Childhood & Early Life
John Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut, to Ruth Mills and Owen Brown on May 9, 1800 as their fourth child among eight children.
His father, a Calvinist was against slavery. In 1805, after the family shifted to Hudson, Ohio, his father opened a tannery. His father was a supporter of ‘Oberlin Institute’ (now known as ‘Oberlin College’) but later became critical of the institute’s “Perfectionist” leanings.
At 12, he witnessed enslavement and beating of an African-American boy while travelling through Michigan. The incident haunted him for years.
At 16, he went to Plainfield in Massachusetts and joined a preparatory program. After a short while he went to Litchfield, Connecticut and enrolled in ‘Morris Academy’.
He aspired to be a Congregationalist minister but due to shortage of money and his sufferings from eye inflammation he left the academy and went back to Ohio.
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He began his career in Hudson in his father’s tannery. Later he opened a tannery with his adopted brother outside the town which became quite successful.
His family shifted to New Richmond, Pennsylvania, in 1825. There he purchased a 200 acre land and built a tannery, a barn and a cabin using one-eighth of the land. Fifteen men were employed in the tannery within a year. His income came from cattle raising and surveying.
He helped in constructing a school and a post office. He long with Seth Thompson, a kinsman from eastern Ohio, ran an interstate business that involved raising cattle and production of leather.
He moved to Franklin Mills, Ohio (Presently known as Kent) with his family in 1836. Here he partnered with Zenas Kent to operate a tannery by the Cuyahoga River. In this pursuit he borrowed money to purchase land and build the tannery.
In 1837 after Elijah P. Lovejoy was murdered, John Brown vowed publicly to dedicate his life to end slavery.
During the 1839 economic crisis that hit the western states badly, Brown like many other businessmen relied heavily on borrowings, suffered huge monetary and property losses. Once he was jailed for his attempt to occupy and retain ownership of a farm despite claims by the new owner. To meet up his debts he took up new businesses like sheep and horse breeding along with cattle trading and tanning. On September 28, 1842, a federal court declared him bankrupt.
In 1846 he moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, with his business partner Simon Perkins. They formed a wool commission to safeguard the interests of wool growers of Connecticut River Valley against that of wool manufacturers of the region. However, the commission closed its operation in 1849 following huge loss, larger part of which was borne by Perkins and resulted in subsequent lawsuits between the partners that lasted several years.
From 1846 he remained a parishioner of a Free Church in Springfield till he left the place in 1850. In 1847, Brown met Frederick Douglass, a noted abolitionist and orator in Springfield during Douglass’ lectures at the church.
He worked at the Underground Railroad as a conductor and formed an association of fugitive slaves and black freemen for self-protection. From 1849, he lived in North Elba, New York in a black community for two years.
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After the ‘Fugitive Slave Act’ was passed in 1850 instructing the free state authorities to aid return of fugitive slaves and levy fines on those who helped their escape, he formed a militant anti-slavery group. The group called ‘The League of Gileadites’ aimed at preventing capture of slaves.
He went to Kansas with his five sons in 1855 after the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed which empowered the citizens of the two territories to decide for or against slavery. While ardent abolitionists aimed at making the territory a free state when it enters the Union, many pro-slavery members moved to Kansas to secure the slavery system.
On May 24, 1856, five pro-slavery men were killed by John Brown and his supporters at Pottawatomie Creek. The incident was referred to as the ‘Pottawatomie massacre’.
On June 2, 1856, John Brown led a 29 men anti-slavery force during the ‘Battle of Black jack’ to fight Henry Pate who held Brown’s two sons as prisoners. After five hours of battle Pate and his 22 followers were captured. He forced Pate to sign a treaty to release his two sons in exchange of Pate and his men’s release.
On August 30, 1856 the ‘Battle of Osawatomie’ took place when John Brown and his 40 men fought with the ‘Border Ruffians’ led by John W. Reid. Earlier, the raiders shot his son Frederick. Though defeated, he became a hero in the eyes of many Northern abolitionists who nicknamed him as ‘Osawatomie Brown’.
In 1858, he freed a group of slaves from a homestead in Missouri and guided them to Canada.
On October 16, 1859, he led an unsuccessful raid along with 21 men at the Harpers Ferry to seize weapons from the federal armoury of the United States. After two days of combat, military forces headed by Robert E. Lee defeated the multi-racial group killing many including his two sons and captured him. Following a quick trial he was convicted for murder and treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia and sentenced to death by hanging on November 2.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Dianthe Lusk in 1820. They had seven children. His wife died in 1832 after the death of their newborn son.
He married Mary Ann Day on June 14, 1833 and the couple had thirteen children along with the seven from his earlier marriage.
In 1843, four of his children died due to dysentery.
On December 2, 1859, he was hanged to death at Charles Town, Virginia, U.S. He was buried at ‘John Brown Farm and Gravesite’, Lake Placid, New York, U.S.