Historian Finds John Brown’s Link To Vermont

12/01/09 7:50AM By Nina Keck
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(Host)  To some - 19th century abolitionist John Brown was a folk hero.   To others he was a violent terrorist.  To this day Brown is considered one of the more controversial figures of the 1800s.  Tomorrow, December 2, marks the 150th anniversary of Brown's execution following his failed raid at Harper's Ferry Virginia.   

VPR's Nina Keck spoke with two local historians about Brown's role in U.S. history and some recently discovered ties to Vermont.

(Keck)  John Brown was born in Connecticut in 1800.  He married twice and had 17 children.  Over the years, he built and sold several tanneries, speculated in land sales, raised sheep and established a brokerage for wool growers.  Nearly all of his business ventures failed.  But while his financial situation weakened his determination to fight slavery grew stronger.

(Coffin)  "Brown decided that he was going to make war on slavery.  And contrary to popular myth, slavery was not weakening in the south it was gaining strength."

(Keck)  That's Civil War historian and author Howard Coffin.  In the late 1850s, Brown moved west where he fought against pro-slavery factions in Kansas and Missouri.  Those violent raids put a price on Brown's head and made him a compelling speaker at abolitionist rallies.  Howard Coffin says he'd heard rumors that John Brown had come to Vermont to raise money for his cause, but hadn't found any proof - until recently.

(Coffin)  "About 6 weeks ago I was doing research on a visit in to Bellows Falls by President Grant - and I just happened on a reminiscence written by a person who had met with and seen John Brown in Cavendish in 1857.  It was just what I was looking for and the account is so detailed and convincing that even though the writer is not identified - there's no question in my mind that it's authentic."   

(Keck)  Rutland journalist and historian Don Wickman says that by 1859, Brown had the funds and manpower to try something really bold.

(Wickman)  "His goal was to go to Harper's Ferry Virginia, which is now West Virginia and raid the U.S. arsenal there - capture the weapons and then arm the salves that were in the region.  It didn't work.  He didn't have enough people and wasn't able to get the guns to the slaves and he never had a plan of escape - it almost seems like if he was going to be trapped then he was willing to be the martyr for the abolitionist movement, which is exactly what happened."

(Keck)  In the end, ten of Brown's men were killed, including two of his sons.  The raid on Harper's Ferry made news all over the world.  Southerners were terrified and began to form armed militias.  Don Wickman says the incident enflamed northerners as well.

(Wickman)  "This really brought it to the fore front because it was more or less in the north's backyard being right on the boarder of Maryland and Virginia and you're dealing with more or less an act of treason.  It brought out the abolitionists in people. "

(Keck)  Many believe the raid and subsequent uproar helped push the nation into civil war.  Historian Don Wickman says Brown's execution, on December 2nd 1859 was closely followed.

(Wickman)  "Hangings were a grand affair - it was almost like public entertainment - And it's interesting, because there's a small world in the entire event. 

(Keck)  Future confederate generals Robert E Lee and Jeb Stuart captured John Brown at Harper's Ferry.  Weeks later at Brown's execution Wickman says there were several well known people in the crowd including a professor from the Virginia Military Institute by the name of Stonewall Jackson.

(Wickman) "And someone who was able to work his way into the Richmond Militia was a very well known thespian by the name of John Wilkes Booth."

(Keck)  After the execution, John Brown's widow brought her husband's body back to the family homestead near Lake Placid.  Wickman says because of the rail connections, they made a brief stop in Rutland.

(Wickman) "Then he was transported on Dec 5th onto a train of the Rutland and Washington and came into Rutland that night.  And because it was so late and they couldn't make connections they put John Brown's body in the depot that evening.   And John Brown's widow and one of his daughters and the rest of the party that was accompanying Mrs. Brown stayed at the Bardwell Hotel."

(Keck)  Which still stands in downtown Rutland.  Early the next morning, John Brown's body was put on a train to Vergennes.  There it was greeted by a crowd of supporters before it was transported by ferry and wagon to its final resting place in North Elba, New York.  

For VPR news, I'm Nina Keck in Rutland.


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