"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Monday, January 11, 2016

Osawatomie Notebook--
John Brown's Use of Force in Kansas was First about Defending His Family

Grady Atwater

The primary reason John Brown began his militant abolitionist crusade in Kansas Territory was to defend his family from death threats from pro-slavery guerrillas, and his efforts to defend his family exacerbated the existing violence in Kansas Territory and resulted in the Battle of Osawatomie on Aug. 30, 1856.

The Browns were outspoken radical abolitionists, which brought the ire of pro-slavery settlers and even moderate to conservative abolitionists down on their heads. Indeed John Brown and his family were so outspoken that their loud and constant objections to slavery put them on a pro-slavery hit list. John Brown and his sons armed themselves to defend their lives and their abolitionist beliefs and went on the offensive to attack and kill those who sought to kill the members of the Brown family.

Other radical, outspoken abolitionists who made pro-slavery guerrilla hit lists joined John Brown’s family, and John Brown’s radical abolitionist group of guerrilla fighters grew, as did his influence in Kansas Territory.

It is vital to note that John Brown’s influence was primarily wrought from his impatience with inaction in the face of the pro-slavery guerrillas’ threats for he was a man of action, not words. Once, when warned to use caution, John Brown stated, “Caution, sir, I am eternally tired of that word. It is nothing but the word of cowardice!”

John Brown was not a man to stand by and wait for pro-slavery guerrillas to sneak up on his family or other abolitionist families. He took offensive action to address the threat before pro-slavery guerrillas could ambush and kill or harm his family or other abolitionist families.

John Brown’s quest to defend his family resulted in the escalation of the fighting in Kansas Territory, for it set off a chain reaction of violence that intensified the guerrilla warfare in Kansas Territory that helped to earn Kansas Territory the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.”

In addition, John Brown made the Adair cabin and Osawatomie his headquarters, and this made Osawatomie a target for pro-slavery attacks, culminating in the Battle of Osawatomie on Aug. 30, 1856.

John Brown’s motivation to defend his family was coupled with the Brown family’s dedication to action on their beliefs, and his family shared his devotion to the abolitionist cause. John Brown once stated, “Talk is a national institution but it does nothing to help the slave.”


John Brown and his sons were frustrated by peaceful abolitionists insisting that the public could be persuaded by words to end slavery, for he told Fredrick Douglas in 1848 that the only thing that pro-slavery advocates understood was a “big stick about their heads,” and that peaceful means would never result in the abolition of slavery in the United States.

John Brown was a man of action, and his sons in Kansas Territory shared his dedication to the abolitionist cause. John Brown and his sons were first to take action against pro-slavery guerrillas who had made death threats against them, but their efforts at self-defense were a propellant to the already burning fire of guerrilla warfare in Kansas Territory and put Osawatomie and Miami County on the historical map to stay.

Grady Atwater is site administrator of the John Brown Museum and State Historic Site.

Source: Grady Atwater, John Brown went into attack mode to protect his family.” Miami County Republic (Paola, Kan.), 5 Aug. 2015

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