Unless otherwise noted, all images are from the Boyd B. Stutler Collection
John Brown, 1857
Free State Kansas Fund certificate
Early in January 1857, John Brown arrived in Boston seeking support for his anti-slavery efforts. New England, in particular Massachusetts, was home to some of the most prominent abolitionists of the era—Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Lydia Maria Child, Henry David Thoreau, Abby Kelley and Stephen S. Foster, and Amos A. Lawrence, to name a few—and several hundred abolition organizations. The Massachusetts State Kansas Aid Committee, organized in 1856, was one of several committees formed during the Kansas Territorial period to raise funds for the free-state cause. The committee immediately authorized Brown to take possession of 200 Sharps rifles and ammunition that were stored in Iowa. Later in the month in Albany, New York, the National Kansas Committee also authorized funds for Brown.
Kansas Aid Committee flier
It was during this trip that John Brown met the New Englanders whose names would be connected with his efforts as the “Secret Six.” Brown had already met New Yorker Gerrit Smith a decade earlier when he purchased land at North Elba. Of the other five, Brown met Frank Sanborn, secretary of the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee, early in January 1857. Sanborn quickly became an ardent supporter of Brown, introducing him to other committee members and prominent Bostonians and arranging for his appearance before the Massachusetts legislature. George Luther Stearns was chairman of the committee, and Samuel Gridley Howe (husband of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” lyricist Julia Ward Howe) was a member. Sanborn also arranged for Brown to meet abolitionists Theodore Parker and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The last two had openly opposed the arrest of fugitive slave Anthony Burns in 1854, and Higginson helped lead a failed rescue attempt that resulted in the death of a deputy.
Frank B. Sanborn
George Luther Stearns
Samuel Gridley Howe
Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Despite meeting such prominent abolitionists, John Brown’s trip to New England failed to produce the financial backing he sought. On February 18, 1857, he appeared before a committee of the Massachusetts Legislature in hopes of obtaining an appropriation, but the effort failed. Throughout the early months of the year, Brown appealed for support during speaking appearances in towns throughout New England. He also appealed for support via the press, writing “To the Friends of Freedom” to the New York Tribune in March. Yet, while he received numerous pledges of support, very little actual cash was placed in his hands. Then, in April the National Kansas Committee, faced with declining income, withdrew its financial pledge to Brown. Ironically, it was during Brown's New England fund-raising trip that the Supreme Court issued its decision in the Dred Scott case, alarming opponents of slavery's expansion that the country was moving toward nationalization of slavery.
John Brown was so disappointed in the results of his fund-raising efforts that shortly before leaving Massachusetts in late April he penned “Old Browns Farewell to the Plymouth Rocks; Bunker Hill, Monuments; Charter Oaks; and Uncle Toms Cabbins.” He also was disappointed by news from his wife that his sons did not want to continue fighting. In addition, the "U. S. Hounds" had been looking for him, and he went into hiding for a short period before travelling to North Elba. After two weeks with his family, he headed west with his son Owen, arriving in early August at Tabor, Iowa.
“I have only to say as regards the resolution of the boys to "learn & practice war no more"; that it was not at my solicitation that they engaged in it at the first: & that while I may perhaps feel no more love of the business than they do; still I think there may be possibly in their day that which is more to be dreaded: if such things do not now exist.” – Letter, John Brown to Mary Ann Brown, March 31, 1857, Boyd B. Stutler Collection