Traveling with Ken Wayand

Discover Vintage America - JUNE 2017

Tracing the heritage of John Brown in Kansas

Pundits tell us that Americans may be more divided in our politics and basic beliefs now than at any time in history. But a look at the years leading up to the Civil War might refute that idea. In the 1850s, the biggest issue facing Americans was slavery. The South, with large plantations dependent on slave labor, made up one side of the argument. Families brought the concept with them as they moved to Midwest states.

The John Brown Museum and Memorial, housing the original cabin, in Osawatomie, KS (photos by Ken Weyand)

In Missouri, especially in fertile areas along the rivers, sympathy for slave-ownership flourished, even among families who owned few or no slaves. Many regarded it as their heritage and were determined to keep that heritage alive. The situation came to a head in the Kansas Territory, where both sides of the issue struggled to dominate. Things were beginning to look grim for those wanting Kansas to enter the Union as a free state.

John Brown, abolitionist

1856 daguerrotype of John Brown by Southworth & Hawes, Massachusetts Historical Society

It was into this chaos that John Brown arrived in the fall of 1855, coming to the aid of his four adult sons who had moved to the Kansas Territory. Brown, who had struggled as a wool dealer in Massachusetts, was an abolitionist who grew
more ardent in his beliefs as the years passed.
His first activism in 1850 had been to organize the League of Gileadites to protest the Fugitive Slave Act, requiring citizens to turn in runaway slaves.
In June 1855 he created a stir at an anti-slavery convention in Albany when he proposed fighting pro-slavery forces with violence.

Brown was already a militant in 1856 when he arrived in Osawatomie to live with his half-sister, Florella Brown Adair and her minister-husband, Samuel. During the year, events stirred him into action. On May 21, pro-slavery activists sacked and burned Lawrence, a town built two years earlier by free-staters supported by the New England Emigrant Aid Company. During the raid, the pro-slavery mob destroyed the town's printing press, and burned the Free State Hotel, a prominent landmark. Brown's response was to attack the homes of five pro-slavery settlers with a small band that included his four sons. He justified the murder of the settlers as "obedience to the will of a just God."

On June 2, Brown partici-pated in the "Battle of Black Jack." Brown's small force of 29 men attacked the pro-slavery militia encampment of Henry Pate, a participant in the sacking of Lawrence. Pate captured two of Brown's sons in the skirmish, but surrendered to Brown before any lives were lost. Brown's sons were released. Black Jack, a settlement on the Santa Fe Trail, is now abandoned. The site, three miles east of Baldwin City, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2012 and is marked by signs.

Statue of John Brown in Quindaro, a neighborhood in Kansas City, KS.

Brown's final event in the Kansas Territory was
the Battle of Osawatomie on August 30. Brown
led a band of approximately 40 men to defend
the town against more than 250 "border ruffians." During the battle, Brown's oldest son was killed. Brown pulled back, and the town was looted and burned. Newspapers throughout the country now referred to the territory as "bleeding Kansas."
By early 1858, Brown and his three surviving sons had enlisted a "small army" of abolitionists to stir slaves into rebellion. He received aid and support from others who were frustrated with the slow
pace of the anti-slavery movement.

In 1859, Brown rented a farm near Harpers Ferry, VA (now West Virginia). On Oct. 16 he and 21 supporters attacked the federal arsenal to acquire weapons to further his slave rebellion. A militia led by then-Col. Robert E. Lee surrounded Brown and killed ten of his men, quickly quelling the rebellion. Brown was wounded and captured. At his trial, Brown presented a strong defense, and other abolitionists took up his cause, including Henry David Thoreau, who wrote an eloquent "Plea for Capt. John Brown." But Brown was convicted of treason, and was hanged on Dec. 2.
Although Brown's rebellion against slavery failed, his actions spurred abolitionists to continue their efforts, and stirred anxiety among slave-owners. Brown became a martyr to the cause of the enslaved.

Follow Brown's legacy

A view of the cabin interior

Victims of slavery and their families had a high regard for Brown. In Quindaro, a community in Kansas City, KS, and historic portal for African Americans entering the "free state," citizens raised funds in 1911 and erected a statue of the abolitionist. It can be seen at the corner of Sewell Ave. and North 27th Street.

In Osawatomie, the restored cabin of John Brown's half-sister and her husband, Samuel, is the centerpiece of the John Brown Museum at 10th & Main Streets. A station on the Underground Railroad, it was used as a headquarters by John Brown. Family furn-ishings and belongings are displayed, plus Civil War weapons and items recalling the Battle of Osawatomie.

Grady Atwater, museum curator, examines a case showing John Brown's cap, saddle and rifle.

Grady Atwater, curator, said the furnishings are original, a rarity in historic places. "John Brown was considered crazy by many," he continued. "But in the 1850s, most "sane" people considered African-Americans inferior. To Brown they were equal to whites, and he demanded their freedom."
Atwater said thirteen descendants of John Brown have visited the cabin over the years, including a grandniece from Emporia who has served as a volunteer.

The museum is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Call 913-755-4384 for more information.

At the Kansas capitol in Topeka, visitors can view John Steuart Curry's mural, "Tragic Prelude," depicting John Brown. Tours available. Call 785-296-3966 for more informaiton.

Ken Weyand can be contacted at Ken is self-publishing a series of non-fiction E-books. Go to and enter Ken Weyand in the search box.