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Saturday, January 11, 2014

155 Years Ago Today--
John Brown's Last Letter from Kansas in 1859 Was a "Twin"

On January 11, 1859, one hundred fifty-five years ago today, John Brown wrote two brief, personal letters to his wife and to his adult son, John Brown, Jr., reflecting his last personal communication from Kansas to family members back east.  The half-page letters, written from Osawatomie, Kansas Territory, are essentially "twins," although not identical.

Background to the Letters

Brown had been in the Kansas Territory since the summer of 1858, mainly because his plan to invade Virginia had been jeopardized by the betrayal of the English mercenary, Hugh Forbes. Forbes, an antislavery man, was retained by Brown to train his men in Iowa, even as Brown was endeavoring to raise black support in the expatriate black community in Ontario, Canada.  After his optimistic "quiet convention" in Chatham, Ontario, in early May 1858, Brown was informed that Forbes--a whining, opportunistic, and disingenuous man--was threatening to expose his plans because he had not received the monies he was demanding from Brown's backers in the east. Most of his supporters immediately urged Brown to take a hiatus, in order to discredit Forbes claim of an imminent raid on Virginia.  Brown finally did so against his wishes.  Returning to the Territory, his presence energized the free state side in their struggle against proslavery thuggery. However, the Old Man ultimately disappointed free state settlers because his primary focus was on Virginia, not Kansas.

In fact, Brown had conducted a raid into Missouri on December 20, breaking his men into two parties and liberating eleven enslaved people from two different slave holders.  Brown and his men kept the party of liberated people in Kansas until early February, when he escorted them into Nebraska, then into Iowa.  Traveling across state and remaining at Springdale, Iowa until early March, the liberated party were then taken by railroad to Chicago, Ill., and then Detroit, Mich., where they finally were sent by ferry to Canadian freedom on March 12, 1859.  Prior to leaving Kansas in January, Brown wrote his famous "Parallels," which defended his actions against conservative critics.
Artist Jacob Lawrence recalled Brown's 1859
Missouri rescue in his series, The Legend of John Brown
Thus, the context for the January 11th notes is Brown's dangerous circumstances, living in hiding in Kansas while overseeing the people he had rescued with the intention of moving them out of the reach of the proslavery government of the United States.  He is a wanted man who has been parted from his family for months, and likely would not see them for months to come.  He wants them to know he is "midling well," a term Brown used often, reflecting his optimistic tendency to see the best in even the worse circumstances. Actually, he had been afflicted with sickness--"the Fever and the Ague"--while in Kansas, and was still struggling with his health--an affliction that generally affected his vision, sinuses, and hearing.  As Jean Libby has established, Brown had likely experienced another health crisis, probably Bell's palsy (or perhaps a small stroke), which caused the right side of his face to droop.  This probably encouraged him to grow his legendary beard as a disguise, although the beard was also cosmetic.  An Iowa friend from this period describes his afflictions as somewhat grossly affecting his eye as well.  Certainly, Brown was a sick man throughout the trek into Iowa, and had health concerns well into the Spring of 1859.

Location of Original Letters

The original letter to Mary Brown and children in North Elba, N.Y., is found in the Boyd B. Stutler Collection, #MS02-0034 (see an image of the original by clicking here).  A reliable transcription by Katherine Mayo is found in the John Brown - Oswald Garrison Villard Papers (Box 5, Letters through 1859 folder).  The original note to John Junior is in the John Brown Jr. Papers, Ohio Historical Society (Box 3, folder 2), and a "sanitized" transcription in F. B. Sanborn's Life and Letters of John Brown, p. 489.

Mary A. Brown
Going Home

The letters are both brief and convey the same basic message, except the one written to Mary Brown expresses his "anxiety" to hear about his wife and children, and directs them to send any inquiries to John Junior.As the notes reveal, he had not been able to write to his family since December 2 (a year to the day before his death). [His letter of December 2 is also found in the John Brown Jr. Papers]. Brown assumes they had all heard about his bold liberation raid in Missouri from the newspapers. In fact, he would only have two more brief periods at home in 1859, from mid-April to early May, and again, for about two weeks in June.  Bolstered by his successful liberation raid into Missouri, he finally left for Maryland and Virginia in the early summer, when he set up headquarters for the "grand rescue" he was planning in Virginia.  Of course, following the failure of the raid in October 1859, only his remains would return to his family.

Exact Transcriptions

Osawatomie, 11,th Jany, 1859.

Dear Wife & Children All

I have a spare moment barely
to tell you that I am in middling health but have not been able to
but have not been able to finish up my business as fast as I had hopes of doing when I wrote you
in Decem (2d) last.  You will I suppose get Kansas news through the
newspapers.  As to telling you where to write me I can only now
say as I said in my last "write John for me."  This I very much
regret: as I have great anxiety to hear from you.  I hope it will not
be so long.  May God Allmighty bless, & save you all.

Your Affectionate Husband & Father
John Brown

Osawatomie, Kans, 11,th Jany, 1859.

Dear Children all
I have but a moment on which to tell
you that I am in middling health; but have not been able to
tell you as yet where to write me.  This I hope will be dif
-ferent & soon.  I suppose you get Kansas news generally
through the papers. May God ever bless you all.
 Your Affectionate Father
John Brown

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