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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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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

John Brown News
"History Detectives" on John Brown's Trail (Again)

The popular “History Detectives” program has previously pursued John Brown, when they featured a letter by Brown and a photographic image that was held by a descendant of a Brown family friend in California.  This episode (no. 6, 2003 season) can be explored by visiting the “History Detectives” website, which also features a transcription of the Brown letter segment.  Now, the “History Detectives” are hot on John Brown’s trail once again.  According to Kaitlin McCallum, editor of the Farmington Patch [Farmington, Conn.], appraiser Wes Cowan has been poking around Unionville, Conn., as part of an investigation involving a pike with the mark of “C. Hart &Sons.”  According to McCallum, the “History Detective” investigator consulted the President of the Unionville Museum after being contacted by the pike’s owner (who lives in the Midwest).

McCallum reports that “C. Hart” was a local blacksmith named Chauncey Hart, owner and proprietor of Hart Manufacturing Co. in Unionville from 1857 until the 1880s.  Cowan also learned that Hart’s establishment produced 1000 pikes in keeping with an order made by John Brown.  It is a matter of record that Brown intended to put these pikes in the hands of liberated people that he hoped to rescue from captivity in the South, enabling them to defend themselves and thus extending the liberation movement farther into the South.

Pike and Sharps Rifle engraving from
James Redpath's Life of Captain John Brown (1860)
Like so many “authentic” Civil War bullets, John Brown’s Connecticut-made pikes have also been replicated over the years.  McCallum quotes a producer of “History Detectives,” who says that the pikes became symbols of the start of the Civil War and the anti-slavery movement.  However, very few people can distinguish the authentic, original pikes from these opportunistic, if not well-intended imitation pikes.  Fortunately, Clifford Alderman, President of the Unionville Museum has the expertise to identify an original John Brown pike.

McCallum describes the pikes appropriately as “a kind of long-handled spear with a metal blade,” but points out that when Brown ordered them, he did not reveal his intention to place them into the hands of liberated black people.  McCallum does not say so, but the ostensible purpose of the pikes when Brown ordered them was to place them into the hands of white free state people fighting pro-slavery thugs in the Kansas territory. In fact, one of Brown’s sons referred to them as “Kansas butter knives.”

In retrospect, it is entirely understandable that Brown had to use this ploy about the intention he had for the pikes.  First, to reveal his actual intentions would have been to reveal his plan to enter Virginia and assault the slave system in the heart of the South.  Second, to reveal his intention of arming blacks would have been an anathema in 19th century racist society like that which existed in Connecticut and the U.S. North overall.  Recall that even Lincoln dragged his big feet in arming enlisted black soldiers during the Civil War.

It is no surprise too, as McCallum further points out, that after the Harper’s Ferry raid, “Hart was not proud of the part he unwittingly played in the movement and that he was ultimately brought up on charges himself. The charges were dropped, but his great-great-great-grandson, Tom Hart, said the pikes were never mentioned in the family.”

The pikes serve as a reminder of the dynamics of race and politics that permeated the North, including, perhaps especially, John Brown’s home state of Connecticut.  Significant work has already been done to expose the roots of slavery and racism in Connecticut (see “Complicity: How Connecticut Chained Itself To Slavery,” a feature of the Hartford Courant.)

But we should keep in mind that throughout the North, Brown’s raid was condemned and excoriated by white society, foremost being the future, so-called “Great Emancipator” Abraham Lincoln, who stumbled into the right line only after pretty much every well-meaning white man and woman in the North had preceded him.  That Hart was shamed and nearly indicted for the role his factory played is consistent with the real lack of commitment to black liberation that the overwhelming number of northern whites really manifested.   Had the Civil War not started out as a war to save the Union, it is doubtful it would ever have started at all. That it ever became a war "to end slavery" was a fortunate but inevitable necessity, given the determination of slave holders to expand slavery beyond the confines to which moderate Republicans had assigned it.  Regardless, the story of John Brown's pikes is an interesting aspect in the dramatic story of the Harper's Ferry raid.  It's too bad that in delaying in Harper's Ferry to his own ultimate disadvantage and defeat, the Old Man was not able to see them used as he had intended.  The stubborn myth of Virginia's contented, loyal "slaves" would have no place in today's discussion about John Brown's raid.

See Kaitlin McCallum, “PBS Show Follows Mystery to Unionville Museum,” Farmington Patch [Farmington, Conn.], 1 February 2011

Postscript from Jean Libby, John Brown Documentary Scholar

The lady who was on "History Detectives" in 2003 (Lori Deal) is still encouraging public use of her artifacts of a letter and a photograph.  She donated the materials to the Bancroft Library at the University of California in 2005.  I went with her to the library.  She did not receive any funds, nor was she offered any expenses funding for the archival care she had made.  The Bancroft Library has done a very poor job of describing the collection or making the letter public, as she asked.

Jean Libby

1 comment:

John Rudy said...

Looks like the History Detectives are filming today in Harpers Ferry as well... A friend working down in the Park posted about it on his Facebook...