John Brown’s Iowa Correspondence, July 1857
If the record of his correspondence tells us anything about John Brown in 1857, it is that this was perhaps the busiest and most active year of his public life as a radical abolitionist. By my reckoning, Brown wrote just over 160 letters in 1857, and unfortunately about fifty-six of them are no longer extant, and can be accounted for only because Brown kept a record of his correspondence in a journal.
The 1857 letters, when placed in chronological order, trace Brown’s movement westward, beginning with a good many letters written from New England in the first quarter of the year, and in April they show his return home to North Elba, New York, his movement within the latter state, and then his progress toward Ohio by June. For the rest of that month, Brown moved between Ohio and Chicago, and ended up back in Ohio before moving farther west. By July, we have Brown in Iowa, where the several letters presented here were written, including his famous autobiographical sketch for the son of his “Secret Six” support, George L. Stearns.
For the rest of the year, Brown remained mostly in Iowa, with some trips over to the Kansas Territory, but the bulk of his correspondence shows him in Tabor, Iowa, on the extreme western side of the state. At the end of 1857, as he proceeded eastward, the record shows his last letter written from Springdale, Iowa, on the northeastern corner of the state, on December 30; he remained in Springdale with his Quaker friends well into January before making an extended visit at the home of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York.
Iowa, July 1857
In the summer of 1857, Brown’s intention for Iowa was to reach Tabor, where he had intended to set up a training camp for his men. Tabor was located in Fremont County, in the far southwestern section of Iowa, near the border of Kansas. It had been his intention to have the training of his men overseen by the Englishman Hugh Forbes, ostensibly a former associate of the Italian patriot, Garibaldi. Forbes disappointed Brown first by becoming difficult and abandoning his men in Iowa, and then by becoming a whining traitor who was far more interested in money than in liberation. The more obvious issues that plagued Brown in the summer of 1857, however, were his lack of solvency despite promises of support from friends in the east. Likewise, Brown was struggling with the Ague, a malarial kind of prairie fever and sickness that afflicted him off and on into the last year of his life.
Reaching Iowa City in Johnson County, in the northeastern section of the state, Brown wrote his first July letter of 1857, updating his wife Mary back home in New York State. It is hard not to think that Brown was not thinking of his efforts in light of his Revolutionary forebears, noting that he had arrived in Iowa City two days before. What follows is a literal transcription:
Iowa City, Iowa, 6,th July, 1857.
Dear Wife & Children every one. I reached this place on the 4th inst leaveing Owen behind with a team at Davenport, which we brought from Ohio; as the freight Cars did not run on the 4th. I expect him on today; & to start on our overland route in a day or two. I have been midling well of late; & Owen is well. I tried hard to send you some more Flour & some Leather from Ohio, & from Chicago; but could not make it out. Possibly I may be able to send another small Draft before long. I hope to hear all about how you get along all of you; when I get to Tabor; & I wish you to continue writing (Nelson Hawkins [)] at Tabor: till I direct differently. To the God of my Fathers I commend you all.
Your Affectionate Husband; & Father,
Brown mentions leaving his son Owen with a team of livestock at Davenport, which is located on the extreme eastern side of the state, while he had proceeded farther, though still in eastern Iowa. This brief letter reveals Brown’s ongoing concern to provide for his family back home, and his constant need of cash, the latter being one of his biggest problems throughout the summer of 1857. He instructs Mary to write to him at Tabor (on the extreme western side of the state), and to use a pseudonym, Nelson Hawkins. In my research some years back, I discerned that this is not an invented name. Nelson Hawkins was a young carpenter from the Akron area, and an associate of his adult sons Jason and John Junior.
A Curious Issue
At this point, a curious issue arises in the chronology of Brown’s July 1857 letters from Iowa. Not included here is the famous autobiographical letter that the abolitionist wrote to young Henry Stearns, the son of one of his most faithful supporters, George L. Stearns of Medford, Mass. Brown apparently penned the sketch while he was waylaid in Iowa as a result of financial and physical problems, as his letters from this period reveal. The autobiographical sketch is presented within his letter to young Stearns dated July 15, and written from “Red Rock, Iowa,” a town that was located at Red Rock, southeast of Des Moines. However, the student’s curiosity arises when noting that Brown wrote letters to his wife and his son, John Junior, on July 17 and 18, respectively, further east in the town of Wassonville. In other words, why would Brown have gone as far west in the state as Red Rock in Marion County on July 15 and then go back in an eastward direction to Wassonville in Washington County by July 17?
There are a few possible explanations for this curious movement.
The first is that Brown could have misdated the letter to young Stearns when he wrote from Red Rock. Did he write July 15 mistakenly, instead of, for example, July 25? Boyd Stutler, the godfather of John Brown studies, made the observation that the abolitionist was known to date his letters incorrectly, and there are a number of cases where clearly he did so. Of course, in fairness to Brown, these few dating errors over were made over a lifetime of letter writing, so I would not rush to the conclusion that the Red Rock letter is misdated. My sense is that this does not provide a suitable explanation. Still, if Brown was in Wassonville on July 17-18, the fact that he was farther west two days before still poses a question for students.
The better explanation is that he had some reason to backtrack eastward after July 15, after he had begun writing his autobiographical sketch. As an aside, it is doubtful that Brown completed the entire sketch in one day, and probably was working on it for weeks. Those acquainted with the manuscript of Brown’s autobiography know that it includes a letter to the elder Stearns, dated August 10, and written from Tabor, in Fremont County, on the extreme western side of Iowa. Thus, while the autobiographical sketch is not of immediate concern here, it is likely that Brown had written it in snips and bits as he continued his painful trek across Iowa, finally completing it at his destination at Tabor.
As far as his backtracking eastward between July 15 and 17, the better explanation seems to have been necessity. By all accounts, Brown was deeply frustrated during the trip due to the failure of supporters back in New England to come through with the monies that had been promised him in the earlier months of the year. Then, too, he was sick with both the Ague and at some point he sustained a back injury, perhaps while loading and unloading the supplies that he was attempting to move to Kansas for the free state cause.
However, the main reason that Brown backtracked eastward probably was money. The following month, Brown wrote to another supporter that after his time in New England (between January and April 1857), he had often been sick with the Ague and had “exhausted my available means towards purchasing such supplies as I should certainly need if again called into active service” in Kansas. The dearth of cash, Brown wrote, forced him to “beg in my journey” to cover his expenses and the cost of freighting the supplies he was taking west. Indeed, throughout his difficult trek westward, he wrote in another letter that he and his son Owen had lived on canned herring, crackers, and “sweetened water” for nearly a month, likewise sleeping outdoors in their wagon. “This being the case,” Brown concluded, “I was obliged to stop at different points on the way & to go to others off the route to solicit help.”2
|Wassonville on the English River|
in Brown's era Project Wassonville 2007
Wassonville does not exist today, and local historians in Iowa refer to it as a ghost town of the mid-19th century. But in Brown’s time, Wassonville was still vibrant if not thriving as a frontier trading post dating back nearly twenty years to its founding in 1849. Wassonville was known for its mill site on the English River and became the early center of activity. Wassonville quickly grew into a significant trading post on the early trail leading up to Fort Des Moines. More importantly, in the early 1850s, Wassonville served as a center for representatives of the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society, working to see Kansas admitted into the union as a free state. If Brown was strapped for cash and needed to go “off the route to solicit help,” he may have been drawn to Wassonville for that purpose.
Interestingly, Wassonville would not otherwise have been a place of great comfort for Brown since it was a known for its whiskey sales, and was a place where hunting was popular. Still, it was an active community with millwork and antislavery friends, so it was a good place to go for a Kansas hero looking for support. Local records suggest that Brown came to Wassonville because of a sick mule (the problem actually was a sickly horse), but if Brown had gone as far west as Red Rock, it is more likely he had gone to Wassonville in the hopes of gaining financial assistance from antislavery sympathizers.
Brown wrote the first of two letters from Wassonville to his wife back in North Elba, on July 17.
Wassonville, Iowa, 17th July 1857
Dear Wife & Children every one
Since I wrote last I have made but little progress; having Teams & Waggons to rig up, & load: & getting a horse hurt pretty bad. Still we shall get on just as well; & as fast as Providence intends: & I hope we may all be satisfeyed with that. We hear of but little that is interesting from Kansas. It will be a great privilege to hear from home again: & I would give any thing to know that I should be permitted to see you all again in this life. But Gods will be done. To his infinite grace I commend you all.
Your Affectionate Husband & Father
Brown’s frustration is close to the surface in this letter, although he was yet the master optimist, typically concluding that “we shall get on just as well” and “hope we may all be satisfyed [sic] with that.” In his more detailed letter of disappointments to George Stearns on August 8, Brown thus concluded that although he was “mortyfied” (one of his favorite—albeit typically misspelled—words to express embarrassment and shame) by his many disappointments and problems, he had not given up.4
A "Last & Final Separation"?
|Mary Brown with Annie and Sarah|
about seven years earlier, before
the birth of baby Ellen
A more poignant point of this letter is his passing statement that “I would give any thing to know that I should be permitted to see you all again in this life.” One should not take these words lightly lest the bravery of the man is overrated to the exclusion of his true feelings and apprehensions. In letters to Franklin Sanborn at this time, Brown revealed how hard it had been for him to leave Mary and their youngest children (Annie was barely fourteen, Sarah was eleven, and Ellen was not quite three). It bothered him deeply that he was leaving them in economically vulnerable and difficult circumstances. But he worried deeply that there was “at least a fair chance that it was to be a last & final separation.” His concern—that he might die while fighting proslavery forces in Kansas, never to see his family again—“had lain heavily” on him. In retrospect, one might forget this aspect of Brown’s humanity, that despite his much-attested bravery and his determination to carry out his plan beyond Kansas, he was quite aware of his own mortality and he worried for his loved ones should he die. As Brown wrote to Sanborn in the summer of 1857, it quite pained him that he might fall while “far away” in Kansas, “perhaps never to return” home to Mary and the children.5
|John Brown Jr.|
Still stranded in Wassonville the following day, Brown wrote to his namesake back in Ohio. Brown was close to John Junior, but it was quite clear that he would no longer be able to enlist his two elder sons, John and Jason, or his trusted son-in-law, Henry Thompson. All three men were married, and all three had suffered in Kansas during the previous year, especially the Browns, whose homes had been burned by proslavery thugs, and whose families had been traumatized amidst the hardships, dangers, and sorrows they had known while in the territory. Besides the loss of property and frightening encounters with proslavery terrorism, they had lost their brother Frederick to murder the previous year; but more so, they had learned the lesson of Pottawatomie, that sheer bloodshed, even the most brutal kind of martial killing, would be necessary if they intended to fight slavery. Kansas had brought them directly into civil war and they were repulsed by its realities. “The boy[s] have all determined both to practice & learn war no more,” Mary had written to her undaunted husband. Yet it was now clear to John Brown that his beleaguered sons had “declined to return” to Kansas. This antipathy toward Kansas seems to have prevailed among the Brown men in 1857, with the great exception of thirty-four-year-old son Owen, bold and devoted albeit suffering with the disability of a “lame” arm. Owen had joined his father straightaway, determined to assist him in the travel and labor of freighting arms and supplies to Kansas.
Wassonville, Iowa, 18th July, 1857.
Dear Son & Family
your Affectionate Father
Write what you hear from any of the family6
In this letter, Brown provides some details, showing that Owen, who was previously left behind in Davenport, had rejoined his father in Wassonville—perhaps yet another reason why Brown may have digressed eastward in the state. This brief letter is yet rich in details about difficulties and conditions, and Brown’s great desire both to get news from Kansas and from home. Given Brown’s penchant for optimism, statements like “things to make us quite comfortable on the road” and that they were “midling [sic] well” more likely suggests the father and son were struggling to get along with minimal comforts in travel, although at least Brown seems to have been feeling better for the moment. He continues to direct them to send all correspondence ahead of him to Tabor, where he intends to reach as soon as possible.
The last detail worth noting of this letter is its lack of signature. In later years, Brown’s children mutilated many of his letters by cutting away his signature for the purpose of sale or gift. However, it appears that Brown intentionally did not sign this letter, no doubt for reasons of security. It should be remembered that in 1857 he was a wanted man, and that he was approaching war-torn Kansas Territory once more. He could not risk any of his correspondence falling into the wrong hands.--LD
1 John Brown to Mary Brown, 6 July 1857, John Brown - Oswald Garrison Villard Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, Columbia University Library, New York, N.Y.
2 John Brown to Franklin B. Sanborn, 13 August 1857, a copy of which is found in the Rosenbach Library and Museum Collection, Philadelphia, Pa.
3 John Brown to Mary Brown, 17 July 1857, John Brown Collection, #299, Box 1, Folder 25, Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, Kan.
4 See John Brown to George L. Stearns, 8 August 1857, a copy of which is found in the Clarence S. Gee Collection, Hudson Library and Historical Society, Hudson, Oh.
5 John Brown to Franklin B. Sanborn, 13 August 1857; and Brown to Sanborn, 27 August 1857, in Chicago History Museum.
6 John Brown to John Brown Jr., July 18, 1857, Box 2: Folder 2, John Brown Jr. Papers, Ohio Historical Society, Columbus, Oh.
Also visit the interesting website, "Project Wassonville 2007" (English Valleys History Center, Iowa)