John Brown was the famous abolitionist who — many historians say — was the spark that started the American Civil War. Certainly there were many, many sparks. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s infamous novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” brought shocking awareness to the slave trade. Charles Finney’s Upstate New York revivals stirred the fires of justice and equity in American souls. And the increasing aggravation of anti-freedom laws (such as the Fugitive Slave Law and Dred Scott decision) increased the rancor. But it was John Brown who most likely lit the keg of powder. His passion and fiery boldness pushed the nation over a precipice where there was no turning back.
Of course, Brown narrowly skirted and — on several occasions — broke the standing laws during that time. He was not afraid to target slave-owning southerners and arm the slaves so they could fight back. In 1859, he led a raid on an armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Brown intended to seize the stockpile of weapons for the arming of slaves. The mission failed and Brown and his men were captured or shot by U.S. Marines (Led by Robert E. Lee) and local citizens. Brown, one of those captured, was tried for treason and hanged on December 2, 1859. His death did little to quell the rising disgust with the slave system. Instead, abolitionists hailed Brown as a martyr for the cause, and two years later the nation was at war.
Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done! — John Brown, in a speech given shortly before his execution
Brown’s body was transported to a tiny farm in Upstate New York, this one here:
Brown was not born in New York State. He was from Connecticut, and spent most of his time traveling throughout the southern states. Just a decade before his death, Brown purchased this small property in North Elba (just outside Lake Placid) from fellow abolitionist Gerrit Smith, of whom I have written much on this blog. Smith owned vast lands in Upstate New York, and sold them or granted them to poor black men and abolitionists in an attempt to help them become financially self-sufficient. Brown lived on this tract with his second wife and large family.
The property is easily seen from the Olympic Ski Jump Complex and has wonderful views of Whiteface Mountain.
His body, which lies “a-mouldering the the grave,” as the old ballad laments, was laid to rest here after his execution. His two older sons who were involved in his abolition work are buried next to him.
A metal and plexiglass structure protect Brown’s headstone from the elements and vandals. This area was most likely a destination for both vandals and pilgrims during and after the Civil War.
A large stone covers the graves of his family. Old plaques — weeping their minerals after 150 years — mention Brown’s two wives and daughters who helped him in the work. Brown’s first wife died in 1832, leaving him with seven children. He and his second wife, Mary, had 13 children together.
We visited the Historic Site on a whim after I saw it from the Olympic Ski Jump. We did not get a chance to see the house (a reconstruction) because the site accepts only cash and I hadn’t prepared for it. I was disappointed, but we did watch a free video in the barn and we wandered the gravesite and the grounds for a while. The property has many trails which were very popular with hikers and joggers. We saw many people walking their dogs there.
The area is beautiful.
In this day and age of “tolerance” and “political correctness,” I couldn’t help but wonder what Brown would think of us. We no longer endure black slavery in our country, but human trafficking and prostitution are rampant, and how many innocent lives are aborted every day at the sacrificial altar of financial convenience?