America in the 1850s

John Brown and Harpers Ferry

How and why did John Brown decide upon Harpers Ferry?

The nucleus of his plan could be detected as early as 1847, the year in which he spoke to Frederick Douglass about the importance of the Appalachian and Allegheny Mountains (see page 19). The precise date or time at which Brown resolved upon a capture of Harpers Ferry is unknown, but it seems to have been sometime during the spring of 1859. Disappointed by the reception he got in New England, Brown decided on something bold, even revolutionary. He would arm and free the slaves, even if he had to do it all himself.

During the summer of 1859, Brown did some quiet recruiting in New York State, and toward the end of that summer he appeared in southern Maryland, where he rented the house of a man named Kennedy. Neighbors knew only that a man who called himself “Mr. Isaac Smith” appeared around the Fourth of July and that he had friends who visited on occasion. When “Isaac Smith” met locals, he was invariably polite, saying he had come to the region because of a lack of work in the North.


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