John Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut, on May 9, 1800, to Owen and Ruth (Mills) Brown, the fourth of eight children. In 1805 the family moved to Ohio where the elder Brown was a supporter of Oberlin College. At age 16 Brown attended prep school in Connecticut, with the hope to become a Congregationalist minister.
Brown married Dianthe Lusk, June 21, 1820, and the couple moved to Pennsylvania, where their seven children were born. There they raised cattle, and Brown was a surveyor and tanner. She died in 1832. Brown then married Mary Ann Day, June 14, 1833. The couple had 13 children. In 1836 the family moved to what is now Kent, Ohio, and operated a tannery. Brown also developed a reputation as an expert in wool. In 1837, after the murder of influential abolitionist and editorialist Elijah P. Lovejoy, Brown proclaimed his support of the antislavery cause. Brown moved his family in 1846 to Springfield, Massachusetts, where an abolitionist movement was underway. As a parishioner at Free Church he saw lectures by African American abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.
In response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Brown established a militant group to prevent the capture of those who were attempting to escape from slavery. In 1848 he moved his family to North Elba, New York, where land grants were offered to African Americans. Brown’s sons had settled in Kansas Territory and in 1855 reported to him their encounters with proslavery supporters. With the hope of making Kansas a free state, Brown headed west to join the antislavery cause.
Brown’s half-sister, Florella, and her husband, the Reverend Samuel Adair, lived near Osawatomie. Brown stayed in the Adair family home as he rallied support. Proslavery forces attacked the community of Lawrence on May 21, 1856, burning two printing offices. Antislavery supporters sought revenge near Dutch Henry's Crossing on Pottawatomie Creek in Franklin County on May 24, which resulted in the deaths of five proslavery men. Brown denied involvement but supported the efforts. The Pottawatomie Massacre gained national attention and was denounced by both the freestaters and proslavery forces. In battle August 30, 1856, Brown’s son Frederick was killed and he earned the nickname “Osawatomie Brown.” That fall he left Kansas to raise funds for the abolitionist cause. He returned to Kansas in June 1858 to lead raids and free slaves. In early 1859 Brown returned east and developed a plan to raid the armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. During the attack, Brown’s men killed four people; 10 of his men were killed, five escaped, and seven were captured. Brown was tried for treason and executed by hanging in Charles Town, West Virginia, December 2, 1859. One of the most striking memorials to Brown is the John Steuart Curry mural, Tragic Prelude, in the Kansas State Capitol.
Caution, Sir! I am eternally tired of hearing that word caution. It is nothing but the word of cowardice!—John Brown
View primary sources for John Brown in Kansas Memory.
Entry: Brown, John
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: December 1969
Date Modified: May 2016
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