John Brown was born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut. When he was five, his family moved to Hudson, Ohio, where his father became a successful tanner. When Brown was sixteen, he and one of his brothers were sent back to Connecticut for education at Plainfield Academy. They walked. For 500 miles. The educational experiment did not succeed. After six months, they walked back. Brown never completed a formal education. But, as his later letters show, he was a highly intelligent and literate man, particularly well-versed in scripture and gifted in rhetoric.
Brown’s personal life had numerous ups and downs. He initially followed his father’s trade as a tanner and for considerable periods enjoyed real success. He was at various times a tanner, farmer, land speculator, sheep breeder, and wool dealer. Sometimes he worked for himself, sometimes for others. He both made and inevitably lost for himself and his employers or associates fairly substantial sums of money. But he was ultimately a failure in business. He married twice, losing his first wife to illness in 1831, and fathered twenty children, many of whom died young. His shifting economic fortunes led him to move frequently, taking his family from Ohio to Pennsylvania to New York to Massachusetts and elsewhere.
His views on religion were Calvinist, unyielding, and sometimes extreme. His lifelong abhorence of slavery plainly had roots both in his religious opinions and his personal observations. Brown claimed that his formative personal experience with slavery was an incident that occurred when, as a twelve-year-old boy he saw a family friend beat a young household slave with a fireplace shovel for some mistake in serving at the table. In 1837, in response to the murder of abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy, Brown stood up in church and declared, “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.”
Brown acted on his pledge in part by working in the “Underground Railroad,” the network of people throughout the border and northern states who assisted escaped slaves in making their way to freedom, either in free states or all the way into Canada. In addition, Brown, unlike a good many theoretical abolitionists of the period, seemed strikingly free of personal racism and dealt with African-Americans, both free and slave, on a basis of social equality. In 1848, Brown bought land in North Elba, New York, to be part of a community of freedmen living on a tract of land dedicated to the purpose by abolitionist and philanthropist Gerrit Smith. Those who visited Brown’s home over the years noted that he and his family ate and socialized with black visitors with none of the constraint typical even among “enlightened” whites of the time.
Brown’s interest in abolitionism was not unnoticed. He was known among abolitionists in Massachusetts and New York. Among those who knew and admired him was Frederick Douglass. Douglass, a largely self-educated former slave, was a powerful speaker and author famous across the country as a persuasive voice in the anti-slavery cause and as a living example of the pernicious falsity of the claim of fundamental black inequality on which slavery was based. Douglass met Brown for the first time in 1848, when Douglass came to Springfield, New York to deliver a lecture. Afterwards, Douglass met Brown and two of Brown’s black friends and talked with him at length. Douglass wrote afterwards that:
The most interesting part of my visit to Springfield, was a private interview with Mr. Brown, Mr. Van Rensellaer, and Mr. Washington. The first of these, though a white gentleman, is in sympathy, a black man, and is as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own sould had been pierced with the iron of slavery.
Brown and Douglass became friends and correspondents. On a subsequent visit to Springfield, Brown laid out a plan for attacking slavery directly by a series of raids to free slaves in Virginia to be conducted by groups of men operating out of strongholds in the Appalachian Mountains. Brown’s theory was that by rendering slave property insecure in Virginia, the institution could be driven ever further south and ultimately to destruction. Douglass did not agree to the plan, but Brown’s fervor and conviction apparently impressed him mightily. As he later wrote of his contacts with Brown, “My utterances became more and more tinged by the color of this man’s strong impressions.”
As the struggle over Kansas intensified, Brown was drawn inexorably into it. Both for economic reasons and in part to aid in the free state cause, five of Brown’s sons, Owen, Frederick, Salmon, Jason, and John, Jr., moved with their families to the Kansas Territory. They arrived in March 1855, just as pro-slavery Missourians invaded Kansas “with Bowie knife and pistol” to ensure a pro-slavery victory the election for the Kansas Territorial legislature. The Browns settled thirty-five miles southeast of Lawrence at a place called Osawatomie, where Pottawatomie Creek meets the Osage River. The Brown dwelling was described as a “fort” built on a defendable mound, just a quarter of a mile from the Missouri border. On October 7, 1855, John Brown himself arrived in Kansas. Brown joined the Free Staters in conducting underground railroad activities and agitating the pro-slavery Kansans and Missourians.
Brown, his sons, and other free state men around Osawatomie formed loose-knit militias to defend free state interests from the Missourians and pro-slavery Kansans. For example, Brown and his men traveled to Lawrence to defend it during its first siege by pro-slavery forces in December 1855. Brown and his sons courted confrontation, not only with armed pro-slavery groups, but with the laws and courts created by the “bogus” pro-slavery legislature.
In late April 1856, Judge Sterling G. Cato of the “bogus” Territorial Supreme Court in the southeastern Kansas Territory, held a term of court at Dutch Henry’s Crossing, at the home of a pro-slavery man named Henry Sherman, also known as “Dutch Henry.” One apparent purpose of the court was to issue arrest warrants for district residents who had violated laws passed by the pro-slavery legislature against anti-slavery speech and action. Local free state men protested and challenged the authority of Cato’s court. John Jr. declared that Cato had no right “to try anyone under the Territorial laws.” Old John Brown along with his son, gave Judge Cato “fair warning” that his authority under the territorial laws would not be recognized by the Free State men. The Browns confronted Judge Cato in person, and without responding the Judge turned and walked away. On April 21, 1856, John Brown, Jr., and the Pottawatomie Rifles, a local free state militia, gathered and protested on the lawn of Judge Cato’s courthouse. James Hanway, who was part of free state militia, wrote of the incident:
“John Brown, Jr. left the court room, and in the yard he called out in a loud voice: ‘The Pottawatomie Rifle Company will meet at the parade ground,’ and the company consisting of some thirty men, marched off to meet as ordered. There was not a disrespectful word uttered, nor were there deadly weapons displayed on the occasion- there were doubtless a few pocket pistols, but they were hid from sight. Between dark and daylight, Judge Cato and his officials had left; they journeyed toward Lecompton in Douglas County, which was the Bastile of the proslavery party. This was the first and last of the proslavery court holding their sessions in this section of the country.”
Judge Cato, who publicly “portrayed himself thereafter as a court compelled to flee for safety,” issued warrants for the arrest of both Browns as well as other members of the militia. The arrest warrants were given to James P. Doyle and his two sons, deputy constables, William and Drury, to serve. The Doyles would soon become victims of the Brown family.