One hundred fifty-two years ago this evening, one of the most fascinating persons who walked on Ashtabula County soil led a raid on the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry.
His name was John Brown, a frequent visitor to Ashtabula County as a result his friendship with several key leaders of the abolitionist movement here and the home of his son, John Brown Jr., being in the community. John Jr. studied at Grand River Institute (Academy) in the 1840s, while his father lived in Hudson. While a student at Grand River, John Jr. met his future wife, Wealthy Hotchkiss, whom he married in 1848. Wealthy was the sister of Eunica Hotchkiss, who would marry E.A. Fobes, a Wayne Township farmer with room to spare in his barn at the corner of McClelland and Hayes roads.
And so it was that the weapons used in Harpers Ferry affair were stored in the haymow of the Fobes barn. Packed in wooden boxes marked “fence castings,” the supplies for the insurrection arrived in Conneaut by rail in the winter of 1859.
“Owing to bad roads, I have delay in moving the freight, and it is all yet at the Depot at C(onneaut),” John Brown Jr., wrote from Lindenville, Ashtabula County, Feb. 13, 1858. “I yesterday read your letters to the (Mr.) King and to Mr. Hosington, who were much gratified.”
John Jr. was writing to his father, a.ka. Isaac Smith, who spent a portion of the winter holed up at the home of Horace Lindsley. Lindsley lived on Creek Road in West Andover and was sympathetic to Brown’s militant approach to dealing with the slavery issue.
The stash of weapons entrusted to the care of John Jr. was impressive and, had they been discovered, would have been damning for the men handled them. There were 200 Sharp’s rifles and 200 pistols, in addition to 58 powder flasks, 10 kegs of gunpowder and more than 400 spears, swords and bayonets. Some of the spears were allegedly made in a blacksmith’s shop in Wick, a Wayne Township ghost town.
A special major general’s sword, presumably intended for the John Sr., also was among the arms, which were first stored in the cabinet shop of King & Brothers in Cherry Valley. To further secure and secret the weapons, they were stashed in coffins.
The arms were later transferred to the barn, where several children, who were digging a cave in the haymow, discovered the weaponry. Decades later, one of the children, Esther Fobes, would recall that the children, after reporting their find to the adults, were warned that “something awful would happen” to them if they leaked the discovery.
John Brown was born in Connecticut in 1800 and became interested in the abolitionist movement in the mid-1830s. Twenty years later, he and several of his sons moved to Kansas, which was deeply divided over the slavery issue. On the night of May 24, 1856, Brown and his sons murdered five men who supported slavery. Brown and his sons escaped, but the Pottawotamie Massacre, as the event became known, gave them fund-raising power among wealthy abolitionists.
Some of that money was raised in Ashtabula County. There is a documented visit by Brown to the county in the spring of 1859. He visited Congressman Joshua Giddings and spoke at the Congregational Church in Jefferson. A collection of $20 was raised to assist Brown in his work.
Brown’s vision was to establish a colony for runaway slaves on U.S. soil. To do that, he needed weapons that could be placed in the hands of these slaves.
What better place to raid, therefore, than the federal arsonal and armory at Harpers Ferry?
In the summer of 1859, Brown rented a farmhouse in Maryland, a few miles from Harpers Ferry. Over the next few weeks, his band of soldiers trickled onto the property, where Brown was plotting his bold move. Meanwhile, on the evening of July 22, 1859, Alex Fobes, Schulyer Noxon, Nathaniel Coleman and M.F. Dean of Wayne Township loaded the boxes in farm wagons and transported them to Hartstown, Pa., where they began their canal journey to Chambersburg and, eventually, the Maryland farmhouse.
Thirteen of the Brown’s 21 recruits had connections to Ashtabula County. Many of them had lived and worked in the area of Cherry Valley, Andover, Wayne and Williamsfield in the months leading up to the raid. Among them was Aaron Stevens, who had a romantic relationship with Jennie Dunbar of West Andover. Stevens was wounded in the raid and later hanged for his involvement.
A free mulatto, Dangerfield Newby, worked as a blacksmith for Smith Edwards of Dorset, on what was known as the Jefferson-Dorset Road. Newby was born a slave but hads been freed by his Scotish father. Although Dangerfield was free, his wife and children remained in bondage, and he saw in John Brown’s bold plan his best hope for gaining his family’s freedom.
Newby was killed in the raid.
John Brown Jr. did not participate in the raid that was led by his father the night of Oct. 16, 1859. He remained behind in Ashtabula County and thereby saved himself from a Marine’s sword or the gallows. Some biographers say John Jr. had no plans to participate, others say that his father conducted the raid before his son could make the trip from Ashtabula County to Maryland.
The raid, conducted by Brown and 18 others, was doomed on several levels. Its success largely depended upon slaves living in the area hearing about the capture of the armory and aresenal, breaking free from their masters and joining the rebellion.
Instead, the residents of Harpers Ferry took up arms against the raiders. The slaves, for the most part, ignored the opportunity.
As the night unfolded, Brown’s men wisely cut the telegraph lines so no word of the raid could reach the outside world. But they blundered by allowing a Baltimore and Ohio train that they detained for three hours to continue eastward to Baltimore. The conductor alerted authorities of the event and, the afternoon of the following day, a force of Marines under Col. Robert E. Lee was dispatched to Harpers Ferry to capture Brown and the raiders who had baricaded themselves inside the armory’s small fire engine house, “John Brown’s Fort.”
Two of Brown’s sons, Oliver and Watson, died in the struggle. Another son, Owen, and four others, escaped and were never captured.
John Brown swiftly stood trial and a jury found him guilty of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. He was hanged Dec. 2. Before he died, Brown spoke prophetic words that would be fulfilled in a matter of months:
“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
Six more men from the raiding party would follow Brown to the gallows in the weeks that followed.
A wanted man
Back in Ashtabula County, John Brown Jr. was a wanted, hunted man. Citizens rallied to protect him with their lives and property, as well as any of the fugitive raiders who managed to make it back to the county. Their oaths of protection were essentially acts of treason.
The citizens who united to protect Brown Jr. became known as the Independent Sons of Liberty. Also known as Black Strings, they were identified by a black string tied to the buttonhole of their shirt collar. Although the organization began in West Andover, where John Brown Jr. had been living, the Black Strings grew to become a state and national organization.
Foremost on the agenda was providing protection for John Brown Jr. The U.S. Senate, which launched an investigation into the incident, was very interested in what the insurrectionist’s son knew about the matter.
A report of the proceedings in that effort suggests the Black Strings did their job well.
“...it appeared by the return of the marshal of the northern district of Ohio, as deputy of the Sergeant-at-Arms, that John Brown Jr. at first evaded the process of the Senate, and afterwards, with a number of other persons, armed themselves to prevent his arrest. The marshal further reported in his return (answer to the Senate) that Brown could not be arrested unless he was authorized in like manner to employ force.”
During this time, Brown holed up in a Dorset farmhouse that stands to this day. A musket-bearing watchman stood guard, and there’s a legend that the upper part of the farmhouse was lined with sheet iron.
Sympathetic farmers in the area devised an alarm system that used dinner bells to warn of an approaching marshal. It was for naught; U.S. Marshal M. Johnson of Cleveland promised the Black Stringers he would not try to capture Brown.
On the night of Dec. 2, 1859, a few hours after John Brown’s body dangled on the gallows outside Charles Town, John Jr. and Barclay Coppoc stood outside the Ashtabula County Courthouse and boldly shared their stories of the raid. It’s likely those attending went home convinced that Civil War would soon come to the land.
John Brown Jr. departed from Ashtabula County in 1862 and purchased a 10-acre plot on the south shore of South Bass Island, Put-in-Bay. He lived out his life there with his wife and Owen Brown. They farmed, grew grapes, practiced surveying, taught science and mathematics to islanders and lectured on temperance and slavery. He filled his home with memorabilia of Kansas and his father. And while John Brown Jr. chose not to be a part of the raid, he defended his father’s reputation until the day he died in 1895.
The last documented visit of John Brown Jr. to Ashtabula was in 1862, when he attended the funeral of Black Stringer William Henry Harrison Reeve of New Lyme.
John Brown Jr. is buried on South Bass Island. His father’s body was buried in North Elba, N.Y., where Brown had a farm