John Brown's Harpers Ferry Raid and the Pottawatomie Massacre

John Brown is renowned for his strong religious and abolitionist views, believing that slavery could only end if people were willing to shed blood for it. This resulted in the Pottawatomie Massacre on 25 May 1856 and by extension, the three month period known as Bleeding Kansas. He is most famous for inciting the failed slave revolt known as Harpers Ferry Raid in 1859.

See below to read more about John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid.
Date of Birth and Parents:
John Brown was born on 9 May 1800, Connecticut, to Ruth Mills and Owen Brown.

Date of Death:
John Brown was hanged on 2 December 1859 in Virginia.

Spouse and Children:
John Brown married Dianthe Lusk in 1820. the two had 7 children, but Dianthe sadly died in 1832 at the age of 31.

He later married sixteen year old Mary-Ann Day, sister of his housekeeper, in 1833. Mary-Ann went on to have thirteen children of her own with John Brown.

Raised to be religious, John Brown intended to be a minister but did not complete his schooling at Morris Academy due to issues with his eyes and instead opened a tannery with his adoptive brother.

The Pottawatomie Massacre and 'Bleeding Kansas':
John Brown followed some of his adult sons in 1855 to help prevent pro-slavers maintaining their hold in Kansas. Like other free settlers, he was hopeful that the state would rule against slavery. The following year the pro-slavery activists opposed this and committed various acts of violence and sacking in the street.

Though John Brown was deeply furious at this, he was also disappointed by his fellow free settlers' reluctance to take matters in to their own hands and became even more certain that someone needed to be willing to fight for justice.

He learnt that his family were to be targeted by pro-slavers, and in what is known as the Pottawatomie Massacre, John Brown, in a pre-emptive strike, took five pro-slavery men from their cabins, sparing a sixteen year old boy, and watched with self confessed approval as his sons butchered the men with swords.

In the three months that followed, twenty nine people were murdered in a period of riots and retaliation; historically known as 'Bleeding Kansas'. In August, a force led by Major General John W Reid destroyed one of the free settlements, shot and killed Frederick, John Brown's son, and also killed his next-door neighbour. John Brown and 37 others retaliated but were greatly outnumbered and forced to disband.

Harpers Ferry Raid:
In 1856 John Brown travelled to obtain support for his raid on Harpers Ferry, although few knew the exact plans or the length that he was prepared to go. Of these were the wealthy Gerrit Smith and the rest of John Brown's 'secret six'.

The plan was that John Brown and his men would storm the armoury and hold position until liberated slaves joined them and took up arms; they would then proceed south, freeing more slaves on the way. It was hoped that the institution of slavery would crumble as the South, who were heavily dependent on slave labour, would be unable to function.

William Lloyd Garrison thought the plan was foolhardy and declined any involvement, and Frederick Douglass felt that the raid would not positively assist the cause; however, John Brown was adamant that violence was the only way to fight back against slavery.

The raid on Harpers Ferry was made on 16 October 1859; armed with rifles and pikes, they easily stormed the poorly defended armoury, cutting telegraph wires and taking hostages. It quickly went wrong, however, when word of the raid was spread by a passing steam-train and the local residents took matters in to their own hands. The reinforcements they expected to receive in the way of freed slaves never came.

On 18 October 1859, Marines broke down the engine room door; Lieutenant Israel Greene had meant to deliver a fatal blow to John Brown's head three times but only succeeded in injuring him. In the space of minutes, the raid was over and John Brown had failed. John Brown's sons, Oliver and Watson had died in the fighting, along with eight of his men. Seven were captured, including John Brown, and five had escaped, including John Brown's son Owen. In turn they had killed four people and wounded nine.

John Brown's lawyers reasoned that he should be spared on grounds of insanity; using the fact that he was upset on the death of a pet squirrel as a child, however, John Brown was annoyed and had the insanity plea dropped. John Brown was hanged on 2 December 1859, maintaining up until his last breath that he was doing God's work and that slavery will only come to an end through bloodshed.

Though his attack failed, many considered this as one of the steps toward civil unrest as the gap between the south and north continued to widen, and some considered John Brown to be a martyr. Historians remain divided as to whether John Brown was a religious fanatic or a hero.

Main Menu

Famous American Abolitionists
Click here to learn about American abolitionists and their fight to end slavery.

Famous American Slaves
Visit this page to read about the ordeals of famous African American slaves and their impact on history.

Famous Slave Escapes
Visit this page to learn about some of the most daring slave escapes.

Famous Slave Rebellions
Click here to read about slave rebellions and the effects they had on nineteenth century America.

Slavery Glossary
Visit this page for definitions about slavery and abolition.

State Slave Laws
Click here to learn about the slave codes and laws governing the United States of America.