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Cool Things - John Brown Desk

Desk used by John Brown

Famed abolitionist John Brown used this desk while writing an important political statement about the troubles in Kansas Territory.

Kansas was the center of attention in the 1850s as people battled over whether the territory would enter the Union as a slave or free state. 

Willing to risk their lives and fortunes, people on all sides of the slavery issue flocked here. Among them were abolitionists, people who believed slavery was morally wrong and wanted it abolished.  Augustus Wattles was one such person.

A Fervent Abolitionist

Born in Connecticut, Wattles moved to Ohio where he lectured on abolition and started a school for African American children in Cincinnati. He also was active in the Underground Railroad, a secret system helping slaves escape to freedom.

A continuing interest in the abolitionist cause brought Wattles and his family to Kansas in 1854. They settled first at Lawrence, where Augustus was among other things associate editor of the Herald of Freedom newspaper. Wattles later moved to Moneka in Linn County. In time he became friends with another strong-willed abolitionist, John Brown.

John Brown

In December 1858 Brown led a raid into Missouri and freed 11 slaves. One slave owner was killed in the raid. This upset the authorities in Missouri, including the governor who wanted Brown arrested and the slaves returned. Wattles provided sanctuary for Brown at his Moneka home during this time.

Although they remained friends, Wattles did not agree with Brown's methods. Like many other abolitionists, Wattles favored emancipation of the slaves through peaceful means; Brown believed it could only be done by force. Meeting with Wattles and another abolitionist, James Montgomery, Brown was forced to defend his raid to both men who feared retaliation from Missourians.

John Brown

The Parallels

While staying at the Wattles home, Brown wrote a letter to the Lawrence Republican that became known as "John Brown's Parallels." According to family tradition, one of the Wattles children watched Brown from above through a crack in the floor while he was writing at this desk.  Not wanting to reveal his location and trying to protect his friend Wattles, Brown indicated the letter was written at Trading Post rather than Moneka.

In the "Parallels," Brown compared his Missouri raid to the Marais des Cygnes Massacre where five free-state men were killed. He objected to being pursued by the same authorities who did nothing to find those responsible for the action at Marais des Cygnes. Of course, Brown chose to ignore his own part in the earlier Pottawatomie Massacre (May 1856), where he was responsible for the death of five proslavery sympathizers.

John Brown's ParallelsBrown's original handwritten document, "The Parallels"

When John Brown departed from Moneka, he told Wattles, "I considered the matter well; you will have no more attacks from Missouri; I shall now leave Kansas; probably you will never see me again; I consider it my duty to draw the scene of the excitement to some other part of the country."

Brown left Kansas on January 20, 1859. On October 16, his band of men raided the United States Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The raid failed, the band was captured, and Brown was hanged for treason on December 2.

The desk remained in the Wattles family until it was acquired from Kia Flesher, a great-great-granddaughter of Augustus Wattles. It is now in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History.

Entry: Cool Things - John Brown Desk

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: January 2004

Date Modified: December 2012

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.