Oliver Brown, John Brown's Favorite Son
Oliver Brown was the youngest son of John and Mary Brown, born March 9, 1839, when the Browns resided in Franklin, Ohio. John Brown's biographer and associate, Franklin B. Sanborn, recalled that the Old Man himself referred to Oliver as "perhaps dearer" to him than any of his other children.1
At sixteen years of age, Oliver arrived at the troubled Kansas territory with his father in late 1855. In February 1856, he wrote home to his mother:
War again threatens Kansas and we expect every day to bee [sic] warned out to meet its call. All we have say is god Speed the day. there is now about 30 or 40 thousand inhabitants in kansas of probably 2000 would turn out to fight, the rest would be peace men, money lovers, fence riders proslavery men.2The young man's analysis of Kansas affairs was precise. Not only was the proslavery faction determined to force slavery upon the majority of "free state" settlers, but the majority of "free state" people were largely passive, fearful, or unwilling to take a strong stand against slavery. It is historically false to assume that "free state" people were the equivalent of abolitionists, and later it was clear that many "free state" people wanted Kansas to enter the union as a "free state" without slaveholders or black people! Young Brown was optimistic about fighting the proslavery forces, but knew that the majority of "free state" people could not be counted on, something that his father clearly observed with frustration.
In late May, 1856, when the onslaught of proslavery thuggery and imminent assault became unavoidable, especially for avowed abolitionists like the Browns, the Old Man struck at key proslavery conspirators in the area of Ossawatomie, resulting in the deaths of five plotters. This incident has been simplistically reduced to a "massacre" by many historians, although it has all the earmarks of a preemptive strike, particularly in a context where there was no appeal to governmental protection for the Browns and their associates. Oliver supported his brothers Frederick and Owen in this attack, although he was not one of the killers.
Oliver returned to the family's homestead in North Elba, NY in October 1856, when the rest of the family also abandoned the territory. However, unlike his beloved father, Oliver disliked Essex County and did not want to remain there. The young critic objected to the Adirondack community because its inhabitants were not "a growing, progressive people."3
Following the Kansas episode, then, he sought work in Connecticut, in his family's home state.
Writing from Hartford, the young critic revealed a discerning eye. In New England, he wrote to his family, there were "two high roads to popularity." One was "to get rich," while the other was "through the portals of the church." Oliver concluded sardonically, that "those who have not wit enough to get rich are usually eminently pious."4 Oliver preferred Connecticut to less developed areas, and found some comfort in being around relatives and extended family. In a manner reflecting his uneven schooling, he wrote to his family: "I find a great many Cousens [sic] about this town and other friends Just as good owing to the reputation of the family in Kansas, which serves to make it an agreeable place."5
While working in Connecticut, Oliver found employment with Charles Blair, a blacksmith and forge master in Collinsville. Blair gave Oliver a one year contract, paying him $200, a "very liberal" salary in that day. Blair was the foreman of the Collins Company, which produced axes and other tools. Blair also owned the village of Collinsville, which Oliver described as "a Small place of 50 acres which place I have mostly the charge of".6 Evidently, Oliver had undertaken the general supervision of Blair's farm and property, an undertaking similar to the arrangement that his father formerly had with the Akron magnate, Simon Perkins, Jr. following the demise of their wool venture in 1849.
Furthermore, it seems that Oliver's job was enabled through his father's business arrangement with Blair, in which the blacksmith was to make one thousand pikes, now famously remembered as the weapons he intended to give to liberated blacks in the South. At the time, of course, Brown conveyed the notion that the pikes were "free state" settlers in Kansas. "Mr. Blair is now at work making 1000 Kansas butter knifes for Father," Oliver playfully wrote to his mother.7 Assuming that Brown got Oliver got his job with Blair, the appointment probably dated to early March, after Brown gave an antislavery speech and happened to meet the blacksmith. Brown contracted for the production of the pikes on March 1, 1857. Meanwhile, Oliver had probably grown edgy and unhappy in North Elba. According to Sanborn, Brown "regretted that the wild life of the Kansas border had begun to unsettle" Oliver's mind, and he had even inquired about having him enrolled in a military school.8 When this apparently failed, Brown evidently helped Oliver move to Connecticut anyway, at least hoping to satisfy his son's desire to get out of Essex County in the land of his fathers. But there was another reason that the father sought to help his son.
Martha, with the Blue-Gray Eyes
Despite his contempt for Essex County, Oliver had found one attraction in North Elba that gave him even greater motivation to find gainful employment. Upon returning from Kansas, he had met Martha Evelyn Brewster, an attractive young woman with blue-gray eyes and light brown hair. Martha, described as "sedate and dignified," was the teenage daughter of a farmer with a large family and the wrong politics. Oliver fell deeply in love with "pretty" Martha, and evidently had her move in with his family while he went off to Connecticut to earn money. Their "love match" was fully realized upon his return from New England, when the two young people married on April 7, 1858. He was nineteen and she was sixteen years old.9
Evidently, settling into marriage was good for Oliver, who continued working in Essex, caring for his young wife, and increasingly becoming bookish and contemplative. His sister Sarah later recalled that Oliver was "always preoccupied, absent-minded, always reading." In these latter years of his short-lived life, he had blossomed. Sarah believed that Oliver had lost his awkwardness, and now tended to err on the side of "over study." Mary Brown later remembered her son as being "in advance of his years--a deep thinker--much like his father."10
In the summer of 1859, John Brown relocated to Maryland under the guise of "Isaac Smith," a farmer and entrepreneur, and rented a farmhouse, which became the headquarters for his planned raid in nearby Virginia. Since his wife Mary refused to come South, Brown asked his teenage daughter Anne to come and keep house until the fall of the year. Annie also brought Martha, who joined her husband and father-in-law, along with the gathering raiders in the tight quarters of their Maryland farm. Anne and Martha remained in Maryland, cooking and housekeeping; the young couple were thus reunited until the young ladies returned to North Elba at the end of September. When they left, Oliver rode the train with his them as far north as Troy, N.Y., and then returned to the South. When she finally parted from Oliver, Martha was about fourth months pregnant, although sadly he would never again see his wife, nor meet his infant child.11
On the evening of October 16, 1859, Brown invaded Harper's Ferry and failed to move sufficiently in time, becoming bogged down until he was forced to retreat into the armory's fire engine house, a small structure on the margin of the facility. During the standoff, Oliver was shot and killed, dying in a short time, while his wounded brother Watson lingered in dying. Separated by hundreds of miles, the imprisoned John Brown and his heartbroken wife would quietly grieve for their lost sons. However, one of Brown's jail guards remembered the Old Man expressing regret that Oliver had been “so unnecessarily exposed in the battle at the engine house.”12
In February 1860, Martha Brewster Brown gave birth to a girl child, naming her Olive, in memory of her fallen husband. But farewells prevailed even here. After three days, the fatherless Olive slipped away. In March, the sorrowed young widow, left to mourn alone for her young husband and infant daughter, followed them into the shade of mortality.13
1 Excerpt from F. B. Sanborn, "Oliver Brown," from Kansas Magazine [Kansas State Historical Society], p. 68, in Oliver Brown folder, Box 6, Oswald Garrison Villard Collection, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Hereinafter, OGV.
2 Oliver Brown to Mary Brown, 4 Feb. 1856, trans. in Oliver Brown folder, Box 6, OGV.
3 Oliver Brown to Martha Brewster Brown, 26 Jun. 1858?, trans., Oliver Brown file, Box 6, OGV.
4 Excerpt letter of Oliver Brown to family, 5 May 1857, trans., in Oliver Brown file, Box 6, OGV.
5 Excerpt from Oliver to "Dear Folks," 16 May 1857, trans., in Oliver Brown file, Box 6, OGV.
8 Sanborn, "Oliver Brown."
9 Katherine Mayo's notes on Martha Evelyn Brewster Brown, from Annie Brown Adams, in Hinton Papers, Kansas Historical Society, Oliver Brown file, Box 6, OGV; Sanborn, "Oliver Brown."
10 Oswald G. Villard, John Brown (Doubleday, 1910, 1929), p. 683; [James M. McKim], "Mrs. Brown and Her Family," National Antislavery Standard, 12 Dec. 1859, p. 3.
11 Mayo's notes on Martha Evelyn Brewster Brown.
12 William Fellows, “Saw John Brown Hanged,” New York Sun, 13 Feb. 1898, p. 2.
13 Mayo's notes on Martha Evelyn Brewster Brown.