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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Monday, October 31, 2022

Why Was Brown Silent on the Conditions of Free Labor in the 19th Century? Responding to a Thoughtful Reader

A thoughtful listener of my John Brown Today podcast named Len Bussanich has previously submitted his reflections on Old Brown, prompting a response on that platform that I hope was useful. Now, once again, I am pleased to receive a comment from Len on this platform following the last entry.  Partly because my response is too long to fit into the comment section, and partly because I think he raised a good question worthy of posting, I thought it best to copy Len's note to me below, followed by my response.  I hope that blog readers will find it useful.

Len writes:

I've always been interested in the "dichotomy" between slave labor in the South and industrial/mill labor in the North. The Industrial Revolution essentially began in this country in Massachusetts, also the hotbed of abolitionism. Some of your wealthiest capitalists were also abolitionists. These same abolitionists and their followers were calling for the destruction of slavery in the South but said virtually nothing about the dehumanizing conditions farmer girls turned factory workers endured in the mill factories in Massachusetts and elsewhere in New England. John Brown lived and worked in Springfield, MA. He must have known or heard about the conditions in the factories. I guess my question now is, why is there no examination of Brown's actions in the context of the industrializing North? Why would he-or the abolitionists-remain silent to the same oppressive conditions wracking the labor force in the North and not question, challenge or even confront the same capital dynamics that shaped the South as well as the North. Cotton as we know drove agricultural expansion in the South and industrial expansion in the North.

Orestes Brownson
There was a man however in the North named Brownson who was examining and writing about the brutal conditions in the North, Orestes Brownson and his piece, The Laboring Classes.

 Perhaps I am asking too much of John Brown, but he detested slavery and yet he essentially remained silent on the dehumanizing nature of industrial labor and wage slavery.<>

Hi Len,

Thank you for writing and for sharing your continued thinking and reflections on John Brown. Your question, as to why Brown seems to have been silent regarding the plight of exploited free laborers is interesting, to be sure.

 In my study of his letters, I have never seen any expression of concern over the struggles of free laborers in the factories of the North. I'm not even sure I can recall an incident where his family or biographers recount such concerns.  

 The closest that Brown comes to fighting for free white labor in the North is his involvement in the wool business on behalf of the wool-growing farmers of Ohio, western Virginia, and Pennsylvania, expressed in his desire to open a wool commission operation in New England that would push back against the abuses of the manufacturers by protecting the interests of the growers. This was a cause that gripped him in the 1840s, although he lost that battle by trying to create a solution. The farmers were not ready to "unionize" (it took another half century before they actually did), the manufacturers were too powerful (and dishonest), and were able to undermine his efforts.  Earlier in his life, in northwestern Pennsylvania, Brown interceded on behalf of settlers who were fighting the encroachments of a powerful Philadelphia land company. He felt they were unjustly being treated and tried to stir up a movement against this company. Although his efforts apparently came to naught, he did ruffle the feathers of the company's agent. I unpack these earlier episodes of his struggle for justice in my little book, John Brown--The Cost of Freedom (2007).

 In light of this, I can only offer a couple of thoughts.  First, Brown was an agrarian by nature and orientation and this shaped the arc of his life and activities.  His most urban experience was in Springfield, Mass., 1846-49, and by then he was primarily caught up in resisting the expansive power of the slaveholders, especially after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.  I think that despite his forward-looking ways, Brown was more a product of agrarian society, and that was where his treasure was: fighting for settlers against a powerful company, or fighting manufacturers for farmers, and all the while moving steadily toward militant opposition to slavery.

Second, although it may be that Brown did not spend any energy on behalf of the struggling and exploited laborers of the North, I suspect he knew about their plight and sympathized. He was likewise sympathetic to the concerns of women. But if he did not come out in favor of the laborers or of women, it may be because he felt that the problem of slavery was far worse, more politically apocalyptic for the nation.

Perhaps too, he not only felt the concerns of free white labor and women, in general, were secondary to the black struggle, but he was put off by evidence of racism among free white laborers in the North. So, while he was aware of their struggles, perhaps Brown felt he had to prioritize the interest of the black struggle despite the inequities of the North. I know the antebellum apologists of the South often referred to the exploitation of the Northern laboring class, but perhaps in Brown's mind, he felt it was a category error to compare immigrant and poor white laborers in the North to enslaved Africans. The former were greatly exploited but they were free in some sense, whether or not they were despised for reasons of class or ethnicity. Still, this wasn't the same as the wholesale racist treatment of blacks, whether in southern slavery or northern "freedom."  (A good book here is the modern classic by Leon Litwack, North of Slavery).

Although the following words are from Frederick Douglass, and not John Brown, it might be a helpful reference point for the question before us, as to Brown's apparent lack of concern for the struggles of poor white laborers in the North.  In 1850, Douglass gave a speech in Rochester, New York, in which he reflected upon the plight of struggling Irishmen in Great Britain. I think the parallel here is quite useful:

Far be it from me to underrate the sufferings of the Irish people. They have been long oppressed; and the same heart that prompts me to plead the cause of the American bondsman, makes it impossible for me not to sympathize with the oppressed of all lands. Yet I must say that there is no analogy between the two cases. The Irishman is poor, but he is not a slave. He may be in rags, but he is not a slave. He is still the master of his own body . . . . He can write, and speak, and cooperate for the attainment of his rights and the redress of his wrongs." (Dec. 1, 1850)

I do not think I'm stretching it to suggest that if Douglass felt this way about the poor Irishmen living under the British empire, he felt the same about poor white factory workers in New England.  They were victims, but only the racist chattel slave system was, in Douglass's words, the "grand aggregation of human horrors." I suspect that this would have been John Brown's sentiments and those of his black and white counterparts within the abolitionist movement.

Brown was a sensitive human being and I believe that he knew about the oppression of northern laborers, but I just don't think he saw their struggle as the "hill to die on." Indeed, by the late 1850s, it was the destruction of the Union and the possibility that four million slaves would be carried into an independent slave nation that caused him consternation. That was the crisis of his generation, not the struggles of poor white laborers.  History suggests, in fact, that slavery had to be dealt with before other issues of social justice were brought to the main attention. At the same time, in later years, it seemed all too easy for this nation to turn its back on the concerns of the emancipated community.  Perhaps had he lived long enough, John Brown might have undertaken on their behalf, just as did some of his associates who lived into the later 19th century. But Brown lived and died under the shadow of slavery, and it was the end of slavery that determined the boundaries of his life and death.  Throughout the 1840s and '50s, John Brown's vision was steadily and intensively focused on slavery, and by the time he was in his late fifties, especially after the trauma of the Kansas territory, I just don't think he could focus his efforts on anything else.  

Thank you for your note, Len. I hope this is useful in your continued study and reflection.--LD

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Don Pedro, John Brown, and Black Enslavemen

The sketch below is of the "big daddy" of the sheep world in the 19th century United States, Don Pedro. Don Pedro was brought to the US by a Frenchman, E. I. DuPont de Nemours, who initially settled in New York in 1801.
Don Pedro Hagley Museum and Library
Once in New York, Du Pont arranged to have Don Pedro “tupped” (copulate with) nine ewes, and thereafter became a major influence in sheep breeding. At the time, there was a kind of "craze" among sheep farmers in the U.S. over acquiring Merino sheep, a breed (or group of breeds) that include Saxony and Rambouillet, and others. Even the slaveholder President Thomas Jefferson wanted some Merinos for his flocks in Virginia.
After a lot of breeding and even selling off of the feisty Don Pedro, DuPont reacquired him and moved the busy sheep to a new farm in Delaware, near Wilmington. To preserve and propagate the breed, he even offered Don Pedro to neighboring farmers for free, although initially few farmers valued the offer enough to use him. Eventually, however, farmers caught the Merino "fever" and Don Pedro was at it again.
At ten years old, Don Pedro was described as “very strong and active,” “stout, short, and wooly,” with large, spiraled horns, short legs, and a weight of 138 pounds, with fine fleece, 1 3/4 long, thick, and close to his body. Don Pedro died in 1811, but his pedigree lived on, well into the time when an abolitionist named John Brown was pursuing excellence in the fine sheep and wool trade.
In his 1839 sheep-buying sojourn, Brown thus purchased some of the sires of Don Pedro and mentions it in his memorandum book (I), held by the Boston Public Library (also shown).

Now, as historical detail goes, this is perhaps no more than interesting trivia, but it adds color to the John Brown story, getting beyond the standard "drive-by" biographies offered.
MORE IMPORTANTLY, let us not forget that while John Brown was buying Don Pedro's kids from farms in Connecticut in 1839, African children were being sold away like livestock in the South, African people were in general treated like living property (our nation practiced "chattel slavery," not just slavery), African men were used to "breed," African women were routinely reduced to breeders as well as raped by white masters and their family members, and black children were sexually molested and violently abused.
It's not an exaggeration to say that many African men and women, boys and girls, were treated with far less kindness than Don Pedro was treated in his busy "ovis aries" existence.
White society then, and largely today, went on with its daily business with little regard to the vast and horrible nature of black enslavement in this nation, and today many white people do not want to talk about the realities of slavery, do not want to talk about what this nation owes the descendants of African slavery in this nation, and do not want to admit that their ancestors were slaveholding thieves of stolen black labor and stolen black bodies.
Say what you want about the Germans, but they've done far better in facing the atrocities of their history than have white folks in this nation, especially the ones whose forebears benefitted from black enslavement, and even more especially among the white evangelicals with slaveholder and "Confederate" pedigrees.
As for John Brown, I'm glad that his successes as a specialist in fine sheep and wool in the 1840s are only a biographical subtext, and that, when the South was on the edge of striking out on its own as a slave republic, he made a desperate, radical effort to liberate the oppressed. And although he failed, his example and his words put a light on the true spirit of the South, and his spirit forced a minimalist Republican effort to maintain slavery into a war to end slavery, despite Lincoln's slow-minded and slow-hearted intentions in 1860.
As he waited to hang in his Virginia jail cell in 1859, I wonder if John Brown thought about the long trail that led him from Don Pedro sheep in 1839 to Harper's Ferry twenty years later, especially when he took his quill pen and marked off Revelation 18:13 in his Bible:
"And cinnamon, and odors, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men."

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

A Douglass Descendant, W.E.B. DuBois, and the John Brown Memorial Association



This is taken from a letter written on stationary used by Fredericka D. Perry, a granddaughter of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, dated March 31, 1930. The letter was written to W.E.B. DuBois and can be found in the DuBois Papers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
There are various points of interest presented here. The first point is the John Brown Memorial Association (JBMA), an African American group that was founded in 1922 by members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Starting in 1922, the JBMA had begun to conduct annual pilgrimages to Brown’s gravesite at North Elba, near Lake Placid, New York, to celebrate the abolitionist's birthday on May 9. The founder and leading spirits of the JBMA were J. Max Barber, a leader in the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, who had led the first pilgrimage to Brown’s grave in 1922. Other leaders were T. Spotuas Burwell and William Lloyd Imes. The latter, a clergyman, was still advancing the JBMA well into the 1960s. According to a note in the papers of the late Edwin N. Cotter, Jr., a supervisor of the John Brown Farm and gravesite, the JBMA continued until about 1981.
Secondly, Fredericka Perry is shown here as the "organizer of Chapters [of the JBMA] in the Western and Southwestern parts of the United States." This is not only interesting in showing that there was interest in the black community sufficiently to have chapters in other parts of the country besides New York and Pennsylvania, but also because the woman advancing the JBMA was a direct descendant of Frederick Douglass. Interestingly, only months before the JBMA's 1930 pilgrimage, a letter from Perry to W.E.B. DuBois, editor of the NAACP's publication, The Crisis, was published. Perry informed DuBois that she had finally obtained a copy of his 1909 biography of John Brown and had read it with much interest.
Its eloquent tribute to John Brown transcends anything on the subject I have thus far read--and I have been fortunate in securing much good material. The interpretation of the Soul of John Brown--the thought behind the act--could come only from a man of the race with real understanding.
Perry further opined:
I have for some time been convinced, Dr. DuBois, that the Negro has not done justice to the memory of John Brown and whatever his excuses may have been in the past, they can no longer remain in the face of his boasted intellectual and cultural advancement. (see letters in The Crisis, May 1930, p. 160)

These are rigorous words, especially coming from one who might more easily have given herself to the memorializing of her own great forebear, Frederick Douglass. It also suggests that well into the first half of the twentieth century, many African Americans sustained a robust appreciation of Brown, something that is born out in the work of certain contemporary writers, poets, artists, and scholars in that era. At any rate, Perry felt strongly about John Brown and her reading of DuBois' 1909 biography further steeled her conviction about the abolitionist. To no surprise, that May, she traveled to Lake Placid, N.Y., to join in the JBMA's annual pilgrimage to the gravesite of John Brown. Interestingly, that same year of 1930, Boyd B. Stutler, the foremost John Brown aficionado, was invited to speak for the JBMA program at Lake Placid. The primary speaker for the event was A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black-led labor union. On his way home, traveling by train, Stutler later wrote that he had occasion to travel with Fredericka Perry. As Stutler recounted it, during the train ride home, Perry showed him a package that had been sent to her from Ethel Chamberlain, a granddaughter of John Brown (through Brown's son Salmon). She had evidently received the package at the John Brown Farm and opened it the first time during the train ride. When Perry opened the package, Stutler observed, she found a lock of John Brown’s hair and a piece of the scaffold upon which he was hanged. (Stutler to Fred Lockley, Jan. 9, 1938, p. 2, RP02-0156C, Stutler Papers) The rich banner illustration on the JBMA stationary, featuring the heading, "Lest We Forget," portrays Brown's trial before a court of Virginia slaveholders and includes a portion of his spontaneous "statement to the court" at the time his guilty verdict was read. Brown is pictured as lying down, although he actually was tried while lying on a cot that was carried back and forth from his jail cell, Brown walking behind when entering and leaving the courthouse. The Virginians were in such haste to hang Brown and his men that they refused to grant adequate time for the preparation of their legal cases and likewise insisted that wounded men like Brown and his raider, Aaron Stevens, appear in court without the opportunity to recuperate from their wounds. The judge and the prosecutor would later write accounts of Brown's trial, portraying their conduct as fair. But it is evident that Brown was rushed through, as were his men, and was it not for their own State code restricting instant executions to the time of "insurrection," Brown would have been hanged almost immediately. Those with an interest in this phase of Brown's story should read Brian McGinty's John Brown's Trial and my book, Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia.
Lastly, as noted, W.E.B. DuBois is remembered for his enduring and impacting biography, John Brown, published in 1909 and republished in 1962, the year before his death. I am not aware that DuBois ever spoke at the JBMA's annual event, although Oswald G. Villard, his associate in the NAACP was invited to speak. Villard, whose influential biography of Brown was published in 1910, was not kind toward DuBois' biography when it appeared, the year before his own book was published. Villard, who had ownership of influential publications in New York City, had his editor chasten DuBois because his book had many small factual errors and slips. DuBois was an academic and his biography of Brown was undertaken without great resources of time and money, so it is understandable that his reliance on older published sources would result in republishing errors. To be sure, Villard financed and published a great deal of important research on Brown in his biography, which won great praise in the papers while DuBois' biography was largely overlooked. However, a century-plus after the publication of his John Brown, DuBois' work has been reprinted and appreciated widely, despite its flaws in historical detail, yet for its profound reflection upon and interpretation of the abolitionist. Quite in contrast, Villard's much-lauded book has rarely been republished and has served mainly as a reference work for scholars. His writing is dense, dry, and uninspired. Worse, his vision of Brown is conflicted, the product of rarefied liberalism--a blend of his own personal and ideological biases. Indeed, Villard's biography often has been more useful to Brown's enemies in the long run of history than it has been to the cause of justice. Even with its historical flaws in detail, it is rather DuBois' biography of Brown that has captured the minds and hearts of generations, especially for its grasp of the man himself:
Was John Brown simply an episode, or was he an eternal truth?" DuBois writes. "And if a truth, how speaks that truth today? John Brown loved his neighbor as himself. He could not endure therefore to see his neighbor, poor, unfortunate or oppressed. . . . From this he concluded--and acted on that conclusion--that all men are created free and equal, and that the cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.
DuBois first wrote these words in the midst of the ruthless tyranny of Jim Crow segregation and racist terrorism being perpetrated upon black people in the South, and at a time when de facto segregation also defined life in the North. By the time his biography of Brown was republished in 1962 by International Publishers in commemoration of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, it had only grown more precious--the fermentation of history having made his lyrical and insightful interpretation of the abolitionist all the more relevant for the Civil Rights era. So Fredericka Perry was quite correct in her 1930 assessment: "The interpretation of the Soul of John Brown--the thought behind the act--could come only from a man of the race with real understanding."
"The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression."

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Side Note: She Got Him Right--Prof. Stephanie Coontz's Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles Times (Aug. 14, 2022) features an op-ed by Prof. Stephanie Coontz entitled, "Op-Ed: American History is a Parade of Horrors — and Also Heroes."

Coontz, who is professor emerita of history at Evergreen State College in Washington, makes this sound and robust assessment of Brown.

And then, of course, there was John Brown, the devout Reformed Evangelical whose militia battled slavery proponents in the Kansas territory and who led an attack on a federal armory in Virginia in 1859 in an attempt to arm slaves for an uprising. He was tried for insurrection and hanged. Yet his stand against slavery inspired later Union troops to march into battle singing “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on.”

Of course, I take issue with the familiar but flawed claim that Brown raided the armory "to arm slaves," something contradicted by the evidence, including Brown's words and tactics while at Harper's Ferry. Still, I greatly appreciate Coontz identifying Brown as a "Reformed Evangelical," which is precise and all too rare when he is described, particularly as a radical religious reformer.--LD

Saturday, July 23, 2022

To No Surprise, Sam Negus in The National Review Has Gotten John Brown All Wrong

I'm glad that my piece in Christianity Today a few weeks ago, arguing that John Brown is a model for white Christians, has upset Sam Negus, a contributor to The National Review. It was just called to my attention that Negus attempted to write a high-brow-top-down conservative response entitled, "John Brown is No Model For Christians," published in the TNR on July 3. By the way, I'm also identified in TNR as "Luis" DeCaro. Of course, as a "Mediterranean Latino" (Italians are Latinate too), I'm fine with being "Luis." But I'm tempted to read that snafu between the lines, as I suspect Negus himself made that slip. I wonder if it suggests something--like I must be a Latino to have these very "subversive" ideas about "American" history? lol
(I don't have a subscription to that rightwing apparatus but the audio is available). At any rate, I will publish my short response here and on some other platforms, just for the record:
Sam Negus has published a rejoinder in The National Review to my piece in Christianity Today, arguing that John Brown is a model for white Christians. Of course, he's preaching to the choir. Of course, also, Negus is greatly mistaken in both his argument and his assessment of Brown. Certainly, his argument is only theoretical as to what was accessible to Brown vis-a-vis the Constitution. In reality--contra Negus--the South was already contemplating secession and was not accepting of the so-called "middle course" that Negus suggests. Brown knew that if the Dems did not win the '60 election, they were going to secede and take 4 million victims with them and then expand slavery, which was their real agenda. The other problem is that Negus' reading of Pottawatomie is unsurprisingly flawed. The five men killed were aiding proslavery terrorists & the "bogus court" (historians agree it was foisted upon Kansas) was using the law and proslavery thugs to enforce it. The Browns, targeted and without protection as abolitionists, struck first. Negus’ ignorance of the real politics of Kansas, reliance upon hackneyed readings of Brown, and his glorification of antebellum Republican moderates are flawed. Negus salutes Fred. Douglass, and yet Douglass' own assessment of Brown contradicts his questionable reading. He clearly knew nothing of Negus' malign and mistaken assessment. And mirrored in Negus' treatment, too, is Douglass' own contention that Lincoln was primarily driven by white people's interests.--LD

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

On the Road in Kansas, July '21: Sharing Some Pictures

 This summer I was able to make a long anticipated trip to Kansas to do some touring and finally get to the beautiful Kansas State Historical Society to do some serious research on the Old Man.  Happily, I was able to meet up with my old friend, Ian Barford, an actor-scholar whom I've known for a good many years, and who shares a passion for John Brown with me.  (Here's a link to Ian's page on the website of Steppenwolf Theater Company.) We did as much touring as we could do in a day-and-a-half, and then spent the rest of the time researching in the archives. It was an ideal sojourn, fruitful and inspiring, and I wanted to share some pictures with my readers and podcast listeners.  

Black Jack

Here are some pictures from the site of the Battle of Black Jack (in present day Baldwin City, Kan.) which took place on June 2, 1856, when our man Brown faced off against the pompous editor-turned-soldier, Henry Clay Pate.  Outnumbered and outgunned, Brown and his men nevertheless got the better of Pate and took him prisoner.  In 1859, after Brown was defeated and jailed in Virginia, Pate made sure to visit Brown in Charlestown jail and gloat. But Brown was not easily intimidated. Pate the loser went on to try to capitalize on the Brown story by publishing a little book about him and then tried to go on tour, but he was as successful an author as he was a military leader (see my book, Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia, pp. 202-03).

Below, left, is our friend and guide at Black Jack, Kerry Altenbernd, who has devoted years, dollars, and devotion to preserving the Battle Jack grounds and the legacy of John Brown in Kansas.  (Click here to visit Kerry's website, "John Brown Speaks."Below, right, Ian Barford poses by marker #7, the site where Brown took Pate's surrender.

Kerry Altenbernd
Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)
Ian Barford
Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)


Next we drove over to Osawatomie (OH-sawatomie) to see the Osawatomie Museum which houses the Adair Cabin, and is situated on site of the Battle of Osawatomie, which took place on August 30, 1856.  Nearby also is the monument to the free state fallen (below), especially being the resting place of Brown's son, Frederick, murdered by the Rev. Martin White, who led the proslavery invasion, and the murders sparking the battle. (Reliable evidence states that Frederick's holster was still snapped, so he had no time to draw his gun before being gunned down by the murdering Baptist minister White. Another free state man named David Garrison was murdered at the same time, and is also interred at the same site.) As I recall from doing my research, a shotgun was put to his mouth by his proslavery killers.

Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)
Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)

Below is a display of the Battle of Osawatomie and my pan shot of the grounds taken from the entrance. To the upper left at the top of the hill is the museum which houses the Adair Cabin.

Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)

 Post-John Brown, Osawatomie has an interesting history as a memorial ground. In 1877, the "soldier's monument" above was dedicated in remembrance of John Brown and those who fought in the Battle of Osawatomie, especially those who died that day in 1856. In 1910, the John Brown Park was dedicated on the site of the battle, and the ceremony was presided over by Theodore Roosevelt, by then former President of the USA. In 1935, the statue of John Brown, sculpted in Paris by George Fite Waters, was dedicated.

Undoubtedly, the John Brown statue by Waters is one of the highlights of the Osawatomie grounds.  It is strikingly lifelike, without any stylization or "larger than life" intention, as can be found in the other statues and paintings of Brown. Although Brown did not wear a beard in 1856, he was wearing a beard when he returned to the territory in 1858.  

Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)

Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)

. . . And the inevitable pose with the Old Man
Photo by Ian Barford (2021)

We were happily hosted by Grady Atwater (below, right), the site administrator of the museum and John Brown aficionado, who gave us a walking tour of the battleground (below, left) and then the Adair Cabin, sometimes (mistakenly) known as the John Brown Cabin.  Grady is a veteran researcher and historian and can talk extemporaneously on the subject of Brown in Kansas, so the tour was rich and is highly recommended.  Grady is a community educator as well, and one aspect of his work is contributing incisive and informative articles to the local press to keep John Brown before the public--always in a clear and authoritative manner, something that Brown often has not received over the decades.  In fact, not long after our visit, Grady published a great piece on the Pottawatomie killings of 1856 in The Miami County Republic online (17 July 2021), highly recommended.

Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)

Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)

Samuel Adair was a Congregational minister and missionary who preceded John Brown's sons by moving to the Kansas territory. His wife, Florella Brown Adair, was John Brown's younger half-sister. When Brown arrived in the territory in late 1855, one of the construction projects he undertook was to install a loft in the cabin, which Atwater explains provided a measure of security for the Adair children since free state settlers were subject to attack by proslavery terrorists.  

These rough-hewn beams supporting
the loftbear the marks of Brown
and his sons' labor

Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)

Over the years, the Osawatomie museum acquired a number of important items that belonged to Brown or directly relate to his life in Kansas and elsewhere. My favorite is his hat--something rarely portrayed in pictures, and a most unique. According to Atwater, the hat was made by the Native American free state ally, "Taway" Jones, who held property in Osawatomie and was a friend of the Adairs and Browns. The hat is worn and faded but still intact, and it doesn't take much imagination to picture it upon Brown's head, the brim just above his "meat-axe" shaped nose (as characterized by his sons). Frankly, it is no exaggeration to say that seeing this hat was one of the goals of my trip.  

THE Harper's Ferry Hat
Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)

Most interestingly, this was the hat that Brown wore at Harper's Ferry, although he has often been portrayed wearing "cowboy" styled hats, he wore this unique style of hat against the cold night air of October 16, 1859. The hat apparently was restored to him after his defeat in the Harper's Ferry engine house and then given to his wife Mary in a small trunk with other items the day before his execution. It was eventually passed into the hands of the Kansas Historical Society, and finally found its way to the Adair Cabin museum.  This appears to be the hat portrayed in the sketch below which shows Brown, riding his mule "Dolly," in an 1877 article by L. Witherell ("Old John Brown," Weekly Gazette [Davenport, Ia.], 21 Nov. 1877)
Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)


Before heading for the archives in Topeka, Ian and I had one more important stop: Pottawatomie Creek, the site of Brown's bold and bloody strike in May 1856 that left five local proslavery men dead.  We somewhat awkwardly found our way down to Pottawatomie Creek in Lane, Kansas, and drove down as close as we could to Mosquito Creek, where the Browns camped before making the strike. We walked down, across some railroad tracks and got a glimpse of the area where the Browns set out for their bloody raid on the night of May 24.  Quite pleased with ourselves, we brandished our fists in solidarity, but were shortly driven away from the creek by a band of violent mosquitos.  As Ian quipped, "Brown is probably smiling and saying, 'So you wanted to see Mosquito Creek, eh?'"  Yep, bites for days.

Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)
Some are quick to point out that none of the men killed (three Doyles, Wilkinson, and Sherman) were not slaveholders. But Brown did not target them because they were slaveholders, or even because they were proslavery men. Rather, Brown and other free state men ascertained and confirmed that these men were acting local proslavery provocateurs and guides for an invading (and illegal) army of proslavery terrorists, and that they themselves had targeted the Browns for attack.  In the absence of protection from law enforcement in the territory, Brown and his men agreed to take action by eliminating five terrorist enablers.  For all of the noise that Brown's critics have made about this so-called "massacre," the reality is that it was a preemptive strike, that the men killed were prevented from very shortly doing the same thing to the Browns, and--really--the killings showed a lot of restraint and targeted discipline.  Had Brown wished to rampage and kill (like the proslavery men had done and would do again and again in the territory), he could easily have killed many more proslavery men.  But Pottawatomie was simply a decisive guerrilla strike that threw the enemy into confusion and probably bought the free side three more months before another attack was organized. 

To put it another way, we feel no need to apologize on Brown's behalf in the retrospect of history.  In fact, to turn a phrase from the late Boyd B. Stutler, the Pottawatomie five were more or less some "bad eggs in need of killing."  At least two of us tend to agree.--LD

Photo by Ian Barford (2021)

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Special Submission: "Quest for Richard Parker"

I'm very pleased to publish this special submission on Judge Richard Parker, who presided over the trial of John Brown and his raiders in 1859.  In this particularly busy season, I am especially grateful to Trish Ridgeway for sharing her rich and expert research on this important figure in the John Brown story! --LD


I began my quest for the story of Judge Richard Parker in a courtroom where he practiced. As a docent at the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum, located in the 1840 Frederick County (Virginia) Courthouse, I often faced the question, “Were there famous trials here?” 

Richard Parker (Wikipedia)

I told them that there were no outstanding trials, but Judge Richard Parker held court here and explained that he was the judge in the 1859 trial of John Brown in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia). Fortunately, museum visitors did not ask for more details about Parker because I did not know much more about him.

Sources of Information about Parker

Noted John Brown collector Boyd B. Stutler (1889-1970) wrote the longest biography of Parker—a 1953 article in the Magazine of the Jefferson County Historical Society. Authors writing about the John Brown trial, who want to provide background information on Parker, cite this article. It is full of details about Parker’s life, drawn from his daily journals and other sources but provides no documentation. As a retired librarian and amateur genealogist, I was offended by this. Surely, I could locate more information.

Therefore, I began my search for primary sources relating to Parker. I discovered Stutler did not document his sources because he owned most of them. After Stutler’s death, the West Virginia State Archives acquired his massive John Brown holdings. In 1999, on the 140th Anniversary of Brown’s hanging, the Archives placed the majority of the John Brown/Boyd B. Stutler Collection Database online, and it is a phenomenal resource. The University of Virginia, the Library of Congress, and the Chicago Historical Society also have important Parker documents, and there are minor holdings in other institutions. Parker’s wife, Evalina Moss Parker (1821-1887), preceded him in death, and they had no children. His estate went to two nieces, who sold everything, and what items were not destroyed, either by Parker or the nieces, were widely dispersed among collectors. It was just the kind of challenge a librarian enjoys.

Richard Parker Discoveries

What have I discovered about Judge Parker? I knew that his father and grandfather were also prominent lawyers. Until I put together a complete genealogy of Parker and his wife, I did not realize how enmeshed into Virginia aristocracy he was. His ancestors married into prominent families. His sisters married into the noteworthy Milson, McCormick, and Crenshaw families. When it came time for Richard Parker to marry, he married Evalina Moss. Her great-uncle, Hugh Holmes (1768-1825), was a notable Winchester judge. Evalina’s aunts on the Holmes side married into the McGuire, Conrad, and Boyd families—all leaders in the community. Her sisters also married into prominent families. When Parker presided at Brown’s trial, Virginia Governor Henry Wise, U.S. Senator James Murray Mason, and prosecuting attorney Andrew Hunter were his peers.

Richard Parker, Harpers Ferry Paymaster—Some Shady Practices?

Rarely mentioned is that Parker served as paymaster and military storekeeper at the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry from 1838 to 1847. The job was a political appointment that brought many perks. According to Merritt Roe Smith’s work on the armory, many irregularities occurred in the administration of the paymaster’s office. Richard Parker was no different: 

One of the most mischievous practices consisted of paying armorers with depreciated currency. . .  While every incumbent from Lloyd Beall to Richard Parker practiced this ruse, it became especially prevalent during the 1830s. In November 1839, for instance, Parker exchanged two treasury drafts on New York banks for discounted bank notes and realized a profit of $1700. This sum exceeded his annual salary by more than four hundred dollars.1

Smith cites records of the Chief of Ordnance in the National Archives, which I have not had the opportunity to examine.

Parker: Undated gilt portrait,
Shenandoah Valley
Battlefields Foundation

When Parker left the armory, he strongly recommended his paternal aunt’s son, John Richard Parker Daingerfield (1817-1889), for the post of paymaster. I have not found any research that notes that the men were cousins. Daingerfield was appointed paymaster. On his way to work on October 17, 1859, he was taken by John Brown’s men and held with the other hostages. Daingerfield was a witness in Brown’s trial.  Current Virginia law does not require that a judge recuse himself when a cousin is involved in a trial. However, I think that today this relationship and Parker’s previous connection to the armory would lead a judge to recuse himself. In 1859, ruling-class members were tightly bound by family, political, and other ties. Therefore, Parker’s affiliations were probably of no concern.

U.S. Congressman Richard Parker 

Parker was active in politics during his time at the armory, attending Democratic Party conventions and coercing employees to vote for the party of the armory superintendent—another common practice. He practiced law for a time after leaving Harpers Ferry. In 1849, Parker won the nomination by the Democratic Party in Winchester for a seat in the U.S. Congress. It took sixteen ballots, but he was nominated, and subsequently won. 

One item that survives from his Congressional term is a February 23, 1850, speech he delivered on whether California should be admitted to the Union as a free or slave-holding state. He staunchly defended the right of Southern states to own slaves and to retrieve slaves from the North and stated that the North had no right to exclude slavery from the territories. He warned, “should aggression be accumulated upon aggression, and wrong upon wrong—it is not for me to predict what line of conduct Virginia will pursue.”2 He gave the speech nine years before the John Brown raid.

Judge Richard Parker

Parker resigned from Congress in January 1851 when he was appointed to be a judge of the General Court and soon after was appointed to the Virginia 13th Circuit Court. Ironically, he was following in the footsteps of his father, Richard Elliott Parker (1783-1840), who resigned from the U.S. Senate when appointed in 1837 to what is now called the Virginia Supreme Court. 

Judge Richard Parker, the arraignment of Brown and his men, 
and the Charlestown Court House as portrayed in contemporary
illustrated newspapers (Nov. 1859)

The district that Judge Parker served included Harpers Ferry. He was not selected to be the judge at the John Brown trial because of his political connections. By happenstance, Parker was the judge assigned to hear cases in the Jefferson County circuit court that opened at the county seat of Charles Town on October 20, 1859, two days after Brown and his men were captured. The November 2, 1859, New York Weekly Tribune described Parker at the trial:

"On an elevated platform at the rear sat the Judge, comfortably reclining in his chair, his legs resting upon the table before him, amid the chaos of law-books, papers, and inkstands, and holding upon his knees a volume bigger than all the rest. Judge Parker is a man of middle age, short and stoutish, and with a countenance singularly stern, by reason of the sharp lines about the mouth. His manner is mild and quiet, and there is dignity in his presence, notwithstanding the aspiring legs."

Parker’s handling of the John Brown trial is much debated. The trial proceeded at great speed, and Parker’s rulings have received much scrutiny; however, it is too full a topic to cover adequately here. 

Parker, a Traitor to the Confederacy?

Parker kept a journal during the Civil War. He does mention the war, but the journal is more centered on personal matters and trips to visit relatives. I was surprised that he was able to travel during the war. He mentioned that on July 10, 1863, he had difficulty returning from Richmond to Winchester, a distance of about 136 miles, when, “Found all public means of conveyances taken up by Conf. Govt.” He had left Winchester on June 29, two weeks after the 2nd Battle of Winchester. The Battle of Gettysburg occurred in his absence. By July 10, every possible means of transport had been commandeered to evacuate the Confederate wounded. 

Parker's Parole of Honor, Nov. 2, 1864 (see note 6)

Incidentally, he notes in his journal that while in Richmond, he called upon Governor John Letcher, Secretary of War James Alexander Seddon, Auditor of Virginia Jonathan McCally Bennett, State Treasurer Major John Strother Calvert, and Secretary of the Commonwealth George Wythe Munford.3

Those wartime trips to Richmond did not work out well. When he returned from a trip to Richmond on April 22, 1864, he was stopped at a Confederate outpost. He told the outpost commander, Captain Thomas Davis, a Maryland native, that Davis must not know who he was. Davis replied that he did, and that is why they stopped Parker. The episode is recorded in detail in a six-page letter Parker sent several days later to General John Imboden, the commander of the troops at the outpost. There had been many questions about Parker’s loyalty during the war, and Captain Davis seemed to know all of them. Imboden’s troops at the outpost appeared to lose interest in the affair. However, Parker would not let the matter rest and brought supporters from Winchester. He interrogated them about his fealty to the cause in front of another officer and was sent through to Winchester two days after he was stopped. Winchester saw over fifty different occupations of the city during the war by the belligerents.  Times were perilous for Winchester civilians since some supported the South and others, the North. Every action and word were scrutinized, and every previous wrong remembered.4

Parker after the War

Before the war, Parker was a friend of Francis Harrison Pierpont (1814-1899). Pierpont was an enemy of Virginia during the conflict because he was governor of the loyal (the Union) portions of Virginia and was instrumental in the formation of the state of West Virginia. After the war, Pierpont went to Richmond to serve as governor of Virginia. He appointed Parker to reorganize the courts in Parker’s old circuit. Both Pierpont and Parker were removed from office when the government in Virginia came under military rule in 1867.

Parker then returned to private practice and also accepted a small number of students to his law school in Winchester.  He had no public comment on the John Brown trial until he agreed to be interviewed for an article in the April 1888 St. Louis Globe-Democrat. The article described the 77-year-old Parker:

Judge Parker is not a large man. He is a little below the average height. He has a strong, compactly-built frame, a dignified bearing and a kindly manner. There is none of the tremor of age about him. His hair is thick, long and iron-gray. He combs it back over the crown. The stature, the massive head, the broad forehead, the square chin and the high complexion suggest in some degree portraits of Stephen A. Douglas. . . .

Parker stated that his main reason for allowing the interview was to set straight criticism of the trial, “that John Brown had a fair and impartial trial, just such as should be granted to all persons.” He made the assertion but provided little evidence.5

Parker obituary notices, 1893

In 1893, Parker died at his home in Winchester at the age of 84. I have located obituaries on Judge Parker from newspapers around the country. Except for local coverage, most of the stories were short and said in one way or another, “Judge Richard Parker, the man who tried John Brown, has died.”

My quest for Parker continues. I am working on a book that will discuss Parker’s life and reproduce primary documents about him. I hope it will become a reference work for those who seek information on Parker when writing about the John Brown trials.

Author's Biographical Information

Trish Ridgeway is a resident of Winchester, Virginia, although she has the good sense to winter in Florida. She retired in 2013 after twenty years as director of the Handley Regional Library that is headquartered in Winchester. She has written and spoken on many library and Civil War topics. Recently, she presented “Remember Me, Union Officer Graffiti from the Gettysburg Campaign” to several area Civil War roundtables. In 2001, with her husband, Harry, she helped establish a museum in Winchester, the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum. Her current projects include creating a library for the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Foundation and writing a book on Judge Parker.  She is also working on an annotated copy of Boyd Stutler’s article about Parker, to be published in the Magazine of the Jefferson County Historical Society on the 70th anniversary of the article’s first appearance.


     1 Merritt Roe Smith, Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology, the Challenge of Change (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), 265.

     3 Trish Ridgeway, “Judge Richard Parker’s Civil War Diary, 1862-1864,” Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society Journal, 29 (2018), 24.

     4 Trish Ridgeway, “Judge Richard Parker’s Loyalty, the Parker-Imboden Correspondence, Spring 1864,” Journal of the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War Era, 3 (2010), 107-122.

     5 “John Browns Raid, Important Additions to the History of the Harper’s Ferry Affair. Judge Parker, of this City. who Sentenced the Liberators, Reveals Some Long Kept Secrets,” St. Louis Globe Democrat, April 8, 1888, 26-27

     6 Richard Parker Parole of Honor, Nov. 2, 1864, to Brig. Gen. J.B. Imboden, Judge Richard Parker Papers. Richard Parker, 1810-1893, Folder 3. Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Ill.