John Brown: The Abolitionist's Death Which Sparked The Civil War

By | September 29, 2020

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There are some historical figures whose very existence sparks the fire of everything that follows. They speak not only for themselves but for a moment in time, as if possessed by the specter of history. John Brown, an abolitionist who gave up on talk and turned to violence in the name of the movement, is one of those people. Brown wasn't always a fiery upstart, but by his final days, his actions not only degraded relations between the North and the South, they lit the fuse for the Civil War.

John Brown's Early Life

Born into a family of abolitionists on May 9, 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut, the young John Brown followed directly in the footsteps of his father, Owen Brown. Five years after he was born, Brown and his family moved to Hudson, Ohio, where they opened a tannery and operated a safe house for slaves attempting to reach the the North. An evangelical family, the Browns believed in the pursuit of personal righteousness and lived strictly according to the Bible.

At 16, Brown moved back to the Northeast, where he studied to become a congregational minister, but when he couldn't afford tuition, he returned to Ohio to work with his brother in their own tannery. Soon, Brown moved his family further north to create an even safer space for fugitives from the South.

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The John Brown Tannery

After marrying Dianthe Lusk in 1820, Brown moved his young family to New Richmond, Pennsylvania, where purchased 200 acres of land. He reserved this space for opening a new tannery and constructing a cabin, barn, and a concealed area to hide any slaves who made it to his slice of paradise. Between 1825 and 1835, Brown is said to have helped 2,500 former slaves escape to freedom.

In 1831, an illness struck the Brown family, and he lost his wife and his newborn son. His business suffered, and everything in Pennsylvania turned upside-down. The one bright spot in this run of bad luck was Mary Ann Day, a young woman from the area who fell for Brown. The two married, and Brown fathered another 13 children. If anything, however, that only worsened his financial status, and after moving his new family to Franklin Mills, Ohio, Brown's new tannery went bankrupt and four of his children died of dysentery. Another move brought Brown to Springfield, Massachusetts in 1846, where he found an entire city dedicated to the anti-slavery movement.