

In his consultations, Brown did something remarkable for a nineteenth century American white man yet again: he asked his family in New York to consult with North Elba’s black community. Brown said

As I volunteered in their services; they should have a right to vote, as to course I should take.

Caught in a genuine dilemma, unsure of what he should do, John Brown believed that his black neighbors should have perhaps the controlling say in the further course of his life. He, in his own words, gave them a vote. Without it, he doesn’t sound at all inclined to give up on his commitment to them.

John Brown and North Elba, Part 2

John Brown

We left John Brown set on removing from Ohio to North Elba, New York. There he would teach those black Americans, many former slaves, who took Gerritt Smith’s offer of free land how to farm in the cold, rugged Adirondacks. Thus order would emerge from disorder and Brown would create a community that modeled the America he hoped for, where black and white Americans lived together in harmony and relative equality. Before Brown could do all that, he needed to close out his wool business. Tinkering with prices moved 37,000 pounds of top-grade material, but that still left north of two hundred thousand pounds and tens of thousands of dollars of debt to clear.

Brown decided that the wool manufactures conspired to dominate the market, so he would try shipping his wool to England. He shrugged off news that the English exported wool to the United States, where it sold for less than domestic product despite the tariff. The Englishmen didn’t grade wool like John Brown did. Brown made his plans for export and relocation in the same month, April of 1848. His youngest daughter also caught sick that month and died in his arms. Another daughter reported that Brown “broke down completely and sobbed like a child” when she was buried.

Life had to go on. May found the Browns renting a farm in North Elba until Brown could build his own. Setting things in order consumed June, during the course of which Brown hired black laborers and tried to work out property lines in the unsurveyed mountains. Once, lost travelers happened on his farm. Brown fed them, housed them for the night, and scandalized them by sharing a table with black men and calling them Mister. In July, he left the farm in his daughter’s charge and set off to see to the wool.

Brown arrived in London in August, where he learned he could not sell his wool until September. He tried France and freed himself of only five bales. Brussels, with a side trip to see the Waterloo battlefield, and Hamburg did no better. In desperation, he tried Leeds and got the same result. Finally he sold the lot at a considerable loss. Brown blamed prejudice against Americans in a letter to his business partner, but insisted that he had at least done something to advance American commerce in Europe.

He probably believed that, but the facts do not bear Brown out. A Massachusetts woolens manufacturer offered Brown sixty cents a pound before he exported the wool. The same man bought the same wool back over from England at fifty-two cents a pound, including the costs of shipping and the tariff. The debacle added $40,000 in losses to the more than $50,000 of debt the business already owed. Depressed, facing his second bankruptcy, Brown traveled Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia trying to explain himself and settle up with his suppliers. Many of them opted to sue instead.

Brown turned to dreams of getting rich quickly by establishing a vineyard, but that vision would keep him from North Elba. His mind also turned to the politics of late 1850, which slavery dominated.

“I am something of a pioneer.” John Brown and North Elba, Part 1

John Brown

John Brown has an interesting and often unfortunate life prior to his arrival in Kansas. By the time the nation’s most troubled territory came into the news, he had failed at business in multiple states. He dreamed already of revolution. Brown told his family that he envisioned going into the South with an armed band to free slaves. They would raid, terrify the enslavers, spirit those who didn’t want to or couldn’t fight up to Canada, and keep the rest in the mountains. Once he had a core group going, they could spark a general uprising that would purge slavery from the land. Brown thought he might get a start of it with the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. His antislavery convictions won him the notice of Frederick Douglass, who called at his Ohio home and praised Brown in his paper long before anyone but neighbors and business associates knew John Brown as anything other than a man with an unexceptional name.

Smarting from his recent failures at business, most recently in wool, and the protracted illness of his son Frederick, 1848 found John Brown near to the end of his rope. He heard that abolitionist Gerrit Smith, who donated some land to Oberlin College that Brown helped survey in 1840, wanted to establish a colony of black Americans in far Upstate New York. There, away from most hostile whites, they might prosper in peace. Few had taken Smith up on the offer for free land, more than a hundred thousand acres of it, on account of the distance and the bitter Adirondack winters. Those few lived in a small community called North Elba.

Gerrit Smith

In April of that year, Brown went to Smith’s mansion and presented the abolitionist with an idea:

I am something of a pioneer. I grew up among the woods and wild Indians of Ohio, and am used to the climate and the way of life that your colony find so trying. I will take one of your farms myself, clear it up and plant it, and show my colored neighbors how much work should be done; will give them work as I have occasion, look after them in all needful ways, and be a kind of father to them.

This all has more than a whiff of racist condescension to it, but the free black population of the North largely lived in cities. Smith’s colonists might genuinely have lacked ordinary farming experience and certainly had little opportunity to work land so remote and cold as North Elba. Either way, Brown impressed Smith and he agreed on the spot. Smith’s grant in hand, Brown went straight there and fell in love. The surroundings reminded him of “Omnipotence” and his “dependence” upon the Almighty.

Brown also found a colony in disarray. The land remained unsurveyed, so no one knew if they had the right parcels or not. Nor did it make for prime farm land. Their plight moved Brown, who would later sent them barrels of pork and flour. He imagined himself as their kind leader, teaching them agriculture, self-improvement, and religion. Brown aimed to make from this disorder and confusion a model community. He just had to close up his failing wool business first.