History, Research, and Current Themes

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

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Friday, August 31, 2012

From the Field--

“The Advent of a Hero”

by H. Scott Wolfe

For the sake of experimentation, I once purchased an immense butterfly net – with which I sought to capture a random sample of one hundred innocent, unsuspecting citizens. This sampling was totally unbiased – consisting of male and female; hyperactive and sedentary; corpulent and cadaverous; of all political persuasions…in fact, all races, creeds and prior conditions of servitude.

Once successfully netted, I would not allow these victims to regain their freedom until they answered the following query: “Who was John Brown, and what is his enduring contribution to American history?”

I recollect being sadly disappointed with the results. Most knew nothing of the Old Man. Only a smattering said that he may have had something to do with slavery. Another small segment proclaimed that he had something to do with a song…whose lyrics concerned either a mouldering body or a soul that kept marching. The Anglophiles assured me that he was the personal servant and court favorite of Queen Victoria (for which they received both their freedom and a valuable consolation prize). 

Well, the butterfly net is gone – smashed beyond recognition in pursuit of a cecropia moth (who wouldn’t have known much about John Brown anyway). But the overall results linger. I continue to experience great difficulty in locating people who can provide me with a succinct exposition of the Old Man and his historical import.

Which makes it all the more amazing to me that on the first Saturday in August, in the year 1935, over five hundred members (I said MEMBERS) of the “John Brown Memorial Association” converged upon a wooded grove and picnic ground in New Richmond, Crawford County, Pennsylvania to dedicate the surviving ruins of John Brown’s tannery. Today, I could carefully bait a trap with six cases of Hershey’s M&Ms and a pair of winning lottery tickets…and still not capture five hundred people who are even aware of John Brown – let alone his Pennsylvania tannery. Back in those palmy days of ‘35, his memory still both mouldered AND marched.

These pilgrims came to dedicate “a bronze tablet and a plaque, memorializing the famous abolitionist of pre-Civil War days, who once lived on the farm there and built the tannery, the walls of which are still standing.” The bronze plaque, bearing an image of the Old Man, had been mounted upon a substantial boulder on the southwest side of the property…its inscription reading:

1800  1859

And the bronze tablet, mounted on the cut stone of the ruin itself, reads:

1826 TO 1835

To the northeast was placed “a cannon mounted on a boulder, with a pyramid of cannon balls on either side, which were presented to the Association by the United States War Department.” (Quite a bit of irony here…as certain uniformed representatives of that same War Department had long ago killed and captured the Old Man and his men at Harpers Ferry.)

The Memorial Association had invested $2000 toward beautification of the site – including the tuckpointing of the tannery wall; construction (by the Depression-era WPA) of a stone wall and gate along the adjacent road; the grading of the lawn; and the planting of numerous shade trees. The Association’s President, Mrs. Bess Heath Olmstead of Washington, D.C., presided at the dedicatory ceremonies.

Following an ample noon dinner served by the New Richmond Ladies’ Aid Society, the program commenced. There was music – a brisk performance by the Corry Drum and Bugle Corps – appropriate songs by the Seminary Quartette of Nashville, Tennessee – and a duet’s rendition of “Indian Love Call,” an American “household staple” first performed on Broadway in 1924. Following these artful performances, a collection was taken – amounting to the princely sum of $19.35.

The Honorable Thomas J. Prather, the Master of Ceremonies, then introduced the Speaker of the Day, John Elmer Reed, President of the Erie County (PA) Historical Association. That distinguished gentleman spoke “on the characteristics of John Brown” and declared that “the farm at New Richmond is a constant reminder and inspiration to what John Brown lived and worked for.” He noted that “it has been shown many times that Nature works many centuries preparing for the advent of a hero, and it is believed this is the case with John Brown.” The Old Man “was a great man because he was possessed of a great idea.” Reed spoke for over an hour, but “everyone seemed deeply interested to the end, because it contained much about John Brown which was new to the audience.”

Following the brief appearance of the aging warrior Logan L. Dyke of Union City, “a Civil War veteran who was in the regiment that met the enemy on the ground where John Brown gave up his life at Harpers Ferry,” Mr. Prather noted that “John Brown had lived in five states, and that five states have erected monuments in his memory – Pennsylvania being the fifth. The other states are Ohio, New York, Connecticut and Kansas.”**

The John Brown Association also took pains to express “its gratefulness to Joseph Desmond, Frank A. Loveland and Guy D. Heath of Corry, and Frank Allsben of New York City, who purchased the tannery site 10 years ago for $200 and presented it with the deed.” And following the placement of a floral wreath beneath the bronze image of John Brown, the crowd dispersed…having spent an enjoyable and eventful day.


My day had been not quite so enjoyable. Despite the calendar showing late April, it had been a questionable trip across western New York and northern Pennsylvania. The higher elevations were beset with blowing snow…the lower, foggy and rain drenched. But as we sped down Route 77 in the direction of Meadville, the sun broke through and every pine bough and blade of grass seemed dripping with diamonds.

The junction sign was inconspicuous…hidden in shade…and rapidly oxidizing. “John Brown Road,” it declared. Turning left, we found ourselves on an unpaved lane…ending amidst a pond-pocked, mixed hardwood/coniferous woods…on the hill above, a farmhouse bravely venting columns of sweet-scented wood smoke. 

Our first symbol of historical importance was a blue and yellow-painted historical marker (which had first been placed on Route 77 in the fall of 1946). In dappled light I read:

On the side road, a short
distance south, are the 
remains of the tannery and
home built by the noted
abolitionist of Harper’s 
Ferry fame. Here, he lived
and worked from 1825 to
1835, employing as many as
15 men in producing leather.

Nearby, on a primitive kiosk of decaying wood, was a telephone number – and an offer of tours and a John Brown “museum.” I set the bitter half to calling, but…instead of being an exciting link to antebellum history, it was a mundane 21st century answering machine. “Alas!,” I blurted.

But my disappointment was short-lived as, to my right, stood the grove and ruins that had drawn that huge concourse back in ’35. It was difficult to imaginatively recreate the strains of “Indian Love Call” filtering through the pine needles. In fact, all was bucolic stillness…an occasional cricket chirping among the stones…a pair of agitated blue birds…the lowing of cattle in a nearby fenced pasture…the gurgle of running water on the adjacent hillside.  It seemed that the ceremonies were no longer under the charge of Mrs. Bess Heath Olmstead of Washington, D.C….they were supervised by Mother Nature herself.

I had the usual dry notes and statistics with me…The structure was 55 feet in length, 22 feet in width, and 9 feet in height…The foundations extend 5 feet below ground level…A fire destroyed the building in 1907…Prior to that time the structure had served as a tannery, cheese factory, jelly factory, grist mill and a residence…Frank Penfield Brown, of Erie, had designed the portrait plaque…Professor Russell D. McCommons, of the Art Department at Edinboro State Teachers’ College, prepared the model…It had been cast by the Bronze Metal Company…Ad infinitum.

But, immersed in the springtime sunlight, I thought little of statistical data. The physical environment…the sights, sounds, smells…had taken possession of me. I heard the grinding bark…the jingling traces of horses…the shouts of children. I saw John Brown, the successful entrepreneur, postmaster, pillar of the church. I also saw John Brown, agonized husband and parent, as he solemnly buried wife and son on the distant ridge.

The place had cast its magic upon me. Within the hour we were in bustling, hustling Meadville. At least our vehicle was there. My spirit was still in New Richmond, Crawford County, Pennsylvania.


Author’s note: Besides my own questionable recollections, the sources consulted for this heroic essay were: 1) back issues of the Titusville (PA) Herald from August, 1935; and 2) The National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form for the “John Brown Tannery Site.”

* 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.

**Prather failed to note that John Brown also lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, from 1846-1849.  There is no monument there in his honor, but he is remembered at the Connecticut Valley Historical Society and museum. [--Ed.]  

Also see: "A Visit to John Brown's Pennsylvania Home," 31 May 2006

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

News and Views--

Grave Marker of John Brown's Son is Recovered

Owen Brown's grave stone:
recovered and secure
To my knowledge, the first journalist to break the news of the recovery of Owen Brown's grave marker was Karin Bugge of the Altadena Patch.  Her report, dated August 24, notes that Paul Ayers of the organization, Save Altadena Trails, has acknowledged the simple gravestone has been found after having disappeared in 2004.  Owen Brown, one of the surviving Harper's Ferry raiders and third son of John Brown (born 1824) died in 1889, and his burial site on "Little Round Top" overlooks the city of Altadena, California.  According to Bugge's report, the disappearance of the grave stone was part of a controversy between the present owner of the land where Brown's body is interred and trail advocacy groups.  This conflict was well known, even to us on the east coast, who were dismayed to hear reports about the inaccessibility of the site due to the disagreeable position of the land owner--although it has never been made clear whether this man's scruples are antagonistic to Brown, or simply hostile toward people walking on his property.  Not having much information, we have assumed that this man removed the stone, and it was feared that it had been destroyed.  Whether or not this is what happened, we are happy to learn that the grave stone was found by a local man and his son and is secure.  According to Bugge, the Save Altadena’s Trails group intends "to 'take all necessary legal and logistical steps necessary to restore the grave stone to its rightful place.'"

Source: Karin Bugge, "Owen Brown's Grave Marker Has Been Found,"Altadena Patch (24 Aug.2012)

The Quindaro Remembrance
The Statue at Quindaro:
"Erected to the Memory of John
Brown By A Grateful People"

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS--According to a number of reports, the Old Quindaro Museum and Information Center, Inc., in Kansas City was scheduled to host a John Brown Statue 101 year anniversary and recognition event this past Saturday, August 25.  According to Bettse Folsom of the Greater Kansas City Examiner, the museum's coordinator, Jesse Hope, spoke of the Old Quindaro Museum as offering information about families like his own--many of them being descendants of formerly enslaved blacks who still reside around the Quindaro community.  Folsom reports that Hope "wrote a book entitled Quindaro," and the museum is recognized by the National Park Service "Underground Railroad Freedom Act" of March 16, 2012.

The recognition event reportedly was to feature musical artists well-known in the Blues circuit, and a "Gospel Hour" held "in remembrance of our ancestors who found freedom [and to] witness it through song and praise." Hope said their ancestors thanked God as they looked back over the Missouri River at the land of their enslavement.  The Old Quindaro Museum has a website at http://www.oldquindaro.org/.


Elijah Lovejoy and John Brown

Historian and author Brian Dunphy recently published an article in Alton (Illinois) Telegraph about the historical link between antislavery editor Elijah Lovejoy and John Brown.  Dunphy is the author of Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois. It is most interesting that Dunphy's article recounts the Lovejoy-Brown link in an online publication based in the very town where Lovejoy was killed while defending his printing press in 1837.  Lovejoy, a "New School" Presbyterian minister, devoted his life to writing against slavery, and was persecuted for his radical stance.  After a number of his printing presses were thrown into the water by racist mobs, Lovejoy took his final stand in a warehouse.  Much to the dismay of William Lloyd Garrison and other non-violent abolitionists, however, Lovejoy had armed himself and actually died in the exchange of gun fire against the mob.  Students of Brown's life are quite familiar with the impact that Lovejoy's death had upon the strongly independent Ohio abolitionist, and while Garrison and others expressed dismay and disappointment in Lovejoy, Brown saw him as a virtuous figure and martyr for the antislavery cause.  A prayer meeting convened in Brown's town of Hudson, Ohio, became the famous occasion of the abolitionist's public oath to fight slavery--a promise he fulfilled in ever increasing measures over the next twenty-two years.  Dunphy does a nice job of recapping Brown's life, tracing Brown's development in Springfield, Massachusetts and finally as a Kansas guerilla.  He recounts Brown's role in the Pottawatomie killings without indulging in the usual claptrap about "terrorism."  While Dunphy conveys the questionable but popular notion that Brown intended to take the weapons from the Harper's Ferry armory, nevertheless he provides a neat, concise and thoughtful sketch of Brown's life flowing out of the Lovejoy moment.
Brown as Union Man--
Black Painter David Bustill
Bowser's 1865 Portrait
(Bridgman Art Library,
Philadelphia History Museum

"Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859," Dunphy concludes, pointing out that African American churches throughout the North designated it as "Martyr's Day," holding memorial services on behalf of Brown and his captured raiders.  In fact, "Martyr's Day" was a prominent day of remembrance in the black community well into the early 20th century.  Fortunately, the development of black history and the growth of black scholarship has allowed the African American community more substantial celebration of black history, and a rich history of black heroes and martyrs in their own right.  That Brown is more marginal to black consciousness and liberation activity 150 years later is not a mark of digression, but rather of progress.  Yet we should not fail to remember that in 1859, Brown stood shoulder to shoulder with black people as a liberation figure in the community--and he would in a sense link seminal black freedom fighters like Nat Turner with later activists in the post-Reconstruction era, when African Americans found themselves betrayed and once more locked in mortal struggle against white supremacy.  Brown was a conscious figure on the horizon of memory for blacks fleeing west from klan terrorism and other white supremacist assaults after the fall of Reconstruction. Despite the diminishment of John Brown in the popular memory of African Americans, he is not forgotten nor unappreciated in the annals of the struggle for justice against white supremacy.  Indeed, for the most part, it is still the appreciative consensus of the black community that offsets the prejudiced and unsympathetic voice that often characterizes the popular view among whites, who see him as a terrorist and trouble maker. 

Dunphy nicely concludes that the "victory of the North in the Civil War accomplished what John Brown couldn’t — the destruction of slavery. His soul indeed marched on with the victorious Union troops!"  This is probably no more true than of the noble African American men in blue who fought for the freedom of their own people, while so many whites were only fighting for the Union.  In a real sense, these were the Old Man's soldiers--the armed black warriors who proved him right in the final reel.  John Brown knew black men would fight valiantly for freedom if given the opportunity.  As history would have it, his tactical failure at Harper's Ferry did not prevent the grand vision from coming to reality.  When journalist William Phillips told him that blacks were too benign and inoffensive to fight for their freedom, the Old Man curtly marked his error.  "You have not studied them right,"Brown said, "and you have not studied them long enough. Human nature is the same everywhere."  John Brown was heavily influenced by the abolitionists, just as he was inspired by Lovejoy.  But unlike many of the white abolitionists, Brown had "studied" black people as people.  In contrast to southern propaganda, he knew that they were neither willing servants nor contented wards of their oppressors.  Yet in contrast to the prejudiced assumptions of the northern white man, he knew that black people--if given the opportunity and arms--would fight valiantly.  

He did not live to see it, but he was right.

See: John J. Dunphy, "Lovejoy’s murder led to John Brown’s war against slavery," The Telegraph [Alton, Ill.], 24 Aug. 2012.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

From the web--
The John Brown Tannery Site in Northwestern Pennsylvania

17620 John Brown Rd., Guys Mills, Pa., 16327-1452; Phone: 814-967-2099;
John Brown Tannery Site is a historic archaeological sitelocated at Richmond Township, Crawford County, Pennsylvania. The tannery was built in 1825, by famed abolitionist John Brown(1800–1859). The site includes the ruins of the tannery; a one-story, rectangular structure measuring 55 feet by 22 feet. A fire destroyed the building in 1907. It is open to the public as the John Brown Farm, Tannery & Museum.
It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

John Brown Tannery Site
John Brown Tannery Site is located in Pennsylvania
Location:500 feet south of the junction of Pennsylvania Route 77 and John Brown Road [17620 John Brown Rd.], Richmond Township, Pennsylvania
Coordinates:41°43′8.5″N 79°57′3″WCoordinates41°43′8.5″N 79°57′3″W
Area:0.5 acres (0.20 ha)
Built by:Brown, John
Governing body:Local
NRHP Reference#:78002383[1]
Added to NRHP:December 14, 1978

"In Pre-Civil War Crawford County, Pennsylvania, the farm of the great abolitionist John Brown played a strategic role in the Underground Railroad. Disbursing "depots" in the area, John Brown aided in the passing of an estimated 2,500 slaves. In the town of New Richmond, his farm and tannery was a major stop on the Railroad, marking its place in history from 1825 to 1835. The farm, now a museum, proves to be an educational, exhilarating experience as you learn more about this great man of history and his many heroic efforts. Tour the remnants of the tannery and take a walking path to the cemetery. (Wear comfortable walking shoes.) Plan a visit during the first weekend in May, and you can share in the "Spirit of Freedom" picnic, a community celebration in honor of John Brown's birthday (May 9). There is also a gift shop allowing visitors to take a piece of that experience with them to cherish for a lifetime. Open from April 15 to October 15, and in the winter by appointment only."  Source: "John Brown Farm and Tannery Museum," Visitpa.com

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Osawatomie Notebook--
John Brown, "Presentism," and the Notion of "Terrorism"

Grady Atwater

John Brown is either labeled a terrorist or a freedom fighter, and Brown’s choice to utilize violence to work to abolish slavery in the United States is central to the debate over whether he was a terrorist or a freedom fighter. It is important to note that the word "terrorist" is mainly a modern term that is commonly used today to describe a private citizen who utilizes violence to combat a real or perceived evil in society. John Brown was not viewed necessarily as a terrorist by his contemporaries, but slave holders and proslavery advocates primarily viewed John Brown as a violent bandit; peaceful abolitionists viewed Brown as a morally incorrect extremist, and Brown’s supporters viewed him as a freedom fighter.

“Presentism” is a term that means applying the standards of the present to the people and situations of the past, and to label John Brown a terrorist is to use a mainly modern term to describe John Brown’s 19th century abolitionist crusade. Certainly, John Brown’s militant abolitionist crusade was condemned by slaveholders and proslavery advocates, but Brown was viewed as more of a violent bandit than a terrorist by his contemporary detractors.

Peaceful abolitionists worked to end slavery via political means, and when John Brown engaged in violence against slaveholders and their supporters, he brought unwanted negative press and the militant wrath of proslavery militia down on them in Kansas Territory. Peaceful abolitionists constantly tried to convince Brown to cease his violence against slaveholders and their supporters. Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Va., was the final death knoll for the peaceful abolitionist’s efforts to abolish slavery, and thus peaceful abolitionists viewed Brown as a morally incorrect extremist when he utilized violence as part of his abolitionist crusade.

The author Grady Atwater, is
a life time scholar & lecturer
on the John Brown theme
John Brown’s admirers viewed his militant abolitionist crusade as a morally justifiable action because he was committing violence against slaveholders and proslavery advocates, who in the moral view of Brown’s admirers, were so obstinately morally corrupt that violence against them was morally justifiable. Brown’s admirers believed that the only way to convince slaveholders and their supporters to give up their slaves and the idea that slavery was a morally viable concept was via intimidation and violence. Therefore, when John Brown engaged in violence against slaveholders and their supporters, Brown’s admirers viewed him as a freedom fighter.

John Brown was not a terrorist by the standards of his day. To label John Brown a terrorist is to view a 19th century militant abolitionist by 21st century standards. Whether or not John Brown’s use of violence during his abolitionist crusade was morally correct was and is a fair debate, but to label John Brown a terrorist is a presentist error that fails to address the reality that John Brown’s world and the present world are different, and it is invalid to label Brown a terrorist.

— Grady Atwater is the John Brown State Historic Site Administrator in Osawatomie, Kansas.  This article was originally published in The Osawatomie Graphic, 8 Aug. 2012, under the title, "Brown--Terrorist or Freedom Fighter?"   It is used by kind permission of the author.--Ed.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Tubman-Brown Story in
3D Animation Film

Erden Zikibay
Congratulations to Erden Zikibay, a brilliant animation and graphics professional, who has recently completed his Masters of Fine Arts thesis, and is finishing his 3D animation film, "Wishful: The Story of Harriet Tubman and John Brown."  On his website, Zikibay.com, he describes his film:

"Based on the story of American militant abolitionist John Brown and his pre-Civil War attempt to start a slave liberation movement in the Southern United States, this film deals with the controversial themes of American history: race, religion, and revolution.  When is resistance to an oppressive rule justified? Can religion inspire both liberation and tyranny? Does the right to resist differ from one group to another?  And what meaning does the connection and mutual work of three friends, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown, have in the larger context of American and world history?"

We are looking forward to the completion of this film project and certainly appreciate Erden's efforts to use this medium to bring such a central story in U.S. history alive for contemporary viewers.

Monday, August 06, 2012

History Note--
They Sang "John Brown"

"Late in the afternoon our scouts were driven in and sharp picket-firing was heard, at the same time a cloud of dust was seen coming down the road.  The colored troops immediately took arms and sang 'John Brown' for ten minutes in expectation of an attack. . . ."

Thursday, August 02, 2012

 "There are a number of good Colored families on the ground; most of whom I visited. I can think of no place where I think I would sooner go; all things considered than to live with those poor despised Africans to try, & encourage them; & show them a little so far as I am capable how to manage." 
John Brown, to his father, Owen Brown, January 10, 1849
Family Photo--
Mary Buster, Adair Family Descendant

Mary Buster, direct descendant of Florella Adair (half sister of John Brown) at the John Brown Photo Chronology exhibition opening July 27 at the Watkins Museum in Lawrence, Kansas. Photo by Judy Sweets, one of the authors of the exhibition catalog. 

Mary will be reenacting her ancestor at the Freedom Festival in Osawatomie on September 15th at 11:00 a.m.

--Jean Libby
Mary Buster with Brown portrait (Photo by Judy Sweets)

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Osawatomie Notebook--
Atwater: John Brown was Sane and Just in an Age of Flagrant Racism

John Brown was, and is often accused of being “crazy,” and was declared to be insane primarily because he believed in the equality of African-Americans and European-Americans, and was willing to fight and die for the abolition of slavery during a historical era when African-Americans were regarded as subhuman by most European-Americans. . . .  The reality is that John Brown was a sane man who held a genuine belief that all people were equal in the eyes of God, and that African-Americans were entitled to social, legal and economic equality in the United States. Brown was a pioneer in the civil rights movement who was willing to act on his abolitionist beliefs, despite the disapproval of the majority of Americans during his lifetime.

Grady Atwater is the John Brown State Historic Site Administrator at Osawatomie, Kansas

Excerpted from Grady Atwater, “Shocking behavior was normal for Brown,” Osawatomie Graphic, 1 Aug. 2012.  Click here to read the entire article.