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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, March 13, 2012

Ashtabula County History Program--
They Hid John Brown's Weapons in Ohio

According to a report in the Tribune Chronicle of Warren, Ohio, a descendant of John Brown’s associates in Ashtabula County made a presentation about the abolitionist last week.  The descendant is Linda Lipps, a great grand niece of Alexander Fobes, a brother-in-law of John Brown Jr.   The Fobes-Brown connection was based on the fact that Fobes and John Jr. married sisters, Eunicia and Wealthy Hotchkiss.  John Jr. and Wealthy were settlers in the Kansas territory in 1854, along with his brother Jason and family, and other sons of John Brown.  It was John Jr.’s letter of appeal for help in the spring of 1855 that brought his father to the territory with a wagon full of weapons.

According to Mrs. Lipps, her forebear, Esther Fobes, a sister of Alexander Fobes, was a lifetime resident of Ashtabula County, and died at age ninety-five.  She dictated many of her memories of Brown to her family members.  Inspired by these stories and knowledge of this connection to John Brown, Lipps has done research in local history about Brown and the raid.

This is an interesting story, coming as it does through the Fobes family line.  The Fobes not only had a connection to the Brown family through marriage, but some actually helped him by hiding his weapons in Ashtabula County in the months prior to the Harper’s Ferry raid in 1859.  According to Oswald Garrison Villard, Kansas rifles, pistols, and ammunition were shipped through Iowa to Ohio, where they were shuttled around a number of places in Ashtabula County, including a hiding space on the farm of E. Alexander Fobes in Lindenville, Ohio.  In 1909, Oswald Garrison Villard’s field researcher, Katherine Mayo, visited Ashtabula County and interviewed a number of surviving contemporaries of Brown.  One person, A. B. Noxon (a Fobes son-in-law) also recalled that E. Alexander Fobes and his cousin Franklin Fobes later helped John Brown Jr. move the weapons into Pennsylvania, where they were then shipped by canal to Brown.  The latter Fobes was a cooper by profession, and was the one who packaged the weapons in wooden containers, marking them, “Isaac Smith,” Brown’s pseudonym in Maryland and Virginia.  The weapons were finally freighted to Brown in Chambersburg, Pa., and moved by wagon to Brown’s Maryland headquarters. 

Apparently, Lipps’ attitude toward Brown is not new in her family.  According to the Mayo’s interview notes, Eunicia Fobes, John Brown Jr.’s sister-in-law, lived long enough to recount her family’s involvement with the Harper’s Ferry raiders. According to Mayo, Fobes recalled that the guns were hidden in a sugarhouse in the woods.  Fobes herself disliked John Brown, thinking of him as conceited because he seemed to think “himself capable of doing anything.”  Looking back over the years, the elderly Fobes thus recalled the famous Brown self-assurance and stubborn self-determination, a characteristic that we know about from other sources.  However, Fobes also resented Brown because he never paid them for holding the guns.  Apparently, she did not share the same convictions as the Browns.  "He seemed to think it our duty to contribute that to the cause,” she told Mayo. “It made me angry."   

Over one hundred years after that interview, her descendant has mixed feelings about John Brown too.  Although she believes him to have been “courageous,” she finds “his methods questionable.”  It is quite possible that her ambivalent attitude toward John Brown is part of the family’s legacy passed down over the generations:  When the Fobes family heard about the Harper’s Ferry attack, they did not support the idea.  Fobes relative A. B. Noxon told Mayo in 1909 that when news of the raid reached them in Ashtabula County, they thought Brown "injudicious and wrong." But they knew he would be hanged, and they were sympathetic. 

See Bob Coupland, “Gustavus couple share history,” Tribune Chronicle [Warren, Oh.], 11 Mar. 2012.  

And a Really Super
Postscript from Our Expert in the Field, Scott Wolfe

Just a note to comment upon the interesting posting in regard to E. A. Fobes of Lindenville, Ohio. It should be remembered that the Fobes farm was not merely the place that weaponry and other supplies were clandestinely kept....but also a rendezvous point for a number of the members of Brown's Provisional Army. In particular, William Leeman (who was to die at Harpers Ferry), Charles Wesley Moffett and Luke Francis Parsons spent a good deal of time at the Fobes place during late 1858 and early 1859. It was at this time (after the Chatham Convention) that the indiscretions of "drillmaster" Hugh Forbes necessitated a delay in Brown's plans...and the men had scattered about northeastern Ohio to find work. 

     Leeman was employed by Fobes for a significant portion of the summer, and the latter is mentioned frequently in his letters.  For example, in one dated 7/4/1858 to his sister Mattie, Leeman explains the tardy receipt of an epistle by writing: "...it was not directed to the care of E.A. Fobes which accounts for it not being forwarded to me...."

     Moffett also was employed in the vicinity.  In a letter from Luke Parsons to William Leeman dated 11/14/1858, the former writes: "...started for home a going by C. Moffatt...to see if he had heard from any of the boys. I stoped out in the road in front of his house and hollered, he came out and told me to go in. I would not, but he took holde of my hoarse and led him in the barn. So I went in and found E.A. Foabs and wife, Martha and Louisa there eating a roasted turkey...."

     Parsons also assisted Fobes. In two diary entries of 4 and 7 March 1859, Parsons writes: "A.E. Foabs and I gathered about sixteen barrels of sap. Charlie (Moffett) boiled all down in one day." And: "Helped Foabs gather sap and boiled it in the evening. Charlie and I went up to John Brown Jr's."

     All in all, E.A. Fobes is an exceedingly important character in the events leading up to the Harpers Ferry incursion. I'm glad you recognized him in the blog entry.

Best wishes,
Scott W.

* H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois, Public Library District and now a regular correspondent and contributor to this blog. He has devoted many years of grassroots research on John Brown, the Harper's Ferry raiders, and related themes.

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